Art's auction fight

By Josie McNaught

Dissent erupts in the art market over who's not making money.

Starkwhite Gallery's John McCormack believes the recession and art auctions hurt his business.  Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Starkwhite Gallery's John McCormack believes the recession and art auctions hurt his business. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

The auction of one of New Zealand's best private art collections has led to artists and dealers blaming such sales for funnelling profits away from artists.

The Les and Milly Paris collection, which sold for a record $4.5 million, included works by Brent Wong, Michael Smither, Gordon Walters and Peter Robinson.

Starkwhite Gallery in Karangahape Rd went into voluntary liquidation recently, blaming the auction (secondary) market, plus the recession.

The directors, John McCormack and Dominic Feuchs, said, "We face competition from auction houses working in the secondary market - a market that is now saturated with artworks offered for sale by collectors facing the need to cash up artworks and art collections to reduce debt."

The art world refers to the primary market as sales direct from an artist or dealer and the secondary market as sales by auction.

But Neil Campbell, of Webb's, says it's not auctions' fault some galleries are struggling.

"I think the Starkwhite situation is about a procedural matter in relation to their business, not the secondary market for art."

Art and Object director Hamish Coney didn't want to comment on Starkwhite, but says it's impossible to know whether auctions are gaining market share as a method of sales.

"There are no figures available for the primary market that you can rely on, but sales figures for the secondary market have been remarkably steady."

The auction market in NZ has sat in a tight band around $15 million a year since 2005.

Coney suggests the primary art market is four or five times the size of the auction turnover.

Only events like the Paris auction and the secondary market in general irk Stanley Palmer, one of our most senior artists. He's fuming about "record prices" reached in what he regards as a hothouse atmosphere.

"Just imagine if that money had been used to buy more works by new, younger artists and kept in the system, instead of being sucked up by high value auction sales."

Campbell says it's simply that the landscape has changed. He says the days of a dealer buying at auction and reselling from a gallery have declined.

Says Palmer, "Auctions like this take people away from dealers, and so they aren't really supporting the artists, just the people selling the work."

He says he knows dealers do a lot more for their artists than just sell their work. "They support them by introducing them to curators, by making sure the institutions know about their work and getting them into the right collections."

Overseas, Christies and Sotheby's have set up private gallery spaces. What doesn't sell upstairs goes straight to the secondary sales room below.

- Herald on Sunday

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