More years ago than I care to remember, a professor in a course I was taking on Baroque architecture told us how you could tell who had power in Italian cities during the 16th and 17th centuries. Buildings were normally erected to front the streets on which they were located; that is, they were built within the confines of the street grid. But families such as the Medici or the Farnese, who numbered popes and dukes among their members, were not bound by street grids. Their palaces did not conform to the grid; rather, the families built where they liked and made traffic circle around them.
When Art Basel began its Miami Beach subsidiary about 20 years ago, the big New York auction houses still had major sales the first week in December, around the same time as Art Basel. After a few years, however, tired of watching all the major dealers, collectors, and curators leave New York for Miami during that period, Sotheby’s and Christie’s surrendered, moving their sales to November. Like the Medici, Art Basel Miami Beach made traffic conform to its desires.
Art Basel’s success in Miami Beach acted as a magnet for satellite fairs, each with its own pitch to collectors. The scene, sprawling across Miami Beach and into Miami itself, was overwhelming – I’ve often said that no one could see all the artwork on display during those four days without the aid of amphetamines and a chauffeur waiting at the curb.
The Miami fairs were cancelled last year due to the pandemic (there were on-line “virtual fairs”), and everyone was interested to see how many people this year would make the trip to Florida, a state whose governmental response to Covid has been – well, let’s just say ill-thought-out at times. Fair organizers, however, strove to make visitors feel safe, instituting Covid protocols.
And it worked. I didn’t make it to Miami this year, but all the dealers I’ve talked to had glowing reports of sales, some even selling out their entire booths. The art world has transformed itself during the past two years — the virtual gallery isn’t going away – but people are still hungry for the face-to-face energy and excitement that a big art fair brings, and everyone wants to be in on the latest discovery. I’m still going through the list of artists who were anointed the Next Big Thing at this year’s fair, and I’ll familiarize myself with who’s trending. I recently completed an appraisal for a large contemporary collection, however, and I’ve had to tell its owner that the bloom is off the rose of some of the artists he bought 20 years ago. Their prices at auction today don’t meet the prices paid back when they were the Next Big Thing.
Well, the paintings still look like they did, and if the collector still enjoys looking at them, then everything’s fine. Perhaps there will be another turn of the wheel of opinion, and those artists will go from Next Big Thing to Who? to Modern Master Rediscovered. Art is one thing, and the marketplace is another. If you’d like some help negotiating that perilous terrain, give me a call.
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In last month’s blog, I wrote about an amateur artist whose widow contacted me, wondering what she could do with his work. She didn’t want to throw his paintings into the dumpster, but she was tired of paying the bill for the storage locker every month. The paintings had no commercial value, and I couldn’t recommend any gallery or museum to her. Since then, though, my wife has given me a couple of ideas that I think are worth considering for someone in the widow’s position.
The first is to give the works a few at a time to charity resale shops that sell furniture and objects for the home. Customers at such shops are looking for inexpensive home décor. If someone buys one of your loved one’s paintings for thirty bucks, why is that a bad thing? It’s certainly better than the dumpster, and the charity can use the money. If they have success selling the works you’ve donated, give them some more.
The other suggestion is to give the paintings to a high school for its art classes. The canvases can be re-gessoed and used by students for their own paintings. Think of it like organ donation. That gift may help a young person begin a life in the arts. It may not be the legacy the artist intended, but it’s still a worthwhile thing. New life from old.
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I’ll end with good wishes for all my readers. We’ve made it this far. Get those booster shots as they come out. I hope to be writing this blog in a year’s time, and I want you to be there to read it. Happy holidays.