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Founder Of Artnet Debunks Art World Myths

Barden PrisantHans Neuendorf cut his teeth hitchhiking through France in the 1960’s, buying Matisse’s and Picasso’s along the way, and then lugging them back to Hamburg to sell. Back then, the latter’s Le Repas Frugal was selling for less than $3,000; its price now?- $120,000. 

“The Frugal Repast,” Denver Post Archives, JUN 23 1966, JUN 28 1966, JUL 3 1966Denver Post via Getty ImagesAs you might expect of someone with such grit and prescience, he can be opinionated.On the 30th anniversary of the founding of his firm Artnet, he sat down with me, (well, by phone from Germany), and laid bare what he sees as the seamy underside of the art world.

Hans Neuendorf The Lead PRAs a youth, Mr. Neuendorf trained under Hans Sedlmayr, author of the book Art in Crisis: The Lost Center. He took to heart the author’s dim view of the direction in which art was heading in the 20th C., and he became very skeptical of Contemporary art. His current view is much the same, and he doubts the integrity of much of the 21st C. art world’s output. As he says, “you look back on recent years, and you can’t but agree”. Why, then, are today’s art magazines not full of scathing reviews, I wondered? Invoking the parable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, he observes, “people have opinions, but don’t want to state them in public”. He himself, though, is unafraid to call it as he sees it. By way of example, he averred to me that there are $40,000 pieces by the artist Billy Al Bengston which rival $40 million Ed Ruscha’s. (Now, watch the price gap between them mysteriously shrink.) 

Billy Al Bengston’s “Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games”LoftyThe world of up-and-coming artists is particularly susceptible to legerdemain, and people should not automatically buy into the hoopla, Hans believes. He himself refuses to buy in that market- “I am not confident in that”, he says. If a veteran of 56 years in the art world does not think that he can pick the next Basquiat, what hope is there for the rest of us?Hans believes that it is not only the art itself which can be vexing, but also the market which has built up around it over the years. For example, as for the relationship between auctioneers and dealers, he says that “they are all in each other’s pockets. There’s nothing you can do about it”. Auctioneers often build up relationships with clients and then jump ship, contacts in hand, to become dealers. “Why work for somebody, when you can be out on your own?”, he wonders aloud. As for the ones who stay put, “some people don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit”, he opines.The benefits of moving into the retail realm are legion. For example:

  1. Once you free yourself from the bonds of auction regulations and licensing, you can try to manipulate the market. “If you already have 5-10 De Kooning’s, you can go and pay (an exorbitant) $20 million to increase the value of your stash,” says Hans.
  2. You can play fast and loose with authenticity, offering documents and guarantees without much substance. (Hans’ warning to collectors- “The more certificates you are being offered, the faker the artwork.”).
  3. You can refuse to take items back, which particularly irritates Hans. “You have to have confidence in what you sell”, he declares.

As for the proliferation of dealer art fairs, Hans feels that they have lost their way. He says that he founded the very first one back in 1967 in Cologne and that “it worked fantastically for the country”. However, he continues, “they were beneficial at first, but are now harmful, sucking $100 million worth of art out of the market every year without adding any value”. 

Art BeijingBLOOMBERG NEWSUltimately,  though, it is the demand, rather than the supply, which Hans feels has so distorted the market. For this, he accepts part of the responsibility, since Artnet disseminates sale data. He explains that if a collector learns that a particular painting last sold for $10 million, “it does not take much courage to pay 11”.  He calls such purchasers “momentum buyers” for whom “the value of the artwork is unrelated to its quality”. In ruminating upon the progressive escalation which can result, Hans is reminded of Einstein’s supposed quip that “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”. The picture he paints is rather bleak, but I myself know that most auctioneers and dealers are honest and dependable. Besides, through its journalism and hard-data- driven reports, Artnet helps battle “fake news” in the art world…and, of course, Hans will always be there to tell it like it is.

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