Is Old Master Art Still a Sure Thing?
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The last couple of months, running into various art dealers, the first thing I ask is how they're holding up. No doubt, it's been a difficult time for the art market, where sales of contemporary art are way below what they were even a year ago. One exception was the recent sale of the Yves Saint Laurent collection, a big success, probably attributable to the worldwide recognition of the designer's name; people are willing to pay extra for an art work belonging to a famous person. That's why the string of fake pearls belonging to Jackie Onassis, bought by her for less than a hundred dollars, could be sold decades later to a collector like Los Angeles businesswoman Lynda Resnick for more than $200,000.
The Armory Show, which just closed in New York, proved to be another disappointment. Though the number of participating dealers and visitors was up, sales were down. In today's New York Times, there is more than a whiff of schadenfreude in the report that the large portrait of financial ‘guru' Bernard Madoff by the well known Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming, offered at $100,000, had (surprise, surprise...) no takers.
It will be interesting to see what happens next week in Holland at the annual Maastricht Art Fair, which specializes primarily in the sale of Classical antiques and Old Master art. I was invited to go there along with a small group of journalists and am eager to see if my theory on the relative stability of the market for classical art is correct. A few months ago in this program, I mentioned that in comparison with the bloated prices for contemporary art, the classical works of the past, though not cheap, are more reasonably priced. So if you're lucky enough to find for just a few million dollars a drawing by Rembrandt or Michelangelo, my advice is to grab it and hold onto it, because this investment would be as safe as putting your money into a Swiss bank account.
Here, over the weekend, the Hammer Museum opened an exhibition of nine Los Angeles artists – appropriately titled "Nine Lives" – which is a decidedly mixed bag of established and lesser known practitioners of photography, video, installation, sculpture, and painting. The exhibition curator made the wise choice to give pride of place to Lynn Foulkes' paintings and assemblages of the last forty years, thus creating a mini-retrospective of this wonderfully idiosyncratic artist, now in his mid-70's. However, his art is so obviously in a league of its own that, unintentionally, it leaves the other participants of this exhibition in the dust.
And now, back to the art market and its biggest player, Larry Gagosian, a powerful and extremely secretive dealer with galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Rome. The Sunday Business section of the New York Times ran an in-depth article describing him as a shark, "a feeding machine with no ‘off' switch." Many believe that Mr. Gagosian's operation has become too big to fail, but if that does happen, the repercussions on the art market will be devastating. Ed Ruscha, one of Gagosian's star artists, is quoted saying if the Good Ship Gagosian "springs a leak, I will roll up one of my paintings and plug the hole." Hmmmm, interesting... When the Museum of Contemporary Art recently went through a terrible financial calamity, Mr. Ruscha – one of MOCA's trustees – was nowhere near as vocal or generous with his support. C'est la vie.
Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from LA
On view at the Hammer Museum through May 31
Banner image: Visitors at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht