Flipping Art Is Not a New Phenomenon

An installation by Alex Israel, whose work frequently cited in "flipping" trend pieces.
Photo: Benjamin Sutton.

An art adviser recently told me she was taken aback by a client who asked of a particular artist: “You mean you don’t think he’s a ‘flip’ artist?” In other words, the kind of in-demand, often-young artist whose work one buys just to quickly resell at a hoped-for substantial profit.

The New York Times has interesting data and fantastic quotes from artists and collectors alike in its well-researched story on the practice of flipping. The piece, penned by Lorne Manly and Robin Pogrebin, is aimed mainly at reassuring observers both inside and outside the art world that the oft-talked about activity is less prevalent than media reports and art world gossip might suggest.

Of course there are always the much-repeated “success” stories such as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior, which was auctioned three times between 2005 and 2012, during which time the price soared by 450 percent, to almost $9 million. Or an Alex Israel sky painting that recently sold for more than $1 million, over 10 times what similar works from the same series were priced at when they were created circa 2012.

For the piece, the Times commissioned research from Tutela Capital and Beautiful Asset Advisors, the latter of which is the New York company known for its Mei Moses art tracking indices. They reviewed art market data from 1995 until 2013 to determine if there has been a noticeable drop in the time that owners held onto their artworks. “Flipping remains very much the exception, not the rule,” according to the report. One important factor is the steep fees that auction houses charge both buyers and sellers on high-priced art. For example, a buyer of a $1 million painting typically must pay another $200,000 in fees, or the buyer’s premium. Christie’s also called flipping “the anomaly” rather than a frequent occurrence.

The exaggerated emphasis on flipping, the story says, has been fueled by the appearance of companies like ArtRank, which issue “buy” and “sell” ratings for works, much as financial analysts do for shares of publicly held companies.

The story also includes an interview with Peter Doig, whose record-setting $10 million White Canoe painting was widely viewed as a product of wild speculation when it was sold at Sotheby’s London in 2007. Insiders said the spike was fueled by a bidding war between two Russian oligarchs. Doig tells the Times, “I was very nervous after the sale. I felt that things would change for me, that people would talk about that, rather than the work.” Doig said it made painting more complicated: “I became more cynical. I just wondered why I was doing it: ‘Am I doing it to make rich people richer?”

Mega-collector Charles Saatchi, who has frequently been accused of flipping art—sometimes buying works by a single artist in bulk or reselling works quickly—offered up some priceless views in a 2011 article in the Guardian, which the Times quotes from. “Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.”

But data seems to contradict his obviously quite strong views about what his fellow collectors are up to. Beautiful Asset found that postwar and contemporary artworks resold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in 2013 had been held by their owners an average of 11.2 years, the highest in six years.



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