Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What’s It REALLY Worth?

I was out on the road for a week and returned to find a very nice article in the Boston Globe about HUBERT’S FREAKS.

The article was brought to my attention by a colleague, who also told me that a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s “Maritime Observations” was coming up for auction at Christies. This is an important item in the history of science and, because of its maritime component, he wanted to let me know about the sale. Essentially Franklin’s treatise documents his discovery, in 1785, of what we now know as the Gulf Stream. The pamphlet was estimated to sell at $15,000-25,000. I guessed it would sell at around $35,000. In fact, it went for $80,500 with the auctioneer’s 20% premium.

Tracking the blatant “rich getting richer” course of the Bush economy, the escalation of high-end material has taken over every area of the high art world, including rare books. The rarest of the rare sells for increasingly grand sums. Everything else founders or sinks. Perhaps the strongest example of this at the Christies sale was tragic genius Alan Turing’s 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers.” This early and important item had a well-established value of about $20,000. However, the copy at this Christies sale brought $182,500, including the premium.

This highlights another aspect of today’s weird market. More than ever before, the sales venue has a significant impact on the selling price of an item. Turing’s paper might sell for $20,000 at Bloomsbury or Swann, and $180,000 at Christies. So what is it really “worth?” Has value become a function of venue?

Inevitably all this takes me back to the cancelled Phillips sale last April 8th. It’s getting on three months and the mystery buyer announced by Phillips has yet to emerge. I can’t help but wonder if the people at Phillips misjudged the current market, only to realize their mistake at the last moment. Auction results over the past decade have demonstrated that, for all of Arbus’s work, it is only the icons that bring strong sales numbers. Results over the past few years make it clear that Christies and Sothebys are where the real money gets made. Did Phillips think they could buck this trend with Bob Langmuir’s collection of funky, fascinating, but off-brand Arbus material?

In HUBERT’S FREAKS Steve Turner counsels Bob Langmuir not to over-pitch his goods, to let the buyer “sell it to himself.” At this remove it looks more and more as if Steve Turner took his own advice when he was trying to find a taker for the Hubert’s archive. Charlie Scheips and Joseph Kraeutler, the photography experts at Phillips, sold it to themselves.

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