Here is a tale that went down at one of the contemporary evening sales last week. The representative of an estate had consigned to a major auction house a painting by a top-tier Abstract Expressionist from the 1950s. The auction house offered the consignor a guarantee of $3 million for the painting. In fact, a representative of said auction house, one of the half dozen most celebrated people in the New York auction world, told the consignor, "We will sell it for $5 million," this, in spite of the fact that something about the work is critically dissimilar from the artist's most desirable paintings.
The consignor, perhaps foolishly beguiled by the $5-million figure, rejected the guarantee. Auction night arrives. To the consignor's chagrin, bidding appears to halt abruptly at just over $2 million. An auction house flunky immediately rushes over to the consignor and says, "Don't worry, we will add $500,000," and, as if by magic, the bidding resumes and rises by exactly that amount. The consignor is somewhat mollified.
Now, what is interesting about this story? It is that I am not telling you the names or identities of any of the parties involved! And such is the case of the press´ auction coverage, essentially lame guesswork about what is an obscenely secret world. Yet, let us look at the universal claims made for the machinations of this closed society last week. One dealer crows that, "None of the bidders held subprime mortgage paper." A New York Times journalist raves that there will always be a market for "quality." Claims are made about the strong American component in the bidding.
Why do I suspect that if we pulled back the auction curtain, we would find a little man in a wizard´s costume shouting through a megaphone? The special disgrace is that a "crusader" like New York Governor Eliot Spitzer doesn´t promote legislation to require complete transparency in fine art auctions, naming consignors, buyers, reserves, etc.
New York State is currently pursuing baseball superstar Derek Jeter for alleged nonpayment of state income taxes. Jeter is an "artist" who gives pleasure to hundred of thousands of people from all races and classes. Elite evening auctions give pleasure to a few dozen plutocrats operating in the stale air of their own desires, in a system which, while it is as fixed as professional wrestling, claims to be a democratic indicator of larger economic forces and questions of taste.
It is time to smash open the doors of Auctionland. As many economists have pointed out, most recently in the Wall Street Journal, the result would be more bidders, fairer prices, larger profits and, most importantly, true valuation of artworks. And we journalists would no longer have to beg for scraps from corrupt sources.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).