How influential are auctions in the art scene?
October will be a big month for the art world as Heritage Auctions breaks into the Modern and Contemporary art market. Sotheby’s and Christie’s will both hold contemporary art auctions in mid October in London, followed by Heritage’s on 28th October in New York.
Heritage Auctions’ first foray into the art market is expected to feature a number of famed works, including pieces by Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei (currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts) and Robert Rauschenberg.
While the average art lover might not be heading to the bidding rooms, both online and off, this will likely create renewed interest in the contemporary art market. This in turn means good things for emerging contemporary artists. But just how influential are art auctions on the art scene overall?
Starving artists become society’s elite
Most artists launch their careers from relative obscurity and have to forge a name for themselves. Years of training along with personal exploration and experimentation means that artists are often middle aged before becoming recognised on the art scene.
Even artists who are well connected aren’t assured a jumpstart in their careers. Take Owais Husain, son of famed Indian artist MF Husain who was known as “the Picasso of India”. Despite the worldwide recognition of his father, Owais is only just starting to emerge as an artist in his own right.
Though art begins as a passion, the reason many go through expensive training at art schools is, according to Alan Bamberger (art consultant, advisor, author, and independent appraiser specialising in research, appraisal, and all business and market aspects of original works of art, artist manuscript materials, art-related documents, and art reference books), to “learn to make art that is good enough to sell”. This does not necessarily mean that artistic creativity is stemmed, but rather that, as with all facets of life, being able to make a livelihood is a necessity.
Even in modern society, with arguably a broader range of mediums to be successful in thanks to advances in film and online communications, artists are still revered. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and MF Husain are practically household names around the world, not solely in the art scene. Their success offered them a place among the elite of society with financial gain, influential social circles and free reign to create – exemplified by Hirst’s For the Love of God, a diamond-studded human skull.
Can buyers make or break an artist on the rise?
“Value is subjective; the intrinsic value of a painting is paint and canvas”. However, its financial value to a buyer as an investment and a sales item for a gallery is what makes an artist wealthy and their future works a good investment.
Gallerists control the sale value of an artist’s work, acting as the tastemaker for buyers, curating their exhibitions. Their valuation far increases the value of a painting or sculpture’s base materials.
When pieces go to auction, especially at large auction houses, it is a sign that their work is sure to make a financially worthwhile sale.
Yet, auctioneers are only able to make as much as the buyers are willing to bid. This is the risk when playing with hundreds, if not thousands of pounds in valued art. A loss can be huge. While a bigger than expected sale can be a great sign for an emerging artist, famous paintings that sell for millions doesn’t always benefit the artists. Rauschenberg lobbied for years that artists should receive the equivalent of royalties for their work sold down the line, from buyer to gallery to auction and so on.
Auctions are often the last stop for works of art, occasionally revolving back to auction houses and onto new buyers as investments. Famous pieces and “rising star” works will be estimated and evaluated within the art scene, but the auctions are not the most influential steps on the art’s journey.
The editorial unit