Thursday, December 20, 2012

Auction Sales of 2012

Every once and a while, I like to track on bklynbiblio information about auction sales for works of art when I think something significant or monumental has happened. 2012 has turned out to be a rather startling year, with a number of paintings being sold at auction at incredible prices, some breaking records. The November sale of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's brought in $375 million, followed almost immediately by Christie's similar sale with a record of nearly $500 million in sales. These are simply staggering amounts of money for works of art. Two pictures by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko sold at auction this year for more than $87 million and $75 million each. But my favorite Ab Ex painter, Franz Kline (1910-1962), reached a record high for his work with Untitled, 1957 (pictured above), which sold at Christie's New York in November for $40.4 million. (bklynbiblio readers may recall my having written about Kline when it was his 100th birthday. I love how his thick, exuberant application of monochromatic paints allude to Chinese/Japanese calligraphy.) Of course, the biggest sale of the year, however, was one of Edvard Munch's versions of The Scream, 1895, which sold at Sotheby's in May for $119.9 million, making it currently the most money ever paid for a work of art at auction (note that it's not an oil painting, but rather pastel on board). You can see this interesting slideshow with images from the Huffington Post with the 20 most expensive works sold at auction this year, ranging from the $119.9 million to a paltry $23 million for an abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky. It's at least somewhat reassuring to know that not everything in the top 20 was "modern"; works by John Constable and Raphael made it on the list too.

There's a decent Wikipedia entry on the "List of Most Expensive Paintings" that is worth consulting, as it combines both auction sales with private sales. As expensive as these aforementioned auction prices are, it's astounding to realize that this year's Munch still only ranks as #8 in the hierarchy, the most expensive painting ever sold being a version of Paul C├ęzanne's Card Players, 1892-93, for $259 million. What is perhaps most disturbing about this list, however, is that of the top 17 highest-ranking sale prices, 10 of them have all taken place just since the year 2006! This is extraordinary when you realize that we've supposedly been suffering through tough economic times these past few years. Clearly the so-called global 1% haven't been impacted and can easily inflate the art market.

And just when you think you've heard it all, this very week Christie's sold the painting you see here at its Victorian sale for a shocking record price of almost $1 million. The picture, The White Owl, 1856, by William James Webbe, was discovered in someone's attic, cleaned, and sold at auction for about 9 times more than the estimated price. Now, when compared to the sales mentioned above, this is really nothing. But for a Victorian picture, it's astounding. The picture is being called a Pre-Raphaelite work for its stark, photographic realism, but it's not officially a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I mean, I think it's fair to say that I'm relatively familiar with Victorian art, certainly the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I've never even heard of this guy! What gets me even more is...who the heck has $1 million to buy a picture of an owl? I think it shows that although one can talk all about these sales and declare them records of sale prices, in the long run they say more about the competitive streak among bidders who vie for these works, rather than the intrinsic value of the works themselves. It seems fair to say that most art collectors today clearly are more interested in art as a commodity and want to flip it to make a profit. Sadly, aesthetics and the work's value solely as a work of art no longer seem to be worth anything.

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