Off to the Turtle Races: Kenny Schachter, Our Man in Maastricht

  • Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid, and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ and Swiss money manager Marc Faber’s Gloom Boom & Doom Report. The opinions expressed here are his own.

    At the ripe old age of 47, come April, is Art Cologne, the world’s oldest fair of 20th- and 21st-century fine art. Art Basel, the market-leading event, turns 43 in June. The youngster, at 38, the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, the Netherlands, shows the oldest art but has an ever-increasing presence of contemporary. TEFAF is also the world’s longest-running fair: March 15th-24th—three days more than the norm.

    The recently completed Armory Show (b.1994) in New York is hanging on for dear life even as Artinfo.com’s Louise Blouin contemplates (or, negotiates) its purchase, with the New York editions of super-supercilious Frieze Art Fair (b. 2003 in London) chomping at its heels (May will be the second New York iteration of Frieze). Welcome to the international art fair wars.

    Back to tiny and geographically isolated Maastricht: From Old Masters to (old) contemporary, TEFAF covers it all in spacious and finely carpeted aisles that are (not kidding) named after the haughtiest streets in Paris, London and New York. The opening last Thursday was, as usual, saturated in enough free-flowing booze to result in a few unintended purchases. As the more traditional fare becomes too rare to get a hold of, contemporary art continues to play a bigger and bigger role.

    For instance, why did Larry Gagosian flee TEFAF after doing the 2006 edition, only to give the fair another shot this year? The question arises: can a staid, predominantly Old Master undertaking (previously in need of an undertaker) add sexiness to its fanciness? You can typically mark the success of this fair by the number of private jets on the tarmac, and caviar tins and champagne corks in the trash, but it’s not a perfect gauge—as previously mentioned, the place is so remote that private planes are the only alternative to four trains and a commercial flight.

    Sure, he’s more associated with Miami, which is on a whole other level of luxury and degradation, but Jeff Koons made an appearance at TEFAF by way of a new shiny, costly sculpture chez Gagosian, entitled Metallic Venus, 2010–12, apparently made on a much shorter lead time than the eight to 10 years it normally takes to fabricate a work. The sculpture is made of high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating and live flowering plants, with a plinth from plywood substrates with Colorcore Formica. The ticket? At a cool $6 million (and still available at the time of this writing) in an edition of three, it’s actually not bad in relation to the €70 million ($90.5 million) brooch in the shape of a peacock at Graff jewelers (they had over $500 million worth of gems, the owner’s son informed me), waiting for a (probably) Russian peacock to spread her feathers and oligarch husband’s cash.

    Gagosian also had a gorgeous realistic Rudolf Stingel painting (probably sold just before the fair at just under $1 million), a slightly larger than life-size portrait of Picasso that seduced. (I wanted it. Badly.) And Gogo had a smattering of fabulous actual Picassos, as did many exhibitors—Picasso’s the gold standard against which all else is measured in terms of art and commerce.

    For entertainment at TEFAF, you can comparison-shop artworks of the same size and style by the same artists at different booths, often booths directly adjacent to one another, as pieces by market-hot artists come out of the woodwork for these types of events: in particular, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter and Lucio Fontana. What is the next level up from white-hot? That would be Basquiat, represented at TEFAF by a collection of weak and weaker works.

    How bad can a bad Basquiat be? Okay, it’s always a gift to experience more than a handful of his works simultaneously, but this is no Basquiat bouquet of beauty as you might see in Basel; more like a hodgepodge of C+ (at best) paintings and drawings with prices from $1 million to nearly $12 million for canvases where those price tags have no rhyme or reason.

    Galerie Odermatt-Vedovi is offering Basquiat’s O.M.R.A.V.S. (1984) at $3.8 million—an admittedly minimalist composition—while Christophe van de Weghe is offering a harsh work of a black servant for $4.1 million, but only a stone’s throw away, an all-text Basquiat from 1984 was inexplicably tagged at €9 million ($11.6 million) at Tornabuoni Arte. This type of pricing activity undermines my theory that art has an underlying, objective and inherent value. Oh well, back to the drawing board, and the calculator.

    There was a profusion of Fontana slits and Richter hits. The Gerhard guessing game is another fun exercise. There were plenty of occasions to compare and contrast what amounts to commodious commodities of Richter canvases that were nearly same-sized but on offer at wildly differing price points. From approximately €1 million ($1.3 million) from the always affable Ben Brown for a dull, predominantly blue work to $4 million for a muddy brown, also boring composition at Kukje Gallery from Korea (they also had a strange, yellowish landscape for $7 million which seemed somehow palatable if you have the pocket change). Van de Weghe also weighs in with a similarly sized (to Kukje) abstract for $3.1 million, but (remember, these works are resales) it had just recently sold for about $1 million less.

    In the same vein, Salis & Verte gallery of Zurich and Salzburg had yet another same-sized Richter for €2.45 million ($3.2 million), but the story with this work was even better. It sold less than a year ago for about £500,000 ($760,000), making the asking price amount to a usurious rate of return even at today’s highway robbery art market levels. The tale went something like: it followed a figurative candle painting of Richter’s at auction that established a record, so the abstract painting went for an unusually low figure due to fatigue after such a stellar result. When you look at the prices of only recently auctioned work you are rudely confronted with a new economic phenomenon: hyper-artflation.

    Thank heavens for artnet.com and the accompanying transparency it has foisted upon the art market, rendering art dealers naked as they are now compelled to tell the full story on auction history, especially of the recent past. This only goes to show that there is no purer form of honesty than the forced variety. Salis & Verte had another Richter on its books for half the price—go figure. That’s why you have to love (and hate) the arbitrage opportunities still available in this industry, as compared to most others.

    Gagosian is bucking the trend by having three Richters of the realistic variety while nearly all the others on display at the fair were the abstracts, the (current) market leaders. It’s rumored that Gagosian is making a play to work directly with the artist in the face of his aged New York primary dealer, Marian Goodman. But Larry’s Richters suffered from either overexposure on the market (not to mention in previous Gagosian booths in other fairs) or, again, recent auction exposure (or both). None were sold at the time of this writing.

    As far as the Lucio Fontana market, I didn’t get into the specifics much, but I was attempting to explain the rationale behind the pricing structure to a novice collector and came up with the following riff on the classic children’s game: one potato, two potato, three potato, four—seven slashes in a Fontana and it costs a whole lot more!

    It’s impossible to really gauge sales at fairs, as art is an unusual business where multimillion-dollar deals are communicated by mere whispers. Nothing more need be done to cement a deal. Until the invoice comes, that is. But even then, as far as clients who chose to renege, there is often no recourse and no signed contract involved, hence also unmeasurable is how many people in fact walk from such agreements after the event. (It’s happened to me and, if you are in art, it’s happened to you.) Also, dealers sometimes exaggerate, another reason post-fair reports are highly inaccurate at best.

    TEFAF is calm and unhurried with little sense of stress or urgency and certainly no one was tripping over themselves to buy art of any stripe, but the city nevertheless seemed oddly incapacitated by the onset of the fair. Try and get a taxi, and the wait could be paralyzing. When I asked the man behind my hotel’s front desk why it would take 15 minutes to get a cab, he was taken aback.

    As with most hotels in most cities during major events, they put a gun to your head and steal your money when you are desperate for last-minute accommodations, the best time to do so. I was forced to pay what amounted to an extortionist rate for the world’s most overpriced dorm room. A shuttle from the hotel to the fair was meant to ferry people back and forth, but the 10-minute wait turned into 40 and when it finally appeared, it quickly devolved into a state of nature, with every man and woman for him- or herself, jostling to get onboard, health and safely be damned. Despite all this, TEFAF is more museum than bazaar.

    Even though I tend to travel neurotically, in Woody Allen mode, what’s exciting about an art fair is the freedom to go with the flow, engage in a bit of drifting, like a wandering Jew cursed to walk the earth until the arrival of the messiah (I say this as a member of the tribe) or the next scheduled international art fair or biennial. Forget art, fairs are great places to collect people and sniff out opportunities like a truffle pig. But when you play it from the hip as a solo fair-goer, you need to dinner-juggle or you end up plan-less. And sometimes there is a price to pay for fortuity.

    First I tried my favorite art market writers, Scott Reyburn of Bloomberg and the inimitable Judd Tully of artinfo.com and Art + Auction, who seems to carry the entire business on his shoulders. Though I tried to join them with a finance guy and a collector, it didn’t materialize. The journo covering the art market beat from The Telegraph, Colin Gleadell, informed me I’d be better off writing less. So, scratch him.

    Finally I found some friends who were throwing a dinner with a famous jeweler and some Old Master collectors, so I jumped at the chance and because I couldn’t find a taxi (of course) I asked them to order for me. My exuberance for all things contemporary seemed to piss one of them off in particular and I ended up mercilessly attacked by a certain bitchy New York Old Master collector who took an immediate dislike to me.

    Part of what I love about art is that something like the Karsten Greve Gallery can exist. When a client asked me to ask the price of a Wols painting, said to be on hold for “more then €5 million” (which probably translates into about €4.85 million, or $6.5 million and $6.3 million, respectively), a woman at Greve’s booth said I must query Karsten directly. When I asked where he was, she replied, “Somewhere in the building.” What a service-oriented people business, the art world! How could you not be enthralled with it?

    The psychology of collecting is both scintillating and confounding. There was the collector I met through a friend at the fair who wouldn’t tell me what or whom he was buying. Oh, the mystery of it all. Hats off to a man who is under the impression that his opinion is so omnipotent to think that he could single-handedly move a market. Admittedly, I only wanted to know more—this is a guy who built an unrivaled collection of Chinese contemporary art early on and whose interests include ancient swords and guns.

    A jewelry dealer told me how he picked up some Dutch at TEFAF: just about every time a couple walked into the booth the wife would say “just looking” and the husband would follow up with “and not buying.” TEFAF puts out a closely-looked-at report every year that states the market is presently down 7 percent from last year and this and that about the shifting percentages and trends of Chinese vs. European and American buyers. While the Chinese market was said to be down a whopping 24 percent, the U.S. market expanded 5 percent. So there are offsetting trends that smooth out localized declines. The prices for individual artists seem to be getting higher and higher, but for fewer and fewer of them. But all this conjecture is based on auction results coupled with dealer reports, and as previously stated, we know about the veracity of dealers. So, grain of salt taken.

    On my return to London after only around 24 hours in Maastricht, I faced a delay on the plane when the pilot got on the public announcement system and said: “Feel free to visit the cockpit and speak to pilots during the interim of the holdover.” Imagine if they’d announced at the fair, “Why not join Larry and Lawrence to shoot the breeze?” It would have been as though Michael Moore had finally found General Motors CEO Roger Smith, and Roger & Me had a happy ending.

    (Images by Kenny Schachter, except where noted.)

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