Last week I blogged on the subject of the astronomic wads of cash that exchange hands freely where art is concerned. Not only was I incredulous at the sums involved, but more specifically at the whimsicality of it all, the erratic nature of the pricing, the way in which valuations can soar overnight from worthless to priceless.
This week the art market has done it again, an auction at Sotheby’s last Thursday (the 10th of February) shattering all manner of financial records. Three portraits by Francis Bacon of fellow artist Lucian Freud sold for £23 million pounds. This was 3 times the anticipated price. The painting may be meritorious in a number of ways, but without the official stamp of approval there is no concievable way that any buyer would possibly pay such a preposterously large sum for it. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the taste and connoisseurship of the anonymous buyer (rumoured to be a Russian ‘collector’), there is no way that he likes or appreciates the three little smudged paintings in proportion to the amount he paid for them. There isn’t £23 million pounds worth of appreciation involved at any stage here.
This is a vanity purchase, based on a brand value that through some foggy, slightly random process has come to be appended to Francis Bacon’s name. This highly pecunious Russian collector has no more space in the driveway for cars and so buys the most expensive painting his advisers can find. And he buys what he buys because it is ludicrously expensive. If it was cheap, and so did not scream status, then he would not buy it.
It does seem slightly paradoxical that the buyer has chosen to remain anonymous. If the purchase was purely about status, then one would have thought that the buyer would desire to establish himself as a wealthy man of taste and status in the eyes of the whole world. But presumaby those in the ranks of the world’s super elite, those in the buyer’s coterie, before whom he wishes to sparkle, are aware of his new purchase. Furthermore the purchase may be the supreme vanity, part of the process of convincing oneself that one is a person of culture and discernment. The buyer can lounge around in his livingroom, eating caviar and drilling oil somewhere in the wastes of Russia, glance up at his wall, see something that looks vaguely like a framed human face, see that it is by Bacon (who is ‘approved’, and commands- for the time being- large sums at auction) and feel cultured and tasteful.
A Salvador Dali painting was also auctioned at Sotheby’s for a record price. His portrait of Paul Eluard sold for £13,481,250, demolishing the Spaniard’s former record set 20 years earlier of £2.4 million. One anonymous private collector sold 60 paintings for a net total of £93,520,000. The 82 telephones at Sotheby’s could scarcely contend with the influx of calls, with Russian bidders rumoured to be the most enthusiastic. And all this in an apparent recession. Apparently art is invulnerable to such economic assaults.
I would merely make the point that if you could erase collective memories for fifteen minutes, so that people had never heard of the artists involved and were not aware of the fashions and price trends of the art world over the last fifty years, and then led people into a vast gallery full of the works that were auctioned last Thursday, the pricing of them would be utterly, utterly different from what occured. Collectors and their advisors would be on their phones desperately ‘calling a friend’, trying to ascertain what was regarded as ‘a masterpiece’, what was fashionable, what was considered valuable. They could not recreate the art market from first principles. This is because it has become divorced from the one intrinsic quality that the paintings can ever possess- their fundamental artistic merit. If the art was bought for its artistic merit, then these recent amnesiacs could stroll through the gallery without sweating, applying their own judgement to each piece, or even calling on the advise of those more knowledgeable in the field. But since this is not about intrinsic worth, but about the relatively arbitrary position an artist occupies within a social/price structure, the buyers would be stranded without this context to guide them.
The point of art is to play on human emotions like an accordion. These super-rich buyers are being played, but not in that sense.