With the 2007 fall auction season well under way -- the first big sales of contemporary art take place in London in less than a week -- the most frequently asked question continues to be, "Is this the season where prices for blue chip art finally stop going up?" The answer is no. What’s more likely to happen is that prices for works by younger artists, which appear in part two of the day sale sessions, are going to stop going up. In fact, they will probably go down or not sell at all.
Other likely trends:
Last season saw the successful introduction of "art furniture" into a contemporary art sale (see the $1 million Marc Newson Pod at Christie’s) -- an unexploited new category which should continue to expand and appreciate.
The market will decline, this season or next, for Chinese contemporary art. The price rise in Chinese contemporary is a sucker bet based purely on speculation rather than on the quality of the work itself. There’s nothing innovative here. In fact, other than its specifically Asian content, the work is totally derivative of Western art.
My only caveat here is that boom markets tend to go on longer than people expect (the converse is also true). Nationalist pride and status, byproducts of newly emerging capitalist markets, could fuel a lengthier run than I’m predicting.
Two seasons ago, Ed Ruscha became the artist who attracted the most speculation. Last season, it was Richard Prince. Who’s next in line? Look for the answer to come from among the artists who matured during the 1980s. I nominate David Salle. Just remember, the saavy collector David Whitney was buying Salle’s work up until the time of his death in 2006 (Sotheby’s sale on Nov. 16, 2006, titled "An American Visionary: The Collection of David Whitney," included seven Salle works).
The smartest thing a collector or art investor can do right now is buy small "gems." It was a strategy adopted years ago by the actor Steve Martin, for instance, when he sold off his large-scale paintings by Diebenkorn, Kline, etc., and bought small perfect pictures by the likes of Picasso. During booms and busts, great small paintings always bring proportionately more money. The reason? A combination of cost, wall space and a feeling of intimacy.
Art fairs in America will decline both in number and attendance (with the exception of the Armory Show, the Art Show and Art Basel Miami Beach). Blame it on the fatigue factor.
Finally, art auctions will continue to rule. With the auction houses no longer taking a percentage from sellers of million-dollar properties, plus kicking them back a percentage from the buyer’s premium, the next development will be to give the consignor a small percentage from the entire sale (if, say, they consign a $50-million picture). It’s more logical than you might think. Major paintings tend to act like magnets, drawing other quality properties, thus boosting the value of the whole sale.
Given the inflated state of today’s art market, in theory, every artist should be a "Sell." But considering that many collectors are emotionally wrapped up in their collections, the buying should go on. The key to the auction market is that quality properties that are fresh to the market continue to surface. If we ever have an evening sale with "B" grade works and "A" level expectations (as measured by the presale estimates), expect trouble ahead.
Full disclosure: the author does not own work by any of the artists evaluated. And, needless to say, the following represents the opinion of the author, and should not be considered actual investment advice. In alphabetical order:
Now that he’s a $50-million artist at auction, I don’t see him becoming more expensive. On the other hand, the legendary dealer Richard Feigen, who once sold a group of 14 Bacons, including a Pope painting, for $11,000 (it was 1959), recently said, "Anytime you sell, it’s a blunder."
As New York artists became too expensive, speculators turned to California. Hence the recent staggering prices for Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Baldessari. Though photo-based imagery has become increasingly popular, the connections between Baldessari’s multi-photo panels appear arbitrary -- nothing is revealed. Baldessari always had a reputation as a better teacher than artist, anyway.
At this point, people are buying the myth more than the art. That might not matter in the short run, as evidenced by a Basquiat selling at auction last May for $14.6 million. But eventually, it will. Collectors forget that when Basquiat died in 1988, both his market and work were in decline. By comparison, the art market's only mythical equivalent, Jackson Pollock, produced work that was commensurate with his status and prices.
Brown can flat-out paint. Collectors love her surfaces, paint handling and hide-and-seek figures. As a relatively young artist, the obvious question is, will she continue to improve? So far, the indication is affirmative.
The most stable market of all (pun intended!). Calder’s work transcends the level of sophistication of the viewer. Though prices for mobiles have topped off, they’re still worth buying because they’re the equivalent of a safe CD. Calder survived the 1990 art market shakeout in the best shape of all artists.
Despite prices that have accelerated, his work has been undervalued for so long and has great upside potential. That he’s now working with San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier is another plus. Chamberlain is now 80 years old, but continues to be productive.
Christo’s work has always been about the project -- The Gates, Running Fence, The Pont Neuf Wrapped. The collages he produced have always been about financing the projects. Art done for the sake of making money has always been a bad investment.
Despite the pair of exceptional "Medici Boxes" that broke the $1 million ceiling (in 2005), his work is still cheap. Of all the major American artists, Joseph Cornell is the least understood and most undervalued.
The buzz around Currin continues, though some of it can be attributed to his recent "borderline porn" paintings. His auction market remains stable, if not strong. The jury is still out. I would like to see how the works hold up ten years from now.
Willem de Kooning
Granted, there are an awful lot of de Kooning charcoal drawings and paintings on newsprint that come on the market that are of no consequence -- but still bring good money. Willem de Kooning remains the best pure painter of the last 50 years. And people will always pay whatever it takes to buy the best.
Diebenkorn is an outstanding painter, but the crazy prices brought by the "Ocean Park" series on paper exceed his reputation. For $1.5 million for a gouache (with good color), there are better buys.
Dealers and collectors are still talking about the painting that brought $11 million at auction, turning the artist into an art market superstar. Everyone knows Charles Saatchi sold a passel of paintings to Sotheby’s, which has been slipping them into each auction, one at a time. Let’s see what happens when the firm’s supply runs out.
Ridiculous. I don’t care what "insiders" tell me about the significance of her work. If she can paint, I haven’t seen evidence of it. And at $1 million-$3 million per picture at auction, there better be something happening there that goes beyond talk.
While I admit I don’t fully understand the attraction of his paintings, he has an enviable track record at auction. Hard to determine whether his "sliced" canvases are enough of a historical achievement to warrant the big bucks.
Finally, 13 years after his death, the market may have absorbed the surplus of paintings let out by his estate. Francis was always good. Prior to 1964, he was great.
A recent surge in prices have taken her 1970s and 1980s paintings from $150,000 to $500,000 almost overnight. Though her 1950s achievements remain legitimate, her work soon unraveled into little more than expensive wallpaper.
Do not be fooled by the thick paint, tight compositions and art-world reputation. It may sound sacrilegious, but Freud, and his $5 million pictures, are overrated. They speak little of the human condition, do not reflect their times and haven’t influenced other artists -- all signs of a non-innovator. He’s a good painter, but so are a lot of people. Let’s hope his gallery, Acquavella, supports him at auction.
A highly original presence on the art scene who continues to dazzle with a combination of wit, fresh use of materials and something that isn’t done anymore in the age of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst -- he actually fabricates his own work. The hand-made quality of Friedman’s objects assures the market will never be flooded.
I have a lot of trouble with the multiples aspect of his work, though not the quality. To his credit, the imagery really does read like a painting. But contemporary photographs, even those produced in small editions, should not sell for over $2 million apiece. That province should be reserved for unique works.
One of the rare artists who got better as he got older. Continues to be viewed as a "painter’s painter." Lately, the market has been chasing his transitional 1960s abstracts, believing they’re undervalued. Better to pay up for the real thing -- the 1970s "cartoon" imagery or the 1950s abstractions.
The saying that "a high tide raises all ships" is especially true with Haring. He has done incredibly well lately at auction. Haring was always more of an illustrator and guerilla graffiti artist than a fine artist. He was in the right place at the right time and was swept up in the 1980s East Village craze, which has made the market for his work seem more like buying nostalgia than art.
Probably the most difficult artist to evaluate. On the one hand, you’ve got to give him credit for his business savvy -- he’s out-Warholed Warhol. What continues to disturb me is how he keeps repeating himself just to cash in, with endless series of "Dot" paintings, "Butterfly" paintings, "Spin" paintings, etc. In fact, a new "Dot" painting costs $2 million, about the same price as a new Jasper Johns work. The credibility of his market was recently called into question after doubts arose that he had sold his $100 million diamond-covered skull to an investment consortium -- which included himself as a member!
Conservative but monstrously talented. Hockney continues to paint highly personal imagery that others can relate to. At auction, demand for his paintings and colored-pencil drawings continue to outstrip the supply. Based on prices for trendy artists like Hirst and Koons, Hockney is inexpensive.
A living national treasure. Paintings remain hard to come by. Ditto for works on paper. There really hasn’t been a major Johns canvas at auction in years. But if one does come up in the near future, look out. The private sale of David Geffen’s False Start, for $80 million, is indicative of Johns’ true auction potential.
Like Chamberlain, Judd had been underpriced for years. Unlike Chamberlain, Judd’s work has now found its proper price range. I really don't see his classic "stack" sculptures exceeding their benchmark of almost $10 million. Then again, there's one coming up soon in London. Stay tuned.
His retrospective, viewed at its stop at SFMOMA, was impressive. He’s the only artist around who can justify working on such a humongous scale without appearing pretentious. Unfortunately this eliminates many collectors who lack wall space. Though a bit inconsistent at auction, the great paintings rarely surface.
Despite my admiration for the stainless steel Blue Diamond that’s coming up at Christie’s in November (est. $12 million), his market is powered by speculators rather than by people who buy because they love the work.
The highest batting average of any artist over the last 50 years -- Lichtenstein rarely faltered. If the art market ever blows up, the three safest bets will be Warhol, Calder and Lichtenstein.
Marden’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective revealed two things: His early work remains his best work and his late gestural abstractions peaked with the "Cold Mountain" series. Though still solid at auction, you sense the late work is overpriced -- especially the "precious" drawings.
A nice painter, but hardly a profound artist. Mitchell made attractive, decorative (in a positive sense) paintings that have risen in value because there’s nothing affordable by the first generation of Abstract Expressionists.
The work’s good, though the "Spanish Elegy" series eventually became a parody of itself. The problem with Motherwell’s market is that it has an uncertain future -- no one under 50 collects him.
But would I buy a Louis Vuitton bag from this man? Absolutely.
She lost me when I watched one of her small studies bring $800,000 at auction. Peyton is a good portraitist with a deft touch. She keeps her paintings fresh and lively and never overworks them. She’s just too darn expensive, considering the work’s lightweight vibe.
Prince has replaced Ruscha as the "It" artist, but I have trouble with a guy whose "Nurse" paintings were selling for $85,000 in 2005 (at Gladstone Gallery, if you could get one) and now go for $2.5 million at auction. Better to leave him to the professional speculators who have manipulated his prices.
Though his prices may have gotten a little ahead of themselves, he’s still a provocative painter whose European sensibility is accessible to American collectors. That’s harder to do than it sounds. Just look at the difficulty most Americans have with Kiefer, Baselitz and the other Germans.
Despite high prices for the occasional "Combine," this is a market in search of direction. Though not the most expensive, his "Silkscreens" are his best works, and even scarcer than the "Combines" at auction. The rest of his vast production is so scattered in style, variety and quality that it may never get sorted out.
Considered by many to be Europe’s greatest living artist. That may be so, but I’m suspicious. A truly great artist would never continue to remake the same "squeegeed" abstract paintings over and over and over. I would sell before the market becomes inundated and capsizes -- there are just too many of these paintings out there.
Now that his high-water mark has been established at $72 million, only the wealthiest collectors can afford him. The alternative is the small paintings, priced like canvases, when they should be priced like works on paper -- which is what they really are.
Ruscha’s prices have begun to stabilize at auction and have found their level. He has an efficient market. The balance between material and buyers is steady. You sense people may finally be acquiring the work to live with, rather than make a profit.
A bit of a wild card. But if forced to place a bet, I would go with his future as a film director, rather than a painter. There’s nothing wrong with having a multifaceted career. But Schnabel’s work has never been a winner at auction and is unlikely to be so unless he puts the same effort into his paintings as he does his movies. A hell of an interior decorator (seriously) -- just check out his efforts at the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Scully’s recent survey at the Metropolitan Museum was both handsome and redundant. He’s a terrific colorist who badly needs a new format. Sure, his pictures will continue to do well at auction, where his dealers control the flow of paintings the way De Beers used to do with diamonds. But years from now, future generations will wise up to the work’s lack of adventure.
From a market perspective, she is historically important as the first photographer that the auction houses grouped with painters in a sale. She paved the way for the large-scale picture takers who went on to bring painter-like money (Gursky, Struth, etc). However, Sherman’s color prints will probably never command the big bucks until she pumps up the size.
His summer show on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum saw his quest to create three-dimensional space with his paintings morph into full-blown sculpture. The "Black" paintings, "Metallic Paint" series, "Concentric Squares," and "Protractors" still matter. But his twisting metal sculpture, while competent, will never be confused with that of John Chamberlain or other top sculptors.
Thiebaud, like his Californian counterpart Diebenkorn, is a wonderful painter. The only problem is his paintings have become ridiculously expensive. But I could be wrong. Let’s see what happens when the late Allan Stone’s Thiebaud stash comes onto the market.
Overhyped. A decent enough painter, with a nice buttery surface. But why are they $1 million-$2 million at auction? For a living, young (born 1958) producing artist? Where can his market go once the painter hits 50?
He’s expensive and worth it. Twombly is one of those special artists who come along only once every half-century. The paint handling, the marks, the placement, the sophistication -- you can’t make a better painting. Still, while he’s certainly no deal at auction, I don’t seem them ever coming down in price.
Despite the $71 million Green Car Crash, despite the $80 million private sale of Turquoise Marilyn, this market still has a ways to go. Warhol is like the Beatles -- his audience continues to expand and his influence feels more pervasive than ever. Bottom line: You cannot have a serious collection without a Warhol.
Wesselmann used to be undervalued but has recently gone up too far too fast. He’s now more expensive than James Rosenquist, historically a more important painter.
An artist with a consistently strong market and imagery that stays with you. But does the message "Cat in Bag, Bag in River" equal $1 million-$1.5 million at auction?
I don’t get it. How do comically large breasts, fat lips and big hair equal $1 million at auction?
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of, I Bought Andy Warhol. Comments can be directed to Polskyart@msn.com