Graffiti made its entrée into the art world in 1972, when the United Graffiti Artists held their first group show, “Floor To Ceiling,” at City College. A year later, UGA made more history, with the first ever exhibition of their work at an established art space—the Razor Gallery in Soho. For the next twenty years, there were highs and lows as gallery owners tried to cultivate a market for the works.
In 1999, Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey’s auction house, riding high on the record setting sale of a three million dollar baseball hit by Mark McGwire, made the decision to hold an auction that featured a wide survey of graffiti artists. This included old school writers from the early 1970s, as well as the younger generation that had helped launch the East Village Gallery scene, before its crash in 1987. Toss in some west coast artists, and the ubiquitous Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, and at the very least it made for an interesting mix.
The auction house owner needed consultants, people who could unearth all of the gems and put them into context for him and the public. No one fit that criteria better than CRASH and DAZE, the first two subway writers to maintain their own studio space and build blue chip careers in the fine art world. They were called into Ettinger’s office for a meeting only to find Hugo Martinez lurking in the background. Martinez was the graduate student at City College who formed the first graffiti collective, United Graffiti Artists, in 1972.
The group had some successes in the early 70s, before disbanding in 1975, Martinez certainly knew where the older material was, but there was a problem. “I had told Ettinger that there was no way I’d ever work with Hugo,” said CRASH about the meeting. “A few years before this happened I had gone to see a KASE2 show at Hugo’s gallery, Hugo approached me in the space and asked me to leave, to this day I don’t know why. I left, but I always remembered. When we arrived at Guernsey’s he was there, I looked directly at Hugo and Arlan and said I won’t work with this asshole, and DAZE and I left. Eventually I received something from Guernsey’s of value and that got me on board, although I never spoke to Hugo.” CRASH and DAZE put the word out and graffiti writers from around the city trooped in and out of the Guernsey’s office, and a show began to emerge.
The auction was scheduled for two sessions on June 14th and 15th, to be held at the prestigious Puck building in Manhattan. There was a benefit preview on the 13th to benefit the Bronx Museum of Arts, and a hefty catalog that cost $35 dollars and included all the work with prices, plus essays from the likes of PHASE2, ZEPHYR, ESPO, and Patti Astor. Excitement was building in the writing community, the biggest fans of the work were the artists themselves.
When the evening arrived notable writers, including: CRASH, KASE 2, BLADE, COCO 144, ZEPHYR, SNAKE 1, ESPO, PART and others, arrived and took in the atmosphere, while signing each other’s catalogs. Ettinger led off the night with a few remarks and the bidding was under way. Some items sold, but in an agonizing fashion, and rarely reflective of the reserve prices estimated by Guernsey’s.
Two DONDI paintings sold for about $15k thanks to Eric Clapton. Prior to the auction, the rock legend had given CRASH a blank check with the instructions to get them at all costs, the artist’s response was to never lower the paddle in the bidding, frustrating the other bidder, and netting him the pieces.
The artist DOZE felt the way many others did after the gavel came down on his own works, they sold, but at a fraction of the estimate. He showed his displeasure by shouting up at the stage and storming out. Another disruption occurred when ESPO slapped the artist next to him after finding out he had defaced his work, to the credit of both, it was one slap and everyone pretended it didn’t happen, the bidding kept right on going.
Collectors were not willing to go all in on the early New York works, which included the final UGA collective, a momentous painting that would later sell to Gunther Sachs for $100,000 dollars, and which today would go for half a million dollars. Collector Marty Blinder purchased a good deal of pivotal works from the 70s and 80s painters featured in Subway Art, without him, the New York writers would’ve left empty handed. Blinder had been collecting since graffiti re-emerged above ground in 1980, following the small galleries in the East Village, to the bigger ones on 57th Street where the blue chip names started to emerge.
The west coast writers hadn’t emerged yet in books, and didn’t have the gallery pedigree of most of the New York writers, so most of them were ignored. It was even a tough night for Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. Several of Haring’s subway chalk drawings failed to sell and a Basquiat that was expected to fetch $25k, went for $20,000, making it the second highest selling item. The top lot was a tagged-up wooden door. It sold for $22,000. Reuters reported on the sale: “The door, the entrance to the apartment space above 51 X Gallery, features the work of leading graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddie, Futura, and Zephyr.” Another door that was also covered in tags failed to sell, as did work by Kenny Scharf and Kaws. A painting by LADY PINK, one of the only women artists represented in the show, sold, but only for $750, according to the New York Times, in a follow-up article on the aftermath of the auction.
Most graffiti writers viewed the auction as a failure, with Guernsey’s as the only party making money. Auction houses, by their nature, have so many tricky ways to bring in money from the sellers and the buyers that they rarely lose financially. The bigger question is, would the writers not have wanted the auction? I doubt it. Writers by their nature are highly competitive, and everyone wanted to know where they stood. And while Guernseys wasn’t the perfect barometer, it gave them a glimpse of where they stood, and revealed, most notably, that they were about ten years too early.
A large segment of today’s collectors are old writers who have come into disposable income as they reach their full earning potential, you can find a parallel in the card collecting hobby which exploded in the mid-1980s, fueled by baby boomers entering middle age. By 2010, these graffiti collectors had established a baseline of prices for old school works, and auction houses once again took notice. These auction houses were doing the unthinkable just ten years earlier, they sold over the internet, cutting costs and reaching a much bigger audience. Today, graffiti is a mainstay of auction houses throughout the world, but Guernsey’s, will always be remembered for doing it first.
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