The nice thing about Robert Arneson’s 1981 masterwork, Portrait of the Artist as a Clever Old Dog that comes up for auction in a few days, is that years from now one can easily find out what it sold for. (The estimate was ludicrously low, by the way, so don’t get your hopes up.) We will post the result on CFile. Why is this beneficial? It helps museums and collectors track prices for insurance, it provides a basis for appraisers to justify prices on tax-deductible art gifts (without this they have to get dealers to share invoices in recent sales, not an easy sell) and this practice goes back to the 19th century, allowing art economists to do long-term studies on the art market.
Above image: Robert Arneson, Portrait of the Artist as a Clever Old Dog, 1981. Eleven elements—glazed ceramic dog: 32 x 23 x 31 in. (81.2 x 58.4 x 78.7 cm.), bowl: 5 x 14¾ x 14¾ in. (12.7 x 37.4 x 37.4 cm.), each ancillary element: approximately 4 x 5 x 7 in. (10.1 x 12.7 x 17.7 cm.) Courtesy, Christies Auctions. Copyright Robert Arneson Estate
Of course there are those who do not like the practice, particularly minor dealers who buy on auction to quickly flip their purchases. But I believe that transparency in the marketplace is better for both ends of the transaction.
Christies has taken the first step to draw the curtain. Citing non-existent “industry standards,” a Christies spokesman told CFile that they will no longer reveal results on their online sales. Who benefits from this practice, one wonders? It’s difficult to name one other than the auction flippers. But this is a mixed blessing even for them. Yes, their client will not know what you paid so they can name whatever price they the market will bear, but in turn they will have no idea as to whether the price they paid was an anomaly, part of a rising or falling pattern. They are flying blind as well.
Why bother? For a journal like CFile that tracks the ceramic market’s movement this policy is particularity disturbing. Online sales tend to be for lower-priced items (although Christies online sales of Picasso ceramic editions can top $80,000 for a single lot). Studio pottery sales will almost all fall into this category.
Indeed, it was in trying to find out the result of Christies recent 20th Century Japanese and British Studio Ceramics (Cyberland, 14 October – 28 October, 2014) that this issue arose. It was a particularly stunning body of work. But we will never know whether it sold well in what is currently a depressed market, whether most works found buyers, or whether an amazing new record was reached for an artist. These facts are all key in discerning a market’s health. I later tried to find the catalog of the sale and could not access it either. Is this a glitch or is that a new policy as well? All evidence of the event has been erased.
If this example is followed online auctions will become a secret society. The decision was probably made carefully knowing that someone will benefit. Maybe its purpose is to dial the IRS out of the picture? Whatever the reason— and its not paranoid for me to say so— the beneficiary of this new policy is unlikely to be you or me. Bottom line: CFile intends to beat this drum long and loudly until the policy is reversed.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of CFile
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