Middle Ground #9: Shoot the Moon – Auction Prices are Crazy, but There’s No End in Sight

Essay / May 2022

Middle Ground #9: Shoot the Moon – Auction Prices are Crazy, But There’s No End in Sight
By Jacob Barnes

         This past week, I scrolled through recent auction results with dismay. It seems that, collectively, the art world has lost its mind. More than that, it seems that we creep ever closer to a point of no return; where art-as-expression and art-as-commodity have diverged irreparably. Put otherwise, bubbles can’t be un-popped, and the art world insists on seeing how close it can get with its needle to an already wobbly sud.

I subscribe to the logic that all good things must come to an end, so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little concerned by artworks produced in the last year or two shooting past their estimates at auction. Perhaps “concerned” isn’t the right way to phrase it—that invokes a kind of paternalism one has for people who don’t know any better, as if the art world is some kind of wayward child. Instead, I’m frustrated by the shortsightedness, and baffled at the senselessness, that is so ardently paraded by the industry’s elite. The “pump-and-dump” of younger artists has been codified into a Gekko-esque business model, leaving the world to play a very expensive game of musical chairs, waiting to see whose ass remains seatless – and in possession of a very expensive artwork – when the music stops.

But right now, that point – the point of collapse – still appears far off, almost unbelievably so. The impossibility of maintaining this kind of financial velocity has started to reveal itself, but still only modestly: works by established artists exceed their estimates, sometimes handsomely so, just simply not by the multiples of emerging artists. Lauren Quin’s A Leaf is an Arrow (2021) might have jumped to a hammer price of $529,200 at Sotheby’s on a $50,000-$70,000 estimate, but that takes nothing away from Tracey Emin’s You are there now (2017) finishing up at $819,000 on a $400,000 upper estimate. And while I’ve used Sotheby’s results to make a point, the same trend was visible across the other two major players in Christie’s and Phillips. No matter the auction house or location, there seems to be no upper limit on where prices could go.

This is a problem because it’s nothing more than mere speculation, and it has made pawns of younger artists. Fine if you qualify the rumours that Anna Weyant is pregnant with Larry Gagosian’s child as some kind of “investment logic,” but there is no world in which Shaina McCoy’s Baubles, Barrettes & Beads (2018) jumping to $81,900 at Phillips is anything but a shot in the dark. McCoy, born in only 1993 and hopefully with at least another four decades of producing work, has only had three solo shows, her first coming in 2019 — how much could possibly be known about her work? (McCoy herself is even a tame example; several other big-name artists are no older than the Minneapolis-born painter.) Now, when either her style develops or it turns out there’s not yet the market to sustain these prices, she risks being thrown into the pile of has-beens, before she’s hit the tender age of thirty. Surely this is not a long-term answer.

At the minute, however, I’m not losing sleep over it. What’s the point? Prices continue to climb higher; they clearly have yet to reach their apex, and until they do, reckless behaviour will continue. And this is all before you get into rampant market manipulation. Allowing one’s mind to wander on the subject threatens too many sleepless nights to count. 

Image Credits:
1. Giphy.