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Art Market Watch


by Charlie Finch
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With another classic Roy Lichtenstein (and it must be pointed out that this "classic" lacks the one essential ingredient of the most desirable Lichtensteins, a woman) breaking the $40 million mark at Christie's on Nov. 8, 2011, what One-Percent-type conclusions can be drawn?

First, you might think that $40 mil is such a high price that it would prohibit resale at a substantial profit -- and you would be wrong. Iconic Warhols have gone for double that price in recent auctions, so the best Lichtensteins still have the potential for a 100 percent markup. Cunningly, auctionland has established Lichtenstein as the first upward marker against Warhol, and thus, oddly diminishes a Rosenquist, a Rauschenberg, and who knows, maybe even a Johns, in such a dog versus dog paradigm.

Secondly, the automatic use of third-party guarantees, a big booster to Roy's record-breaking hammer price, has essentially legalized bid rigging. All the elements of a traditional fix ring, in which interested parties hold back on bidding to seize a work at a low price, only to reauction it "in the street" and split the profits, are present in the third-party guarantee. Multiple guarantors get a piece of the markup that the ultimate buyer pays, as well as the profitable satisfaction that the valuations in their own Lichtenstein inventory will significantly appreciate.

Thirdly and obviously, $42 million may look like a lot to the protestors, the police and you and me, but in One Percent World it is the equivalent of what $100,000 used to be. Make that $10,000: for the very wealthiest the price of a Lichtenstein amounts to one percent (there's that ratio again!) of cash assets.

The "good" side of this is that the auction houses can throw up, as they did this week, young-comers like Sterling Ruby or Jacob Kassay at no real market risk, as the cost of their work ($100,000 and up) amounts to little more than tipping the doorman for a taxi on the way out to its elite clientele. It makes you wonder how Sotheby's can continue to report quarterly losses, unless someone is trying to depress its stock price to take the company private (perish the thought).

Finally there is the existentialist trope of branding as a form of alienation. Roy Lichtenstein, who exploited and transformed the cheapest and most populist art form, comics, into a nice living and reputation during his lifetime, becomes a signifier of dominance equivalent to a swastika, hammer and sickle, or American Eagle -- and all from a lowly cartoon. But guess what? As Tuesday's record-breaking Lichtenstein painting points out, in the corridors of moneyed power, there's really nothing in the room.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).