A Pox on the Auction Houses.

November 22, 2010 at 7:15am

A Pox on the Auction Houses.


By Jerry Saltz


In last Friday’s Economist (Nov. 20, 2010) the excellent London-based art-writer Sarah Thornton (who I wish were writing this sort of thing regularly in America for the New York Times, the New Yorker, or New York Magazine) published an extraordinary piece of thinking and thinking-through about the fishy business of auctions. It’s titled: “A Passion that Knows no Bounds; Philippe Segalot’s ‘Carte Blanche,’ the auction as self-portrait.”

Here is a link: http://www.economist.com/node/17551930.


I’m against regulation in the art world. I know next to nothing about auctions; I don’t really follow them. Yet Thronton’s chilling well-researched article made me think that the FBI White Collar Crimes unit ought to at least investigate these auction sharks and charlatans, and put the fear of God and Rikers into them. That’s how shady things have gotten.


Thornton’s no-nonsense article deals with the double-dealing “Carte Blanche,” the so-called show curated by duplicitous wheeler-dealer Philippe Segalot for the auction house of Phillips de Pury & Company. Segalot is a slick big-wig art adviser who buys and sells blue-chip art to a set of international millionaires and billionaires, all looking for a safe place to store their money. Full disclosure: I do not know Mr. Segalot. I do know and like Phillips co-owner, Simon de Pury, my fellow cast-member on Bravo’s “Work of Art.”  


As I read Thornton’s article I was impressed that she never slips and just says, “These guys are sleazy flimflam men gaming idiotic rubes in a glorified Ponzi scheme and should all be shut down.” Maybe she did write that and the legal department of the Economist deleted it (it’s all there between the lines anyway). I don’t know much about auctions. But as a blowhard spouting my own private opinions on Facebook about a subject I know little about I have no legal department.


I first read about last week’s Phillips sale (November 8, 2010) a few months ago in typical puff pieces talking about how novel and creative it all was to have an art adviser “curate” a “show” for an auction house. As soon as I read these flossy reports the sale struck me as sheer phony-baloney – a suspect scheme of getting speculators to sell their second-rate glitz to the other speculators who then pass off their second-rate glitz to their fellow brethren, all the while with prices spiraling upwards.  It’s a covert form of price fixing in plain daylight. One collector pays far above market value, say $600,000 for a work of art by an artist that he already owns many examples of and that would otherwise sell in a gallery for only $60,000. He takes one loss but then reaps the enormous gains on all the others from then on. Dealers do this now as well and it stinks. Moreover it’s potentially fixed on the inside as well. In semi pre-arranged stratagems it’s “I’ll sell you my Damien and then buy your Takashi for inflated prices. We both profit. I’ll buy your Jeff and Andy. We’ll then sell them an Urs and a Jean-Michel, all at high prices, get someone to take your iffy Maurizio, pass along an old Wool and a bad Andy. We’ll all move our crappy Anselm Reyles to one another and dump some Matthew Day Jacksons. We’ll throw in a few Felix Gonzalez-Torres so it looks like we care.” It’s “I’ll bid yours up; you bid mine; we’ll both buy each other’s and laugh all the way to the bank.” It’s rotten and brazen, although I’m told, not illegal.


Reading “guest curator’s” Segalot’s unctuous statement in the catalog made my skin crawl. It occurred to me that what he actually wrote is a pathological confession of what he was about to do – that this is such a game to him that he couldn’t resist saying exactly what he was going to do before the fact and then still do crime. In the catalog he crows that “the art works are selected not for their market value but for their artistic value.” Right – and by some once-in-a-lifetime coincidence all the art he picked just happens to be blue chip, worth millions, and has been owned, bought, or sold by his clients. He’s correct in claiming that all this art is “a true self-portrait,” that all the objects being auctioned off “lead back to their owners,” “who have trusted me for so many years” in their “art adventures.” He finishes by just coming out and admitting “I have enriched myself though their drive.” Segalot is not a curator. He doesn’t care about art. His eye is predictable, kitschy, weak, generic, and safe.  He creates clone collections with all the exact same artists. Art is only a designer label to him, a place-holder. As he says in his statement what he really likes is “living with these beautiful works for a moment.” In reality Segalot, as the Col. Kurtz character played by Marlon Brando says in ‘Apocalypse Now’ is “an errand boy, sent by clerks, to collect a bill.”


This errand boy not only put this show together he also was said to have bid against his own assistant and his own business partner. This means he could bid the prices higher because he knew before hand how high each of his own clients was willing to go. For example, that night a so-so 1962 Warhol, "Men in Her Life," was auctioned off for $63.35 million. A near record. The painting had been owned by the Warhol dealer-collectors-market-manipulators par excellence, and lovers-of-all-things-Warhol, the Mugrabi family, who reportedly own 800 Warhols and seem to be trying to corner and control this market the way others have with diamonds and silver. With Segalot’s help all the Warhols the Mugrabi and these collectors own are now worth much more. We’ll never know how many of the under-bidders for that so-so Warhol were phantoms or Segalot’s own clients. Segalot is also said to own a Cindy Sherman very similar to the one he had sold for an almost record price. So his own “art adventures” advanced considerably that night as well.


Many noted that during “Carte Blanche” that auctioneer de Pury didn’t or seemed to refuse to make clear when works failed to find buyers. When work doesn’t sell the law requires that the auctioneer announce something like the work has “passed,” been “withdrawn,” “returned to owner,” “bought-in” or some such business. When this isn’t done it looks like everything is selling like hot cakes – which makes everything else start selling like hotcakes. It’s just more bad business.


None of this new; none of it’s going to stop soon. This insular caste isn’t going to cease manipulating the codes of consumption and peerage in plain sight. It’s what they do. It’s their nature.

What can we do?  Short of the fun it would be for everyone in the art world to agree that, while we love Warhol, we’re not going to look at or talk about his art again for fifteen years, as we try to smoke-out, stifle, and bankrupt these hypocrites and crooks. More seriously, one would hope that more writers on auctions would think things through and not just report splashy prices and reprint press-releases. Beyond that I have no counter model to offer. I’ll only say that to me auctions aren’t about art. As they are now, auctions are about moving capital; a denial of reality; have no meaning except to themselves; and are places where we’re all cut off from art. In the meantime I really do hope that the FBI White Collar Crimes Unit lets these auction houses feel its hot breath on their slimy necks. I also hope newspaper reporters, magazines, bloggers, and people who say this is their beat would stop just following the prices. When they do this they’re just feeding the beast and servicing this same cast of shady characters. Instead of following the prices, they should follow the money! Ask where did it come from? How did it get here? Who did it go to? Who’s greasing the wheels? And how?  Or don’t and just go along for the ride.