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Adrift at the Art Industry Summit

by Emily Nathan

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Everyone thinks the art market is rigged. Dishonest. A refuge for shills and sharps. Or so it seemed at The Art Newspaper's "Art Industry Summit,” hosted on Wednesday, Mar. 3, 2011, at the Park Avenue Armory in conjunction with the Art Dealer’s Association of America (ADAA) Art Show, Mar. 2-6, 2011. Presiding? A regal Anna Somers Cocks -- Art Newspaper’s “founder-dash-editor,” she emphasized, peering bemusedly over the rim of her glasses and explaining that she has recently passed on the editor’s baton (which she pronounced à la Français). The panel’s topic? “Transparency in the Art Market.” Its prompt? “Can we have more of it. . . .” Those ellipses were fixed upon immediately by our mediator’s deliciously refined British diction. Julie Andrews in her younger days?

Commending ADAA for having the “confidence and sophistication” to host a debate on such a delicate subject, Somers Cocks opened the discussion by illuminating the complex duality that those three little periods express: both a solicitation, as in “can we have more transparency, please?” and the more reflective “Is it possible to have more transparency?” During the next hour, she made sure to keep the debaters on topic, all the better to provide some kind of answer to her anxious audience of graying men in suits and botoxed ladies in heels.

Our panel consisted of players from two competing sides of the market: the art dealer and the auction house. Representing one was Ed Dolman of Christie’s International, who spoke calmly, even haughtily (frequently forgetting to use his mic, to the annoyance of the crowd) and refused to let his feathers be ruffled by his aggressive foil, the dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who sat with fellow dealer Richard Feigen.

Flaring up at certain moments, the debate’s fire was moderated (and frequently put out) by the presence of two less antipodal figures: the prominent art lawyer Peter Stern and art advisor Allan Schwartzman, one or the other of whom would occasionally interrupt the back-and-forth between dealer and auction house with, “I’ll stop you here. . .,” followed invariably by the apt observation that “this could go on for hours.”

The first subject to get the speakers going was the confounding issue of guarantees and the nebulous third-party guarantor, a figure whose presence has waxed and waned throughout the years according to the respective boom and bust of the art market. Taking up the argument she put forth in the Art Newspaper’s recent article Guaranteed Outcome, Mitchell-Innes insisted that the existence of anonymous guarantees, and the relative opacity of information about it in auction catalogues, inherently tips the scale in the favor of someone or other and creates an uneven “playing field.”

In retort, Dolman wondered aloud why it was that auction houses are subject to such extreme scrutiny, surely due to their very public profiles, when they actually operate with great transparency and concrete legality. It is ironic, he went on, that other art world figures -- a tacit reference to Mitchell-Innes’ side of the table -- are unfettered by such criticism, when they are in fact the perpetrators of much shadier dealings.

Feigen here interjected, recalling the historic moment when the auctioneer -- long an agent for the seller -- took on a murkier role as a multifarious intermediary, with a range of uncertain relationships and an eye to its own bottom line. Stern, not easily carried off into passionate musings and surely the most stolid of the voices, brought up the 2009 debacle involving the sale of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing in which Simon Dickenson -- a former Christie’s director -- drew up contracts that now seem to be muddy, and reportedly played double agent to vendor, the Liechtenstein-based Accidia foundation, and buyer, a wealthy U.S. collector, ultimately taking a commission of nearly $1 million for himself, spreading cuts around like slices of pie and ending up embroiled in a legal wrangle.

“Handshakes don’t work anymore,” Stern declared, “you need contracts.” Not an entirely shocking perspective from a lawyer. “The more chefs in the broth, the more it’s gonna smell,” he concluded, botching the adage somewhat but nonetheless eliciting chuckles from the audience. Ah, schadenfreude.

The conversation went on to take a series of turns and twists, touching briefly on the issue of groups of dealers that gather and consult, scheming to either bid prices up or keep them down, depending on their interests. “Remember, art dealing is a mom and pop shop -- we don’t have a lot of capital!” Feigen nearly shouted, chalking such partnerships up to shared desperation in the face of soaring prices or a need to spread out the cost of unaffordable lots. Plus more: Should galleries support their artists at auction? What about re-sale agreements? Are these legally enforceable? “That answer would depend on who I’m representing,” said a smiling Stern, matter-of-factly. The scandal!

Like an orchestra of climaxes and dénouements, the panel was conducted competently by Somers Cocks, who, after some meanderings, brought the conversation back to its origin: transparency. I swelled with pride when someone in the audience approvingly mentioned the innovation of auction databases, such as Artnet’s own, which publish public auction results and “provide the uninformed collector a context for works that might interest him.”

It was finally agreed that yes, some transparency is to be desired and that published auction results are good for everyone involved. But what about the multitudes of sales made privately, off the record -- shouldn’t those, too, be made public? queried another woman in the crowd. Again, an impassioned Feigen stepped in -- this time, to set out an important attending stipulation to his prior concession: leave the private world of private dealers and their clients alone!

Somers Cocks felt that time had run out. She took it upon herself to tie up the loose ends and to provide the resulting answers to the questions she had set forth at the start. Do we all think that transparency is a good thing? Yes. Is it possible to have more transparency? And here, the thick silence in the room felt about as transparent as things are going to get.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email