Friday, February 29, 2008

Rauschenberg's rubbish triggers lawsuit

It seems more than a little ironic that Robert Rauschenberg has filed a lawsuit against a guy for allegedly possessing items recovered from the trash outside Rauschenberg's home (Artist Rauschenberg sues over 'art' taken from his trash — USA Today).

Rauschenberg, 82, is one of the father's of the collage aesthetic in American modernism. Many of his early signature works were formed from a bricolage of found objects and discarded materials.

According to news reports, among the items recovered from the garbage outside his Florida home were three rolls of 'chromes' containing "numerous 30-inch-by-30-inch sheets of what looked like negatives". The young art student who recovered them, Robert Fontaine, had apparently been awarded a Rauschenberg scholarship to study art and had used some of the chromes to make a work of art called 'Walking with Bob.'

Had Rauschenberg been dead, doubtless Fontaine's work would have seemed like just another piece of postmodern appropriation. But because he's still alive the implications are more profound, at least from a legal perspective.

What happens when an incredible artist like Rauschenberg discards material, asked Fontaine's attorney, Yale Freeman. "Do the laws of abandonment apply? The potentials here are just mind-boggling," he said. (I assume he's talking about the case-law potential rather than the potential for lawyers like him to make mind-boggling amounts of money out of it.)

Needless to say, all this seemed weirdly reminiscent of the Francis Bacon dumpster material that sold for such vast sums at Ewbank's auction saleroom in Surrey on 24th April last year.

The back story on that occasion was that an electrician who happened to be working at Bacon's South Kensington home in 1978, 'rescued' the material from the rubbish skip to which, he claims, Bacon was about to consign it. According to the online account offered by The Daily Mail, the electrician, Mac Robertson, 75, "persuaded the artist to let him keep some of the junk." Robertson went on to say, "I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea that the bits and bobs Bacon was about to throw away might one day be worth a fortune." A £1 million fortune, as it transpired. 

Why did Robertson want the stuff — old cheque stubs, diaries, discarded photographs? Perhaps Bacon's fame (celebrity was not the concept in 1978 that it is today) was enough to make his daily rubbish seem 'interesting' or, dare one say it, potentially valuable? 

But more to the point, looking at the many surviving photographs of Bacon's studio, with its great Pyrenean slopes of sedimented detritus, it's very hard to imagine the artist discarding anything, let alone numerous contact sheets of Muybridge-like black and white photographs (left), which were all grist to his mill.

But then Rauschenberg appears to have done exactly the same thing. Perhaps Robert Fontaine should have waited until Bob checked out before revealing the chromes. 

Ripping yarns: Is someone massaging Fontana's market?

The auction price record for Italian artist Lucio Fontana has been slashed, significantly, twice in the space of a month. I smell a rat.

On February 6th, Christie's knocked down one of Fontana's famous series of sliced canvases — the blood-red Concetto Spaziale: Attesa (left) — for £6.7m ($13.4m). This was more than double the previous highest price for a Fontana painting — the £2.48m ($4.9m) paid at Sotheby's London in June last year for a white, multi-slashed Concetto Spaziale: Attese. (It's just like that red one above left, but it's white with more razor-blade slashes.).

Then a few days ago Sotheby's sold yet another Fontana at their London contemporary sale — Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio — this time the price climbing to £10.3m ($20.4m).

Just two or three years ago these punctured egg-shaped works were making around £1m- £1.2m apiece.

This most recent Fine di Dio work (shown right) came from a European private collection and was the occasion for a catalogue essay of unparalleled pretentiousness ("sublimely poised and showing a celestial magnificence").

The art market is famously unregulated and opaque in its machinations. We already know there is a process at work in which dealers, collectors and auctioneers, or various combinations thereof, conspire to drive prices up for individual artists in which they have an interest. This is all the more likely to occur now that auction houses — at one time agents for the vendor — now act as principals in many transactions. In any other marketplace this would be regarded as insider-trading and would be outlawed. Is it any wonder that so many hedge-fund managers and investment advisers have pitched their tents in the art market in the last five years?

Fontana's slashed canvases have been a stock item at Sotheby's and Christie's post-war and contemporary art sales for at least the past fifteen years. It seems a fairly safe bet that someone, somewhere, is sitting on a significant holding of Fontana's work and is successfully manipulating the price of that stock.