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Friday, May 18, 2007

A Cindy Sherman Sells For $2.1 Million

Cindy Sherman, Untitled No. 92, 1981
Christie’s New York, May 16, 2007

Christie's $384.6 Million Contemporary Sale

The evening sale of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s New York on May 16, 2007, was certainly dramatic, if higher and higher bids coming one after the other almost without end is your idea of drama. The sale totaled $384,654,400, a new record for a contemporary auction, with 74 of the 78 lots finding buyers, or 95 percent. Gee, looks like the bulls still rule the art market...



Featured Comment
by Ken Tanaka: "I spent part of my Thursday dinner discussing the soaring prices of photography with museum curators and collectors. The prices are keeping quite a few photographers and works out of public collections, and this is a real problem for museums. Photography departments even at major art museums don't have the deep pockets that other departments sometimes have. So they must often rely on bequests and cultvating directed donations to get such works.

"To break the monotonous tone of envy let me present a slightly different perspective on the situation. Productively diversifying large investable sums is, and always has been, a challenge that's hard for most people to understand unless they're faced with the predicament. Investments in conventional and traditional instruments (stocks, bonds, mutual funds) is fine and relatively safe. But these instruments, over time, produce relatively modest returns and present varying degrees of risk. Art and antiques have, for quite a long time, been considered 'alternative investments.' Private bankers track these asset classes for their clients in much the same way that they track other assets, and they quite often represent their clients at auctions and private sales.

"Spending $2+ million for a photograph might seem outlandish and arrogant to many people, regardless of the photographer. But in fact it's simply someone's investment transaction, and one that's almost guaranteed to reap a much more robust return than stocks or mutual funds. Photography actually represents a real ground-floor bargain today when compared to other flat works. In fact, today it's considered a nice beginner's investment in the art world.

"So before you automatically denigrate those who participate in such sales you should realize that these are simply investments, and generally damn good ones. You should also realize that the general caricature of the type of people who buy such works is often far off the mark. In fact, increasingly the buyers are coming from Europe and China."

Featured Comment by Ctein: "Wow; I gotta disagree with almost every comment posted so far (very unusual; I'm usually in accord with you guys).

"First off, as an artist who doesn't sell for anywhere near the prices he would like to (or needs to, to make a living at it) I am thrilled when I see photographs go for high prices. I don't care who gets the money. Art has no, I repeat NO, intrinsic economic value. It's only worth what people pay for it. People won't pay much for my work. If someone collector decided to sell some early photo of mine at an auction and manage to get a million dollars for it , I would be jumping for joy.

"It's not about me getting a cut of the sale. That's not the way the art world works. And if Ms. Sherman doesn't understand that, she hasn't been paying attention. Frankly, I can't believe she doesn't; I think, Mike, you must have misremembered or misread something somewhere. Because every artist knows collectors buy work not only for enjoyment but also for investment, with the hope that the price for the work will go up and they will make money on the purchase. The way we benefit from work that gets resold for high prices is that we can then raise our own prices. I am sure that Ms. Sherman's agent is going to be kicking up the prices for her photos substantially as a result of this sale, and she WILL benefit directly from that. The best thing in the world is for an artist to become collectible.

"As for social inequity, there are lots and lots of ways that I hate what the rich are doing with their money. I hate the way they use it to bribe politicians to create even more ways to evade taxes on their stock options and dividends and tax shelters. I hate the way they drive up prices for all the rest of us; I live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and if I could wave a magic wand, I would cut all the house and housing prices by a factor of four. (The fact that I lucky enough to be home owner doesn't change that.) There are schoolteachers here, for God's sakes, who can't live within an hour of the school districts they teach in, because they can't even afford an apartment. Those are ways the rich hurt us with their wealth!

"But spending their money on inflated art prices? How does this harm me? How does it make the cost of housing, or groceries, or health care higher? I'd much, much rather they inflated a harmless market like art speculation than use their wealth to make the world an even more unlivable place for me.

"OK, rant off."


Blogger Herman said...

It sounds like a lot of bull.

1:27 PM  
Blogger mike said...

Makes me feel like the money I make is worthless. And that is insulting. 2.1 mill for a piece of paper — and not even an original — is an insult to those of us who work for a wage. Mind you anyone dumb enough to give me that sort of cash is welcome to!

3:15 PM  
Blogger BMcW said...

Years ago, while visiting Carmel I took in a photo exhibit at the Sunset Center gallery, probably sponsored by The Friends of Photography. The exhibit included works by Cindy Sherman, among others. In the comment book I noticed that Brett Weston had written a one-word review: Vile. That comment came to mind when reading about the price paid for the Sherman work....

7:12 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

You think that's bad, how about $71,720,000.00 paid for Andy Warhol's "Green Car Crash"?

Mike, this is JUST my opinion, but I frankly feel that when art prices get like this, it's a sign of social inequity and social malaise. If you look at a pie graph of the number of Americans who controlled 50% of the wealth, the wedge gets steady larger throughout the 20th century...until Reagan was elected. Then ZUUUP! It suddenly gets much narrower again. Bush II is much worse, concentrating ever more money into the hands of ever fewer people. It's simply a sign of sickness in any inequality causes stress, unrest, turmoil, eventually radical upheaval if it's left unchecked.

These art prices really just mean that a small elite has way too much money--way more than it has anything sensible to do with. In a healthier society, these disparities--and by extension, these kinds of art prices--simply wouldn't exist.

Again, just my view of things.


8:12 PM  
Blogger Matthew Bamberg said...

Gotta love Cindy Sherman, not the best technical photographer, but sure had an eye for the odd. h

11:45 PM  
Blogger chriscrawfordphoto said...

Something else to remember is that the photographer (Ms. Sherman in this case) gets NOTHING from such sales. Most of these big sales are one collector selling to another, not the artist selling.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

That's right Chris, and if memory serves, Ms. Sherman is on record as being a trifle bitter about that.

Can't remember where I read that, though.


12:47 AM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Yeah, who knows for how much she gave that photo away in 1981 :)

I was recently to an exhibition by Hiroshi Sugimoto. And nobody there knew for how much his photographs could go on sale - in this same auction a tryptich of his seascapes series went for $ 1.882.000, WHOA!

And I even like him!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There's something missing from (ahem...) the picture: art being sold like oil. Or groceries. Yep, it's „collectible” and „investable”, but still art. Something that was supposed to derive another kind of joy, not the pleasurable sound of rolling coins...

On a side note: also a nice investment would be a recycling factory or, why not, a bio-factory for obtaining gas from organic waste.
The person who would invest in art and recycling would have the right to brag about his smart decisions: pouring money into art and crap.

4:14 PM  
Blogger razorblack said...

There's an interesting, yet possibly outrageous, commentary podcast by a few art students and their professor here.

An interesting one, in any case.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

More good reasons not to go to art school....


8:15 PM  
Blogger BobR said...

Somewhat apropos to the current discussion is an article in the New York Times yesterday about the discovery of original colour plates by Edward Steichen, A Splash of Photo History Comes to Light. One wonders what these might have fetched at auction rather than being donated to a museum.

2:28 AM  

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