Monday, May 10, 2010

Ooh...Aah! The erotic frisson of high-end art auctions

Roberta Smith has just filed a diverting little piece for the New York Times concerning our perennial curiosity about the likely buyer whenever an astronomical price is paid for a work of art at auction.

"If you follow art auctions even peripherally," writes Smith, "you know that each one leaves a trail of question marks. Who bought the van Gogh? Who bought the Johns? We would very much like to know. Sooner or later we usually do."

That 'usually' should read 'occasionally', because more often than not we don't. Generally speaking, the buyers of so-called 'blue-chip' works such as Picasso's Garçon à la pipe ($104m/£58m), Warhol's Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) ($71.7m/37.7m) and Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust ($106m/£70m) remain shrouded in mystery.

Bloomberg's art market reporter Scott Reyburn recently scooped the buyer of Giacometti's ($103 million) Walking Man at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern sale in London on February 3rd, revealing it to be London-based Brazilian-born billionairess Lily Safra.

Reyburn succeeded in locating two dealers who corroborated each other's version, a minimum prerequisite if a story is to hold water. Otherwise, it remains pure speculation, as with the unsubstantiated 'rumour' that Paris-based Philippe Niarchos was the buyer of Warhol's Green Car Crash (above left) at Christie's New York in May 2007.

Clearly there are plenty of reasons why purchasers of expensive prestige objects choose to remain anonymous and Roberta Smith helpfully outlines a few, security and privacy being the obvious ones, tax dodges and other financial incentives perhaps also occasionally playing a part.

An arguably even more interesting question is why the rest of us are so curious. What's to be gained from knowing that Lily Safra has a Giacometti parked in her living-room? Would it matter more, or less, if the buyer had been Roman Abramovich? Or Steve Cohen? Or Eli Broad?

Smith's article playfully rehearses the bizarre notion that our curiosity about these matters may have libidinal roots: "Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast at it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic," she writes. This is a kind of exhibitionism, Smith suggests, in which anonymity becomes, for those watching, "pleasurable and voyeuristic," the spending of money "a turn-on."

There is another reason why some of us want to open the auction kimono and it has less to do with a notional eroticism and more to do with the increasing opacity of auctions. The problem with high-end art auctions is that nobody knows what kind of deal has been stitched together behind the scenes beforehand. Sotheby's and Christie's glitzy evening sales might look like spontaneous theatre but they are more studiously choreographed than many people realise.

And there's the rub. The day fine art auctioneers ceased operating solely as agents and became principals in the transaction was the day the 'public auction' relinquished any last claim it had to transparency and openness. How much of what goes on is ethical business and how much of it is the art world equivalent of insider trading?

This might sound like a classic Us and Them conspiracy theory, but it's a serious issue when nine-figure sums are changing hands. We're encouraged to believe that because it's art rather than, say, ethanol futures, credit default swaps or an exotic mortgage derivative, it doesn't matter. But in any other trading arena the structuring of such transactions would be subject to a minimum of external regulation. What, precisely, is the extent of the auctioneer's involvement when the hammer falls at these head-spinning prices? Is the auction house a site of sensuality, or the locus of hocus pocus?

Hats off to Roberta Smith for putting a whole new gloss on the stultifying boredom of evening art auctions. Next time I drop down to Sotheby's or Christie's for one of their glitzy Imp and Mod sales I'll keep a beady eye out for the gavel-grinding voyeurs and the scopophilic saleroom swingers.

I've nothing against a bit of harmless rostrum frottage, you understand. It's the bean-counting that concerns me.

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