A P R I L 28,  2011

Another Russian Antique Salon is over. Some of you managed to attend it, others did not. Anyhow, it is time to do some reckoning (while the sensations are fresh and still burning). To begin with, there was an impression of greater inner freedom among the Salon visitors. It seemed to me that there were many more smiling people walking gaily along the corridors than during the last four Salons of the financial crisis period. Though it could be nothing but my personal opinion (with all those people smiling at me or to finally see spring in Moscow!), I cannot overlook it. Nor can I neglect the fact that those smiles had a certain effect on actual sale results.

Those who have at least once participated in such events know from personal experience how taxing this type of work can be. Practically every day spent at the exhibit brought the feeling that the stamina reserved by the body for the following twenty years or so was expended that very day, and you do not even know what for. In a word, it is an exhausting pastime with a questionable purpose. At this point I would like to suggest that we do some easy, yet instructive arithmetic (just that, not algebra or higher mathematics). The situation reminds me of a school problem about two pipes, with a certain amount of water entering through one of them and pouring out through the other.

By the end of the Salon reporters and suchlike people frequented the exhibits in the hope of getting information about the closing results and the mood among the participants. They were eager to know who sold what and for how much. Practically all the participants and people in one way or another involved in the event assess the Salon precisely from the point of view of commercial results. This is only natural: it costs 350 Euros to rent one sq. m of exhibition space in the center of the 2nd floor for a period of eight working days. Taking into account additional expenditures (mind you, on the same lighting fixtures over the past 15 years, with their one-time rent price equivalent to the full cost of this wretched appliance) on additional equipment, the compulsory catalogue listing fee, power supply, draping the walls and so on, even a fairly modest exhibition floor of 20-25 sq m will run into 12,000–15,000 Euros.  Under the circumstances, every participant naturally wishes to at least recoup the investment.

We have not even got down to estimating what was to bring profit to the participants, nor said a word about the point at issue: artworks proposed by “greedy dealers to the respectable public”. An oft-told joke has it that to sell some junk you have first to buy some junk. Then you have to restore it, to pay for expert attribution services and properly frame it. According to modest estimates, an unassuming piece of art costs 2,000 to 3,000 Euros. When it comes to a masterpiece, with an estimated value of between 100,000 and 200,000 Euros, initial inputs grow manifold (mind you, we have so far said nothing about the price of an artwork to be purchased). Imagine that an art dealer who rents exhibition floor at the Antique Salon has some inner culture and therefore limits the number of artworks on show. Indeed, he is very unlikely to hang pictures in four or five rows, filling every centimeter of the rented wall. Given the exhibition space of 20-25 sq. m, 6-8 or 15-20 works can be exhibited depending on their size. Now let us do some simple arithmetic. Imagine an exhibition space worth 12,000 Euros, with 15 artworks on display.  Each took 2,000 Euros to be prepared for display (not counting their purchase price). Overall inputs will range between 40,000 and 50,000 Euros, in short, that much has “poured out of the pipe”. Let me reiterate, the price paid for the artworks themselves is not included. This means that the art dealer has to spread this sum among the 15 works on show and offer. Hence a 2,000–2,500 Euro surcharge on every work.

There are two more important points. First, I know of not a single case in the past 15 years when absolutely all works on offer were sold. And second, any Russian coming to the Antique Salon with the aim of buying something is absolutely convinced that he has the right and should haggle. As a result, practically every art dealer is forced to raise the price of every work by 5,000–6,000 Euros instead of 2,000–2,500 Euros so as to try and compensate the expenditures on the unsold artworks. What is more, knowing this passion for haggling (even though not all of us come from the Orient), the art dealer should resort to a 20 to 40 percent markup to offset a “potential discount”. So this is what the salon arithmetic adds up to. It is obvious that these calculations are not applicable to all works of art. Most exhibits are of a type that, if marked up by another 5,000 or 6,000 Euros, would cause laughter not only among the visitors but also among the Salon participants themselves. The above prompts the conclusion that either the art dealers participating in Russian Antique Salons should overprice what they offer, or they cannot count their own money. The latter is highly unlikely by definition.

There is still another aspect though. Some exhibitors consider their attendance not only from the commercial point of view, but from the point of view of their gallery image or the educational importance of their project (no matter how highfalutin this may sound). They are in the minority, I should say, and their exhibits are eye-catching. What keeps these people going, practically “wasting their own money’ to pay for the “pleasure” of daily staying from 12 to 20 hours on the rented floor? The answer is simple to some and not very understandable to others. The thing is that due to some special genes or historical memory we Russians always wait for somebody else to come and make things right for all and everyone. That is why our so-called art market looks so pathetic, while we “so-called participants” keep waiting for the coming of some Messiah, who would bring us to our senses and teach us how to do things right so that our art market is for real and the people operating on it act in strict compliance with ethical and aesthetic rules and laws. One has to start with oneself and learn to respect oneself and the viewer. It is such a little thing to simply start respecting one another. This is precisely what distinguishes the exhibits of those participants in the Russian Antique Salons I have mentioned above.

By way of illustration I have chosen photographs made at the 25th Biennale of Antique Dealers in Grand Palais, Paris, in the autumn of 2010.  I was once again impressed by the attention and respect shown not only to viewers but also to the participants.