Sunday, July 23, 2017

How to improve the global art market: a proposal

Is it time to create an International Art Market Practice Board to assess and appraise controversial issues and promote best practice? 
What might such a board look like? Who would sit on it? Would they be appointed or elected, and how often would they convene? Who would decide which issues would be explored and why? 

In May 20017, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the murders in rural Kent in 1996 of Lin Russell and her daughter Megan, along with the attempted murder of Megan’s sister, 9-year-old Josie. Director Matt Rudge’s programme invited a panel of experts, including forensic scientists, former detectives, barristers and criminologists — some of whom had been directly involved with the original case — to re-visit the evidence relating to the notorious Chillenden Murders. They did so with admirable diligence and deep moral concern. It made for compelling television; but it prompted other thoughts too.

Happily we don’t have many brutal homicides in the art world, but we do have other crimes. Could a similar methodology be adopted for exploring the legal, ethical and moral problems that arise in the art market? Variants on advisory panels and mediation agencies are already being explored in cultural heritage disputes, but not for the professional practices of the broader art market, certainly not for the contemporary art market. 

No group of experts could reasonably be expected to address every case of allegedly unethical behaviour, every questionable business practice or disagreement between parties. In any event, such matters are often decided amicably between individuals, or through the market’s own Darwinian logic, which is not dissimilar to the kind of self-regulating systems that operate in other commercial sectors. Even in more serious cases where these mechanisms are inadequate to the task, there are options through civil action or criminal law. Problems do arise. Problems get resolved. 

However, there are many issues that are specific to the art market, some of which are a source of dismay to outsiders and which could therefore be having a detrimental effect on wider participation. These issues often revolve around an ethical axis rather than a strictly legal one, but transparency is always at the core.

Three or four examples might suffice: 

Firstly, art is notoriously susceptible to cross-border manipulation by ‘grey market’ participants. This has led to a general acknowledgement that in an increasingly financialised market, tighter regulation of insider trading would be constructive. In fact, international regulation of insider trading is gradually taking shape. But will business practices in the art market be properly covered by it? We hear much of the auction guarantee system, but few know how it actually operates, how often a very small group of individuals share privileged information among themselves, which can drastically effect prices. The participation of auction houses on both sides of the transaction in guarantee situations ought to be a cause for concern.

Secondly, in one or two recent cases concerning art forgery, the legal system has failed to clarify the precise nature of what occurred. This is essentially a failure of enforcement. The Knoedler scandal made it to court, but was then abruptly concluded before the most significant figures had taken the stand. Thus, thanks to out-of-court settlements, no explanation was ever forthcoming on how the scam was actually mobilised throughout the supply chain, nor what the implications of the case might be for the broader art trade. 

Thirdly, while international press coverage has drawn attention to the problematic business techniques used by some art recovery agencies, the market in general has been largely silent on the issue, preferring instead to draw a blind eye, or to view such approaches as a mere occupational hazard: “At least we got the pictures back.” Perhaps, but do the ends always justify the means? If market participants were to conclude that the real moral hazard may lie in actually doing business with the more problematic companies in this sector, then one might reasonably see that as a form of self-regulation in practice. Unfortunately, the art recovery market still operates as a virtual monopoly. And monopolies are not a feature of mature markets. 

Elmyr de Hory, 
Portrait of a Woman, 1974
Finally, as prices have risen exponentially in recent decades, many connoisseurs and experts have ceased offering opinions on high-value works of art coming to market or to exhibition. When a respected compiler of an artist’s catalogue raisonné is forced to abandon the project following death threats from disgruntled collectors unhappy with his opinions, we know we’re not in Kansas any more. Similarly, the multi-million dollar “lawyering up” by foundations to intimidate owners against consigning works for sale, usually on grounds of disputed authenticity, has begun to resemble the kind of practices we associate with gangster movies.  

A public discussion at this year’s Art Basel, ably moderated by András Szántó, sought to address some of the perennial issues of art market transparency and whether or not current market regulations were sufficient to confirm its maturity as an “industry”. 

The consensus seemed to emerge that the informal, ‘handshake’ nature of art market business transactions should be treated simply as a given, and moreover that any attempt at further regulation of matters such as information disequilibrium (which is widely acknowledged as rife across the art market) would surely have a detrimental effect on business. 

It was also pointed out that relative to other business realms, the art market is relatively small in dollar terms. The sociologist Olav Velthuis referred to the size of Walmart’s turnover in the US alone — $500 billion, he reports — compared to the estimated size of the global art market — “somewhere between 40 to 60 billion US dollars”. Unfortunately, while we have relatively reliable benchmarks for assessing the size of Walmart, no comparable reliability can be applied to the global art market. Its inherent secrecy and confidentiality — sometimes referred to as a kind of omertà — preclude accurate statistical appraisal.

How, then, to move the art market forward on structural issues of this kind, without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath-water? 

One practical suggestion might be to create an International Art Market Practice Board, perhaps something akin to the Financial Services Authority, that convenes in certain agreed instances. The potential implications of each case would need to have been recognised as significant to the broader market, its professional practices, and reputation. The panel might convene either before a case progresses to civil proceedings or criminal court, perhaps even with a view to obviating the need for future court action. Or its deliberations might be used to provide expertise to subsequent hearings. This might be particularly helpful given that judge-led court hearings are often improperly equipped to deal with the delicate nature of art market-related issues concerning authenticity, connoisseurship, agency, moral rights, and so forth. The Board might also convene once a year to review the general state of the market, to identify potential causes for concern and to suggest ways the market might be improved (and not necessarily through more regulation). 

The aim here is not to bring more law into the market, however critical specialist art lawyers are to a healthy market, but rather to pool expertise across all relevant domains: law, the art trade, forensic science, art history, museum management, academia, journalism, connoisseurship, art criticism, insurance, art fairs, and auction houses.

An interesting outcome of the BBC documentary referred to above was the disclosure that the barristers who participated in the programme, Stephen Kamlish QC and Sheryl Nwosu, have offered to represent, at his forthcoming appeal, Michael Stone, the man now thought to have been improperly convicted of the crimes in 1996. Kamlish and Nwosu’s decision was a direct result of having collaborated with other impartial experts from cognate fields of enquiry, which led them to question the judgement handed down in 1996. By reviewing the evidence in this way, the panel threw light on the professional practices of the relevant agencies and hinted at ways investigative procedures could be improved. 

Could a similar methodology and ethical purpose provide the foundation for an International Art Market Practice Board?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bernard Buffet: Yes or No?

What are we to make of French artist Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), whose paintings have for decades been greeted with snorts of derision by most of the serious art world? 

While working as an art market journalist during the 1990s, we used to gather around each others’ desks whenever a Buffet appeared in an auction catalogue. They invariably drew gales of laughter from the entire office. It wasn't just the tacky subject matter: anorexic nudes, gloomy clown masks, clunky still lifes; it was the technique too: the black cloisonné outlines, the bilious palette, the daubed, scratchy backgrounds. Buffet’s work seemed to encapsulate the worst aspects of post-war French painting. There is a word for a fear of clowns — coulrophobia. If you’re not familiar with it, just take a look at Buffet’s paintings. They’re hilariously bad.

But wait, is he due a revival? If we are to believe Nicholas Foulkes’s excellent biography, Buffet’s grim existentialist vision is poised to enjoy a market renaissance. The problem is — and it’s now a familiar one — the motor behind the Buffet industry is not being driven by the art historical or art critical community, but from, yes, you guessed it, bankers and other opportunistic investors. 

Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist (Arrow Books, 2016) is no slim volume. At 450 pages, Foulkes has rolled his sleeves up, notched up some air miles and consulted many of those closest to the artist, some of whom were instrumental in promoting Buffet from a Gallic James Dean-lookalike to château-owning millionaire in a matter of just a few years. Most prominent of his sources was the soigné French socialite Pierre Bergé, later to become the lover and business partner of Yves St.Laurent. Bergé was Buffet’s first great romance and by most accounts the architect of the young artist’s transformation from a moody, poverty-stricken outsider to art world vedette during the 1950s. Bergé’s subsequent efforts to undermine his former lover’s career following their break-up — something Bergé adamantly denies — is one of the book’s more intriguing subtexts.

Although a man of few words (“oui, non, peut-être” seems to have been the limit of his vocabulary), the youthful Buffet was blessed with the etiolated good looks of the half-starved Left Bank drop-out.  He also had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Gorge du Tarn and a gargantuan appetite for booze and fags. But he also had what Foulkes repeatedly refers to as a Stakhanovite appetite for work. Had he been a better painter that productivity might have been a good thing (Picasso was no layabout) but so prodigious was his output that it inevitably led to accusations of robotic repetitiveness. You might say there were always too many Buffets for the world to digest, but in his heyday so popular was he among an undiscerning public (including the Japanese) that his fame and wealth grew and grew. 

At the beginning of Buffet’s career, Pierre Bergé, the dealer Maurice Garnier, and the rest of the artist's coterie of well-connected admirers never doubted his “genius” and deployed all the familiar art market techniques to launch him to stardom. It’s clear that Foulkes also subscribes to the “genius” tag and even digs up a couple of quotes from none other than Andy Warhol in support of this dubious assessment, conveniently overlooking the fact that Warhol was the cynical contrarian par excellence. “Art is what you can get away with,” he once said, and it was clear that Buffet was getting away with it to spectacular effect. 

Today, the international art market is notable for its art historical ignorance and lack of aesthetic criticality. Instead we’re witnessing an increasingly obsessive reliance on econometric analysis and investment-based data-mining designed to feed the appetites of billionaire plutocrats, Wall Street speculators, wealth managers and family offices. This amounts to another form of groupthink, a kind of anamorphic distortion in which art historical and aesthetic concerns are fuzzed up by the moiré of price data. Perhaps unsurprisingly given these recent trends, Foulkes’s book closes with contributions from the new breed of Buffet-dealers and Buffet admirers, or rather, investors. “If I had £100,000, I’d invest in a painting by French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet,” gushes Jean-David Malat, super-salesman for the Bond Street corporate mega-gallery, Opera. If he’s wrong, it could be the death of Malat.

Other Buffet speculators include the jet-setting financier Stephan Wrobel who is busy deploying strategies more usually associated with the stock market in order to increase his Buffet position. Wrobel counts Buffet as one of the towering figures of twentieth-century painting, listing him alongside the likes of Giacometti, Bacon, and Freud. To juxtapose Buffet with Giacometti, Bacon and Freud would until recently have been enough to exclude Wrobel from the high table of critical sophistication, but criticality is no longer the issue; it’s now about primitive accumulation. In another quote, Wrobel refers to Buffet being “in dialogue” with Dürer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Courbet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Morandi, et al. If he is, they aren’t listening. 

The mention of Morandi is noteworthy, for earlier in the book, Foulkes, working up a head of defensive steam to condemn Buffet’s exclusion from a big Pompidou Centre survey show, has this to say about the painter’s seeming victimisation by the critics:

“To omit him altogether (while including his Biennale colleague Giacometti and the one-trick bottle-painter Morandi) is a compelling piece of evidence for a conspiracy, pogrom, or campaign of intellectual terrorism.” 

I’d give anything to overhear the dialogue between the one-trick bottle-painter and the one-trick clown-painter. For me, Morandi wins hands down. 

While Foulkes does well to garner testimonies from a host of confidants and cheerleaders, including  Buffet’s former lover Pierre Bergé; the painter’s life-long dealer and business manager Maurice Garnier; Buffet’s adopted son Nicolas, and the iconic chanteuse Juliette Greco, what is really missing are the voices of scholarly critics, prominent curators and respected art historians. 

Picasso’s biographer John Richardson has a walk-on part but is understandably withering about the suggestion that Buffet might be compared with Picasso. The very idea is laughable, of course. Picasso was occasionally off form, but rarely was he was that consistently off form. To liken Buffet’s crudely banal Horreur de la Guerre (aboveto Picasso’s Guernica, as one prominent French museum director did, is just one of the many blundering comparisons quoted throughout the book. 

Such is the determination of those invested in the Buffet industry to recover his stock that, if necessary, art history must be rewritten. Benjamin Buchloh is one of the few academically established names to make a brief appearance. While interviewing Warhol, he realises after a few minutes that Andy is not referring in glowing terms to Jean Dubuffet, as Buchloh assumed, but to Bernard Buffet. At that point the German art historian’s interest fizzles out like a damp Gauloise. Given the close homophone, it’s an easy mistake to make…until you survey the two artists’ oeuvres and their respective contributions to the history of art. 

One can’t help admiring Foulkes’s strenuous attempt to make the case for Buffet’s “genius,” but unlike the speculators queuing up to secure examples of his work, I don’t buy it. 

This is a hugely entertaining biography, beautifully written and rich in colourful, anecdotal detail. The Francophile Foulkes is clearly in his element writing about the snobbish gratin, the cultured upper crust of post-war Paris, through which a young, Ricard-soaked Buffet drifted in a haze of Gitânes smoke. It’s also a poignant tale. After a lifetime spent in his various châteaux, relentlessly churning out his lugubrious Dante-inspired grands machines, grimacing clowns, sinister cathedrals, minatory birds and giant insects, with only his loyal, once beautiful, whisky-soaked wife Annabel for company, the ageing, reclusive, alcoholic Buffet, now running to embonpoint and still at odds with the world, puts a plastic bag over his head, ties it round his neck and finally bids the world, “Au revoir”.

Will his reputation be revived and the market rise? — Oui? Non? Peut-être… 
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