A cynic, as Lord Darlington put it so well in Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fanis “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Distinctions between price and value have been a centuries-old concern of the collecting culture of the West, but in the present day they could hardly be more relevant. The latest digital collectibles are selling for sky-high sums of virtual money, paintings by young artists are ‘turning over’ at auction for up to 100 times what they were bought from galleries two or three years ago . Meanwhile, the Old Masters, which dominated the high end of the art trade when Wilde was writing, continue to fall into disuse, except for a few trophies heavily backed by famous names.
Has the art market finally reached a point where price and notions of critical and historical value have finally separated?
“The fact that some currently popular works of art are selling for high prices does not reflect a drastic change in art history valuations, but the combination of available money (crypto and otherwise) and d excellent marketing. So it always has been,” says Michael Findlay, author of the 2014 book The value of artwhich he is currently revising.
“It is tempting to postulate that the art world ‘now’ is very different from ‘then’, and that technological innovation coupled with changing social attitudes will mark this year, this decade or this generation as a of inflection,” adds Findlay, who is director of the New York dealership Acquavella Galleries, which specializes in major 20th-century art. But from Findlay’s perspective, recent high auction prices for works “firmly stamped with the imprimatur of enduring interest by the general public, museum curators, critics and collectors” suggest otherwise.
Auction results such as the $12 million auction in November for Franz Kline’s 1955 abstract expressionist painting, Crosstownat the sale of Sotheby’s $676 million Macklowe Collection seem reassuring validations of the art historical canon.
But the devil is in the financial details. The price of the Kline, like that of all the lots in the Macklowe sale, had been backed by an estimated $695 million global consignment bond – brokered by none other than Findlay, who brokered the sale of the collection. Crosstown sold at a single offer from one of the many third parties to whom Sotheby’s had discharged this responsibility. The painting sold at a price set by the auction house, not to the competition at the actual sale.
out of phase
Kline’s stark black-and-white abstracts, traditionally considered historically “significant” art, are out of step with the current Instagram-driven market vogue for large, colorful paintings. In May, his much larger summary of 1957, Sir, not protected by a guarantee, did not sell at Sotheby’s against a low estimate of $15 million, according to Artprice. Would like Crosstown sold for $12 million at auction if it hadn’t already been effectively “owned” by Sotheby’s?
[Auction] warranties give the false impression that everything sells out and prices keep going up
Christine Bourron, Pi-eX Auction Analysts
“I understand why auction houses do this, but warranties make it more difficult to assess the true market value of artists,” says Christine Bourron, managing director of London-based auction analytics firm Pi- ex. “Warranties give the false impression that everything sells and prices keep going up,” adds Bourron.
In 1970, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid Christie’s, London, $5.5 million for Velázquez Portrait of Juan de Pareja, when there was no auction guarantee, the most expensive artists in the world were all long-deceased old masters. Museum exhibitions and art history courses validate what seems to be their enduring importance. It wasn’t until 1979, six years after his death, that a work by Picasso sold for over a million dollars.
But now museum curation and art history are preoccupied with more current issues of colonialism, race, gender and identity. This year’s Turner Prize went to Northern Ireland’s Array Collective, whose virtuous, diversity-encouraging, alcohol-free bar setup prompted the Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones to comment, “This year’s award put aesthetic achievement quite low on its list of ‘values'”.
The market has become the supreme judge of aesthetic success. And it’s fickle. According to Artprice, at the end of November, global auction sales of works by artists born after 1985 reached $158 million, a 452% increase over the previous year.
“At present, it is becoming almost impossible to objectify the construction of prices for many young artists, apart from highlighting the importance of the demand for new names”, explains Jean Minguet, head of econometrics at the art at Artprice. Minguet highlights $2.9 million bid at a Sotheby’s Day sale in October for the 2021 life-size mixed-media sculpture, Nice to meet you, I’m Mr. MiSUNDERSTOODwith associated NFT, by 18-year-old Seattle-based artist FEWOCiOUS among the latest impossible to objectify prizes.
“This situation marks a break with the past,” says Minguet. “Although there were huge price increases, an artist’s success was generally rather gradual and price levels were correlated with a number of events that legitimized the work, such as museum exhibitions , publications, prizes, etc.”
In the case of FEWOCiOUS, an associated NFT and an ability to pay in cryptocurrency were very important to increase the price.
In early December, ERC-721, the non-fungible token standard on the Ethereum blockchain, exceeded ArtReview‘s influential Power 100 list. The Hiscox 2021 Online Commerce Report estimates that $3.5 billion worth of crypto art and NFT collectibles were sold in the first three quarters of this year.
Moments like the recent apparent “wash trade” of a CryptoPunk for an implausible $500 million and the chaotic aftermath of a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization), or crypto crowdfund,’s failed attempt to buy a rare original copy of the US Constitution which went on sale for $43.2 million, highlighted how crypto remains the Wild West of the art and collectibles market.
But the analog art world continues to rush to the prospecting pans. Sotheby’s Metaverse and Unit London Gallery Institute are among the many online NFT-dedicated sales platforms that have recently sprung up in the physical art trade. Loïc Gouzer, the architect of the sale of 450.3 million dollars by Christie’s Salvator Mundi in 2017 launched Particle, a scheme in which the ownership of a Banksy painting purchased at auction in May for an already high price of $12.9 million aims to be sold in 10,000 NFT fractions for around $15 million. dollars.
All of this might remind Luddite skeptics familiar with financial bubbles of William Hogarth’s 1721 print. The South Sea Programshowing a cheering crowd jostling to climb onto a merry-go-round, satirizing the speculative excitement generated by the ill-fated South Seas Company.
But for Georg Bak, digital art advisor and curator currently working on SNOWCA$Han upcoming group exhibition of digital art at the Kunsthalle Zurich, NFTs are the revolutionary “trigger technology” enabling the commerce of digital art, which he considers “probably the most important art of our time “.
Trendy artists can become expensive in a very short time and nobody talks about them anymore
Georg Bak, Digital Art Advisor
“I don’t see a significant difference between the traditional art market and the NFT market,” says Bak. “Fashionable artists can become expensive in a very short time and nobody talks about them anymore. The trend cycles in the NFT art market are probably a bit shorter and currently everything is developing at a very fast pace. I see more and more traditional art collectors, galleries and artists entering the market.
It just might turn out to be the case, and we know that NFTs can be very, very expensive. But where, exactly, is the value? Is it in the associated “unique” digital collectible that can be downloaded by anyone on the internet? Or in the most important bragging rights of the smart contract? Or is it just having something to splash some otherwise hard-to-spend Ether on?
When major mainstream auction houses sell NFTs, they often do not release estimates, leaving the price to crypto speculators. As for the lasting value of NFTs, and almost anything that’s making big money on the art market right now, no one seems to know.
Even Lord Darlington might have struggled with this one.