Has London’s Auction Market Lost Its Mojo? Kenny Schachter Finds the Onetime Art Capital Down on Its Luck
London is known for gin and tonic, Bacon and Freud, Gilbert and George, and Damien and Tracey. When I moved to the UK in 2004, London also boasted a burgeoning auction market, and was said to be on the verge of eclipsing New York as an art-market epicenter. But, as George Harrison sang in 1970 (probably referencing the weather):
But it’s not always going
To be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
In a resolute vote of no confidence, Christie’s bowed out of the city’s traditional June contemporary sales (after trying to persuade Sotheby’s to do so for years), focusing their attentions on markets further afield from its ancestral seat, like New York and China. London’s auction mojo is dissolving before my good eye. With less to cover, I am grateful to Christie’s, as their withdrawal aids my short attention span.
That all the houses made the upper reaches of their high estimates (even Phillips and Bonhams) and substantially bettered last year’s results is indicative of a happy, healthy, mature market with wide international reach. But it doesn’t escape the fact that there were no sparks and little energy; London’s auction market is fading faster than chintz on the couch in an old manor house, even when it succeeds. I can’t imagine most galleries are selling tons, either.
Oh wait, there was also the Masterpiece fair and, following on the heels of Berlin (then Beijing), we had Mayfair Art Weekend. Despite the best of intentions, was it all for naught? The Masterpiece fair was more a monumental misnomer, bordering on deceptive advertising, but I still found something to see. There was a great early proto-Pop R.B. Kitaj (of whom I am no great fan, nor are many others, I don’t think) and Patrick Caulfield paintings at Offer Waterman, the gallery that is the very picture of connoisseurship, from about £250,000 to £450,000. I didn’t make it to any galleries, but, had I, it would have been to see Nicola Tyson, who I used to work with in the 1990s, at Sadie Coles.
Auctions can resemble casino crapshoots, and every set of sales generates new winners and losers—the combos of which (and numbers) shift with each roll of the dice and spin of the wheel, just like in other forms of gambling. This micro cycle was no different. David Stockman, the first (and only) rock-star budget director who espoused what came to be known as Reaganomics, championed the trickle-down theory that tax breaks for the wealthy have knock-on positive effects for everyone else on the lower rungs of the societal ladder (and Trump hasn’t yet learned how this fuels deficits). Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric market surge is an example of art-world trickle-up economics, where the filthy rich get more so.
The raging-out-of-control Basquiat market has pulled up anything (and everything) associated with the artist by its bootstraps, including Basquiat/Warhol collaborations and more. Artistic collaborations are generally looked askance upon by the market, especially when not the primary practice of both parties—an example of one plus one equalling one, still. Tommy Hilfiger, who has been using auction houses as his personal designer outlet shops of late to offload much of his art collection (I hear he’s deep into building a super yacht), sold a pair of Basquiat/Warhol paintings at Sotheby’s evening sale, and one of them outperformed expectations.
Estimated at £1.4 million to £1.8 million, Sweet Pungent, clearly the better of the two, sold for £4,433,750 ($5,735,769), the fourth-highest price for a piece from the series. The record stands at $11,365,000 from the contemporary art-market peak of 2014 and probably hangs in one of Phillips proprietor’s living rooms, the result of a house guarantee.
Another offshoot of the Basquiat bedlam is the simulacrum of a collaborative work with Warhol by the Luxembourgish painter Michael Majerus (1967-2002), who also died tragically young in a commercial airline crash along with 19 others (of 22), the worst in Luxembourg aviation history. Majerus’s often oversized canvases were typically characterized by bold, colorful graphics and texts that read like an explosion in the production room of an advertising agency; art-about-art appropriations were another vein of his work.
At Sotheby’s day sale, Mom Block Nr. 53, estimated at £50,000 – £70,000, sold for £236,750 ($306,852), nearly twice his record set last year. The series consists of a silkscreen of a Basquiat/Warhol with the addition of a broad brushstroke in differing colors in each painting (they come in blue, green, red, etc.). Notably, the stripe was green, a color typically anathema to the art market. Majerus collaborated with the collaborators (a collaboration-collaboration) by adding his mark—an assisted had-it-made, and good racket if you can get away with it.
In the long-established world of appropriation where original copies can cost millions, how do you gauge value? The most notable practitioners don’t come cheaply, as these auction records make evident: Sturtevant (1924-2014) fetched $5,093,000 for a Warhol Marilyn in 2015, Mike Bidlo (b.1953) made $420,000 for a Pollock in 2007, and Richard Pettibone (b.1938) notched $688,000 in 2006 for a potpourri of Pop masters rendered in miniature like a bag of Mini Ritz Crackers.
Pettibone’s Andy Warhol, Elvis, 1964, estimated at £15,000-£20,000, sold for £175,000 ($226,818) at Sotheby’s day sale. A painting practically the same size, of an identical image (repeated four times instead of two), went for a fraction of the price at another Sotheby’s auction a week before. Go figure.
Phillips evening sale looked twice as full as it was; with half as many seats removed from the floor, the crowd was a mirage. The acoustics in the room are so bad you hear every conversation from the phone banks, which doesn’t help. There was no glitz or glamour and few big hitters, but Phillips took care of business, even without the likes of Larry G. (or Zwirner, Hauser, the Nahmads, or Mugrabis for that matter).
When a trending pop/rock song (or fashion style) premieres, it gets playtime ’til played out, diluted by familiarity and then dumped for the next. The art market is no different. With recent Tate and Beyeler shows, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) is in the midst of the spotlight—one after another in fact—with seven pieces sold in the London auctions, all above their high estimates (except for one, near the high), including a new record for Freischwimmer #84, estimated at £200,000 – £300,000 and sold for £605,000 ($785,510) at Phillips of all places. The Phillips auctioneer, perplexed as ever, blurted, “That’s a record I think, I should check.” Will Wolfgang’s spaghetti stick to the wall or will the fickle tastes of the auctionati evaporate like a photo exposed to sunshine? An auction salesman referred to Tillmans as the “artist of the moment,” which doesn’t augur well for the future. He’s not waiting to find out, having launched a music career, feeding into the frenzy.
At the Phillips day sale, the audience consisted of 16 people; in the art world, that, together with a few phone lines and internet accessibility, is enough to constitute a market. I somewhat surprisingly bumped into gallerist Harry Blain and asked him why he was there, to which he replied: “For the toilet.” I think he was joking (but I wasn’t certain).
Now, for the anatomy of a flip: At the zenith of Zombie Formalism my hands were far from clean, for in the foolish pursuit of gains at the expense of common sense I bought—along with work by Lucien Smith (b. 1989), Christian Rosa (b. 1982), and Israel Lund (b. 1980)—a small Oscar Murillo (b. 1986). I like Oscar and don’t think he’s disingenuous, but I was determined to do some house-cleaning and popped the little canvas into Phillips. Untitled, from 2012, acquired for $55,000 in 2014, was estimated at £30,000 – £50,000 and sold for £37,500 ($49,406) a handy loss. I should consider opening a hedge fund—they all seem to be losing money nowadays.
Another Murillo work at Phillips evening sale sold all-in for £185,000 ($240,197) on an estimate of £150,000 – £250,000, but previously fetched $245,000 at auction in November of 2015. Is there a reassessment underway of the only Zombie resurrected by reputable representation (Zwirner)?
I am a fan and collector of Sarah Lucas (b. 1962). Her work New Religion (Red), a neon coffin offered in an array of different colors (like the Majerus), was bought in the last two times a friend tried to sell it, and this attempt it carried an estimate of £100,000 – £150,000. Though he ratcheted down his expectations, he still didn’t fiddle enough for it to sell. In 2006 one managed to fetch £96,000 above the estimate of £50,000 – £70,000. Living with a three-dimensional buzzing neon coffin is perhaps all too vivid a reminder of what’s to come and was never going to be an easy sell. Now, it’s literally priceless.
Socially and politically, London is lurching to the left, with a growing hostility to foreign and indigenous wealth; but, like it or not, big money is the backbone of the art industry. The permissible length of stay for non-domiciled tax exiles in the UK has been whittled down from 17 to 15 years, helping to create a population of plush nomads—anti-refugee refugees. Among the casualties (besides high-end residential properties) is London’s auction market. The Brits love their shooting; well, they are in the process of shooting themselves in the foot.
Is London on its way to becoming the next Cologne, where the once-preeminent European art hub now barely figures into the international calendar? The Financial Times headline recapping last week’s auctions read: “Asian Money Keeps London Steady.” It’s more a case of Asian money rendering London obsolete. In a hundred years (or less) the relics of what used to be the city’s auction rooms might resemble a scene from the latest Planet of the Apes franchise. Yet, in the face of original copies costing fortunes, personal losses in the thousands, and the loss of London as a commercial center, the art world rolls along straight through the summer, stouter than ever. Keep calm and carry on, for now.
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