Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New York Auctions Break Records - Is That a Good Thing?

After watching and participating in auctions for over 30 years, I have continually been amazed when the assembled audience applauds after a lot has sold well above the high estimate. Who really are the winners in this situation. Clearly the owners of the property and the auction house have much to gain with purchase prices that exceed all expectations. Ironically this is one of the few occasions in the art world where the auction house curator is rewarded for clearly not having a clue what the object was worth. You can be sure when the mistake is made in the other direction management won't regard the error with the same enthusiasm. The bottom line is that when experts are pontificating about what objects are worth,  on any given day they can be very wrong.

But the ramifications of bidding gone wild are short term. What happens long term?  Who are the winners and losers. I maintain that we all are losers long term to some degree. When short term expectations are created that  convince collectors, dealers, curators, and appraisers that their objects are worth more, then the entire food chain is out of balance. The collectors pay too much, they insure their objects for too much, museums pay too much, dealers can't afford to buy or they pay too much, charitable donations are too aggressive etc etc. In short there is an imbalance in the market that will correct itself and will hurt many people in the process.

There is a philosophy that says within reason you can't over pay for quality. That is true but who is the arbiter of quality - the auction house whose clear vested interest is to always sell for the max or maybe it is the dealers at the top of the food chain that can arbitrarily say what is and what is not gold. Many of us  remember the onslaught of African dealers that flocked to the west coast collectors in the 1970's and 1980's and sold them many things that later turned out to be very difficult to sell. Go back and look at the Helen Kuhn sale at Sothebys. The New York Times reported: "The Kuhns' holdings of 145 wood and clay figures and artifacts are expected by the auction house to total $2.5 million to $3.9 million. In announcing the sale this week, Bernard de Grunne, who heads Sotheby's tribal art sales, said the Kuhns' wide-ranging collection was one of the most important and personal to be presented at Sotheby's in recent seasons. Represented are items made between the 13th and 19th centuries, carved in western, central and southern Africa." 43 our 141 lots failed to sell giving a buy in rate of 29.7%. Helen was one of the leading and most respected African collectors in the group around Los Angeles and certainly bought aggressively from the dealers who were at that point arbiters of both taste and price.  Helen watched as many of the dealers she had called friend failed to bid in her auction. But this really isn't about Helen Kuhn or even the dealers that sold the art. This is about power and influence moving the market and enticing collectors,  who may or may not be knowledgeable,  to bid it up. Some said that hedge fund managers were a force at Sothebys recent African sale. Who knows? But I can tell you very few African "experts" thought an 8" Songe was worth over $2,000,000 or that  a Yoruba Gelede Society mask could  be worth over $800,000.  Time will certainly sort out any imbalances that exist. In the meantime don't take this auction too seriously until we see a consistent trend to support these values.


Beppe said...

I more appreciate the analysis, than the analogy.
You explain that Helen Kuhn case was driven by a sort of excitement of dealer and collectors around african art and it ended with a cold shower.
The Rubin collection come at auction in a time where the most severe economical crise is still affectiong the market and yet got an unexpected success given may be to investors or funds. The sense of your messsagge, if I've understood, is «keep cool», and I agree with it.
But on the other hand I invite you to compare the two catalogues. An exemple? Take the Yombe maternity on both sides. Rubin collection display some true masterpieces of African art with kilometric pedigree, where Kuhn floats on a medium level or even lower as for the Niger Delta horse reproduced on cover.
Enthusiastic or depressive feelings can have a role, but there's also something else.
I think that in the last 20 years the aestethical and historicla values of African Art are getting identified with increasing strictness. Then we can discuss what has to be the rate between a common piece and a master one. 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000? I don't know. I can only refer to the figures coming out from sotheby's last auction. The market offers thousands of gelede masks, and 1000 US$ can be a right budget to get an authentic one. But now we discover that a gelede mask when reconnaissed as the best out of thousands can approach the million dollar. Right or wrong? If African art exists I'm more likely to say right.
Giuseppe Fumagalli

Unknown said...

Beppe, you make some good points. I was not, however, comparing the quality of the two sales. I was commenting on the promotion of the sales and the auction house's ability to correctly estimate the outcome. On the second point the Gelede mask is probably not a good example for you to cite. The European buyers for years have ignored Yoruba as being an inferior art form. But there is no one on the planet that believed that that Gelede would sell for 800K plus. The Dallas Museum of Art paid around 500K for an Olowe bowl that regardless of the Gelede's pedigree is a more important piece. Another point I made later in the Newsletter is that we always focus on the winning bidder. I am curious who the under bidder was to drive the price this high. But as I said now it's time to wait and see if these prices are real or a blip on the radar. JB