The differences between the worlds of comics and fine art would appear to be pretty obvious, but my recent reading of Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World suggests that  these differences might be less than they would appear, the great leveler in this instance being human nature.

Taking in subjects like a high end contemporary art auction, self-absorbed art students at a “Crit” session, the strange world of Artforum magazine and a trip to Takashi Murakami’s studio, the entire experience of perusing Thornton’s book was not unlike reading about the decline of civilization (Western in this case but the values are universal); a kind of journal describing that surge of decadence which sometimes marks the end of empire.

I’ll leave that journey of discovery to the would be reader of Thornton’s book and will instead offer three short excerpts from Seven Days in the Art World which suggests that when it comes to money and collecting, there are in fact many similarities between comics and the rarefied realms of fine art.

(1)

How does Segalot know when he has encountered the right work? “You feel something,” he says with fervor. “I never read about art. I’m not interested in the literature about art. I get all the art magazines, but I don’t read them. I don’t want to be influenced by the reviews. I look. I fill myself with images. It is not necessary to speak so much about art. I am convinced that a great work speaks for itself.” A faith in gut instinct is common to most collectors, consultants, and dealers, and they love to talk about it. However, it is rare to find an art professional willing to admit that he doesn’t read about art. It takes bravado. The vast majority of subscribers to art magazines do simply look at the pictures, and many collectors complain that art criticism, particularly that found in the dominant trade magazine, Artforum, is unreadable. Most consultants, however, pride themselves on their thorough research.

Phillippe Segalot, art consultant, formerly of Christie’s and now with an art consultancy called Giraud, Pissaro, Segalot

We all know about cartoonists who don’t read reviews or comics criticism, but did you know that many collectors of comics art don’t even bother keeping up with the comic books arriving on the stands every month? They really don’t need to since they are largely interested in what they read a few decades ago.  As far as comic art is concerned, that gut refers not only to the gut of personal taste but also to the liver of investment potential and the bladder of nostalgia. One hardly needs to develop one’s taste when the superhero form (the genre of choice in the American comics art market) remains largely static in its values and aesthetics

As for the world of contemporary art, you may have also have heard of collectors who are only interested in the artist’s name and not the specific piece they are buying. Thornton pursues another more traditional angle in her book and highlights a number of prominent collectors who are in fact dedicated collectors of “young” art; a breed of collector who finds that extra thrill in finding pieces unsullied by the stain of popularity:

On another occasion Mera [Rubell] told me, “How do you know when you need to acquire a piece? How do you know when you are in love? If you listen to your emotions, you just know.” On a more rational note, Don added, “We meet the vast majority of artists, because when you’re acquiring young work, you can’t judge it by the art alone. You have to judge it by the character of the person making it.” And Mera elaborated: “Occasionally meeting an artist destroys the art. You almost don’t trust it. You think what you’re seeing in the work is an accident.” Then Don wrapped it up: “What we’re looking for is integrity.”

(2)

Cappelazzo is refreshingly unpretentious. When I asked her, What kind of art does well at auction? Her answer was uncannily appropriate to this lot. First, “people have a litmus test with color. Brown paintings don’t self as well as blue or red paintings. A glum painting is not going to go as well as a painting that makes people feel happy.” Second, certain subject matters are more commercial than others: “A male nude doesn’t usually go over as well as a buxom female.” Third, painting tends to fare better than other media. “Collectors get confused and concerned about things that plug in. They shy away from art that looks complicated to install.” Finally, size makes a difference. “Anything larger than the standard dimension of a Park Avenue elevator generally cuts out a certain sector of the market.” Cappelazzo is keen to make clear that “these are just basic commercial benchmarks that have nothing to do with artistic merit.

[From the collection of Patrick Sun]

Cost of an Adam Hughes sketch of Zatanna, Dejah Thorris, Power Girl etc. with breasts spilling out of clothes? Probably a few thousand bucks. Cost of an Adam Hughes sketch of Batman…? Only an idiot asks Adam Hughes to draw Batman. Still, sometimes, just sometimes, the comics art world does go out on a limb. This Amazing Spider-Man cover by Todd McFarlane recently sold for $71,200 on eBay:

[From the collection of B B]

A deep (pocketed mainly) and dedicated collector’s pool has been cited as the main reason for the final price.

(3)

Few like to admit that they enjoy selling art. The experience certainly contrasts markedly with the glory of buying. For collectors, the traditional reasons for selling are the “three D’s”death, debt, and divorce so the act has been associated with misfortune and social embarrassment. Today, says Josh Baer, there are “four D’s — because you’ve got to take account of the collectors who are effectively dealing.” Many collectors are in the practice of rotating their collection, much as dealers rotate their stock. They sell overvalued objects whose prices have moved up at rates that are historically unsustainable and buy undervalued works that they think are more likely to stand the test of time. Or they sell off objects by less fashionable artists before the works are worth nothing at ail, in order to “upgrade” their collection. As one Sotheby’s specialist explained, “Many collectors who consign works to auction are of-the-moment people who have a very plastic approach to their collection.

With such an attitude in evidence, it will come as little surprise that the individuals who have acquired the works of Damien Hirst are sometimes referred to as his “investors”.

A number of famous galleries (and I am talking about the primary art market here) make a big show of disapproving of speculation. They want the right kind of collector for their pieces, the kind that will buy, hold and add prestige and value to an artist’s work.  This is not, I suspect, because of any profound philosophical differences when it comes to the subjects of art and commerce but because of the harm this practice can wreak on the market not only through its dilutional effect (false scarcity being just another marketing tool) but also in the “unlikely” event that the art sells for less than the gallery’s asking price.

This kind of “amateur” dealing is frowned upon even in the small stakes game that is the comics original art market. The strength of comics fan culture is such that the idea of flipping a recently acquired piece (or even “grail”; a term tossed around increasingly carelessly nowadays) is considered not the best practice. Yet the collector turned amateur dealer is now so common that it barely raises any eyebrows except, perhaps, among older collectors used to “kinder”, “gentler” days; that obsessive acquisitiveness being a kind of “University of Dealing” which, when turned to commercial ends, justifies the hours said collector has spent combing eBay, their contact list and the rest of the internet. A number of dealers were (and are) collectors first and such is the price of original art (cheap in comparison to other collectibles) that they often keep the very best pieces for themselves, something not usually possible in the high end contemporary art market.

At the most basic level, there are many collectors who believe in acquiring a significant stock of “blue chip” original art for purposes of trading. This is sometimes seen as the only means by which one is able to acquire the pieces one desires from fellow collectors. The collector who refrains from doing so is often considered imprudent or naive.  It is, however, always wise to ensure that one doesn’t make a fool of oneself while engaging in such activities as some fickle collectors are wont to do.  I’ll close with that thought and this little snippet I picked up on my travels through the galleries at Comic Art Fans…an ode to the joys of collecting and the acquisition of a “grail”:

Uncanny X-Men #271 is my favorite issue artwise from Jim Lee and Scott Williams’ run on the X-Men. There is something about the layouts, the figure work, the rendering, the inking… just everything about the book that clicks with me. I would like to collect the entire book’s originals, but the task is too daunting. One drawback is that while I love the interior art, I never liked the design of the cover. SOLD. Thank you!”

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