Monday, September 23, 2013

In the auction room nobody can hear you scream

A waking nightmare for public art museums is the suggestion that they might be using public money to advance private gain. To that end they are pretty careful to ensure that people don’t lend paintings to them and then use the exhibition to promote the work they own. It's not clear how much being in a public museum exhibition does affect value but the institutions certainly believe it does and the importance that artists put on their work being in public collections gives some credence to the idea.

So there must have been some fast in-takes of air when Webb’s started promoting their next premium auction in their catalogues and online noting that the featured work “is currently exhibited at City Gallery, Wellington, Shane Cotton: The Hanging Sky, until 6 October”. And there it was full page. Shane Cotton’s The painted bird, 2010. This is the same work that is featured on the banner currently hanging outside the City Gallery and on the cover of the luxurious publication that accompanies the show.

The work was purchased three years ago at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney from the exhibition Shane Cotton: smashed myth in which Cotton spectacularly filled Schwartz's enormous space in an old railyards building known as Carriageworks. We happened to be there when the sale was made and the obviously super rich I'll-buy-the-painting guy told us that he didn’t have a wall big enough for this work so he'd have to build something for it. We were impressed but clearly it never happened and now the painting's on the block rather than on the wall.

 Given the original price (around $A90,000 or $NZ110,000 at the time from memory), the low estimate of $120,000 at auction minus the seller’s commissions and so forth doesn’t seem to make much sense in terms of making a quick killer-profit, but maybe having it featured as the icon work in a trans-Tasman survey exhibition will justify the public museums' fears and fly right through the roof.

Images: The painted bird features in Webb's upcoming auction top and at Wellington's City Gallery bottom.