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Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Art Money Machine

James Christie, 1778,
Thomas Gainsborough
Painters seldom become wealthy. Down through the history of art, you can probably count the number of wealthy painters on the fingers on one hand...two at the most. Picasso leads that category. His friend, Matisse follows well behind, Warhol, maybe, while Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and one or two others, lead the way today, depending upon your definition of wealthy and, indeed, your definition of art. Any of these artists, and doubtlessly every other painting artist, will tell you that the money to be made in art is not in producing it but in selling it. Englishman and art seller, James Christie, didn't make this rule, but he was certainly one of those who profited greatly from it. The axiomatic rule goes back at least a century earlier to the beginnings of modern day art marketing and the Dutch in the 17th century.

By 1762, when James Christie rented a room in London and auctioned off his first painting, he was already an experienced art merchant, having made his first art sales as early as 1759. There are few sales records going back that far for comparison, but during the first half of last year alone, Christie's International, the company James Christie founded, sold $3.5 billion worth of art, a world record, and this in the face of a world economy which might be termed "lackluster" at best.

Christie's, 8 King Street, London
Since 1823, the company has had its main sales room on King Street in London's historic St. James's district (above) with a second location in South Kensington. In the U.S., it occupies 300,000 square feet of Rockefeller Center in New York. Though these are the most prestigious locations, the company actually has 85 offices and showrooms in 43 countries. Though their main competitor, Sotheby's of London claims to be slightly older, slightly larger, and vastly more profitable, Christie's sells more art...also more jewelry, cars, historic artifacts, real estate, and other collectibles. If the rich want to buy it, Christie's sells it. They're also good to know when the rich need ready cash. In 2001 they sold Elton John's fleet of twenty collectible motorcars (below) for around $3.9 million.

Elton John's eclectic tastes in automotive art.
Christie's does not make artists wealthy--not directly, at least. Seldom do they auction off work owned by artists themselves. However, they often determine which artists are among the wealthy in that auction prices tend to determine the going rate at which living artists (and the galleries representing them) can market past and present work to their clients. Last month, Christie's sold a painting by eighty-year-old German artist, Gerhard Richter (below), for $34.2 million, putting him at the top of the list (price-wise) for living artists. Previously, Richter fell into the ten to fifteen million dollar range. The artist got not one cent from his record price. Christie's collected about $5 million in fees (from the buyer) while Eric Clapton, the seller (and the IRS), got the big bucks
Abstractes Bild, 1994, Gerhard Richter

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