Friday, May 18, 2007

The Emperor's New Art

I've been visiting the auction houses this week, checking out the Contemporary Art sales. People used to show up at these exhibitions because 1. they're free, and 2. they used to provide an opportunity for celebrity watching. I can remember the first time I went into Sotheby's and Christie's in London. The place was sort of funky. Bums were in there, warming up...looking. Art collecting was for a small group of informed and passionate afficionados who had some aesthetic and spiritual need to own visions of painters and sculptors, to see them every day in their own home, because they were uplifting and made them a better person. Eccentrics, some of them. For celebrities, the nouveau aristocracy, art gave them class. Art gave them something unique and rare. A sort of window onto something they aspire to.

Today, the Wall Street Journal tells us, art is a kind of essential commodity for the very rich. It is recommended as a portfolio component. Actually, the art market has become a gigantic hedge fund. And not just any hedge-fund. A personally 'loaded' one. Like old Gibson guitars, Warhol and Basquiat are symbols for the very rich 40-somethings of everything they kind of missed out on while they were grubbing through their MBA requirements. They are nostalgic for something that evaded them-- the bohemian, the funky underground thing. A very recent kind of nostalgia, because these people are not old yet. But they are tripping all over one another, like desperate housewives at a Filene's 4-hour sale, to outbid and grab the brass ring of a contemporary art masterpiece. And since they don't really have time to get an MA in art, they must rely on the professionals. The dealers. The advisors. The consultants. A newish breed like the conspicuously overdressed real-estate agents whose percentage of the ever-increasing selling price is reaching obscene proportions. And the auction house 'experts'? Like the Art Gallery owners, like the Museum Curators, they tip the scales, they convince us that even the hideously dressed Emperors of Art are in unprecedented finery, and that although these things are supposedly unique and priceless, everyone will be wanting one in six months. The return on their investment in nostalgia and culture will far exceed any hedge fund performance. They will guarantee this-- didn't you read the Wall Street Journal yesterday? Well, they will hold the market up, if need be.

If you hang around the pre-sale exhibitions, you will begin to see a certain similarity between the auction house employees and used car dealers. Of course they are dressed better, and you cannot actually test-drive the goods. You will ask them for a condition report, just to seem informed, and they will describe in detail the 'expert' opinion of their in-house 'describers', many of whom have actually had a few art history courses. They will give a thorough analysis of the 'health' of the canvas, deny the existence of any restoration, describe what it looks like under u-v light. will even offer to show it to you in the dark, lit up. I don't know about the average investment banker, but I can't even read my own mammograms, let alone decipher a black-light image of a Mark Rothko which, just two nights ago, was hammered down at 72.8 million dollars. Housepaint, this is. Housepaint which will deteriorate quicker than the finish on that used BMW. Not to mention the fact that the entire African continent could be fed and clothed for one year. Or the fact that these artists don't see a penny of their own auction price. But you can't hang charity in your loft and impress your colleagues and their wives and girlfriends. You can't sit on the boards of Museums which has become a rather sexy seat this year. And does it irk you that 99 percent of the artists in New York City do not get even one crumb of a piece of this art-money pie? They are starving. And most of them cannot even set foot in the city because it is far too expensive. You will see them wandering around at the pre-auction exhibitions, salivating at the estimates, fantasizing in their smelly grungy thrift-shop clothes, like bums sneaking guiltily in through the back door of a porn flick because they are so lonely.

A friend of mine bought some biotech stock last year. Like a million shares. The company is new, spends money on research, has a negative profit. Suddenly they get a bite on their research line...a big fish is on the hook. The stock doubles, triples--- 2 dollar shares are now 26 dollars. The guy sells his million shares. Suddenly has 24 million dollars. Where did this money come from? The company has no profit, no product yet-- in fact, the fish opens up its mouth and slips off the line. The stock is back at $2. But my friend has this 24 million. Tell me-- because I can't quite understand-- where did this money come from? From a company with no product, no money? Monopoly money. So what does he do? He goes straight to the auction house, skulks around, looking at Basquiats and Warhols which may or may not be real because hey...who's going to blow the whistle? These guys are dead. Why should the authentification committees refuse to authenticate when they stand to make fees and profits? And the auction houses? Twenty percent of the first whatever of hammer prices. That's just from the buyers. They take from the sellers, too. And then there are the storage charges, the insurance, the photo fees. Who do you think foots the bill for those glossy catalogues they give you if you're a fish on their line? You do-- the buyer. And you pay for the champagne cocktails, too. So what if it's fake? What's in it for them? They're not even liable, if they believe it's real. They can always find a grand-niece or an old girlfriend who will swear after a champagne lunch that she saw it in the day. Why not? I lived with my own father for 17 years and I couldn't swear to his signature. Or even his old, worn clothing. My own, after a point. Andy Warhol once signed a picture to me because he liked my band. He said-- I didn't do this, but I'll sign it. You think he cared? You think he'd mind seeing these poor schmucks spending 25 million dollars for a screenprint on canvas which they call a painting? Untouched by human hands. And certainly untouched by Warhol's hands. But hey, what's the diff? They're paying with Monopoly money anyway, for Monopoly art.

Maybe next year they'll sell to Donald Trump and he'll put a few hotels on their new art real-estate. And maybe he'll buy some art to hang on the walls of the hotels that he put up on the Warholian real-estate art the hedge fund guys bought and on and on like a Hall of Mirrors.
Ad Infinitum. Like the price of art.

To be continued.

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