Thursday, September 2, 2010

"These Are Live and Die Prices": Dealers and Artists Talk Value

Olav Velthuis' Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art, 2005, published by Princeton University Press

One of my great joys this summer was reading Talking Prices, journalist and sociologist Olav Velthuis' detailed study of how primary-market art dealers set prices for the art they show. To write the book, Velthuis interviewed 37 dealers — 18 in Amsterdam and 19 in New York — about their practices, promising them anonymity. It turns out that dealers say some pretty great things when they know that their names will not be attached to their comments. Velthuis also meticulously researched journalistic accounts of the art market that have been published since the end of World War II, digging up some old gems in the process. Here are eight especially great quotes, from Velthuis' anonymous interviews and his archival research:
  • An anonymous New York-based dealer discussing Jenny Saville, who started showing with Gagosian in 1999: “That girl is 29 years old. If she is not going to make it, she is never going to have a career ever. That’s like live and die, these are live and die prices, motherfucker. We are going to kill your ass, and you are going to make it, let’s see. You want to be famous? We are going to make you famous or you are going to be unknown tomorrow. Then you are not even going to be an artist. You are going from 150 grand down to 15, and that is a lot of humble pie. I don’t know if most artists could handle that.”
  • A young, anonymous dealer: “When I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine became this huge success in London. He won the Turner Prize … but when I went to see him in 1994 or 1995, he was that burnt-out alcoholic, bitter, old horrible art world prune. You know, he became so hot, and then it was like … pffft.”
  • An anonymous Amsterdam-based dealer: “Look at the difference between something that costs €10,000 or €50,000: you will get another audience with either price level, and you may find one sort of public nicer than another, to put it in general terms. Maybe it is more pleasant to sell things that cost €10,000 guilders, because the people that can afford it are nicer to deal with and speak to.”
  • New York dealer Matthew Marks, quoted in a 1998 ArtNews article, on selling art: “All of a sudden, you have this slightly sick feeling — Did you sell it for enough?”
  • Jim Dine, on being represented by Ileana Sonnabend, whom he eventually left: “I never saw a statement. If you asked her for money, she would pull out this wad of bills in every possible currency, and peel off a few.”
  • Julian Schnabel, quoted in a 1987 Anthony Haden-Guest article published in Vanity Fair: “It was as if the artists were tubes of paint, and she was the real visionary. We were the earrings to embellish her aura.”
  • Dealer Leo Castelli, quoted in a 1988 Art in America article by Carter Ratcliff: “Now the news about high prices has captured [the public’s] attention. This has its unfavorable side, of course. Yet some who became interested in a superficial way have gotten truly involved with art.”
  • Dutch artist Rob Scholte: “The only real thing about an artwork is the price.”

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