The Art Market Blues

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Diamond (Blue), Jeff Koons, 1994-2005 — Photo: Christie’s

That big blue Jeff Koons diamond, the one that’s sitting outside of Christie’s this week as a kind of carnival barker for their upcoming postwar and contemporary sales — is it looking just a little ironic today? As you may have heard, everybody in the art marketing business is a little nervous right now about where the business is headed. Christie’s had an okay Impressionist and modern sale on Tuesday, but Sotheby’s equivalent sale the next night was a loser, with 20 of its 76 offerings failing to move. Those included a Van Gogh for which Sotheby’s had given the sellers a guarantee, meaning the auction house buys the painting if no one else does, an increasingly common practice and one that can get inconvenient to the house if a whole lot of guaranteed merchandise doesn’t move. The Van Gogh, for instance, had a low estimate of $28 million. (Exactly how much Sotheby’s guaranteed the seller is something we don’t know. Auction houses don’t disclose things like that. For a publicly traded company like Sotheby’s that doesn’t seem quite sporting.) In any event, Wall Street, which has been jumpy lately, took a dim view of all this. Yesterday Sotheby’s stock dropped by more than 28%. Think of it as a one percent drop for each million the Van Gogh didn’t get. I quickly rummaged through my 401(K) to make sure I wasn’t invested in Sotheby’s. What a relief — nothing in there but blue chips like General Motors.

All of this as background to the piece in yesterday’s New York Times about the Louis Vuitton boutique that’s smack in the middle of the Takashi Murakami show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a place where anyone can buy one of those Vuitton handbags with Murakami doodads on it, or anyone with a thousand or so dollars to spare. In another of those counter-intuitive high/low marketing moves, Vuitton also has a new deal now with Richard Prince. Can we look forward to calfskin clutch bags appliqued with big ta-ta biker babes?

The museum doesn’t share in proceeds from the shop — that could endanger its non-profit status — and LAMOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel has been assuring everybody for months that the boutique is an essential aspect of the Murakami experience. Which has always left me wondering if that means the complete Murakami experience is only available to people who can spend nine hundred on a handbag. Should the rest of us just sort of press our noses up against the window? Will Murakami end up as the 21st century equivalent of Bouguereau, once the favorite painter of the 19th-century beau monde, now an art historical joke? Just asking.

In any event I thought Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney’s and all purpose wit, had the best take on it. Artsy bling like those Murakami/Vuitton bags are just a way of signifying that your mindless consumerism is more interesting — you know, more ironic — than everybody else’s mindless consumerism. As Doonan told the Times: “They say: ‘I’m not just a shopper. I’m a super groovy shopper.’”

Since I’m throwing in a lot of links today, here’s one more that’s relevant, from the British paper The Guardian — Rick Woodward’s very astute reading of the big Dutch painting show at the Met in New York, the last word in donor servicing.