Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Under The Hammer

The inexorable press of the internet has wrought radical changes to the way the art world does business, not least because it has educated – and enabled – artists to have a better grip on their rights. Nevertheless, the mind-set of the ancien régime persists: too many who handle the business of art regard artists as naive, clueless and incapable of looking after themselves.
The better auction houses email to request my written permission to reproduce images of my works in their print and web catalogues. No matter who buys one of my works – and no matter how many times it is resold – I retain the copyright of my images.
My work is distributed online under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This means, in practice, that my images can be reproduced and shared as long as they are unaltered, attributed to me and used for non-commercial purposes only. An auction house's advertising and catalogue are unarguably commercial. Neither an auctioneer nor an owner of one of my works should assume they can proceed without my input.
Recently, I found out that three of my works would be sold later this month through a Melbourne auction house. The images were reproduced in its online catalogue without my permission. Worse, the descriptions for two were wrong: the media were noted as "acrylic on card" instead of acrylic on 100% cotton museum board. As I'd never paint on a non-archival material such as card, this incorrect record stating that I had risked devaluing the work as well as my hard-won reputation for high quality craftsmanship.
To add insult to injury, the pre-sale estimates were adrift from the actual sales results achieved in other, larger auction houses by nearly 50 per cent.
My work has been sold through this Melbourne auction house once before, in 2007. I was not asked for permission to use an image of the work then, either, and didn't find out about the sale until a collector called to tell me they'd picked up one of my paintings at a bargain price ("Cheap," was the word they used).
This time, I called the auction house to assert my copyright and correct their mistake about the medium. Unfortunately, the 'hard copy' of the catalogue had already been printed and mailed to clients. Like the online catalogue, it included unauthorised reproductions of my work and incorrect descriptions.
The woman I spoke to was responsive and apologetic. She corrected the information on the website immediately. I explained that it was in the auction house's interest to contact me – as Menzies Art Brands in Sydney and Christie's in London always do – as it was an early opportunity to ensure that the works were genuine and that the information they had on them was correct. The way I see it, we – the auction house, the buyer, the seller, and I – are all on the same side.
I suspect some still regard the role of the artist in a possible sale as at best, an inconvenience, at worst, an irrelevance (only the artwork, the seller and the potential buyers really matter), but over the past couple of years, I have witnessed attitudes shifting.
The best auction houses do pay attention to artists. They know collectors tend to look to us first for information, even about upcoming secondary market sales. I add details of auctions to my website and I write about the works offered on this blog and in my monthly newsletter, Studio Notes, which reaches over 8,500 subscribers.
I've developed a personal rapport with key senior staff at Menzies Art Brands (which include Deutscher Menzies and Lawson Menzies) as well as Christie's in London, which, between them, have sold the majority of my work at auction. They always ensure the sales information is correct and sometimes, we even collaborate to market works: last year, I provided a small, limited edition print free to every buyer attending a Sydney auction of one of my paintings and I wrote a personal statement for the auction catalogue. I recommend both Menzies and Christie's to collectors of my work.
It's now four years since the first time I had contact with an auction house. Since then, I've watched the bigger, more progressive (and aggressive) auction houses evolve to incorporate direct, regular contact with artists into their sales strategies. Of course, it's driven by self-interested and profits. They recognise that the artist's input and public support have a positive effect on prices. They also recognise that artists themselves – not their representative galleries – are the primary and best source of information about the work and themselves. It's a simple, obvious concept but markedly at odds with the archaic, dealer-controlled system.
The pace of change in the art world is glacially slow. Except when it comes down to money. Then it adapts fast.

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