Banksy’s Girl With Balloon first appeared on the wall of some steps on Waterloo Bridge in 2002. It depicts a stencilled black and white child reaching for a red, heart-shaped balloon that is drifting just out of reach. On 5 October 2018, it became the centrepiece of a now infamous stunt that seemed to both jibe at the art world and question just how much a piece of art is actually worth.
The scene is Sotheby’s auction house, London. Auctioneer Oliver Barker has just confirmed the sale of a gold-framed copy of Girl With Balloon for £1.04 million. Then, from somewhere in the audience, a covert remote is pressed, causing the artwork to be pushed through the bottom of its frame, via a built-in contraption which shreds almost two-thirds of the piece as audience members look on, open-mouthed.
To the untrained eye, it seems a piece of art has just been destroyed moments after being sold for a seven figure sum. To Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art — and apparent king of spin — not so. “Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction, he created one,” he said at the time. Rebranded Love Is In The Bin the piece remained with its buyer, who declared it “a piece of art history.”
Instead of diminishing the work’s value, Banksy had increased it exponentially. According to Danielle Rahm, managing director of New York Fine Art Appraisers, the painting is now one of Banksy’s most iconic works of art and could well fetch up to twice what was paid for it should it be auctioned again.
Whether prank or performance piece (or a bit of both), the revaluing of Banksy’s shredded picture is just one facet of an art world currently obsessed with cash; in 2017, a Basquiat sold for £85 million, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold by a US artist. The same year, Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of Christ, Salvator Mundi, sold for a record £346 million, making it the most expensive painting ever. And, earlier this year, Damien Hirst curated a Las Vegas hotel room, complete with butterflies and formaldehyde sharks, which can be rented to the tune of £77,000 per night.
As startling as all of this is, it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to the art industry’s estimated annual worth of £50 billion. Is art’s hefty price tag justified? In a 2011 academic essay, Art and Money, published in The American Economic Review, the authors suggest not, writing “Unless cast in platinum and covered with diamonds… a work of art has little intrinsic value.”
Yet, in the art world, such views are in the minority. Speaking in Nathaniel Kahn’s brilliant art world documentary The Price of Everything, Swiss auctioneer and collector Simon De Pury suggests art’s hefty price tag is not only justified, but necessary.
“Art and money have always gone hand in hand. It’s important for good art to be expensive,” he explains. “You only protect things that are valuable… if something has no value, people don’t care.”
The short answer is that, like any other commodity, a piece of art is worth precisely how much a person or institution is willing to pay for it. But who exactly sets the price in the first place? Who is really pulling the strings? And how will it all end?
The relationship between art and money is a high stakes balancing act. Nicole Kluk is head of art at Quintessentially, an art advisory consultancy representing clients with money to burn. It is Kluk’s job to help private clients build collections, a role which includes analysing the current market and negotiating a price.
“My job is to help people buy things correctly,” she says. “[It’s difficult] because art is emotional… it’s love, obsession, ego. It links these intense emotions and rationality often goes out of the window. People can be sold something that isn’t necessarily worth the price being asked for it.”
The idea of spending “the right amount” on art seems to be a crucial concern among collectors. Earlier this year, artnet.com ran a story about a recent purchase by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard titled “Novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard Spent Too Much Money on a Munch Artwork at Auction and Now He’s Filled With Shame”. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but for people like Kluk, and other advisers, sellers, and collectors, there certainly is a right price for a piece of art. Pay too much, and you’ve not only lost out financially, but potentially exposed yourself as a novice — or worse.
In May this year, a Jeff Koons Rabbit sculpture sold for $91.1 million, breaking the record price for a work by a living artist. It was bought by Robert Mnuchin, the art dealer father of US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Many commentators claimed the Mnuchin senior was foolhardy for paying way over the odds, while others lamented what the purchase said about the political class of the country. “While tens of millions can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, while sick kids lose healthcare,” wrote Democratic strategist Peter Daou, “Steve Mnuchin’s father spends $91 MILLION to buy a rabbit sculpture.”
Amy Cappellazzo is executive vice president at Sotheby’s New York, and features prominently in The Price of Everything. In one scene, she is surrounded by packaged works of art as she looks over the catalogue for an expensive, upcoming auction. Asked why she estimates a certain Gerhard Richter print will sell for £15-23 million — and by extension ‘what makes certain works worth so much?’ — she replies: “Quality, clarity. The confirmation and consensus that that is a particularly excellent work by curators, market people, critics, etc. “Listen,” she continues, “Great things tell you they’re great. When you see something really great, everybody knows it. Even lay people can feel something.”
One would struggle to describe a Cappellazzo client, Stefan Edlis, as a ‘lay person’. A 78-year-old Holocaust survivor who began collecting art in the 70s, in 2015 Edlis donated 42 works worth $500 million – including Warhols and Lichtensteins – to the Art Institute of Chicago. “To be an effective collector, deep down you have to be shallow. You have to be a decorator,” Edlis says. “We’re all lemmings. There are a few leaders and a lot of followers. Which is OK if you follow the right leader. There’s a lot of people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
Like many in the industry, Gabrielle Du Plooy, owner of Hampstead’s Zebra One Gallery, understands that the ‘right’ piece of art can form a solid investment: “When you buy, you buy knowing it can be traded up, exchanged, sold or kept,” she says. “When you pay for art you’re not ‘losing’ money. You hand over £20,000 for something worth £20,000, and in five years’ time you get your money back. It’s a low risk investment if done right.”
But how does one find an investment piece? “Do your homework,” advises Kluk. “If you’re new to collecting, don’t buy anything in the first year. See as much as possible and train your eye, speak to the right people. Do the colours sell well? Has the subject sold well? How can you spend money on something you don’t understand?
The idea of art as investment is nothing new. In 1973, taxi fleet owner and art collector Robert Scull decided to hold a sale from his collection. Record numbers of collectors and connoisseurs attended the auction, billed as the biggest auction ever of post second world war American contemporary art. One of the artists in attendance was the late Robert Rauschenberg, from whom Scull had bought art directly for a fraction of the price the work was then re-sold for at the auction.
Existing TV footage of the auction shows Rauschenberg angrily slapping Scull’s arm before declaring “You didn’t even send me flowers!” Scull then takes the artist’s hand like a teacher trying to calm an angry child and asks, “For what?” “The mark-up!” Rauschenberg responds, referring to the hugely inflated resale price, the entirety of which went directly into Scull’s pocket. “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit?” asks Rauschenberg, calmly, but clearly hurt. Eventually, Scull initiates a hug and the men part without coming to blows, although Rauschenberg looking like he has just been hit by a speeding train.
“The main buzz in making art comes from creating something you fall in love with. For collectors the buzz comes further down the line in the auction house”
Buying art to ‘flip’ it – that is, buying something cheap as in investment, then selling for a profit when the market allows – remains common practice, just as it would be with any other commodity, most notably stocks.
Nigerian born Njideka Akunyili Crosby is one such ‘up and coming’ artist who has been affected by having her work flipped. In 2012 Crosby sold a work titled Drown for a fraction of the £700,000 it was sold for at Sotheby’s in 2018. Crosby has spoken of her disappointment, but explained that the chance to keep creating is her main focus. While it can clearly be a disappointment to miss out on a lucrative resale, many artists have come to accept this as a fact of the industry.
James Green is a young British artist working in contemporary expressionism. His works are gradually finding a solid collector base and exhibitions throughout London. Green sees the buy-to-sell-on market as a “win-win”: “The main buzz in making art, for me, comes from making something I fall in love with. The main buzz for collectors (alongside enjoying the art) can come further down the line in that auction house,” he explains. “I had a collector tell me recently that he buys my work for his retirement. [At the end of the day] it’s those collectors who enable us to continue creating by purchasing our work at an accessible price. I want them to get rewarded for it. Plus, if my work is worth millions down the line, so will the stuff I’m still making in the studio. Win-win.”
Yet while collectors are fluffing up their pillows, it can be difficult for an artist to make ends meet, let alone finance a career. The idea of the starving artist is one of the oldest clichés, and in James’ case, was true for a while at least; he worked part time as a postman and slept under the stairs in his studio. “Artists have always been pretty good at adjusting their lives according to money matters… from experience, there’s always a way to make it work,” he says. “I quite like the buzz of not knowing where/when the next sale is going to come from. It feels like gambling sometimes. You can go from zero to more than enough overnight.”
While this might sound like getting your hands on the golden ticket, there are artists who have enjoyed immense financial and commercial success in a relatively short space of time, something painter Marilyn Minter, who found a wide audience later in life, has described as “white heat”, something she suggests is “dangerous for artists. It burns people out all the time. Just makes them crazy.”
Damien Hirst is perhaps one example of a British artist who experienced such a meteoric rise yet avoided burnout. Yet even he – hotel rooms in Las Vegas aside – has slowed down his production, and his works have seen a dip in value in recent years. “I don’t think anyone will ever say [Damien Hirst] is not a brilliant artist,” says Kluk. “When you look back historically I do think he’s going to be an important figure and his values will recalibrate, and it will be OK.”
"They are like Siamese twins, money and art right now. You cannot separate them. The purpose of art has morphed, and become perverted"
As for where the art market will go, and whether the bubble is in danger of bursting, critics and dealers agree that change is coming, although exactly when is hard to say. Charli Morgan is an art PR at Cult Media Collective. She believes that the future of art will involve a more direct relationship between artists and buyers, which could cut out the middle men, potentially allowing artists to pocket a larger chunk of a sale. Morgan points out that the online art market has grown by 12% in under two years, while 78% of millennials have bought art online in the last 12 months, signalling that the future is indeed digital. Artists to add to your feed? According to Morgan, Henrik Aa Uldalen, Aspen Crow, and Lena Peters are all worth a follow.
Interestingly, rather than view the expense around art as a bubble set to burst, Morgan simply views it as a strong period. “The art market can be volatile, like any market,” she says. “It’s strong right now. In the past decade, top-tier artists have seen their works rise in value by more than 50%.”
Yet, for many curators and collectors, the writing is on the wall. British art dealer Gavin Brown says in The Price of Everything: “They are like Siamese twins, money and art right now,” he says. “You cannot separate them. The purpose of art has morphed, become perverted or mutated. And I think art itself is having a hard time finding its way out… everybody knows that we are careening towards an edge.”
Kluk agrees that some sort of correction in values is coming, but that it will likely focus on certain areas of the market, or countries, rather than sweeping reform across the industry. “I think a correction is in order — $500m is a lot to spend on a work,” she says. “I think certain parts of the market will have corrections. Maybe one part of the market will slow but another country will still be growing. Not every economy has a correction at the same time. Maybe it’s about being smart about where you’re buying and selling.”
Should such a correction occur, it might mean the average Joe is more able to afford art, at least by new artists. It would also mean that collectors looking to buy for investment purposes, or to flip a work, are likely to hoover up some incredible bargains. “At one level, it is in the interests of auction houses, galleries and collectors to sustain the price of art, especially in today’s contemporary market,” explains Du Plooy of the Zebra One Gallery. “You see galleries pricing out artists and damaging careers. Since art first became a commodity there have been artists [whose work] has always been available only to the very wealthiest people in society. That will never change. As long as there are multi-millionaires, or billionaires, they will continue to pay huge prices for art.”
At 81, American artist Larry Poons has been in the game long enough to survive numerous peaks and troughs. Perhaps more than any other working artist or collector, he understands the mercurial nature of the art world, and, by extension, what the future might hold.
“There are no rules about what is going to be good, and what is going to be bad,” he explains with finality. “Art doesn’t give a shit. It never has.”
This feature was published in the June/July issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Get your copy here…