In the last couple of years, what with the feds investigating Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the auction houses (especially Sotheby’s) have really been in the wars. Should we feel sympathy?
A few years ago, my response would have been, “No way.” The first season I went to the sales, I was repelled by everything about them. They tend to reward the obvious—work that can be neatly pigeonholed, artists who stick to saleable media and have easily recognizable styles—and that’s not what creativity is about. (Now that I’m more familiar with this territory, I can see auction houses have their place: one reason being that in their ceaseless search for new materials and markets, they can bring fresh periods and artists before the public eye.)
Dealers hate the auction houses, too, but for slightly different reasons—mostly because they’re always horning in on dealer territory. Dealers can rarely pick up bargains at auction anymore: After Taubman bought Sotheby’s in the 1970s, the sales gradually turned into a gladiatorial spectator sport.
Ergo, you’d logically expect that many people in the art world would be happy to see Taubman in jail. But that hasn’t really happened. People seem to feel that what the feds picked up on—that Sotheby’s and Christie’s agreed to charge buyers the same premium—was a fairly penny-ante crime. Also, the last year in New York seems to have brought endless reminders that everyone—superwealthy collectors and auction house potentates included—may actually be human, too. In fact, at Sotheby’s sale last May, which happened to coincide with Taubman’s trial, I was amazed to see that the PR people all looked very emotional (the sale was doing brilliantly), and one of them even had tears in her eyes.
Still, I hate going to Sotheby’s because it is awkward to get there from my apartment at the best of times. (It is lodged way over in Brahmin-land—the furthest reaches of the Upper East Side.) Added to which, yesterday it was pouring rain. I got there late, and then I got entangled in a battle with a guard who wanted me to stand in a corner where I wouldn’t have been able to see anything at all. After I won it, the sale didn’t seem to be going that well. A few lots were going for way under estimate and some major works were failing to sell. Plus, there wasn’t much excitement in the room—partly because the auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, is rather formal and remote. Also, he seemed slightly off last night: He bid us all adieu after Lot 67, and the audience had to yelp until he realized he’d forgotten about Lot 68. (It was a Warhol Mao silkscreen, and it didn’t sell.)
However, most of my fellow reporters completely disagreed with my assessment. The Art in America crowd thought the evening had gone quite well and were surprised that I didn’t. I decided to ask a more hard-core market observer—my editor Bruce Wolmer, the reigning monarch of Art & Auction, who was happily hashing over the results with his pal David d’Arcy, of NPR. Their verdicts: “Pretty good” and “Solid.”
Bruce saw legitimate reasons for the failures and said the estimates hadn’t been too bad. The market may not be as hot as it was a couple of years ago, he opined, but it certainly wasn’t as disastrous as it was in 1991. Best of all, he didn’t see what he termed the “selectivity” factor— i.e., no one was making the standard rationalization that buyers are just highly “selective” right now. After Sotheby’s post-mortem, I had to agree: The comments seemed pretty smart and straight-up, and Meyer made some interesting observations about the more esoteric works that didn’t fly. As it turns out, the total take was Sotheby’s highest for contemporary art since the glory days of 1989.
The only person I could find who voiced any skepticism about the evening was Alexandra Peers, who covers the market for the Wall Street Journal. I know she has been obsessing over the number of Warhols on offer, because every time I’ve run into her in the past week she’s muttered something like, “37 of them at Sotheby’s alone—and that’s not including prints!” The first time she said this, I said something snarky about it being almost like the auction houses were trying to bring the market down. She stared at me long, hard, and cannily and said that was a very interesting observation. In fact, I was expecting it might turn up in one of her stories. But Warhol did quite solidly last night, so it probably won’t.
Later, David d’Arcy and I left the building together. As he helped find me a cab, he said a surprising thing. He’s lost that sense of schadenfreude about seeing people fail. He doesn’t want to see anyone fail anymore, he said, because now he knows what it can mean.