Bonfire of the investment opportunities

What were so many contemporary artworks doing in a warehouse in Leyton?

James Heartfield

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A fire in a warehouse in Argall Avenue in Leyton, London, destroyed art of inestimable value. The artworks stored belong to many people, notably the wealthy patron Charles Saatchi, but also the family of the late abstract expressionist Patrick Heron. Some of the key figures of the BritArt phenomenon of the 1990s, like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, had unique artworks destroyed.

The sheer mass of work under one roof is remarkable in itself. A great stimulus to the visual arts in recent times has been the interest of wealthy investors. It was Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance that hiked up the price of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ to $39,921,750 in 1987. Unique works of art were seen as a useful store of value for corporations that were making more money than they could invest by expanding.

In New York Julian Schnabel’s broken crockery (recalling his time as a dishwasher) and Keith Haring’s outline men showed that contemporary art, too, could become part of a portfolio investment. At a time when industry was seen as passé, art works stood in as valuable investment.

In the UK, it was Charles Saatchi – then owner of the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi with his brother Maurice – who started to collect contemporary art, with his then wife Doris. Saatchi aggressively pursued young talent (sometimes recruited at degree shows at St Martins’ or the Central School of Art), including Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili and latterly Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Saatchi’s prodigious spending was a factor in its own right, buoying an art market that once was pleading for government support. Now the young talent worshipped at the shrine of Mammon are moving from Notting Hill to Hoxton, to be closer to their City patrons and for cheaper studio space. Where once artists – like Patrick Heron – laboured over calor gas heaters in smocks, poor as church mice, in the 1990s they became part of the glitterati, celebrities feted by the media.

The spur to artistic production also led to new arts centres flourishing in provincial towns across the land – lottery-funded modernist Bastilles, trumpeting the virtues of an ascetic superiority over post-industrial landscapes. So much in fact, that some were closed down, due to underuse, like the Centre for Visual Arts in Wales – or, like the centre in Newport, they were pilloried by the public who preferred the historic ship the arts centre’s foundations uncovered.

It was the stimulus to artistic output that speculative investment represented that led to the great accumulation of works in the warehouse in Argall Avenue. There were simply too many works to be seen. Instead they were stored away, stores of value themselves. It was the boom in sometimes obscurantist avant-garde art that led Kurt Vonnegut, in 1993, to describe the market as ‘a conspiracy between millionaires and clever parasites to make poor people feel stupid’.

Before he died, Salvador Dali agreed to sign scores of sheets of cartridge paper, awaiting screen prints of his work in ‘limited editions’, to raise some cash. Eager to realise his investment on the surrealist’s death, the dealer took the first sheet out – only to find a small spotted patch yellowed in the sun. Not a great defect, but too great a flaw for a limited edition print. One after another almost every one of the revealed sheets showed similar spotty patterns. Panic-stricken, the dealer arranged tests to see what had ruined his investment. The result: rat’s piss.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Piles of apples go rotten, or excess livestock are stricken down with foot-and-mouth. The art works lying in a warehouse in Leyton were symptomatic of the over-accumulation of art stimulated by investment markets. Better that they had been put on show, whatever the risk, than shut up in the dark, highly priced but unseen.

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