The recipe for a record price: auction house hype, media frenzy, and billionaire buyers

For ten years Jasper Johns held the title of the world’s most expensive living artist; in the last year the accolade has been claimed by Damien Hirst and now belongs to Jeff Koons

During the past 12 months, the record for the highest price ever paid for a work by

a living artist at auction has been broken twice—first by Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, then by Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold). While many pundits point to the billionaire boom and the “quality” of these works of art, few have explored how the auction statistic has become a strategically deployed, symbolic crown or answered the questions: why these works? Who bought them? And what do they tell us about the art market today?

Jasper Johns at the top

As a headline-commanding label, the living artist accolade was used sporadically in the eighties; it came into its own in November 1988 when it was awarded on consecutive nights to two different paintings by Jasper Johns. At Christie’s in New York, White Flag, a monochromatic canvas that had been in the legendary Tremaine collection for 30 years, sold for $7m. The following night at Sotheby’s in New York, False Start sold to dealer Larry Gagosian, bidding in the room for Samuel I. (Si) Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast Publications, for $17m. The record for a work by a living artist had jumped by $10m in 24 hours—an event so etched in the art world’s collective memory that it is often forgotten that Willem de Kooning’s Interchange broke the Johns record when it sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $20.7m in 1989 (De Kooning died in 1997 and Johns regained the title).

When the art market of the late eighties transmogrified into a deeply depressed bear, the living artist accolade went into hibernation, sleeping soundly until February 2007, when Peter Doig’s 1991 painting, White Canoe, sold for £5.7m ($11.3m) at Sotheby’s in London. The sum didn’t break Johns’s worldwide record, but it did make the thoughtful British painter the most expensive living artist in Europe. Subject to a “complicated deal” in which the painting was co-owned by Charles Saatchi and Sotheby’s, White Canoe was taken on tour and marketed heavily. In a bidding war that surprised even the most jaded of art world insiders, it was eventually purchased by Boris Ivanishvili, the Georgian mining magnate, who is said to be undeterred by the prospect of paying superlative prices for eminent paintings.

Rumour has it that the Doig record was like a red rag to a bull for those in the Damien Hirst camp, while devotees of Lucian Freud thought that the senior painter was the rightful title-bearer. Since an auction record usually leads to a rise in prices for all the artist’s works, dealers and collectors (and a growing number of hybrid dealer-collectors) have a major stake in such accolades because they can have a serious impact on the value of their inventory.

Not surprisingly, last June at Christie’s in London (a few months after the Doig record was set), Freud’s Bruce Bernard, a connoisseur’s picture from 1992, knocked White Canoe off the top spot by selling for £7.9m ($15.7m). The next night at Sotheby’s in London, the sombre Freud was whacked off its pedestal by Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, 2002, which sold for a whopping £9.7m ($19.2m). Most importantly, Hirst grabbed the coveted worldwide title, which Johns had held (on and off) for 19 years.

Lullaby Spring is part of a seasonal series of four, but some 20 other large-scale pill cabinets are said to exist. Only the month before, its near-identical sibling Lullaby Winter, 2002, had sold for a mere $7.4m at Christie’s New York. Sometimes the consignor can add value; in the case of Lullaby Spring, New York lawyer Joel Mallin provided respectable, but not what one would describe as premium provenance. Some insiders pointed to the fact that Lullaby Spring’s little pills were more vibrantly coloured than Lullaby Winter’s, but the logic behind the $12m price gap lies elsewhere. Nobody understands better than an auction house that price appreciation of this magnitude is seldom intrinsic to the work.

Whereas Christie’s rarely puts all its marketing muscle behind a single work of art, choosing instead to promote a handful of lots on its front, back and inside catalogue covers, Sotheby’s marketing of contemporary works has tended to be doggedly single-minded. Much like their handling of Doig’s White Canoe, Lullaby Spring enjoyed a wrap-around cover. This time, however, their on-message communications predicted a new living artist auction record. In both cases, Sotheby’s had their reasons. With the Doig, they owned (or partially owned) six paintings by the artist, so it was imperative that this first work to hit the block should sell well. With Hirst, the logic was a little different. Since the Pharmacy sale in which Hirst made the unprecedented move of taking his own work to auction, Sotheby’s London had enjoyed a positive alliance with the artist as well as strong relationships with his primary dealers and loyal stockholders. The opportunity for a record was clear, if only they get could the right people interested.

Enter the Royal family of Qatar

Ever since their culture minister, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani, was arrested and investigated (and then pardoned) for alleged misuse of public funds, the collecting clan (whose cultural assets include Al Jazeera) has been keeping a low profile. But we can reveal that they are now major players in the modern and contemporary market acquiring, among other things, Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), otherwise known as the “Rockefeller Rothko”, which sold at Sotheby’s in May 2007 for the world-wide record price of $72.8m—the most expensive post-war work of art to sell at auction ever. Indeed, Hirst’s Lullaby Spring is said to be installed in Doha amidst a collection characterised by a love of abstraction, innovative pattern and sumptuous colour—not to mention the complete absence of nudity, crucifixions and day-sale bargain lots.

In November 2007, not five months later, in swings Koons’s Hanging Heart, 1994-2006. It too was featured on Sotheby’s wrap-around cover and was subject to an extensive advertising and PR campaign. The stainless steel “Celebration” series sculpture was said to be guaranteed for $19m by Peter Brant, a newspaper magnate whose art-related interests include Art in America and Interview magazines as well as a major collection of Warhols and a smart selection of Koons. “Third party guarantees” are a means by which auction houses share the risk but also the profit with private dealers and dealer-collectors who invariably have a commercial interest in the fate of the work of the artist in question. Needless to say, when Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) was bought at Sotheby’s New York for $21m hammer price ($23.6m with buyer’s premium) by Gagosian for Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire with a taste for high-impact figurative work, it stole the living-artist title from Lullaby Spring and made Koons contemporary art’s uncontested top dog.

This was no mean feat considering another Koons sculpture from the same series, Diamond (Blue), 1994-2005, had gone for less than half the price ($11.8m) at Christie’s New York the night before. Moreover, this Hanging Heart was one of five identical sculptures made in “unique” colours. Owned for only a year by New York-based collector Adam Lindemann, speculation was rife that another heart, Violet/Gold, had yet to find a permanent home. (There are no additional Artist’s Proofs in the “Celebration” series, but there are five “Sacred Hearts”, one of which is currently installed on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.)

So what do these individual cases suggest about the market today? First, American and British collectors are selling, while billionaire oligarchs from ex-Soviet and Middle Eastern states (who are relatively new to the contemporary art market) are buying.

Second, the media play a crucial role in marketing star lots to new collectors. Art is not standard front page news, so astronomical prices, along with the death of the artist and, in Britain, a Turner Prize win, are one of the few ways that an artist can really hit the headlines. While the media increasingly confuse fame and notoriety with innovation and art historical importance, so many neophyte collectors seem to be happy “buying the price”, i.e. they conflate monetary worth with aesthetic and cultural value.

Third, the Doig, Hirst and Koons works are all large-scale, colourful, labour-intensive pieces without conservation issues (no house paints or formaldehyde). Notably, the Hirst and Koons have been produced in editions while the Doig painting is one of seven large canvases made between 1987 and 2001 depicting the canoe—a subject matter made iconic through repetition. Series are more likely to satisfy the exigencies of global demand.

Of the Hirst and the Koons, it may be relevant that they are shiny bling-like luxury durables in which their owners can see themselves reflected. Also, unlike Johns’s False Start, which had weathered three decades of critical debate when it commanded its top dollar, Hirst’s pill cabinet is dated 2002 and Koons’s Heart, whilst conceived in 1994, was only manufactured in 2006. Neither has yet to enjoy the first generation Pop artist’s degree of museum validation. At the moment, Hirst and Koons are unquestionably fashionable, but it might be worth remembering Ezra Pound’s adage: “A classic is news that stays news.”

Hirst and Koons may be big boys, but Johns (at 78 years old and with vast holdings of his own art) would seem to be the man.

Stratospheric prices lead to thinly traded markets—a dangerous playing ground at the best of times. Perhaps this is why the very highest prices for contemporary works are met within the safety of private transactions. Here, the ownership history of Johns’s False Start is telling. After its extremely public purchase at the height of the market in 1988, Newhouse quietly sold the painting along with four other works at the nadir of the market a few years later to Los Angeles entertainment titan, David Geffen. Although both Geffen and Newhouse are known for their zipper-lipped discretion, many assume that False Start was traded at an overall loss. However, in 2006, as part of an exercise that raised $416m from four paintings, Geffen sold False Start to the Chicago-based hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin for a reported $80m.

Whether exceeded by private transactions or not, the living artist accolade is a key marketing tactic that is likely to be passed from artist to artist every auction season until we see a downturn. In a press release about its upcoming May Evening Sale, Christie’s is already predicting that Lucian Freud’s munificent nude Benefits Supervisor Sleeping “may establish a new world auction record for any work by a living artist sold at auction”. If this is the case, at least the buyer will be getting a lot of nude for their money. n

o Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World is published by Granta in the UK in October and by WW Norton in the US in November

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