Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In for a penny...

I can't think of a better way to end a year of banker-driven, greed-induced recession than with the immortal words of Ezra Pound reading his own Canto XLV — 'With Usura':

With Usura (1937)

With usura hath no man a house of good stone 

each block cut smooth and well fitting

that delight might cover their face,
with usura
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall 

harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message 

and halo projects from incision,
with usura
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines

no picture is made to endure nor to live with

but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,

is thy bread ever more of stale rags

is thy bread dry as paper, 

with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation

and no man can find site for his dwelling.

Stonecutter is kept from his stone 

weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market

sheep bringeth no gain with usura 

Usura is a murrain, usura 

blunteth the needle in the the maid's hand

and stoppeth the spinner's cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura 

Duccio came not by usura

nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin' not by usura 

nor was 'La Callunia' painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis, 

Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
Not by usura St Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire,
Usura rusteth the chisel

It rusteth the craft and the craftsman

It gnaweth the thread in the loom 

None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;

Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered 

Emerald findeth no Memling
Usura slayeth the child in the womb

It stayeth the young man's courting

It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth

between the young bride and her bridegroom
They have brought whores for Eleusis

Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura.

NB — Usury: a charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Caveat emptor: Coming to an iPhone near you...

There was a time when if you scratched your nose at the wrong moment at a public auction you could find yourself the proud owner of a vast mahogany breakfront bookcase or a set of 12 Chippendale dining chairs that you didn't want, or a £500,000 Old Master painting you couldn't afford. At least that's what the standard auction myth would have you believe.

But while auctioneers are too experienced to mistake your twitching or your scratching as serious bidding, it does seem we are now poised to enter a whole new dimension where bidding at auction is concerned. In the same way that the internet made it possible to view and buy art without having to walk past the obligatory Courtauld-educated Cerberus-like intern posted at the door of every swanky art gallery, so now you can bid at auction while sitting in a traffic jam. All thanks to a new iPhone app made available by Invaluable Live!

I won't bang on about this (you can check out this versatile little tool on Invaluable's website here). Suffice to say that I used to dream about a service like this back in 2002 before the technology was available.

This sort of application ought to come with a health warning. It's already illegal to use a cellphone while driving. Using an iPhone while driving and bidding at auction at the same time takes the concept of risk to a whole new level, not only in terms of what you might accidentally crash into while bidding, but what you might accidentally buy while driving.

"Honey, I'm afraid a terrible thing happened on the way home."

"Oh my God. What did you hit?"

"Nothing. I bought a Jack Vettriano by accident."

"That's it. I'm out of here and I'm taking the kids...."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Breaking with tradition: Sir Thomas Lighton joins Agnew's

It has just been announced that Sir Thomas Lighton (left), until recently Managing Director of Cork Street modern and contemporary art dealers Waddington Galleries, is to join the venerable old firm of Agnew's as Chief Executive.

This is interesting in that it signals Agnew's desire to move more bullishly into the 20th century and contemporary art fields after generations as one of the world's leading Old Master dealerships. The firm will continue to deal in its core specialities of Old Masters and British paintings, watercolours and drawings, but like just about everyone else it has clearly realised the need to embrace contemporary art more actively.

However, the appointment is also interesting in that up until now Agnew's has always been run by members of the family. Lighton will be the first Chief Executive who is not an Agnew.

The clannish ambience of Agnew's was brilliantly captured in a photograph by Lord Snowdon taken in the mid-1960s (right [click image to enlarge]) which shows the Agnews' board sitting together in a tight circle like members of the Gambino crime family (left to right: Richard Kingzett, Colin Agnew, Hugh Agnew [the chairman], Geoffrey Agnew, and Evelyn Joll). Notably, Messrs Kingzett and Joll were present by virtue of having married into the family. It seems they've subsequently dropped the need to wed an Agnewette as a qualification for membership.

I don't know Tom Lighton personally, but speaking with my journalist's hat on, he was unfailingly courteous and helpful on the few occasions I had reason to approach him while he was Waddington (once to request that he try and persuade the late great Barry Flanagan to return some books that I'd lent him — Barry never did).

If Agnew's elder statesmen give Lighton the latitude to do what he needs to do, there is no reason why he shouldn't bring the firm kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

His old colleague at Waddington — Leslie W — helped initiate a similar change at the previously Old Master-dominated TEFAF fair in Maastricht, so Tom will have had some experience at teaching old master dogs new tricks.

But there is also distant modern pedigree at Agnews's on which to build. It was at Agnew's 'Young British Painters' exhibition in 1937 that a fresh-faced Francis Bacon made his debut.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

African art: the next China?

I've just received a flyer from Bonhams, inviting consignments for their next African art sale, scheduled to take place on 10th March 2010 at their New York galleries on Madison Avenue.

The flyer says:

"Bonhams' sale of African Modernist and Contemporary Art in April 2008 was an unrivalled success, setting many new world record prices and casting a spotlight on the African artists who are now achieving an international reputation.

The sale was a clear indication that the market for these works is buoyant and if you wish to take advantage of this strength now is the time to consign."

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? But actually, the sale (which was in April 2009, not 2008) was far from "an unrivalled success." I was at the sale and if you paid careful attention as I did, and ignored the chandelier bidding (when the auctioneer pretends to be taking real bids when none are actually being offered), it was clear that this is market is patchy at best and barely breathing at worst. If 50 percent sold is a buoyant market then Bonhams' way of measuring buoyancy differs from mine.

Bonhams' flyer makes it sound as though their sale helped promote certain artists ("who are now achieving an international reputation.") In fact, it is galleries like London's October Gallery that are doing most of the hard work and taking all the risks to promote African contemporary artists such as El Anatsui, Nnenna Okore and Romuald Hazoumé. Bonhams are merely bandwagon-jumping, as all auctioneers do.

Moreover, the more prominent artists included in the sale — such as the multi-talented South African artist William Joseph Kentridge, and the Netherlands-based painter Marlene Dumas — are already established names in the overarching contemporary art field. An untitled work by Kentridge in charcoal and coloured chalk failed to reach its estimate of £20,000-30,000 at Bonhams' sale, as did an oil on canvas-board work entitled Refuge in the Library, which had been expected to make £100,000-150,000.

Meanwhile, Marlene Dumas, whose market star has risen exponentially in the contemporary art field over the last ten years, was represented by The Blonde — a small work in washy watercolour and pencil on paper depicting a reclining nude (right). This too failed to attract a buyer at an estimate of £80,000-120,000.

Those unfamiliar with the art market and the auction process will read Bonhams' promotional puffs and believe that all is well in this market. It's not.

Giles Peppiatt, Head of African Art at Bonhams, said after the April sale: "A lot of people are looking at this market thinking it might be the next China. We are hoping that in a couple of years this art market niche will be turning over as much as £10m."

Wishful thinking? Or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Roll on, March 10.

The rare, museum-quality work illustrated above left — an acrylic and watercolour on card entitled Negritude by the late Nigerian modernist artist Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1917-1994) — made the top price at Bonhams' April sale, fetching £66,000 against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

David Lester: Who beat him up?

The photograph shown left — of Florida-based fine art and antiques fairs impresario David Lester — has just been circulated as part of his advertising for the Olympia International Fine Art and Antiques Fair, in which Lester and his wife Lee Ann recently secured a controlling stake. Lester wants you to think he's been viciously attacked by disgruntled members of the art and antiques trade who oppose his reforms.

But wait. He's also from Florida, so there could be another simple explanation for why he looks like that.

Lester has always been regarded as something of a marketing genius in the antiques industry, a commercial sector hopelessly stuck in the past. But has he gone too far this time?

The photograph shown here was at the top of a widely circulated email from Lester alerting recipients to the opposition his proposed changes to the Olympia fair have been receiving from the trade following a series of meetings with prospective exhibitors. "Some dealers were more combative than expected," he reports.

Lester goes on to quote David Moss, a fairs journalist for London-based trade newspaper Antiques Trade Gazette, who opined, "Life is a learning curve for all."

The email goes on to deliver a mind-numbing list of proposed changes for the Olympia fair. But while reading these you're assuming that some crazed dealer in fine porcelain or period silver has already taken it upon himself to turn Lester's face into a Martinware bird.

It's only at the end of this dismal advertising stunt that he delivers the real punch line:

NB. David Lester’s picture above actually reflects recent surgery rather than being physically attacked by dealers at the London meeting. No offense is intended to any dealer. This image is just to make you smile.

Well, it didn't. It was a cheap stunt that merely reinforces the tired old saw that antique dealers are basically mindless thugs who will resort to the knuckle sandwich when the temperature rises. Did Lester consult David Moss before quoting him out of context like that?

Apparently, Lester's black eyes are a result of surgery. What kind of surgery? We know the ageing denizens of Florida give too much of their time and money to ham-fisted plastic surgeons with a Picasso complex, but is this more serious? I think we should be told.

The antiques trade is clearly in far worse shape than we imagined.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Funky caryatid brings British Museum director out in the rain

At first it appeared to be just another tourist strolling through the grounds of the British Museum as 26-year old American graduate student Mary Phillips, the daughter of a Greek immigrant, conducted her one-woman peaceful protest appealing for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens (left).

But on closer inspection the concerned-looking middle-aged man in the pale blue crew neck sweater skulking in the background turned out to be none other than British Museum director Neil MacGregor, coming to check out the opposition (right).

It was Mary's first visit to London and she chose to spend her first Sunday in the capital standing in the freezing driving rain dressed as a caryatid, holding a panel bearing the words 'Please let me go home'.

Despite the urge to hurry into the museum to shelter from the inclement weather, many visitors instead paused to read Mary's message and take a few photographs. It's not every day you see a caryatid dressed in leggings and a pair of Doc Martens (left). But it was her appeal for the return of the Marbles that struck a chord, with many people vocalising their support and encouragement before heading into the museum.

Approached for his view of Mary's one-woman appeal, Neil MacGregor at least had the good grace to applaud her fortitude in braving the elements, calling her act "an elegant way of making her point," before shuffling back to his office.

Mary, 26, who has a degree in classical languages from the University of Pittsburgh, was born in the same year that the British Committee for the Reunification of the Marbles was founded, confirming that every generation delivers new supporters arguing for reunification.

"I recently visited the awe-inspiring Acropolis Museum in Athens," Mary said, "and saw for myself how worthy a place it is to receive back its marbles. The return of the Marbles would be a British cultural gesture of singular poignancy."

Also present on Sunday was English student and recent 'Fourth Plinthian', Sofka Smales who afterwards posed for a photo with Mary (right). Nineteen year-old Sofka used her time as part of Antony Gormley's project to promote the return of the Parthenon Marbles. "I feel really passionate about this", explained Sofka, a student at London’s Central St. Martins College. "I have always felt that the Parthenon Marbles should rightly be returned to their country of origin. Especially now that a first class museum has been built to house them."

Mary will now proceed to Athens where she may once again dress as a caryatid to generate further support for the cause.

Caryatids are supporting columns carved in the form of women, which became common in ancient Greek architecture during the early classical period.

The example (shown left) in the British Museum was looted by Lord Elgin from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens at around the same time he desecrated the Parthenon. It is not, however, included in the Greek appeal for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nationalism, cultural hybridity and a hole in the ground: James Cuno at the London School of Economics

James Cuno (left), director of the Art Institute of Chicago, seems to spend more time travelling the world promoting his books than he does looking after the encyclopedic collections over which he presides.

Yesterday evening an audience of around 60 people — academics, students, journalists and others — assembled at the London School of Economics to listen to Cuno rehearse his now familiar arguments about the ownership and fair distribution of cultural property. There on the panel to challenge him were Tatiana Flessas, professor of cultural property law at the LSE, and Dr Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association.

The event was organised by a right-leaning think-tank, which operates under the grand name of The Institute of Ideas.

Cuno's big idea is that the collections of the world's great encyclopedic museums are being used as a political football by so-called "nationalist cultural property retentionists" — which is his derogatory term for source nations who were robbed of their material heritage during the imperial era and who would now like some of it returned, please.

During his allocated ten minutes, Cuno offered a summary of what has become his idée fixe, which is that most calls for the return of cultural objects are motivated by a creeping nationalism that he finds sinister and destructive. In support of his ideas, he loves referring to "cultural hybridity" "alterity", "the fluidity of cultural identity" and other tropes drawn from the discourses of cultural politics and post-colonialism. At root, however, his mission is to shore up the concept of the encyclopedic museum — a fortress whose boundaries are everywhere under challenge. Once again he reiterated the patently absurd notion that encyclopedic museums should be established everywhere.

Cuno's highly political presentation — which, paradoxically, sought to criticize what he saw as the politicisation of culture by source nations — was followed by a few short comments from Tatiana Flessas.

Professor Flessas sought to point out that many encyclopedic museums are themselves national creations and are thus also instruments of nationalist agendas — actors taking up nationalistic positions by claiming the power to interpret, contextualise and assign meanings to the objects in their collections. "That building up the road is not a branch of museums UK plc, it is The British Museum", she said, drawing one of the few ripples of laughter in an otherwise rather po-faced evening.

Maurice Davies referred to Cuno's suggestion that Italy, and effectively all countries east and south of it, are guilty of devising retentionist laws (in contrast to an implied suggestion that Britain and America do not). But he countered that Britain too has its nationalist retentionist laws to claim ownership of ancient artefacts uncovered from its soil, as does the US with its own national claims over newly discovered native American objects — "so there's a lot of nationalism about", he convincingly concluded.

Davies went on to speak of his experience in helping to forge legislation and resolve disputes concerning human remains. "I have no problem with culture being political," he said. "If repatriation of remains can return a tiny amount of power to Aboriginal peoples, a tiny amount of what was taken from them through colonialism, then that can only be a good thing." He also pointed out that former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello had confirmed that the return of the Euphronius krater to Italy (after a welter of legal pressure forced its hand) ultimately resulted in a new wave of cultural cooperation between the two countries and a host of fresh Italian loans to the Metropolitan Museum. Cuno dismissed this as negligible and insisted that relations between the two nations were still not that good. Unlike Montebello, who saw the benefits that issued from the affair, Cuno risks coming across as a bad loser.

Finally, it was the turn of the audience to participate, but unfortunately the Institute of Ideas mistook it for an edition of the BBC's Question Time and chose to allow several members of the audience to ask their questions one after the other before turning to the panel for responses. As a result, many good questions were left unanswered and none of the panellists were pressed on any point. Events like this rely on a good authoritative chair with a sound grasp of the issues to steer the discussion. Sadly, last night we didn't have one.

One young woman valiantly tried to throw some light on the issue of the Parthenon Marbles, asking: "What does the panel suggest Greece might do to move beyond nationalism and advance its claim for return of the Marbles?" This was another good question not properly addressed, although it drew this from Tatiana Flessas: "The British Museum will literally have to fall into a hole in the ground before it gives up the Parthenon Marbles and if that's not national and nationalistic, what is?"

Finally, there were lots of calls for transparency (another nebulous buzzword), but again no clear steer on the issue. One thing that is rarely if ever talked about is the relationship between museums and the art market. As long as there is no transparency in the art market (and without some form of regulation this is not likely to change), there will never be transparency where collecting and museums are concerned.

Events like this often end up generating more heat than light. This one left us all in the cold and dark. But at least James Cuno shifted a few copies of his book, on sale outside the conference room, which I suppose was the real point of the evening.

Inexplicably, two thirds of the way through the event's allocated time, with plenty left to discuss, the chair announced it was time to get down to the pub. I suggested that before retiring to the boozer, could we please have a show of hands on the return of the Parthenon Marbles?

The result: 29 in favour of return, 32 against.

Sometimes only a couple of beers will dispel the gloom.

Breaking news update
The New York Times has just weighed into this debate again, John Tierney filing a piece here criticizing Egypt's antiquities tsar, Zahi Hawass for his avowed determination to seek the return of significant Egyptian antiquities held in Western encyclopedic museums.

Unsurprisingly, Tierney quotes Cuno: “It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange. And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.”

Meanwhile, these objects remain the property of Western nations whose encyclopedic museums benefit from the revenues generated by these objects through cultural tourism, etc. Possession is nine tenths of the law and 100 percent of the revenues too.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"They came like thieves in the night" – How ABN Amro impounded €40 million worth of art from Dutch museum

As the specialist art press busies itself with yawn-inducing non-stories such as Tracey Emin’s feeble 'defence' of Damien Hirst’s critically demolished paintings at the Wallace Collection, a story with rather more significant implications for the art world has been unfolding over in Holland, as I reported here.

The collapse of Dutch DSB Bank NV on October 19, following a run by customers who withdrew €600 million worth of deposits, led to its main creditor, the mighty ABN Amro, seizing works of art that were destined for the Scheringa Museum of Realist Art, currently under construction (above left). The museum was the brainchild and private passion of DSB Bank’s owner Dirk Scheringa, a former policeman turned financial trader and banker and latterly the owner of champion Dutch soccer club AZ Alkmaar.

The impounded works of art – including pieces by René Magritte, Lucian Freud, Marlene Dumas, Carel Willink and Terry Rodgers – were confiscated without prior warning from ABM Amro. The paintings, drawings and sculptures were scheduled for the inaugural exhibition in May 2010 of the almost completed €30 million state-of-the-art museum in Opmeer, North Holland (above right), which, had it been completed, would have been larger than the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Video footage of the seizure (see YouTube item posted on my blog entry below) showed curators in tears as the trucks arrived just a day after the museum’s parent company DSB Beheer also filed for bankruptcy in the Dutch courts. Local Dutch press quoted a canteen lady who said: "They [ABN Amro] came like thieves in the night."

The run on the Scheringa Bank appears to have been sparked by critical remarks by the Dutch economist Pieter Nijman Lakeman on the popular breakfast television programme Good Morning Netherlands. It seems Lakeman effectively urged customers to withdraw their money from DSB Bank on the grounds that it had levied excessive fees for mortgages. It was all dismally reminiscent of the demise of British bank Northern Rock here in the UK last year, which also followed a run by its retail customers.

Dirk Scheringa himself (left) appeared on Dutch television to express his bitterness about how matters had developed, saying, “We are not bankrupt, we were destroyed.”

What has been almost entirely overlooked in the affair is the impact on the artists whose work was owned by the museum or on those who were making work to be shown at the new museum next year, some of whom have not been paid. For all the negative press Dirk Scheringa has received regarding his financial dealings, many artists speak of his passion and commitment as a collector.

Earlier this year, the Scheringa Museum was hit by thieves who made off with works by Salvador Dali and Tamara de Lempicka (see Art Theft Central here and the New York Times here). That unfortunate event now looks like small beer next to the arrival of ABN Amro’s trucks.

Are these impounded works now destined for the auction block like those salvaged from doomed US investment bank Lehman Brothers?

This story takes on an altogether different significance in the light of the recent remarkable growth of private museums. As more and more traditional public museums look to deaccessioning as a means of bolstering acquisition funds or reducing storage costs (or indeed to plug gaps in their operating budgets), so benefactors are beginning to shy away from bequeathing works for fear that they may not be held in perpetuity. Many are looking instead to founding their own private museums.

The fate of the Scheringa Museum suggests that even the most well-endowed foundation is vulnerable in these uncertain times.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Scheringa Museum for Realist Art raided by bailiffs

It looks for all the world like a nocturnal art heist, and I suppose in some respects that is what it is. But when a bunch of heavies arrived in a truck this week to empty Holland's Scheringa Museum of Realist Art of its entire collection, it offered further evidence of the increasingly intimate relationship between art and capital and the catastrophic consequences when the relationship founders.

The Museum's demise is directly linked to the collapse of the Dutch DSB Bank owned by the Museum's founder and owner, Dirk Scheringa. The bank suffered a Northern Rock-style run over recent days, effectively forcing it into liquidation by its creditors, Dutch bank ABN Amro (whose removal men were at least considerate enough to use bubble wrap to protect the exhibits they impounded).

This torrid tale might be read as an unwelcome foretelling of how the art market could unfold in the coming few years. For all the upbeat messages spun out of the Frieze Fair this past week by its media owners, the art market might yet suffer from a 'double-dip' recession. The part played by debt funds and the financial sector's other dark materials is already being dramatically played out in Scheringa.

Many believed the Scheringa Museum voor Realisme was independent of the bank, securely funded and firewalled by its 'Foundation' status. In fact, its collection was standing as security for a Euro32 million loan.

More on this in the next few days....

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The New Art Market begins to take shape

We're nearing the end of Frieze week and the temperature seems to have risen slightly on the international art thermometer. Is the art market finally de-frosting after a year in the ice box?

As usual, the press has been somewhat preoccupied with the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow, David Furnish and their ilk at Frieze Fair's champagne private bash, but unless these celebrities are buying their Martin Kippenbergers and Peter Doigs in the full glare of the media, we need more than a bit of idle star-watching to gauge the progress of recovery.

Earlier in the week, I attended an Art Markets Symposium in South Kensington organised by Deloitte's Luxembourg office. This was another of those occasions when the world's leading art investment fund managers assemble to exchange Delphic anecdotes about 'volatility projections', 'eclectic asset allocations' and 'correlation analyses' while I sketched a passable version of Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus on the back of my conference pack.

Many art market watchers believe the art market bubble that finally burst at the end of last year had been inflated over the previous few years by the presence in the market of speculators from the financial sector. These barbarians, the theory goes, had pitched their tents in the last great unregulated market (or what one fund manager at this week's conference pithily described as "a completely unconstrained, non-benchmarked space"), before embarking on an orgy of arbitrage and unabashed 'flipping'.

Some would have us believe that the 'correction' we're now witnessing has brought a return to some Edenic place from which the 'flippers' have finally been expelled. Those buying art in the current climate are buying it for the love of art, not because they think they can make money on it. New York dealer Marianne Boesky told Bloomberg this week that "Last year was so rough at Frieze," but this year, "It's real. There's no hype or depression. We’re now selling to people who just love art."

Surely if it were only "art lovers" doing all the buying there would be no art market. And weren't the dealers who are now luxuriating in 'the real' only too happy to sell to the hordes of barbarian speculators during the years of milk and honey from 2003-2008? Yes, they were.

With Goldman Sachs preparing to pay out $5.35 billion to its staff in quarterly pay and bonuses following a spike in profits, there is every chance that the 5,500 Goldman Sachs employees based in London might just decide to channel some of that wealth towards art. Here we go again, is the phrase that immediately springs to mind.

If you thought the last art bubble was bad (incidentally, the Mei-Moses art index defines a bubble as a trend of 30% growth per annum for five years), the Deloitte conference offered plenty of signs that the international art market may already have entered another phase of growth. This time it may be driven by a different range of derivatives and similarly exotic instruments aiming to capitalize on the market's traditional lack of liquidity. So while dealers over at Frieze were celebrating the return of the real, elsewhere plans were already afoot to construct the next virtual market. Once again it will be a market powered in no small measure by debt funds and hedge funds.

Another tent-pole trend emerging from the Deloitte conference was the emergence of a new breed of 'eclectic funds' that seek to spread risk across a broader range of what are now commonly termed "emotional assets". So, diamonds, stamps, coins, watches, and so on, will increasingly be included in investment portfolios along with (or indeed perhaps instead of) fine art. According to Bernard Duffy of Emotional Assets Management & Research (EAMR), recent studies have demonstrated that by diversifying into a broader range of 'collectibles', volatility profiles can be projected more efficiently and returns predicted with greater accuracy.

Meanwhile, one trend that is proving somewhat tougher to predict is the future of the auction houses, particularly as buyers and sellers seek increased privacy in their transactions and as the global art market continues its seemingly inexorable shift from West to East.

The art market's traditional need for discretion and the low cost of private transactions (compared with the terrifying cost of selling via the rostrum) has already triggered an exponential growth in the number and value of private sales conducted by the auction houses. Christie's executed £133.1 million ($217 million) in private sales in the first half of 2009, while Sotheby's transacted $1.5 billion (£917 million) in private sales over the last three years, according to a Bloomberg report.

So, while I wasn't actively scouting around for a visual metaphor to illustrate these musings, Frieze fair provided one.

As I exited the big tent on Thursday, I spotted a video work by Christian Jankowski entitled Strip The Auctioneer (right). This involved an elegantly dressed auctioneer selling his own clothes, item by item, at a Christie's public auction. The sale actually took place at Christie's Amsterdam in June, but I'm disappointed to have to report that the auctioneer failed to strip fully naked, apparently stopping after he'd taken off his trousers.

Whether this failure to get all of his kit off represents grounds for an appeal under the Trade Descriptions Act is a moot point, but I couldn't help wondering whether the auctioneer might have gone a bit further had he been selling via a private transaction. The last object he sold was his hammer. If that's not symbolic, what is?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

'No Love Lost' between Hirst and his critics

I was at an art investment conference yesterday at which one of the delegates shared an amusing and illuminating story about the artist Damien Hirst. It concerned a collector who had purchased one of Hirst's butterfly paintings for a large amount of money (it would have been between £500,000-£700,000). Some time later he was perturbed to see that several of the butterflies had fallen off the canvas on which Hirst (or more likely one of his army of assistants) had suspended them.

Clearly aware that he was in possession of something with a very limited shelf life, the collector promptly went out and found a few replacement butterflies and attached them to the spaces vacated by their predecessors before entering the work into auction. The bidding started high — £600,000 (no bids), £500,000 (no bids), 300,000, 200,000, and so on, before being knocked down for some paltry sum. It was said that Hirst bought the work, repaired it himself (or more likely got one of his army of assistants to repair it for him) and then re-sold it for somewhere rather closer to its original price.

Whether or not this story is true, it does illustrate something about the Hirst mythology — that given that he doesn't actually make the works, he is now recognized primarily as a businessman (it's no surprise that this anecdote was told by an art asset manager at an art investment conference).

But perhaps that is what Hirst will now be restricted to doing — repairing the mixed media and collage-based works for which he has become famous and which he recently declared he had finished making altogether in favour of a return to painting (see my preview of his current Wallace Collection show here).

It seems that Hirst, ever the clever reader of the market and his critics, might have expected the merciless critical deconstruction that his paintings have received from the art press. The title of his Wallace Collection show — No Love Lost — may have been a subtle signal that if the critics ravaged him, there would be no love lost between him and them.

It's easy to take a pop at the guy. He's the richest artist that ever walked the planet and the critics and commentators just can't forgive him for clearing £100 million at Sotheby's in a single auction on the very day that Lehman Brothers evaporated. It may be true that he can't paint. It raises the interesting question: "What will he do next?"

The critics get the knives out:
It couldn't get worse for Damien Hirst (Telegraph)

Are Hirst's paintings any good? No, they're not worth looking at (The Independent)

Damien Hirst's paintings are deadly dull (The Guardian)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Clement Price-Thomas: 'The Guide'

Clement Price-Thomas's The Guide, below, has just won the Installation, Sculpture and Performance Prize on the Premio Celeste art website.

The Guide from Clement Price - Thomas on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Auction houses become private dealers as power shifts from seller to buyer

The steady transformation of the big international fine art auction houses into private dealerships continues apace. The process has been going on for some time with the acquisition by auction houses of leading dealerships in the fields of Old Masters and Contemporary Art. But the fall of Lehman Brothers last year has punched a hole the size of the Grand Canyon into vendor consignments, forcing the auctioneers into conducting more and more private transactions. How this will affect the future of art price databases, which rely on the steady availability of public auction prices?

This morning, Bloomberg calculates that the forthcoming London contemporary art auctions, to be held by Christie's and Phillips de Pury during the week of the Frieze fair, are estimated to realise £20.8 million ($33.1 million). That contrasts with the equivalent sales last year, which carried a low estimate of £107 million, in other words around 80% down.

But interestingly, Bloomberg also reports that private sales transacted by Christie's outstripped its auction sales in the first half of 2009. "Christie’s had £133.1 million in private sales in the first half of 2009," writes Bloomberg's Scott Reyburn.

An artist friend asked me recently why Christie's had bought the London dealership Haunch of Venison. There's the answer. Foreseeing the imminent decline of the public auction market and knowing the extent to which buyers and sellers privilege discretion over transparency, the auction houses have steadily strengthened their foothold in the lucrative private sales arena. The risks of consigning works to public auction have multiplied in just a matter of months. The discreet private alternative starts to look very attractive.

Art market analysts have been predicting the seismic shift of power from seller to buyer for some time. It will be interesting to see how it shakes down during Frieze week and beyond.

The days when one could look to the auction arena for a relatively reliable indication of market activity are drawing to a close. What this says about the future of art price databases — hitherto the main source of data for market analysts — is another matter.

Market transparency recedes even further into the distant horizon. Does that matter?

Image above:
Li Songsong (b. 1973) 
Cuban Sugar (2006)
To be offered by Christie's in London on 16th October 2009
Image: Christie's

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Parthenon Marbles: refuting the arguments

My friend Kwame Opoku writes to tell me that Julien Anfruns, Director-General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), recently told the Spanish journal La Nueva España that the Parthenon Marbles held by the British Museum should remain in London. This has understandably upset those who expect impartiality from ICOM and its officers over matters of delicate cultural diplomacy.

It seems that Anfruns believes that had Elgin not hacked the Marbles from the Parthenon, there would be no Parthenon Marbles left for any of us to enjoy. "Had the transfer never happened," Anfruns is quoted as saying, "who knows if we would be able to see these pieces today at all." Transfer. I like that.

This is patent nonsense, of course, and prompts me into a summary refutation of Anfruns's observation and the other spurious arguments frequently put forward to keep the Marbles in London.

Lord Elgin "rescued" the Marbles by removing them to safety in Britain
In fact, the Marbles that Lord Elgin did not bring back to Britain and which remained in Athens, survived remarkably well and have recently benefited from responsible cleaning by Greek conservators using state of the art laser technology. In contrast, the Marbles retained by the British Museum were scrubbed with wire brushes in the 1930s by British Museum staff in a misguided attempt to make them whiter.

Lord Elgin "legally" acquired the Marbles and Britain subsequently "legally" acquired them from him for the British Museum
In the absence of unequivocal documentary proof of the actual circumstances under which Lord Elgin removed the Marbles, the legality of Britain's acquisition of them will always be in doubt. More importantly, the fact that permission to remove them was granted not by the Greeks but by the Ottoman forces occupying Greece at that time undermines the legitimacy of Elgin's actions and thus by extension Britain's ownership.

Lord Elgin's removal of the Marbles was archaeologically motivated
Lord Elgin's expressed intention was always to transport the Marbles to his family pile in Scotland where they would be displayed as trophies in the tradition established by aristocratic collectors returning from the Grand Tour. Nobody with genuine archaeological interest in ancient Greek sculpture would ever have countenanced the disfiguring of such a beautiful and important ancient monument in the way Lord Elgin did. For archaeologists, an object's original context is paramount.

The Greeks are unable to look after the Parthenon Marbles properly
The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is a world-class museum with first-rate conservation and curatorial expertise. It is the most appropriate place in the world in which to display the Parthenon Marbles. Its proximity to the ancient monument would return to them some measure of their architectural significance. While they remain in London, this aspect of their importance is steadily being erased from the cultural memory.

It is impossible to restore the Parthenon and thus the aspiration towards 'reunification' is a false one
Restoration of the structural fabric of Parthenon temple continues apace. However, the aspiration has never been to return the frieze, pediment and metopes to the original building but rather to reunify them within the New Acropolis Museum where they can be properly appreciated and understood, and preserved for posterity.

The Marbles are better off in London where they can be seen in the context of other world cultures
Research on museum visitors has concluded that the average visitor does not make meaningful connections between the randomly acquired objects held and displayed by encyclopedic museums. Indeed, given the choice between viewing the Parthenon Marbles within the artificial contexts applied to them by British Museum curators and experiencing them in the city of Athens from which they originate, polls demonstrate that the majority of the public would prefer to see them returned to Athens.

The Marbles belong to "the world", to all of us, and should therefore be left where "everyone" can enjoy them
Now that Athens has a world-class, state-of-the-art museum in which to house the Marbles, there is no longer any justification for assuming that London is the best place for the people of the world to enjoy them. Since its opening, the New Acropolis Museum has enjoyed huge visitor numbers. It is therefore reasonable to assume that visitor numbers would increase still further were the Parthenon Marbles to be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum.

If the British Museum agreed to return the Marbles to Athens, it would set a dangerous precedent that would "open the floodgates", leading to the denuding of the world's encyclopedic museums
For European and North American museums to suggest that they would be denuded is tantamount to admitting that the majority of their collections were dubiously acquired, which is not the case. It is therefore nonsense to suggest that museums would be denuded. Every request for repatriation should be treated on its own merits. The great encyclopedic or 'universal' museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and elsewhere are all subject to the laws laid down within internationally agreed legal instruments such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the safeguarding of cultural property. Refusing to return the Marbles sends the wrong message at a time when a more ethical approach is required over disputed cultural objects.

The Marbles are too important a part of the British Museum collection to allow them to be given up
The most important part of the British Museum's work in the future will be the fostering of creative cultural partnerships with other nations. These can lead to groundbreaking exhibitions such as the Terracotta Army from China and Moctezuma from Mexico. Returning the Parthenon Marbles would open a new chapter in cooperative relations with Greece and enable visitors to the British Museum to see new objects loaned by Greek museums. Refusal to return the Marbles is hampering this process. The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts. The decision to return the Marbles to Athens would be seen as the British Museum leading the way in enlightened cultural diplomacy, the benefits of which would be diverse, long-term, and far-reaching.

The Marbles can only be "loaned" to Athens if the Greeks agree to concede Britain's legal ownership of the sculptures
Attaching such a precondition to a dispute over cultural property has been widely viewed as insulting and condescending and reminiscent of colonialist approaches to international relations. Seemingly intractable cultural disputes require both parties to adopt a spirit of open-minded generosity and to enter into discussions on equal terms and with no preconditions.

"The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story." (Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum)
It is not the role of museums to rewrite history to further their own nationalistic ends. As their correct name makes clear, the Parthenon Marbles are, and will always be, integral to the story of the Parthenon, one of the finest cultural achievements bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks.

Have I missed anything? Ah, yes, the sun shines more frequently in Athens. Case closed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rare Danish watercolour found sleeping in Yorkshire

They're called 'sleepers' — auction lots whose true value is unrecognized by the auctioneer until the hammer falls.

On such occasions it only takes two knowledgeable dealers or collectors for the bidding to take off, leaving a derisory estimate in a cloud of dust. So perhaps the real sleepers are the auctioneers who only wake up when the item they've failed to recognize suddenly breaks cover and fetches an unexpectedly high price. This month some of the loudest snoring came from West Yorkshire, although the dozy auctioneers, Hartleys of Ilkley, will doubtless claim that it wasn't a sleeper as they knew all along what it was and what it was worth. Which merely confirms that pre-sale estimates are meaningless.

Among the pictures offered at their 9th September auction was the original watercolour illustration dated 1913 (above left). Entitled Knight Olaf, it shows a forest with a gaunt-looking medieval knight astride a white steed being welcomed by a frieze of ethereal female nudes doubling as swirling mist. Clearly influenced by fin-de-siècle artists such as Jan Toorop and Aubrey Beardsley, it also has affinities with the work of childrens' book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, and with the 'Fairyland' designs by Daisy Makeig Jones for Royal Worcester ceramics.

The artist was the Danish illustrator Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957) (right) who, like Rackham, specialized in illustrating fairy tales and legends by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Charles Perrault, and others.

After training in Paris, where he absorbed the prevailing Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of the European avant garde, Nielsen moved to London in 1911. There he established a successful career as a children's book illustrator. In 1939, he settled in southern California and the following year was commissioned by Walt Disney to design scenes for his 1940 film, Fantasia.

The illustration that turned up in Yorkshire was signed and dated 1913, making it an early work, executed when Nielsen was just 27 and beginning to pick up his first commissions from London publishers Hodder and Stoughton. It bore a label on the verso for the Leicester Galleries, the internationally renowned London dealers in avant garde art.

The Knight Olaf was entered for sale by a private vendor from Halifax whose family acquired it after the war when they bought a large Cheshire property that had been decommissioned by the army. The illustration was acquired along with the rest of the house contents and was for many years assumed to be a print. Even in 1945 it may have been worth more than the house.

There is no shortage of auction price databases on the internet that would have revealed the keen international demand for original illustrations by Nielsen, but it seems Hartleys didn't consult them. Only last year, Christie's South Kensington sold A Huntsman Vanquishes The Seven-Headed Dragon (left) for £23,273 ($67,500), by no means an unusual price for Nielsen's work.

How, then, did Hartleys arrive at an estimate of just £1500-2500 for such a hugely decorative, original, early work, signed and dated, in excellent condition, and in its original frame? The trade press described the estimate as "cautious". Pointless would be more accurate.

In the event, the hammer fell at £36,000 offered by an American bidder. It's the sort of picture that would probably have interested the Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island, to say nothing of the wealthy private collectors of Nielsen's work who'd be willing to stretch themselves for outstanding early examples.

The buyer's premium alone on the hammer price amounts to £5400, to say nothing of the vendor commission.

Nice work, if you can get it. Even better if you can do it in your sleep.

Thursday, September 17, 2009 An old idea, freshly minted

Some of the most interesting e-commerce ventures currently emerging in the culture sector are arriving to the sort of media fanfare usually reserved for truly new and original ideas. But how innovative are these ventures?

Take, for example,, a new website that aggregates designer objects, limited edition prints, multiples and other cultural merchandise from a host of UK museums, galleries and other cultural institutions, making them available via an online shopping basket, à la Amazon.

The site is the brainchild of a group of young marketing wizards and brand-savvy entrepreneurs and is headed up by David Gilbert, a trustee and chair of the Contemporary Arts Society, and a board director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Arts Council.

Gilbert, (right) and his team believe their online retail culture store can create an additional 30 percent revenue for cash-strapped museums and galleries.

The 60-odd partners already signed up include key national museums and galleries such as Tate, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy, plus the National Trust and English Heritage. Then there's all those contemporary galleries like the Baltic in Gateshead and doubtless the Arts Council's 'string of pearls' will follow — Towner in Eastbourne, the De La Warr in Bexhill, Turner Contemporary in Margate, and Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire.

It's not enough to open a fancy David Chipperfield-designed museum; these shiny new white cubes need to generate revenues too. As David Gilbert himself has said, "It’s important to understand that you don’t have to rely on public funding for growth." That has been true for decades, but every now and again it's important to state the bleeding obvious.

Culture Label is a brilliant thing and very welcome, but its core idea isn't as innovative and original as it might seem.

Back in 2000, Philadelphia-based entrepreneur Richard B. Price was stacking up the air-miles shuttling around the world trying to generate capital funding for the

Aware of the revenue crisis in the museum sector (a crisis that even now, ten years on, is only deepening) I felt certain Price would succeed in winning the required investment for his innovative online museum hub. However, like many other great business ideas that emerged prior to the dotcom slide, MuseumNetwork proved to be ahead of its time. Museums (many at that time not even online), just didn't get it. Cultural entrepreneurism was in its infancy too.

But since then, online retail has developed in leaps and bounds, giving birth to a global army of culture shoppers. And museums have started to wake up to those opportunities.

Part of the MuseumNetwork plan was to aggregate museum merchandise on a single website to offer global access to cultural products and thereby create new revenue streams for museums. But its business plan comprised a whole lot more besides a big online culture shop. The core idea was to create the conditions and systems that would enable museums to share marketing and other administrative costs and benefit from economies of scale. This would still be a welcome thing were it to happen. Ultimately it would also have created an exchange forum for deaccessioning, which continues to test the ingenuity and ethical charters of museums across Europe and North America.

In the event, diversity of ambition may have been MuseumNetwork's Achilles heel, just as CultureLabel's niche focus is its main strength. Here, individual museum brands are subsumed into an overarching Amazonian retail environment where cultural 'products' speak for themselves rather than for the institution with which they may have been originally associated. In other words, what might have looked like a piece of local kitsch when encountered in the real-world museum shop, could take on a fresh significance in this easy-click retail space alongside other designed objects of desire.

CultureLabel is basically the high-fallutin' cultural equivalent of 'I Want One Of'. But what's wrong with that? If it puts pounds in museums' pockets and alleviates the strain on operating budgets and thereby helps them stay open, then all well and good.

Just don't tell me it's a new idea.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Van Gogh: ear we go again...

I was amused to read Ann Landi's interesting bibliographical review on ARTnews online of the various mythologies that have grown up around van Gogh's ear over the decades (yes, that's it on the left).

Among the texts they refer to is German writer and van Gogh scholar Stefan Koldehoff's book Van Gogh: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Van Gogh: Myth and Reality, DuMont 2003), which explored the circumstances of the Dutch painter's lobe-otomy (ouch!).

During his research, Koldehoff "found not even the smallest piece of truth" for the 2001 thesis expounded by Hamburg-based scholars Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans (Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens (Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, Osburg) in which they venture that Vincent lost his ear during a sword fight with Gauguin during their tumultuous time sharing a house in Provence.

Be that as it may, what interested me most about the ARTnews piece was Koldehoff's reference to a satirical story I penned in 2003 (which he also discussed in his book (right) and which, incidentally, can still be read online here).

Koldehoff told ARTnews, "In 2003, on the 150th anniversary of van Gogh’s birth, a British colleague [he meant Percy Flarge] put on his Web site a photo of a glass [above left] supposedly containing the artist’s ear," claiming it had been found recently in southern France and that there was now a dispute between the Netherlands and France as to where it should go as a national treasure. "Of course it was an ironic comment on the big brouhaha over the anniversary, but several serious news agencies and newspapers printed it as fact."

I only bring this up in the hope that Stefan Koldehoff can enlighten me as to which serious news agencies and newspapers fell for that story. Or is he, perhaps, confusing it with the Belgian broadsheet De Morgen's credulous re-publishing of my satirical Parthenon Marbles article which claimed that the Marbles were not, in fact, made by a Greek but by an Englishman who changed his name to Pheidias. Just for the record, that news item and The Guardian's follow-up can also still be read online here.

I mention this not merely to drive traffic to that humble piece of internet real estate where the flag of art satire still flutters in the gentle breeze, but also to ensure that the British Museum's unethical stance over the Parthenon Marbles doesn't entirely slip from the agenda now that the New Acropolis Museum is open and drawing huge visitor numbers.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Getting plinthed

Ciara from Ireland had the right idea. If you're going to bore everyone to death during your time on the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, you might as well have a good time in the process. So she took up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and got slowly plinthed over the course of her sixty minutes of fame — a full four times the Warhol quota.

Antony Gormley's latest project — entitled One and Other — is open to anyone 16 years of age or older who is resident in, or staying in the UK. At time of writing, there were 23,408 applicants hoping to bag one of the 2,400 hour-long slots on the famously vacant Fourth Plinth.

You can take anything up onto the plinth as long you can carry it yourself. So you can't take a horse up there, or a blast furnace, or your car, but pornographic magazines, a few lines of coke and small improvised explosive devices are probably OK as long as you're subtle about it.

It's hard to believe it is almost half a century since the artist Vito Acconci curled up under a ramp in New York's Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while the public walked above. Vito, London calling! There's still time to grab one of the 2,400 places!

But perhaps Acconci, Arnulf Rainer, Chris Burden — who nailed himself to the bonnet of his VW Beetle — and their crazy '60s avant-garde cohorts are to blame for raising our expectations where contemporary public art is concerned. Today it's enough to just sit up there like Ettie did this afternoon (above left), quietly reading her book on the Mitfords, knowing that in the process she was "being a tiny part of something huge."

But I need more than this from contemporary art.

The American art critic Rosalind Krauss wrote of "sculpture's expanded field" to denote the diversity of objects, activities, practices and processes that now qualify as sculpture. That field has become so vast and heterogeneous, and its perimeter fence so porous, that just about anything qualifies for access. In an act of uncritical generosity, Antony Gormley has just ushered in 2400 members of the British public.

Good luck to them. I'm off to get plinthed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A viral embarrassment

I realise there is a serious of risk of Marbles-fatigue spreading like swine-flu if I continue to blog away on this topic to the exclusion of all else, but I can't resist noting an interesting contrast between two recent news items.

Speaking of viral phenomena, it was instructive to see that The Guardian's poll on the Parthenon Marbles attracted almost as much attention as the paper's coverage of the demise of Michael Jackson.

And how interesting that British Museum director Neil MacGregor now seems unable to announce a single new initiative for his museum, launch any fresh innovation, or indeed do anything meaningful in the world without feeling the need to accompany every utterance with a defence of his beleaguered institution's position over the Parthenon Marbles. How long is he prepared to continue this embarrassing charade?

MacGregor has just joined forces with Tate supremo Nicholas Serota to tell the world that the future of museums lies on the internet. Hold on, let me write that down in case I forget. I thought the future was going to be somewhere else.

"The challenge is, to what extent do we remain authors," said Serota, "and in what sense do we become publishers providing a platform for international conversations?" The British Museum would do well to respond to that question by engaging with the Greeks in a conversation about the future of the Parthenon Marbles without attaching obstructive preconditions.

"In the past," says Serota, "there has been an imperfect communication between visitors and curators. The possibility for a greater level of communication between curators and visitors is the challenge now. There will be a big shaking-out — a discrepancy will arise between those institutions that grasp these opportunities and those that do not." But there will never be a big shaking-out while a backward-looking British Museum-style Establishment rearguard impedes progress.

Serota may have been referring to the British Museum's abject failure to listen to the wishes of its public.

Neil MacGregor says the Parthenon marbles issue is "yesterday's question." But clearly it's not. The Guardian poll reveals that it's very much today's question and will be tomorrow's question too, and indeed will still be the question on everyone's lips the day after that and the day after that and into next year and throughout the next decade until the British Museum does the right thing as advised by 94% of respondents to the Guardian poll and sends the Marbles back.

"The Greek government has a clear position that the [Marbles'] removal [from the Parthenon] was illegal and therefore this conversation cannot happen," said MacGregor in a clear contradiction of his colleague Nick Serota's earlier advice to provide a platform for international conversations. How undignified and contradictory does all this look?

Conversations between encyclopedic museums, their public and their international partners won't happen until the museums pull themselves out of an anachronistic mindset, put aside petty questions of ownership and legality and other constraining conditions, and be generous in their approach to cultural diplomacy.

Serota is obviously right that if museums learn how to harness internet communications technology in creative ways they could ultimately become more active publishers and broadcasters. Such initiatives will surely open up new revenue-generating opportunities but that will only further inflame those nations who believe their material culture was unfairly appropriated during the era of collecting.

Before these big internet ideas are likely to work there are even bigger issues that will need to be addressed that bear on the sharing and return of cultural objects. The Marbles issue won't go away.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

British Museum finally spots colour on the Parthenon Marbles

The British Museum has grandly announced the results of "a new study" indicating that the Parthenon in Athens was originally painted in various colours, notably 'Egyptian Blue'. Evidently a Dr Giovanni Verri has been shining a light onto the Marbles held by the British Museum, leading him to conclude that the ancient temple was once decorated in shades of blue, red and probably gold.

"We informed our Greek colleagues," Dr Verri said, "and they responded warmly, saying they are interested in examining these flecks themselves."

What is this all about? For generations it has been common knowledge among art historians and archaeologists that the Parthenon and its sculptures would originally have been decorated. Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting of 1868 — Pheidias and the Parthenon Frieze (shown above left) — depicts the sculptor showing Athenian citizens around his team's handiwork high up on the scaffold.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a lively debate was raging in British scholarly circles over the question of polychromy — the colouring of sculpture — but it was not about whether the ancients painted their buildings and sculptures, but about how and to what extent.

Today, even virtual reality reconstructions of the Parthenon use nineteenth-century sources such as Benoit Loviot's Cross-Section of the Parthenon of 1879-81 (Ecole des Beaux-Arts Paris) (right) as their guide to the use of colour on the Parthenon. These late nineteenth-century sources were themselves drawing on much earlier research by architects such as Jacques-Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867) and Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849) which had established beyond doubt that Greek temples and sculptures were coloured, both with 'applied' polychromy (paint) and 'natural' polychromy (the use of naturally coloured materials such as gold and ivory).

Not even this was enough, however, to convince some skeptical British sculptors that polychromy was an acceptable way to proceed in the modern world. John Bell, writing in 1861, insisted that, "in these civilised days, the colouring of statues is not an advance, but a palpable retrogression towards earlier times of less intelligence, and of a lower dispensation and, moreover, as far as art is concerned, that a decadence would at once ensue on a general adoption of such practice."

It was that kind of aesthetic prejudice — a determination to keep sculpture white (and thus by extension morally uncontaminated) — that led to the British Museum scraping the Parthenon Marbles with wire brushes in the 1930s in an effort to restore some notional whiteness.

It is thus hard not to see the recent announcement of "new" research results — timed to coincide with the opening of the New Acropolis Museum — as another indication of how defensive the British Museum has become over its retention of the Parthenon Marbles. So the Greeks have "responded warmly"; of course, they always do. But how much better it would be if the British Museum would reciprocate that warmth and permit the Greeks to conduct this kind of research themselves — on all the Parthenon Marbles — by returning them to Athens.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

British Museum on the back foot over Parthenon Marbles

If the image, left, had appeared in Hello! magazine, the headline might have read: "Lord Elgin invites us into his beautiful stately home to look at the fragments of the classical past amassed by his forebear Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin". Elgin's desecration of the Parthenon left him seriously impoverished but clearly the £35,000 he received from the British Government in exchange for the Parthenon Marbles was enough to secure a more than comfortable future for his ancestors.

I found this image on a Greek television website alongside an interview with the present Lord Elgin. Sadly the video was dubbed into Greek so I have no idea whether his lordship was accepting his family's responsibility for that heinous crime against the classical heritage or justifying it as cultural rescue. No prizes for guessing...

There's been a blizzard of news and opinion pieces on the Marbles issue in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, they have veered from the downright stupid, such as Richard Dorment's hysterical rant in the Daily Telegraph (here), to more balanced and insightful pieces such as the article by Helena Smith in yesterday's Guardian.

Smith reports that the Greeks, having played the patient supplicant for decades, may now be ready to "take the gloves off" in order to secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. "We are no longer willing to play the nice guys," a senior member of the culture ministry told The Guardian. "The British Museum has lost the argument. It is now on the defensive. In a year's time, I can assure you, it will want to give the marbles back."

The opening of the marvellous New Acropolis Museum to universal applause has clearly strengthened Greece's will. It has also exposed the British Museum to fresh ridicule, revealing it as out of step with current thinking on museums and cultural property and hopelessly out of touch with public opinion.

If you're looking for evidence that the British Museum is on the defensive on this issue, take a trip to the Duveen Galleries. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the sweltering heat of that ugly room (right) where Elgin's trophies of conquest are so clumsily arrayed.

It's clear from the plethora of new information panels running around the walls of the adjoining rooms that the British Museum is straining to justify its retention of the Marbles in the face of overwhelming public opinion that wants them returned.

Needless to say, in the BM's narrative, Elgin is framed as a hero rather than the cultural vandal that he was. The fact that the Marbles that remained in Athens (about half of the total) are in better condition than those in London demolishes the British Museum's claim that Elgin rescued those he took. It also makes a mockery of the British Museum's claim to have protected those in its care. London scrubbed them with wire wool in a misguided attempt to make them white, while Athens used up-to-the-minute laser technology to sensitively restore theirs.

We will never know how much damage was done by Elgin's cronies in sawing the sculptures off the building. Some pieces crashed to the ground when the winches gave way. But whenever the British Museum refers to any visible damage on the sculptures in London, it is always attributed to Morosini's bombardment of the building in 1687, ignoring Elgin's depredations. However it is clear from eighteenth-century drawings from casts that after the 1687 explosion many of the sculptures were in better condition than after Elgin's goons had finished cutting them up.

I love visiting the Marbles in London, but I would love visiting them far more if they were in Athens. This is because, unlike Ian Jenkins, who is the curator of the Marbles at the British Museum, I appreciate their architectural significance. Like many of his forebears, Mr Jenkins is clearly uninterested in this aspect of their significance or he would by now have done something to redress their bizarre configuration in the Duveen Galleries. Immured in this gloomy sepulchre, their relationship to the building for which they were designed is almost impossible to grasp.

Jenkins was interviewed on NPR radio about the Marbles. He began with the astonishing statement, "We regard Elgin as being a conservator. No Elgin, no Marbles." Who is this "we" to whom he refers? That a modern museum curator could be so blind to the available evidence defies belief. But whether or not Elgin ""saved" them, this is no justification for retaining them.

Jenkins also insists, quite wrongly, that the aspiration to "reunification" is flawed since it is predicated on the assumption that if they were brought together they would make a whole. This is another deliberate attempt to misrepresent a realistic and archaeologically-informed approach to reunification. Everyone is aware that we can never make the Parthenon whole again. But we could make it more whole than it is now.

Jenkins says that for a loan to be agreed, Greece must acknowledge Britain's legal ownership of the Marbles. Again, who is he speaking for here? In fact, the British people demand no such thing from the Greeks. How do we know this? A recent Guardian poll offered further incontrovertible evidence that the large majority of the public (94.8%) want to see the Marbles returned. It was not scientific — internet polls rarely are — but it was broadly in line with most other public opinion polls on this topic.

The British Museum's last remaining line of argument is that only in London can the Marbles be understood within the context of other cultures. The visitor to the British Museum can compare the Greek achievement with that of the Persians, or of ancient Mesopotamia, and so on. This ideal visitor, endowed with a sufficiently sophisticated visual awareness to grasp the finer nuances of formal stylistic development across cultures, is a myth propagated by museum curators out of touch with their audience.

In fact, the evidence suggests that such art historical subtleties are beyond the average visitor. As Louvre director Henri Loyrette told a conference at the British Museum, "Most of our displays mean nothing to people. Indeed, a survey of Louvre visitors revealed that 67 percent of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period." (The Guardian, 27th November, 2003).

Just as MPs were recently exposed for holding the electorate in contempt over expenses, so too the British Museum is now in danger of losing the trust of its public. Bonnie Greer, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, insists that the Marbles must remain in Britain. Ms Greer, look at the polls. You do not speak for me, nor, it seems, for the majority of the British people to whom you owe a duty of care.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Read 'em and weep: welcome to The New Art Market

The colonization of the art market by speculators of one sort or another has been one of the most talked-about themes in the specialist art press in recent years.

Nowhere was it more evident than at the epochal Damien Hirst auction last September which brought new millionaire collectors scampering like lemmings to the cliff edge. Sure enough, later that very same day, Lehman Brothers collapsed, the global financial markets tumbled and the storm clouds of recession closed in like one of those apocalyptic John Martin paintings.

The Hirst sale catalogue — a four-piece boxed set encased in glossy gold and diamond-spattered gun-metal grey reinforced cardboard, weighing all of 2.9 kilograms — sits on the shelf above my desk, an obdurate emblem of an out-of-control art market on steroids. If it falls off, it will surely kill me stone dead.

Now, with the market in a state of enforced cold turkey, the deep baritone of moral outrage continues to echo around the blogosphere and on the television channels. The market currently looks like a Warhol car crash as prices plummet to new lows, consignments wither, catalogues shrink, galleries close. Commentators and journalists seem intent on apportioning blame.

Some point the finger at millionaire hedge fund managers for driving up prices. Or if it wasn't the hedgies it was the auction houses for acting as principals, clipping the ticket on both the buy and sell sides while blithely waving away accusations of a conflict of interest. And if it wasn't the auction houses it was the dealers for supporting their artists by artificially inflating the bidding when their works came up for sale. Occasionally even the artists are blamed for having throttled up their studios to industrial-scale production levels to meet the new global demand. Hell, when you can't find a scapegoat, blame anyone! Blame everyone!

The most overt instance of this headhunting to date (there will be more) was last night's BBC Four documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, in which Ben Lewis, an Evening Standard journalist in a trilby and spectacles the size of the Brooklyn Bridge, trolled around the world in an electric car like a scruffy public health inspector visiting roach motels. One minute it was the dealers who were to blame by protecting their artists at auction, then it was the auction houses for offering guarantees. What did he expect them to do? Er, they're businessmen, Ben.

Sotheby's CEO Bill Ruprecht told me in an interview in 2003, "You take a different kind of risk when you take a principal position and I expect to be rewarded for that. I have never lost money on a principal position." I bet he wouldn't say that today.

Lewis seemed genuinely shocked that some dealers were in the practice of bidding up their artists at auction, seeing this as yet another manifestation of a venal market. But this too is nothing new. The painter J.M.W.Turner used to send a butcher's boy to London auctions to bid up his pictures incognito to ensure they wouldn't be sold too cheaply.

The genetic code of today's market was written between 1680 and 1750. If Lewis had bothered to cast his eyes back that far he'd have found that a good deal of what irks him about the market today has always been there. That doesn't make it right. But it does help us to understand how we might set about correcting it.

This was the basic problem with Lewis's knee-jerk documentary. It was poorly researched and bereft of historical perspective save for the obligatory excavation of the last boom in 1989-90. That always gets dragged up because you can point the finger at Sotheby's $53 million loan to Alan Bond to buy Van Gogh's Irises (Bond defaulted), among any number of other market-pumping practices rife at the time and since. Corruption is everywhere if that's all you want to see.

It seems clear on the basis of recent developments that a new art market might now emerge out of the present carnage. It will be born out of a shift in axis from the primacy of the seller to the buyer. There will be more, not less, speculation. The availability of information will improve but that won't necessarily mean greater transparency, or not yet. Transaction prices will have to fall; they've already reached unsustainable levels. There could be new alliances between the traditional auction houses and the online data providers — which have already started to appear. The trade will find their roles challenged by a new breed of artists' agents who will work at lower costs (and thus for a smaller cut). Old fashioned connoisseurs — already as endangered a species as art critics — will increasingly give way to the bean counters, number crunchers and other bottom-feeders.

One organism that may survive will be the grizzled hack in a pork-pie hat driving around in a limited edition artist-modified electric car. We'll always need entertainment.