Christie’s 38% Sales Slump Confirms Continued Art Market Contraction—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week
Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.
01 Mid-year reports illustrate a robust market for artworks in the $5 million-or-below range, but sparse offerings in the $20 million-and-up category—resulting in a drop in overall sales figures from last year.
(via the Wall Street Journal)
Christie’s International announced Wednesday that it managed to sell $3 billion in art during the past six months, which represents a decline of 38% from last year’s totals. The greatest hits came in the category of contemporary art, usually its strongest offering, with $788 million in auction sales in the past half a year—down 45% from the same period in 2015. Sotheby’s has recorded auction totals of $2.4 billion so far this year, a sale figure that is unusually close to rival auction house Christie’s. In terms of individual sales, it appears as though collectors are holding onto their most valuable pieces until the market recovers—and auction houses aren’t in a position to offer as many guarantees as in the past to wrest those works out of collectors’ homes and storage facilities. Only 29 works sold so far this year at Christie’s have managed to break the $6.5 million price-point, compared to 47 last year. Cooler markets have inspired both auction houses to double down and ensure high sell-through rates in order to inspire additional confidence from sellers; Sotheby’s managed to hit 95% at its contemporary art auction in May, despite a lower overall sale total. Although late summer is often quiet for the art world, fall sales in New York, London, and Hong Kong will offer additional readings on the health of the market.
02 On Wednesday night, roughly 100 people gathered in Jack Shainman’s New York gallery to discuss how artist Dread Scott’s “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” flag, which sparked a barrage of threatening calls and emails, could once again fly outside in the world.
More than a year ago, a South Carolina police officer shot and killed Walter Scott as he fled, unarmed, back-turned, from a traffic stop. In response, Scott created the flag, an “unfortunate update,” as Scott puts it, of the flag that the NAACP flew outside of its offices in lower Manhattan in the 1920s and ’30s each time a black person was lynched. Earlier this month, the piece was mounted to the façade of Shainman’s gallery with the support of organizers of “For Freedoms,” an artist-run super PAC, which is also the title of the exhibition on view inside. It flew for roughly a week, coming to the attention of Fox News, which ran an un-bylined story titled “Art gallery stands by anti-police violence flag in wake of deadly Dallas shooting.” Threats poured into the gallery and against Scott personally, with one person telling the artist he hoped he would be lynched. The landlord then threatened to sue, saying the flag violated the gallery’s lease, which stipulated that nothing could be adorned to the facade. The work was eventually taken down. Many of those in attendance on Wednesday were denizens of the art world who offered their connections and support to the work in an attempt to get the flag up and on view in more locations.
03 Swiss officials are seizing artworks—including a Van Gogh drawing and a $35 million Monet—from the collection of Jho Low, a businessman under investigation by the FBI for illegally removing money from a Malaysian state fund.
(via the Wall Street Journal)
According to a spokeswoman for Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice, U.S. officials requested that the Swiss seize some of Low’s holdings, including Monet’s Venice scene San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk (1908-1912), which he purchased in late 2013 for $35 million. Filed on Wednesday, the civil lawsuit prompting this confiscation claimed that the art had been purchased with money illegally removed from the Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1DMB). The funds were then channeled through various accounts at Swiss banks, one of which is also under investigation for neglecting to “adequately assess irregularities in activities pertaining to customers’ accounts.” The whereabouts of the art have not been disclosed, although the lawsuit suggested that they are held in Geneva Freeport, a warehouse complex known for its extensive storage of high-value art. Low, named one of ARTnews’s “Top 200 Collectors” in 2015, has sold a significant portion of his $300 million art collection over the past year, including paintings by Basquiat, Monet, and Picasso at prices far below their low estimates.
04 The foundation tasked with researching Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection announced Monday that at least 91 works were likely owned by Jewish families before being stolen by Nazi officials.
(via the Washington Post)
Since early this year, the government-backed German Lost Art Foundation has been delving into the provenance of some 500 works left to them by an earlier task force. Gurlitt, whose father was a Nazi-era art dealer, had amassed approximately 1,200 works in his Munich apartment and 250 more in Salzburg by the time they were discovered in 2012. The discovery was not made public until November 2013, however, at which point the German government launched a two-year, approximately $2 million investigation into the history of the collection. The project concluded in January, when much was made of the fact that the task force had only managed to identify the owners of five contested works. Five hundred remained that required further research, and these were the artworks assigned to the German Lost Art Foundation. The group’s announcement follows the revelation earlier this month that Nazi-looted art in the German state of Bavaria was actually returned to the very Nazi families who stole it during World War II.
05 Gagosian Gallery will pay $4.28 million in back taxes to New York, the state attorney general announced Tuesday.
(via the New York Times)
As part of an ongoing investigation into the financial dealings of art galleries, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has said that Gagosian Gallery had avoided paying certain taxes over a ten-year period. According to the AG’s office, the gallery’s California affiliate Pre-War Art Inc. sold and shipped some $40 million in art to New York-based customers between 2005 and 2015 without paying sales tax. The gallery also neglected to pay taxes on works that were shipped out of state between 2012 and 2015, attorney general Eric Schneiderman said. (For a deeper understanding of the world of art and taxes, see Artsy’s tax probe explainer.) The investigation found no evidence of criminal activity, however. Officials have said that the Gagosian settlement bears the biggest price tag of any agreement they’ve made with a gallery thus far, but it also falls far short of the price of many single artworks the mega-gallery sells (Gagosian had a Gerhard Richter painting available at Art Basel last month for some $20 million). This news is the latest in New York’s art-world tax probe saga, which has seen collector Aby J. Rosen pay $7 million and art dealer and Gagosian director Victoria Gelfand shell out $210,000 to make up for previously unpaid taxes on personal artwork sales unrelated to her post at the gallery.
06 Three influential Berlin galleries—Croy Nielsen, VeneKlasen Werner, and Galerie Gebrüder Lehmann—have decided to leave the city.
Croy Nielsen will move to Vienna. Although the gallery cited the city’s reputation as a hotspot for emerging art, Vienna is better known for its established galleries (including Galerie Christine König, Krinzinger, and Nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder) and strong institutions. Despite this reputation, the Austrian capital has developed an increasingly strong cadre of experimental gallerists like Emanuel Layr and Georg Kargl—perhaps because Vienna offers a space where quality new art can clearly and quickly come to the fore, while galleries in Berlin compete against nearly 100 peers for critical and collector attention. Meanwhile, VeneKlasen Werner will focus on its spaces in New York and London, noting that its Berlin space of seven years was always meant to be temporary. Gebrüder Lehmann will similarly focus on the gallery’s activities at its headquarters in Dresden. It is by no means new for notable Berlin galleries to suddenly close: Klosterfelde abruptly shut its doors in 2013, and Galerie Kamm ceased operations a year later. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that, at least for Croy Nielsen and Gebrüder Lehmann, being in a major art capital like Berlin no longer seems necessary.
07 Billy Name, who documented Andy Warhol’s world of the ’60s as the in-house photographer at the Factory during its prime, died Monday after years of battling recurring illnesses.
Name wore many hats at the Factory, from studio manager to electrician to decorator—he famously coated the walls of the original East 47th Street Factory with silver spray paint and aluminum foil. “I was the Factory foreman and I made things operate,” Name told the Guardian last year. “I took photographs and I kept my eye on Andy.” In addition to intimate candids of Warhol—the artist captured bent over a tripod, speaking into a silvery payphone, or carrying a Brillo box—Name captured the mythic cast of characters that filled the artist’s legendarily rambunctious studio. His photographs are populated by the slim, stoic figures and faces of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Edie Sedgwick, and other members of the choice clique dubbed “superstars,” who through Name’s lens appear somewhat superhuman.
08 The scientist who previously claimed that Damien Hirst’s signature sculptures emit hazardous levels of formaldehyde will retract his report.
(via the New York Times)
In April, the Royal Society of Chemistry published a report in its online journal Analytical Methods indicating that Hirst’s sculptures—featuring animals preserved in large glass tanks—leaked dangerous amounts of formaldehyde at his 2012 Tate Modern exhibition. Led by Pier Giorgio Righetti, an Italian chemistry professor, researchers found that formaldehyde readings supposedly reached 5 parts per million (ppm), significantly exceeding the 0.5 ppm limit set by EU regulations. With the help of Oxford professor Claire Vallance, Hirst’s company Science Ltd. looked into the report and found that there was no such risk, with follow-up tests reporting no readings over 0.1 ppm. A joint statement from Righetti and Science Ltd. called earlier findings “inaccurate and unreliable” and notes that Righetti “regrets any alarm or concern the paper may have caused.”
09 A new U.S. Senate bill seeking to curb the sale of sacred Native American objects is receiving bipartisan support.
At a press conference earlier this month, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) presented the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AR), Jeff Flake (R-AR), and Tom Udall (D-NM). The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act primarily strengthens the already existing Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by doubling the amount of prison time one can potentially receive for selling an illegally obtained sacred indigenous object. The bill also increases the amnesty period during which one can return an ill-gotten item. Among other provisions, the act includes an explicit export ban on such objects, a direct response to the sale of such pieces in numerous French auctions over the past several years. These sales have stirred controversy and drawn the ire of Native American groups, who argue that many of the pieces were illegally removed from tribal ownership. Given that French courts, which have repeatedly declined to prohibit the sales, don’t abide by U.S. law, it is unclear what direct impact this new legislation would have if passed.
10 An alleged early painting by Lucian Freud, which the artist has denied is his, has been deemed genuine by BBC One show Fake or Fortune?.
(via the Independent)
When Christie’s identified a portrait of a man in a black cravat as a Freud in 1985, the artist denied that it was his. Now, the BBC One show Fake or Fortune? has reattributed the work—along with a price tag of at least £300,000—to his name. According to a note in the files of the artist’s former solicitor, Freud had admitted to starting the painting, though it was finished by someone else and therefore undeserving of his name. However, experts on the show agree that the painting is by the single hand of Freud himself. “As the investigation progressed we had to investigate Freud the man as much as the painting,” said Fiona Bruce, the show’s presenter. Freud may have been further motivated to reject the painting on the basis of its former owner, an old classmate with whom he had a longstanding feud. Art historian Philip Mould added that “it was a novel and gargantuan task to overturn the reported views of the artist.” The story adds an interesting angle to the question of artists disavowing their works. The market typically adheres to the word of the artist, and it is unclear if a television show can trump Freud’s own words in the eyes of the collectors.
Cover image: Gianni Motti, Moneybox. Image courtesy of Galerie Perrotin.