Jerry Saltz on why he hates big money auctions

Thanks Deneesha for flagging this post in Vulture by Saltz on the auction of The Scream. It’s worth citing a chunk from:

“I hate art auctions. Not just because they’re freak-show legal casinos, spectacles where the Über-ultrarich can act out as profligately in public as possible, trying to buy immortality, become a part of art history, make headlines, and create profit. I don’t only hate them because they may be the whitest sector in the entire world. I hate them for what they do to art, for the bad magic of making mysterious powerful things turn into numbers.”


“Auction houses run a rigged game. They know exactly how many people will be bidding on a work and exactly who they are. In a gallery, works of art need only one person who wants to pay for them. Auctions jigger the rules in one tiny way: They have two people who want something, and they know how high each is willing to go. The setup is simple and perfect. The auctioneer simply waits until he gets around the ceiling he knows these two clients are willing to go to; then he pits the two bidders against one another. Voilà! Money. ”

Should we hate on auctions and what they stand for? Is such a big sale indicative of income inequality hitting a new high, or the economy bouncing back? Is Edward Conard, former co-worker of Mitt Romney, actually right about the trickle-down effect of extreme displays of wealth such as these? (You can read his POV in this NYT article here: “The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy“). Should we all just head to the Outsider Art Fair in protest, or are displays from the periphery always doomed to be subsumed by the center again? (see: Hennessy Youngman and decide for yourselves).


4 thoughts on “Jerry Saltz on why he hates big money auctions

  1. I feel like in so many ways he is right. At the same time we live in a world where money is power, and to be fair if we all had that much money would we not want a great artwork we love to hang in our living room? The thing that feels unfair is that many people who are getting these pieces aren’t art enthusiasts, they are looking at these works not for what they are but for what the price tag is. Many collectors have used their money to gain publicity, but do they deserve it? Rich people who can afford something for the sake of affording it can be quite, well, boring – yet our culture loves the headlines and the gossip, so it’s our fault as well.

  2. I think you hit on something really significant here Dasha – just like body image issues, and gender issues – the media, and our complicity in such hype, really plays into the whole scene…….. We need to make sure what we write around such issues in entertaining, but also incisive. Jerry usually plays between the two poles well.

  3. With all this talk about record-breaking auction prices and buying art for the sake of parading one’s wealth, I’ve really started to lose faith in the contemporary art market (maybe I should watch Herb and Dorothy again). So over the weekend I talked to a friend’s dad who collects mainly Marc Chagalls and realized there are still plenty of 99%ers represented in the market and others who genuinely love the art that hangs in their living room.

    • I had a similar conversation last night Alice, with a contemporary gallerist. I’ll tell the class about it tomorrow. I am coming to realize that there are many more people in every corner of the market fed up with the hype than there are people romanced by it, and that there are still many people connected to the arts who have a balanced approach to both art and the market.

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