“We’ll meet on edges soon,” said I
Proud ‘neath heated brow
Ahh, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.
– Bob Dylan
It’s in the nature of bubbles to burst. Soap bubbles do it without fail within seconds of their formation. But art bubbles? Predicting their demise – provided you believe that art is a market like real estate, stocks or corn and can therefore “bubble” accordingly – is decidedly trickier, as 2012 demonstrated.
Since the troubles of fall 2008 there’s been a spate of predictions proclaiming the imminent collapse of the international art market that’s been swelling for 15, 20, even, according to some, the last 40 years. Bursts happened in 2012 but they weren’t of the cataclysmic variety hoped for or prophesied by the likes of U.S. art critic Charlie Finch who, in the spring, was asserting that by this month “art prices [would] be down, across the board by 50 per cent.”
What did go down in December was the 17-year partnership between British artist Damien Hirst and his dealer, New York’s Larry Gagosian, announced shortly after the end of the 11th annual Art Basel fair in Miami Beach. While dealer-artist splits are common, this was seen as emblematic, epochal perhaps since no two figures have incarnated the overheated international art market more than Gagosian, recently named the second most powerful art shaker in the world by Art Review magazine, and Hirst, No. 41 on the same list as well as the world’s richest artist, according to The Times of London.
Just how emblematic the sudden split is is currently a subject of considerable debate. Hirst’s career in the last three years has produced mixed results. On the one hand, a retrospective earlier this year at the Tate Modern drew 460,000 visitors, the second-highest attendance for a show in the London institution’s history. On the other, his sales at auction have been soft. Has the Hirst bubble burst? And if so, is it a sign of a bigger burst ahead?
Certainly the fall auction season preceding the Gagosian-Hirst fallout wasn’t the apocalypse Charlie Finch predicted. Records, in fact, were the order of the day, particularly for post-Second World War and contemporary art. On Nov. 13, Sotheby’s New York reported its highest-ever sales total in the contemporary category, $375-million (U.S., all dollar figures except otherwise noted are U.S.).The next day, in the same town, Christie’s did even better, selling works by dead guys like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Franz Kline as well as live-wires like Jeff Koons and Mark Grotjahn for nearly $415-million. It was, in fact, the second-highest sale, by dollar value, in Christie’s history, regardless of category, bested only by the results of an Impressionist/modern art hammerfest in November 2006.
Any expectation (or hope) that a deflation might be in store at, say, Art Basel Miami Beach were dashed, too. Richard Prince, almost as emblematic and divisive figure as Hirst and a Gagosian artist to boot, saw his painting Nurse on Horseback, all of eight years old, sell to a European collector for $6.5-million.
Everyone agrees, it seems, that the market is ripe for some kind of “correction” or, as the more moralistically inclined prefer, comeuppance. But there’s no consensus on what will serve as its harbinger. Indeed, the harbinger fluctuates from person to person, taste to taste, from one notion of inherent value to the next. Some, for instance, read the fact that three canvases by Basquiat, dead since 1988, set successive auction records this year as each came up for bidding as an irrevocable sign the end is nigh. To them, Basquiat is overwrought, overrated, overvalued. That a Basquiat can be auctioned now for almost $30-million while an Italian Renaissance masterpiece goes for $16-million is proof of a world at once out of joint and in need of a crash.
Others, though, think the Basquiat market is destined for greater heights. In a recent online post, New York collector Mickey Cartin recounts a conversation he had earlier this year with a fellow collector who “mentioned rather emphatically that Basquiat, as a market phenomenon, will soon be seen as the next van Gogh,” with a per-canvas price range of $50-million to $250-million to reflect that.