Chasing a Future Star or Revisiting a Stalwart?

Flipping through my daily barrage of emails, I was struck by the headline Who’s the Next Market Superstar? I know I am not smart enough to even come close to an accurate assessment of that. More importantly, I am not willing to bet serious dollars on my ability to forecast the future. Besides needing an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, one must be able to identify and evaluate the ever fluctuating levels of frenzy and gamesmanship so common in the red hot contemporary art market. Bottom line – no thank you. I think there are other approaches worth following that offer significantly less risk and volatility without compromising intellectual stimulation.

Don’t get me wrong, it would be great to have purchased a Njideka Akunyili Crosby painting for around $20,000 in 2014 and watch it sell three years later in auction at Christies for $3 million. Or maybe better yet, to have been an early believer in an artist like Mark Bradford and watch his works justifiably continue their non-stop meteoric rise. I am gun-shy about jumping in early without having a comprehensive understanding of whether an early work will turn out in time to be important and influential or if a particular artist’s work will evolve and endure. I am especially cautious about getting swept up in the hype and becoming a victim of art world speculators and flippers who create unrealistic and unsustainable hype that influences demand and prices.

Looking at the roller coaster rides of recent stars like Anselm Reyle, Lucian Smith, Barnaby Furnas, and even Oscar Murillo shows the perils of chasing an artificial rocket ship. These artists and others saw the market for their works dramatically rise and then subsequently crash or in some cases disappear. In a Bloomberg article, veteran gallery owner and advisor Thea Westreich summarized it well, “Let’s get to the real issue: Sooner or later, the art world comes to its senses. Some artists look interesting for a period, maybe it’s a month or maybe a year, but what happens is that things sort themselves out.”

As a collector with a focus on and awareness of the investment attributes of art, I believe there is an alternative approach that is as equally compelling and intellectually stimulating. Rather than trying to predict which artists might one day achieve the distinction of being part of “art history,” I would rather evaluate the market ebbs and flows for artists that have already and unmistakably reached that status. For example, I would rather acquire a Cindy Sherman Film Still, which has absolutely earned a place in art history, than try to ascertain which young contemporary photographer might one day define and influence a generation of artists.

I recently heard how a pre-eminent contemporary collector imposes a disciplined rule to not acquire an artist until they have been producing work for at least 10-15 years. I think this approach makes sense but might even be too short. Some of today’s great artists have multi decade careers that can be evaluated in a very broad context. Over the decades, their work has evolved and inspired as they are constantly trying to reinvent and stretch themselves. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – sometimes even these periods of brilliance are their most recent bodies of work. Over the past year, we have purchased new works from Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Richard Prince. Each of these artists has a cemented place within art history. In our opinion and the opinion of many, these stalwarts’ most current works are among some of their best in years or even decades. They are drawing on deeply established careers, yet their latest work is still fresh and powerful. It strikes me as crazy that a major work from one of these proven superstars commands less attention and prices than a young, unproven artist.

In the end, both approaches are valid and ultimately dependent on one’s risk tolerance and underlying objectives relating to their collection. It doesn’t really matter which approach one follows if the predominant focus is on aesthetic criteria and not long term value retention or appreciation. For me, it comes down to the calculus of whether it is easier to evaluate a single work or body of work in relation to a long existing career rather than try to imagine what a future career might look like and how this individual piece will fit into that overall body of work.

Taking a risk on an emerging superstar may prove enormously rewarding and lucrative or it may turn out to be a complete bust. Conversely, purchasing the work of an established stalwart during a temporary market lull likely won’t have the dramatic or massive upside, but rarely will the artist disappear or the value of the work drop precipitously.