We're accustomed to seeing millionaire musicians play rock 'n' roll outlaw in hockey arenas. It's less common to find a boomer guitar hero making millions from a single sale at Sotheby's.
Eric Clapton, take a bow. The English rock virtuoso made a profit of more than $30-million last week on the sale to an anonymous buyer of a 1994 Gerhard Richter abstract canvas for $34.2-million (U.S.) – a new record for work by a living artist. With one bang of the gavel, old Slowhand suddenly looked like the guy with the best market timing in the whole canny carnival of international art sales. The fact that he has two more paintings from the same 1994 series – bought en bloc in 2011 for a then-record sum for Richter abstracts of $3.4-million (U.S.) – must make the deal feel even sweeter.
Much parsing of market trends ensued after the sale of Abstraktes Bild (809-4), along with a piquant speculation by first-tier New York art dealer Christophe Van de Weghe, who told Bloomberg that "the Clapton provenance made a difference. It could have added as much as 20 per cent to the price." If that's true, the cash value of saying that Eric Clapton once owned your painting now tops out at around $5.7-million. And you thought people only got excited about owning guitars he played. With that kind of hefty bump in perceived value, perhaps we should consider the guitarist's acts of purchase, storage and sale as the performance-art component of the piece.
Richter's thoughts on the Clapton transaction aren't known, but in Gerhard Richter: Painting, a terrific documentary that played art houses earlier this year, the artist expressed his alienation from the market forces that drive the dollar value of his work. No wonder: Even with Britain's recently adopted Artist's Resale Right, which steers a fraction of auction prices to artists, Richter's share of Clapton's windfall amounts to less than $18,000 (U.S.).