Everyone's Ignoring One of the Best Deals in the Art Market
As prices for mid-century American artists rise to amounts that make even billionaires blanch, dealers have turned to South Korea, northern Italy, and rural Cuba to “discover” people whose markets still have room for growth. But savvy collectors who rifle through the annals of Western art history might be shocked to discover that some of the most important artists of the 20th century remain bargains hiding in plain sight.
Those collectors might start with Nam June Paik (1932-2006), a Korea-born American who is widely considered the father of video art. Paik’s work, which started out as performance and composition, then moved to video art, is in the permanent collection of museums around the world. Paik’s archive, moreover, is in the Smithsonian Institution, and in 2015 his estate announced that it would be represented by the powerful, multinational Gagosian Gallery.
And yet Paik’s prices, while not at flea market levels (they mostly range between $20,000 and $200,000, with a few spikes in excess of $1 million), are dwarfed by such contemporaries as Robert Rauschenberg, whose art regularly sells for 10 times that amount.
“Paik is a very important figure for art-historical development within the last 40 years,” said Heike Grossmann, a director at Galerie Thomas Modern in Munich, which organized a show last year that combined Paik’s work with his better-known peer, artist Joseph Beuys. “But compared to other [similar artists], he’s underrated on the market,” she said.
Now, as six artworks by Paik come up to auction this spring in New York, Seoul, and Hong Kong, with prices ranging from $3,000 to $230,000, dealers are taking a hard look at the causes for Paik’s relative market obscurity. Most of these reasons for his relative lack of popularity appear to come down to a dearth of art-historical awareness from collectors, an absence of aggressive gallery support, and, to a much lesser extent, concerns regarding the long-term condition of the work. The final possible cause—whether people are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for video art at all—has been put to bed only in the last decade: Last year a video by artist Bruce Nauman sold for $1.6 million at Christie's New York, and artist Bill Viola's work (auction record: $700,000) regularly sells for more than $200,000 at public auction.
Too Many Dealers
Paik was prolific. He began with music compositions in the early 1960s, in one instance splicing together a piano score, sound effects, and his own screams. Soon he started working with TVs, initially spreading them around a room and distorting them with magnets.
He almost immediately found patrons in Germany—the billionaire Flick family reportedly bought many of Paik’s early pieces directly from his studio. By the late 1980s, when Paik’s market had taken off, “he was working with too many dealers,” said Hans Mayer, whose eponymous Dusseldorf gallery has sold work by Paik for more than 25 years. “I was doing a lot of business with Paik, but certainly when my colleagues realized what kind of business was possible, everyone jumped on it.”
Many dealers were selling Paik’s art, but there wasn’t one gallery to control his distribution channels—and by extension, his prices. "I’d say his work was just kind of lost in the market for a number of years," said Nick Simunovic, director of Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong, who handles the Paik estate. "Partly because there wasn’t a strong gallery, and I also think there was a sense that the technological aspect of things could sometimes frighten collectors away."
Without a dealer to explain away collectors' misgivings and advocate for strong prices, Paik’s market was left to founder. “Masterpieces are selling for $600,000,” said Mayer. “Considering the importance of the artist, they should be selling in the range of $1.2 million.”
Big In Korea
Paik’s market hasn’t drifted completely into obscurity. Korea is arguably still his most enduring market. “In Korea, he was a superstar,” said Carl Solway, whose self-titled Cincinnati gallery is Paik’s longest- running dealer. “In Seoul you could get a taxi and ask the driver, and he’d know who Paik was. It was always a strong market for him, because he was one of the first Korean artist to establish on an international level.”
Gagosian also recently held a show of Paik's work in Hong Kong with works from the estate. "It sold really well," said Simunovic. "Mostly to museums or private collectors who are building museums in Asia."
Even so, Paik’s glow in the U.S. has surely faded.
Part of that has to do with the nature of the work itself, which “requires learning and understanding,” said Jochen Saueracker, an artist who worked in Paik’s studio for more than 25 years, and who now consults on Paik’s work. “Visually [his art] is nice, but the content can be heavy and philosophically deep. It’s not so easy.”
That opacity could be a barrier for some collectors who are new to Paik’s art. “I always explain it by saying when you’re invited to someone’s house and see a work by Lucio Fontana, you know it cost a million dollars,” said Mayer. “And so people can come in and be knowledgeable and say, ‘Oh what a wonderful Fontana!’ It’s the same thing as fashion: If you buy something from Prada, everyone knows it’s expensive.” When you come into a room and see a Paik video installation, in contrast, some explanation would invariably be necessary.
Paik’s art, which includes compilations of video screens in the shape of dogs and piles of monitors meant to look like robots, could therefore be shunned by some new collectors because it doesn’t carry cultural cachet.
Still, said Saueracker, Paik’s obscurity also presents an opportunity. “Currently, owning a Paik work is about connoisseurship, or because the collector met the artist in person,” he said. “But this will change over time, and I think the idea of discovering everything Paik stands for will drive a new momentum.”
Could TVs Kill the Video Star?
The other barrier to entry in Paik’s market is the question of the works' condition: Paik used technology that wasn’t built to last: TVs burn out, machines break down, lights break and go dark. When art has an expiration date, collectors might (understandably) be more reticent to spend millions on it.
Paik’s advocates brush away questions of maintenance. “You can just call a specialist who can repair it when the TV breaks,” said Mayer. “This isn’t a problem. Perhaps in 20 or 30 or 40 years, it could be.”
Saueracker, who is one of the specialists people call when their Paik is broken, said that even in 40 years, the work should still be fine. “They can all be repaired,” he said, pointing to a technician in Germany who now make replacement tubes for TVs. “Now we’re more or less able to put another life-cycle in a TV, which is kind of a major thing.”
Even if a TV were to be irreparable, "the point is that a Paik sculpture or installation is not about the circuitry or the guts inside," said Simunovic. "It’s about the format of the work and the emotions that it’s communicating. And obviously if it has a moving image component, when that component is played on a cassette or an LP or a data file, it’s irrelevant."
Ultimately, said Saueracker, “it’s not easy to have a Paik, but it becomes a very personal object. You have to live with it, and if you can handle the challenge, it’s very rewarding.”