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A Few Between-Auction Thoughts on the Market

Before I embark on my glorious fall folliage trip down the scenic New Jersey Turnpike today (to hold forth tomorrow at U. Penn), here are a couple of art-auction thoughts as we await the big contemporary sale tonight at Sotheby’s.
Carol Vogel, in today’s NY Times, does her usual excellent job of tracking down the names of the “anonymous” buyers and sellers of key works last night at the contemporary sale at Christie’s (which I have discussed here).
The record-priced Richard Prince , she said, was bought by London dealer Jay Jopling. Larry Gagosian made no secret of the fact that he was the buyer of the record Koons: He allowed Christie’s to publish his name in the post-sale release.
And Bloomberg tells us that Warhol‘s (and Hugh Grant‘s) “Liz” “attracted lackluster bidding from just two contenders, including Alberto Mugrabi, a dealer heavily invested in the artist.”
All of which raises the question of how much of the results of this sale, which everyone had been eyeing warily as a barometer of the art market, were bolstered by dealers who have a big stake in its price levels. If the dealers did provide some strategic support, that’s nothing new: I can remember, when I first started covering auctions, watching with astonishment as the legendary contemporary dealer Leo Castelli repeatedly bid up prices of his artists. He usually, but not always, managed to drop out before the works were hammered down to someone else. But his participation had the effect of supporting his artists’ price levels. It is also entirely possible that the dealer-bidders yesterday were acting on behalf of their clients, not themselves.
My other thought (and you’ve heard me belabor this before) is that art-market journalists are doing the auction houses, but not their readers, a service when they persist in comparing pre-sale estimates to prices that INCLUDE the buyer’s premium. Estimates are based on hammer price only. Misleadingly comparing estimates to the premium-inflated results makes the auction house look good, by making the sale look more successful than it actually is. The apples-to-apples comparison is HAMMER PRICE to pre-sale estimate. But you have to hammer at the auction houses (as I do) for the hammer total; it’s never in the press release.

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