The Back Room: Punking the Market

This week in the Back Room: Crypto-friction at Christie’s, a record store’s lessons for dealers, Alice Neel (finally) gets her due, and much more.

Original image: The Ethereum logo against a backdrop of cold hard fiat currency. Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Original image: The Ethereum logo against a backdrop of cold hard fiat currency. Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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This week in the Back Room: Crypto-friction at Christie’s, a record store’s lessons for dealers, Alice Neel (finally) gets her due, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,473 words).

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Wet Paint
Crypto Culture Clash

Nine CryptoPunks being offered at Christie's 21st Century Evening sale on May 13, 2021. Courtesy of Christie's.

Nine CryptoPunks at Christie’s 21st-century evening sale on May 13, 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s.

If you bet anyone this past New Year’s Eve that Christie’s would trip into a beef with a crypto-whale named G Money over an NFT sale before Memorial Day, congratulations, Nate Freeman reports that it is time for you to collect.

  • G Money is a member of the Flamingo DAO, a group of 100 accredited investors who have described themselves as the “Medicis of NFT.”
  • DAOs, for the uninitiated, are “decentralized autonomous organizations”: groups of crypto-compatriots who pool their resources and use smart contracts to automate transactions toward a common end.
  • To juice bidding for the sale of nine Cryptopunks at its recent 21st Century evening auction in New York, Christie’s officials (led by NFT czar Noah Davis) gave G Money a VIP preview of the sale at the house’s Rockefeller Center galleries.

So then why did G Money later launch a Twitter assault titled How Christie’s Fucked Up the Punks Auction?

  • Because Christie’s displayed the (digital-only) Punks as tiny physical reproductions scattered comically high up in the galleries—a pseudo-homage to street artist Invader.

  • G Money took the presentation as a symbol of either cluelessness or disrespect to crypto-collectors. He questioned why future Punks sellers wouldn’t either sell on NFT marketplaces for much lower commissions, or take their business to rival Sotheby’s.

  • Davis (under his admirably self-aware @PoseurNoah handle) took to the Punks Discord channel post-sale to apologize; G Money later did the same on Twitter.

  • Christie’s declined to comment further. G Money did not respond to a DM.

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The Bottom Line

The whole saga is a reminder that the art and crypto worlds still have a long way to go on their mission to integrate. Still, the Cryptopunks set sold on auction night for $17.1 million to another group of investors led by Haralabos Voulgaris. So if that counts as “fucking up” a sale, then Christie’s: please feel free to fuck me up anytime.

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Paint Drippings

  • Christina Quarles is now repped by Hauser & Wirth on both U.S. coasts, with a solo show set for the gallery’s New York space in fall 2022.
  • Pilar Corrias will continue as Quarles’s London dealer; Regen Projects is out as her LA gallery.
  • Francois Pinault tasked his tech-fluent son, Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault, with monitoring the Cryptopunks sale at Christie’s on his behalf.
  • Downs and Ross is opening an apartment project space at 65 Reade Street in Tribeca.
  • The Los Angeles gallery shared by Mexico City’House of Gaga and New York’s Reena Spaulings is leaving its longtime MacArthur Park home.
  • White Cube now represents the South African artist Cinga Sampson.
  • Sonia Boyce, who will rep Britain at the 2022 Venice Biennale, joined Simon Lee.
  • Anna GrayFranklin Parrasch, and Carolyn Ramo are opening a gallery called Airfield at 26 Downs Street in Kingston, New York.

[Read More]

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The Gray Market
Trade Secrets

The record shop Rough Trade's Brick Lane shop in London. The store's Brooklyn location is now moving to 30 Rockefeller Center. Photo by David Corio/Redferns.

The record shop Rough Trade’s Brick Lane shop in London. The store’s Brooklyn location is now moving to 30 Rockefeller Center. Photo by David Corio/Redferns.

This Tuesday, the record mecca and countercultural hub Rough Trade will reopen its New York store in a new location few vinyl heads would have anticipated: 30 Rockefeller Plaza (30 Rock). The move demanded the store work through tensions between art, identity, and commerce that nearly every gallery faces in 2021.

So I talked to co-owner Stephen Godfroy about the thought process that led him and his colleagues to migrate from what the AV Club called “a special place” in Brooklyn to “every New Yorker’s worst nightmare”—and change much more than an address along the way. His answers hinged on three core themes that impact dealers, too:

  • Identity and Reputation

    • While critics have portrayed relocating to 30 Rock as selling out, Godfroy portrayed it as a trend-bucking return to form.

    • Nothing could be more punk (and on brand) to Godfroy than “shaking off the Williamsburg/Brooklyn record-store stereotype” for a spot where Rough Trade must win over an entirely new audience.

  • Real-Estate Optimization

    • Rough Trade NYC is downsizing from a 10,000 square-foot all-purpose warehouse to a 2,100 square-foot storefront, plus outsourcing online-order fulfillment and live-performance hosting to other facilities.

    • Godfroy argues decentralization is a better use of resources and does no damage to Rough Trade’s social fabric, which is woven from “great records and great people,” not whether each of its U.K. and U.S. stores has a stage and a cafe.

  • Championing Physical Objects in a Digital Culture

    • Rough Trade still believes tangible pieces of culture provide “multisensory stimulation, presence, and value that has no equal substitute.”

    • That belief becomes even more distinctive (and potentially attractive) in Midtown, a zone “crying out for disruptive, provocative change,” Godfroy said.

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The Bottom Line

Rough Trade’s thinking raises three parallel questions for galleries in a post-shutdown economy:

  • Can you thrive by doubling down on your core audience, or do you need to risk ridicule by reaching out to new constituencies?

  • Could you build a stronger community by thinking flexibly about space, geography, and tech?

  • Does a digital age demand selling digital art, or just designing better digital strategies for the analog works you believe in most?

[Read More]

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Data Dip

Neel Early, Rise Late

Data © Artnet Price Database.

Data © Artnet Price Database.

As recently as 2001, Alice Neel racked up the same auction-sales total as I did: a cool zero dollars.

But in May 2021, the lines to get into her retrospective at the Met look like the lines to buy toilet paper and canned food last March, young stars like Jordan Casteel laud her as an essential influence, and bidders have already bought more than $5.1 million worth of her art—the most in any single year yet, with seven months of auctions still to go.

So what the hell happened in the two decades between? The short version is…

  • The art market started foraging for overlooked (and undervalued) artists in the early 2000s.

  • Neel’s estate jumped from the quiet Robert Miller Gallery to powerhouse David Zwirner in 2008.

  • Figurative painting moved from the art market’s fringes to its center starting around 2015 (when the Zombie Formalist fever broke).

For the more nuanced answer, check Katya Kazakina’s deep dive below.

[Read More]

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“It’s impossible that we have become so stupid today that there are no human beings alive capable of creating tomorrow’s masterpieces.” 

—Mega-collector and Christie’s owner François Pinault recounting why he began buying contemporary art in the 1980s.

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Express Checkout
Baldessari Estate Reshuffles the Dealer Deck + Three More Market Morsels

John Baldessari’s estate will now be represented worldwide by Sprüth Magers. (Financial Times)

  • The gallery will debut his final series of works, titled “The Space Between,” in a show at its LA space from June 12 through September 11, with prices in the region of $400,000 each.

  • The estate, run by Baldessari’s two children, will continue working with longtime dealers Mai 36 (Zurich) and Greta Meert (Brussels)… but ended its relationship with Marian Goodman.

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David Zwirner wrestled the estate of Robert Ryman away from Pace; artist Merrill Wagner, Ryman’s wife of 50 years, joined the roster alongside her late husband. (Artnet News)

  • Zwirner also announced the hire of dealer Susan Dunne (who worked with Ryman for almost 30 years), just nine weeks after she resigned from Pace following an investigation into its “toxic” workplace culture.

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At least 11 Korean cities, towns, and counties are vying to host the $2.2 billion collection of late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. Their pitches range from “Lee was born here, so naturally…” to “Listen, we have the world’s fifth-largest airport!” (Wall Street Journal)

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The Fine Art Group, the London-headquartered advisory and art-finance firm, acquired U.S.-based Pall Mall Art Advisors for an undisclosed sum. (Artnet News Pro)

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Artwork of the Week
Kevin McCoy’s Quantum

Kevin McCoy, Quantum (2014). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Kevin McCoy, Quantum (2014). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Date:                      2014

Seller:                    The Artist

Price:                     Bids start at $100 

Selling At:              Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” auction

Sale Date:              Thursday, June 3–Thursday, June 10

Starting next week, Sotheby’s will host “Natively Digital” a weeklong online auction foregrounding 28 influential new media artists whose works surface the historical roots and future prospects of NFTs as a medium. Anchoring the sale is Quantum, a generative digital animation backed by the first non-fungible token ever minted.

The work’s origin is the 2014 edition of Rhizome’s “Seven on Seven” conference, where Kevin McCoy and collaborator Anil Dash premiered what they then (semi-ironically) called the monetized graphic (or “monegraph”)—a digital image time-stamped and registered to its creator on the blockchain, allowing the artist to retain ownership (and be paid appropriately for authorized use) of a file that is otherwise by its nature infinitely replicable.

Seven years later, Quantum isn’t just the cornerstone of a Sotheby’s auction making every effort to thoughtfully engage with early adopters and true believers in crypto. It has also become the unexpected cornerstone of a speculative-trading phenomenon rampaging outside the art-tech nexus. Let’s see if bidders reward a well-intentioned NFT pioneer to the same degree they’ve rewarded some recent arrivals making transparent cash grabs with, frankly, boring art.

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Thanks for joining us in The Back Room. See you next Friday.


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