Notes on an Auction (1970)
Artforum, Vol. 9, (September, 1970).
A recent work of art has no stable expressed value. Its sale and the establishment of its worth in money is usually hidden. Secretiveness is built into the marketing of recent art, especially of new art, because each art dealer wants to sell something he claims to be of lasting quality which has not had the time to last. It is a delicate and risky business and it demands fingertip-feeling and a sharp sense of drama and timing.
The value of an artist's work depends on his reputation, which acts as a surrogate for quality for new art because new art is usually judged and bought by those who are unable to see art quality. Reputation is naturally journalistic and is in sum what the art world thinks of an artist; he builds a reputation by making art of a certain character, and once gained that reputation "guarantees" quality from his hand. The standing of an artist's work with the art community can be measured by the prices his art brings. The only public look into the private matter of new art prices is a public auction, and there are very few auctions of new art. It is hard to say whether accurate general conclusions can be taken from any public sale of new art, when it does occur. Dealers bid up the prices of the artists they represent, "freak" things happen, there are lulls and high spots, and so forth. Many objections can be taken against the auction as "what it's really like." Nevertheless, it is all we have got. Furthermore, as a stout believer that facts are better than supposings, I think that the price an artist's work gets on the block is the best and perhaps the only obtainable gauge of what the art public really thinks of it. There is nothing gained considering variables because they cannot be pinned down. The only public fact we have is the price a work brought.
There was a public sale of recent art at Parke-Bernet on the evening of May 14, 1970. It was billed as "Contemporary American and European Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture" from "Various Owners." All the works in the sale were by known artists, most of them very well known. The title page of the catalog lists "Anuskiewicz, Bauermeister, de Kooning, Fautrier, Francis, Gatch, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Jenkins, Kelly, Kemeny, Kline, Lam, Lichtenstein, Matta, Pollock, Rivers, Soulages, Stella, Warhol and other artists." The earliest painting was done in the 1930s, but almost all were from the '40s, '50s and '60s. It was a random group, gathered from here and there over a period of time and ultimately put together to make a consistent sale.
About 80 items were sold, none in lots. 2 or 3 were passed, and the total realized was just over $500,000. This is thought to have been a pretty good showing, especially in the light of a rather lacklustre sale of Impressionists the night before and the bad stock market situation. The average price was about $6350, the median $3500. Eight works sold for $1000 or under, 27 from $1000 to $3000, 25 from $3000 to $5000, 11 from $5000 to $10,000 and 9 over $10,000. A graph of the number of works sold in each price category would show a line descending as the prices rose from $100 to $3000, peaking up between $3000 and $5000, and keeping a fairly even low profile up to $10,000: one at $5500, 2 at $6500, 2 at $7000, and so on. Over $10,000 were a Pollock at $11,000, a Sam Francis at $15,500 and one at $20,000, Stella at $19,000, Nevelson, $25,000, Pollock again at $30,000, Lichtenstein, $35,000, de Kooning, $45,000 and Warhol, $60,000.
Most prices were not too different from what they "should" have been, within broad limits, except that the Abstract Expressionists were generally off. The '69 Stella was fairly high at $19,000, the '67 Noland a shade off at $8000, the two small Pollocks low at $11,000 and $30,000, Kelly about right at $8000, Sam Francis coming back strong at $15,500 and $20,000, the '49 de Kooning, handsome if somewhat busy, a little low at $45,000; the lesser de Koonings were disappointing - one especially slapdash 1960 oil apparently was bought back for $6500. Whatever one thinks of the actual quality of these and other similar works, of their "real" value, they are serious art, seriously intended, and the prices paid, though high or low in a particular case, fill a broad middle ground of "proper" price-quality relationship. If all the prices in the sale were like these there would not be much to write about, beyond mere reporting.
But most interesting to me were several cases of extreme disparity between price and quality.
These disparities criticize the art-buying public. Everyone knows about the Warhol, and has an opinion or has heard rumors about it. Despite all the scuttlebutt about Pop-mad German collectors and price-hoisting by dealers to justify previous private sales, the only real and visible fact we have is that such a thing brought such a price at a public auction and that it was the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living American artist. Certainly this is an important event of recent art history. I can imagine art writing years hence pointing back to the $60,000 soup can as the prime example of our speculative art-buying folly, with a history leading up to it, to show how it happened. But it stands alone, and I am more interested in a few comparisons.
There were five Hofmanns in the sale. Possibly the best of them was a 1942 oil, 24 by 30 inches, a bright, thick, difficult painting by this most difficult of our modern masters. It was one of the best paintings in the sale. It sold for $3500, far below the gallery price. The other Hofmanns went for $4500, $4000, $3500, $2500 and a small oil for $1600.
$1600! Could a small oil from the "classical" 1940s-early-1950s by any of the other "modern old masters" sell for so little? Would a small or medium size oil of this period by de Kooning, Pollock, Gorky, Motherwell or Still ever sell for under $5000, or even close to it? The smaller Pollock in the sale was the same size (in square inches) as the smallest Hofmann, and it was cheap at $11,000. The two smaller Gottliebs and the two Klines went rather low, in the $3000-5000 range, but they were oil on paper, like sketches, which takes the edge off the price, and I thought the Klines were rather poor. But four of the five Hofmanns were oil on board or canvas, four of the five were full easel size, from 22 by 28 inches to 30 by 41 inches, they were all good paintings and none of them sold for more than S4500.
There was a Lichtenstein of the "comic book" period in the sale, magna on canvas, somewhat larger than the 1942 Hofmann at 38 by 35 inches. It sold for $35,000, the third highest price of the sale and precisely ten times the price of that Hofmann. In my opinion this painting has no artistic quality and therefore is a very poor long-term investment. Its social and journalistic qualities and associations are something else, and must account for the price, but due time will reveal it as the period piece it is. The two paintings are reproduced together here. Look from one to the other. Whatever your prejudice and precondition, judge them as art and only as art. Is it possible to prefer, as art, this precious bit of high camp fluff to the Hofmann? Do those who pay $60,000 for Warhol and $35,000 for Lichtenstein think they are getting good stuff for their money, or are they enough bewitched by campy damping of value distinction to think it does not matter? They may not know, but their money will tell them, as the value of these things slips slowly as the years pass.
There are interesting comparisons on a lower price level. For example, a Gottlieb oil, 1956, 50 by 60 inches, a Riopelle oil, 1954, 38 by 51 inches, and a recent George Segal sculpture. The Gottlieb sold for $9000 and the Riopelle and Segal each brought $9500. This is not as tidy nor as extreme as an example as the Hofmann-Lichtenstein, but again the price-quality balance is out of whack. The Gottlieb is a fine, solid, typical painting by one of the best Abstract Expressionists at the height of his powers, but it sells for something less than the serious but vacuous Riopelle and the Segal, which despite its Pop credentials and "atmosphere" is altogether without quality.
At another step down in price there is another very similar "one-price" comparison: the $4500 Hofmann, a 1951 Soulages of slippery slickness at the same price, and a cute, campy mechanical falling man column by Trova at $4250. Good, not-so-good and trivial can also be found at the other end of the price range: the 1950 Pollock at $30,000, the pretentious, fussy, unsculptural Nevelson, which depends just as much on artificial atmospheric effect as the Segal, and comes with a provenance and pedigree as long as the sculpture is tall, at $25,000, and the Lichtenstein at $35,000.
Many more comparisons could be worked up but all of them would make the same point to the student of art and the art world: quality in new art has a tough time in the salesroom. That does not mean good recent art always goes cheap. For example, the reaction to Pollock's apparently extreme position has surrounded him with a soft cushion of critical security. I don't think that many people like Pollock any more than they like Hofmann, but in this day, when quality is equated with evident newness, they figure they'd better go along and make approving noises. Hofmann is considered "important," but if he had not been so influential as a personality it might not be possible to even give his paintings away. He took no far-out stance; he balanced and adjusted and forced all the lively elements of his art into harmony. He never raised "new issues" or set the trends the art public needs to sanction its timid approval. He is as much an artist of the future as Pollock - maybe more so, because Pollock finished something up. But Hofmann did none of the things the art public likes and that is why his paintings sell for so little.
I suppose that the buyers of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Trova probably think their men are way out ahead of the "formal" artists. They certainly have reason to think so if they have taken in any of the hot air about Pop. I am sure they really and genuinely like what they buy more than many of those who buy more serious art, if only because serious art gives itself up more slowly. Pop art is the soul of the art world, in a way. It makes anything right and everything fun, or at least promises to. Quality always seems subversive. Unless it is dressed up it goes cheap. I guess that is the way it will always be, in art as in everything else. Maybe it is better that way. After all, a man with an eye deserves a bargain.