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Want Tea?

She’s French, but has ‘emerged’ in England. Laure PROUVOST already has a brilliant career with a superb CV: she studied at Central Saint Martins (cinema) and Goldsmiths College, received the Max Mara Award in 2011 followed by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, before winning the famous Turner Prize in 2013. She is the first French artist to win the prestigious British art award. Since then, the young Laure Prouvost has had exhibitions in New York and Paris (New York Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014, Ring, Sing and Drink for Trespassing; Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2018) and her works have integrated various public collections through the world (MAC/VAL in Vitry-sur-Seine, Kunsthalle in Luzern, Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing). Enthusiasm for her work is unlikely to decline in the foreseeable future since she was recently selected to represent France at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019.

However, so far, her auction results are far from reflecting this institutional recognition. Laure Prouvost’s best result to date is just $12,000 for a 2010 installation sold via Christie’s in London (Look Behind The Curtain, 10 March 2017). More recently, a work submitted to London bidders was bought in. The piece was a priori a minor work – a ceramic teapot measuring 22 centimeters from an edition of 100 – which failed to attract bidding despite a very low estimate of $845 (A Wantee Teapot at Forum Auction, London, 23 March 2018).

Entitled A Wantee Teapot, the work is directly related to her Wantee installation presented as part of the Schwitters in Britain exhibition at London’s Tate Britain. Wantee (“want tea?”) is an allusion to the nickname given to the companion of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters because of her propensity to offer him tea (“Do you want tea?”). To occupy her time between cups of tea, “Wantee” created ceramics… hence the presence of ceramics in this fictional installation in which Laure Prouvost invented a zany family story related to that of the Schwitters… an installation that earned her the Turner Prize.

In retrospect, this small work in ceramics represented a golden opportunity to acquire a significant piece in the career of the young French prodigy.

Good, bad or fake?

In September 2017 the Californian artist Mark GROTJAHN questioned Phillips via his Instagram account saying “Yo Phillips. (. Dm. Me.), I’m not sure I made this. Either way it sucks” about a lot that was presented in one of its online sales scheduled for 19 September 2017 entitled New Now. He was referring to a drawing estimated between $20,000 and $30,000 and carrying the label Untitled (2010) that was apparently attributed to him.

Mark Grotjahn is one of the most in-vogue Contemporary artists and is represented by the Gagosian, Blum & Poe and Anton Kern galleries. But, as it turns out, the Untitled drawing (2010) proposed by Phillips was in fact acquired directly from the artist, i.e. without going through one of his galleries. The incident naturally fuels suspicions… but is not impossible. After all, his Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14), which fetched $16.8 million at Christie’s on 17 May 2017 thereby generating his current auction record, was also acquired directly from the artist.

As a precaution, Phillips withdrew the lot from the sale. However, two months later, the same auctioneer offered it again in New York, in a day sale, without having changed either the attribution or the estimate… and the Untitled (2010) drawing fetched no less than $75,000. Initially suspected of being a fake, the drawing has turned out to be a genuine Grotjahn work. And although the author disavowed it, the market seems convinced of its authenticity. In the end, Mark Grotjahn erased his Instagram post.

On certain contemporary signatures, demand has become so hot and prices have soared so rapidly that works of all qualities are being traded in auction rooms… In the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, more than 100 works by the artist are auctioned each year, of which roughly one third are works on paper. The major auctioneers handle the bulk of the artist’s sales, especially those with a capacity to exceed $10 million; but small drawings are constantly offered by auctioneers scattered throughout Europe and the United States. These small works undoubtedly make it possible to bring a major signature into a collection; but the quality of the work must not be neglected.

Au naturel in New York

Sarah LUCAS is a bawdy artist, but on the secondary market at least her presence is relatively discrete. In 2015 she returned to the art world limelight when she was selected to represent the United Kingdom at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It was a good year for the Young British Artists (YBAs) to which she belonged in the 1990s. That same year (2015), Damien HIRST opened his private museum in London, while Christie’s set new records for the YBAs Chris OFILI, Malcolm MORLEY and Jake & Dinos CHAPMAN (29 June 2015 in London). However Sarah Lucas has not been as successful at auction as her YBA peers, notwithstanding the prestige of her Venetian news.

When Christie’s tried to sell Drag-On with an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, no buyer was determined enough to acquire this imposing dragon made of hundreds of cigarettes. The estimate was all the more optimistic as collectors naturally had reservations about the conservation difficulties associated with such a sculpture (made of fine paper and tobacco). True… it was never Sarah Lucas’s intention to create works to satisfy the market, unlike her friend Damien Hirst who knew exactly how to take maximum advantage of the market.

The market for Sarah Lucas’s work is therefore a roller coaster, especially as it is now four years since her work has been offered for sale on the dynamic New York market. Before 2014, New York accounted for a third of her annual turnover (versus two thirds in London). Nevertheless she has resurfaced in New York with a major exhibition, her first solo show on American soil.

Organized at the New Museum until 20 January 2019, the exhibition is titled Au Naturel, in reference to the title of her famous installation consisting of objects evoking male and female sex organs on a mattress (1994). Au Naturel retrospects on Sarah Lucas’s entire production since the late 1980s, with numerous appropriated objects and situations, her anatomical fantasies questioning our assumptions about gender, identity, sex and cultural stereotypes. An essential exhibition that may awaken a dormant market on the other side of the Atlantic.

The king of kitsch under pressure

In January 2018, a group of French intellectuals (Pierre Alferi, Eric Hazan, Jean-Luc Nancy, George Didi-Huberman and Jean-Christophe Bailly) criticised the “demeaning gift” that Jeff KOONS offered to the City of Paris in tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks in 2015. In a tribune in the newspaper Liberation, the co-signatories denounce what they consider a commercial venture hiding behind a supposedly generous and disinterested gift.

Three months later, the American collector Steven Tananbaum announced legal action against Jeff Koons and the Gagosian gallery for not having delivered three sculptures (Balloon Venus, Diana I and Eros) for which important sums have allegedly already been paid since 2013. The prestigious gallery’s response has been to cite delays in supplies from manufacturers, but the plaintiff and his lawyer suspect a Ponzi scheme, i.e. new orders being used to pay for older ones. In June 2018, the Gagosian Gallery and Jeff Koons filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They affirm that the order-giver has been kept informed of progress and that no final delivery date was ever set.

In 2017/2018 Jeff Koons came 8th in Artprice’s ranking of Contemporary artists by annual auction turnover, with $41 million for the 12-month period. His piece Play-Doh (1994-2014) recorded the best result for a Contemporary sculpture: $22 million at Christie’s New York on 17 May 2018. Four years ago (2013/2014), when Koons was very much in the limelight, his annual auction turnover reached $178 million. Nevertheless, the recent criticism of the American artist is giving him publicity that he may turn to his advantage…

Unwanted animals…

Since Joan MIRO incorporated a stuffed parrot into one of his sculptures in 1936 (Object), animals have become a creative material like any other… and the practice has grown considerably. Maurizio CATTELAN stuffed suicidal squirrel (Bidibidobidiboo, 1996); Damien HIRST’s animals immersed in formol and butterflies with glued wings; Wim DELVOYE live tattooed pigs, whose remains are exposed after their death; Jan FABRE’s beetles with beautiful shells and cats being tossed into the air… many Contemporary artists have no qualms about using animals in their works. While ethical questions are less frequently raised when the artist recycles matter that is already dead, waves of protests break out when the work involves living animals.

Several controversies in this area have hit the cultural news this year. Starting with the exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. In September 2017, the management of the New York Guggenheim Museum was vigorously challenged by animal welfare associations about several works in the exhibition. The first, A Case Study in Transference (1994) by XU Bing plays on the sexual instinct of pigs; the second, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, by SUN & PENG Yuan & Yu – presents a video of two pitbulls tied opposite each other, unable to give free rein to their aggressive impulses; the third, Theater of the World (1993) by HUANG Yongping  was to contain hundreds of reptiles and insects in a cage. According to the law of the jungle, the former would end up eating the latter. The work was finally exposed without the animals.

A few months later, submerged by protests, the artist Adel ABDESSEMED decided to withdraw a flagship work from his retrospective show L’Antidote at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon (9 March- 8 July 2018). The scandal erupted the evening of the opening at the discovery of his video installation Printemps, showing twenty chickens hanging by the legs and burning alive.

In both cases, the protests spread like wildfire on social media and reached the attention of the PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) who reacted without any compassion for the museums’ directors. According to their motto Animals do not belong to us and we should not use them for our entertainment, the PETA has asked for the works concerned to be banned and, more generally, for the use of live animals in the artistic field to be banned. Although Adel Abdessemed and Thierry Raspail (director of Lyon’s Museum of Contemporary Art) took pains to explain that the images of the burning chickens were created using special effects and that they did not really burn, they put an end to the explosion of anger by removing the incriminated work from the exhibition.

As freedom of expression is not the monopoly of artists, museums give in to these pressures, which, paradoxically, ensure superb publicity for the works that have been condemned.