By Jack Cantillon
“Fair warning–are you sure madam? Last time then. Sold on the telephone for £860,000.”
A Galileo (Ire) yearling? No–Girl With Balloon, a spray paint and acrylic on canvas, mounted on board, in the artist’s frame. The highest price ever achieved for a work by the famed, if anonymous, graffiti artist Banksy, at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction last month. What can horse racing learn from the booming global art market which reached record sales of $63.7 billion in 2017 (up 12% from 2016), a figure that is set to be surpassed in 2018?
If you’re investing in art, as we saw in our 2018 yearling market–if you want a return, invest in quality. In 2017, dealers with a turnover below $500,000 saw an average 4% decline in sales, the second year of losses in this segment, while for dealers at the very highest end (sales over $50 million), sales growth was strongest at 10%. No matter the market it seems, the luxury buyers we need to attract want quality trophy assets and that’s where returns are made for investors. We don’t have to look far for an example. Modigliani may never have risen to Group 1 heights when racing in John Magnier’s colours but little did we know, Modigliani still had a win in him for John. John Magnier bought his masterpiece Nu Couché (Sur Le Côté Gauche) for $26.9 million in 2003, stared lovingly at it on his wall for 15 years, and then sold it this year for $157.2 million. Even No Nay Never’s stud fee has not appreciated as much. Who knew that the best pinhook of 2018 actually took place in Sotheby’s?
In uncertain times for racing, what art can teach us is where to go to attract further global demand for our luxury product. Unsurprisingly, for fresh investment to drive growth, we need to go east. In 2006, Asia made up less than 5% of global buyers. Today, Sotheby’s report that Asian buyers account for more than 35% of their global sales by value, and the amount they spend has increased by 50% in the past five years alone. Think of the opportunity that presents for our industry. A concerted effort to attract just some of these investors would have a transformative effect on the limited buying bench in racing at present. Tattersalls Book 1 had just 21 buyers pay over £1m aggregate for horses. Traditionally, the portability of art is an inherent advantage to attracting Asian investors–it’s quite nice to view a Ai Weiwei sculpture in your hometown of Shanghai or Singapore if you’re considering paying £50m for it in London or New York next month. A quick glance at the Sotheby’s or Christies YouTube channels shows auctions in multiple languages and cities across the globe with the same painting–imagine having the chance to bring Lady Aurelia to Sha Tin and Flemington and more before her sale.
We now have the tools to make geographical boundaries irrelevant–like art, let’s start to use them. It’s long overdue that horses at premier sales should have videos or at least standardised photographs as part of the cataloguing process. If we spend millions on X-rays each year, what is one professional shot to advertise the horse to a global marketplace? The physical of a horse will in most cases always trump the pedigree and yet we still use the opaque process of a trusted agent relaying on hastily scribbled notes and perhaps a photo to convey the physique of an investment to an absent and often inexperienced buyer. This doesn’t allow the industry to have the transparency it needs to attract new first-time horse buyers. We need to use digital tools readily available to encourage further trade. However, we are making tentative steps in the right direction. Tattersalls used Sirecam for each lot in Book 1 and has added extra camera angles at most sales, transforming the viewing experience for those online. Inglis having high quality video footage of selling The Autumn Sun as a yearling gave them a wonderful ready-made ad to use right after the Caulfield Guineas. At the recent Goffs Orby yearling sale, our own farm, Tinnakill House, had a bidder in Kuwait vet the horse in fevered anticipation as he liked what he saw on a video tweeted by Goffs thousands of miles away.
In a period of relentless international growth, a key factor for the art world has been its ability to utilise persuasive technology to influence human behaviour. Through consistent investment in fan engagement, art has become such a beloved subject on Instagram that #art was the fifth most popular hashtag on the app last year. Dealers increasingly report making sales to collectors whose interest has been piqued by seeing work on the app. As Marta Gnyp, art historian, has reasoned “the cross-pollination of celebrity culture, fashion and glamour has given contemporary art events in general, and art events in particular, a promise of enjoyment, excitement and the promise of exclusivity.” That sounds like a demand our sport can satisfy doesn’t it? This cross-pollination has pushed art into the realm of a must-have for the super wealthy in the US. A survey of high net worth individuals in the US by UBS and Arts Economics in 2017 revealed that 35% were active in the art and collectibles market–supporting art at all levels. If you don’t have a Basquiat on your wall, did you even make a billion dollars last year? Perhaps one day we can make a Snitzel racing at the Dubai Carnival a similar aspiration too for tomorrow’s bourgeoisie. While admittedly a horse doesn’t have the longevity of a painting we’ve got advantages we should shout more about–the art market should look jealousy at the incredible feat of authentication our general stud books provide through our established families trees over centuries and the value of the provenance that comes from the breeding track record of our best studs that is publicly available to all in a brief look at who is breeding our champions. We need to understand and promote the intoxicating cocktail our sport can provide to the super wealthy and then the pie can be grown to help racing professionals at all levels.
We can’t just stare wondrously at the masterpieces, concentrating on the million-dollar yearling windfalls and forgetting the problem of the five grand RNAs. Damien Hirst had his assistants produce countless copies of his famous “spot paintings” in order to meet perceived demand of a overheating marketplace. As of 2017, these pieces numbered 1,435 (even the Return of Mares can’t match that) and have plummeted in value due to overproduction. Luxury products don’t survive overproduction, just ask the buyer of our Banksy. The mercurial artist had secretly installed a shredder within the ornate frame. Upon the gavel falling, it was switched on and the £1-million plus price piece (as a result of a hefty buyer commission at art auctions) was shredded. The shredding was a symbolic message by the artist to a market that had lost touch with reality and become obsessed with selling overproduced “fast art” to satisfy greed for profit not love of the craft.
This year’s sales provide a reminder of what we’re doing right–breeding elite quality Thoroughbreds which are serving an increasing growing global demand. If we learn from the similar art industry, using the technology available to us, we have a chance to grow that even further. The art industry can also serve as a reminder of where our downfall lies–overproduction and a product that doesn’t have sufficient demand to meet it. Girl With Balloon captures a girl letting a balloon slip through her hands, let’s not let our industry slip through ours through inaction.