One of the striking things from my interview was about the structure of commensuration with regard to pricing art. I’m thinking here about categories. From the interview:
This is a reasonable example. There’s an artist named T., and he was born in [Latin America], and he spent most of his adult career in Paris, he came to New York. For many years he was known as an international modern artist. For some reason, in the course of, since he passed away, he’s been put into the Latin American sales. So his market is mostly Latin American collectors. This season for the first time, we have a T. in the impressionist and modern sale. I mean, he worked in the 30s, mostly with M. and D. and, we have something in our sale. So, that’s a huge thing for an auction house to actually get behind this artist and say ‘actually, it’s an international artist’. That’s what putting T., taking it out of the Latin American sale and putting it into an international modern art sale does. On an individual level, we [pause] basically have to pay a lot of attention to this and make sure that it sells well. Because we want to widen the modern market, we want to make sure that there’s, because there a very kind of pool that can be offered in an impressionist and modern sale, and we find someone who could potentially be included, you want to make sure it’s a successful sale. So on an individual level, what I need to do is get out there and make sure people know that it’s in the sale. Make sure that the people I’ve worked with in the past on T. just know that it’s in the sale, and to really be very diligent about it, so on a level of the, on a corporate level, this could change the market for this artist.
What’s going on here?
I think the element of commensuration that is used to make sense of this particular artist has to do with negotiating the boundaries of the categories Latin American art and Modern/Impressionist art. Here the crucial distinction is not about the painting per se, it seems to be a broader discussion about the effects of considering an artist ‘modern’ or ‘latin american’. If he’s Latin American, he’s regional, but if he’s modern, he’s international. The cues here are so interesting for commensurative activities because we normally think about commensuration as close to quantification – but here it’s not so much where does this person fit on a scale, but in what category should we place him.
The use of categorization as a form of commensuration is under-rated, I’ve only seen it in a couple articles – one is by Daniel Beunza, who was looking at competing ways to ‘value’ Amazon.com stock. One analyst said it was an internet stock, so should be evaluated according to those criteria. Another said it was a bookseller, and should be treated as such. Depending on the categorization, the valuation was dramatically different.
The other interesting part of this is the interviewee’s role in actually managing this transition. This specialist’s interest and ability to shape prices was not via the price estimate. As we see in the next bit:
P: So do you price it a bit lower, in order to decide?
A: I didn’t actually have anything to do with the pricing. They must have talked to the Latin American department about it.
P: Do you think that’s a mistake?
A: Not at all.
P: But if they had talked to the impressionist
A: We don’t know as much. Because we haven’t seen it. And they see so many, they have them in their sales every season.
P: So you’re pricing it as if it’s a Latin American artist, but you’re pricing it in a modern art sale
A: I mean, a 650,000, it’s not, that’s the right price for the picture.
Instead, the price is changed via the shift in categorization.
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