Pump up the value

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Lending a work to an exhibition increases its price—but should the practice be controlled?

By Melanie Gerlis. Art Market, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 07 March 2014

Last chance to see? Magritte’s Les Chasseurs au Bord de la Nuit, 1928, sold for £6.6m at Christie’s last month, after featuring in the first leg of a touring exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It did not travel to Houston but has been requested for Chicago

Blue-chip works of art that have been lent to important museum exhibitions are making swift subsequent appearances on the market. The practice, which used to be considered an ethical breach, has become increasingly commonplace as private owners, their heirs and their advisers become wise to the added value of a museum show.

“It’s an area of real concern,” says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “The decision to borrow from private collections must be made with an awareness of the potential ‘halo effect’ on a work’s value.” He says that although public institutions, including his own, are increasingly wary of hosting exhibitions of works entirely from one collection, “borrowing single pieces carries the same burden”.

Last month, a European collector sold René Magritte’s Les Chasseurs au Bord de la Nuit (the hunters at the edge of the night), 1928, at Christie’s in London for £6.6m. The auction came just weeks after the work was shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (in “Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-38”, which closed on 12 January). At the time of the sale, only two other works by Magritte had sold for more.

This month, Sotheby’s is due to sell three works by Lowry that were on the walls of Tate Britain until 20 October, as part of its auction of 15 works from the collection of the businessman Tony Thompson, who died just after the Tate’s exhibition (“Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life”) opened. These include Piccadilly Circus, London, 1960, which was lent to the Lowry Art Gallery in Salford Quays in 2012; before then, it had not been shown in a public gallery for 30 years. Thompson paid a record price for the artist when he bought the painting from Charles Forte’s collection for £5.6m in 2011. Dealers expect it to go for more than its estimate of £4m to £6m this month.

Lucian Freud’s Head on a Green Sofa, 1960-61, which sold at Sotheby’s for £3m last month, had also been seen in a major retrospective (albeit not quite as recently); the work featured in “Lucian Freud Portraits” at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2012.

Elizabeth von Habsburg, the managing director of Winston Art Group, an appraisal company, says that although it is not possible to quantify exactly how much value a museum show can add, “it is clear that these exhibitions have a positive impact”.

Off the wall

Specialists say that they do not advise potential sellers to use museums to promote individual works before their sale. But Jay Vincze, the head of the Impressionist and Modern art department at Christie’s in London, says that lending can prepare a would-be consignor to sell. “Once something is off the wall, it is easier to think about parting with it,” he says.

Others are less generous about collectors’ motives. One source, who did not wish to be named, says: “If you have an eye on your wallet, it would be crazy not to think of these things.” Art funds, for example, are known to promote heavily the works they own through exhibitions; Ai Weiwei’s bicycle installation Forever, 2003, is owned by the Tiroche DeLeon fund and last year toured in the artist’s major retrospective in the US and Canada.

Accepting the trend as common business sense ignores one of the major problems, however. “The worst-case scenario is that works can be pulled from exhibitions,” Anderson says.

The sale of the work by Magritte meant that the piece could not travel to the exhibition’s next venue, the Menil Collection in Houston (until 1 June). A spokesman for the institution declined to comment, but confirmed that the work was in the exhibition catalogue, which is the same for the whole tour. Olivier Camu, the deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s, says that he “will certainly encourage” the work to be lent to the show’s third venue, the Art Institute of Chicago (25 June-12 October).

At least this piece managed one leg of the tour. A key work by Christopher Wool, Apocalypse Now, 1988, which had been promised to the artist’s retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, sold privately before the show opened last October and was then sent to auction at Christie’s the next month. This was not, however, before the work had been heavily promoted. It sold for $26.5m, the artist’s record price at auction; his previous record was $7.7m, in 2012.

Although some museums are said to require at least a year’s “resting period” as part of the conditions of such loans, the signs are that this is not being enforced by many. Maxwell Anderson says that he prefers to sidestep the issue by rarely borrowing from private collections. “At the end of the day, the art market is largely unregulated, so it comes down to a smell test,” he says.

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