Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now you see it, now you don't... 'Caravaggio' copy may be still missing

First it was reported stolen; then it was reported to have been recovered. Then it was suggested that it had not been recovered but was still missing. And then a nasty murder seems to have crept into the usual toxic brew of museum-break-ins, rumour, counter-rumour and underworld goings-on. Meanwhile, the painting at the centre of it all is not even the real thing, but a version of the original work by Caravaggio.

Back in August, I reported here that the painting known as The Taking of Christ, or The Kiss of Judas, stolen in July from a museum in Odessa, was not, as widely reported at the time of the theft, an authentic autograph work by Caravaggio, but a copy, albeit a very fine copy, of the original work by the artist now in the National Gallery in Dublin.

A couple of days ago it was reported that the version stolen in Odessa had finally been recovered. Had this been the case, the cycle from theft to recovery would have been considerably more contracted than tends to be the case with most thefts of major masterpieces, which can take years to resurface, if at all. But then it was suggested that the picture recovered in Ukraine was not the one stolen in July. The Caravaggio copy was still missing.

One can't help wondering whether the thieves - having undertaken the low level research required to establish that they were indeed in possession of the real thing - discovered that the authentic work was in Dublin and that theirs was a copy.

Clearly the Odessa version has value, having been executed to a high standard and perhaps even roughly contemporaneous with the autograph work. But it is not the real enchilada, as most serious Caravaggio scholars established decades ago, and as I made clear in my earlier piece, which drew on some first-rate scholarship published many years ago in The Burlington Magazine (relevant articles cited here).

Nevertheless, the case raises intriguing questions about relative values on the illicit market. It was also interesting and amusing to note that earlier authoritative reports notwithstanding, most news wires seem to have insisted on reporting the recent alleged recovery as if the Odessa picture was Caravaggio's original.

Art Daily reported the recovery here; the French language APA agency reported it here; and a Russian language online news journal covered it here together with a suggestion that the Odessa work was still missing.

Will the Caravaggio copy please stand up!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Romuald Hazoumé makes a difference

The extraordinary multi-media installation – La Bouche du Roi (1997-2005) by Benin-born sculptor Romuald Hazoumé (left) went on display last night at the marvellous Horniman Museum in south east London. This is the penultimate venue on the work’s UK tour before it takes up permanent residence in the British Museum, which recently acquired it for its permanent collection (with help from The Art Fund). Hazoumé is represented by London’s October Gallery. There is no equivalent term in the art world for what in music is known as ‘world music’, but whatever you call it, The October Gallery is its spiritual home and centre of operations.

La Bouche du Roi (Mouth of the King) is a symbolic representation of an Atlantic slave ship that for three hundred years transported slaves from Africa to North America and Europe. The work employs the plastic petrol cans (right) that have long been a prominent feature of Hazoumé’s work. Like Picasso, who with the subtlest manipulation transformed a bicycle saddle and handlebars into a bull’s head, so Hazoumé shows us the petrol can as African mask.

This is the great power of so many Nigerian contemporary artists – their ability to identify pure sculptural form in the most humble and neglected objects and materials. El Anatsui has done it with tin bottle tops; Nnenna Okore is doing it with newspaper, string and burlap; Hazoumé does it with petrol cans. It's tempting to see this as part of the legacy of European modernism and its discovery of the objet trouvé or ‘readymade’ – Picasso and Duchamp being the obvious grand masters. But of course they in turn took their lead from ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ objects. So the true source of the river was, and remains, Africa.

But Hazoumé is not interested in settling old historical scores or exacting revenge on Africa’s former colonial looters and tormentors. He is more concerned with what Africa can do today to address what he sees as modern forms of slavery. Hazoumé’s slave ship is not the stinking hulk that plied the waters off West Africa in 1700, but the edifice of economic exploitation that every day forces thousands of African men and women to risk their lives transporting black market petrol from Benin to Nigeria for a pittance. What makes La Bouche du Roi so important is its contemporary resonance, the way it draws attention to the immiseration and impoverishment visited upon countless millions of Africans by bankers and vulture capitalists.

The floor-based arrangement of La Bouche du Roi (aerial view shown left) comprises 304 black plastic petrol can ‘masks’ (which have assumed the colour and patina of bronze) stacked in serried overlapping rows to evoke the cramped conditions on board a slave ship. The masks are juxtaposed with sheaves of tobacco, spices, old gin bottles and a musket to represent the goods traded for slaves. These historical references provide the critical underpinning for the installation’s main contemporary theme, revealed in a short accompanying video documenting the petrol-couriers of modern-day Benin.

Shown in subdued lighting and with various ripe smells piped into the gallery to lend an evocative ambience, the installation is further animated by a background soundtrack of cacophonous voices speaking the Benin languages of Yoruba, Idaacha, Mahi, Mina and Holli to signify the slaves on board ship.

When I met Hazoumé at the Horniman yesterday he spoke passionately about the meaning and purpose of the work. “La Bouche du Roi is about what is happening now. Slavery continues today but in different forms. Now it is run by the bankers who oppress the weak people in the pursuit of profit, profit, profit.”

I asked him how he felt about the installation being shown at the Horniman Museum, and indeed owned by the British Museum, both institutions which, controversially, continue to hold important collections of the royal brasses looted from Benin by the British in the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 (right).

“I have no problem with that!” he exclaims. “It is better that they are in the British Museum right now. If they were sent back to Benin they would be immediately sold to the Japanese and copies would be put in the Benin museum in their place. In Benin they need the money, you see, to buy votes. There is still too much corruption.” I ask if this is a view shared by many of his compatriots. “Of course! Everyone believes this!”

Well, not quite everyone. Barely a day goes by without another polemical essay appearing on the internet condemning the British Museum’s retention of the Benin brasses and calling for their return. Athens may now be in a position to look after the Parthenon Marbles more effectively and responsibly than the British Museum has ever done, but is Benin yet ready to take back and look after its own historical treasures? Not according to Romuald Hazoumé.

Although it focuses attention on the plight of many contemporary West Africans, La Bouche du Roi does not wallow in post-colonial angst or self-pity. Instead it comes across as a rallying cry, a call to arms.

At the same time, it provides a welcome critical contrast to the apparent willingness on the part of many bling-addled British contemporary artists to shore up the values of an unethical marketplace and pander to the vapid cult of celebrity.

Personally I’m delighted the British Museum had the vision to purchase La Bouche du Roi. It will look marvellous alongside the Benin bronzes…until Benin is in a position to receive them back.

La Bouche du Roi is at the Horniman Museum, Forest Hill, south east London, until 1st March 2009 and at The Herbert, Coventry from 3rd April to 31st May.

Portrait of Romuald Hazoume courtesy October Gallery. Photo credit: Erick-Christian Ahounou

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

M.F.Husain's works "have survived" Taj Hotel siege

Contrary to the widely circulated news report covered by Express India and numerous other Asian media outlets (including, surprisingly enough, Taj Hotel owners, Tata Group, which reported it here), the three large paintings by Indian modernist M.F.Husain which have hung in the hotel's lobby since 2000, may not have been destroyed after all.

This morning I spoke with a leading Mumbai-based art consultant (indeed a member of the original team that catalogued the Taj collection in 2003) who confirmed off the record that the Husain works in question did survive last week's terrorist attack.

Requesting anonymity, he said it was too early to assess the precise extent of the damage to other works in the collection but given the circumstances of the siege some damage was "inevitable".

The news that his lobby paintings have emerged unscathed will doubtless be welcomed by 93 year-old M.F.Husain who, according to the same reports cited above, was preparing to paint a fresh series to replace those "destroyed" in the attack.

More on this over the next few days.

Mumbai terror attacks take their toll on Taj Hotel art collection

It might seem perverse to be monitoring the plight of works of art as a result of a terrorist attack but all too often the collateral cultural damage gets overlooked on these occasions. This was certainly the case with the nasty little war between Georgia and Russia earlier this year (the cultural heritage implications of which I reported here).

Meanwhile, as those two countries still squabble about who was responsible for the damage to their ancient sites and monuments, attention turns to the carnage in Mumbai.

One of the worst hit locations during last week's terrorist attacks was the Taj Hotel (lobby shown above left), an internationally acclaimed cultural icon and a symbol of India's thrusting new economy. Less well-known is that the Taj, owned by the Tata Group, has a vast collection of historical and contemporary works of art, an unknown number of which were damaged in the recent carnage.

Perhaps the most significant reported art casualty was a series of three paintings by Maqbul Fida Husain (born 1915), the grandfather of Indian modernism, whose auction record (for Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, right) currently stands at $1.6m (Christie's NY, March 2008).

In 2000, Husain was commissioned by Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata (whose family are major art patrons) to make a work for the Taj Hotel. Husain took up temporary residence in the Taj for several months, painting three large works for the hotel lobby. A widely syndicated report (here) suggested that those paintings were destroyed in last week's 59-hour siege.

The plight of other works by important Indian artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon (born 1940), Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), Tyeb Mehta (born 1925), Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Syed Haider Raza (born 1922), and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara (born 1913) is unknown. When I phoned the company this morning a Tata Group spokesman confirmed that the Taj hotel's art collection is currently housed in the 'Palace wing', which is out of bounds until further notice. The company declined to comment on the state of any of the works in the art collection.

M.F.Husain, now 93, (left) has told reporters he will paint new works for the hotel as a tribute to the Tata family and the Taj hotel staff "who laid down their lives for others."

"I have decided to paint a series of paintings condemning the attack," Husain said. "I am sure some day the Taj will regain its glory and I hope to show these paintings there."

Built in 1903, the Taj is home to a collection of 2500 works of art. In 2003, the auction house Bowrings (now defunct) was called in to catalogue and value the collection as part of the hotel's centenary. They unearthed treasures that not even the Taj management was aware of, describing it as one of the "finest collections of contemporary Indian art in existence," and worth millions. They also found evidence that many works in the collection had suffered significant neglect (see New York Times report of 2004 here). A very fine quality work by K.H.Ara, for example, was found to have been damaged by other heavy canvases leaning against it.

Such depredations may fade into irrelevance in the light of last week's terrorist attacks, as M.F.Husain seemed to acknowledge. "The Taj has so many paintings apart from mine," he told reporters. "I shudder to think what has happened to them. The Taj is the only hotel in Mumbai which has given so much importance to modern art."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Art Crime — A timely educational initiative

Is art crime increasing, or has the threat simply been more keenly felt as prices on the art market have risen exponentially in recent years? Can the history of art crime teach us anything about how to secure collections today? Should we see art 'heists' — the theft of masterpieces from major public and private collections — as in any way related to the illicit trade in cultural heritage? Why has the retention and recovery of cultural heritage become such a critical issue to developing nations? Is the trafficking in art and cultural property connected to other forms of trafficking — in people, drugs and arms? To what extent has globalisation exacerbated these problems and what can be done to address them? How can museums secure their collections while safeguarding the principle of open public access that constitutes their raison d'être? Are museums doing enough to honour their moral obligations in researching the provenance of Holocaust-related assets in their collections, and acting properly on the results of that research?

Crimes against art and other forms of material culture have become one of the most pressing social problems in an increasingly globalized world. Understanding the nature of the problem and how to address it requires an awareness of the complex interconnections between the art market, archaeology, museology, cultural identity, art law and art policing.

Now an opportunity has arisen to engage with these issues in a new Masters programme organised by the recently founded Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA).

The first course takes place next summer in the delightful setting of Amelia, a hilltop town in the province of Terni in Umbria, Italy (pictured above left), an hour or so outside Rome. Having been recruited as one of the course lecturers, I have an interest in seeing it succeed. However, personal matters aside, with cultural heritage now such a hot international issue, with art prices still accelerating, and with the interconnections between art theft, the drugs and arms trade and people-trafficking becoming ever more apparent, never has there been a more appropriate moment to launch a serious educational initiative of this kind.

Information about the course is printed below, but further details can be found on the ARCA website here or feel free to email me or the course organisers who will endeavour to respond to any questions.

MA Program in Art Crime Studies
ARCA (The Association for Research into Crimes against Art) is pleased to announce a new Masters Program in the study of art crime and cultural property protection. 

The first Masters Program in International Art Crime Studies, the program will provide in-depth instruction in a wide variety of theoretical and practical elements of art crime: its history, its nature, its impact, and what can be done to curb it. 

Courses are taught by international experts, in the beautiful setting of Umbria, Italy. Topics include art history and the art trade; museums and conservation; art security and policing; criminology and criminal investigation; law and policy; and the study of art theft; antiquities looting; war looting; forgery and deception; vandalism; and cultural heritage protection throughout history and around the world. 

It is the ideal program for art police and security professionals, art lawyers, insurers, curators, members of the art trade, and post-graduate students of criminology, law, security studies, sociology, art history, archaeology, and history.
Format and Schedule
This interdisciplinary program will be taught by twelve visiting lecturers, each lecturing for two-week clusters within their given fields of expertise related to the study of art crime. 

The program includes many more lecture hours than a standard 9-month long MA program (over 300 lecture hours and over 70 seminar hours), but will condense the lectures into three months (with the dissertation in a subsequent three). This format permits students and professionals to undertake the program of study over the course of one summer, either during a hiatus from work or between other academic programs.

Faculty and Courses

Art History
Professors David Simon and Veronique Plesch, Colby College

Conservation, Connoisseurship, & Museums
Dr Patricia Garland, Senior Conservator, Yale Art Gallery

Professor Matjaz Jager, Director of the Institute of Criminology at the Law Faculty, University of Ljubljana

Introduction to the Art World
Dr Tom Flynn, Art Historian and Writer

Archaeology & Antiquities: Crime, Trade, & Protection
Dr Derek Fincham, Loyola University

Art Crime & Its History
Noah Charney, Art Historian, Art Writer, and Director of ARCA

Criminalistics: Organized Crime & Art Investigation
Professor Bojan Dobovsek, University of Maribor, Faculty of Criminal Justice

Art Policing & Investigation
Richard Ellis, Security Advisor and Former Director, Scotland Yard Arts and
Antiques Unit

Organization of Art Crime: Villains in Art and Artful Villains
Professor Petrus van Duyne, Faculty of Criminology, University of Tilburg

International Comparative Art Law, Policy, & Policing
James William Hess, Esq.

Forgery & Deception in the Art World
Professor Travis McDade, Library Administration, University of Illinois College of Law

Art Protection: Museums, Security, and Handling
Anthony Amore, Director of Security, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The first program will be held 25 May 2009-31 Aug 2009 in the city of Amelia, Italy, about one hour outside of Rome.  No more than thirty students will be accepted.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The contemporary art market – mad as a rubber crutch

Getting a press pass to Frieze Art Fair is like trying to book afternoon tea with Osama Bin Laden. I got in by digging a tunnel in the childrens’ playground at the far end of Regent’s Park and emerged beneath one of the tables in the fair’s restaurant, Le Caprice, where the toffs were shovelling down the lobster and fizz.

There’s little point in asking the dealers whether they’re doing any business at Frieze; at any rate not the New York or London dealers. Most of them looked crazed and paranoid as if a 747 was about to crash through the roof. The meltdown in the financial markets has already worked its way through to the art market, which traditionally takes at least a year to feel the reverberations. This is because unlike previous bull markets in this sector, this one has been driven by the same locusts who brought Armageddon to the banking system.

But the correction has now begun. The fact that this year the Frieze organizers, determined to protect their investment, broke with protocol and issued a lengthy post-fair press release full of gushing encomiums from the participating galleries indicates that the slide is on.

“This market downturn will be a good thing,” one leading London art insurance broker told me this week. “It will mean a return to quality, criticism, and excellence and hopefully goodbye to all the flaky speculators.” He cited the case of Richard Prince, whose work vaulted in price from £300,000-£400,000 to £3-4 million in twelve months, a market leap with no rational explanation. Meanwhile, one of the thrusting young provincial UK auctioneers currently riding the wave of the over-hyped ‘Urban Art’ movement, told me, “Art criticism is dead. We don’t need the critics any more. The auction market is now the most reliable arbiter of an artist’s quality.”

He must be wearing glasses made from mud. Or perhaps the cardboard pair given to me by a representative of German group Perplessi while I was wandering round Frieze (which I model here (right). Most of the art looked better while I was wearing them, probably because I couldn’t see a thing with them on.

A few minutes later, the charming Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Bangalore-based Galleryske, handed me a small rubber crutch (shown above left), which I will treasure forever. This little artefact seemed symbolic of the whole contemporary art market and almost as significant as the unholy mess being created on the booth of crazy Buenos Aires gallery Appetite. Here, artist Diego de Aduriz was keeping busy rearranging mountains of detritus – consumer trash, cardboard, string, plastic bottles, foam, paint, etc.

When he got bored with that, Diego wrestled with his associates using shaving foam (left), which seemed eminently sensible.

“These days have been exciting and intense,” Appetite gallerist Daniela Luna told me afterwards. “People’s response was awesome. I think almost impossible to forget for anybody who presenced many of the performances [sic]. It had amazing moments, some sublime, some even dangerous or violent...”

I did presence the performance. Diego offered a refreshing contrast to the repressed profile of the average Frieze art dealer.

After three hours of aimless wandering from booth to booth like a catatonic flâneur, I was beginning to feel the need for something more supportive than a rubber crutch. At that point a woman handed me a type-written sheet before dissolving back into the crowd. It read:

“I know I said I wasn’t going to come to London but how could I not reach out to you now that we find ourselves in such a crisis. I can imagine what you are thinking, that this hysteria has nothing to do with you, that, again, American arrogance poisons the planet, that this trauma hurts brokers and politicians but not those of us who have to work for our money and have far too little of it to lose. But you’re wrong; this kind of mess can’t be so neatly explained. I’m sure you are suffering. Things are spiralling so far down that I fear you are collapsing under the weight of the news. Where are you my love? Why won’t you send me some word?”

OK. If you’re out there, here I am. Come and get me!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lipstick and a pig: Sarah Maple makes her mark

We hear a lot these days about how the more fundamentalist strains of Islam are allegedly curtailing the basic rights of people in western democracies by resorting to various forms of cultural intimidation. If you’d seen The Daily Telegraph earlier last week you’d have encountered what at first sight seemed like yet another example of this.

The Telegraph’s Mandrake diarist reported on a new exhibition of paintings by young British woman artist, Sarah Maple on show at Samir Ceric’s new SaLon Gallery in Westbourne Grove, West London. According to the Telegraph, one painting in particular – the self-portrait entitled Haram (shown above left) – has incurred the wrath of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).

The oil on canvas shows Maple, herself a young British Muslim, wearing traditional Islamic dress and cradling a pig. According to The Daily Telegraph report, Mokhtar Badri, a spokesman for MAB, objected to the work on the grounds that Muslims are “taught to keep their distance from pigs because they are unclean”. The Telegraph item reported that MAB “plans to visit the SaLon Gallery to demand that it remove Maple’s painting” when the exhibition opens on October 16. Accordingly, SaLon Gallery had been preparing to increase its security provision ahead of yesterday evening’s opening.

Perhaps understandably, the Telegraph story was picked up by one or two blogs and other media outlets. James Brandon at something called The Centre for Social Cohesion posted an item to Europe News which repeated the Telegraph’s claim that that “members of MAB planned to visited the SaLon gallery and demand that the painting by Sarah Maple is withdrawn from the exhibition.”

But when I contacted Dr Badri by phone this week he confirmed that neither he nor his organization had ever planned or threatened any such action. Dr Badri had still not seen the painting when I called him. He did, however, say that he would be interested to see and support the work of a young Muslim woman artist but would only visit the show if the pig painting were not on view since Muslims consider pigs to be unclean. He emailed me a lengthy and detailed statement which he had forwarded to the Daily Telegraph and which gave a different impression to what the Telegraph piece communicated. He was angry at having been misrepresented.

Was this a media attempt to incite ethnic division where no real controversy existed? And shouldn’t a body calling itself The Centre for Social Cohesion have attempted to approach MAB for its side of the story?

Sussex-based Maple, 23, makes work based on her own experience of Islam and if MAB had indeed been willing to visit SaLon Gallery to support the artist she would probably have had to remove the bulk of the work in the exhibition. But that’s not the sole focus of her work. She also likes to poke fun at popular attitudes towards conceptual art and at the stupidity of the art market.

Sensationalist news reports notwithstanding, at last night’s opening Ms Maple was clearly enjoying the publicity that the furore over Haram had generated. She’s been described as the next Tracey Emin or Sarah Lucas (two of her role models) and meeting her one can see she’s got art-star destiny written all over her.

Last night, dressed in a short strapless dress covered in lipstick kisses, her hair piled up in an unruly Winehouse bird's nest (left), Sarah told me she was trying to provoke debate about women in Islam but was not trying to insult fellow Muslims. “It's difficult though; we live in scary times,” she was recently quoted as saying. “I really do not want to offend. Why would I want to offend my own religion? I get great responses on MySpace from western Muslims from all over the world who are really positive and happy to have found someone like them!”

I asked her if she slept easily at night or lay awake worrying about the reaction her work might cause. She insisted that the only thing keeping her awake was the continuous swarm of work-related ideas buzzing around her head. And doubtless the prospect of fame and fortune as the new enfant terrible of British contemporary art.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

London art dealer slams The Art Newspaper for “gutter press” journalism

“If the art market goes down, nobody’s going to be buying your rag,” London modern and contemporary art dealer Ivor Braka told The Art Newspaper’s Editor-at-Large Anna Somers Cocks in what appeared to be an impromptu video interview outside Sotheby’s in Bond Street just before the Hirst auction (view the video here).

Mr Braka was openly criticizing The Art Newspaper for its earlier report that Damien Hirst’s former London dealer White Cube was sitting on a significant freight of unsold Hirst works.

The report was not factually correct, claimed Mr Braka. “It was an inaccurate article and to deliberately sabotage an artist’s sale at this point, and particularly Damien’s, is beneath contempt.” In a rather lame defence of the article, Ms Somers Cocks responded with, “Well, we, erm, believe that article to have been based on fact." Clearly this was not good enough. Either it was fact or it was not. 'Based on fact' is not a justification for publishing something so potentially controversial.

Braka went on to claim that Hirst deserved more respect than The Art Newspaper had afforded him since he had done a great deal for other artists. “He has done more for British art in the last decade than anyone else,” said Braka, without a scintilla of irony.

But most worrying, not for The Art Newspaper, but for the culture of art publishing, was Braka’s sinister prediction that The Art Newspaper itself would suffer if it dared talk the market down. “It could be extremely damaging for The Art Newspaper,” Braka warned Somers Cocks. “It stands to lose a lot of revenue, in terms of advertising. Also, if this impacts the market of Damien, which it could do, because financial people read your paper and perhaps take more notice of it than perhaps they should, then that is particularly bad because nobody is going to buy your paper. If the art market goes down, who cares, nobody is going to be buying your rag.”

Listening to this, you could mistake Braka for a member of the Gambino crime family. But of course the art trade is a mafia of sorts and here was the firmest confirmation to date of the extent to which the art press is institutionally enslaved to the market. If it dares bite the hand that feeds it the consequences will be made all too clear.

In the event, it seems the “financial people” to which Braka referred either failed to read the offending article or read it and didn’t care, or read it and didn’t believe it. Either way, the Bond Street encounter was perhaps most notable for revealing how nervous art market insiders like Braka had become prior to the Hirst sale. Lehman Brothers bank had just nose-dived to oblivion and many believed that if the Hirst sale tanked the whole party might finally be over.

But just as speculators screwed the global financial markets, leading to the meltdown we’re all suffering, so speculators are still busy screwing the art market. Don’t blame the art press. Blame the hedge fund managers and other freeloaders who have sent art prices into another unsustainable dimension bearing no relation to reality. In The Art Newspaper video Ivor Braka looked positively demented. How will he look when the market finally comes tumbling down?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Snakes on a plane: Damien Hirst takes off

There’s a scene in the cult movie Snakes on a Plane when Samuel L. Jackson declares, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

That pretty well summarises how I feel about Damien Hirst taking over the art market.

For a while earlier this week it seemed as though the entire global art market was holding its breath to see whether Hirst’s decision to cut out his dealers by consigning 200 lots of new work to Sotheby’s would effect a historic realignment of the tectonic plates underpinning the global art trade. Spectators were broadly divided between those privately hoping the sale would fall flat on its face, thereby ushering in a long-overdue correction in art prices, and those desperately hoping it would keep the party going and not blow a hole in all the overpriced stuff they’d already invested in.

Both positions were in some measure vindicated. Nobody can say for sure what really happened on Monday and Tuesday for there is no transparency clause in the Faustian contract between Sotheby’s and Hirst – two of the art world’s most shrewd and ruthless operators.

But broadly the experiment seemed to succeed. Certainly the consistent demand over the two days once again underscored the art market’s bizarre resistance to global economic storms. Some of the world’s biggest banks and insurance companies are filing for bankruptcy, global money markets are close to meltdown, homes are being repossessed in their thousands, and yet the art market continues to rise ever higher into the nanosphere like a rogue hot-air balloon powered by private capital.

The result of the Hirst sale will have delighted those who want the good times to keep on rolling. But every time the global art index enjoys yet another significant boost as it did in London on Monday evening, so there will be that much more pain when the downturn finally comes, and come it will.

The most incomprehensible thing about the Hirst phenomenon is how few discerning commentators are prepared to stand up and say what they really think – that most of this stuff is wretched tat. But such is the relentless power of the media and the clout of capital that a false consensus prevails. If you were to place what one might call, for want of a better term, “real art”, side by side with Hirst’s factory output, then aesthetic comparison becomes unthinkable.

Last week I enjoyed a tour of the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition in the erudite and entertaining company of the show’s curator Thorsten Oppen. It was one of the most enthralling exhibitions I have ever seen and I emerged enlightened and enriched into the rainy gloom of Bloomsbury.

From there I scootered across town to view the Hirst show at Sotheby’s. To describe this short journey as a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous would be the understatement of the year. As I entered one of the numerous galleries chock-full of formaldehyde vitrines and mass-produced spin and spot paintings, I overheard a plummy art lecturer addressing a gaggle of expensively-dressed ‘ladies who lunch’ as they circled one of the sale’s expected highlights – The Golden Calf (illustrated above left).

“Notice, as you move around the tank, the magnificent, hanging scrotum of the Charolais bull,” gushed the guide. “In my quieter moments I like to treasure the thrilling image of this frisky beast advancing purposefully on the ladies of the group.” He then gestured to a butterfly painting hanging nearby. “And this majestic piece surely belongs in the cupola of a baroque church in Rome.” Turning to one of the glamorous women in his party, he murmured lasciviously, “Imagine, Celia, this masterpiece hanging on the ceiling above the marital bed! What a thing to gaze upon on those evenings when the VCR has failed!”

Society dames lap up such Etonian double-entendres. But who was their breathless cicerone? Well, no names, no pack drill, but suffice to ponder how one can simultaneously hold down, among other roles, freelance Hirst cheerleader, art market journalist for the world’s leading art newspaper, and adviser on contemporary art investments for the world’s leading art investment fund. It is as revealing a symbol of the serpentine, compromised nature of the modern art market as one is likely to find.

Cue Samuel L. Jackson…

Golden Calf image courtesy Sotheby's

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fog of war obscures state of cultural heritage sites in Georgia

The recent hostilities in Georgia have again focused attention on the impact of armed conflict on the region's ancient sites and monuments.

One of the oldest countries of the South Caucasus region, Georgia is particularly rich in cultural heritage, containing countless archaeological sites and medieval and later buildings of great historical significance. The country has three sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List and a further fifteen on the Tentative List for possible inclusion.

In 1991, following the fall of communism, Georgia became an independent nation. However, like many of its neighbours it has struggled with the transition from a relatively impoverished Soviet satellite state to a full-blown market economy.

The conflict of the early 1990s in the Russian-backed separatist republic of Abkhazia in north western Georgia brought widespread looting and damage to the region's cultural heritage. As a result, the website of ICOMOS, (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), has stated that "the entire cultural heritage of Georgia is endangered."

Maka Dvalishvili, director of the Georgian Arts and Cultural Centre (GACC) in Tbilisi, and Fulbright Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, told me it is too early to make an accurate assessment of the impact of the recent war on the region's cultural sites. "At the moment, there is no way to get to the key areas to assess the damage. It is not even safe for local residents. There is a real risk of unexploded mines and the armed forces say it will be two weeks before the territory is safe enough to enter."

A monitoring group from the Georgian Ministry of Culture in Tbilisi is standing by, ready to go in.

Nato Tsintsabadze, an architect and advisor on cultural heritage matters to ICOMOS and the Georgian Ministry of Culture, told me, "A plan is being prepared for monitoring and emergency response to war-damaged cultural heritage in the country which will take place after (and if) the European peace-keepers enter in the occupied territories. There are some efforts to gather information through interviewing displaced people from central Georgia."

Meanwhile, the draft of a preliminary report prepared by ICOMOS Georgia for Mr. Dinu Bumbaru, Secretary General of ICOMOS, states that, "On 7 August, ICOMOS Georgia professionals were at the village Ateni (near the town Gori) working on the 6th-century Ateni Sioni Church when shelling of the village had started. Fortunately, all the team had managed to leave the village together with other civilians without losses. Regretfully, there are casualties among our colleagues and their families working in the field of heritage preservation of Georgia."

There are around 345 registered historical monuments and archaeological sites within the main conflict zones (Gori District, Java District, Akhalgori District, Kareli District), 53 of which are in the city of Gori itself. These include the cave city of Uplistsikhe (dating from the 1st millennium BC up to the late Middle Ages); the Church of Ateni Sioni (7th century architecture, 11th century murals), and Ikorta Church (12th century).

The ICOMOS draft reports states that, "We are especially concerned with news of rockets being fired into the Uphlistsikhe rock-cut city (5th-century BC-7th century), a site on the World Heritage Tentative List, but since the site is not accessible we don’t have information about the scale of damage. The horrifying news of looting of the 11th-century Samtavisi Cathedral [shown above left in eastern Georgia some 45km from Tbilisi and another candidate for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List] shocked us. But again details are not known."

The Georgian city of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin (and home of the Stalin Museum right), 47 miles from the capital Tbilisi, is also home to the medieval citadel of Goris-Tsikhe, which dates back to the pre-Christian era. Gori suffered severe Russian airstrikes during the recent conflict with numerous human casualties and many residential and public buildings reduced to rubble.

Lying within 3-5km of Gori are monuments of inestimable archaeological importance, says Maka Dvalishvili. "These are really wonderful sites from antiquity, but although the bombs fell nearby, the reports we've received from local museum directors suggest that no major damage was done. Again, it is too early to be sure."

The ICOMOS report says, "It is difficult to count sites at risk beyond the war zone, since the missile attacks were going on entire territory of Georgia (sic) and it is still ongoing in western Georgia, though with less intensity."

Another village to suffer heavy fighting was the village of Nikozi, some 20 km (12 miles) outside the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Maka Dvalishvili says, "The village contains the 10th century Church of the Archangel, a 5th/6th century Domed Church, a 16th/17th century Bell Tower, the 10th/11th century Archbishop’s Palace, and walls and other structures dating from the Middle Ages. The final state of the architectural ensemble is uncertain".

Reports say that after evacuating the archbishop from Nikozi the Russians fire-bombed his palace. One unconfirmed eye-witness report from the village of Nikozi stated: "There is the Nikozi diocesan church in our village. Yesterday, when I came there, I found the bishop Isaia and his congregation praying. The shelling started just at that moment. The monastery was also bombed. The Bishop had to take his congregation out of there. We passed several villages on foot. The Bishop contacted the priest Andria, who came for us with a minibus from Gori. Only the bishop Isaia and the priest Antoni [were] left behind, saying 'We cannot leave now' and they went back under fire and this disaster. They are there even today. We left. I could imagine anything, but shelling the Orthodox Church." (source: www.ireport.com)

The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has issued a 'Watch List' of "Georgian museums in uncertain conditions situated in regions occupied by the Russian Army." The list includes the Joseph Stalin State Museum in Gori, the Sergi Makalatia Gori Historical & Ethnographical Museum, five further museums in and around Gori, and two museums in South Ossetia.

Thea Paichadze, Head of the Division of Museums and Moveable Monuments at the Cultural Heritage Department of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, says that reliable information remains hard to get.

"There are several museums in the conflict region Shida Kartli (particularly in Samachablo (so called by Russians 'South Ossetia'). We don’t know anything about three of them: Ivane Machabeli House Museum (in the village of Tamarasheni, near Cxinvali [Tskhinvali], capital of Samachablo [South Ossetia]), Didi Liakhvi Gorge Museum-Reserve (in the village of Kurta) and Iakob Gogebashvili House Museum in the village of Variani, Gori district, where fire bombs were thrown in the morning of 8th August."

"When the bombing started the population fled and those who left are unreachable. So we don’t know what was happened with these museums. The whole population was evacuated from the villages of Tamarasheni and Qurta, where everything was destroyed and possibly the buildings of the museums as well."

Ms Paichadze says that while Gori’s Stalin Museum management had a little more time for evacuation, they managed to evacuate part of the exhibits. "After being properly documented, they were handed over in my presence for temporary storage to the one of the Tbilisi museums. Yesterday the director went back to Gori, all the windows of the building are broken, but fortunately nothing else is damaged."

In reports reminiscent of the Iraq Museum crisis of April 2003, the situation at the Ksani Gorge Historical–Architectural Museum in Akhalgori is also unclear. "Russian troops entered few days ago," Thea Paichadze told me. "I have very frequent phone conversation with director of museum. Georgian population left the village. His family also, but he is staying alone at the museum and looking over it. He secures it and takes care as he can do (but what he can do?) For several times he could manage to protect museum from Russian soldiers, although he is afraid of how long he can resist them. The exhibits/ artifacts can not be moved out of the building. The biggest part of it is well packed and moved to more safe places of the building, while rooms are sealed. Because of current situation in the museum I immediately informed the deputy minister, which has contacted ministry of internal affairs and asked for support.  At this stage they also can not do anything."
The ethnic nature of Georgian separatist conflicts is a source of further anxiety among cultural heritage professionals, not least for what the future might hold for the ancient sites and monuments. "A real worry — and it's a very serious point," says Maka Dvalishvili, "is that if relations deteriorate further the South Ossetians might cause deliberate damage to ancient Georgian cultural sites in their territory."

Reports by websites and bloggers sympathetic to Russia and the Russian-backed South Ossetians claim that Georgia had razed Tskhinvali to the ground in a way reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad or the invasion of Fallujah by US counter-insurgency forces in November 2004.

"Humanity witnessed a real cultural catastrophe as the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, was completely destroyed in a few days," wrote one contributor to the website The Voice of Russia.

The Voice of Russia website goes on to quote Aleksandr Kibovsky, a historian and the head of the Russian Federal Service for the Preservation of Cultural Values, who said, "The culture of South Ossetia suffered a great loss" [...] "The region of South Ossetia was always remarkable for its unique monuments of history and culture. Now, we can only remember that the residents of now-destroyed Tskhinvali used to have two museums, a theatre, and a library… Apart from this, there were hundreds of unique archaeological and architectural monuments there, some of them going back several centuries, and, now, as a result of the Georgian invasion, everything is lost forever. How cruel and cynical it was to destroy the cultural heritage and memory of a whole nation in a few days!”

The fog of war makes apportioning responsibility for the destruction an onerous task, however. For every claim there is a counter-claim. Reports from international news agencies who visited Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, after the shelling (here for example) state that most of the city remains standing.

More news of the Georgian cultural heritage situation will follow on this blog as the security situation in Georgia and surrounding region improves. Tom Flynn welcomes writing and journalistic assignments. Contact: tom flynn at bt internet dot com.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Disappearance of all Critical Writing on the Art Market

Bankers, hedge fund managers, investment advisers, economists, they’ve all colonised the art market in recent years and now they’re moving into art writing too. You might say the lunatics have not only taken over the asylum, they’ve sacked the staff, built a new wing and appointed a new board of governors.

Having consigned the art critics to the landfill, it seems they’re now gunning for the art historians. Judging by one or two of the more recent high-profile publications, they’re bringing some bizarre theories with them.

US economist David Galenson is poised to publish a new book, The Most Important Works of Art of the Twentieth Century, which ranks the importance of works of art based on the frequency with which they appear in art books. I kid you not. Malraux will be squirming in his crypt.

Should we take these bean-counters seriously? The answer is no. Leave them to what they do best, which is advising rich guys on what to do with their money. If that includes telling the rich guys what art to buy, then fine. If you believe Don Thompson, author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses, most of the rich guys currently buying art at the top of the market don’t see it as art, they see it as a branded commodity.

Thompson’s book is written in a curiously blunt and hurried style, as if he had a train to catch. It’s chock full of contradictions and confused thinking, but I enjoyed it immensely, rattling through it in a couple of days between hosing down the rottweilers.

This may not be required reading, but on the whole it’s not a bad snapshot of the masonic absurdities of the art market in the pre- and post-sub-prime credit-crunch era.

Anyone with more than a passing understanding of the inner machinations of the art market will know that what really takes place behind the scenes of the auction rooms, white cubes, and art fairs would never be divulged to a writer researching a book like this, nor indeed any book come to that. Transparency is a curse on their houses.

The people Thompson approached included former journalists, broadcasters and commentators who now work for dealers or art fairs. Presumably they realised that informed writing and analytical commentary on art and the market was no longer welcome or even vaguely remunerative and so decided to jump on the bandwagon.

That underlying trend – the gradual dismantling of any critical apparatus that might counter the inexorable onward march of the market – is a constant theme of the book. It’s ironic that it took an economist to identify the extent of the institutionalised stupidity governing an economic sector that thrives on a delusional sense of its own intelligence and sophistication.

Has Mr Thompson brought any clarity to the murkier recesses of a notoriously opaque and hermetic sector? Has his outsider status offered any fresh insights? Sadly not. but then he is an economist, not an investigative reporter and so he had to learn on the hoof. All credit to him, though, for bringing in such a lively guide book, which will doubtless be welcomed by the thousands of art history graduates leaving university every year for a career in the art auction rooms, art PR agencies, art publishers, art galleries, and so on.

University art history departments sneer at the market and all its works and so they don’t teach this stuff. That, in my opinion, is a serious failing. As a result, young graduates arrive fresh from university with little or no critical awareness of the world they are entering. In that respect, Mr Thompson’s book goes at least some way towards filling a gap. If read alongside Buck and Greer’s Art Collectors’ Handbook it will at least prepare young graduates for some of the realities of Grub Street.

On the negative side, given his need to get the book out while the shark was still fresh in the tank, so to speak, (the art market moves fast when there’s fresh blood in the water), there are some annoying inconsistencies here.

On page 117 in a chapter about what he calls ‘Branded Auctions’ (everything is branded in Thompsonworld), he says, “The important caveat to every catalogue description…is that it is not a scholarly essay.” On the next page (118), on the subject of auction previews, he writes – “the expertly hung show, combined with the scholarly catalogue…is designed to mimic a museum opening rather than a commercial sale.” Confused? Take it from me, even the grandest auction catalogues are not scholarly.

Later, (p 227) he begins hammering home the cultural irrelevance of the humble art writer: “collectors insist that critics have little influence on the contemporary art world”. But then on page 253 he tells us that new collectors “buy what the art consultant or the auction specialist at Christie’s or the writer at Frieze magazine tells them is hot.” Perhaps he is inferring that the writers at Frieze are employed to pump the market, which is probably true (Frieze magazine is owned by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, who also own the Frieze fair, so that figures). But what does that say about the state of art publishing?

If Thompson’s book succeeds at all it is in providing plenty of convincing evidence that everything, including a previously unaligned media, is now expected to support the market. And yet nobody seems remotely troubled by this. Shut up and keep digging.

While his portraits of the market’s various commercial institutions are concise and enjoyable, (he even had a stab at explaining the infamous auction guarantee system), his analysis lacked any kind of historical context, save for a cursory reference to the real-estate-driven Asian boom that triggered the last great art bubble in the late-1980s.

Like all newcomers, Thompson allowed himself to be hypnotized by the surface charm of the likes of auction ringmasters Tobias Meyer and Jussi Pylkkanen, and was clearly in thrall to the cultish inaccessibility of “superstar” plutocrats like Larry Gagosian. That may be why he failed to deliver anything genuinely fresh. I was hoping he'd go to the economists and Wall Street mandarins, but evidently they are as ignorant as everyone else about the asylum they’ve commandeered.

For all its easy readability, by the end one is left feeling more irritated than enlightened. On page 220, Thomas Hoving is described as “former director of MoMA,” (perhaps Thompson has been reading Richard Feigen), and on page eleven he tells us that Bernard Arnault is the owner of Christie’s. If he'd devoted a chapter to the impact of the internet on the art market in the five years between 1997 and 2000 he'd have known that Arnault and Pinault were locked like rutting stags for control of the big art market prizes at that time.

It’s not only art writers who are an endangered species. Copy-editors seem to be a dying breed too.

Feed them to the sharks!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Caravaggio copy snatched from Odessa museum

Another day, another major art heist. Once again we find ourselves pondering the lamentable museum security measures that have allowed another significant picture to sink into the slime of organised crime.

The painting above, a version of Taking of Christ of 1602 by the 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio, has been stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. Thieves availed themselves of the museum's superannuated alarm system, removed a window pane, and sliced the canvas from its frame before escaping across the roof.

Cue Pierce Brosnan lighting up a stogie as he admires the stolen painting in his Manhattan apartment.

As usual, the reality is rather more prosaic. Reuters website ran a photograph of crestfallen Ukrainean museum staff members removing the empty frame from the wall. Perhaps the thieves believed the picture to be an authentic work by Caravaggio. It is not. The original hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Dublin. But I guess the Balkan mafia don't subscribe to the Burlington Magazine.

Caravaggio's oeuvre has always been the focus of forensic connoisseurial scrutiny. In 1956, Eastern European art historians X. Malitskaja and Victor Lasareff advanced the theory that the Odessa picture was the authentic work by the artist. However, in 1993, new documentary evidence and thorough archival and technical research by the expert restorer Sergio Benedetti, one of the world's leading Caravaggio scholars, firmly established the Dublin picture as the original autograph work. (See below for a citation of relevant art historical sources.) Around a dozen copies of the Dublin picture are known.

The Dublin picture was acquired in Rome in 1802 by William Hamilton Nisbet, the father of Mary Nisbet, wife of the infamous Lord Elgin who looted the Parthenon Marbles from Athens. Nisbet bought the Caravaggio from the Italian nobleman Duke Giuseppe Mattei, a descendant of Ciriaco Mattei who commissioned it in 1602. For many years the picture hung at Biel House, the Nisbet family seat in Scotland. Some time later it found its way to Ireland.

Art theft is always a cause of sadness and consternation, particularly when the picture in question is of connoisseurial interest, as was the case with the Odessa copy. No matter that it wasn't by Caravaggio. Clearly it was sufficiently true to what we expect from Caravaggio to have become one of the best-loved and most treasured paintings in the country, indeed in the whole of Eastern Europe. It may be a copy made by a contemporary of Caravaggio, commissioned by another member of the Mattei family.

The fact that the authentic work in Dublin was, during a short time in the 18th century, believed to be a work by Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst, a member of the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti, a school of painting inspired by Caravaggio's signature brand of chiaroscuro, illustrates something of the tortuous nature of Caravaggio attribution studies.

As for the region in which the painting was snatched, Misha Glenny's recent book, McMafia, revealed how Ukraine has become a fulcrum of illicit trade in all manner of commodities since the wall came down. The Balkan mafia has been using stolen fine art as collateral in bigger drugs and arms deals since as far back as the mid-1980s.

Ukrainean museum chiefs described the 'Caravaggio' theft as "a cultural catastrophe" and "a national tragedy", one commenting, "You cannot put a price on this ... it is, in every sense, priceless." And yet, according to news reports, police have for some time been urging the Odessa Museum to update its antiquated alarm system, but the suggestion was always turned down "on financial grounds."

The real glaring anomaly is the contrast between the still soaring price of art on the open market and the ease with which determined criminals can gain access to "priceless" objects in national and regional museums across the developed world. (Bloomberg reports today that despite an 11% fall in Sotheby's share price this week, the business remains strong, driven by an "economic elite" — more here.)

Museum objects are commonly viewed as hermetically sealed off from vulgarities of economic exchange since few are likely to make it to the legitimate market (the growing trend towards deaccessioning notwithstanding). But, understandably perhaps, once a picture is stolen suddenly everyone wants to know what's written on the price ticket.

The London auction houses evidently declined to put a value on the Odessa picture (I suspect they were all desperately flicking through back-issues of The Burlington Magazine as the phones rang). In any case, whatever off-the-hip estimate they might have come up with would be virtually meaningless given the current state of the international art market.

Doubtless the real numbers are already being crunched over plum brandy in some subterranean smoke-filled bar in Transnistria.

So what's next? Well, it may not be an authentic work by the hand of the most swashbuckling painter in the history of art, but it will certainly be viewed as another juicy target by stolen art database companies and other bounty hunters chasing market-linked recovery fees.

Don't get me started on that particular breed.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a Masterpiece Rediscovered', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 731-741.

Francesca Cappelletti and Sergio Benedetti, 'The Documentary Evidence of the Early History of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 742-746.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol 137, No. 1102, (Jan. 1995), pp. 37-38.

See also, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting (left), an account of how the Dublin picture was discovered in a Jesuit monastery in Ireland and subsequently restored by Sergio Benedetti.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Underhand down under: how fakes and forgeries are proliferating in Australia

The Australian broadsheet reports this week on attempts to combat the problem of art forgery down-under (Art industry sees need for united defence against forgery). One of the artists whose work is commonly faked is Charles Blackman, whose authentic Alice in Wonderland of 1956 (detail) is shown left.

Fakes and forgeries, as the British Museum's 1990 exhibition and accompanying book made clear ('Fake? The Art Of Deception') is as old as the art market. The recent case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, exposed as the manufacturers of everything from dodgy ancient Egyptian figurines to Gauguin sculptures, offered a reminder that expert fakers are as active as ever, indeed arguably more so now that prices in the art market have risen beyond all rational metrics.

In the light of the Greenhalghs, a certain understandable trade nervousness was even expressed towards the Achaemenid gold cup that came up for sale only a couple of weeks ago at Duke's auction house in Dorchester. That piece was provenanced to a local rag and bone man, but one has only to look at the quality of the 'Romano-British' silver tray — the so-called 'Risley Park Lanx' — now ascribed to the Bolton Greenhalgh's but which for a while even took in experts at the British Museum, to see that today's fakers know what they're doing.

The lanx had been made from authentic ancient Roman coins. Such are the lengths to which rogues like Shaun Greenhalgh are prepared to go in plying their trade.

But it wasn't only knockoffs of rare and ancient antiquities that emerged from the Greenhalghs' unprepossesing Bolton semi. The family also tried their hands at modern art, kicking out Scottish Colourist canvases in the style of Samuel John Peploe that almost duped the top of the London trade (Art Newspaper story here).

Thus it came as no surprise to hear that Aussie art crooks have been trying their hand at faking works by Australian painters Charles Blackman, John Brack and others. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the great Australian modernist tradition, it is true to say that one can count its finest exponents on one hand. Blackman and Brack are certainly among them.

One wonders whether crooks see Blackman's robust and occasionally slightly naive oils as more easily faked than, say, the poetically subtle and physically fragile works of the great Ian Fairweather (right).

Meanwhile, the faking of indigenous aboriginal painting has also grown as prices have risen (see my earlier blogs on this topic here and here). But while the visual language of aboriginal painting might to the untutored eye seem straightforward and ostensibly easy to fake, its symbolic subtlety is a more elusive matter. Not that this stops fakers from faking them, or credulous collectors from forking out for those fakes.

Concomitant with the explosion of the art market has been the steady diminution of expertise and connoisseurship. As more and more money has entered the market, so the opportunists have piled in at every level. Many of these are so-called 'art consultants' — bottom-feeders looking to turn a fast buck from the well-heeled private collectors who see art as a badge of arrival.

But expertise at auction houses has also declined. The days when you could rely on an auctioneer for real connoisseurship is sadly over, even at Christie's and Sotheby's which are now glorified dealerships but without the expertise of the top of the trade. The impartial, tutored eye is a thing of the past.

Charles Blackman is "one of the high-profile Australian artists who repeatedly have forgeries and fakes turning up in auction houses under their name", Walter Granek of the Charles Blackman Trust told The Australian. Granek has apparently seen about 3000 Blackman works in his career so he should know. But if Blackman's market is so strong, and the implications of selling a forgery are so potentially damaging to all concerned, why don't the auction houses consult the Blackman Trust when the need arises? Clearly that is where the Blackman expertise resides. Sadly, Mr Granek now gets offered money to authenticate Blackman works which, being an honourable man, he refuses.

Museum experts have long been called in by the auction houses (privately, of course) to cast an eye over objects. They never did this for free and they're certainly far less likely to do it for free today with the market in spate. Kickbacks make the world go round.

All of this aside, I don't quite see how the rise of faking makes the reputations of artists like Blackman, Brack, Rover Thomas, et al, vulnerable, as The Australian article suggests. But I can see the importance of rooting out the fakes and exposing the fakers.

In summary, this story reminds us yet again that a market correction is badly needed, if only to rinse out the malignant spores proliferating in an increasingly toxic pond.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Credibility gap

James Cuno has just conducted another radio discussion, this time with former Iraq Museum curator Donny George on Wisconsin Public Radio. The exchange has been widely reported (see for example on SavingAntiquities.org) because of another Cuno-blooper which, in fact, he also uttered during his Radio Three conversation with Tristram Besterman here in the UK a fortnight ago. This is what he said to Donny George:

"There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else."

And only yesterday I stumbled upon Ricardo Elia's quoting of that other bull in a china shop — Thomas Hoving:

"Almost every antiquity that has arrived in America in the past ten to twenty years has broken the laws of the country from which it came."

(Ricardo Elia Responds, Archaeology, May/June 1993, at 1, 17 (quoting memoir of Thomas Hoving, Making the Mummies Dance, 1993)

Of course, Hoving didn't say "arrived in American museums". But we know what he meant.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Worship this

My email tray has been jumping this evening with press releases about the art market, top and bottom. Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas apparently made £40,921,250 / ($80,451,178) at Christie's. Er, so what?

Elsewhere, the media is effervescing over news that Damien Hirst has decided to sell a load of new stuff at Sotheby's rather than use his two main dealers, White Cube and Gagosian. That's marginally more interesting, but only by a whisker.

This has been reported as a maverick and innovative decision on Hirst's part, but actually it's perfectly understandable. According to some newspapers, Hirst has apparently realised that auctions are "a democratic way to sell art." That might have been true thirty-five years ago, before the buyer's premium, the insider trading, the chandelier bidding (how long have you got?). But today auctions are shadier and more ethically negotiable than ever, which doubtless partly explains Hirst's decision to get a bit deeper into bed with them. You know, take the pyjamas off this time and snuggle up nice and close.

The reality is that Hirst is more powerful than his dealers and so is in a position to deny them the vastly reduced percentage they levy for the privilege of representing him. Other less successful artists still forego 50% or more. The internet, still in its infancy, will impact on this in due course. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. The art market's as mad as a bottle of crisps.

Meanwhile I know a number of artists who have chosen to bypass their galleries now that their work has begun to sell internationally, preferring to take control of their own commissions, manage their own careers. For those with a flair for the paperwork and the communications issues, this invariably proves infinitely preferable to handing over ridiculous sums to dealers, many of whom are ignorant about art and care only about how much money they can syphon off an artist's creative gift. Oh no, Leonard Cohen's not the only one to feel the pinch.

My earliest introduction to the history of art was a family bible illustrated with plates of Old Master paintings, which included Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Hirst's The Golden Calf (right), which is to be sold at Sotheby's later this year with an estimate of £12 million, is presumably intended as a symbol of the art market's idolatrous worship of cash. No, subtlety was never his strong point.

Of course, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he destroyed the golden calf that Aaron had fashioned from the Israelities' bling. Hirst's calf, however, like the shark he made earlier, will presumably self-destruct.

The current trend of artists cocking a snook at the very art market that is feathering their nest is wearing a bit thin. Yesterday I read of an 'urban art' sale held by a provincial UK auction house jumping on the street graffiti bandwagon. Among the lots was a work entitled Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge. This might be read as a prophetic note to the art trade in general. But it could backfire judging by the sums being paid for work by some of these street artists, few of whom are likely to stay the course once the market turns. And let's face it, it will. Many of them will end up as gum turds, expectorated back onto the sidewalk of the streets whence they came.

The mixed media on cardboard work shown left, entitled Red Lips, by Adam Neate (born 1978), fetched £40,000. Neate is a self-taught "free street artist", i.e. he paints pictures on cardboard which he then leaves in the street (mostly East London) for people to pick up and take home.

Adam's largesse is being handsomely repaid. There are 23 auction results for him listed on Artnet, the earliest being last October. Where will he be in ten years time when the lipstick's worn off?

(Hirst pic: Prudence Cummings/Sotheby's)

Controversy? What controversy?

Kwame Opoku has just sent me a link to a dire and rambling KCRW radio conversation (thanks Kwame!) between James Cuno and Michael Conforti, President of AAMD (Association of American Museum Directors), discussing, yes, you guessed it, Cuno's new book, Who Owns Antiquity.

It's pretty clear that Cuno has won hands down with this book. I'm still trying to figure out how so much pre-publication opposition to his central thesis has suddenly translated into so much supine rolling-over. For the past two weeks, Cuno has sashayed from studio to studio on both sides of the pond, hoovering up the opposition as he goes. The only person to have given him a run for his money was Tristram Besterman, former director of Manchester Museum here in the UK, who clearly had him on the back foot during their Radio Three Nightwaves discussion last week.

I think most of us would agree that it's not a bad book. It's clearly written, passionate in its argument, and doubtless informative and instructive for lay readers. But its core aims — its call to arms against a notional nationalist retentionism, its strident appeal for a return to partage, and its endorsement of the beleaguered encyclopaedic museum as the best home for antiquities of any and every culture — are deeply flawed.

The problem, I think, is that this is such a specialist topic that very few radio hosts, however capable they may be (Andy Marr on Radio 4, for example, and clearly Ruth Seymour at KCRW) are capable of offering an incisive critique of what he proposes. In fact, when push comes to shove, nobody is, not even archaeologists. Perhaps they all agree with him.

Having read a recent New York Times piece on the new AAMD guidelines on the acquisition of antiquities, Ruth Seymour set out to unleash these two ferocious dogs onto each other in the hope that they'd rip each other limb from limb for the delectation of her bloodthirsty listeners. Unfortunately for Ms Seymour, Cuno and Conforti were having none of it.

At times like these, with every nation in the world seemingly united against the US over everything from global warming to who owns cylinder seals, you won't get two prominent American museum directors to do anything except close ranks in a big schmoozy antiquities love-in.

Fareed Zakaria's piece in this week's Sunday Times (Enfeebled superpower: how America lost its grip) offered some telling insights into why America has become so resented in the world. She was writing about geopolitics, but what she had to say resonated for me on the level of cultural diplomacy too.

“When we meet American officials they talk and we listen - we rarely disagree or speak frankly because they simply can’t take it in. They simply repeat the American position, like the tourist who thinks he needs to speak louder and slower and then we will understand,” a senior foreign policy adviser in a European government told me. To foreigners, US officials seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running.

“There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without,” says Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s UN ambassador. Because Americans live in a “cocoon”, they don’t see the “sea change in attitudes towards America throughout the world”.

This is not dissimilar to what's happening in cultural heritage disputes. Leading US museum directors like Cuno just keep talking, seemingly unwilling to listen to an alternative position.

Michael Conforti, who was gushing in his praise for his Chicago colleague, spoke of "a need to operate in a world where there's a level of mutual trust." Amen to that. It would seem that Mr Conforti recognises that the requisite level of trust is currently lacking. Why is it lacking, I wonder? Well, he promptly provided the answer by closing the discussion with a reference to Kavita Singh's piece in this month's Art Newspaper (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?) which I discussed here.

In her piece, Ms Singh spoke of how Western museums are seen outside the west: "as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums 'build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding' would only provoke anger or derision."

What did Michael Conforti have to say about these attitudes? "Very instructive... however silly they may be"

Mutual trust, eh?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Not weaving, but drowning

Friday, June 20

To La Piscine, the now famous swimming-pool museum in Roubaix, near Lille in north eastern France (left) for the opening of an exhibition for which I'd written the catalogue essay.

I'd heard much about La Piscine, which opened to great fanfare in 2001 after a major makeover, but had never visited it. The invitation thus offered an opportunity to see at first hand what the Journal des Arts has just declared to be France's fifth most important museum (based on visitor numbers and the number and frequency of exhibitions).

Built by architect Albert Baert between 1927-1932 as a temple to the body, hygiene and sport, this masterpiece of Art Deco design was quickly recognised as France's most beautiful swimming-pool and one of its most successful public buildings.

During the nineteenth century Roubaix was a burgeoning industrial town, second only to Manchester as textile manufacturing centre (it is still home to La Redoute, the mail-order clothing company). As a result from 1800-1850 it saw population growths unequalled by any other town in France as people flocked there for work.

However, the textile industry peaked towards the close of the 19th century and then began a downward slide leading to a long period of stagnation brought about by the First World War and the depression of the 1930s. Thereafter the town's industry was blighted by regular industrial action and the population decreased accordingly.

The swimming pool was seen as a means of redressing the decline in what had once been regarded as France's "sacred city of socialism." (If you've ever spent time in the decaying old public baths and steam-rooms of Budapest, you'll have a sense of the ambience of La Piscine during its golden age, judging from surviving photographs.)

Arriving at the town's elegant 19th century iron and glass train station on a summer evening and making your way to the beautiful museum it seems hard to believe that Roubaix remains riddled with social problems.

According to a recent BBC4 documentary (Small Town Murder), behind the elegant signs of regeneration, Roubaix is "eroded by poverty, unemployment and crime. It has become a society that offers little opportunity to its inhabitants." Its small police force is "kept busy by armed robberies, domestic violence, car theft, missing teenagers, and arson." These are the wounds that Sarkozy vowed to heal.

One Parisian visitor to Friday's opening related his experience of travelling by train from Lille to Roubaix earlier that afternoon when he had shared a carriage with some locals. "These people are so, so exotic," he said of his impoverished compatriots, his lip curling into a rictus of displeasure. "I mean, the way they look, the way they dress, their language. Incomprehensible. I mean really exotic."

At dinner during the vernissage the reluctant anthropologist took his place beside other representatives of the Parisian art élite who had also gamely ventured into the heart of darkness. A wealthy New York private equity entrepreneur joked about packing the bread and peanut butter before flying out, thanks to the plummeting dollar.

Listening to their tales of woe I was yet again reminded of the gaping social and economic divide that art and culture may brilliantly disguise but will never erase.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Did the Greenhalgh family make this?

I may have been a bit slow off the mark over the 'Achaemenid' Janus cup sold at Duke's in Dorchester last week.

According to Antiques Trade Gazette (The two faces of the £56,000 Sparks gold at Duke's), the three pieces of "purportedly" ancient gold had been "rejected by at least one major London auction house before Duke’s accepted them".

Friday, June 6, 2008

BM Rules… not OK

A museum friend has just sent me the transcript of an overheard conversation between a senior apparatchik at the British Museum (BM) and the representative of a source community (SC) discussing a claim by the source community to have some human remains returned which the BM holds and has never displayed or even examined for decades.

The remains have deep cultural significance to the source community. They were taken against the wishes and in violation of the beliefs of the source community during the days of Empire. This was a time when western collectors prized such trophy specimens for their own collections and to sell to the great public museums in London, Paris and Berlin.

The setting is a reception room near the Director’s office. Tea has been served in rather ornate cups.

BM: So, let me get this straight. You say that I’ve got stuff that belongs to you and you want it back?

SC: Yes, that is a pretty good summary. Except that we don’t call it stuff: what you have are our ancestors. These are people, who should come home.

BM: Really? How interesting. Bit of a ticklish one, that, for the BM, y’know. Returning things just isn’t our bag. Particularly if they’ve been stolen.

SC: Why not?

BM: Because this place is full to bursting with loot. It’s what makes us special. And important. Yes, globally special and important. If we started giving nicked stuff back, where would it all end, eh?

SC: But that doesn’t sound very fair or particularly moral.

BM: And your point is? Look, I don’t wish to appear unhelpful. Let us concede, just for the sake of argument, mind, that we do have something that is yours which we shouldn’t really have. And that the Law allows us to give it back. We can’t hand it over to you just like that, you know. No, no, no. That wouldn’t do at all.

SC: Oh. Why?

BM: Because we have Rules, dear fellow, Rules. And our Rules say that if we and my friends enjoy having your stuff here it’s not in the public interest to return it to its rightful owner. And what’s more, even if we’ve never used it but we think it might come in handy one day, same thing applies.

SC: That doesn’t sound very fair. Who wrote these Rules?

BM: We did.

SC: Ah. But are there no conditions under which you might give back what doesn’t belong to you?

BM: Funny you should mention that. Well, actually there are certain conditions under which we might, just might, give sympathetic and careful consideration to giving stuff back. No promises, mind.

SC: That sounds a bit more hopeful.

BM: Oh, I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you. Our Rules say that we only give things back if it fits our criteria for giving things back.

SC: Well, I’m sure there should be no problem there. We can prove it was ours and that it was stolen from us.

BM: Ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one. Very good. No that’s not the point at all, my dear fellow.

SC: Oh. So what is the point?

BM: Good question. The point is to make it as difficult as we can for you to get your stuff back, so we can keep it.

SC: I’m getting confused.

BM: Are you? Good. That’s also the point. But don’t lose heart, old thing. If you can meet our criteria, then we can give sympathetic and…

SC: “…careful consideration to giving it back” – yes, I heard that the first time.

BM: Excellent. You’re catching on. Anything else?

SC: The criteria for returning what doesn’t belong to you. I’d like to know what they are.

BM: Oh they’re really very straightforward. There are only two: 1. does your stuff glow in the dark? And 2. was the burglar wearing brown suede shoes when it was stolen from you?

SC: But that is absurd. Those criteria are completely irrelevant to our case.

BM: They may be irrelevant to you, old boy, and I’m sure you have a lovely country, wherever it is. But d’ye see, they are absolutely crucial to us in Bloomsbury.

SC: I find that hard to understand. They seem absurd wherever they are applied.

BM: My dear fellow, please understand that nothing is absurd in Bloomsbury. Absolutely nothing. Long tradition, you see. Let me explain. If they glow in the dark, it helps us to find them, because they’re in store with so much other stuff, and we haven’t got all day, you know. And any burglar who wears brown suede shoes is clearly beyond the pale, not one of us, and we wouldn’t wish to be associated with anything from such an obvious bounder.

SC: But I don’t know if they glow in the dark, and it’s most unlikely that we can find out what kind of shoes the person who stole them was wearing at the time.

BM: Then you seem to have a bit of a problem, old boy. More tea?

Such is the topsy turvy world of BM Rules.