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​ Contemporary artists and auction prices…

[24/01/2017]

Auction consecration is no longer an age-related phenomenon… Today’s auction prices reflect a veritable market metamorphosis with accelerating demand for young and emerging signatures. Impressed by the originality of an artist’s work or a spell of intense media attention, buyers of Contemporary art often succumb to trends that are by definition short-lived. Last year, over 4,000 Contemporary artists experienced auction debuts, an often crucial moment in their career as it represents a first milestone and a benchmark for future sales. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these new artists will fall into market oblivion as quickly as they appeared. With certain price ascensions being as fast as their descents, it seems natural to ask what are the primary factors in the price construction process.

One answer to this question has it roots in what Olav Velthuis (Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of several articles and books on the globalization of the art market) calls “access to the cultural constellation”. Professor Vethius has analysed the interaction between different cultural and economic players in the aura-building of artists and their price construction. The first player in the process is the gallery whose exhibitions, publications and art fair attendences are incremental steps (a priori) in building the notoriety of their artists. However, gallery audiences are often limited populations of art aficionados. The aura-building and audience-expansion process therefore depends on other work done by the galleries… what might be called ‘underground work’. This includes relations with journalists, art critics, curators and institutions, etc. and the success of this work is, in turn, highly dependent on the reputation and financial strength of the gallery in question …

Nowadays, what we might call artist news can have a rapid impact on prices. Indeed both the supply and the demand for work by a given artist take into account all the available ‘information’ and this information sometimes significantly alters the market reality. Among the recent examples, that of Joe BRADLEY (born 1975) is striking. Exhibited in 2011 on both sides of the Atlantic by Almine Rech Gallery and Gavin Brown Enterprise, the artist was included in group shows at the MoMA (two different exhibitions in 2014) and leading art fairs (Frieze London and FIAC Paris). At the same time, his works were included in auction sales and his annual turnover jumped from $100,000 in 2010 to $10 million in 2015, with a record price of $3 million in late 2015, four months before the opening of his first solo show at New York’s Gagosian gallery. As we know, Larry Gagosian is the art world’s most efficient price builder and a centre stage position at one of his galleries usually has a multiplier effect on an artist’s auction prices. Possessing unparalleled mastery of the art business, Larry Gagosian has built up a ‘global gallery’ model consisting of 16 galleries and more than 200 employees around the world. On the gallery’s website, after a brief introduction of less 10 lines on his work, Joe Bradley is identified to investors by a CV brimming with prestigious exhibitions like the Saatchi Gallery, the De La Cruz Collection, the MoMA, Le Consortium in Dijon, the MACRO Foundation in Rome, etc…

Like the Gagosian, several galleries have expanded their networks globally, significantly enhancing their influence, broadening the reach of their artists and developing international demand. For the time being, these galleries represent a small elite – a dozen at most – with the most powerful being Marian Goodman, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Perrotin, Zwirner, Blum & Poe and Fergus McCaffrey. It is no secret… if you want rapid access to the “premium” art market, you need to integrate the seraglio of the major Western galleries whose transformation from ‘local’ to ‘global’ has followed that of the secondary art market (i.e. the auction houses). In today’s art market, the major prescribers are no longer art critics and journalists, but rather major dealers and famous collectors. The price construction of an artist is therefore directly related to the cultural, economic and social “credit” accorded to the galleries or collectors who sell and buy his/her work.

Every year new artists arrive on the secondary market with American artists being generally favored in New York, Chinese artists in Beijing, French artists in Paris, etc. But that schema is much less noticeable in London which has become the auction market capital of cultural and national mixity. Only two British artists rank among the top ten highest auction debuts on the London art market (with results ranging from $16,000 to $35,000): Mike FIGGIS (born 1948) and Erin SHIRREF (born 1975). The others include the Hungarian, Attila SZUCS (born in 1968), the Swiss, Claudia COMTE (born in 1983), the Belgian, Thomas LEROOY (born 1981) and the Americans, Richard MOSSE, Babak GOLKAR and Torey THORNTON. These artists have been supported by major galleries for several years: Torey Thornton by Modern Art and Almine Rech in London, Claudia Comte has participated in exhibitions at Perrotin and Gladstone, Thomas Lerooy is supported by Nathalie Obadia gallery in France and Rodolphe Janssen in Belgium. The case of Richard Mosse, represented by the American gallery Jack Shainman since 2008 and currently preparing a major exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (Richard Mosse, The Curve, 15 February – 23 April 2017), confirms that demand is sensitive to events and prestige visibility. In short, an auction debut is an event that needs careful planning and preparation. An artist must have prior support before being thrown into the auction arena and preferably from major galleries rather than from a handful of small local galleries.

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