Warhol's Diffusion Line

Christie's prints and multiples results without the AI painting; Calvin Klein's Raf Simons Loves Warhol; Phillips Thrives on Middle Market Tailwind; Listen to Alex Katz on Artists; Blame Kitchens

What Else Happened at Christie’s $13.2m Prints & Multiples Sale?

The news that a work of art created using an algorithm trained on 15,000 portraits has provoked a great deal of hysterical over-reaction. The worst example is Jerry Saltz’s tantrum where he repeats several de-bunked canards about Christie’s $450m Leonardo sold a year ago. (The least hysterical, and more informative, take can be found here from Ahmed Elgammal.) Saltz ought to stick to his own guns and believe that the market doesn’t confer artistic merit on a work. It only measures what someone was willing to pay. And that’s nothing to get upset about.

Part of the problem seems to be that the $432,000 work had a high estimate of $10,000. But all that tells us is that Christie’s had not idea of the potential value. More to the point, like the $450m Leonardo, there’s no reason to believe that a single price that can be the result of many extra-market forces determines market value. Christie’s describes the bidding, “The work was won by an anonymous phone bidder after a battle between three phone bidders, an online participant in France and one gentleman in the room.” We won’t know if Obvious’s works are “worth” six figures until someone else—possibly one of the five underbidders—is willing to pay six figures for one of their works.

In the meantime, Christie’s had more than 350 other lots in that prints and multiples sale. The total for the sale was a very strong $13,239,750. The top lot was a complete portfolio of Andy Warhol’s Myths which achieved $780,500. As single print of Superman from the Myths also sold for $200,000 and was the 11th most valuable print in the sale, if you remove the AI work. Christie’s says the sale had registered bidders from 34 countries.

A Matisse portfolio of the Jazz prints made $588k. Picasso’s print of a woman after Cranach the Younger also made $432,500. Marcel Duchamp’s valise of miniature versions of his work that was produced in an edition of 75 sold for $396,500 or slightly less than the low estimate even though that estimate doesn’t include fees.

Once again, the print sales were dominated by Andy Warhol—nearly a third of the top 30 lots were Warhol’s works—even as the rest of his market is waning.

Speaking of the Warhol Market: Is He Down Market?

Vanessa Friedman discusses Calvin Klein’s design chief Raf Simons’s infatuation with Andy Warhol. Calvin Klein has just opened a show of half of Warhol’s shadow painting installation from Dia: Beacon. And the fashion house has a three-year deal with the Warhol foundation that began in 2016 giving Calvin Klein access to Warhol’s archives:

  • “Now there are Warhol flower paintings on Calvin Klein jeans and denim jackets. Images from Warhol’s film “Kiss” on CK underwear. Warhol silk screens of a young Dennis Hopper and Sandra Brandt on Calvin towels and dinnerware. Prints from the disaster series of mangled cars and electric chairs on full New Look skirts and twisted tank tops. Stephen Sprouse portraits on fringed scarves. […] Turns out [Simons] was more prescient than anyone knew. [W]e are living in a Warhol moment inside a Warhol moment inside a Warhol moment — in a country run by the most Warholian president we have ever had, at a time when Instagram has made everyone an influencer for 15 minutes, during a year where the Warhol body of work is being celebrated as never before.”

Following on the print sales results, above, one contributing reason for the Warhol drought at the top of the market might be the ubiquity of the artist in so many other places, including next year’s Whitney retrospective.

Phillips Thriving on the Growing Middle Market

The author of the New York Times’s profile of Phillips CEO Ed Dolman described her subject as “doubling down on the middle market.” The growth in Phillips sales volume hasn’t come so much from the middle market as from the firm’s new ability to attract multi-million-dollar lots and sell them successfully. Nonetheless, the profile—and Dolman—puts its finger on the growing volume in the Contemporary art day sales that has been a tailwind for Phillips growth (along with the other houses.) Here Dolman reflects on the fact that Phillips Frieze day sale totalled £15m against Sotheby’s £18m and Christie’s (which only held a lower value sale in London in June) £27m:

  • “If you’d have told me we’d be as close to them in day sales — it’s mind-boggling,” Mr. Dolman said, adding that the day-sale material is the great “sweet spot of the market” because the margins are still reasonable and there is a big depth in collecting, meaning ample buyers. He said he took pride in the fact that Phillips was now “involved in many more conversations about works of art for sale.”

Alex Katz on Success

Alex Katz is always worth listening to whether he is talking about his art, being an artist or other artists’ work. He has a new book out, Looking at Art with Alex Katz, that captures his unique voice and perception about artists throughout history.

Katz spoke to the Guardian about his own experience starting out in the 1950s:

  • “It was real romantic. I was out carving antique frames and I could pay my rent on two days’ work. Most artists’ lives are sad. Either they get successful when they’re young and the rest of their life is sad, or they’re not successful and they tell themselves, ‘Maybe some time in 300 years.’ But they have lives where they can do what they want to do, which I think is terrific. That in itself should make your life successful.”

Blame It on Kitchens

The New York Times is lucky there are no penalties. for practicing sociology and economics without a license. Were there, today’s epic mish-mosh of undigested ideas would have merited a debilitating fine. Here’s an example from today’s column about the declining value of “brown furniture” and collectibles.

Arguably, it is not so much “taste” that determines the value of collectibles, but more the way that human beings actually live their lives. Economists have noted how the wealth of the middle class in developed countries has declined over the last 30 years. This has inevitably had an impact on the value of lower-range collectibles. So, too, has the way that members of the middle class use their homes.

Accepting that all New York Times columns on the art market mention income inequality prominently, this one is still hard to fathom. Relying on a decade-old study of domestic habits, the Times discovers that people live in their kitchens now.

“The emphasis is on the kitchen as a place to invest and remodel, rather than formal living rooms,” Mr. Graesch said. “This is where identity performance takes place.”

But if everyone, including the very rich, is congregating in the kitchen, why bother spending a fortune to decorate the other rooms in the house?

Let’s separate out two issues the Times is conflating.

  1. If Kitchens Reign, Why Is There No Market for Porcelain Plates, Silver Forks and Crystal Stemware? Kitchens as a forum for self-definition has been a long-standing trend. But if kitchens were influencing the market for tangible property, would we not be seeing a spike in value for porcelain and silver tableware? Conspicuous consumption and potlatching would seem to be innate human behavior. A landed society gave us large, ornate country estates; industrial wealth drove appreciation in hand-crafted furniture; shouldn’t food obsessed culture give us a passion for plates and knives and crystal decanters? The Rockefeller sale, chock-a-block with porcelain, saw all of the tableware fly. A grandiose and impractical picnic basket that spent its time in the Rockefeller’s possession as an end table estimate at $5-10,000 sold for $212,500. Maybe that was just the Rockefellers. Still, by the Times’s logic, there ought to be tableware departments springing up at auction houses the way there are now handbag departments. (Spoiler alert: There aren’t. More silver is getting melted down than sold as a luxury item.)

  2. It’s Not the Kitchens; It’s the Tech. The Times is only half right about kitchens. Homeowners spend their time in and money on kitchens. The rage for $5,000 professional-style ranges, high-tech dishwashers and microwaves seems to show no sign of ending. The tech spend isn’t confined to kitchen, though. When the middle class wants to keep up with the Joneses, its members spend money on large-screen televisions, computers, tablets, headphones, smart-speaker systems, multi-room digital sound systems and the latest smartphones. Apple is worth more than $1T these days. It stands to reason that some of the high-end consumer spend that contributes to that valuation comes from the collectibles market. Phones, cars and, even, vacations and experiences rank higher among the world’s elite as differentiators than having heirlooms.

Why? In today’s world, few are trying to create the impression of family lineage and the WASP ideal that new things are vulgar. Instead, we look toward the future and showing that we are not only a part of it—but living it.

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