It is a simple law of physics – but, sadly, not a view held by more optimistic economists – that growth cannot continue indefinitely. Most auction houses however rely on the illusion of continuing growth to bolster their image and maintain their selling status, with much coverage devoted to the big names with pulling power: just in the past day or so we’ve had Sotheby’s set a new record for Cy Twombly with a 1968 painting going for $70.5m. We’ve had a record set for a Blue Period Picasso, again by Sothebys, selling for $67.5m. Just today we’ve had reports that Christies have finally broken the sound barrier-er I mean the billion dollar mark, with running New York sales totalling $1.5bn. Note, this is a running total for one sale, over several days. It’s the equivalent of a movie having an extra long opening weekend – actually beginning on a Monday – to inflate the box office figures of its success. In fact, why has no one mentioned that it broke the billion Yen mark probably years ago? A billion in USD reported in GBP doesn’t look anywhere near as impressive, either (psst.. it’s only about 65 million.. pah!)
I’ve seen so many new records that the figures eventually lose all comparative power and appear simply abstract. Might as well put that a new record was set for Jeff Koons at a trillion quazillion point four or something. For each record is made in increasingly specific categories: Blue Period; Abstrakt Bild sequence (Richter); before so and so went mad. What’s stopping the houses reporting new records made for Twomblys of 1969, then 1970, then the big red squiggly ones?
It is a curious increasing polarisation between the anticipation and expectation lent to these – the Koons, Picasso, Richter, and most recently Modigliani thanks to Christies setting a new record (‘new record’ being the magic words) – than the lesser hyped works. It’s a bigger shock and a bigger humiliation when the punters are shy to open up and splurge on these major names. What isn’t being reported by Christies is that the ‘Highest Price for a Sculpture by a Female Artist’ record for Louise Bourgeois’s Spider of 1996, sold for $28m, only struggled to reach $25m with punters slow on the uptake. The $28m mark was reached only with commission (a nice slice of pie for Christies.) Other big sales of late include the massive consignment from ex Sotheby’s owner A Alfred Taubman who died in April. To secure the lots however a guarantee of $515m was needed; immediately affecting overall profit of anything sold at the auction. In this sort of situation their hands are tied, and the money really is in the smallest of margins. It’s this need which drives the estimates put onto lots: the houses are at once the cause and result of artificially inflating the market simply so they can keep functioning. One wonders where it could possibly end and how.