Damien Hirst’s Sotheby’s Auction Begins the Unwinding of the Hegemonic Gallery/Dealer SystemArt, The Safety and Beauty of Real, Tangible Assets

“Non-financial assets form the greater part of world wealth and have been more stable in value during periods of financial and social turbulence.” – Roger Ibbotson and Gary Brinson, “Global Investing”  

Between September 15th and 17th, Wall Street and world financial markets were turned on their heads as 158 year-old investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, followed by the Fed’s rescue of the insurance behemoth AIG. Credit markets seized up, stock markets plummeted and gold dramatically reversed its weeks-long downward movement. 

However, it was obvious that no one had though to inform art lovers as concurrent with the carnage on Wall Street, the artist Damien Hirst was busy staging a record auction of work by a single artist, selling $200.7 million of his most recent work at Sotheby’s. The game-changing auction of 223 original pieces of art has effectively changed the rules of the game, permitting an art lover to simply walk in off the street, without having to demonstrate their ‘seriousness’ to a dealer or gallery-owner, bid for a piece of original art and become its owner. Requirement: money. Not required: proper referrals, lineage, documentation of existing portfolio, etc. 

Not only did the sale highlight the juxtaposition between those assets with value (the visual and tangibly creative) and those woefully lacking it (creative financial instruments), but it signals a sea change in the way that artists view their options, as well as the volume of work from which the public can now choose. And in that sense it marks a seismic shift toward a newly democratic artworld. 

The wildly successful auction at which all but five pieces sold marked the first time that original artwork was auctioned without having passed through either a gallery or dealer’s hands. With the increased number of venues for marketing and selling artwork, the argument against consigning art first to high-cost (50% or higher) brick-and-mortar galleries and dealers has acquired a new solidity. 

Poverty is not the cost of respect in any other industry or endeavor, however, it has seemingly been inculcated as such within the realm of art. 

Hirst himself refers to the 50% cut taken by galleries as “an extortionate amount of money.”

When Claude Monet hosted the first exhibition open to the public of Impressionist artwork in the 1800’s, in effect circumventing the prevailing juried system, it’s unlikely there were very many cheers from the establishment. However, the exhibition held on the Boulevard des Capucines undoubtedly altered the way that artists’ sold their work.

Under the dealer/gallery system, a romantic notion was repeated often enough and allowed to codify as a truth, i.e. that artists must suffer to produce good art and that any state other than perpetual poverty for an artist translated to ‘selling out.’ Not in any other creative or sports-related endeavor does this fiction exist, and it has survived only because of the prevailing inefficient sales and management structure under which the levers of power were tilted in favor of distributors instead of producers.

In the end, no industry is spared the power of the market – all are eventually mean-reverting. Hirst’s auction represents quite a few miles logged on the road to reversion.

“Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money”   Ernst Levy


What’s the best capital gains tax rate for the sale of artwork? There are currently  several arguments being made against reducing the capital gains tax rate on the sale of artwork from the current level of 28% to the 15% rate enjoyed by sellers of real estate, securities and other assets.  Arguments against the reduction center around the view that art is not an asset which plays any real role in economic activity, particularly job creation, and revenue generation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.   


When the forces against tax reduction argue that to do so might shift money into art at the expense of more productive activities they fail to appreciate the significant and documented economic impact that art has made and continues to make on everything from job creation, to neighborhood redevelopment to tourism. 


Uneven tax policy has also played a role in reducing museum offerings, and hence the public’s access to art as a result of the tax treatment of artists.  Since they are only allowed to write off the cost of materials for donated works instead of the fair market value of the artwork, artists are less inclined to make donations. The negative impact on museums is compounded by the strength of the art market of late, particularly for Contemporary art, all of which reduces museums’ ability to acquire work.


Nevertheless, the value of innovation to our society is becoming more and more clear. Businesses that own and display art are perceived as being more innovative, interesting and desirable places to work.  Real estate developers are incorporating art galleries into new condominium towers to entice buyers seeking differentiable living experiences.  In connection with its recent renovation, the Aventura Mall in South Florida now includes a twelve-piece, museum-quality art collection designed to be a destination in a clear indication that creativity is valued and valuable.


In the third study conducted by the group Americans for the Arts titled Arts and Economic Prosperity III, data was collected from 116 cities and counties, 35 multi-county regions, and five states. The areas stretched from Walnut Creek, California to Anchorage, Alaska. They found that nationally, the arts generate $166.2 billion in annual economic activity, up 24% over the past five years. That’s greater than the 2006 GDP of either Malaysia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Columbia, Singapore, and the list goes on!  Furthermore, the arts provide 5.7 million jobs and contribute $104.2 billion to household income,and, they produce $30 billion in annual local, state, and federal revenue. 


Two specific examples:  In Baltimore City, Maryland, the arts are responsible for $270 million annually, provide 6,500 jobs, and generate $12.6 million in local government revenue.  In a study released in June, 2007, Rochester, New York (Monroe County) calculated that the attendance and sales revenues generated by its arts and cultural organizations were responsible for a total $199 million annual infusion into its economy. 


Far from playing a neutral role in this country’s economy, art continues to demonstrate its uniquely productive role as a strong generator of jobs and tax revenue, just as any other important industry. Therefore there really isn’t any defensible rationale for penalizing art investors with an incremental 40% tax bill.



Capucine Price


Email: Support@CapucinesBoulevard.com

January 15, 2008

With the news that Sothebys had guaranteed 78% of the value of its November Contemporary art sale versus just 35% of the same sale last year, many art market observers opined that the auction house was in danger of getting caught up in the euphoria of recent sales results. It’s easy after all, even for experienced players in the art market, to assign an element of infinity to the ever-escalating auction prices.However, the fact that the smart money’s betting on a continuation of the market’s acceleration should come as no surprise. The auction players witness firsthand, in auction after auction, the frenzy of demand from new categories of collectors. Not only that , but at these auctions they are witness to multiple new auction records being established for artists from around the world. Not to mention the fact that these auction houses’ annual sales are now routinely surpassing their pre-sale estimates.The auctioneers’ optimism is being driven by a heretofore unseen broadening of their buyer base beyond the hedge fund players. Sotheybys pegs sixty percent of their buyers as new within the last ten years. With the expansion of the ranks of the newly wealthy in Russia, The Middle East and Asia, buyers from these parts of the world have become an increasing presence at auction. Rather than being limited to the financial markets, their buying is funded by diverse sources of wealth including shipping, telecommunications, oil and gas, and commodities. This new class of collectors is determined to build impressive collections of art from their home countries while making equally impressive investments.Art’s intrinsic value has, throughout history, made it a reliable store of value. With oil prices at an all time high, the exchange rate of the dollar at an all time low, additional cuts in the interest rate more likely than not, and inflation that no one talks about, the appeal of tangible, portable assets such as art is clear.There really is no question then about the advisability of higher guarantees as the confluence of the factors supporting this art market has never before been witnessed.