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Buying Today's Hot Artists

A Contemporary Look Buying Contemporary Art Means Searching Beyond the Obvious
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

With one successful contemporary art auction under his belt and cutting-edge property streaming in for consignment, Phillips Auctioneers specialist Michael McGinnis appeared upbeat about the prospects for a repeat performance at Phillips's contemporary art sale on May 18 and 19 in New York City.  

McGinnis is eager to entice a wider collecting audience into the contemporary art world, which can often be compared to the cutthroat climate of Hollywood filmmaking, where you're only as good as your latest box office figures. Typically defined as works produced after the Second World War, contemporary art is now a hot commodity, whether you're talking about the incredibly rare Abstract Expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock or the more recently minted work produced by wannabe stars of the new millennium.  

Tracking down first-rate paintings by the likes of Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko (three departed Abstract Expressionist superstars) is not only difficult, but wildly expensive as well. Back in November 1989, for example, a Japanese art dealer bought de Kooning's 1955 work Interchange at Sotheby's New York for a staggering $20.6 million. Luckily, supply is not much of a problem for collectors of '90s artists.  

"For someone who wants to start buying contemporary art, auctions are a great place to begin, because it sort of identifies what already has been accepted by the mainstream so you're already limiting what you're looking at," says McGinnis, who began his art-world career in Chicago in 1993, working for blue-chip contemporary art dealer Richard Gray. 

"There are literally hundreds of galleries in Manhattan and it can be very confusing for the prospective collector to know which ones will have longevity or credibility from the standpoint of the market," McGinnis cautions. "Walking into galleries willy-nilly is kind of a crapshoot. So if you subsequently tried to turn around [the artwork you bought] in a couple of years and you find out there's no resale value whatsoever, I always find that to be a disappointing scenario."  

McGinnis says it's essential for budding collectors to seek out and identify those contemporary galleries that exhibit the best of the new breed in order to view their work firsthand and also learn about their retail prices. If the artist's most recent show sold out, for example, or if the artist has been selected for a major museum survey show of new talent such as the current Whitney Biennial, that artist has an excellent shot at developing a resale market. Once a track record is established and market demand proven, an auction debut is sure to follow. "To see artists in museum environments," ventures McGinnis, "that's justification enough to most buyers to warrant a bit of an investment."  

Literally hundreds of living (and dead) contemporary artists' works are traded every six months in the big auction sales in New York and London. Christie's and Sotheby's rule that roost in market-crunching splendor, but Phillips is making an ambitious effort at least to harass these giants. This time around, for example, it has rented the American Crafts Museum on West 53rd Street to preview its contemporary treasures. (In terms of competing with the big boys, it doesn't hurt that French multibillionaire Bernard Arnault and his luxury brand empire LVMH acquired Phillips late last year.)  

Last November, Phillips caused a bit of a stir with its $1.8 million sale. Top lots included an edgy, straw-festooned canvas by the esteemed German artist Anselm Kiefer that sold for $442,500, and Ass Killer, a toughly titled but mostly decorative painting by the late, already legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat that brought $167,500. But equally important to McGinnis, "Many of the people were first-time buyers in the $5,000 range and felt very comfortable doing it. A lot of young collectors," observes McGinnis, who just turned 29, "are just jumping into it."  

This season, McGinnis, who was poached from Christie's last May, has assembled a cast heavily weighted toward '90s artists, led by painter John Currin, a current art-world darling. Untitled, dated 1990, a riotous yet painterly caricature of a seated female student posing for her high school yearbook photo, is estimated at $35,000­$45,000. "We expect to generate an enormous amount of interest with this one," says McGinnis, who noted another Currin fictionalized portrait, The Magnificent Bosom, had sold at Christie's London last December for $131,460. This represents the artist's third appearance at auction.  

Like a select roster of other au courant contemporary stars with a somewhat limited output, Currin is virtually untouchable in the so-called primary market (the term is applied to works being offered by galleries for the first time, and before resale at other galleries or auction houses), especially for emerging collectors. So rather than trying your luck at galleries, you'd probably have a better chance of nabbing one at auction.  

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