Soaring auction prices give a distorted picture of art market

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:19pm

As our troubled age becomes ever more gilded, art auction prices soar with bone-numbing regularity. A new high-water mark was reached last month, when a 1969 triptych by British painter Francis Bacon sold for US$142.4 million while the Christie's auction in which it was featured took in US$692 million.

Both figures exceeded recent highs: one arrived in spring 2012, when Edvard Munch's The Scream sold for US$119.9 million at Sotheby's, at the time the highest price for a painting ever set by an auction house; the other came last spring, when an auction total reached US$492 million, that one at Christie's. It seems that people really, really like art these days.

Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theatre in which collectors, art dealers and auction houses flex their monetary clout, mostly for one another.

The spectacle of watching these privileged few (mostly hedge fund managers and investment-hungry consortiums, it seems) tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport. These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you love art for its own sake.

More than ever, the glittery auction-house/blue-chip gallery sphere is spinning out of control far above the regular workaday sphere where artists, dealers and everyone else struggle to get by. It is a kind of fiction that has almost nothing to do with anything real - not new art, museums or historical importance.

Some have tried to put things into perspective, lamenting that the Bacon price almost equalled the US$154 million that US President Barack Obama requested for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2013 - and more than the US$138 million that the endowment actually received, with cuts.

But here's another perspective. Prices for post-war art began to rise in 1980, when the Whitney Museum of American Art paid US$1 million for Jasper Johns' Three Flags. The art world was shocked. Even adjusted for inflation, the US$1 million painting would cost about US$3.8 million in today's dollars. Now, this would seem a drop in the bucket.

And the system seems greased to go even higher. In a post-sale news conference, Brett Gorvy, worldwide head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, seemed to be in gung-ho mode. "This isn't a bubble," he said. "It's the beginning of something new."

Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud, according to the auction house, is one of the most important and iconic paintings by the artist, uniting two of the 20th century's greatest figurative painters at the apex of their relationship. It says this rare triptych, executed almost 25 years after Bacon and Freud met, has never been on the auction market before.

"Bacon once described real friendship as a situation where two people could 'tear each other to bits'. He particularly appreciated Freud's quick-witted instinct for survival which allowed him to take risks in life as in art," art historian Michael Peppiatt once wrote. "Trapped here in a series of Baconian cages, a contorted Freud hovers from panel to panel like a coiled spring about to shoot out of the flat, airless picture plane."

So it seems obvious that the Bacon work is a special case and a guaranteed money magnet. It is a portrait of one of Britain's two most famous modern artists painted by the other one, both of whom led flamboyant and well-documented lives.

Yes, the work is beautifully painted with a fetching yellow background, yet if its subject were someone else, or if it simply had an unfamiliar name in its title, it probably would have gone for quite a bit less.

In the meantime, it helps to remember that today most people look at Johns' Three Flags at the Whitney without seeing a million dollar signs. It may be hard to look at this Bacon without thinking of its extraordinary price. But since the buyer is a mystery, it's anyone's guess whether we will see it again anytime soon.

The New York Times