For decades now, auction houses have sold challenging works of art. There have been arcane, ancient sculptures, canvases by little-known artists, and bizarre objects like glass cabinets filled with medical supplies or cigarette butts. But at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury, the art for sale at the big auctions this season, which began yesterday, requires little thought. Even those without much knowledge of art history will recognize Andy Warhol’s haunting self-portrait with his spiky fright wig or Jeff Koons’ lovable sculpture of a Pink Panther being hugged by a buxom blonde or the classic pink-and-red abstract canvas that shrieks Mark Rothko.
These instantly recognizable images spell “wall power,” a well-worn art-world phrase that describes an artwork that telegraphs its owner’s wealth. Often these trophy purchases are flaunted in the entrance of a McMansion or over a living-room fireplace or in an office-building lobby. Sometimes, however, prized art will disappear into private collections where their super-rich owners show them off to only their super-rich friends.
Buyers today are a far broader group than they were a decade ago. As pockets of new money continue to be made in Asia, Russia and the Middle East, buyers from these places are becoming major players in the auction arena. And their tastes tend toward the unsubtle.
“In order to appeal to today’s global marketplace you have to have iconic art that translates in every culture,” said Tobias Meyer, who runs Sotheby’s contemporary art worldwide.
Or as Brett Gorvy, Meyer’s counterpart at Christie’s, explains, “It’s got to be something with high impact, a wham-bang painting with everything in front of you.”
That’s not to say these buyers are naive. Most of them employ advisers who do their homework, researching a work’s provenance, studying its condition and scrutinizing the estimates to see if they are in line with recent comparable sales. A year ago, the art market was bracing for a 1932 Picasso from a Los Angeles estate to break the US$100 million mark. Anything less would have been a disappointment. So when that painting — a sensual image of the artist’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter reclining naked — brought $106.5 million, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, it was a validation that once-in-a-lifetime images go for gigantic prices.
This season there is nothing for sale that is as much of a blockbuster as that Picasso. Expectations are lower — if something goes for more than US$40 million it will be considered a giant price — and auction houses had to work harder to get the best examples they could find by today’s most popular artists. The problem is that few major estates have come up for sale, and that most collectors are reluctant to part with their prized artwork, fearing that the world’s financial markets are far more unstable than the value of the art on their walls.
“It was a challenge from start to finish,” said Conor Jordan, head of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department in New York. “A-plus material is in small supply, but if something is of good quality and correctly priced, there is no shortage of buyers.”
Sotheby’s won two groups of estate material heavy on wall-power names, adding an extra evening to its schedule. On Monday it will hold a two-part evening auction devoted to property that belonged to Allan Stone, the New York dealer who died in 2006. The evening will begin with classic works by artists Stone sold and kept over the years, like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Chamberlain and Joseph Cornell. The second part will include only paintings and drawings by Wayne Thiebaud, an artist Stone represented for decades. That auction will include some of Thiebaud’s signature images like Various Cakes, from 1981, rows of cakes with icings so thick they look as though they could be licked off the canvas.