A Guide to the Virtual Art Market III
  Resource:Artnews   2010-11-03 09:12:40  

They were sold as a pair for $77,000 at a Christie's South Kensington sale of modern and contemporary Australian art in September. In a press release, the auction house says the inci­dent "demonstrates how international clients are increasingly engaged with technology in the art market."

Jan David Winitz, owner of the Claremont Rug Company in Oakland, California, which specializes in museum-quality 18th- and 19th-century Oriental rugs, embraced the benefits of technology early, and as a result has watched business soar along with the market for rare rugs. "Nineteenth-century rugs that were once considered by most as luxurious home furnishings are now seen as true art worthy of serious collection," he says. Museum demand has picked up along with private demand.

In 1997, Adobe CEO John Warnock—one of the rug company's major clients—introduced Winitz to digital photography. "I immediately saw that there was immense possibility, because of the clarity of the digital images as opposed to conventional photography—the nuances of color and even the most petty points of detail—to instantaneously show a client from anywhere in the world what one of our rugs looked like," Winitz says.

"People have become much busier, and there is a diminished willingness to travel," says Winitz. All 200 rugs from a private collection sale were featured on his site. A number were sent to buyers on approval, others were bought by both new and established collectors from around the world, he says.

What has not changed with respect to collecting? Technology has certainly resulted in growing ranks of better-informed buyers, but it has also underscored the crucial but often elusive nature of connoisseurship. Firsthand observation and experience of an artwork and careful research and due diligence regarding the object itself and the individuals involved in a transaction are more important than ever in today's vast and fast-paced market.

"Like everything, it's a double-edged sword," says David Norman, Sotheby's worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art. "Technology and the ability to disseminate images have been both good and bad for individual collectors. There is such a wealth of information available."

Some databases offer auction prices that date back several decades. That "has created tremendous transparency. So much of what people historically took advantage of in the art market was the incredibly uneven access to information," says Norman. Today, collectors can research an artist's auction record by date, medium, the sale history of a particular artwork, or by the artist's overall ascending or descending prices for all pieces sold at auction.

But interpreting so much raw data and understanding the variables isn't easy. "What gets a little bit lost is that not every square inch of a Picasso painting is the equivalent of every other. It's not like ounces of gold," says Norman.

Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery, concurs. "The database is a great tool and has had a huge impact on the availability of information, but collectors have to use it with caution," Warren says. "The information can support almost any argument: how well an artist has performed, how poorly an artist has performed." But, he adds, "a database can't tell you what it's like to experience a work."

Auction-house veterans know that any number of variables can influence a sale: art-market or economic conditions, generally; recent primary or auction-market results for an artist or his or her peers. Sometimes a record price is simply the outcome of "auction fever"—the heated competition between two determined buyers. Take the Scottish landscape artist Peter Doig, whose auction record soared from $2 million in mid-2006 to $11 million in early 2007. The latter price, paid for Doig's painting White Canoe (1990–91) at a Sotheby's ­London sale, was reportedly the result of a bidding battle ­between two Russian oligarchs.

"I can show someone a painting and tell them I'm asking $2 million, and they can call me back in five minutes saying that's outrageous, because a similar painting just sold at Christie's for $1 million," says Michael Findlay, director of ­Acquavella Galleries and former head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie's. "In a broad sense, that's a very good thing because it means you have a more educated buyer when it comes to value. But all auction results need to be translated. The date that it happened is ­significant, the nature of the art market, the number of people bidding, the condition of the work—there are many aspects to an auction result."

The ease of transferring or altering digital images also pre­sents buyers with a unique set of challenges, points out Norman. "It's easier for someone to appear to have control over a piece when they may not, and the number of JPEGs available may contribute to a false belief that there is so much material out there, when there is really not."

A painting can get "burned" unintentionally by so many people claiming to have access to it or the ability to sell it, says Norman. Similarly, notes Findlay, where formerly word-of-mouth and chatter let people know that a work was up for sale, "with JPEGs, that is now done at the touch of a button," whether or not people know who actually owns the work. Says one dealer, "it's like the old joke where a collector gets offered his own painting."

Further, while digital tools like Photoshop can be useful in conveying the vibrant colors of a masterpiece, they can also be manipulated to mask condition problems or "heat up" otherwise dull canvases.

"Buying from a screen is a bit like tasting food when you have a cold," says Philip Mould, a London-based gallery owner and author of The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures. "You can pick up some details, but there is still an element of risk." Mould has had his fair share of hits and misses in buying unattributed or unknown works at auction that he initially saw as digital images online or in catalogues.

In The Art Detective, Mould details how high-resolution digital images helped him identify, acquire, and authenticate a missing early landscape by Gainsborough that had been catalogued as a work by a "follower of Salo­mon van Ruisdael" and given an estimate of $2,000 to $3,000 by a Los ­Angeles auction house.

Mould acquired the work with the help of his collaborator Bendor Grosvenor, who bid by phone and won it for $120,000. After the painting was cleaned and restored, Mould could confirm that it was an early painting of Cornard Wood, the final version of which hangs in Britain's National Gallery. Mould says that he was struck immediately by the picture of the work in the sale catalogue and sought more information, but he was concerned that other experts would also recognize Gainsborough's characteristics—the composition, the "weaving row of oaks, ashes and beeches, the pool of dark water." The auction house promptly sent close-up digital images of the painting in response to his request. "However, the speed with which they had supplied them suggested to me that we were not the first to ask, which added to my unease," he writes.

The painting went on exhibition at the Gainsborough House Museum in Sudbury and was later sold for more than $500,000.

Online bidding is a world unto itself, with buyers generally reluctant to do it for big-ticket items, auction-house experts say. While eBay usually offers works at lower price points, "online bidding is not a major feature of our evening sales," says Gorvy. Evening sales represent "a price point we feel the need to be more in control of. Collectors may be comfortable bidding on the phone—particularly when they are simultaneously watching the auction online. But people don't necessarily want to leave million-dollar bids online," Gorvy says.

Christie's spokesman Toby Usnik says that there is no limit for online bidding. The credit clearance is exactly the same online as it is for phone, in-person, or absentee bidding. To date, the most expensive object sold through Christie's online platform, "Christie's LIVE," is a late Shang dynasty bronze vessel (12th–11th century B.C.), for $3.3 million in September. Usnik said that in the first half of 2010, several lots sold online "have approached the $1 million mark." These included a rare limestone figure of a kneeling Bodhisattva (10th–12th century), sold for $912,500 to a U.S.-based buyer last March, and a landscape by Camille Pissarro, Verger à Saint-Ouen-l'Aumône en hiver (1877), which fetched $782,500 last May.

Several gallerists say their clients have become so comfortable with the technology that supports collecting—JPEGs or online artist bios or essays—that they shun traditional materials altogether. Chelsea gallery owner Mike Weiss recalls that ten years ago, when he was a gallery assistant, people were just becoming comfortable with the notion of e-mailing an image of a work. Nowadays, in contrast, "you can't give someone a package or even a catalogue to take with them." Adds Weiss, "I find people are very comfortable making decisions up to $100,000 just by an e-mail or a JPEG."

Weiss also relies on digital images to keep collectors apprised of artists' works in progress. Collectors get to see "all the process points along the way. They feel they are a part of the process. For younger artists, that is a good thing." He adds that it's a great thing during the summer, when it's almost impossible to persuade a collector to pay a visit to an artist's studio.

Meltzer sees a paradox in the increased attention that technology has brought to the art market. In some cases, the heightened visibility of certain objects works as a kind of branding that has only fueled higher demand for identical works. Artists' careers used to be divided into distinct time periods, but today, Meltzer says, some artists "create styles that they keep churning out, like a brand. People want to own the same things that other people have." He points to Damien Hirst's "Spot" and "Spin" paintings and medicine cabinets as well as Takashi Murakami's mass-produced anime fiberglass sculptures and cartoon paintings.

At the same time, Meltzer says, whereas technology has radically altered the pricing and distribution of films, music, and books and magazines, the art world and collecting itself still center on the notion of rarity.

"The image can be easily transferred or shared, but there has been nothing to replace that tactile uniqueness that the masterwork represents. This in a sense has been a boon to the art market."

Eileen Kinsella is editor of the ARTnewsletter.


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