Eyebrow-raising price hikes for Polish artists
Abbey House is part auction house, part gallery and part art fund. The value of its artists’ work has soared
By Julia Michalska. Market, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 07 June 2012
A surge in prices for works by little known Polish artists represented by the same Polish auction house, has left local dealers astonished. The 12 artists represented by Abbey House, a hybrid auction-gallery-art fund based in Warsaw with plans to expand to Berlin this summer, have seen the value of their work increase by as much as 40-fold in the past two years.
Jakub Kokoszka, the vice-president of Abbey House, says that the group’s “market success and financial performance could not have gone unnoticed”, and that “some criticism from the ‘old guard’ gallery owners” was therefore to be expected.
The company, which launched on the Warsaw Stock Exchange in May 2011, works exclusively with 12 artists who produce work in exchange for a monthly stipend. The works are then sold at invite-only auctions.
The company is growing, according to Skate’s Art Market Research, which says that the number of works sold increased from nine in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 41 in the second quarter of 2011, with its revenue increasing from Z404,000 ($118,000) in the first quarter of 2011 to Z987,000 ($292,000) in the second quarter. Abbey House became a dominant player in the Polish art market after buying 60% of the shares in Poland’s only art market publication, the monthly magazine Art & Business, and six related internet platforms in October 2010. Abbey House plans to open a satellite gallery in Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel this summer.
Artists are obliged to create a fixed number of works during each month of their five-year contract, usually two to three, and to deliver one painting a month for a further 15 years. They do not earn a commission from sales, but the monthly salary is reported to be around Z4,000 ($1,180). The average salary in Poland is Z3,000.
In July 2011, a painting by the relatively unknown artist Agata Kleczkowska—Untitled, 2010—sold for Z160,000 ($47,300). Her work had never sold at auction before, and many in the trade say the price was surprising, given that the internationally acclaimed artist Wilhelm Sasnal’s record at a Polish auction is Z103,000 ($30,000, set on 16 November 2008 at Agra-Art, Warsaw, with Untitled, 2002—however, Sasnal’s prices on the international market are much higher. In May 2007, Airplanes, 1999, sold at Christie’s, New York, for $396,000—an auction record for the artist). Kokoszka says that the artist’s success is a “natural consequence of a well-prepared and executed communication and promotion campaign for the artist”.
Also at the July 2011 Abbey House auction, works by Anna Szprynger fetched up to Z30,000 ($8,900)—a huge price hike from the Z400 ($118) her work fetched two years earlier at the Polish auction house Rempex. Meanwhile, prices for the Abbey House artist Stanislaw Mlodozeniec have risen to more than Z40,000 from between Z600 and Z4,000 last year, according to Artinfo.pl.
“Nothing has changed for these artists in the past two to three years to warrant such a price increase; no major exhibitions or sales,” says Michal Suchora, a co-founder of the BWA gallery. He highlights the artist Andrzej Cisowski, whom he used to represent at another gallery. “He is 50 years old and his career was kind of petering out. He left the gallery in favour of the steady salary offered by Abbey House. We sold his work at Art Basel Miami Beach for $4,000. Now, all of a sudden, Abbey House sold a piece for $10,000.”
“Abbey House is not concerned with art but with financial instruments,” says Lukasz Gorczyca, the co-director of Raster Gallery in Warsaw. “If they sell a painting for Z160,000 [$47,300], then the other ten works they have in stock will increase the company’s value by Z1.6m [$473,000]. That’s why this isn’t about art.”
Kokoszka says that combining selling contemporary art and financial products has been “common practice in the UK and US markets for many years”.
But Agnieszka Rayzacher, the director of the Warsaw gallery Lokal 30, says the situation is more serious for the Abbey House artists, who have become “stigmatised”. Suchora agrees: “No major institution in Poland will ever work with them.” Kokoszka says that Abbey House has “received a very positive reception by both major cultural institutions and key art-world figures”. These, he says, include the collector Wojciech Fibak, a former world top ten tennis player.
Kokoszka says its artists are benefiting and are “more liquid” than those who don’t work with the firm. “It is embarrassing that contemporary works are offered at auction for €90, after five to ten years of hard work by the artist,” he says. “Through our marketing strategy we have managed to reach a group of wealthy Polish professionals who haven’t been buying art until now. We have increased this market.”
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