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Collector Peter Brant in wax by Swiss artist Urs Fischer

Sometimes in the art world, it’s money that matters, and this is one of those times. While the New York auctions raised triple the amount at a similar set of sales six months ago, to some degree the well-choreographed evenings just obscured what was really going on. Sales at the city’s 300-plus art galleries are actually still flagging, and a shakeout is going on over which artists matter and who will make it into the art-history books. The shakeout is amplifying the power of the relatively tiny cabal of people who do keep buying at the highest levels, and it’s shifting who and what people are paying attention to.

This season, it wasn’t so much who sold well, but which artists, schools and movements surprisingly weren’t on the block at all because the auctioneers didn’t even know if there was a market for them anymore. Buyers and sellers are so confused about the ultimate art-historical importance of such recently “superhot”movements as the Leipzig School (Germany), Chinese Contemporary Art (Beijing) and the so-called Young British Artists (London) that auction houses offered work from virtually none of them. A safer bet was to offer works by artists like Mr. Fischer, for example, because of his powerful fans and because he’s just a few months away from an well-recieved retrospective at the New Museum.

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Alexandra Peers
New York Observer

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With art sales declining around the world, the major auction houses are desperately looking for new customers anywhere they can. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Christie’s is tapping into the ever-growing universe of iPhone apps.

Today, Christie’s announced a new iPhone application that allows users to browse more than 450 auctions in close to 80 categories in such areas as fine arts, jewelry, photographs and wine.

The application offers images of items up for bid and lets users submit objects for appraisal by Christie’s specialists using the iPhone’s camera.

The application can display real-time auction results but doesn’t yet offer the ability for users to place bids. The auction house does offer online bidding via its website.

“We hope to attract new clients but the goal is also to provide a convenient tool for current clients, should they be open to the technology,” said Michael O’Neal, Christie’s director of digital media.

Christie’s is offering the application for free to iPhone and iPod Touch users. It can be downloaded from the Apple iTunes store (you need to have iTunes on your computer for this link to work).

David Ng
Los Angeles Times

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Damien Hirst

Is the art world’s new mandate “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 50”? For collectors used to buying work by artists younger than the wines they’d serve, this week’s auctions offer slim pickings. Hardly any of the artists in the big evening sales of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were born after 1959. Instead, the big auctioneers (and some dealers) are packing this week with work by people (Calder, Cornell, Hofmann) right out of an art-history textbook.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s gavel-wielding chief of contemporary art, says, “It is no accident that we focused on artists with longer careers” in choosing the lots this time. (Only six were born after 1959.) “We asked ourselves, ‘What artists haven’t been hyped up too much, haven’t had auction records?’ ” If significant works by some younger artists like Matthew Barney (age 42) or John Currin (46) had come up for sale, Sotheby’s would have taken them “in a second,” he says—but they didn’t. (That said, Sotheby’s slate, featuring a 1988 Kippenberger, is still “groovy,” he adds.)

Top dealers like PaceWildenstein and David Zwirner are going old school, too, showing Alex Katz and Alice Neel as collectors stream into town. Even Phillips de Pury, known for its support of young hot artists, has an auction featuring Baldessari, Judd, and Guston. The house had six Damien Hirsts in its evening sale last May, but none this time. Also MIA: Tom Friedman, Mark Bradford, and Hernan Bas. The downturn has doused collectors and dealers’ willingness to experiment, says private dealer Paul Quatrochi, who’s put his own holdings on the block recently, unsuccessfully.

Something much more subtle than a classic boom-bust cycle is going on. The art world is punishing the overly prolific, those artists who responded (in retrospect, perhaps too hastily) to stiff demand by upping supply. “There’s a winnowing,” says artnet.com critic Charlie Finch. Who was especially productive before the recession hit? Murakami and Hirst, still both under 50, get singled out by critics, as do Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, and a host of contemporary Chinese artists. Artists whose work is plentiful or sells in editions—including many photographers—are now seeing softer numbers than those for painters like John Currin. While veterans like Cy Twombly and Bruce Nauman continued to work at the same pace, others did more work to meet the needs of galleries that had satellites or partners all over the world.

“Some artists participated in the boom by ramping up production. They set up studio factories, trying to be ‘Little Warhols’ and believing they had surpassed Warhol. But they were not better than Warhol,” says collector Ranbir Singh, who owns several Warhols, plus works by Louise Bourgeois and Currin’s Bea Arthur Naked. Now “the auction houses are underrepresenting all younger artists.” Meyer counters that there’s no age discrimination, they’re just missing works by some prolific artists who were heavily traded by speculators during the boom. “For an artist to become a commodity, he has to produce a lot of work, similar works of similar value,” so that they can “become currency.” With the market softer this season, the works for sale “don’t have a speculative element.”

Alexandra Peers
New York Magazine

There is a hilarious – if horrifying – video running on Sotheby’s website right now in which some chastened auctioneers are brought before the cameras. Each struggles to maintain a certain silk-suited dignity while attempting to solicit new clients, while also mollifying the old, in the wake of the latest disastrous auction results.

After much persiflage about the “enormous amounts of money” supposedly flooding around, and some barefaced fictions about market stability – six months after Roman Abramovich paid $86m for a Bacon in May, Sotheby’s couldn’t sell another for less than half that price – the worldwide head of contemporary art makes a staggering announcement. “Don’t worry,” he counsels potential sellers, “there is a return to seeing the real object and what kind of presence it has, what’s great and what is not so good. And what’s great will nowadays sell.”

A return to seeing? What a triumphant new dawn this is when art will once again be viewed! And not only that, but these men and women may even be able to sell the good works and not just the bad and the ugly. For in the past decade, there has been no art too sorry to be sold at auction, no art too brainless, slapdash, repetitive, obnoxious or devoid of originality. Whatever you had, some dealer or auctioneer could probably sell it; the ravening maws were always eager to be stuffed.

More millionaires bought and sold art than at any other time in history. More art was constantly required. It hardly mattered whether the work had any meaning, let alone quality. Practically the only rule was that it must be advanced art – progressive, serious, high-minded, what used to be called avant-garde; all this meant was that if second-rate, then knowingly so, and if kitsch, then in an ironic rather than innocent fashion.

The significance of the work became its market price, its wealth-making potential. By that token, buyers needed a Richard Prince nurse, a Damien Hirst tank, a Jeff Koons sculpture and a photograph by Andreas Gursky. That was the starter pack, and the safest collateral, for the droves of plutocrats and hedge-fund managers now trying to offload their art.

Anything beyond that, anything less well tested, and the buyer was taking a risk, though the risk was for quite a time unimaginably small. For the ever-increasing index of collectible artists was securely determined by dealers in tandem with tiny groups of super-rich collectors. If the dealer could persuade the collector to buy the work of a particular artist, then the work was de facto collectible and all the other buyers would roll over. You could call it a futures market, just like any other, except that it was so much less of a gamble.

There has never been anything complex about this system, and anyone who believes that most artists are too principled to play to it ought to try looking about. Even the cats and gondolas of the Royal Academy summer show are made for an audience that knows what it likes and likes what it knows; easy supply and demand.

What this overheated market has now produced is an immoderately vast amount of art: more art than can possibly be bought, more art than anyone could ever need and more art than anyone, apart from Charles Saatchi, could ever look at.

But one thing about this art was that it very successfully adapted itself to suit the cash-rich but time-poor. The speed of consumption, by which I mean viewing as well as buying, could now be measured in minutes and even seconds. This effect is apparent everywhere.

Take the dreg-ends of art recently shown in GSK Contemporary at the Royal Academy. Here you could see neoclassical figurines personally smashed to pieces by Georgina Starr, which took about a second and was easily imagined by anyone who has ever broken crockery. You could see chrome-plated statues of fighting cherubs – so anarchic, so expensive, what a neat combination! You could see an outsize replica of a peeled onion.

Obviously the impromptu GSK canteen was a work of art; what else could it possibly be if Carsten Höller’s prodigiously expensive Africa-meets-Europe Double Club on the other side of town, no more than a standard night club with Congolese beer, was successfully promoted as art? Höller brought you the slides at Tate Modern. For a few more weeks, you can consume his latest project for yourself in Islington. Cote de boeuf with chips – £42.

The question is not whether an art work is art, but whether it is good, and even allowing for the wasteland that is January, there is almost nothing worthwhile; hundreds of new shows at London’s commercial galleries, but scarcely anything to detain mind or eye. White Cube has Rosson Crow, a Texan painter born in 1982. She does deserted scenes from history – Lincoln’s funeral, a banquet at the White House – but with the canvas bleeding great gouts of pigment, or melting like a candle, combining extreme decadence with glib Ab-Ex parody.

Crow was discovered as a student while the market was at its most voracious, has had more shows in her short life than far better painters and looks not unlike Britney Spears. Brash, cocky and hideous to behold, her work is more skilful than the blood-spattered skeletons by Andreas Golder upstairs. Still, if Jay Jopling is showing such work, there must be one last collector out there who doesn’t trouble him or herself with actual viewing.

The London-born Alice Anderson at Artprojx looked more promising with her tiny dolls tumbled to the bottom of towers studded with nails and her stark variations on Rapunzel. Anderson uses dolls the way Louise Bourgeois uses stuffed figures and has similar family issues.

Appearing as the protagonist in the short film The Dolls’ Day, abandoned by her mother, molested by her father, she bashes effigies of both to smithereens. But despite the Kleinian overtones (and the lavish French funding) nobody can save Anderson from bathos. “Are you OK?” mumbles her dad.

Still, she is a genius compared with her badly over-promoted contemporary Dan Colen, once acclaimed for his realistic paintings of bird shit. Colen has filled a whole show at Gagosian with one picture of a park bench, supposedly where Cinderella met her fairy godmother, supposedly reflecting upon the ideas of the distinguished art theorist Michael Fried. If I were Fried, I would issue a disclaimer.

You might think that the market doesn’t matter, that collectors can make fools of themselves without affecting our lives, but the truth is that public galleries are profoundly influenced by the market, their purchases very generally following those of the rich. Every time you enter a commercial gallery, what you see is only there because it fetches enormous sums, and if you notice trends, it is because the market has decreed that art should look like this and so the art does. Then it enters our museums.

But now that the market is crumbling – Sotheby’s contemporary art sales in New York in November 2007 and 2008 made $418m and $160m respectively – what will fill the galleries, both private and public? 2009 is already looking rather different. Hoxton is collapsing, galleries closing by the week. The London Art Fair was deserted by the end of the first afternoon last week. Prestigious galleries are planning to show what pass for contemporary old masters such as Cy Twombly and Robert Mangold. These are exhibitions one wouldn’t want to miss.

It is obvious to anyone with eyes that art has become more vulgar and rebarbative during our lifetime, as well as slicker and quicker. Whether we will ever progress to anything better – more subtle, refined, intelligent, inventive, perhaps even original – is anyone’s guess, but these hard times have got to be propitious.

Less money means less genuflection to collectors, less subservience to donors and less demand-based product. It may even mean less dross of the sort that surely dismays (be honest) every visitor to Frieze. And if less money can elicit a promise from the industry to look at the art object for what it really is, then this is truly the start of a new era.

Laura Cumming
The Guardian

How can you tell that it’s nearly auction season in the art market? When the press begins predicting an imminent crash. Right on schedule, the Wall Street Journal ran theirs three weeks before the marquee May sales in New York City. Robert Frank, one of the Journal’s best writers, quickly went from dollars and cents to scene-setting. “As a new wave of wealthy collectors poured into the market to fill their mansion walls,” Frank wrote, “auctions have become competitions of conspicuous consumption, filled with celebrities, hedge-fund managers and mystery billionaire bidders from Russia and China.”

It’s a great image: the last days of Rome with greedy developers spending our mortgage dollars on frivolous Jeff Koons sculptures, decadent hedgies spending hot money on cool Rothkos and de Koonings, and shady former-Communist billionaires trying to buy respectability with Renoirs. But conspicuous consumption is hardly news in the art market.

Just before the last round of auctions held in New York in November, Carol Vogel summed up the mood in the New York Times: “Beneath all the bling—the glossy catalogs brimming with lavish illustrations, the extravagant parties to lure rich collectors, the impressive exhibitions of the art and the optimistically high estimates—lurks an ominous question. After three years of speculation about a bust, will this be the moment when the art market finally crumbles?”

But it hasn’t yet. And that has left some on the art beat looking for other ways to scold buyers. Bloomberg’s Linda Sandler recently pointed to the decorum of selling pricey art while the economy tanks. “The same day that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the U.S. economy is on the verge of its first recession in six years,” she reported the evening of the Red charity auction of contemporary art, organized by Bono and Damien Hirst, “the seven pieces Hirst gave to the charity brought in about $19 million.”

You don’t usually see writers who cover, say, the price of wheat rooting for its decline. Are these writers trying to will the art market into failure? Probably not: They’re more concerned with competitive pressures. Everyone wants to be the first to identify the next crash. The art world is haunted by the asset-mauling price swoon of 1990, a double-whammy delayed reaction to the 1987 stock market crash and the 1990 recession. According to the MeiMoses index of art prices, the art market didn’t reach parity against its 1989 highs until 2003. That’s a bear market lesson that no one should forget, and with the market well into the 10th year of expansion, it’s not unreasonable to expect a crash…

Even though the specter of 1990 still haunts the market, there are some good reasons to believe the art world has changed since then. First of all, art did have a correction in 2001-02. The fall was moderate, only 13 percent in value, and the market recovered three years later. But corrections are a sign of a functioning and fluid market, not a frozen one. Second, the entire art world—not just the auction market—has grown. Dealers and art advisers talk about their community having been transformed into an industry. Today there are many more buyers—which creates liquidity—and the buyers are balanced. Hedgies were market leaders in 2006; Asian wealth made some of the biggest buys in 2007; commodity money from Russia and the Gulf States seems to be carrying the ball today.

Finally, remember that art is an asset that holds back inflation. Though it cannot be considered a commodity—it’s pretty much the definition of nonfungible—it does behave like gold, another important pseudocommodity. And like gold, which has pulled back from a spectacular run but not crashed, art has room on the downside to consolidate gains. After all, money is always looking for a safe haven, and you can’t hang gold ingots on the grand staircase of your house. So art might continue to perform until another sexier asset comes along. In other words, this boom may end not with the bang that everyone expects, but a whimper.

Marion Maneker
Slate