Thursday, June 26, 2008
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
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
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)
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
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.
Friday, June 6, 2008
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.
"Terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art": the encyclopaedic museum comes of age
The Art Newspaper has just published an interesting piece by Kavita Singh (left), an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?).
In her article, Dr Singh describes extraordinary rumours circulating in 2007 prior to a planned exhibition of ancient Indian art from Bangladesh at the Musée Guimet, Paris. The museum was allegedly planning to under-insure the travelling objects, 'lose' them, pay the small insured sum and then clean up on a black market re-sale. In the event, a case of objects did go missing at Dhaka airport and the cargo-handlers confessed under torture and were prosecuted.
I can see a Hollywood script-writer reaching for his pen...
This is all very sensational, but what really interested me about Dr Singh's article was this paragraph:
The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us 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.
Perhaps this partly explains the frosty reception given to James Cuno's new book on nationalist trends in cultural property retention (published today, reviewed below), in which he maintains: "Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures."
I wish that were the case, but the ignoble means by which many western encyclopaedic collections were formed during the age of Empire flies in the face of such lofty precepts. It is a history not easily forgotten by former subaltern nations and is now too great a burden for the encyclopaedic museums to bear.
One interesting thing about the current stand-off over museums and cultural property is the growing tendency by museum representatives to exaggerate the demands and aspirations of the opposing side in order to discredit them. This artificially increases the distance between the two positions and diminishes the likelihood of reaching a compromise solution.
Thus Kavita Singh is impelled to insist that, despite her reservations, "the universal museum is worth preserving, not because this kind of museum is essential for us to get to know one another, but because it is a significant cultural phenomenon in itself. If we dismantle these museums we will never again be able to make museums of this sort."
Who said anything about dismantling them? Nobody. But James Cuno, Neil MacGregor, Philippe De Montebello, et al, would have everyone believe that this is the primary objective of the museum's critics, thereby forcing Dr Singh to distance herself from such an irrational notion.
Finally, Dr Singh's suggestion that the encyclopaedic museum could never be made again is surely correct. This contrasts with James Cuno's sunny insistence that new encyclopaedic museums should be established everywhere.
In other words, the only way to defend your own unsustainable conspicuous consumption is to recommend that everyone else start consuming in a similarly unsustainable way.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Having already blogged (here and here) on one or two pre-publication articles and interviews by James Cuno, I've now found time to read a review copy of his book Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle for Our Ancient Heritage in which he takes aim at what he pithily describes as "nationalist retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws". Kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? No. Perhaps not.
I can't remember a book on museums that has generated quite so much publicity and critical comment as this one, surely a reflection of how controversial the antiquities issue has become but also of how unusual it is for a leading museum director to take up such a forceful position on such a sensitive subject.
Derek Fincham on his Illicit Cultural Property blog thinks Cuno "is going against the main current of cultural heritage thinking at the moment." You can say that again, Derek.
But of course Cuno relishes the role of refusenik. Yesterday the New York Times reported that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has announced new guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities (Museums Set Stricter Guidelines for Acquiring Antiquities) which on the surface looked like the Association was moving with the main current towards tighter controls. All very laudable, but then under paragraph F it still allows its members "to make informed and defensible judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring such an object." I think that's known as a loophole.
And so to Cuno's book, which US blogger Lee Rosenbaum (in a break from her other job as a talented nightclub crooner) has described as "an intemperate screed".
She's right on the money. My main problem was having the nationalism card thrust down my throat. Most of the book is a desperate attempt to paint 'source nations' as 'hoarders' of objects found on their soil. Because all nations are 'mongrel', nobody can claim a right to retain anything, except, of course, the encyclopaedic museums which, we are encouraged to believe, are the natural home of all objects and the only place they can be properly appreciated and understood.
Cuno gives over most of the text to lengthy case studies of Turkey and China as cultural palimpsests, the multi-layering of historical events — war, imperial conquest, ethnic migration, and so on effectively undermining any modern claim to authentic ancestry and thus rendering their attempts to retain their antiquities as a manifestation of a malign nationalism. But it's not just Turkey and China; Cuno us highlighting what for him is a global trend.
Among the learned advocates Cuno calls upon in support of his thesis is Stanford Law School professor John Henry Merryman.
In an oft-quoted paper in the Journal of Cultural Property (12, 2005), which Cuno quotes again in his book, Merryman criticized the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the grounds that it "condones and supports the widespread practice of over-rentention or, less politely, hoarding of cultural property." (my emphasis) (Cuno, 2008, p34)
Professor Merryman might have tempered his ill-advised comment had he seen the results of a comprehensive survey published in the same year as his paper by the Washington-based Heritage Preservation organisation (The National Institute for Conservation), which can be read here: A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections.
The results of the survey were, to say the least, alarming, for they dramatised the precarious state of U.S. museum, library and archival collections, revealing them to be fundamentally unsustainable unless rapid and radical action is taken. Essentially it all comes down to storage. The evidence shows that U.S. museums are already unable to care for the collections they hold in public trust.
Rather than quote selectively from the report, a brief glance through its main findings (summarised in a pdf breakdown here) offers an eloquent rejoinder to Professor Merryman's impolite accusation of 'over-retention' and 'hoarding' by other States, developing nations and source communities.
It's conceivable, of course, that Professor Merryman was aware of the Heritage Preservation report but chose to treat it with the same disdain he and Cuno (right) reserve for UNESCO Conventions which have "no means to prevent destruction...and can only raise our awareness of what's at risk." Ergo: ignore them.
This hardly chimes with the new AAMD guidelines referred to above, which endorse the UNESCO 1970 Convention as a benchmark to follow.
Cuno's attack on "nationalist retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws" has another bleak side effect. For me it diminishes the power of the genius loci.
I remember on my first visit to Mexico walking into the National Museum of Anthropology and being deeply moved by the great Olmec heads. Travelling on to Veracruz, that head continued to resonate as a symbol of a distant people and culture. Its lasting power derived in no small measure from the fact that I saw it in Mexico. Yes, a mongrel modern 'nation' thousands of years removed from its pre-Columbian Olmec ancestors, but for me a far more relevant place to experience the surviving material culture of Mesoamerica than Washington, New York, Berlin, Paris or London.
The first half of the book is given over to brief object profiles of Shang dynasty bronzes, Benin brasses and Sicilian caskets, all objects from the Chicago Art Institute of which Cuno is director. The cultural property laws that might seek to repatriate (or retain) these or similar objects represent, in Cuno's eyes, "a failed regime" — a revealing use of neo-con geopolitical Pentagon-speak.
Given the current furore over Benin objects, this sentence (page xix) jumped off the page:
"Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures."
As for the risible suggestion that "the promise of the encyclopedic museum is an argument for their being everywhere" — tell that to developing nations struggling to feed themselves.
Finally, much of the first half of the book came across as a covert job application. I can't see Neil MacGregor leaving the British Museum any time soon, and Cuno is hardly a contender for Philippe de Montebello's soon-to-be-vacated throne at the Met. But I got a sense of him trying to promote himself through this book as a safe pair of hands for one of the big encyclopaedic museums that see themselves as increasingly beleaguered by "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws".
NPR radio item on the Heritage Preservation survey's findings here: U.S. Museum Collections in Dire Condition
Larry Rothfield's elegant and insightful critique of Cuno's book can be read here: James Cuno's Illogic
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
The business of providing digital services to the art and antiques trade is as ferocious as ever, it seems. One sign of this is the demise of objective news reporting as corporate publishing interests tilt the playing field in an attempt to stifle competition
Back on April 16th this year, eBay announced its intention to pull out of live auctions in order to concentrate on its core business and strengthen its approach to customer service. This roughly coincided with Meg Whitman stepping down as CEO to make way for John Donahoe as President and CEO.
EBay's decision left something of a vacuum in the provision of live auction services to the art and antiques market, but the vacuum didn't last long. Art intelligence firms have been developing in this direction for some time but until recently the presence of eBay made it a tough field in which to gain market traction.
Then, on 23rd April, just a few days after the eBay announcement, another significant UK player in the provision of art data and related art information services — Invaluable.com — announced that it was to launch its own live auction service, Invaluable Live!.
Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading newspaper to the UK art and antiques trade (owned by the Daily Mail Group's DMG Media), joyfully reported eBay's decision to abandon live auctions (here). Over the ensuing weeks the paper remained silent on Invaluable's announced intention to launch its online bidding platform and audio/video broadcast services. This was strange given that Invaluable is one of the leading providers of digital solutions to the UK auction industry and thus one would expect its Live Auctions! service to be of interest to the ATG's readers, many of whom are UK auction houses.
In late 2006, Invaluable was acquired by the Massachusetts-based art information company ArtFact, a move which significantly strengthened the two companies' joint offering to the global art market. Both ArtFact and Invaluable (which started life as Thesaurus in the mid- to late-1980s offering innovative Auction Alerts) were the first to include prices for antiques and decorative arts (as well as fine art) in their databases in the US and UK respectively.
Moreover, Artfact's acquisition of Invaluable was strengthened by the presence of Rod Funston, whose RFC Systems company (which built websites and back-office systems for many of the world's leading auction houses) had merged with Artfact in February of 2006.
On 30th April, a week after Invaluable's announcement of its intention to launch Invaluable Live!, the ATG weighed in with an uncompromising editorial assault on ArtFact's catalogue service to UK auctioneers (you can access it here). This read to me as little short of a flagrant attempt to trash a competitor to the ATG's "sister company" — the-saleroom.com — which offers similar services to UK auctioneers.
All this adds up to at best selective, or at worst downright biased reporting. If I were a cynic I'd ascribe it to the fact that Invaluable is the only serious UK competitor to the art information services aggressively developed over recent years by DMG Media using the ATG as its mouthpiece and principal source of direct marketing. The ATG was founded by a former Fleet Street diarist, Ivor Turnbull, as an objective trade newspaper offering a proper spread of impartially reported industry developments. Happy days.
Given all this, I was interested to see the ATG's news coverage (June 2nd) of a new survey of art price indices compiled by a UK art dealer. Once again I was expecting neutral reporting, but once again I was disappointed.
According to the ATG, the survey apparently singles out for praise TEFAF report author David Kusin while pouring scorn on Jianping Mei and Michael Moses's Beautiful Asset Advisers ("a well-deserved Booby Prize winner", according to the survey).
The survey's researchers are not the first to come under the Svengali-like influence of the Dallas-based number-cruncher, but the reality is that Kusin's brand of occult econometric analysis is as insignificant to the vast majority of art and antiques collectors as the hermetic Mei-Moses product. This is where Artnet, Artprice, Invaluable, Artfact and others step in, aiming to provide coherent price information services to the majority of middle-market (and up-market) collectors.
If the survey's main finding is that art price databanks are still failing to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing marketplace, then it's not telling us anything new. The real issue is how best to deliver the data to meet a diverse demand in a globalised market.
The high profile of the Mei-Moses in recent years has reflected the increasing part played by hedge funds, art investment funds, family offices and other speculators in the expanded art market. These animals tend to feed at the top of the food chain and because they view art as first and foremost a commodity, they are mesmerized by the 'hedonic analyses' and related baloney churned out by statisticians. Further down, however, there is a broader constituency that requires a more accessible presentation of price data. Accessible, incidentally, does not mean unsophisticated.
As the New York Times reported back in 1995 here, "Of the 200,000 to 300,000 lots sold by Christie's worldwide every year approximately half go for under $5,000, and a quarter for under $1,000 — a fact [Christie's CEO Christopher Burge] called 'terrifying.'"
And let's not forget the famous utterance of Sotheby's marketing supremo Stanley Clark, who, in the mid-1960s told the auction house's chairman Peter Wilson: "I'm not trying to teach you your business, Sir, but one should remember that for every ten people with £100,000 to spend there are a hundred million with £100 to spend."
Clark's '£100 Rule', as it became known — on which Sotheby's subsequent growth was largely built — ultimately became Diana 'DeDe' Brooks's '£1000 Rule' at the time of the Sotheby's/Amazon hook-up in June 1999, but the principal remained valid. It is this landmass that the commercial art price companies — particularly those collecting decorative arts data — should be aiming their services at.
The ATG, of course, has its own axe to grind here for its master, DMG Media, is busily developing its own suite of digital services to the art and antiques industry. One can hardly blame it for seeking alternative revenue streams during a time of diminished newspaper advertising and a declining antiques trade, but if it is achieving that at the expense of even-handed market reporting then it has sacrificed something precious.
Invaluable may get mentioned in the new survey (I can't say for sure as I haven't seen it), but it's interesting that once again Invaluable doesn't get name-checked in the ATG's summary of the report's findings.
The report's author also concludes (the ATG item continues), "that the service with most to offer is Artfact, 'but my opinion is that it will never play any radical card in the market place. The Thomson empire [its owner] simply doesn't need to.'"
That doesn't sound like a scientific analysis, but more like pub talk, or, dare I say it...blogging!
Having watched this section of the market very closely since the early '90s, I'd suggest that it's still in its infancy. That seems a good enough reason to keep an open mind on how the 'radical cards' might fall rather than jump to conclusions based on a putative 'need'.
If you want to see the report it will cost you £46 (plus £5 p&p) from email@example.com, or you could read the ATG's highly selective snacking on the details here.
(In the interest of transparency I should declare that I was a director of Invaluable.com from 2000-2002, but have no commercial or professional interest in the company today. I also wrote freelance for the ATG for many years and still file occasional op-ed pieces for the paper. This may look like biting the hand that feeds me but I'm more concerned with safeguarding the objectivity of a publication that hitherto had been a rock of disinterested market comment.)