Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Authenticity of Aboriginal paintings called into question

Some doubt seems to have been cast on the authenticity of certain paintings purporting to be by Australian Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas and David Mowaljarlai, due to be auctioned today by Sydney auction house Lawson-Menzies (left.

The full story can be read on the website of The Australian broadsheet here.

If the paintings are not authentic, which is what is being alleged by certain parties close to the two or three artists concerned, then this is a disappointing development in the market for Aboriginal art, which has been enjoying unprecedented buoyancy in recent months. See my earlier notes on this here.

But if what is being claimed is true, that the paintings are indeed fakes, then one can only gasp at the stupidity of the person who fabricated them. The pictorial codes of Aboriginal art are so complex, the stories they represent so deeply personal, and the iconography laminated so tightly into tradition and cosmology that only the most short-sighted and cynical opportunist would attempt to fake examples of it. Moreover, as the market profile of indigenous art rises, should not the real experts from among the Aboriginal community be consulted to authenticate the more significant examples, particularly where there is doubt over provenance?

I see from The Australian's report that the pictures come from a single well-known source of consignments to Lawson-Menzies sales, reportedly a source that Sotheby's refuses to deal with. Would that Sotheby's took the same care over vetting vendors who consign to its antiquities sales.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Is this the ghost of Diana Brooks?

Yesterday's Guardian report on the disastrous results at Sotheby's recent Impressionist and Modern auction included an image (left) of a vaguely familiar, pink-suited, blonde-helmeted woman conducting the auction.

Could this, by chance, be disgraced former Sotheby's CEO Diana 'DeDe' Brooks, sentenced in May 2002 to six months house arrest, a $350,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service for her part in the Sotheby's/Christie's price-fixing scandal? Surely she's not back on the rostrum? Could this explain why Sotheby's share price has just taken such a hammering?

Er, no. Sotheby's high-end Impressionist and Modern sales are now invariably conducted by the flamboyant Tobias Meyer whose magical gavel clearly failed to work its usual magic at the recent New York auction.

So why is the Guardian using an old archive photo signifying one of the darkest episodes in Sotheby's history and which led to a plummeting share-price?

A different kind of risk

Asked by me in an interview for The Art Newspaper in 2003 whether Sotheby's were over-exposing themselves by taking up vendor guarantees (or 'principal positions'), Sotheby's Chief Executive Bill Ruprecht (left) said:

"You take a different kind of risk when you take a principal position and I expect to be rewarded for that."

It seems those rewards were thin on the ground at Sotheby's recent New York Impressionist and Modern sales. A few days ago, while trying to shore up the company's sliding share price, Ruprecht revealed that the principal positions his company took at the Imp and Mod sale resulted in a $14.6 million pre-tax loss (more on that here).

In the same series of interviews conducted for The Art Newspaper, Christie's CEO Ed Dolman (right) told me, "Guarantees are absolutely here to stay. There's no question about that, unless there's legislation against them, but I can't see that could ever happen."

I wonder whether today Dolman has the same confidence in the art market's ability to resist external regulation as he had four years ago just prior to the great art-rush. Recent revelations would suggest that it's only a matter of time before the Securities and Exchange Commission, or whatever agency monitors ethical behaviour in today's financial markets, steps in. After all, art has now become little more than a crudely tradeable asset class and perhaps ought to be regulated accordingly.

With Sotheby's and Christie's clipping the tickets in and out, swinging from the chandeliers, and offering kick-backs to dealers for early paddle-waving, surely it's only a matter of time before high-end fine art auctions are exposed for what they are — an elaborate form of insider-trading.