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Niru Ratnam on the manipulation of the contemporary art market

4 February 2012

12:00 PM

4 February 2012

12:00 PM

Having studiously avoided the media for years, Charles Saatchi was stirred enough to write an article for the Guardian last December that opened: ‘Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is sport of the Eurotrashy, hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs.’

He has a point. A new type of collector is taking a close interest in contemporary art and elbowing old hands such as Saatchi out of the way. These new collectors are not interested in watching artists build a career through museum shows over a period of years. They’re not out to spot new movements as Saatchi tried to do with young British art. Instead they want to find out who is the latest overnight sensation and indulge in a flurry of speculative buying and selling.

Nothing exemplifies this cultural shift more potently than the story of the sudden and meteoric rise of a young American artist, Jacob Kassay, who went from modestly priced newcomer to auction-house phenomenon in the blink of an eye.

Born in 1984, Jacob Kassay graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the State University of New York in 2005. That same year he had a small solo show in a non-commercial project space in Buffalo. Then, like most young artists, he participated in a series of group shows in project spaces. His first one-man exhibition in a commercial gallery came in February 2009 at Eleven Rivington, New York. Here he unveiled a new technique, which involved evenly covering the surface of the canvas with acrylic paint before carefully silver-plating the surface thinly, deliberately burning edges of the areas of paint while keeping the brush-strokes visible. The exhibition did well and the 15 paintings sold quickly. Enough of a buzz had been created and when a few more of Kassay’s silver paintings turned up in two group shows and at an art fair later that year they also sold for the going rate of about $8,000.

The following spring Kassay had a solo show at the Paris gallery Art:Concept. By this time news about him was starting to spread among collectors and there was a waiting list of some 80 names for the eight works on display, each of which had a price tag of between $9,000 and $12,000. But by the end of 2010 things had gone crazy. Phillips de Pury & Co. announced that a Kassay silver painting had been consigned for sale on 9 November, the first to appear at auction. Phillips’s estimate was between $6,000 and $8,000, a shade below his gallery prices.

The hammer eventually came down at a remarkable $86,500 (including the auction house’s commission), ten times greater than the painting’s estimate. The following week a Kassay silver painting was auctioned for charity with the accompanying information that its gallery price was $12,000. It sold for $94,000 and there were rumours that telephone bids had come in from as far afield as India. Art:Concept’s Olivier Antoine told the journalist Sarah Douglas: ‘Just after the hammer went down, I got calls and emails from people I had never heard of.’

During the course of 2011 ten Kassay silver paintings (that is, around a third of his entire output of silver paintings) were resold at auction by collectors eager to cash in on their original investment. The first of the year was a small painting that appeared on 8 March, again at Phillips de Pury, and did modestly well by achieving a price of $23,750 against an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. The second, which surfaced on 12 May at Phillips de Pury, brought Kassay to the attention of the entire contemporary art market. Phillips de Pury had begun to revise its sales estimates upwards and went with $60,000 to $80,000. The painting sold for a phenomenal $290,500.

What is extraordinary is that while most young artists struggle to find a primary market — where works are bought directly from a gallery that exhibits their work as part of its regular programme — Kassay has developed a serious secondary market; that is, works resold by those initial clients. Even in the boom times of the mid-2000s it usually took a few years for a young artist, no matter how hyped, to develop a serious secondary market. Given that Kassay’s first commercial outing was in February 2009, his secondary market took just over 20 months to develop — an astonishingly short time, particularly as he did not have a museum solo show and the curatorial validation that comes with it until October 2011.

Indeed, whether Kassay is any good or not is a moot point. Usually the stamp of good taste comes through museum acquisition and shows; by the time most museum curators had worked out who Kassay was, he was simply too expensive for their acquisition budgets. Moreover, given that Kassay did not have a debut museum show until October 2011 (at the ICA), most critics simply didn’t get the chance to look at his work before the narrative around his extraordinary prices took hold.

Kassay is not the only young artist to have developed a speculative secondary market, although he is perhaps the most dramatic example. Artists such as Josh Smith, Joe Bradley, Ged Quinn, Sterling Ruby and Matthew Day Jackson also have booming secondary markets. Yet the sheer speed with which Kassay was taken up by collectors and, crucially, resold by those collectors at higher prices through private resale or at auction is remarkable.

This is a far cry from how auctions of contemporary art operated until relatively recently, with the unspoken rule that works should not be ‘flipped’ (that is consigned for resale) until a significant time after an initial purchase. Kassay’s rise exemplifies a new hyper-speculative phase in the contemporary art market that has raised eyebrows, particularly as it is occurring against the backdrop of the financial troubles of the US and Europe.

One London-based collector, who includes Smith and Bradley in his collection, spoke on condition of anonymity: ‘It’s a rolling bubble. When one artist deflates it is localised and doesn’t bring the whole market down. It is largely harmless unless you’re the sucker who buys at the top — the Ukrainian second-hand car salesman who reads that he must have a Kassay to be considered a proper collector.’

Well-documented stories of high returns on modest investments have prompted high-net-worth individuals around the world to take an interest in emerging artists, all waiting for that first auction result that blows through an estimate to mark the beginning of the boom. This new type of collector doesn’t particularly care for the old unspoken rules. And while Sotheby’s and Christie’s traditionally declined to resell the work of very young artists, or works recently out of a young artist’s studio, the decision of Phillips de Pury to ditch those rules has created an arena for such speculation.

Kassay, like Smith and Bradley, is an abstract painter whose work is easy on the eye while making knowing references to postwar American art. Their work looks good on art-fair stands and in auction catalogues. But more crucially all were young artists when their bubbles started with a small, easily calculable amount of stock. An art adviser can clearly demonstrate to a collector how many works are there, how impossible it is to get to the top of one of Kassay’s primary gallery’s waiting lists, and how buying at auction is a short cut to owning one.

The only way for a new collector to own the most recently hyped artist is through an auction house that doesn’t care too much about how quickly a work is flipped, how young the artist is or how recently a work was made. As the turnaround time between buying and reselling emerging art is much quicker than it used to be, the right type of emerging art is a relatively liquid investment with a comparatively low initial outlay. Why spen
d millions on a Gerhard Richter or Jeff Koons when emerging art is cheap and promises quick returns on a rolling bubble? It also means that most collectors end up with exactly the same artists in their collection at any particular point in time. ‘Contemporary art used to be of interest to the upper-middle-class with slightly progressive leanings who wanted to buy work of their time,’ said my anonymous London-based collector. ‘Now it is of interest to a status-quo-leaning, conservative group of high-net-worth individuals. It makes contemporary art a whole lot less interesting.’

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