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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jan Garbarek Group at the Royal Festival Hall

REPOSTED FROM Sunday evening, November 18, 2007

To the renovated Festival Hall on London's South Bank to see the Jan Garbarek Group in the 2007 London Jazz Festival.

There are few sounds as distinctive in modern jazz as the saxophone of Norwegian jazz giant Jan Garbarek (right).

Much has been written about his ability to evoke the windswept expanses of a Nordic wilderness through sustaining high-pitched notes that seem to trail off into a distant horizon. But he can also be earthy and funky and last night we saw a fresh energy emerging from a slightly changed line-up.

I've seen Garbarek perform on more occasions than any other musician and it's always a memorable experience. He never speaks on stage, preferring to let his saxophone do the talking, drawing out of tenor and soprano instruments a dazzling range of keening wails, ferociously accurate runs, and breathy rumbles.

Once he's found a band personnel he's happy with, he tends to stay with them for years. On this occasion he was accompanied by long-term collaborator Rainer Brüninghaus on keyboards, Yuri Daniel on electric bass (replacing Eberhard Weber), and Manu Katché on drums (in place of percussionist Marilyn Mazur).

Virtuoso bassist Eberhard Weber was sadly missed, although Yuri Daniel did a fine job of interlocking with Katché to create a solid rhythm section. And it was Manu Katché who gave this current Garbarek live project a new, more muscular edge, adding a powerfully controlled energy that seemed strangely lacking on their last London visit a few years ago.

Katché has recorded with Garbarek on a number of occasions in the past but recently seems to have been installed as his live drummer of choice. It's easy to see why. Even the normally restrained Garbarek could be glimpsed standing at the back of the stage tapping his thigh to the beat, visibly excited by the blistering jazz-rock pulses set up by his three cohorts.

Katché (left, photo courtesy Heinz Kronberger) is one of the finest drummers in the world, often overshadowed by the more flashy techniques of the likes of Dave Weckl or Vinnie Colaiuta. But his ability to nail down watertight, serpentine, thrillingly funky grooves is second to none. This has drawn him into the orbit of many rock superstars such as Sting and Peter Gabriel. Listen to the pattern he created for Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes — particularly the tripping, off-centre snare shot that sets the mood for the chorus. In its way it's as memorable as the tricksy backbeats Steve Gadd laid down on Paul Simon's Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover and Rikki Lee Jones's Chuck E's in Love. Seldom do drummers emerge from the traps to be recognised as anything more than just beat-boxes. But Katché has the innate musicality to turn good songs into memorable ones by treating the kit like a paintbox, adding light and shade with impressive power and subtlety.

Garbarek is as fond of chugging rhythms as was the late great Joe Zawinul and last night his band shifted seamlessly between his trademark Northern European jazz mode and the sort of ecstatic world music grooves for which Zawinul gained global acclaim.

Jazz is all about taking risks and at times last night one sensed the quartet right there on the edge, driving each other to unknown destinations and loving it. As a result, there was less of Garbarek's usual existential tonal meditations on Nordic legend or the Coltrane-like free-jazz parabolas some of us have come to know and love him for. Instead, he hung back and allowed his band to let rip, periodically stepping from the shadows to reinstate the main theme or to switch the register into another of his dancing variations on a Scandinavian folk melody.

Happily, this memorable gig was recorded as part of the BBC Radio Three collaborations with the London Jazz Festival and can be heard on Radio Three's Late Junction at a date to be announced. Watch that space.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, painted on a Monday Sold on a Tuesday Damaged on a Wednesday Repainted on a Thursday Bought on a Friday Flipped on a Saturday Laundered on Sunday What's going on with Salvator Mundi? (Apologies to James Halliwell, 1842)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why do people applaud at high-end art auctions?

Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Salavator Mundi
$450.3 million, Christie's New York
Last week the art market witnessed another epochal moment. A painting known as Salvator Mundi, purporting to be by Leonardo da Vinci, leapt clear of all rational expectations and sold at Christie’s in New York for almost half a billion dollars. It is not as if there had been a consensus in the art world as to the picture’s authenticity. While a certain amount of scholarly disagreement is a healthy thing in connoisseurship, majority approval was often required of successful transactions at the apex of the Old Masters market. Not any more. 

Even had Leonardo contributed significantly to the creation of the Salvator Mundi — which many doubt — the picture was in such poor condition, its materiality so compromised by manifold interventions over time, its subject matter so lugubrious, its composition so bluntly ill-conceived, that many were left stupefied by the hammer price of $450 million (including fees). 

Instead of encountering the numinous majesty of a benevolent Christ, the Saviour of the World, we’re fixed by the narcotised gaze of a spaced-out rock guitarist from the 1970s whose spliff has been summarily snatched from the fingers of his right hand. 

Leaving the price aside for a moment, what happened in New York last week conformed to a now familiar pattern at high-end auctions, with those present bursting into rapturous applause as the hammer fell.

Blue-chip art auctions are, of course, a kind of baroque theatre, albeit to which only a chosen few are invited. Present at all such events is a carefully parsed cross-section of art world rainmakers, global hedge-fund managers, selected members of international royalty, music celebrities and a sprinkling of Hollywood glitterati. The fact that so few, if any, of those present will actually participate in the bidding does not negate their importance to the unfolding drama. They are crucial to the optics of the market. They give it meaning. 

Evening auctions are thus not just efficient ways of selling unique works of art of high value, they also convey a powerful symbolism extending beyond the realm of art. Under these conditions, the object's historical significance becomes an irrelevance compared with its wider ramifications for the business community. The reification of the art work from its relatively humble historical role within the regime of aesthetics into its exalted status as an instrument of high finance is one of the most notable trends in the art market in recent decades. 

A mere nanosecond after the hammer fell at Christie’s, the room erupted into cheering and clapping. As the camera phones twinkled, a chorus of whispered elation rippled around the room. Is this juissance, art market style? Or is it the sound of the herd after the kill.  

But why all the cheering? Exactly what or whom were they applauding? The buyer? The seller? Perhaps it was just a discharge of gratitude for having witnessed a defining event in modern art market history. The auction houses may sense in the applause an acknowledgment of their commercial acumen. Privately, they may read it as a vindication of their carefully cultivated wooing of, inter alia, Wall Street investment managers, sovereign wealth funds and a couple of dozen billionaires from developing economies. Abracadabra! At the wave of a gavel, even an object as visually repellant and cack-handedly modified as the Salvator Mundi can be transformed into half a billion dollars. This is surely one occasion when the museum community will not be resenting their limited acquisition budgets. I mean, who'd want such a thing hanging on the wall?

Paul Gauguin
Still Life with Apples
Is auction applause ever comprehensible? One of the first occasions in the modern art market when an audience broke into spontaneous clapping was in Paris in 1957 at the sale of the Biddle collection at Galerie Charpentier. One of the highlights of that auction was Gauguin’s Still Life with Apples (right) It was bought by Basil Goulandris of the Greek shipping family for $297,142. The New York Times reported at the time that when the hammer fell,“…the entire audience rose and burst into applause.” 

The Biddle sale was one of a number of game-changing moments in the post-war market for Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting. Unprecedentedly high prices at a string of black-tie auctions in London, New York and Paris seemed to confirm the promise of a post-war affluence in which everyone would share. Nascent art investment schemes also began to appear at that time. Art follows the money and money follows the art. x

The applause in 1957 was a genuine response to the new theatre of conspicuous consumption which is now in overdrive. Where else can you watch the world’s wealthiest people gambling vast sums of money, in public, in a glacially slow and pin-dropping transaction lasting anything from two to twenty-five minutes in duration and where each single bidding increment is a million or multiples thereof? 

Just about everyone knew beforehand that the Salvator Mundi would sell on the night. Christie’s had already broadcast that the picture had been “guaranteed” for $100 million prior to the sale. In other words, whatever happened in the room, the picture could not fail to sell because someone had privately already offered that price. 

The possibility of a very high-profile work of art remaining unsold on the night has been almost entirely massaged out of the economics of blue-chip art auctions. This is the single most significant contribution to the art market by the world of finance. Downside risk has been shifted from the auction side and a confidential financial structure erected that will disproportionately benefit those party to the transaction while seeming to preserve an element of the theatrical unpredictability of the auction process itself. 

Imagine if the Salvator Mundi had been offered within an auction system that had not hitched itself so irrevocably to the wagon of Wall Street, where no secret arrangements had been made between auction house employees and prospective buyers prior to the sale. The outcome would thus be left to the vagaries of the market productively allied to the raking light of scholarly opinion. Those circumstances — which prevailed until not so very long ago — tended to result in a twitchy equilibrium between connoisseurial judgement and business instinct. Today, the former has all but disappeared. If the Salvator Mundi confirms anything, it is the marginalisation and downgrading of connoisseurship and critical discernment within the big auction houses. The sale is all that matters.

Someone, somewhere was persuaded by Christie’s that the Salvator Mundi was worth half a billion dollars. That’s not a triumph of art, but of the art of persuasion. That’s who they were cheering in New York last week. Folks, lets hear it for… The Persuaders.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fake Art is not Fake News

Pierre-Auguste Renoir,
Two Sisters (On the Terrace) 1881
Few of us were surprised to hear from Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien that Donald Trump is the owner of a fake Renoir, which hangs on a wall of his private jet. Unsurprisingly, when told it was a fake and that the original (left) is in the Art Institute of Chicago, Trump insisted that his own version was the original. 

Fake Renoir? Fake News!

Go ahead, laugh. It’s a familiar Trump pattern. He is, after all, an illiterate, uneducated philistine who never reads, is culturally lobotomised and, according to some experts, suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. But when it comes to high-level art collecting, Trump is not the only one to have been taken in. (Did he pay an authentic Renoir price for it for it, one wonders).  

Over the past five years, the art world has witnessed a veritable deluge of art forgeries and it is invariably high-level collectors who are hit the hardest. After all, what’s the point of a forger faking works by an unrecognised artist? 

Hollywood actor and musician Steve Martin was taken in by a work purporting to be by the renowned German Expressionist painter Heinrich Campendonk but which had in fact been painted by a German crook named Wolfgang Beltracchi. Nicholas Taubman, former US ambassador to Romania, fell foul to the tune of $4.3 million over an abstract work posing as a canvas by the Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still, which in reality had been painted by a Chinese guy in a garage in Queens. This latter case is just the tip of an iceberg that has already sunk Knoedler, one of New York’s oldest and once venerable galleries, which managed to shut its doors before the excrement hit the air conditioning system. They settled the multiple cases without any of us knowing exactly how the fiasco came about. Move on everyone, nothing to see here. 

The auction houses are also failing in their duty of care. Take, for example, the case of the eighteenth-century portrait of Major George Maule (right) by the fashionable German-born portrait painter Johann Zoffany that graced the walls of the Villa Fontanelle, a Lake Como property owned by the late fashion designer Gianni Versace. 

Versace bought the picture from a dealer some time in the mid-1990s, unaware of its true authorship or art historical importance. Nor did he know that the picture had been stolen in 1979 from the London residence of Major General Sheffield, a descendant of Major Maule. When the contents of the Versace villa were put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2009, members of the Sheffield family spotted an illustration of the portrait in the London Evening Standard. The picture was withdrawn from the auction and eventually returned to its rightful home.

It is not just high-profile galleries and the more up-market auction houses wiping egg from their faces. 

More recently, Whytes, a Dublin-based mid-level auction house was found to have offered a painting entitled Bringing in the Turf by the Northern Irish modernist William Conor (1884-1968).

Daniel O'Neill, The Prodigal Son
The picture was spotted on Whytes’s website by Robin Thompson, a retired Northern Irish businessman, who immediately recognised it as one of two paintings stolen from his family’s Belfast home in 2008. The other picture (left), by Northern Irish painter Daniel O'Neill (1920-1974) is still missing. (Image courtesy of Robin Thompson and Art Recovery International.

On contacting Whytes, Mr Thompson was informed that the Conor picture had been sold in 2013 to an American buyer for $30,000. Thanks to negotiations conducted by Venice-based Art Recovery International, the picture was eventually returned to Mr Thompson’s family. 

What all these cases have in common is a failure on the part of galleries, dealers, auction houses and collectors to attach sufficient importance to provenance, to researching the ownership history of the works they're buying or selling.  

Provenance may be one of the most frequently heard but least understood words in the international art market and yet its implications are profound at almost every level. Most dealers and auction houses are aware of the term, but do they fully comprehend its implications and grant it the attention it deserves? 

Consider the countless wealthy new collectors entering the global market, energised by the constant stream of media reports extolling the benefits of art as an investable asset. How many of these new participants are aware of the repercussions that await them after purchasing an object with little or no knowledge of where it came from or who previously owned it? 

How many of us would buy a car without inspecting its log-book? Would we employ someone without seeing their CV? In either instance, failing to do so could result in a nasty shock further downstream, which is why most of us are hard-wired to conduct a minimal amount of due diligence in our business affairs. It therefore seems reasonable to ask why many participants in the art market are so negligent when it comes to asking important questions about an object’s provenance, its past ownership?

The term provenance derives from the French word provenir, ‘to come from’. It is thus intimately connected to a natural human curiosity about the origin of people and things. And yet when it comes to works of art, many art market participants, whether buyers or sellers, seem only too willing to turn a blind eye to an object’s past. A painting may look beautiful on your wall, but matters can get ugly when its past history comes back to haunt you. This may happen when you eventually come to sell it, only to discover that it was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, or when you stumble across a newspaper report that reveals it as previously stolen from a private home. Think of it as the art world equivalent of an IED.

It is perhaps inevitable that cases of this kind will occur in an informal marketplace defined by the uniqueness of the goods being traded and the market’s relative lack of oversight. Nevertheless, the question still needs to be asked: could market participants be more rigorous in conducting provenance research? 

A few weeks ago, an international conference was convened at London’s National Gallery to ponder the current state of affairs regarding the identification of so-called Holocaust assets. The purpose of the meeting was to assess what progress if any has been made in researching the provenance of European and North American museum collections since the so-called Washington Principles on Holocaust Assets were agreed in 1998. 

So profound was the extent of the Nazi looting of Jewish families from 1933-1945, it is safe to say that this process will be ongoing for many years. At least the international museum community is no longer in any doubt as to the critical importance of conducting provenance research on its collections. The digitisation of museum collections and their transparent and accessible publication online are key to this process, but so too is a shared sense of moral and ethical responsibility. The broader art market has lessons to learn from this. 

Provenance research can be time-consuming and somewhat laborious, but affordable, workable solutions are available to auction houses, dealers and collectors for works of significant value. Merely checking a object against a database of stolen art is NOT provenance research as many dealers and auction houses assume; it is the lowest level of due diligence and woefully insufficient in terms of establishing an object’s credentials. As the recent instances mentioned above make clear, ignoring an object’s provenance, or simply turning a blind eye to it, can result in acute embarrassment, damage to professional reputation and, in some cases, significant financial loss.

No doubt Donald Trump is now seeking the person who sold him that fake Renoir. Whoever it was, it's a fair bet they'll be fired. 

Tom Flynn, Flynn & Giovani, Art Provenance Research