The New South Sea Bubble

Auction houses are reporting records being broken—even though the works on sale are quite mundane

Michael Prodger

Two years ago, it looked as if the art world would never be the same again. On the very evening that Damien Hirst earned himself £111 million at a one-man auction of his gimcrack productions came the news that Lehman Brothers had collapsed. It seemed simultaneously a high- and low-water mark — a perfect storm of money and bathos that suggested everything was about to change for good. But, as with other parts of the financial sector, nothing substantial did change and the links binding money and art hold fast as never before. 

Giacometti’s “L’Homme Qui Marche I” sold for £65 million in February 2010

This year has been topped and tailed by finance. Within the space of three months at the beginning of the year, the world record price for a work of art sold at auction ping-ponged between Picasso and Giacometti. In February, Giacometti’s sculpture L’Homme Qui Marche I sold for £65 million, usurping the previous record-holder, Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe (£58.5m), before being toppled in turn in May by the Spaniard’s Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust which went for £70m. This was not an aberration: the rest of the year has been spattered with both multi-million pound sales and individual artists’ records (among them Matisse’s sculpture Nu de dos, 4 which fetched £30.2m and a Modigliani nude, La Belle Romaine, £42.7m). The art market now stands at the level it last attained in 2006. 

What is surprising about the Picasso and Giacometti, however, is not so much that the anonymous bidders were prepared to spend such vast sums but that they were prepared to spend them on these particular pieces. Part of the reason was that this was the first time in 20 years that a life-size Giacometti had appeared at auction and that the Picasso hadn’t been seen in public since 1961. However, Giacometti’s statue is not a unique piece but of one of six numbered casts (there are four artist’s proofs, too) and the Picasso is hardly a stand-alone masterpiece. 

According to some estimates, Picasso produced more than 13,500 paintings, so while many were, if not workaday, at least unexceptional, statistically he produced numerous blue-riband works, too. Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust does not seem to me to be among the greatest of them. Indeed, seeing a selection of his nudes hanging alongside examples by Titian, Goya, Ingres and Rembrandt et al at the Paris Picasso and the Masters exhibition a couple of years ago demonstrated that he was not at the top of the top tier of art history’s great painters of the naked form. The commodification of Picasso has made it increasingly hard to look at him as solely an artist. His paintings have become as much financial as artistic artefacts and he is the lightning rod that proves that absolute quality is a minor consideration when the super rich come to part with their cash. Even John Richardson, the great Picasso scholar, commented on the latest record-breaker: “I can’t think why anyone in their right mind would buy that rather than a half-dozen Rembrandts.”

This disjunction between excellence and commerce was in evidence elsewhere too. While the salerooms’ big success this year has been in 20th-century work the contemporary art world continues, like some latter-day South Sea Bubble, to swell and swell. To attend the opening of autumn’s Frieze art fair — the omnium gatherum of artworks and artfolk — was to glimpse the sheer number of people who earn a living (or aspire to) from art as product. It is an ecosystem that seems unsupportable. 

If the financial health of art’s private sector is bizarrely sound, that of the public sector took a severe turn for the worse with the government’s spending review. The Arts Council, which funds 850 different organisations, will see its grant fall by 30 per cent over the next four years while the national museums and galleries get 15 per cent less. In light of the reductions of 25 per cent and more imposed elsewhere, these figures seem almost moderate. But coupled with the difficulty organisations face in accessing the £285 million in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reserve fund, the cuts will truly hurt. Arts Council England is not the spendthrift organisation many perceive it to be (despite the fact that it owns a 7,500-work collection of postwar British Art that is, scandalously, largely unseen) and our public galleries are positively lean. Years of real-term budget reductions and frozen acquisition grants have meant that they have learned to think creatively and if not parsimoniously then certainly with thrift in mind. Wages of curatorial staff at our premier institutions such as the National Gallery remain derisively low. 

While the new cuts will make the threat of staff losses and reduced opening hours a real one they will also encourage the re-addressing of some problem areas. The legal strictures preventing the deaccession of works in our public institutions’ reserve collections, for example, will come under close scrutiny, as will the issue of free entry. This last, a government requirement, is laudable but there is no good reason why foreign visitors shouldn’t be charged on a sliding scale, as is the case across the rest of Europe. Visitor numbers remain spectacular and tourists are used to paying for their gallery experiences. It is hard to see why philanthropists should be expected to close the funding gap when such an obvious and robust resource is wilfully ignored. 

There was one incident, however, where the confluence of art and money raised a real belly laugh. The news that a forger had netted £26,000 by selling 11 works purporting to be by Tracey Emin on eBay was funny enough. The fact that Emin herself described the items, without irony it seems, as “crude…corny and unimaginative and over-sentimental” should help dry the eyes of our public gallery directors and leave a smile hovering on their trembling lips.

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