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A Panel With a Vested Interest

Transparency in the Art World

by CHARLES THOMSON

At 5.30pm today in the Park Avenue Armory, New York, The Art Newspaper in association with ADAA (Art Dealers Association of America) presents an “Art Industry Summit” with the title “Transparency in the market: can we have more of it…” This robust start is somewhat undermined by the panel, which consists of an art lawyer, an art consultant, two art dealers and the chairman of Christie’s International.

There is only one real issue related to transparency and that is the financial value of artwork in what Robert Hiscox, a major art insurer, has termed "the last unregulated financial market". Secrecy allows the kind of manipulation forbidden in other commercial sectors and the main beneficiaries are those whose job is selling art. Even the panel’s art lawyer, Peter Stern, has a conflict of interest, having been an advisor to over 100 galleries and dealers (and sporting a photo of himself by Jeff Koons). The panel has a complete absence of anyone who is likely to benefit from transparency, namely the buyers of art, or anyone who poses a challenge to the status quo, or even anyone to stand up for the value of disinterested scholarship.

The truth is that the art market is highly regulated, but by those who serve their own ends, rather than any independent body in service to the consumer and society in general. One of the most despicable practices of certain top-end galleries is the restricted list of those who are allowed the privilege of buying work by a sought-after artist. Money is not enough: discretion and collaboration are required, particularly the discretion to not put the work on the open market. The simple reason for this anti-competitive practice is that the work may well at auction reach a lower price than that fixed by the gallery. This is likely to put the gallery to the inconvenience of bidding up the work at auction to the “right” price and possibly having to buy it back again.

As the ADAA Collector’s Guide states, “Dealers appreciate clients who turn to them when re-selling, and are more likely to offer these collectors important works in the future.” Ironically, the Guide was sponsored by Lehman Brothers, whose spectacular bankruptcy the following year led to revelations of how its value had been artificially increased by sleight-of-hand accountancy. The spin of the artworld is equally deceptive.

One excellent missing panel member is Don Thompson, a business professor and author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses. Those with any interest in transparency should make it mandatory reading, especially for anyone tempted into art acquisition by its oft-touted investment potential. His book is salutary reading. Of the 1,000 serious artists with gallery shows in New York and London in the 1980s, only 20 or so featured in Christie’s or Sotheby’s evening auctions in 2007.

80% of work bought from artists and 50% of work bought at auction will fail to reach its original purchase price ever again. Less than 50% of artists featured 25 years ago in Christie’s or Sotheby’s modern and contemporary auctions are still featured in a major auction. 80% of the work brought into the leading auction houses is rejected for the evening auctions. It is not even necessary to wait for a quarter of a decade: recently a glut of Damien Hirst’s from those fallen on hard times led potential vendors being turned away.

The ADAA Guide makes a claim for its members that any art professional would also make, namely that they are “skilled at assessing the relative aesthetic merits of a given work, evaluating it both within the larger context of art history and within the specific context of the artist’s oeuvre.” Any evaluation within the larger context would have to include the caveat that many of the artists considered today to be leading exponents will be of little interest in the future, just as Edwin Long, who held the record price for a living artist in 1882 for his painting, The Babylonian Marriage Market, is now merely another Victorian also-ran, whose work fell to 10% of its previous value within 10 years of his death.

However, even the smaller context of contemporary art study is brushed aside if it proves inconvenient. There are obviously many vested interests, both financial and reputational, in maintaining the value of Damien Hirst’s work, and this, as with the value of all art, is dependent  on market confidence, in his case deriving to a large extent from his status as an innovative practitioner.

On 14 October 2010, Christie’s in London auctioned Hirst’s work, I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, a large image made from butterflies. The accompanying text from the auction house described the background to this: “In 2003, Hirst took the butterfly paintings to a new level, concentrating the dazzling visual effect of their wings and creating the first of his so-called ‘kaleidoscope’ butterfly paintings, of which I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds is arguably the greatest example.”

In the September 2010 issue of The Jackdaw magazine I wrote an article based on Hirst’s statement that he “didn’t have any shame about stealing other people’s ideas” and cited 15 instances where this might apply. These included John LeKay’s exhibition of an anatomical model nine years before Hirst, LeKay’s work of a crucified sheep carcass nine years before Hirst, and spin paintings done by, amongst others, Walter Robinson a decade before Hirst. Another example was Lori Precious, an LA artist, who started making “kaleidoscope” butterfly paintings in 1992, eleven years before Hirst. She exhibited them in US and the UK galleries and on the internet. The Guardian ran a page based on my article, showing images of comparative works by Hirst and other artists, including Precious, and asking which one was by Hirst. There was no significant difference.

As Christie’s had failed to draw the attention of potential purchasers to this essential background information, I arrived outside their building in King Street on the evening of the Hirst auction, accompanied by fellow Stuckists, Emma Pugmire, Edgeworth Johnstone, Jasmine Maddock and Kyla Bullows. We set up a display of informative placards with slogans and comparative images of Precious’s and Hirst’s butterfly work. Immediately an imposing security official emerged and told us we would be leaving in ten minutes. My argument that we were quite entitled to be there led to him pushing me, which led to me phoning the police to report assault and threatening behaviour. After this, we were left alone.

The Hirst work performed poorly, selling at £1.9 million against an estimate of £2.5 – 3.5 million (both prices excluding buyer’s premium, which is usually in media reports added to the sale price and omitted from the estimate, thus making the poor performance seem not quite as bad). I like to think some transparency contributed to the result.

Read The Jackdaw article: http://stuckism.com/Hirst/StoleArt.html

CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of the Stuckists art group www.stuckism.com