On 18 November 2022 two environmental activists from the French movement known as “Dernière Rénovation” (Last Renovation) poured orange acrylic paint over a massive stainless steel sculpture, an equestrian self-portrait by American artist Charles Ray (born in 1953), positioned outside the entrance to the Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. This act of vandalism by pro-climate activists happened in the wake of other similar incidents around the world targeting a Van Gogh, a Klimt, a Monet and a Picasso.
The worst of capitalism
But the defacement from 18 November stands out due to the fact that the artwork, for the first time, was not protected either by a glass case, or by plexiglass. There is something disturbing in this gesture, regardless of the fact that the piece was cleaned immediately. All these young people fanatical about the dangers facing the planet seem to exclusively see art in terms of its commercial value. These masterpieces from 20th and 21st century creation, without distinction, represent – for them – the worst of capitalism.
Hyper-publicizing of records at auction
This reductive perception of art has emerged alongside the hyper-publicizing of records at auction, to the detriment of publicizing the art itself.
Coincidentally, this is the same time that the season of auctions of modern and contemporary art in New York was coming to a close. Over a two week period, at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, between 9 and 18 November, works of art dating from the 19th to the 21st century sold for 2.85 billion dollars (2.04 billion for Christie’s primarily from the Allen sale and 856.3 million dollars for Sotheby’s)( See here the report about the Paul Allen collection).
Period of uncertainty
During a period of economic and political uncertainty, buyers and auction houses, to avoid any kind of bitter failure, are seeking security. With the exception of the sale of the Solonger collection at Sotheby’s this season (23 lots sold for 137.9 million dollars without a guarantee) there can be no more “playing around” with letting spontaneous supply and demand dictate the values.
A private sale in public
This is why the system of guarantees has become more widespread. Before the auctioneer takes the hammer and up until the very last minute, the auction houses are putting in place financial agreements, generally with third parties who are prepared to invest up to elevated levels. The lots are therefore presold, unless when the time comes in the room there are potential buyers who push up the value more. “This year many works would not have attained the price levels listed if there hadn’t been a guarantee. This new phenomenon forces the auctions upwards. Ultimately it’s like staging a private sale in public,” observes New York dealer David Nash. The head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Grégoire Billault, is very pleasantly surprised by the results from this season: “I am more impressed daily by the resilience of the market. The volume of works presented this season from the Paul Allen collection exerted a strong pressure on sales.”
From Cézanne to a young 29-year-old American artist, Louis Fratino, via five paintings by Willem de Kooning, here are a few textbook cases of artworks sold in November 2022.
Paul Cézanne, la Montagne Sainte Victoire, 1890: 137,7 million dollars
In the media there hasn’t been that much coverage of the extraordinary retrospective of Paul Cézanne composed of 80 artworks which is currently taking place at the Tate gallery in London, compared to the huge media splash made by the sale of a single painting by the same artist on 9 November in New York (See here the report about the Cézanne retrospective at Tate). It was the highest estimate in the sale of the collection belonging to the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. It sold for 137.7 million dollars, a record price for Cézanne at auction.
It was the New York dealer David Nash, who incidentally co-authored the remarkable catalogue raisonné of Cézanne, who facilitated the sale of this painting to Paul Allen in 2001 for 38.5 million dollars (See here an interview of David Nash speaking about David Rockefeller). “I started working with Paul Allen in 1997 and it was over a period of six or seven years. In 2001 he acquired this Cézanne, and also a Renoir, ‘La Liseuse’, (The Reader) which didn’t feature in the 9 November sale. (1) All the paintings of Sainte Victoire today are in museum collections. The price conforms to the market if we consider that Qatar bought the last one of this type five or six years ago in a sale as part of a collection from Detroit, the Edsel Ford House, for, I believe, 120 million dollars. It’s possible that it was the guarantor who obtained this painting given the lack of interest in the room.”
The dealer also observes that another Cézanne was put up for sale at Christie’s on 17 November, “La maison au chou”, which sold for 3.6 million dollars: “there is less demand for this kind of Cézanne than in the past. It has everything you’d want from a Cézanne but it’s more impressionist, more muted too.” The times when collectors would buy blindly from the big names of art history have well and truly gone. Choices are made with discernment and in full knowledge of art history.
Louis Fratino. An Argument. 2021. 730 800 dollars
It was while looking at the work of art school students in Baltimore in 2017 that Parisian gallerist Antoine Levi, director of the Ciaccia-Levi gallery, discovered the paintings of the American artist Louis Fratino (born in 1993). His intimate scenes of homosexual couples or still lifes are marked by a very particular style; inspired by cubism but as though seen through a distorting camera lens. We spoke about Fratino in 2020 on the occasion of the Paris Internationale fair which showcases young artists (See here the interview of Antoine Levi speaking about Louis Fratino in 2020).
In 2021 the Ciaccia-Levi gallery dedicated an exhibition to Fratino’s new work – the artist produces around twenty paintings a year – which includes “An Argument”, a large, square painting with an original composition in which the viewer is placed voyeuristically looking into an interior through a window, at night. Two men, one on the balcony, another on the sofa, display an attitude that seems to justify the painting’s title. Sold for around 70,000 euros to an Italian collector, it has shown up less than a year later being auctioned by Sotheby’s on 16 November with an estimate of 200,000 dollars and finally sold for 730,800 dollars. Neither the artist nor the gallerist seem satisfied with the result, which is prematurely inflated for an up and coming artist.
Grégoire Billault believes that “the role of the auction house is to spotlight and value young talents.” Very contemporary art continues to attract speculative motives.
Willem de Kooning, 5 paintings, four of which sold for between 10.6 and 34.7 million dollars and one that remained unsold with an estimate of 35 million dollars.
One of the attractions of this season was the sale at Sotheby’s of a group of three paintings made by the American artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) with direct provenance from the artist’s family. Such an origin, which seems to draw on the private life of the creation of the painter who was the linchpin of the abstract expressionist movement, is particularly highly prized by the market.
The three canvases dating from 1969, 1979 and 1987 went for 12.6, 34.7 and 10.6 million dollars respectively. However at Christie’s a painting made in around 1978, comparable to the one from 1979, did not find a taker with an estimate of 35 million dollars (Christie’s declined to give the image of the unsold lot). But the canvases from the late 1970s are highly valued by the market, a period during which de Kooning is meant to have exhibited full mastery of his abstract flair.
For the private dealer based between Milan and Hong Kong, Alexandre Errera, “despite its lack of success, it remains a good painting. Many high quality de Koonings have been presented during a short timeframe and this has come up last. The number of potential buyers at this price level is limited.” These buyers show themselves to be keen connoisseurs. One of them was not put off by the small format (55,9×76,2cm) of a rare painting from the 1950s by the artist. Resembling a kind of puzzle made up of abstract forms thrown on the canvas in bright colours it was auctioned for 33.6 million against an estimate of 18 million.
(1) “La Liseuse” by Auguste Renoir painted in 1877 was sold in 2001 for 14.8 million dollars.
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