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By Alan Behr

HONG KONG, 1 JULY 2014 — You could feel the opening-night jitters as the VIP vernissage began, launching this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong.  Two hundred forty-five art galleries from around the world, including, as would be expected, a large contingent from Asia, booked space at the fair, showing almost exclusively works of contemporary art. Their white-walled booths were bare of furnishings except for a few chairs and a table that held a couple bottles of pleasant wine. No one stood outside his booth, beckoning like a waiter with his sample plate in front of a Greek restaurant in the Latin Quarter.  Eye-grabbing pieces did that job, standing in front of booths like gate guardians—those obsolete aircraft bolted to pedestals in front of military bases so as to appear to be vaulting skyward. The gallerists were waiting within, dressed uniformly—as if for cocktails at a good club. Their feigned insouciance, on display along the parallel rows of booths, was the capping demonstration that this was not your usual trade show at the normally prosaic Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2014
Photo: Alan Behr

Which was precisely the point, given the money at stake. According to Don Thompson, the Canadian economist who has made it his mission to explain the contemporary art market, taking the space for a typical booth at the parent Art Basel (i.e., the one that actually takes place in Basel, Switzerland) requires an outlay of about US $55,000; add to that the costs of shipping, insurance, installation, catalogues and travel, and you are over six figures—unless you are serious about marketing, in which case, your total cost for a imprisoning yourself for few days inside a white-walled, windowless cube far from home could well be double that. Consider as well that the odds are pretty good that many of the most sought-after patrons will be on site for the VIP vernissage, excluding those who have not already spent their art allowances during private preshow viewings. Small wonder that each gallerist was accomplished at separating the wheat of a potential purchaser from the chaff of a mere gawker at a distance of twenty meters.

Don Thompson has made himself a specialist (to use the auction-house term that Thompson notes has replaced expert) on the money end of contemporary art.  Because contemporary art continues to make far more headlines in the popular press over what it costs than what it actually might offer as a cultural experience, Thompson is therefore a docent in residence on what actually makes contemporary art newsworthy.

He showed that in his last book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (reviewed in Culturekiosque on 14 May 2009), in which he outlined his theory of the branding process by which contemporary art accrues value—as it passes (for example) from a branded (that is, well-known, sought-after) artist to a name-brand gallery, from there to a branded (that is, known for being in the know) collector, who loans it to a leading museum before reselling it through a major auction house. Each time it arrives at one of these way stations, the piece gains in value, causing the value of other works by the same artist to rise as well.  It used to be said by cynics that it isn’t what you know (that is, your ability) but who you know that determines the winners in the arts. Thompson’s explanation turned that on its head: with contemporary art, it isn’t what you know (the ability to draw like Ingres or to manipulate color like Seurat) but who knows you.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2014
Photo: Alan Behr

Thompson takes off from there in his new book, The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art (Palgrave Macmillan, 282 pages). His purpose here is to examine two questions: who actually determines who among all contemporary artists makes it to the top (which he defines as anyone living whose work can be sold at a night auction at Sotheby’s or Christie’s) and what sets the price of those artists’ works?  The underlying assumption, shared vocally or at least muttered by so many who hover outside the small circle that stands to benefit economically from the process, is the suspicion that those who make it there do not have exponentially more talent than those who never rise that high.  Although Thompson never states that to be his underlying premise, it hangs in the air like a long-whispered rumor. He does, however, offer the numbers to show how hard it is: of the approximately 80,000 artists living in London and New York, for example, seventy-five might one day earn seven-figure annual incomes, about 300 will ride onto the next mainstream tier with six-figure-incomes, and it goes on down from there to those who will support themselves as baristas or from the "local welfare authority" (a trick that has gone mainstream in patrimony-obsessed Europe but still not granted much respect in the USA).

How did it all get that way? To Thompson, it comes down to a single phrase: back story—that is, the tale of a work’s creation, social context and meaning given by the artist at the time of creation or added later for effect. It is what a collector tells her guests at a cocktail party as they stare in wonder or confusion at that thing on the wall that they know cost the price of a second house or two.

Some back stories are simple, and Thompson illustrates a famous one: the British artist Damien Hirst makes spot paintings. They are, in their entirety, images of spots—just spots—on canvases great and small. Hirst prescribes the proportions and general color sequencing for how a spot painting should be made.  The rest, from color choice to execution, is the work of a technician in Hirst’s employ. His only manual contribution to each piece is to sign his name to it.  And a back story: the paintings are so finely executed, the circles so perfect and the paint strokes so invisible, that they look machine made.  That is, the main back story is about technique—about something quite hard to do. But to make it sell, back story must support branding, and Thompson again shows us the numbers: the technician Hirst called his best at spot painting, Rachel Howard, had one of her own such works sold at auction in 2008 in New York for US $90,000.  Months later, one she had done for Hirst went for US $2.25 million. The difference between the Howard and Hirst brands created the added value in the Hirst—not any perception of greater artistic merit.

Hammer Galleries at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014
Photo: Alan Behr

Thompson offers a favorite back story of Michael Findlay, the director of the prestigious Acquavella Galleries; it comes from a Christie’s catalog of a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat:

Painfully aware…of becoming a mascot for the genteel and predominantly white world of art. It was this fear which would lead to his insecurity, in part coming to fuel his dependency on drugs in the coming years, and that would result in his paintings…filed with pain, with an anger that once again seems linked to the graffiti of his early years.

Commented Findlay, "White folks.  Fear.  Raw energy.  Anger.  Graffiti.  A B-movie script."

Thompson also quotes the art impresario Leo Castelli, who said, back in 1966, that, "My responsibility is the myth-making of myth material, which handled properly and imaginatively, is the job of the dealer.  I have to go at it completely.  One can’t just prudently build up a myth."

And a story is more important than ever in Thompson’s view because, "There is no more shock of the new," to borrow from the title of the 1980 Robert Hughes BBC television series on Modern art.  No one is shocked, that is, when an artist can pack an Airstream trailer with dildos and display it as art, as happened at the 2013 Art Basel Miami, which Thompson not incidentally calls "the most spectacular art fair in the world. Anyone who has been to an exhibition of contemporary art can probably add examples of his own.

Back story is also needed because, as Thompson illustrates, you cannot even be sure who is the artist, let alone what is art. Back when the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, an arm of the Warhol Foundation, was in the business of authenticating Warhols, it denied authenticity to two versions a Red Self Portrait (a silkscreen in a series of ten), even though each was signed, dedicated and dated by Warhol.  It also made no difference that Warhol had approved the use of Red Self Portrait as the cover work for his 1970 catalog raisonné.  Why were these Warhols that were obviously liked by Warhol not authentic Warhols?  Because they were not made meet the board’s criteria that an authentic Warhol must show the "presence of the artist, whether the work had his direct supervision." The board apparently felt that Warhol was careless in letting unsupervised works into his oeuvre and so was now correcting the record—at collectors’ expense.  In 2011, and after paying millions of dollars in legal fees, the board closed. "It’s absurd," said the foundation president Joel Wachs. "We want our money to go to artists, not lawyers." But the point had been made: beauty and value may not be in the eye of the beholder—even if the beholder was the artist himself and the image was a self-portrait.

On top of these mysteries, Thompson details the uniquely opaque qualities of the fine-art market. (If real estate were this impervious to transparency, would any of us dare buy a house?)  He demonstrates the effect of the economic downturn, the rise in Chinese art and collecting, and the uncertainty over the future of online sales. You come away understanding the two reasons why you did not understand it all that well before: (a) many people playing the art market do not understand it all that well either, and (b) those who do understand it have no self-interest in enlightening you.

Stylistically, Thompson’s writing has improved since his last book. The topic lends itself to irony, and he has obvious fun with an often irreverent—but never insulting—manner of exposition.  His prose is more focused and more restrained; like the gallerists he profiles, he has become a good story teller.

In 2010, I was at the opening night vernissage at what was then Phillips de Pury, in New York, for one of the pivotal contemporary art auctions that begin Thompson’s narrative. Among the pieces auctioned off during that sale was a nude waxwork by Maurizio Cattelan (of course, actually made by technicians) of Stephanie Seymour (the "supermodel" of the title). It went for US $2.4 million in forty seconds.Thompson is right that it has been a long journey for the art market from there to the 2014 Art Basel Hong Kong, which, as an upcoming event when the book went to press, Thompson also gives a brief mention near the end of the book. During the three and one half years in between, significant artists had gained and lost prestige and their works had gained and lost value. Galleries that showed them had closed, others had opened, and others had poached the artists. Once-tight relationships between artists and galleries had ended and new bonds had been formed. I have to thank Don Thompson for explaining to me all that I missed during that time about where the money went while I struggled to understand the art that was sweeping by: that long, curious parade of potential masterworks crying out for understanding, acknowledgement and life in a new home—preferably one owned by a rich collector whom everybody respects.

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art
By Don Thompson

Hardcover: 288 pages
Palgrave Macmillan (May 2014)
ISBN-10: 1137279087
ISBN-13: 978-113727908

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the Phillips Nizer LLP and is a member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art and the American Society of Media PhotographersHe last wrote on the photography of Charles Marville for Culturekiosque.


Related Culturekiosque Archives 

Exhibition Review: Mrs. Castelli Gets Her Due

Book Tip: BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors 

Art Market: Basquiat's Crown Hotel Sells for $7.4m in Paris

Art Market: Ming Gilt-Bronze Buddha Sells for $30.3 Million in Hong Kong

Ripple Effect: Leo Castelli and the Birth of the Contemporary Art Market 

Exhibition Review: Restoring the Malice to Wonderland: Trevor Brown at the Bunkamura Gallery, Tokyo

Exhibition Review: "Servicemen and Women…" at London’s Saatchi Gallery

Book Review: Swimming Among the Sharks: The Art of Profiting off Contemporary Art

Exhibition Review: Basquiat at the Fondation Beyeler

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