Alistair Clarke of Sotheby’s deserves huge kudos for getting the Ariane Dandois sale with such success. Not one dealer that I talked to, not a single person, wanted one thing in the sale. It was, in the words of many, over polished, over re-gilt and underwhelming. And yet, the display was splendid. It just shows the sow’s ear can have a silver lining.
The New York Times used to have a classified ads section at the back of the sports section when I was young. The ads were for army or government surplus and the stuff they had for sale was interesting, to say the least. My brother had the idea of ordering a parachute and a six foot weather balloon in order, I think, to make a hot air balloon, i.e. he would fill the balloon with helium while it was inside the parachute making, in essence, a hot air balloon. He was then either going to convince me to jump off the roof of our house holding onto the parachute which I guess he figured would afford me a soft landing. If he could not convince me of this plan, he was going to attach my mother’s miniature poodle and see if it would float away. I was susceptible to his ideas, he always seemed to know where the spare Halloween chocolate was hidden after all, as they were compelling, but I foiled it when the package of the parachute and balloon arrived after he had gone away to school. I chose to inflate the balloon, it was huge and filled with talcum powder to prevent the rubber of the balloon from sticking to itself. I found my mother’s Electrolux vacuum cleaner in the living room and switched the hose from suck to blow. Of course, the balloon exploded on me spreading talcum throughout the living room including the stucco ceiling. I wasn’t too popular with either my brother or my mother but my father figured it was cheaper than putting me in a body cast although he might have wished to get rid of the poodle.
I wanted to tell this story because I still remember the care I put into blowing up the balloon. It was obviously an older balloon, it was surplus to some agency after all, and the rubber was not as stretchy as it might have been. I started by turning on the vacuum and letting the balloon inflate to about two feet. Thereafter, I tested it intermittently to see how close I was getting to blowing the balloon to smithereens. The fact is that it happened despite my great, albeit non-scientific, care. I liken the blowing up of the balloon to the current art market. It keeps on inflating, but sooner or later, the balloon is going to explode. If the capitalist system has a flaw, it is that it seldom checks itself when profits looks to be a slam dunk. I can assure you that when the balloon pops, it is really scary. It is also messy. I learned how to use all the attachments fo the Electrolux vacuum before my mother deemed the living room to be clean.
The auction houses have proven that it is expensive to sell expensive things. From real estate to PR to handling, personnel et al, the expenses are huge. Dealers have always known that it is expensive and yet they are often painted as being greedy, particularly by the auction houses. There is irony in this, but on a commission basis of close to forty percent, the auction houses, with no investment in the product, are looking less altruistic than ever.
The dealer response to the rise in commission has not been without criticism of the auction houses, but dealers have to buy goods and the auction houses are one of the market places for their product. That may be changing as I have had three house calls in as many weeks. The auction houses, however, are far less concerned at losing the odd bit of English furniture given the cost of handling such items. They know that top lots will come to them as they have branded themselves as sellers of the most expensive luxuries in the world.
There is, of course, a danger in such a reputation. Money can scare people as much as thrill them and there are plenty of people who do not wish to be seen spending large sums of money. The market for the expensive luxuries is also a limited market and although it may not be affected by the ups and downs of markets, there is quality of being on a knife edge in both finding and satisfying the whims of a super rich clientele. The commission rise to twenty-five percent is going to get the bottom feeders paying for this strategy, but that also may backfire as dealers will certainly be paying less for things.
The brave new world is one where money rules, not that it hasn’t always been that way, but it is more brazen than ever. Frankly, it is more honest this way. The contemporary art market reflects the power of money better than any other market. From the outside, it looks like a shell game as collectors pay more for product that is hard to understand. The auction houses want to get in on this action, even have to a limited extent, but they must fear reprisals should the market collapse. It is a very interesting moment in time and as time goes on, the auction houses look more and more like dealers. That’s rich.