Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Corbyn calls for return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens

Once again the Conservative media has its knickers in a twist following Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Greek newspaper Ta Nea in which he articulated his opinion on the future of the Parthenon Marbles.

It’s not the first time The Telegraph’s Nick Trend has mounted his high horse to proclaim that reunifying the Parthenon Marbles in Athens would begin an irrevocable process leading to the denuding of the British Museum and every other encyclopaedic museum like it.

He is wrong on so many counts, just as he was back in 2009 when he wrote to tell us that the Marbles “were not ‘seized’ by Lord Elgin,” but “were purchased from the Turkish authorities in control of the city at the time,” adding, “I think it is important that in this debate, accuracy is respected by all parties.” I can’t argue with that, but I can argue with Trend’s failure to comply with his own recommendation.

Accuracy is elusive where the removal of the Marbles is concerned. But to suggest that hacking and sawing so many masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture from the building for which they were designed (and disfiguring and destroying so many of them in doing so) is part of a mere process of “purchase” is pretty extraordinary, as most archaeologists and art historians would surely agree.

Once again we’re hearing the groaning old argument that reunification would open the notional floodgates leading to the wholesale emptying out of the British Museum and other universal museums like it. Trend goes further, suggesting even that the British Museum is “a far more important and influential cultural construct than the Parthenon.” Wow.

Few would disagree that the British Museum is an important and influential cultural construct, but to assert that it is more important and influential than the Parthenon is ridiculous. It calls to mind Donald Trump’s braggadocio, invoking his country’s menacing military-industrial complex whenever he addresses smaller nations ("My nuclear button is bigger and more powerful than yours".) 

It also wilfully overlooks the nationalistic symbolic charge exerted by the British Museum, which is not always welcomed by other cultures. Some see Western universal museums as “terrifying places with insati􏰀able appe􏰀tites for works of art” and redolent of a dark period in their nation’s history (Singh, K. ‘Universal Museums: The View From Below’ in Prott, L.V. Witnesses to History, UNESCO Publishing, 2009, p125.) 

Building bridges
This is particularly dismaying at a moment when the UK needs to be building bridges with its European neighbours rather than alienating them through anachronistic neo-imperialist rhetoric. We all know that the British Museum is an active lender and designer of influential blockbuster touring exhibitions. That’s arguably a positive thing. But that process would likely be strengthened and enhanced by showing the world that it was also capable of solving one of the most intractable issues in world heritage. Then we could all move forward. 

The UK is no longer the thought-leader in international relations that it used to be. Its vast, overweening empire is long gone (hooray to that), its global influence is shrinking by the week and Brexit looks likely to accelerate that diminution. Power is inexorably shifting from West to East, so to speak. 

Instead of tightening its grip on the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum ought to be using them to show Britain is now magnanimous in its outreach, and able to identify the manifold benefits accruing from cultural diplomacy. That’s another form of power. Soft power. Cultural power. An antidote to post-colonial tristesse.

“Bravo, Jeremy Corbyn,” many are saying, for it is indeed a breath of fresh air to hear a leading politician speaking out on this matter. But Corbyn made a cardinal error in his interview with the Greek media. By connecting the Marbles issue with “anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past,” he opened himself — and the wider cause — to a sucker-punch from the floodgates crowd — “You’d be emptying our museums!” 

A unique case
The Parthenon Marbles are unlike any other heritage issue. They ought not to be bundled in with the Benin brasses, the Assyrian winged lions, the Pergamum Altar, the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone, and all the other disputed objects. Every case is different and should be taken on its own merits. To argue for the return of the Marbles is not to argue that everything else should be returned.

Parthenon Galleries, New Acropolis Museum, Athens
Nor should the British Museum be promoting the idea that the Parthenon Marbles can only be understood when viewed adjacent to objects from other periods and cultures. 

That argument is fallacious and educationally unhelpful. As any trip to the British Museum will immediately make clear, few visitors are able to perceive any meaningful connection between the assembled objects. Most people seem to wander around in a daze, straining between selfies to make sense of the arcane juxtapositions. 

As Eugenio Donato has observed: 

“The set of objects the Museum displays is sustained only by the fiction that they somehow constitute a coherent representational universe. […] Such a fiction is the result of an uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that is to say, the spatial juxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world.  Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but ‘bric-a-brac,’ a heap of meaningless and valueless fragments of objects which are incapable of substituting themselves either metonymically for the original objects or metaphorically for their representations.” (Donato, E. ‘The Museum’s Furnace: Notes Towards a Contextual Reading of Bouvard and Pécuchet’ in Harare, J.V. (Ed. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Methuen, 1980 [1979[, p223.) 

The Parthenon sculptures are architectural objects that ought not to be conceptually divorced from their original function on the Parthenon. Naturally, they could never be returned to the building itself. Nobody, not even the Greeks, has ever argued for that. But the Parthenon Galleries in the New Acropolis Museum is surely the place where they would speak most eloquently of ancient Athenian culture and belief. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Emperor Constantine’s colossal finger has been found in Paris

The head is in the Louvre
The torso’s in the Met
They’re not sure where the left leg is
They haven’t found it yet

The right arm’s in Chicago
The other’s not been seen
Since tombaroli sold it 
in 1817

The penis went to Oxford 
as a Grand Tour souvenir
The Freud House in North London
has an ankle and an ear

Now the Louvre’s found a bit 
of Constantine, they think, 
a giant index finger
that’s bound to cause a stink

For body parts they once acquired 
in Empire’s golden age
are weapons now in culture wars
that rumble, roil and rage

Rodin loved those fragments
those marble odds and sods 
making from that broken stuff
his twisting, limbless gods

The Benin bronzes once adorned 
the Oba’s royal throne
but British soldiers sacked the place 
and took them all back home  

Picasso too loved ancient junk
and told his entourage
“There’s all of Egypt in that foot,
It’s not just bricolage.”

The treasures from the Parthenon,
were Greece’s noble pride
'til syphilitic Elgin 
dissembled, bribed and lied

then smashed them into pieces
and shipped them back by sea
to live in gloomy darkness
in Duveen’s Bloomsbury

“I went to a museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.” (US comedian Steven Wright,

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Rodin and the Parthenon Marbles

The news wires have been buzzing over the past eighteen months as pressure mounts on the world’s so-called ‘universal museums’ to return objects acquired during the colonial era. Even French president Emanuel Macron has stepped into the fray, vowing to return French museum collections of ethnographic material to their African countries of origin. 

Barely a day goes by without the Museum Security Network delivering into our inboxes further reports of these increasingly toxic culture wars. 

The British Museum is not immune from this pressure thanks to its continuing retention of the Parthenon Marbles, looted from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812. 

One way the British Museum tries to deflect attention from the Marbles controversy is to build exhibitions around them that seek to sever them from their original connection to the Parthenon. This is the barely submerged subtext to its current show entitled ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece.’

It’s a beautiful exhibition that throws fresh light on the French sculptor’s work and I do not wish to be mealy-mouthed about it. But I have issues. The title could just as easily have been: ‘Rodin and the Parthenon Marbles,’ but perhaps that would have been too blunt and provocative, so a subtler strategy was deployed.

The captions accompanying each object in the show strain to build stylistic connections between Rodin’s work and the London Marbles, many of which are instructive, some of which are tenuous. 

The adjoining text to Rodin’s The Kiss includes the phrase: “The two figures melt into one another…” while the caption on the immediately adjacent sculpture of two goddesses from the East Pediment of the Parthenon reads: “The figures seem to melt into each other…” subtly inferring that Rodin borrowed some quality of figural “melt” from the Marbles he’d viewed in London. That's stretching it. 

Other panel texts have been phrased in such a way as to reinforce the British Museum’s frequently cited assertion that the Parthenon Marbles should no longer be seen as architectural elements but rather as autonomous works of art. This serves to foreclose attempts to connect them to the Parthenon which is a key plank of the Greek case for return. Describing Rodin’s approach to the Gates of Hell, the text reads: “Like the Parthenon sculptures, many of Rodin’s figures began life as architectural elements. When removed from their architectural setting they became works of art in their own right.”

We hardly need reminding that Pheidias’s Parthenon sculptures are, and have always been, “works of art.” Their function as part of a building does not make them any less so. Divorcing them from their prior function on the Parthenon wilfully erases aspects of their original meaning and their significance to the city of Athens. The more perceptive visitors to the exhibition will see this for what it is: a deliberate misinterpretation designed to reinforce the British Museum’s claim to ownership of the Marbles. 

Oddly enough this strategy runs counter to the approach the museum has taken to displaying elsewhere in the museum the caryatid that Elgin removed from the so-called Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion (right). Here the figure supports a section of architrave, which reminds us of the connections the ancient Greeks sought to emphasise between architecture and the human body and which are also key to a proper understanding of the Parthenon Marbles. Yet the BM continues to conceptually separate the Marbles from their original function. This amounts to the erasure of historical memory. 

Such rhetorical nudges can be detected throughout the Rodin show. The text accompanying the Horse of Selene from the East Pediment offers another instance of institutional bias. In the exhibition it has been plonked on top of a clumsily-constructed chipboard plinth, entirely erasing its contiguous relationship to the other pedimental sculptures.

The horse’s head was designed to peep from the acute angle of the pediment, its formal shape echoing the surrounding architectural geometry. Deflecting attention from that original function allows the British Museum to suggest that, “Rodin would have appreciated Pheidias’s daring omission of the horse’s body.” There was nothing daring about it. The Horse of Selene was designed for a specific purpose that precluded any more of its body being represented and Rodin would have appreciated that. 

Elsewhere it was surprising to read the text accompanying the torso of the messenger god Hermes (figure H from the west pediment), which states: “This unprepossessing ruin from the Parthenon sculptures tends to be overlooked, but seen through Rodin’s eyes it is reinvigorated.” 

An unprepossessing ruin? We do not need Rodin’s eyes to see the beauty of this object (left). Despite its time-worn condition it remains alive with dynamic energy and sculptural power. Moreover our understanding and appreciation of it would be enhanced still further were it to be conceptually reconnected with Pheidias’s original scheme (or, better still, physically reconnected with it in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens). The British Museum, however, seems to view it as little more than an ugly ruin to be deployed in comparative exhibitions, a key function of which is evidently to counter the majority public opinion in favour of the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens. 

The exhibition includes many of Rodin’s exquisite drawings of the Parthenon friezes and pediments that make clear the extent to which he was inspired by the Marbles. But Rodin’s love of Greek art was not limited to what he saw in London and certainly not limited to the Marbles. 

On one of his visits to the UK he met the American aesthete and collector Edward Perry Warren, then domicile in Lewes, East Sussex. Warren commissioned a version of The Kiss from Rodin (now in the Tate), specifying that the genitals of the man were to be clearly represented. Warren was at that time the owner of the so-called Chios Head (now in Boston) (below right), which Rodin coveted. He made many strenuous appeals to Warren to exchange it for one or two examples of his own work and even offered to return it to Warren’s ownership after his death. 

A broader selection of Greek works might have been adduced in support of Rodin’s passion for the antique, but the exhibition was clearly designed to fulfil another more urgent purpose: to keep the Parthenon Marbles in London.

Exhibitions are expensive things to mount and so it’s understandable that the British Museum will, where possible, construct exhibitions around its own collections. But the Parthenon Marbles are not just any old collection. They are arguably the most contested and controversial objects in world culture, at the centre of an increasing divisive global debate. So while the Rodin exhibition offers another welcome opportunity to see a comprehensive selection of his work, and indeed to see it in a fresh context, let us not overlook the other motive here. It is as much about the Marbles as about Rodin.

One wall panel quotes Rodin thus:  “It’s the artist who tells the truth and the photographer who lies.” 

And it’s the museum that occasionally misleads?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

You are invited to dinner…oh sorry, no you’re not.

Are you an HNWI? 
To qualify for the HNWI acronym you originally needed to have investable assets of at least US$1 million, but that may soon need adjusting. The number of HNWIs in the world is expanding rapidly. Cap Gemini’s 2017 World Wealth Report notes that, “the less-wealthy HNWIs (those with US$1 million to US$5 million) is an important segment comprising about 90% of all HNWIs globally.”

The HNWI acronym is now a fixture of the daily jargon at Davos, as the BBC recently observed with withering disdain. It’s also a familiar term in the patois of the international art market. 

These are the folks that the big auction houses invite to their social functions to promote local art fairs and high-ticket auctions. Clearly they can’t invite everyone to these spiffy social functions, or can they?

Being a relatively LNWI, I was slightly taken aback to receive an invitation (left) from Sotheby’s to a fancy dinner at Loring Place restaurant at 21 West 8th Street, New York to celebrate Armory Week (cocktails at 7pm; sit-down dinner at 7.30). If they’re inviting LNWIs like me, Loring Place must be as cavernous as the Seventh Regiment Armory. 

But then came an email from John Peebles, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and CRM (Customer Relations Management):

Dear Client: 
Earlier today you may have received an email from us about an event during Armory Week that inadvertently went to a wide distribution list.          
Please accept my apology for the confusion. 
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. If you are in New York in the coming months, we would love to see you. 
A voucher for our Sant Ambroeus Café at 72nd and York Avenue is below.             
Thank you for your understanding.    
John Peebles

That’s a coded way of saying, “Sorry, we screwed up; you’re not invited, but have a cappuccino on us”. 

Included in Mr Peebles email was a voucher (right) entitling me to “enjoy a complimentary $20.00” to be used at Sotheby’s Sant Ambroeus Café on the 10th floor. Thank you for that, Mr Peebles.

If the voucher also went to Sotheby’s entire distribution list (presumably it had to), one can only assume that the Sant Ambroeus Café is also as cavernous as the Seventh Regiment Armory. They could have a few busy days ahead as the disinvited Low Net Worth Individuals cash in their brunch vouchers. (By the way, $20 will buy you a shakerato and a Chicken Caesar salad with shrapnel to spare in case you fancy strolling on down.) 

Hard of Haring
What havoc email distribution lists can play on a balance sheet, eh? Had Sotheby’s not had to extend this generous $20 compensatory offer to its extended client list it might have been able to claw back at least a fraction of the $2.1 million it appears to have lost when New York-based Russian art dealer Anatole Shagalov (careful with that spelling) failed to pay for a horrible Keith Haring painting for which he bid a staggering $6.5 million. 

Sotheby’s re-sold the painting to another client for $4.4 million, a little over what a half-decent Velasquez  made at their Old Masters evening auction on 1st February.  

Compare the price of the Haring with any of the paintings sold in the low hundreds of thousands at the Old Masters sale and you get some idea of the tasteless insanity of the “contemporary” art market. What would you rather have for your $4 million: A Haring or a Velasquez? Hopefully you don't need to answer that. 

Dumbing down on Derby day

Speaking of questionable taste, I’ve only just noticed how Sotheby’s chose to promote the headline lot at their last Old Masters sale in London in December. 

Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Academy By Lamplight was the occasion for a cheesy video recreation (left) using real actors (or were they perhaps Sotheby’s interns?) 

The catalogue described Wright's painting as “a powerful statement on the erotic allure of antiquity,” featuring a group of young students — “in various stages of adolescence, the youngest possibly about five, the eldest perhaps eighteen or nineteen” — enraptured by the beauty of an antique statue. 

This became the starting point for Sotheby’s sub-Viola Pygmalion film fantasy in which the Academy draughtsmen (the youngest possibly about five?) are treated to the naked flesh of a young actress.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-1620)
Should the National Museum of Capodimonte ever decide to deaccession Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, I’m hoping they’ll make a video of that too, with the head of Sotheby’s marketing department as Holofernes. 

I’d be happy to stand in for Judith. 


Sunday, January 28, 2018

IKEA Founder Ingvar Kamprad checks out

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of the Swedish interior design retailer IKEA, has died aged 91. In honour of Kamprad's influence on interior design, we here reproduce the news story posted by satirical website Artnose in August 2003

Auctioneers respond to 'IKEA challenge'

Renaming antiques brings market revival 

By Artnose saleroom correspondent Jasper Plack

Fnek: the new name
for a Georgian bureau
Britain’s provincial auction houses are giving new names to old furniture in a bid to encourage younger buyers back into the salerooms. Declining attendances at country auctions have been attributed to a growing preference for the kind of modern furnishings sold by the Swedish furniture chain Ikea. But now auctioneers are fighting back. 

One provincial auction house – Opossum & Son in Gloucestershire – have begun renaming old staples in an attempt to lure bidders back to the rostrum and now other salerooms are following suit.

On arrival at the auction house, George III bureaux are disassembled by saleroom porters, shrink-wrapped and packed into brown cardboard boxes with an Allen key enclosed before being sold under the name Fnek. Pie-crust tea-tables are in future to be known as Smeg, Victorian credenzas will be called Møben and the Regency mahogany linen press is henceforth to be referred to as Klübb.

“The response has been extraordinary,” said Tancred Tealeaf of Salisbury auctioneers Willies and Wallies. “Already prices are starting to recover. We’re doing a particularly brisk trade in Bluk and Smekyur – oh, sorry, Victorian balloon-back dining chairs and Regency wine coolers to you. Other popular lines are the Glink (Georgian sofa table) and Breg (Victorian tip-top breakfast table) which are selling like hotcakes because people like the way they can be combined with a modern interior. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

This upbeat analysis was echoed by Sir Roger Pegg-Tankard, chairman of the old Fine Art Retail Traders’ Society (FARTS). “We had to do something,” said Sir Roger as he mounted his penny-farthing en route to a meeting of the society’s hastily convened ‘Furniture Renaming Committee’. “Buyers were leaving in their droves and prices were falling at a frightening rate. This initiative demonstrates that auctioneers are a dynamic, forward-thinking breed that is prepared to change with the times. I’ve seen the future and it’s flatpacked.”

Some auction houses, such as Tinkerbells of Tiverton and Mortiss & Tennons of Weybridge have started renaming old silver, clocks and watches and have begun selling hotdogs on sale days in emulation of Scandinavian retail strategies. 

Glob: available in
packs of six or eight
One young couple interviewed outside a saleroom in Somerset approved of the new initiative: “We prefer buying at auction now that the furniture is flat-packed,” said Irene Halfwit of Bristol.

“My husband’s very good at screwing things. We’ve just bought a self-assembly Bøvaar, which is the new name for a Queen Anne walnut bureau bookcase. So Pete’s got his work cut out trying to understand the instructions. Shopping’s so easy at auction. And we love those little pencils they give you when you’re walking round.”

Salerooms across the country are reporting increased revenues due to the ‘Ikeaisation’ of auction culture.

David Dickinson was on a buying trip to Stockholm and unavailable for comment.

Jasper Plack
Artnose saleroom correspondent

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

All souls seek joy — Hugh Masekela (RIP) at the Barbican in 2009


A couple of days ago I posted here a recommendation of Mike Davis's most recent book on urban poverty, Planet of Slums. My chum John Boyle subsequently responded, alerting me to one or two interesting critiques of Davis's book which drew attention to the unrelievedly apocalyptic tenor of Davis's particular brand of Marxist-orientated urban geography.

Africa, needless to say, loomed large in Davis's dark chronicle, reinforcing the book's dominant mood of impending doom and gloom. So where do we turn for a glimmer of hope? Well, to Africa, paradoxically.

This evening I witnessed one of the more unlikely collaborations in contemporary music when the Barbican's resident band — the London Symphony Orchestra — teamed up with South African trumpet legend Hugh Masekela.

I have to admit to a certain trepidation en route to this gig. Along with Salif Keita, Hugh Masekela has given me some of my most joyous live music experiences. On top of a mellifluous tone and flawless technique, he's invariably backed by a rhythm section of such tropical intensity that by the end of the gig most of the audience has joined them on stage to boogie on down with frenetic abandon. Last time I saw him he ripped the lid off the Festival Hall.

So what would he be like with the London Symphony Orchestra?

With the help of the talented young British composer Jason Yarde (whose specially-commissioned composition 'All Souls Seek Joy' was a highlight of the evening), they moved through innovative but restrained arrangements of many of Masekela's most celebrated songs — Grazing in the Grass, Thula-Thula, Nomathemba, Mandela (Bring Him Back Home), and Stimela, in which Masekela mimics the sound of the 'coal train' taking black migrant workers from their homelands to the misery of the South African mines.

And there's the tenuous link with Mike Davis. Masekela dedicated this one-off orchestral project to the thousands of South African migrant workers who have been forced to leave their rural homelands and head for the cities to earn a meagre living working for rapacious industrial conglomerates of one sort or another.

But for all the adventurousness of the Barbican programmers (and clearly Masekela himself was deeply moved by the experience of working with the LSO and the St. Luke's Community Choir), one sensed that a conventional orchestra was not quite the right vehicle for Masekela's music.

His flugelhorn lacked its usual declamatory punch, while the orchestra's rhythm section was positively pedestrian. I mean, this is township jazz, for Chrissakes. Why split the drum-kit between four white guys? I could almost hear them backstage beforehand: "Here you go, Dave, you play the hi-hat; I'll do the bass drum; Steve, you shake these things, and Bob, can you tap this snare thingy in time with the beat?" They were all over the place. Why not just stick a drummer in the traps and kick some ass?

And why were there so few black faces in the orchestra (i.e. none)?

As for the choir, despite their manifest joy at being part of such a worthy event, one sensed this needed a belting, big-bosomed gospel choir rather than a predominantly white middle-class ensemble of Daphnes and Dereks from Deptford (I counted three black faces out of a choir of 94.) (But then see Kevin Le Gendre's recent piece for the Guardian on this topic here.

Am I being too critical? Perhaps. The Barbican series to which the concert belonged was entitled 'Belief'. I guess in the context of the misery Mike Davis outlines, one has to hang on to something.

(How strangely coincidental that on returning home I should log on to John's website to find a link to an item about Hugh Masekela and Michael Pennington discussing Improvisation). Enjoy.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Could the Blockchain and cryptocurrencies really revolutionise the art market?

How might the Blockchain have affected the
 sale of Gauguin's When will you marry?
We used to have a saying at Invaluable back in the mid- to late-90s that America was about two years ahead of the UK in terms of technological take-up. This was an important consideration for what was then a UK-based business seeking to convert a historically conservative art market to the importance of price data and other digital innovations. There’s no question that Artnet, Artprice, and Invaluable all went on to have (and continue to have) a profound impact on the art market, bringing greater transparency and helping to democratise a somewhat elitist commercial sector.

One outcome of those early innovations was the interest they sparked among the finance and investment communities attracted by what seemed like a relatively unregulated market ripe for exploitation. Almost twenty years later those communities have come to exert a powerful impact on art, helping to transform it from a niche ‘commodity’ into an investable ‘asset class’. 

Now we are witnessing the intimations of an arguably even deeper transformation with the dizzying acceleration of interest in the Blockchain and underlying cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple, to name just a few. The more radical apostles of this new economic creed, such as Roger Ver, peer into the not too distant future and maintain that cryptocurrencies have the potential to take the money-supply out of the reach of governments, annulling their power to wage war, abuse our tax revenues and exert malign forms of social control. 

You are free to dismiss these predictions and their rapidly proliferating adherents as just another extraordinary popular delusion, but this week it was reported that China and South Korea have moved to outlaw Bitcoin trading, ostensibly on the grounds of its high volatility and excessive energy consumption (bitcoins are ‘mined’ through computer power). Some have even drawn a comparison between cryptocurrencies and the tulip bulb mania that spread throughout Golden Age Holland during the 1630s. But the tulip bubble never threatened to undermine the power of central government or revolutionise the global economy.

One zone of international commerce energising the new Blockchain evangelists is the art market. Here it is predicted that the ‘distributed ledger’ theory that underpins the Blockchain will usher in greater transparency and effect a major and positive change to provenance, authentication, and other aspects of art market business. 

It is one thing to profess an unbending faith in the transformative power of technological innovation, but it’s also important to be aware that some sectors of the art market are genetically programmed to resist attempts at greater transparency. 

There’s no question that some of the ‘fintech’ incursions into the art market have been good for speculators, but they have arguably also had a detrimental effect on art, nudging it into the regimes of finance, speculation (and increasingly money-laundering) at the expense of aesthetics, connoisseurship and art’s social and cultural value.

The recent case of the Salvator Mundi (right) is perhaps the most glaring example of this, the $450 million outcome being apparently a product of secretive back-office financial structuring, with aesthetic quality and authenticity marginalised as largely irrelevant considerations.  

The Blockchain promises to open up provenance and other details of an object’s transaction history to everyone on the network through the distributed ledger, whose ‘blocks’ of data cannot be adjusted or changed after the fact. This sounds utopian unless you are one of those who values the art market precisely for the confidentiality it brings to art collecting (and indeed to art investment). 

A couple of years ago, Gauguin’s masterpiece Nafea faa ipoipo (When Will You Marry) (above left) was sold by the Swiss businessman and collector Rudolf Staechelin to the Al-Thani family of Qatar for a reported $300 million. That price is now being questioned and may have been considerably less, the important point being that it was a private treaty transaction, the details and beneficiaries of which are confidential. So too was the sale of Cézanne’s Card Players for a reported $250 million, and so too would have been the original sale of the Salvator Mundi to Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev had Mr Rybolovlev not discovered quite by chance the allegedly excessive mark-up levied by the seller, the Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier. To what extent might any of these cloak and dagger transactions have been changed by the introduction of Blockchain technology? I for one, can’t see how any of the players involved would have wanted any such exposure. Since the internet arrived, the top echelons of the art market have become more private and opaque, not less.

It seems indisputable that the Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are already being used effectively by purveyors of various forms of relatively low-priced digital art. But what impact will these innovations have on a market in which privacy and confidentiality have become indispensable to the world’s wealthy who are seeking to buy or sell their masterpieces? 

All buyers, and indeed sellers, of high-ticket works of art should be accessing professional provenance researchers to minimise risk. The findings of that research ideally should then be installed in the existing appropriate catalogue raisonné, whether it be digitised or not. But exposing the underlying transactions to universal scrutiny through the Blockchain? 

Critics of the Bitcoin phenomenon dismiss it as nothing more than Marxist smoke and mirrors or the madness of crowds. The Nobel Prize winner Alfred Stiglitz goes further, recommending that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies be outlawed. Is that not just another form of social control? Surely the organic logic of economics states that if something is inherently flawed — as ‘tulipomania’ proved to be — it will not survive. 

There’ll always be winners and losers. Only time will tell.  

Tom Flynn