in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask
Special Issue: Auction Analysis

Introduction to the Auction Analysis

Our Take on the May 2017 Sales

Photo credit: Alamy

BY Allan Schwartzman
co-founder of AAP & chairman of Sotheby's Global Fine Arts

Published
In Allan's Intro

*This article is part of our special auction report, which you can find here

I don’t drink soda much nowadays, but when I do, I tend to choose Coke. When I am abroad, though, where the recipes differ, a Pepsi can taste awfully good—pretty much like a New York Coke (or, even better, a Brazilian or Italian Coke). So, while I’ve enjoyed Pepsi from time to time, when given a choice I’ll always go for Coca-Cola. 

The competition between Coke and Pepsi must be fierce. After all, they are everywhere and battling for market dominance. But I cannot believe that their rivalry is nearly as brutal as that between the auction houses.

This is not news to many.  The media became increasingly interested in the art market as prices began spiraling, focusing their reporting principally on the amount of money spent and on the accelerating competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Analysis of taste and value were eclipsed by headline stories about winners and losers.

What has been eroded along the way is an understanding that art and its market could be about connoisseurship and artistic achievement; that there could be more than one winner; that a lower price for a particular work by an artist does not necessarily equate to a loss of their overall importance; that artistic significance is measured by so many more criteria than those applied to other markets. The story is far more complex. Indeed, sometimes the biggest prices do not equal the greatest gains, much as the collector who spends the most doesn’t necessarily get the best collection, though they may buy the appearance of success.

But, it has made for good copy and more clicks, even as the increased focus on winners and losers, on the newly anointed and the quickly forgotten, has generated anxiety and uncertainty for seasoned professionals. It has unwittingly fuelled ugly behaviors and sharpened the teeth of vitriol in the ever-competitive world of who gets what to sell and who has the ear of those who buy.

This newsletter is the first time we will analyze the auctions. Our intention is to do so without favor or fanfare, instead hoping to provide insights into broad market trends and specific artist’s markets. I come to this as a former writer whose job included analyzing the market by focusing on the art (which naturally led to my work as an advisor). My co-writer Charlotte Burns was formerly the art market editor at The Art Newspaper and brings her own journalistic insights, ones which I greatly respect. 

It seemed to go unrecognized, or at least unreported, that several major media outlets who have been reporting on the art market for every round of auctions, such as The New York Times and Bloomberg, did not run daily post-sale reports last week, that only the record-setting price of $110m bought them a stay. I certainly hope this is not a sign of eviction. 

There is much to report. There were numerous occasions last week when spirited bidding led to meaningful records being set. A beautiful patinated bronze Brancusi head from 1913 was sought after by five bidders at Christie’s. At Sotheby’s, the market for the first time declared a masterpiece by a painter who emerged in the 1980s, a black artist from an immigrant family that exceeded the auction records of any American artist, even his hero, Andy Warhol. And at Phillips, a new $28.8m record was set for a painting by Peter Doig.  This is a business that is not simply—or even—a game of a winner and a loser.