Monday, November 25, 2013

Watch the birdie

As part of the run-up to its next big art auction, Webb’s have published an outsize brochure on its major attraction Bill Hammond’s Farmer's Market. Webb’s are hoping to get between $300,000 and $350,000 for this painting (achieving the lower estimate plus commissions would create a new auction record for Hammond) so it's being given a big push.

However unlike most of the other 15 works by Bill Hammond that have fetched over the $100,000 mark in the last decade, Farmer's Market is just four years off the easel. So how do you calm the horses over the traditional fear of later works (the average age of the last decades big dollar offerings is just shy of 11 years old).

Webb’s have done it by coupling critical and art historical remarks with detailed analysis of sales performance creating a new ‘period’ for the work on the block to slip into, 1999 to 2009. Until this year most of the high priced Hammonds at auction were painted between 1995 and 1998. Farmers market, being painted in 2009, is of course the bleeding edge of this follow-up period.

Selling paintings that are all but fresh from the studio is more commonplace than it used to be (the Cotton in this auction is also a recent painting). And there is a precedent with Hammond, an even ‘wetter’ work, the three-year-old Whistler’s mothers, sticks and stones was hammered down for around $135,000, but that was 10 years back.

It wasn’t that long ago that it would have been unthinkable to frame up major paintings as financial assets in this way. Accumulated auction prices were hard to come by so accurate indexing was virtually impossible. A lot has changed. Most auction houses (there are a few exceptions) are very sophisticated in presenting art as analysed by its dollar value compounded with the construction of complex comparisons. The shame in all this is not that some art is seen as a cash cow but that the producers don’t share in the spoils.

Unsurprisingly it was the wealthy that squealed loudest a few years ago when a measly 5 percent was proposed as an artist payback from profits at auction. The idea died without a whimper. Hammond alone has put more than two million bucks back into the pockets of collectors over the last ten years and six million over his auction career. For his trouble he'd be lucky to have got so much as a box of chocolates, let alone flowers. Very lucky.