Art Market

Is Auction House Hyperbole Effective?

Anna Louie Sussman
Jun 1, 2017 10:32PM

Courtesy of Christie’s.

Auction house catalogues are big, bold, heavy, and hyperbolic. They make great doorstops. But are they effective marketing tools?

Longtime auction hands say the catalogues—anachronistic as they are, in many ways—still serve a purpose, enticing sellers and informing prospective buyers, especially newer collectors who may still be riding a learning curve. And even as the catalogues evolve (shrinking in size, for example, as more collectors turn to the web for in-depth essays), they’re likely to be with us for a long time.

“They’re becoming more functional,” says Brett Gorvy, partner at Lévy Gorvy and former Christie’s chairman. “They’re less addressing what the seller wants, and more about what the buyer needs.”

When Gorvy first joined Christie’s in 1994, he says catalogues were vanilla fare, produced in-house with a standard format, and geared largely toward dealers, an audience with existing expertise. As auction houses began to deal more directly with collectors and individual buyers, Gorvy says that “auction houses became much more instructive,” and the catalogue grew into an educational tool, their pages thick with comparative photos and detailed essays written by scholars and in-house specialists.

As with many innovations in the auction world, competition between Christie’s and Sotheby’s swiftly turned catalogue production into an arms race. They mutated into ever-larger formats, as sellers demanded more and more pages to be given over by the house that wished to win their consignment; any trick one house did was copied by the other. Catalogue frenzy reached peak absurdity, Gorvy recalls, when a consignor stipulated that whatever item was given the most pages, he wanted two pages more.  

For buyers, the essays are more than educational. They reassure the buyer that the object for which she or he might be about to pay millions of dollars for is indeed among the most stunning works ever created. Take a description of a Constantin Brancusi bronze head, La muse endormie (1913), featured in a 12-page, 19-photograph spread: “The act of creation in all its many manifestations is embodied in the exquisitely refined and deceptively simple forms of this sculpture.” Mazel tov to the lucky buyer who took it home from Christie’s last month for $57.3 million including fees—almost a bargain, for the entire act of creation.

According to a former auction house executive, the hyperbolic language of auction catalogues often works, especially for new collectors of extraordinary wealth looking for trophies.

“They may have never heard of Jean Arp before, but if there’s a magnificent Jean Arp, and you can say, ‘This is one of the best Jean Arp sculptures to ever come to market,’ the collector can say, ‘Oh wow, this is really important,’” he says.

“Someone’s going to spend $30 million on an object by someone they didn’t even know about a month before the sale, or a week before the sale,” he continues. “If you think about that buyer, the buyer’s looking for validation that the object is important, the artist is important, and they rely on the catalogue as a signaling tool.”

The superlatives and hyperbole of the essays “comes out of the circus tradition and originally from P.T. Barnum—‘the greatest show on earth,’ ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ and so on,” says Marcel Danesi, a professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto who has studied advertising discourse. He contrasts the circus lineage to traditional advertising, which is more subtle and often incorporates humor or irony. Neither of those appear in auction house catalogues (or auction houses in general), where descriptions of the objects hew towards the reverential.  

Does anyone actually working within auction houses find it weird?

“Surprisingly, not really,” says a former auction house employee who worked in the proposals department. “A lot of people who work in auction houses have only worked in auction houses, so that kind of grandiose language is pretty common.”

Gorvy, who left Christie’s in late 2016 after 23 years there, says he even has to catch himself when he posts on Instagram. He tries to be judicious with the word “masterpiece,” for example.

Auction houses don’t have that luxury. Of course, there are always the truly great works, Gorvy says, which barely demand any text. But sometimes, he says, “a work of art needs help.”

Can you guess which of these “masterpieces” sold and which ones didn’t? (Answers below.)

1. Andy Warhol, Camouflage (1986)

Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 2017

“Inherently abstract, yet immediately iconic, Camouflage from 1986 is an enduring testament to the brilliant hybridization of high and popular culture that characterizes the legendary Pop oeuvre of Andy Warhol. Spanning over thirty-three feet and reaching more than six feet high, the monumental canvas is utterly mesmerizing in its seemingly limitless repetition, the seamless continuation of green camouflage pattern forcefully articulating the visual dynamism of Warhol’s signature serialization. In its frank invocation of socio-political significance, Camouflage achieves the acerbic wit of the artist’s best work, Warhol delighting in the brilliant irony of creating an arresting abstract painting from a mass-produced print manufactured for the purposes of disguise and erasure.… A gloriously vibrant vision of riotous abstraction, Camouflage is equal parts painting and pattern, satire and sincerity, personal significance and universal imagery; as such, the present work is a remarkable embodiment of singular Pop vision that secured Warhol’s status as one of the greatest artists of all time.”

2. Louise Bourgeois, Breasted Woman (Conceived 1949–50, cast in 1991)

Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 2017

“Conceived in the late 1940s, Louise BourgeoisBreasted Woman belongs to a group of sculptures known as her Personages—evocative works now widely regarded by scholars as among the most outstanding contributions to the history of sculpture in the 20th century. These striking forms are deeply personal works which reflect the complex emotional life of the artist. Executed when the artist was living away from her native France in New York, the totemic figure deals with themes of life, love, loss and the maternal nature of femininity. Widely exhibited and extensively cited in the scholarly literature about the artist, Breasted Woman has become one of Bourgeois most well-known and celebrated forms.”

3. Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme (1970)

Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 2017

“Painted with broad gestural brushstrokes applied with an untamed sense of vigour and spontaneity, Buste de femme exemplifies the impastoed, empathic style that has come to epitomise Picasso’s work of these late years. Like Claude Monet, Henri Matisse or even Willem de Kooning, Picasso’s last years saw a vigorous creative surge as the artist filled canvas after canvas, spurred on by an instinctive, deeply felt urge to paint. Using bold colors and often-extreme exaggerations, he painted with a sense of urgency and immediacy, as if by painting he could halt the inexorable march of time.”

4. Chaim Soutine, Femme à la poupée (1923–24)

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale, May 2017

“The intensity of Soutine’s sensation before the model is manifest here in his unrestrained and powerfully tactile handling, reminiscent of Van Gogh in its Dionysian fervor. Swirling, voluptuous forms lead the eye down the center of the painting, from the model’s rounded head through the hourglass lapels of her coat (perhaps a well-worn fur, to judge by the hue) to her knobby and contorted hands. Especially in the background, the pigment is applied in broad kinetic swaths, anticipating the gestural liberation of the Abstract Expressionists, who looked to Soutine as a hero ahead of his time.”

5. Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1991)

Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 2017

“Belonging to a hallowed body of large-scale Abstrakte Bilder executed in 1991, this towering painting delivers a breathtakingly symphonic and utterly enveloping field of pigment that is dazzling in its execution and riveting in its chromatic complexity. Simultaneously concealing and revealing spectacular accents of red, yellow and blue primaries, a sublime ivory veil of lusciously viscous white oil paint flows laterally across the canvas like a storm of snow surging across the geological strata of a cliff face. The present work sits at the chronological apex of the period when the artist’s creation of monumental essays in abstraction reached new heights and the long, hard-edged spatula became the central instrument of Richter’s technical practice.”

6. Joan Mitchell, No Room at the End (1977)

Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 2017

“Triumphantly heralding an irrepressible joie de vivre, No Room at the End is an arresting testament to the visual dynamism and profound emotive force of Joan Mitchell’s inimitable painterly oeuvre. A magnificent example of her commanding paintings of the late 1970s, the densely layered surface of the present work powerfully evokes the lush countryside of the artist’s home in Vétheuil, engulfing the viewer in a sensory tide of blooming countryside. Simultaneously, coursing across the monumental dual canvases, Mitchell’s impassioned strokes reveal an emotive intensity that transforms the riotously abstract painting into a vessel of profound self-expression.…The abundant natural beauty of the French countryside is powerfully embodied in the vigorous layering of dense, jewel-toned pigment in the present work; rendered with an energetic gestural gusto, lush swaths of sunflower yellow, shimmering blue, and a subtle, earthy orange bloom across the monumental canvas to surround the viewer in the fragrant atmosphere of a springtime garden. The result is a composition evocative of the painterly abandon of de Kooning, the luminous vibrancy of Francis, and the exquisite specificity of Monet.”

Answers: 1. Bought in; 2. Sold for $2,887,500; 3. Bought in; 4. Bought in; 5. Sold for $15,425,000; 6. Bought in.

Anna Louie Sussman