/ February 26, 2008

"Golden Gloves"

“It’s gonna be a prize fight.” Seating myself front and center in a theater at the Museum of Modern Art for the Art Dealers Association of America Collectors’ Forum last Saturday morning, I overheard a number of such gleeful anticipatory remarks. Given that the discussion had been framed as a face-off between commercial galleries and auction houses, with three heavyweights representing each side of a purported “cultural divide,” such expectations seemed justified. Even the ADAA’s redoubtable president, Roland Augustine, admitted to feeling “a little weak in the knees” as he stepped up to the podium before a packed house. Setting the scene with a cautionary quote from his own letter to the Wall Street Journal last November, Augustine reminded us of the dangers posed by an artificially inflated market, then inadvertently referred to the panelists as “models,” a slip that seemed to embarrass him but made for an effective icebreaker.

“We do have some attractive panelists here today,” quipped moderator Lindsay Pollock, as she introduced, on the dealer side, Michael Findlay (of Acquavella Galleries), Andrea Rosen, and David Zwirner, and, on the auction-house side, Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo, Simon de Pury of Phillips de Pury & Company, and Sotheby’s Anthony Grant. Pollock rang the bell for the opening round by floating the familiar characterization of auction houses as “big-box retailers” and galleries as “mom-and-pop stores,” prompting an exhaustive review of the two systems. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but de Pury and Capellazzo’s charisma was undeniable. It was thus, depending on one’s politics, either that much more thrilling or appalling that almost the first words uttered by the latter were an unapologetic “Capital is king!” De Pury, while clearly sympathetic to this claim, at least acknowledged that flesh-and-blood individuals were a factor in his work by flattering the audience with their own insider clout: “It’s a shame we can’t just start an auction right here and now!” Zwirner and Rosen, for their part, made sure to emphasize their relative proximity to the creative process. Zwirner: “Artists come first, client relationships follow.”

Seconds out, round 2. Asked about the increased significance of marketing to an expanded and perhaps less well-informed collector base, Capellazzo described with relish the way in which auction participants might be influenced by the “last chance” factor, the iconic value of a work, and the intoxicating nature of the “sport of bidding.” Questioning the “auction updraft” effect to which the latter in particular has often given rise, Pollock cited salesroom records set at Christie’s last May by Warhol’s Green Car Crash, 1963, and de Kooning’s Untitled XXV, 1977, which went for $27.1 million in November 2006. On the latter, a grinning Capellazzo couldn’t help herself: “That was beautiful, when that came together.” Zwirner countered that he preferred to establish “a real audience” grounded in institutional endorsement. The question of longevity elicited a variety of responses, but Findlay addressed it most effectively by offering a reminder that, far from “ending with the lives of their owners,” galleries could stand for longevity while the auction houses were required to “re-create themselves from sale to sale.” An increasingly argumentative Rosen added, “A gallery doesn’t need to last forever; art lasts forever! Sotheby’s and Christie’s have each other to fight against; they want to be like each other. Galleries want to be individual.”

Perhaps fearing an early knockout, Pollock reminded the fighters of their common ground by pointing to the fact of their frequent interaction, citing Christie’s controversial purchase of Haunch of Venison (initially slipping and naming—oops!—Phillips). Zwirner contended that Haunch of Venison was likely to lose artists and would be forced to start again from scratch and look increasingly to the emergent Asian market. Findlay added that, according to the theory of “normal accident,” the relative complexity of auction houses—their tendency to accrue sub-businesses—left them more vulnerable to “catastrophic failure” than their gallery counterparts. Beginning to lose patience with this sparring, de Pury responded that galleries’ share of the total art market was in any case the larger and that any cooked-up conflict between the two fields represented “an old ideological debate that’s completely abaissé!” But Rosen wasn’t about to go along with this: “I have the right to choose not to make money; auction houses have only one goal—to make money.”

Round 3. Asked about the influence of auction sales on gallery prices and vice versa, Zwirner described the effect of a low auction estimate on the market for an artist he was showing as the sale took place, Thomas Ruff. Instead of buying straight away, savvy collectors placed reserves, attended the auction, then flocked back to the gallery the following day when the work fetched more than expected on the block. Cappellazzo (weaving): “I’m not interested in control.” Zwirner (jabbing): “Amy’s the ultimate control freak!” Cappellazzo (ducking): “We do introduce new artists to the . . . ecosystem.” Rosen (on the attack): “Auction houses are interested in creating markets for themselves, not for artists.” Cappellazzo (swinging wildly): “We’re talking about the exchange of an object in a marketplace, and the marketplace is cruel.” Zwirner (punching to the body, racking up points): “But two people can swing an auction. The art market is tiny and personalized.” Cappellazzo (punch drunk): “So is the market for nuclear reactors!” (Bell.)

Final round: Asked whether less emphasis might be placed on the commodification of art following a predicted “correction” to the market, the dealers were in alignment, agreeing that it would allow collectors more time and space to make informed decisions, encouraging, according to Rosen at least, a “reorientation toward meaning” that would benefit previously overlooked or undervalued artists. Cappellazzo seemed less excited, noting only that such a correction could “affect buyer psychology” and reminding the assembled that they might do well to pick up a few paintings: “Painting makes you feel safe,” she enthused, without apparent irony, “It tells the story of civilization.” “Taste evolves,” added de Pury, concluding that the market was only just becoming truly global and that it would appear “completely different in five to ten years.”

Final result? Dealers win on points. But was it a fix?

Image: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie's international cohead of postwar and contemporary art, with Acquavella's Michael Findlay