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09th Jan 2013

Does the Art Market Have More Than One Bubble?

The “art market” is like champagne; it is exciting, has bubbles and can make some people a bit giddy. Some of these champagne art bubbles can, and will, burst. That is the history of the art market, and as its history repeats itself, its future. We saw this happen when the French Academy favored the art stars of its day, refusing to allow in the group dubbed: Impressionists.  The ascending bubbles of many of the established Academy artists burst over time and their works sell today for far less than those of the then new and radical Impressionists who struggled to earn a living. 

Currently in print and online an ever growing swarm of articles posit that the works the Modern and Contemporary artists whose works have reached the highest auction prices point the likelihood that the Art Market is a bubble that is about to burst.  Seems to me that the lessons of Western Art history are being avoided as carefully as the obvious pun on the reality that bubbles also “pop”, since the artists most maligned are actually Pop artists or related to Pop Art.  The artists most mentioned and in the cross-hairs of the controversy stirring art business writers are: Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Andy Warhol Double Denied by Judy Rey Wasserman

Psalm 19 (Andy Warhol) Double Un-Denied by Judy Rey Wasserman
Strokes = Original Torah font letters of Psalm 19

The history of the art market is damp with the many burst bubbles of various individual artists, as their contributions to the ongoing thrust of art history were reevaluated.  However, the entirety of the Art Market never burst, just the market for specific individual artists. The opposite is also true as the works of other, previously less well known artist became more revered and their prices increased. A good example of this would be the Barbizon artists who are credited with influencing the Impressionists and Post Impressionists.

Since the Renaissance successfully investing in art has always been elegantly simple and often quite financially accessible for the middle class as well as the very wealthy. All one needs to do is discover the next artist who will change the history of art and invest in him (or her) before they are finally discovered by the very rich, so their prices went up.

The history of Modern Art is full of true stories of now iconic ultra blue-chip artists were at first rejected because their work was too radical and different from what was popular until they came along.  Sensational or weird is often mistaken for radical — which means a new way of making or conceiving art – a different focus.

Monet, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollack and Warhol are all artists who pioneered new and radical art, and ways of making art, in their own times.  Look back through the history of art and it can easily be seen that great artists are trailblazers, a risk takers, who contributed more than just a unique style that could later be built upon by another radical, trailblazing, risk taking artist.

There are many artists who are painting Impressionist works today. Some are fantastic – but they are not radical, not reformers, they are only elegantly plowing a previously well plowed field and the best make a good living. So, we do not revere their work. No risk.

Etched into art history are names of art dealers, such as Paul Durand-Ruel Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Peggy Guggenheim, Irving Blum, and Leo Castelli, because they originally championed the works of artists mentioned previously – they risked.

Leo Castelli Deuteronomy 6 portrait by Judy Rey Wasserman

Deuteronomy 6 (Leo Castelli) by Judy Rey Wasserman
Strokes = Original Torah font letters of Deuteronomy 6

In a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times, entitled “Invitation to a Dialogue: An Art Market Bubble?” William Cole juxtaposed the 1971 the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquisition of Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” for $5.5 million ($31.4 million in 2012 dollars), then the highest price ever paid for a work of art with the considerably higher prices (even when adjusted for inflation) reached at auction for the top selling Modern and Contemporary artists.

Museum curators know that some works are difficult to hang as they will “steal” the scene from the other works in the room.  Yet, as an artist, I can easily mention or imagine hanging an equally good work by Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollack and Warhol near Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja”, without anyone outrageously stealing the show.

 van Gogh Psalm 113 portrait by Judy Rey Wasserman

Psalm 113 (Vincent van Gogh)  by Judy Rey Wasserman
Strokes = Original Torah font letters of Psalm 113

Further, the behavior of collectors in 1971 in relation to a pre-modern masterwork does not reflect what such a work could sell for at auction today. There are exceedingly few masterworks by great artists that predate modern art that are available at auction. What might be relevant to the discussion is the recently rediscovered and authenticated Da Vinci “Salvator Mundi,” a 2-foot-high (0.6 meter) panel painting Christ, once owned by King Charles I, valued by dealers at a record $200 million.

Da Vinci, and almost all once radical, blue-chip scene stealing artists have one other thing in common. They have all inspired other later artists who in turn were radical, scene stealing and became or will become blue-chip artists. Both Koons and Hirst are influenced by Warhol. The question remains: what new, truly radical artist will be influenced by their works, if any? It is perhaps a bit soon to answer such a question.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan shows some of the many artists who have been influenced by Andy Warhol, and more artists, such as myself (armed with a manifesto) are now waiting in the wings.  As Eric Shiner, Director of The Andy Warhol Museum, noted in his letter-reply to the editor of the New York Times, “Warhol changed the visual vocabulary of the United States, and by extension the world, through his radical departure from preconceived notions of what art is, how it functions, and, yes, ultimately how it is sold, traded and collected.”

Recessions, depressions, inflations, or boon times can change the monetary worth of an individual masterpiece, since the value of the currency itself changes. Does the essential value of the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David or Rembrandt’s The Night Watch really change based on the economy or currency valuation? Of course not.

While investors at auctions can make straws out of paper money to inflate or prop up the failing market for an artist who is clever but never truly art-radical, eventually whatever is only given shape by air (or gas) will burst or dissipate. Secondary galleries are littered with the works of artists from the nineteenth and early twentieth century who were well known in their time, but were not at the forefront of the movement they followed and never inspired the work of an artist that became blue chip. Quietly, one by one, those little bubbles burst as the prices for those artworks, when inflation is factored in, devalue in price.

The whole of the art market will not suffer, or decrease in value, because historically that is not what occurs. The market for individual artists burst. Sometimes, seemingly all at once due to financial conditions in the society, or because the new radical artists come along, the artists who only have style begin to seem less important or valuable.

Art history continues to be written by artists with radical new ideas, but the art market continues to be a version of history repeating itself.

Your comments are welcomed below.

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Judy Rey Wasserman is an artist and the founder of Post Conceptual Art theory and also the branch known as UnGraven Image Art at ungravenimage.com. Download a free copy click: Manifesto of Post Conceptual Art– A Painting’s Meaning is Inherent in its Stroke.
Check out the images and availability of limited and open edition prints — Click: store.
Follow her on Twitter at @judyrey

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