Kenny Schachter Spills the Tea on New York’s Spooky Spring Auctions (Including the Art Consigned by His Mother-in-Law)
Our intrepid columnist had an inside view of the distinctly uneven market action in the salesrooms last week.
Last week, for the first time in nine years, I disengaged myself from Instagram. I blame Miriam Cahn and her painting fuck abstraction!, recently vandalized at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The work, depicting sexual war crimes committed in Bucha, Ukraine, involving an adult and what appears to be a child, remains on view after France’s State Court ruled on the controversy in April. The French judiciary is more open-minded than the conspiracy-mongering, thin-skinned Insta community that raged against me for days on end, repeatedly wishing for my death (and worse), before my post featuring the painting was censored and I was circumscribed from sending direct messages for three days. So I temporarily quit it, which itself was a task made so difficult it took me nearly an hour to effectuate. They make it easy enough to join, but leaving is like unsticking yourself from a cockroach trap.
To be honest, I don’t even like the Cahn painting I posted, but dislike censorship more. Losing the ability to respond to messages was like being punished by my dad as a badly behaved prepubescent. Lord knows that happened often enough in the Schachter household, but having Mark Zuckerberg assume the role of emasculating parent that we willfully succumb to of our own accord is simply too much to bear. Over the course of the three Instagramless days until I rejoined—hey, I had an exhibit to promote, and how else am I supposed to learn about new art on view (definitely not art magazines anymore)—I tapped the app dozens of times like a recent amputee feeling pain in a phantom limb no longer present. I lost 400 followers in the process. The very thought of kowtowing to algorithms and capricious “community standards” (as scary a thought as that is) is enough to make you sick.
That Zuckerberg wields such control over the breadth and content of our means of communication via social media platforms is, at best, absurd—and, in all probability, runs afoul of settled tenets of antitrust law. Today, a small handful of tech companies are akin to the ruthless robber barons of the late 19th century in terms of the economic stranglehold they exert over the economy (and people’s lives). Perhaps recent technologies like decentralized Web3 networks powered by the blockchain can unsettle all that. Okay, and… that’s a buildup for my solo show presently on view at the NFT Gallery in New York City, admittedly a name I am trying to convince the young founders to change (see more below).
But onto more pressing pecuniary matters, such as the preceding week’s spate of spring art auctions. To drive home that we are peering over the crag of a downward-facing market, the weather in New York pivoted from one moment to the next—seemingly for dramatic effect—with an unseasonal, eerie chill pervading the air that coincided aptly with the performance of the sales. Don’t get me wrong, the overall numbers were substantial enough, with plenty of surprising performances from artists both young and old, but there was a bit of a reality test signaling unsteady times ahead. More specifically, there was a collective slap in the face of consignors with unreasonable expectations for high reserves, which were admittedly set at a more optimistic time a few short months ago.
Without focusing too much on the negatives, the language “this lot no longer available” appeared so many times on the websites of the three major auction houses that I lost count. I would guess more reserves were lowered prior to the onset of the sales than at any time since the Great Recession of 2008. (Side note: who names these cycles so idiotically? I personally don’t see what’s so great about $19 trillion in value being wiped from the stock market and 8.7 million jobs lost.) I felt the atmospheric pressure myself, since Sotheby’s tried to downgrade the minimum expectations on the few day sale lots I sold, or tried to. Today, there is more demand for labor than can be met by the existing workforce and things are relatively steady, so clearly we are not near such a decline as we saw 15 years ago. But the sales were sobering nonetheless.
An example of unrealistic expectations were a pair of significant guarantees spurned by the consignors of the Mo Ostin estate for two of the most expensive lots on offer from the sale. Now Ostin’s heirs learned the hard way that greed is not necessarily a good thing. Under-the-radar market maven Joe Hage, the most powerful person that most art veterans have never heard of (other than in my repeated writings), turned a fat profit as the consignor of Gerhard Richter’s 1974 painting 4096 Farben, which last sold at auction in 2004 for $3,703,500 and now fetched nearly $21,839,000 (with fees). When will people realize that horse-trading Hage is a whole hell of a lot more than Damien’s point person for NFTs and prints (though he is that too)? At the time of this writing I am still trying to determine whether the oversized Basquiat canvas sold by Valentino at Christie’s (a fact I scooped) was bought for $67.1 million by either Taiwanese mega-guarantor Pierre Chen, Jeff Bezos, or Ken Griffin. When I do find out, and I will, I’ll share it with one of my colleagues at Artnet so you are the first to know.
At Phillips, a small Matthew Wong painting estimated at $120,000 to $180,000 that sold for $609,600 was consigned by Los Angeles flipper Niels Kantor, who bought the 2018 work for $15,000. Sarah Lucas has a spotty, inconsistent auction market, with as many buy-ins recorded as sales; her record-setting work Ace in the Hole sold for $905,000 in 2014, but that very same work failed to find a single bid in 2017 at $700,000. Maybe her imminent survey at Tate Britain is what accounted for her particularly strong showing this week, with $736,600 attained for Bunny, Gets Snookered #8 on an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. But then again, her last traveling retrospective half a decade ago at the Hammer and New Museum had little or no effect. (Perhaps she is being pulled up by the bootstraps of her fellow YBA, Tracey Emin, who’s killing it in the salesrooms.) Speaking of killing it, Robert Longo’s small 17-inch study (in pencil) for his famous Men in the Cities series made a gigantic $441,000 in the sale, against an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.
Christie’s underwhelmingly sold the collection of Gerald Fineberg, albeit with no withdrawals, guarantees, or immoderate expectancies. Though I neither believe in god nor karma, Fineberg, once dubbed “The Slumlord of the Board” (he served on the board of the ICA Boston), seemed to get a dose of something in the way of payback for his propensity to charge “maximum rents while performing minimal maintenance resulting in costly rental units with unaddressed mold, broken appliances, exposed wires, and other severe maintenance issues,” to quote Hyperallergic. Part of the problem was that the notorious tightwad paid over the odds for such works as the collaboration by Lucio Fontana and Egidio Costantini that Fineberg was said to have paid his advisor, Michael Black, $2.5 million for, and which realized $630,000 (estimate $1 million to $1.5 million) last week.
Apparently, the Fontana wasn’t an isolated instance, and the Fineberg works sold for significantly less than he paid for them, including two poorly performing Lee Krasner paintings. I had better watch myself, though, as the famously short tempered advisor Black threatened to break my knees over one deal or another, as I once recounted, and, according to Page Six, once got thrown off the ice for brawling with actor Tim Robbins during a “friendly’ hockey match on the Chelsea Piers. In any case, I personally sold Black a 1965 Alex Katz for the Fineberg collection—it formerly hung at a 45-degree angle under the stairway of my mother-in-law—and it was bittersweet to watch it get bought in at Christie’s against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million.
Robert Rauschenberg’s 1958 painting Lincoln, which the Art Institute of Chicago deaccessioned before being acquired by Fineberg, sold for $1,260,000 (est. $2 million to $3 million); whether or not the buyer was aware of the infamous past of the painting is unknown, as the houses generally employ the auction equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but a while back some racist moron decided to gouge a swastika into its surface. (They probably mistook Rauschenberg for Jewish because of his surname, even though Rauschenberg’s staunchly religious family belonged to the Church of Christ and the artist spent every Sunday in church and Sunday school, with bible study camp during summers.) Though the vandalism was repaired so as not to be visible to the naked eye, it’s still plainly apparent under blue light. Feinberg surely knew, but maybe didn’t care due to the size of the commensurate discount he received. And though Christie’s wasn’t trying to hide it, they weren’t going to volunteer the information either—you had to ask for a condition report.
At Sotheby’s, Andy Warhol’s Birth of Venus (After Botticelli)—a unique, oversized work on paper modestly estimated at $350,000 to $450,000—sold for $2,601,000, having also been brought to auction by my mother-in-law, Denise Rich, though I am no longer involved. The fabulous Fairfield Porter’s Girl in a Landscape from 1965, estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, sold for $2,843,000, and I was thrilled to see both the result and the fact that the masterful artist (born 1907, died 1975) has been set free from the confines of American art sales and inserted into the more mainstream realm of contemporary art where his prescient paintings belong.
The Eisenman was originally sold to Joshua Gessel and Yoel Kremin (two ambiguous players in market) on behalf of Peter Haas—or so they said when they bought the work from König Gallery—for under $50,000, a founding consultant to Zürich’s elite freeport Mobel Transport. Haas has subsequently denied it was for him, and is no longer involved with Mobel; but, ferreting out accurate art market intel is as hard as finding an honest art dealer.
To pivot slightly, anyone wondering about the conformist nature of the art market should just take in the fact that the following four artists have nearly 300 works on sale between today and mid-June (!): Warhol (72), Hirst (50), Richter (42), and, with a whopping 128 pieces, Kusama. In the art market, success unambiguously affirms success, and the herd mentality rules supreme.
In other news, I hear that advisor Lisa Schiff, who once threatened to sue me and Artnet for reporting she was fired by Leonardo DiCaprio but for the minor fact it was true (and who reportedly insisted in her contracts that her clients not have previously worked with me), is facing more lawsuits herself from her slipshod habit of converting her client’s money for her own personal use. I’m told that Schiff on occasion bought works in the name of DiCaprio for herself to flip. (The advisor did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.)
At my NFT Gallery exhibition that just opened—through June 17th at 88 Clinton Street (please visit if you can)—one of my other galleries told me that a work I consider the strongest in the show is “bad.” Really makes you appreciate the—mostly—gatekeeper-free universe of NFTs and Web3 platforms. The work, Velociraptor (The Swift Thief), is titled after the small dinosaur of the late Cretaceous period whose name combines the Latin velox, “swift,” and raptor, “robber or plunderer.” “Plunderer” is a good description for the speculators who are currently despoiling the public domain—museums and academic institutions—by choosing to sell dinosaur skeletons at contemporary art auctions as fashionable baubles for wealthy “collectors.” My show is comprised of tapestry, painting, sculpture, and videos, so NFT is not the most apt term to describe what is on exhibit. Although, that’s not such a bad word in the art market these days—all seven of the NFTs sold by Sotheby’s last week crushed it beyond expectations, performing well above the high estimates. Makes you think.
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