Paris, 17 December 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).
2013 was the year that the art market demonstrated its force. In the throes of an economic downturn and amidst constant technological growth and change, the art world has proven its value in 21st-century society, both economically and symbolically. This was the year that saw Banksy take up a residency on the streets of New York, the rise of the selfie as a form of photography, and the revelatory discovery of a stash of Nazi-looted artworks in a flat in Munich. While the year has been marked by staggering figures and shattering records, Art Media Agency examines whether these were merely impressive anomalies, or a sign of the market’s continued strength.
On 12 November, the art world was shaken by the sale of a Francis Bacon triptych for $142.4 million at Christie’s New York. Three Studies of Lucian Freud realised a new world record for a work of art sold at auction, but its significance has since evolved beyond this title. The triptych, along with the $105.4 million sale of Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), realised the following night at Sotheby’s, came to embody the resilience of today’s art market.
Journalists and professionals alike were quick to project visions of huge growth across the entire market, yet in reality these sales, while impressive, only correspond to a very specific area. David Kusin, former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and art economics specialist, explained: “What we’ve seen is that the explosive prices represent only a tiny, tiny subset of lots. [...] They get all the press, but we’ve seen relatively stable hammer prices in most categories over the past few years.” While Postwar and Contemporary art prices occupy headlines all over the world, it can be easy to forget that several Impressionist and Old Master works are failing to sell. For every painting that smashes its estimate, there is another which will sell for far below it, if at all.
However, 2012’s 3.3% decline in the market for fine art, as measured by the Mei Moses World All Art Index, has been somewhat recovered by an increase of 2.2% in 2013 – with these record sales will evidently having contributed. It is important to remember that despite the hyperbolic prices reported, this is still a luxury market in a global economic crisis; yet the figures are, nevertheless, encouraging. Clearly in 2013 people still view art as a worthwhile investment – and this is perhaps most visible on the Southeast Asian art scene. China has emerged as the second largest market after the United States, with Hong Kong confirming its place as an internationally-significant salesroom. Christie’s Asia sales totalled $947 million in 2013, with Hong Kong’s autumn auctions realising total sales of $496 million. Also held in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s October sales of Contemporary and Modern realised sales of $542 million. The trend for record-breaking is no longer just limited to the West, and the figures reflect China’s continued growth as a financial superpower, rivalling the US across all markets.
Whilst some masterpieces were selling for enormous prices on the world stage, others were languishing unnoticed and undiscovered in a Munich flat. The revelation that more than 1,400 works of art had been stashed away in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment has opened more than a few cans of worms, with the affair having sparked questions surrounding tax evasion, the Holocaust, ownership and entitlement, to name but a few. What is really significant about this case is the legal grey areas that it has exposed, which stem from a collective, inherited European sense of guilt relating to Nazi war crimes; suffice to say, this is a case with incredibly complex ramifications. The 30-year statute of limitations which exists in Germany, preventing the descendants of those robbed of their paintings from making claims, has proved controversial, as has Gurlitt’s assertion that the works were “acquired legally” and therefore belong to him. What is certain is that 1,406 previously-unknown works of art by such artists as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Otto Dix exist – and that this is a story set to continue long after the close of 2013.
Themes of appropriation and repatriation have also extended beyond Munich. A series of legal disputes between the Native American Hopi tribe and Parisian auction houses Drouot in April and EVE in December has led to a re-evaluation of the cultural significance of objets d’art, and challenged auction houses to consider more than just market value. An interesting development in the latest case was the Annenberg Foundation’s $500,000 purchase of several of the artefacts on sale in order to return them to the Hopi tribe in Arizona. The controversy spread to news outlets all over the world – even prompting a response from actor Robert Redford, who described their proposed sale as “sacrilege”.
The issue of repatriation has also been at the heart of a nationwide campaign by the United Kingdom to prevent the exportation of a Van Dyck self-portrait. The art world is waiting to hear if the country can raise the £12.5 million needed to keep the work in the country by February 2014, after the painting was bought for three times its estimate and then immediately put back on the market. The year’s events have demonstrated that art remains a highly-contested commodity, both for its economic worth and for its cultural heritage.
But whilst art has flaunted its value in much of the world in 2013, elsewhere it has sadly witnessed a demise. In July Detroit became the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy, and with an estimated debt of $17 billion, efforts are being made to cling on to its art. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is ending the year on a cliffhanger as the future of its collection, one of the nation’s most well-regarded, hangs in the air. Christie’s has spent months valuing the museum’s pieces (5% of which is currently estimated at $866 million) in order for city officials to make an informed decision on whether to sell the collection entirely, or to “rent” it out to other institutions at a premium. The DIA is fighting back with the support of much of the international art world, transforming this story from a localised economic issue into a debate over the value of culture to a city’s population. Since the financial crash in 2008, the topic of art as a dispensable part of society has cropped up time and time again.
In stark contrast at the other end of the country lies Miami, a city whose fortunes have been hugely boosted by art. The 2013 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach was the largest and most illustrious yet, characterised by a celebrity-studded schedule of parties, receptions and events. Thirteen satellite fairs complemented the main event this year, drawing an even larger audience to the city. During the occasion the Florida city inaugurated its new Pérez Art Museum, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron and dedicated to contemporary art from the Caribbean, North and South America. The international crowd may have been ephemeral, but its legacy is not. Miami’s mayor, Tomas Regalado, has spoken of a “cultural movement” in the city. Speaking to AFP just before the latest edition of the fair, he commented: “In terms of tourism, hotel occupancy, art transactions, this week will bring in some $200 million to Miami.” The 2013 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach confirmed that its influence is set to continue in the city long after the exhibitors and celebrities have left.
From sales to selfies
On 18 November, Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” to be its word of the year. The popular, self-executed form of photography took the world by storm in 2013, with everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama having been caught posing for one. Disputes have been rife, however, about whether the selfie can be described as a reputable art form. Some have even gone so far as to call Rembrandt and Van Gogh the fathers of the selfie.
This year’s Moving Image, the contemporary video art fair which runs alongside Frieze in London presented an exhibition entitled “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery”, featuring 19 emerging artists whose work adapts the traditional self-portrait for the digital age. The exhibition’s co-curator Kyle Chayka commented that, to take a selfie is to “participate in a visual aesthetic and cultural phenomenon”.
Indeed, this phenomenon has stretched to the latest Yayoi Kusama exhibition, “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven”, at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. Visitors to the show have been known to queue for up to six hours in order to take a selfie with the coloured LED light and mirror-lined display, reported Town & Country Magazine. Hugh Dornbush, founder of the website Selfie.com, commented: “I think the selfie has to be considered art, accepting that not all art is great and some is very bad. But it’s a deliberate act of self-expression. So far it’s been easy to equate that self-expression with narcissism (which it often is), but the selfie is fundamentally a self-portrait using modern technology. And of course that is art.” While many would openly deplore the comparison being drawn between Rembrandt and Rihanna, the selfie nevertheless seems set to remain a prominent photographic phenomenom in 2014.
2013 heralded new art-centred projects from internet giants Amazon and Google, with another from eBay reportedly in the pipeline. In August, Amazon launched Amazon Fine Art, offering more than 40,000 artworks from around 150 galleries and dealers for sale on its website. The initiative was unique, removing the ability for gallerists to form traditional relationships with clients. In 2013 art is no longer reserved for the prestigious salesrooms of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but there to add to your basket alongside your books, DVDs, jewellery and cupcake makers. Since its launch, however, and somewhat understandably, Amazon Fine Art has evolved into a platform to sell primarily affordable works of art. Pieces valued at less than $500, often limited-edition prints, account for the majority of sales. Feedback has been mostly positive from gallerists, who are benefiting from the platform’s far-reaching influence – American galleries, for example, are now easily able to sell to buyers in Switzerland and Dubai.
In December, Google also announced its plans to target the art market, not through sales, but through image-sharing. The Google Open Gallery interface, aimed at artists, historians, archivists, galleries and art lovers, offers online exhibitions and allows a detailed study of artworks through its powerful zoom tool. The company announced on 10 December that 34 partners are to join its Cultural Institute, 25 of which are to present their first virtual exhibitions. This fledgling tool will be one to watch in 2014, to see to what extent the Open Gallery and the Cultural Institute’s other schemes can enrich the international art world. It has also been reported that online auction giant eBay is planning its third venture into the art market, with Josh Baer and John Maeda reported to be consulting for the firm.
A less technological innovation which took 2013′s art world by storm came from fabled street artist Banksy. In an unprecedented move, he took up a “residency” on the streets of New York, producing a new work every day throughout the month of October. Producing pieces in his usual thought-provoking and humorous style, Banksy’s project highlighted the ephemeral quality of street art. Once the image and location had been posted on his website, it was a fight to see it before it was added to and eventually erased by other graffiti artists, as was the case with around half of the works produced. Others were removed from the street as whole sections of buildings’ walls were cut out in an effort to preserve them. Red Hook Balloon, his 7 October piece, was taken to Art Miami, but failed to sell. Other works are to be offered at auction in the new year, while his closing piece, a set of balloons which spelled out “Banksy”, are currently being held by the NYPD as evidence, after an onlooker attempted to take them.
Perhaps this is a rather fitting metaphor to sum up the art world in 2013. Despite the financial crash, prices are, on the whole, still soaring. People are aware of the enormous value of art, even if they don’t always know what to do with it, hence the NYPD’s holding six balloons in custody, hence Detroit’s moral dilemma over its historic art museum, hence Cornelius Gurlitt’s extraordinary secret stash. Trends such as the selfie puzzle some and amuse others, but nonetheless spark debate, which is healthy for the market. Shattering records brought to us by such artists as Bacon, Warhol and Koons demonstrate more than just a sustained appetite for buying art – they demonstrate a sustained appetite for art. Just as high-budget collectors and art professionals flocked to Art Miami, FIAC in Paris and Frieze in London, art lovers flocked to catch the latest Banksy piece, or the reopened Tate Britain, and mourned the temporary closure of public institutions during the US government shutdown. In 2013, a period of austerity in which culture is often a secondary concern, the art world has proved, not only it continued financial value, but its capacity to captivate audiences the world over.