How to buy a masterpiece on a budget
Some of these auctions have specific themes: “The tie in photography”, or works from the collection of Uesugi Mochinori, a Japanese nobleman from the late Edo period. Others are catch-alls, made up of so many different items – photographs of mid-century car wrecks, a sketch attributed to Gustav Klimt – that the sale is a kind of wunderkammer. In these cases, auction catalogs are lavish guides, most often downloadable PDFs or online galleries noting a work’s provenance, dimensions, and condition, and sometimes include a descriptive history; sometimes they are elegantly printed and bound volumes. Catalogs are desirable enough that early copies themselves are often auctioned off.
One of my favorites is the catalog that accompanies Swann’s annual sale of LGBTQ+ art, material culture and history, which includes more than 200 queer fringe items from the Civil War era to today. Here, for example, are some trivia about Mike Miksche (aka Steve Masters), a former Air Force captain who produced casual erotic art in the 1950s and 1960s: acts, mostly with the tattoo artist and writer Samuel M. Steward. Another batch included greeting cards from Third World Gay Revolution, a group of radical queer activists from the 1970s.
Navigating this bounty requires me to draw an aesthetic line in the sand: here’s what I like, and I’m willing to pay for it. Recently, I came close to bidding on Gregory Gorby’s 1992 piece “Club Miraflores,” a nearly life-size sculpture of a dancer holding up her breasts to a circle of leering men below. My rational mind knows the carving is sticky and borderline offensive, but my reptilian brain loves its sleazy effervescence. In these auctions there is no account for taste – only by paying a price.
The quirky and expansive conception of art I found at these auctions changed the way I think about my own aesthetic judgement. Before encountering the auction, I had understood it as sardonic and raw (I adore, for example, the work of Jean Dubuffet). From the privacy of my couch, I can indulge in art that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend in public. I’m thinking of a 2005 painting titled “Peter (Home Sweet Home)” which shows a man in a baggy t-shirt and cut-off shorts, hunched over a blackboard scribbled with mathematical formulas, his hand in his pants . It is an offbeat portrait that has the coarseness of novelty art. Yet the more I look at it, the more nuanced it becomes. The contrast between the academic earnestness of the backdrop and the coarseness of the gesture is intriguing. Plus, there’s the cheekiness of the composition: Peter’s crotch is the visual and thematic centerpiece, a fact underscored by the pixelated arrow on his shirt pointing south. I wasn’t the only one charmed by his puzzles; the painting sold for $625.
Again and again, auctions offer opportunities to look closer and think more generously. The inevitable question when browsing through some of these items is: why would anyone want this? I want it, in part, because it’s so obnoxious or neglected. Now the work of someone like Marvin Francis, whose expressive sculptures of inmates are made of toilet paper, strikes me as elegant as Rodin’s. Auctions are a pathway back to works that are not exhibited, to rarely exhibited artists, and to forms – velvet paintings, snapshots, advertising – usually destined for landfill. Certainly, I am often intrigued by what I find, but I am also inspired by these treasures, in which each object could be a masterpiece waiting for its wall.