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Art Market Watch


by Mickey Cartin
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After reading the recent prediction by Charlie Finch, “Will the Art Market Crash?” I had one thought: Ahh. . . the doomsday that I have been eagerly awaiting.

My opinion on the art market, as an individual observer and as an art collector, should matter very little. I am hardly an economist, and I take a very narrow, focused view of the transactions in this market. I look at many things, but I only really care about things that interest me. While I admire artists like Basquiat, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Warhol, Picasso and Munch, I could care less about auction records for their works, and even less about who buys them and sets these records. I know it isn't my mother, or any other of my dependents and my curiosity ends there. 

The other day I was visiting with an unusually nice man who has a very large inventory of some of those names just mentioned. I offer that he is a "nice" man because most of those I know in that business don't seem too nice. He is sincere, humble and pleasant. Does that sound right?

He mentioned rather emphatically that Basquiat, as a market phenomenon, will soon be seen as the next van Gogh. By that he must have meant that the $5 million-$25 million price range for the artist’s pictures will soon readjust to $50 million-$250 million.

I told him that I have always liked the Basquiat, and that I have even bought the paintings (albeit years ago when I could, much as now, little afford them). I never once thought of him as the next anything. I thought a lot about his work, and really enjoyed the special kind of deep reaction I got from it. I enjoyed hearing Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson and other thoughtful people speak about him, and enjoyed their writings.

Basquiat was an artist with an electrifying flair, who came into prominence at a rather uneventful time for anything new in art making. During that period I was just beginning to experiment with the idea of buying a painting, a nice coincidence for me. In the 25 years or so that have passed, I still see Basquiat in much the same way. 

But what also seems to be happening now is that a handful of exceptionally wealthy people share this nice man’s feelings about Basquiat. It appears that they are buying and selling from and to each other, and I guess that constitutes a market. If there is buying and selling, even if only five or ten people are involved, that is a market of sorts. And now this pronouncement by an intelligent fellow that this artist will soon be valued as the next van Gogh?

I asked him directly what would happen when the very few rich people change their minds. He countered in a way that made me think. "They already have," he said, meaning that they'd decided to pay the higher prices for Basquiat. Maybe he is right, but I am more inclined to agree with Charlie Finch, even if not for all of the same reasons. When he says that the arguments for rarity and quality will no longer stand up when “the rich sit on their hands and stop buying," I could not agree more. 

It does not seem to be happening yet. After all, for the price of a bit of Takashi Murakami wallpaper you can own a Giorgio Morandi. And for the price of a minor Basquiat you can own a very fine example of 14th-century Florentine painting. When the rich guys change their minds yet again, assuming the nice man above is correct, this absurd imbalance will correct itself. I am not sure if Charlie is right about all of this happening in November, and like the preacher who predicted the world would end last spring, you may need to revise the predicted date of your art market cataclysm, but I am convinced you are onto something.

The good news following your bad news prediction is that art will still be art. People serious about art will still be engaged in the interesting arguments over quality. Value will go back to its idealized meaning, where attributions of value are reached by criteria other than money. And with this financial people would disagree. They would want to think that the absolute value in a work of art is determined simply by the money that it is worth.  

Also at that time, the rich guys will get off their hands and start buying again. It is likely, though, that they just won't be buying art with anywhere near the same kind of recklessness.

MICKEY CARTIN is a New York-based art collector who occasionally writes on art.