Phil Mushnick, the television columnist for the New York Post, has long advocated a simple way to test the price points put forth by the expert appraisers on PBS' Antiques Road Show. When the expert tells you that the painting you hauled out of your attic is worth $10,000-$15,000 in "an auction environment," the lucky owner should simply reply, "Wow, that's great. I'll sell it to you right now for $8,000." Think the appraiser would do it? I don't think so.
Similarly, my pal Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, a proud owner of one of four Alberto Giacometti Walking Men in museum collections, should get Sotheby's on the line and say, "I see that you just sold one of these iconic sculptures for $100 million. Well, I've got a bargain for you: give me $80 million and our Giacometti is yours." Do you think Sotheby's would do it? Of course not.
It is interesting that Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch immediately had his people put out the word last week that he was not the deep pockets purchaser of Walking Man. He did this simply because he did not want to be associated the usual auction house shenanigans about value, which had Souren Melikian in the International Herald Tribune voicing his usual frustration about the disconnect between price points and connoisseurship in auctionland.
The game is simple: when museum holdings of great value cannot be sold, buyers at auction are not compelled to be identified and auction houses have willing arts journalists ready to sell the sucker public on another astounding record, which could easily have been pre-arranged to goose the market and provide a nice dividend to the auction firms, true value and the discerning eye which drives it cease to exist. And we wonder why the world economy is in a free fall, while the rich continue to maximize their surplus value.
Last week, Roger Altman, deputy Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration and now a prominent hedge funder, remarked on PBS' The Charlie Rose Show that "we are going to have to find a new revenue source" to finance the interest (forget about the principal, which is traditionally just rolled over and reissued) on the USA's trillion-dollar deficit. Altman was reluctant, when pressed by Rose, to cough up what that new revenue might be, finally admitting that he advocates a "value-added tax," the so-called VAT. This deeply regressive national sales tax would soak the poor and the middle class, while having no effect on the wealth of the rich, who caused our economic collapse through debt manipulation.
What we need, and what eventually we are going to have to institute after the next Depression a few years from now, is to eliminate nonprofit status, where so much wealth is parked, and tax wealth instead. Everyone will have to declare their assets, and above the easily doable figure of $1,000,000, pay five percent of their worth per year. Do this, and income taxes, withholding taxes and SSI taxes would disappear immediately, freeing up huge money pools among average Americans to invest in themselves.
Do this, and museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art would have to declare the true value of their holdings and pay their fair share. What’s more, such a measure would prompt some tasty deaccessioning by institutions and plutocrats, which would put real material on the market, forcing values to their true price points and compelling the auction houses to do some actual work, rather than waiting around for some Russian plutocrat to drop his ill-gotten gains in their laps.
This proposal is only "radical" in the eyes of the wealthy few who are destroying our lives, and whom even Obama fears to alienate. And, you know what? With deficits and unemployment abounding in America and whole countries like Greece and Spain about to default, the option of a wealth tax and the elimination of nonprofit status is not a matter of "if" but "when."
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).