//Art from the Money Perspective// – Janusz Miliszkiewicz
Art from the Money Perspective – Janusz Miliszkiewicz
Our domestic art and antiques market is probably the only branch of economy that has not been invaded by foreign capital after 1989.
Although this market quite often deals with much higher sums of money than the Stock Exchange, it has not been subject to any particular legal regulations or control. Even renowned dealers complain in the press that banks are not inclined to invest in art and do not grant loans secured against paintings. Old and post-war art, as well as antiques that we have available in Poland, mostly have to be imported. At the same time, we do not profit from all the opportunities that we have to export our own creations, even though it has now been ten years since we entered the European Union with its several hundred millions of art consumers. However, our local market has discovered works of a crucial bearing for Polish art and is much more successful in popularising art than museums.
The Association of Polish Antiquarians (SAP) was established in 1997, gathering 90 antiquarian bookshops and galleries selling art or antiques. The SAP belongs to the CINOA, a global federation of national antiquarian organisations. It is estimated that, apart from the SAP, Poland has ca. 250 active antiquarian shops or galleries with a more or less decent level of items on offer. The state and potential of this circle is documented in the ‘SAP Newsletter’, at first published in ‘Gazeta Antykwaryczna’, a monthly, which for many years appealed to members to pay overdue fees (PLN 500 per year) and to collect their membership cards. In 2006, the Association joined forces with the Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Krakow University to organise an art market programme, an interesting development in view of the trend it set for organising permanent or cyclical courses for future art dealers and art market investors.
Andrzej Starmach’s gallery in Krakow is one of the important institutions operating on our market. In 2013, it participated in the most important art show in the world, Art Basel, for the 11th time. This grand success in international logistics does not, unfortunately, translate into commercial gains – Starmach deals in Polish art, where prices are much lower than in the case of international works of comparable artistic merit. The sheer fact that Poles are the only buyers of polonica determines the price potential for Polish art now and in the future. Paintings can score higher prices if a wealthy Japanese businessman from Tokyo, a Russian, an American and a collector from France all battle to purchase them at an auction. In the case of Polish art, their market value reflects the purchasing power of our society.
Today, eight auction houses regularly organise stationary art and antiques sales in Poland. Approximately 150 competitive sales took place in 2012. After the economic crunch of 2008, their number has been growing rapidly year by year.
The numismatic market notes the highest turnover each year. The Warsaw Numismatic Centre is one of two leaders, with ca. 115 thousand transactions registered in its web archive. As it turns out, numismatics offers much better investment perspectives than paintings. The Numismatic Antiquarian Shop, run by Paweł Niemczyk in Warsaw, steadily, year by year, notes a record turnover of a dozen million per auction, an unthinkable score for art sales. The prices are driven by numerous domestic and Russian collectors that purchase coins which symbolise the shared history of these two countries.
Jewellery forms an important part of the market, although not so much in terms of its earnings. Experts from the National Economic Chamber of Jewellers and Watchmakers apply the same methods of work, evaluation and appraisal as specialists from prestigious companies in Antwerp and New York.
The turnover generated by 15 bibliophile auctions organised in 2012 by eight antiquarians equalled ca. 10.4 million zlotys, just as in the previous year. Why has this market stopped developing? It seems that the supply of high-quality vintage books has run dry. Western markets were purged of polonica, while national libraries refuse to sell spare copies. Contrary to painting auctions, where the results published are often exaggerated or just false, the old book market is financially transparent. Therefore, we have access to actual results and other statistics. These data are compiled, verified and published by Paweł Podniesińki, who writes a doctoral thesis about the rare book market.
Unfortunately, private collectors are rarely interested in sculptures. Despite the efforts of Artinfo.pl, a web portal that has organised the Collectors’ Photography Auctions in partnership with Rempex since 2007, the art photography market is still negligible.
We are therefore confronted with the question of what kind of art is actually sold on the Polish market. It turns out that collectors are mostly interested in 19th and 20th century painting. Sławomir Bołdok issued a three-volume series entitled Ratings at Polish Auctions 1990–2004, a basic source of reference when it comes to market goods. Analyses show that between 1990 and 1997, none of the top five most frequently auctioned painters was still alive. The best-selling authors included, in order of frequency: Jacek Malczewski, Wlastimil Hofman, Jerzy Kossak, Nikifor and Witkacy. This is art as interpreted by the market. Jerzy Nowosielski was the mostly frequently auctioned living painter in this period, ranking somewhere between the 20th and 30th position.
In the period from 1998 to 2000, there was still no living painters in the first ten of the most frequently sold artists. The first two positions were of course monopolised by Malczewski and Hofman, with Alfons Karpiński, Teodor Axentowicz and Jerzy Kossak taking the next three positions. The revolution took place in 2001–2004. Although Hofman was still at the head, Nowosielski ranked second (!), outstripping Kossak, Nikifor and Malczewski.
This hierarchy of popularity testifies to Poles’ taste in art. Before World War II, Wlastimil Hofman was commonly viewed as a less capable Malczewski. Those who could not afford a Malczewski bought the cheaper Hofman as a semblance of art. This strategy survived up to 2001.
It was only thanks to the marketing effort of Andrzej Starmach that a living artist entered the pantheon of the most sought-after and purchased painters. Starmach had to create the image of Nowosielski’s art on the market and in the minds of Poles, bringing about a true breakthrough. This is when the works of other post-war classics, such as Fangor, Gierowski and Lebenstein, finally went under the hammer.
The next breakthrough in market offer took place as a result of the economic crunch of 2008. The market halted because owners still quoted high, pre-crisis amounts for their possessions, while the demand dwindled. They also were quite unwilling to part with their paintings in such uncertain times, when the major group of middle-class customers disappeared from the market. This situation inspired a hit idea in the form of young art auctions with the starting price of 500 zlotys. Currently the number of competitive sales with the average price of 1,000–1,500 zlotys is growing at an exponential scale. However, sometimes the customer may get the impression that the offerings do not go through any selection whatsoever.
In general, Poland’s market supply is much too small for history-related reasons: the country had no bourgeoisie that could have ordered paintings or art covers for their books. The market functions thanks to the import of polonica from around the world, which means that sooner or later there will be no Polish paintings left in the world. One could ask why our domestic museums do not sell redundant objects if their storage rooms are cluttered with unwanted gifts and poor purchase choices.
Misleading price information published after auctions seems to be the most important problem. The first person to talk about this was Jerzy Stelmach, law professor and art collector. In 2000, when fictitious prices were a true plague, he discussed this issue in an interview for ‘Gazeta Antykwaryczna’. In 2012, when interviewed by ‘Rzeczpospolita’, he confirmed that the problem was still very much relevant: no sooner than auction houses claim that paintings have been sold for specific, usually record-breaking prices, some of the very same works are quietly offered to potential buyers at a significantly lower price point.
Sławomir Bołdok, in the disclaimer to his three-volume compilation Ratings at Polish Auctions, states shyly that some of the prices published by auctions houses are in fact false. But who reads disclaimers? In any case the reader has no idea which prices are real and which are only an effect of fictitious, fixed bidding. Artinfo.pl and other media in the industry also quote unverified prices.
The art market is a game – this is true for the whole globe. However, other players at least know the rules of the game, since in their countries the auction market has functioned for 200 years and legal culture is more advanced than in Poland. Our domestic auction houses are allowed to operate across multiple industries, selling paintings, yards, flats, renting premises etc. The generic financial statements submitted to economic courts do little to help estimate the potential of the art market. How are we then to predict its future in order to encourage private investors?
Apart from fictitious, misleading prices, there is also the problem of forgery, still largely unpunished. Hiring an independent, trustworthy and knowledgeable expert is key for ascertaining if an antique or work of art is actually genuine. Meanwhile, experts are probably Poland’s weakest element in this mechanism called the art market. This issue has been repeatedly raised by Piotr Ogrodzki, a long-term director of the Centre for the Protection of Public Collections (currently the National Institute of Museology and Collections Protection).
Officially, being an expert is not a profession. After 1989, it has been largely accepted that the so-called expert opinion should be written by art historians. Sometimes historians will write analyses on virtually any given subject. The so-called experts briefly scan a painting and pass their judgment. They are not insured against third party liability and thus do not bear any responsibility in relation to their verdicts. Forgeries are sold all the time, everywhere. At the 10th Warsaw Art Fair in 2012, held in the Royal Castle, a renowned company offered obvious forgeries. As reported by ‘Rzeczpospolita’, it declined to remove them from its offer and the organisers wanted to call in the police.
In 2010, Piotr Ogrodzki’s centre, in co-operation with the Association of Polish Antiquarians and Rempex Auction House, organised a year-long series of academic sessions devoted to forgery at the Polish market. This initiative resulted in the publication of the guide On the Issue of Authenticity of Works of Art at the Polish Market, which constitutes a ready-made benchmark for a bill that would contain the forgery plague. However, are politicians today willing to offer legal protection to luxury market consumers? Art is a luxury good after all!
After 1989, the market has assumed a basic educational role. If we pass by a gallery or an antique shop every day, we may end up visiting one just by chance, like one would a grocery store. For many, going to a museum would require overcoming a strong psychological barrier, while a commercial gallery is more available, more democratic. It brings art closer to millions of Polish passersby, the same art that has been removed from primary school curricula and the name of the culture ministry. For many people it is the first and the only possible contact with art. Since the transformation, private galleries and antique shops have proved much more capable in the field of art education than many a museum. It would be difficult to count all major exhibitions initiated or organised by art dealers and antiquarians, which contributed so much to the spirit of our time. Catalogues published by auction houses since 1989, with their circulation of 1,200 copies and broad availability, are an important source of information about art.
The first issue of ‘Art & Business’, a magazine, published in July/August 1989, was an important point in the history of the free market in Poland. The ‘Gazeta Antykwaryczna’ monthly was first published in 1996. In 2006, it was taken over by a different owner and changed its name to ‘Sztuka.PL’, only to disappear completely in 2010. The steadily dramatic financial situation of the two magazines is an important marker of the limited potential of our domestic art market (lack of advertisement and buyers). When Rempex published ‘A&B’ in 2006–2010, it was rumoured that the company had to chip in 10–20 thousand zlotys a month to cover losses.
I contributed my texts to the first issues of ‘Art & Business’. However, I did not want to write in a low-circulation fanzine. My intention was to publish articles about the market in a medium available to the whole country, like Souren Melikian in his legendary ‘New York Times’ column. This is why I fought for the creation of a column dedicated to the art market in a popular broadsheet, in its economic section to boot. Readership surveys are quite clear: almost nobody reads the culture pages. I figured that since everyone was interested in money, then maybe, while reading about the latest developments in finance, people would also take an involuntary look at some reproductions of works of art and read a couple of sentences of art-related information. And thus on 1 January 2001, ‘Rzeczpospolita’ started publishing my own weekly column under the name ‘My Collection’, which appears every Thursday. It provides mainly information about the art market, but I did manage to squeeze in some descriptions of the achievements of artists such as Jerzy Skarżyński or Janina Kraupe. In addition, I interviewed several hundred collectors and was the first one to publicise most forgery scandals. Does presenting art from the perspective of money really distort its reception?
The stock market debut of the first company in the industry was hardly a breakthrough. In 2008, the Art New Media gallery went public at the so-called smaller stock market, New Connect. The debut was expected to bring about a revolution in the transparency of the non-transparent market. However, it only raised doubts.
Apart from education, we also owe a lot to the market in terms of new discoveries. One of the most beautiful paintings sold at the free market after 1989 was the Sleeping Woman with a Cat (66 x 100 cm, 1896). It is arguably the best work of art created by Wladysław Ślewiński. The painting was brought from Russia towards the end of the 1990s and in October 1998, after several months of aborted hand-to-hand transactions, it was sold by Polwiss-art for PLN 630 thousand (starting price PLN 500 thousand), equivalent to 183 thousand dollars. Afterwards, it was presented as a private deposit in the gallery of the National Museum in Warsaw, where, constantly praised by the owner, it gained in market value. Finally, around 2007, it was purchased by the heir of one of the wealthiest Poles (according to rumours, the price reached one million dollars). In October 2012, at the 10th Warsaw Art Fair, Rempex offered this painting for PLN 4.5 million. This price tag was so shocking for the editorial board of ‘Rzeczpospolita’ that it published a reproduction of the painting on the first page of their daily. Had it not been for the lure of exorbitant gains, nobody would have travelled to Russia to find Ślesiński’s work and nobody would have imported it to Poland. In quite the same vein, the market discovered hundreds of legendary paintings, labelled lost or unavailable in books on art history.
Janusz Miliszkiewicz (b. 1954) – journalist, reporter, columnist. He has been writing about private collections, the art market and museums since 1979. Every Thursday since 2001, he presents his own column ‘My Collection’ on the economic pages of ‘Rzeczpospolita’, devoted to the art and antiques market. Author of books on collecting and selling art, including Kolekcja Porczyńskiego – genialne oszustwo? (with Mieczysław Morka), Polskie gniazdo rodzinne, Przygoda bycia Polakiem. The ‘Art & Business’ monthly publishes his column in the series ‘Masonic Verses’.