The Devil is in the Detail

No Man's Land by Larry Towell, signed titled and dated - Version 2

A particularly elegant version of the Signed-Titled-Dated authentication that has become common in photography. This one in fact comes from a book (Larry Towell’s remarkable No Man’s Land) and is used purely illustratively here.

 

It is often quite casually stated that the art market is the last unregulated financial market. The implication is of skullduggery and villainous malpractice, with the suggestion of lamb-like collectors fleeced by unscrupulous wielders of huge shears. There are indeed egregious practices all around the art markets, some of which are complex in relation to ethics, industry practice, or the law. These include such arcana as dealers refusing to sell particular works to individual clients who have the money and want to buy — on the grounds that they don’t represent a ‘good enough home’ for the art. There could be a wide discussion aimed at reform of the whole range of these in the interests of clarity and fairness, but with care taken to preserve the flexibility and fleetness of foot which is one of the strengths of the market.

Here, immediately after PhotoLondon 2017 and in advance of any such broader discussion, are two simple practices which could and should be written out of the lexicon of trading practices in art.

First:

There is no reason why prices should be difficult to see in an art fair. In the nature of a fair, buyers are circulating at relative speed, collecting information under some pressure. Some of them are carefully planning to spend sums likely to be quite high for them. In a fair devoted to photography, in particular, there are wide differences in value between images that may look similar. A recent print manufactured after a photographer’s death by mechanical means in high volume is of less value than an early print, perhaps made by the photographer in her own darkroom using high craft skills. Sometimes the same picture is offered for sale in different incarnations earlier and later, but even where different images are concerned, visible description of the process by which each was made, relevant dates (of the original image, and of the manufacture of the particular one offered for sale) should be instantly accessible to a prospective customer. The indication of value can be a shorthand for those things, or at least a category marker for a customer.

It is quite fair that images of many different sorts should be available to buy. But the lack of clear advertisement fosters confusion between them and potential wrong impressions to buyers. This is one case in which the doctrine of ‘caveat emptor’ needs a mechanism by which that buyer can be enabled to take precisely the care that is required.

In UK law, under the Price Marking Order 2004, it is stated that pricing information on goods must be plainly visible to a person of reasonable sight without that person having to ask for it. (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 7/1/c.). Certain allowances are made for catalogues and price lists and shop windows and so on, but in essence what this describes is clear labelling on the product itself or on the shelf upon which it sits.

Only a minority of the pictures at the edition of PhotoLondon which closed last week was so marked, and only a minority is so marked at any art fair. It is an industry convention that prices are considered a little vulgar and should be kept in the background. Customers who need price information must ask for it. But a familiar (and desirable) condition of any art fair is that a large number of the public circulates around a small number of gallery staff. Inevitably, staff converse with clients they already know, or with artists they represent or wish to. It can be difficult and slow to get an answer to a simple price enquiry. That delays or hinders the opportunity for the customer to see other pieces on other stands, and limits his potential for getting the very most out of the fair. It’s not vulgar to be clear.

Those are simple mechanical reasons for clear labelling on all artworks offered for sale. Outside the context of a fair, the mechanics are slightly different; but the logic is the same. Although any reputable dealer will be able and happy to explain why one picture may be more expensive than another, there is no reason for a ‘browsing’ customer to be made to engage in that conversation with a dealer if the browser is simply accumulating information.

So in my view, dealers should display prices plainly. Beyond simple transparency and efficiency, that would go a long way to allaying the recurring suspicion that prices in the art markets and in art fairs in particular have a tendency to fluctuate depending on such things as the sales of the day so far, the apparent well-heeledness of the customer, and the sheer brass neck of the dealers.

Artworks made in limited editions are frequently sold on a sliding scale of value, where the early numbers in the edition are sold for less, and the higher numbers, when there are fewer left to buy, for more. The logic is sound, and there is nothing inequitable about the practice if applied correctly. It rewards a daring early buyer, yet maximizes the income to artist and dealer from a successful edition. As the edition runs out, laws of supply and demand operate which make it quite fair that the price should be higher as fewer are for sale and more people want those few. But sliding scales have always been open to a specific abuse, which is that the later-numbered copies in the edition can be sold first, at the higher price, the false implication being that the earlier numbers have already been sold. Once enough of those have been sold, the price is adjusted so the earlier numbers are sold for the same high value, since they are now the rare ones.

Clear pricing is not a panacea; complex practices at the absolute edge of decency will continue to exist, and so, very likely, will outright abuse. But without clear pricing, the fact of inconvenience and the suspicion of bad practice will always be there.

Unfortunately, the Price Marking Order 2004 as it stands does not apply. There is a specific exemption in the case of works of art (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 3/1/b).   I’m quite sure that exemption was included after vigorous lobbying from the art world. But time passes and things change.

I am not a lawyer, yet I know enough of their workings to realize that nothing quite as straightforward as this ever comes to pass. It should be a simple matter to remove that exemption (and whatever parallel ones exist in other instruments) and insist upon clear description and pricing on art works to be required by law. That will be a benefit and one worth lobbying for in its turn.

Second:

While I was at the fair, I was reminded of another practice which has grown in recent years. It is now quite common for a photographic print in a limited edition to be replaced at the request of the client by another example bearing the same edition number. That is wrong, and should be ruled out of the system.

Many years ago, in the 1970s, the art market sought to reassure potential buyers of photographs-as-art that they could in fact be considered as such. Other mechanisms for buying photographs had existed successfully for many years, including buying them for private uses like weddings, commissioning into magazines or commercial uses, distribution by agencies and so on. There were difficulties with the market in fine prints, though: the markets were nervous. Photographs are machine-made, and how could a machine product be an artistic one? Photographs were infinitely reproducible — by reprinting from the negative as required — and how could something of such limited rarity be valued? Photographs were also exceptionally fragile: not only were the majority of them works on paper, and so susceptible to damage by fire and flood, by creasing and tearing and so on. Much worse, they consisted of chemically unstable compounds. By definition, the surface of a photograph is (or has been at some point in its existence) sensitive to the effects of light.

All of this was off-putting to buyers, and a variety of mechanisms were brought in to allay their fears. Some of these don’t now survive. It used, for example, in the 1970s to be common to cut up negatives when selling prints from them, and to attach a fraction of the negative to the back of each print. The idea was to guarantee that no more of them could be manufactured than advertised. That has disappeared from the fine photographs market. Quite apart from negatives themselves now being old technology, it was also felt that a photographer had every right to make a completely new artwork from the existing negative; it might be printed using different processes, or at a widely different size, or even included in a collage or montage which was clearly not a the same finished work.

But a number of those fear-allaying mechanisms do survive. The limited edition itself is almost universally common (although a handful of photographers refuse on principle to interfere with the complete reproducibility of their medium). Limiting numbers existed in other media before photography; I think of engraving plates wearing down with each impression, or of cast bronze losing a little of the sharpness of edge with every cast. There are plenty of markets in multiple works, and photography is one of them.

There has also grown up a fine mystique of terminology to define precise differences between one photograph and another: vintage, later, and estate prints, for example; or work prints, exhibition prints, press prints. Or photogravure, platinum, orotone and the rest of the names that specify process. The market was soothed; but there was nothing underhand about this language. It represented the growth of a connoisseurship appropriate to the medium; and if there were from time to time suspicions that customers could be blinded in those nuances, it has still been a long time now that high volumes of sales and high prices are achieved in fine photographs worldwide in a market which has justifiably had far more reason to be confident than fearful.

But one fear remains above all. Photographs do still fade when exposed to sunlight. They are not unique in that, of course. It is a problem that affects all sorts of pigments (watercolours and tapestries fade), and all kind of supports, too. The spines of antiquarian books fade, and so do antique textiles and so does the paintwork on valuable vintage cars. Collectors, and especially in the United States, have considered this a special affront in photography, where it seems to be regarded as much more serious than in those other areas. There has grown up over the years a whole industry in promising the impossible. One process after another – both black-&-white and colour – has been promoted as ‘archival’ or ‘stable’. That means no fading. The promise is of eternity. Spend a lot of money, and your picture will be there for ever.

It isn’t so. Keep a picture in the dark, under carefully controlled conditions of heat and humidity, and it might last a bit longer. But you don’t have a picture if you do that. You have a credit note.

It is in response to this that there has grown the particular habit to which I refer. I’m not sure it is reserved only for the fancy high price end of the market; but it is there that it is most visible. Big buyers of high status prints are increasingly demanding that their print be replaced when it shows signs of fading, as though the fading were a failure of manufacture like a pocket not stitched into your new suit or a clutch cable that breaks every hundred miles. And sometimes, to be fair, there may be an element of that. A badly made print is a badly made print. But by no means all prints which fade are badly made. It is in their nature to fade, and it is the nature of many of the processes we use to display them to damage them, too. Halogen lighting is bad for photographs. Daylight is worse. Sunlight even worse. Dry mounting onto Perspex looks lovely when new; but what happens when the Perspex begins to yellow and go brittle, as it inevitably will? And so on in a dizzying spiral of bad to worse.

All of this seems to me part and parcel of the business of collecting light sensitive materials. Specially so if those materials are made available in limited editions, where the decision to demand a replacement affects not just you and your collection, but the other buyers from the same edition, too.

Say there are five prints in an edition of a contemporary fine photograph. It’s fashionable, expensive, well branded, a status piece. It costs maybe £200,000. The one on the wall at Megacorp begins to be less luminous than it was, and the artist agrees to replace with a new one under the same edition number. Convention dictates that the damaged one be destroyed, and it usually is. (If it is not, that is a fraud and existing law should deal with that OK.) But I argue that the value of the other four has been sensibly diminished – unknown to their owners – by the replacement. For not only are they now the owners of an example from an effective lifetime edition of six (that have been made), where they were sold one of five; worse. There is now in existence, and therefore presumably at some point able to come to the market, a print substantially fresher than their own by the simple fact of having been made later and therefore been exposed to fewer air-borne pollutants and less light, having absorbed less moisture and mould spores and so on. If three of the owners can force the hand of the maker in the same way, suddenly we have an edition purportedly of five in which eight prints have been made and released. That doesn’t sound like an edition of five, to me.

Making limited editions is always a business based on trust. Young artists are rightly warned to keep accurate records of the prints they release, lest there should ever be a mistake in editioning which would make them look sharp or worse. No career can recover once it comes with that kind of reputation. But the sharpness now seems built into the system for the advantage not of the sellers but of the most powerful buyers.

Many museums now buy two prints for the price of one when they buy something which might potentially fade over time when exposed. They justify it by arguing that since they are obliged to exhibit at least some of the time, they know in advance that their prints will degrade. The artist and dealer selling have little on which to rely if they don’t like it; they’ll simply miss a museum sale – and a museum is almost always a ‘good home’. Private customers don’t often buy two at the outset; but they now have no compunction in insisting on the replacement.

My view is that the whole practice is plainly wrong. We value fragile art works in all sorts of fields, and sometimes the ones that survive are damaged. That is why we have conservators, and that is why we propagate and seek to improve good conservation practices among collections of every kind. Sometimes the marks of the passage of time upon a work are themselves valuable: marks of previous ownership, of very different regard in which the work was held earlier, of exhibition history or a hundred other such evidences of times changing as the work passed through time. I cannot see on what grounds a buyer can demand a ‘fresh’ version of something he knew from the outset would lose its freshness eventually. On the other hand, I do see that every time it happens, some other buyer is potentially disadvantaged in financial terms. The simple act of writing ‘1/3’ a second time is clear. If you’re writing it a second time, it’s 4/3 and shouldn’t happen.

In this case, it is harder to see how to legislate. There may be certain legislative provisions that cover the circumstance, notably the express warranties elements of New York’s Art & Cultural Affairs Law but by no means every legislation has equivalent provisions. The onus would always be upon the manufacturer of the replacement print to admit to having done so. My own view is that there should nevertheless be a succession of heavy legal actions for replacing prints. A lot of corporations and museums have in effect deliberately falsified market information to their advantage by demanding them. Squads of lawyers will have to determine what to claim for and under what laws, and I don’t much like generating future work for them; but it is plain that it is a practice which goes well beyond proper morality and falls into bad practice. Once a few heavy damages have been paid, the industry will soon settle down to a more proper regard for what is, after all, its own good reputation. You really can’t say, “There are only three of these in the world” and then quietly make the fourth and the fifth.