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.