From the Auction Block to the Artists Pocket

Earlier this month, the modern and contemporary art market seemed to show some signs of recovery as auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury & Co. generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. However, as Sara Friedlander, a specialist at Christie’s, pointed out from behind an auction block on Nov. 13, the Friday following almost two weeks of sales, “None of that money went to artists.”

Friedlander was addressing a crowd of a few hundred people assembled in artist Ryan McGinnesss sixth-floor studio in lower Manhattan, eager to bid in what was billed as an “artist-direct” auction organized by the artist and his friends, which included art adviser Cristin Tierney. Unlike the previous fortnight’s affairs, all of the auction’s proceeds, which eventually totaled $51,300 (squarely within its $47,000–$57,000 estimate), were to go directly to the participating artists, all of whom were in some way connected to McGinness.

The evening also featured other unique aspects: McGinness’s own work was among the work on offer, and, though the artist was in Amsterdam on business, he followed along (and bid) via an Internet video connection. This was, in other words, a permissive atmosphere, perhaps best exemplified by the sale’s registration process, which required none of the customary credit checks and bank statements seen at the major auction houses. Potential buyers needed only to provide a credit card number.

The greatest surprise, though, may have been the joy on many of the bidders’ faces as they vigorously competed for the evening’s prizes, goading one another to bid higher — it was for a good cause, after all — pushing most of the works into or beyond their estimates. Yorgo Alexopouloss bright blue and green print of a lone mountain range soared past its $3,500 high estimate, for example, stopping at $4,000, while Romon Yangs effervescent abstract print on Indian handmade paper, Praefectus Astana, beat its $1,000 estimate as dueling bidders sent it $1,300.

Fittingly, McGinness’s offering, one of his trademark, multi-colored circles, measuring two feet in diameter, finished as the evening’s top lot at $11,500 (est. $12,000–$14,000), with Marc and Sara Schiller, founders of the street art documentary group the Wooster Collective, snapping up the bargain. “How could you not support this great cause?” Mr. Schiller asked. “We followed the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, but this is really unique.” Ms. Schiller noted that the pair owns works by McGinness, Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Swoon, and many of the artists offering work in the sale. “This was a great opportunity,” she explained.

McGinness, for his part, plowed funds earned in the sale of his work into acquiring other pieces hitting the auction block, as did José Parlá, who competed intensely for some of the 15 works that sold, ducking out of the room only when his Name and Note (2009), an acrylic and oil painting, came up on the block, selling for $7,000 (est. $10,000–$12,000).

Bidding proved equally fierce for smaller works and lesser-known artists, as a screen print by Todd James estimated at $250–$350 soared to a remarkable $1,500. Number 36 of an edition of 150, the print could normally be purchased for approximately its low estimate, though bidders seemed inspired by the evening’s event, perhaps bidding for the story they could one day tell about the work’s unusual provenance.

McGinness’s effort could be read as an update on Damien Hirsts 2008 adventure in the auction world, when he cut out his dealers and sold almost $200 million in fresh, new work at Sotheby’s. Here, McGinness seemed to take the process one step further, excising the auctioneer from the market, as well. The artist, though, was more circumspect. “We were not trying to subvert or replace the auction-house system,” he explained a few days after the sale. “In fact, we were an auction house — but of a different sort.”

Indeed, despite the impressive haul on the evening, none of the lots offered by McGinness and company would have made it into the evening sales at any of the big three auction houses, even in this down market. If any group was subverted or replaced in this scheme it was probably art dealers, who would ordinarily work to develop the careers of these emerging artists, taking their customary 50 percent cut of the sale price. Here, McGinness helped boost these artists’ stature (and swell their pocketbooks) through his association — for free.

For McGinness, the event was most about correcting collectors’ misunderstandings. “The creation of this party was more of a reaction against collectors who claim to be supporters of the arts when, in fact, they are supporters of the art market,” he continued. “That is a big difference many fail to recognize. Putting collectors directly in touch with artists pushes true patronage one step closer in the right direction.”

“Perhaps our kinder and gentler model will be adopted by the real auction houses,” McGinness mused. Though that seems unlikely. Even McGinness admitted that “there is no legal reason for artists to be included in subsequent sales of that work.” However, the evening proved, at least, that other market systems are possible.