Thursday, November 18, 2010

Small worlds: travels in a parallel universe

I was at a reception at the Royal Academy a couple of nights ago for the launch of Michael Peppiatt's marvellous new book, In Giacometti's Studio (left). Artists' studios have long been a source of fascination to writers and photographers, although few books have come close to Alexander Liberman's The Artist in His Studio of 1960.

Liberman's photographic essay gave us a privileged glimpse into the intimate working environments of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Surrealists, and what was then called 'The New Generation', which included Dubuffet, Richier, and indeed Giacometti himself.

What's interesting about these projects is that the camera is drawn inexorably to the telling romantic details — the eloquent detritus on the floor, the humble wood-burning stove, the pinned-up postcards on the walls, the accumulated bricolage of the creative mind. But what they never quite grasp are the true dimensions of the room.

Giacometti's ramshackle studio behind Montparnasse is caked in plaster dust, its walls covered with scribbles and sketches, the floor crowded with his signature totemic figures under construction, some shrouded in wet sheets to keep the clay damp. It's hard to get a sense of how big the room is because the eye is always drawn to the art. However, as Peppiatt informs us, there wasn't room to swing a cat in Giacometti's studio. And yet it remained a popular meeting place for writers, painters, sculptors and assorted intellectuals for decades (1926-66).

After the book launch I got to thinking about that tiny studio as a symbol for the art world in general, which despite its ever-globalizing spread is also a small world populated by relatively few people, many of whom know each other. The main difference is that where Giacometti's room was caked in grime, the contemporary art world is upholstered with cash.

Bainbridge's sale (image: Rex Features)
The image, right, shows representatives of some of the wealthiest collectors in China crammed together like sardines on a French sofa in the small west London auction rooms of Bainbridge's. The guy in the middle is turning to acknowledge the applause of his disappointed fellow bidders who have just watched him offer the winning £53 million for a Chinese Qianlong-reign imperial porcelain vase.

Western nations looted China of many of its cultural treasures in the 19th century and now the Chinese are wealthy enough to buy them back. But who are they bidding against in this project of cultural retrieval? Why, their fellow Chinese, of course.

One cannot help wondering why they don't form what used to be called 'a ring'. This is where a number of specialist dealers team up before a sale so as not to compete against each other on the lots they're interested in. One of them is elected the bidder and the others stand down. Afterwards, when the group's elected bidder has bought the lot at a fraction of what it would have cost had they all been competing against each other, they leave the saleroom and hold a mini auction in a local pub or coffee shop. One of them gets the lot but everyone else leaves with compensatory money in their pockets (based on the difference between what they actually paid and what they might have had to pay had they not formed the ring). After all, why give to the auctioneer what you can keep for yourself?

For decades, the 'ring' was a constant and pernicious presence at provincial UK auctions. I have no doubt it still exists in some form today, despite being technically illegal as a price-depressing mechanism. But clearly the Chinese haven't cottoned onto it, or a version of it. Nor do they seem remotely concerned at having to pay such unconscionable sums to buy back what in many cases was taken from them by force.

Of course, these prices are all relative. There are now hundreds of billionaires in China and their numbers are expanding every week. This changes the relative significance of money and nowhere is that change more pronounced than in the art market.

At the Royal Academy book launch I got chatting to a prominent member of the London contemporary art trade who had just returned from the New York auctions. He was jubilant at the extent to which the market had recovered from the temporary blip of recession and was now back on its familiar upward bell-curve. "What you have to understand," he said, with alarming nonchalance, "is that a billion is not that unusual any more. I have many collectors who think nothing of spending $600 to 800 million per year on their art collection."

Clearly these guys are living in a parallel universe.

Meanwhile, the auction houses, aware of the availability of these seemingly limitless resources, are once again engaging in all kinds of exotic financial derivatives, erecting screens at the auction to close down the sightline between bidders in the room and their staff on the telephones, promising 'guarantees' to vendors and accepting "irrevocable bids" from mysterious third parties in return for a share of "the upside". How all these mechanisms actually work, and the extent to which they  manipulate the market, nobody can ever say since they are all conducted by faceless bean-counters in smokeless back office rooms prior to the sale.

And there I was, thinking 'the ring' was bad.

Michael Peppiatt, In Giacometti's Studio (Yale University Press in association with Eykyn and Maclean, New York and London, 2010), £33.25 (Amazon price).

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