Sotheby’s And Christie’s Record Contemporary Sales: Is Anyone Really Surprised?

Two sales, two record nights: what a week!  Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s recorded “highest ever” sales for contemporary art this week, with Sotheby’s pulling in over $375 million on Tuesday only to be topped by Christie’s, which hammered down a total of $412.2 million the following night. Artists from Jeff Koons (at $33.6 million for his “Tulips,” a brilliantly-colored stainless steel sculpture) to Jean Michel Basquiat (at $25.6 million) broke new records, even as a painting by Gerhard Richter, the world’s top selling living artist (“Prag,” belonging to collector Steve Cohen), failed to sell at all.

With less than stellar sales at the prior Modern sales, some were already predicting the demise of the art market in the days before the Contemporary auctions. Obviously, they were wrong.  But is that really much of a surprise?

The fact is that, ideally or not, a great deal of contemporary art right now is in the hands of investors, some of whom buy it for investment value alone, some of whom genuinely appreciate the work but who (understandably) are aware of its financial worth – and are therefore, so to speak, invested in keeping that worth where it is.   And unlike in the stock and commodities market, they can, in fact, help to make that happen.

It’s not a new trick, of course: dealers have been bidding up works by their own artists for years. But as individual artists become more and more part of a portfolio — an “I’ll-take-two-Richters-three-Basquiats-a-couple-of-Koonses-and-five-Warhols-to-go-please” approach to collecting –the combined efforts of numerous collectors are helping prices (read: values) not just stay strong, but soar to insane levels unthinkable even a decade ago.  (You know something is bizarre when a Murakami that sold for $25,000 just 13 years ago goes for over $4.25 million now. Talk about your life-changing moment.)

But what is also notable is a change in the way these prices are now received by the public.  I recall a time when auction house audiences applauded a good deal: the painting that should have gone for more but which, for some reason or another, did not find many bidders and so one buyer got lucky. “Well done,” others would say, and pat him on the back. Meantime, by contrast, the buyers who went way beyond the estimates received stares, as lookers-on shook their heads in skeptical disbelief.

That , obviously, isn’t the case anymore. Now the higher the number, the louder the cheers. What a thrill! What a conquest! It’s like winning the Oscar, like reaching the World Series.  Who cares if it’s a smart buy, as long as it’s a big one?

Mind you, I’m not looking to suggest that a falling art market is anything to be desired. It’s not. And it’s certainly understandable that with talk of the “financial cliff,” investors and collectors alike are looking to move their investments out of the stock market. More, I genuinely am pleased that more and more people are learning to enjoy contemporary art, and to appreciate the sensible element of displaying beautiful objects on a wall in place of stowing certificates in a vault.

But it saddens and dismays me when I see an environment in which what you buy matters so much less than how much you paid for it – and that the more you pay, the better.  Next year’s sales will, after all, have to meet the standard set this year in order to be considered at all successful; and then the next year, and the next.  No one will remember what the paintings and the sculptures looked like.  Few will even consider whether they are good or bad. It’s all about the numbers.

What I would hope to see is a change to having the numbers actually match the art. What I would hope to see is a greater sense of connoisseurship, so that works that just aren’t that good just don’t fetch such crazy prices.  What I would hope to see is a chance for works that are extremely good, but created by less-known (read: not-yet-de-rigeur) artists to achieve the values they deserve.

What that takes is art buyers who actually know what it is they are doing: who look at art and not just the numbers on the screen behind the auctioneer.  There are few things quite so rewarding as the vision of an art collector with a book — and I’m not talking about the shelves filled and coffee tables stacked with museum catalogues bought but never read. That, I think, is not just the way to keep the market solid; it’s the way to move it forward — and to pave a path for the best new art to grow.

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