The Gray Market: Why Museums Can’t Compete With Private Collectors (and Other Insights)

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, looking over developments in the fair sector, the auction sector, and the digital frontier…

FALSE EQUIVALENCE: Although I always advise caution about these reports, sales at this year’s freshly entombed Frieze and Frieze Masters were allegedly strong from the jump. Numerous exhibitors were eager to broadcast their results (or at least, pretend to) on VIP preview night. But rather than resurrect the issue of dubious honesty from self-interested actors in a consequence-free environment, I want to focus on a different dimension of the sales process this time: specifically, the growing imbalance between two types of buyers who used to be evenly matched.

In his dual-vernissage roundup, Nate Freeman talked with David Leiber, a director at David Zwirner, about his booth’s inclusion of the third and final available edition of Dan Flavin’s the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi). While Leiber stayed mum about the work’s actual price tag, he described its order of magnitude enough for Freeman to write “that it was in a range appropriate for an institution or a serious collector of Minimalist work.”

Of course, this is time-honored dealer code for “really f***ing expensive”—usually in the high six figures at least, if not seven. The caveat, however, is that evidence increasingly suggests that even major museums no longer have the resources to compete with major private collectors at the uppermost reaches of the price stratosphere.

Consider this: In fiscal year 2016—the most recent we have access to—MoMA spent just over $40.6 million on acquisitions. In contrast, recently minted Japanese mega-collector Yusaku Maezawa has already bought nearly three times that much art by value in 2017, through his publicized purchases of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled ($110.5 million in May), Jenny Holzer’s Page 6 (an undisclosed amount in August), and Antony Gormley’s A Case for an Angel I ($6.93 million this week). And of course, those knee-buckling numbers only represent a few notable auction results. They don’t include whatever cash Maezawa has rained on the private market in the past nine-plus months, let alone what he may spend in the remaining quarter. Read more