Friday, February 29, 2008

Ripping yarns: Is someone massaging Fontana's market?

The auction price record for Italian artist Lucio Fontana has been slashed, significantly, twice in the space of a month. I smell a rat.

On February 6th, Christie's knocked down one of Fontana's famous series of sliced canvases — the blood-red Concetto Spaziale: Attesa (left) — for £6.7m ($13.4m). This was more than double the previous highest price for a Fontana painting — the £2.48m ($4.9m) paid at Sotheby's London in June last year for a white, multi-slashed Concetto Spaziale: Attese. (It's just like that red one above left, but it's white with more razor-blade slashes.).

Then a few days ago Sotheby's sold yet another Fontana at their London contemporary sale — Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio — this time the price climbing to £10.3m ($20.4m).

Just two or three years ago these punctured egg-shaped works were making around £1m- £1.2m apiece.

This most recent Fine di Dio work (shown right) came from a European private collection and was the occasion for a catalogue essay of unparalleled pretentiousness ("sublimely poised and showing a celestial magnificence").

The art market is famously unregulated and opaque in its machinations. We already know there is a process at work in which dealers, collectors and auctioneers, or various combinations thereof, conspire to drive prices up for individual artists in which they have an interest. This is all the more likely to occur now that auction houses — at one time agents for the vendor — now act as principals in many transactions. In any other marketplace this would be regarded as insider-trading and would be outlawed. Is it any wonder that so many hedge-fund managers and investment advisers have pitched their tents in the art market in the last five years?

Fontana's slashed canvases have been a stock item at Sotheby's and Christie's post-war and contemporary art sales for at least the past fifteen years. It seems a fairly safe bet that someone, somewhere, is sitting on a significant holding of Fontana's work and is successfully manipulating the price of that stock.

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