Monday, November 29, 2010

How many Picassos does it take to change a light bulb?

Picasso: Photograph: Ralph Gatti
The news that Picasso's erstwhile electrician has been found in possession of a valuable store of works by the artist — apparently given as gifts by Picasso and potentially worth countless millions were they to come to market — has triggered renewed interest in the problematic status of gifts in the art world...and the uncanny knack of electricians to be in the right place at the right time.

Pierre Le Guennec, a 71-year old retired electrician from the south of France, claims Picasso gave him the 271 works, which include paintings, notebooks, drawings and prints — and even a Blue Period watercolour — as gifts. Smelling a rat, the omnipotent Picasso estate have sent in the legal rottweilers, filing a case for "alleged illegal receipt" of the works in question, according to the BBC. Merde, alors!

Of course, had Picasso been some anonymous artist, struggling like his local sparky to make a meagre living, the "gifts" would never have come to public attention. But Picasso was no struggling artist. He knew the value of what he made. And while that doesn't mean he wasn't capable of generosity, it does make one wonder whether he would have given a couple of hundred works to his electrician. I mean, how many Picasso drawings does it take to change a light bulb?

This brought to mind the 2007 case of the Francis Bacon canvases "rescued" from a dumpster outside Bacon's South Kensington studio after he had thrown them out. Who rescued them? Hey! An electrician!

Some years after the artist's death, they were entered into a provincial UK auction  where they fetched hundreds of thousands of pounds (a sale I reported and posted on YouTube here). Many of these works were portrait studies from which Bacon had removed the face with a scalpel, leaving a gaping oval hole where the face had been. Most of us expected that brutal excision would do for them commercially, but no. They went on to fetch extraordinary sums. Here's what I wrote at the time:

"The back story 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 goes 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, to be precise. Why then, one is tempted to ask, 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?"

The subsequent appearance of the objects on the market (at Ewbank Clarke Gammon's auction rooms in Woking, UK) inevitably drew criticism from those who saw their removal from the skip and subsequent sale as a violation of the artist's moral rights (Bacon's consignment of the works into the skip was interpreted as a sign that he did not want them to appear as representative of his work as an artist.)

It is perhaps inevitable that mere mortals will seize upon the traces of a famous artist's hand as they might a relic of the True Cross. But whether their motives are to get closer to the source of spiritual nourishment, or merely to cash in on the artist's market value, is a moot point.

At the recent launch of his fine new book on Giacometti — In Giacometti's Studio — the writer Michael Peppiatt told how visitors to the sculptor's Montparnasse studio used to pick Giacometti's discarded sketches off the floor and take them away with them. The artist saw these drawings as insignificant, but clearly those around him viewed them as something more precious — in more ways than one.

Perhaps Monsieur le Guennec really did purloin these works from Picasso, as alleged. But somehow I find it hard to muster any moral indignation about it. At least Picasso's stuff was worth squirreling away. At least Bacon's dumpster detritus still bore the imprimatur of his very particular genius. At least Giacometti's scribbled heads were objects of genuinely compelling beauty.

Such illicit expropriation (if that's what it was) seems unlikely to occur with many of today's celebrity artists, few of whom can draw... or even paint.

As your average electrician might say, "No thanks. They lack that certain spark."

Christian Science Monitor version of the story

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Small worlds: travels in a parallel universe

I was at a reception at the Royal Academy a couple of nights ago for the launch of Michael Peppiatt's marvellous new book, In Giacometti's Studio (left). Artists' studios have long been a source of fascination to writers and photographers, although few books have come close to Alexander Liberman's The Artist in His Studio of 1960.

Liberman's photographic essay gave us a privileged glimpse into the intimate working environments of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Surrealists, and what was then called 'The New Generation', which included Dubuffet, Richier, and indeed Giacometti himself.

What's interesting about these projects is that the camera is drawn inexorably to the telling romantic details — the eloquent detritus on the floor, the humble wood-burning stove, the pinned-up postcards on the walls, the accumulated bricolage of the creative mind. But what they never quite grasp are the true dimensions of the room.

Giacometti's ramshackle studio behind Montparnasse is caked in plaster dust, its walls covered with scribbles and sketches, the floor crowded with his signature totemic figures under construction, some shrouded in wet sheets to keep the clay damp. It's hard to get a sense of how big the room is because the eye is always drawn to the art. However, as Peppiatt informs us, there wasn't room to swing a cat in Giacometti's studio. And yet it remained a popular meeting place for writers, painters, sculptors and assorted intellectuals for decades (1926-66).

After the book launch I got to thinking about that tiny studio as a symbol for the art world in general, which despite its ever-globalizing spread is also a small world populated by relatively few people, many of whom know each other. The main difference is that where Giacometti's room was caked in grime, the contemporary art world is upholstered with cash.

Bainbridge's sale (image: Rex Features)
The image, right, shows representatives of some of the wealthiest collectors in China crammed together like sardines on a French sofa in the small west London auction rooms of Bainbridge's. The guy in the middle is turning to acknowledge the applause of his disappointed fellow bidders who have just watched him offer the winning £53 million for a Chinese Qianlong-reign imperial porcelain vase.

Western nations looted China of many of its cultural treasures in the 19th century and now the Chinese are wealthy enough to buy them back. But who are they bidding against in this project of cultural retrieval? Why, their fellow Chinese, of course.

One cannot help wondering why they don't form what used to be called 'a ring'. This is where a number of specialist dealers team up before a sale so as not to compete against each other on the lots they're interested in. One of them is elected the bidder and the others stand down. Afterwards, when the group's elected bidder has bought the lot at a fraction of what it would have cost had they all been competing against each other, they leave the saleroom and hold a mini auction in a local pub or coffee shop. One of them gets the lot but everyone else leaves with compensatory money in their pockets (based on the difference between what they actually paid and what they might have had to pay had they not formed the ring). After all, why give to the auctioneer what you can keep for yourself?

For decades, the 'ring' was a constant and pernicious presence at provincial UK auctions. I have no doubt it still exists in some form today, despite being technically illegal as a price-depressing mechanism. But clearly the Chinese haven't cottoned onto it, or a version of it. Nor do they seem remotely concerned at having to pay such unconscionable sums to buy back what in many cases was taken from them by force.

Of course, these prices are all relative. There are now hundreds of billionaires in China and their numbers are expanding every week. This changes the relative significance of money and nowhere is that change more pronounced than in the art market.

At the Royal Academy book launch I got chatting to a prominent member of the London contemporary art trade who had just returned from the New York auctions. He was jubilant at the extent to which the market had recovered from the temporary blip of recession and was now back on its familiar upward bell-curve. "What you have to understand," he said, with alarming nonchalance, "is that a billion is not that unusual any more. I have many collectors who think nothing of spending $600 to 800 million per year on their art collection."

Clearly these guys are living in a parallel universe.

Meanwhile, the auction houses, aware of the availability of these seemingly limitless resources, are once again engaging in all kinds of exotic financial derivatives, erecting screens at the auction to close down the sightline between bidders in the room and their staff on the telephones, promising 'guarantees' to vendors and accepting "irrevocable bids" from mysterious third parties in return for a share of "the upside". How all these mechanisms actually work, and the extent to which they  manipulate the market, nobody can ever say since they are all conducted by faceless bean-counters in smokeless back office rooms prior to the sale.

And there I was, thinking 'the ring' was bad.

Michael Peppiatt, In Giacometti's Studio (Yale University Press in association with Eykyn and Maclean, New York and London, 2010), £33.25 (Amazon price).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Banging the drum for the BBC

I'm running the risk of sounding like a stuck record, but that's better than being accused of munching on sour grapes, which is what a guest on BBC Radio Four's Making History programme has just done with regard to my criticism of the British Museum's 'History of the World in 100 Objects' series.

Last Friday I received an email from the Beeb asking if I'd like to contribute to a discussion about whether the '100 Objects' project had been a success. Sadly I had to decline as I had a teaching commitment that morning.  

In the event, when the programme was broadcast this afternoon, a disembodied northern voice ventriloquized a quote from one of my blog items criticizing the project as if it were me phoning in. The discussion then used this as a springboard to emphasize that despite wingeing academics like me —"very much a minority view" (hooray to that) — the '100 Objects' project had been a resounding success with the great British public. The British public are generally in favour of restoring the death penalty too...

The discussion concluded with the panellists being asked whether in their opinion the series had been a success. The response was a unanimous thumbs up. You couldn't hear yourself think for the sound of the BBC slapping itself on the back.

Regular readers of my blog will know that my criticism of the '100 Objects' series is framed within a broader critique of museum culture. I've been muscular in articulating that position at times and if I have occasionally overstepped the mark it is perhaps in some of my remarks about Neil MacGregor. I know him to be a very nice man and my comments were not intended to be hurtful. But this is a blog, not an academic treatise. Moreover, I know why the BBC chose to quote my comments about Neil rather than any of the other (hopefully constructive) points I have made in my blog on this topic. The BBC thrives on conflict, frequently at the expense of a more nuanced discussion.

My critique of the '100 Objects' project does not mean, however, that I don't appreciate the British Museum's collections. As an art and design historian how could I not? Nor does it mean that I disapprove in principle of the public learning about those collections. And while we're on the subject, nor does it mean that I have not listened to some of these programmes myself, and with great interest.

Being a drummer, I was fascinated, for example, to hear the programme about the Akan drum (above left). But that does not preclude me from supporting the desire of many developing nations around the world to have some of those objects returned to them so that they might write their own narratives of those objects rather than have the British Museum write those stories for them.

It's often forgotten that the colonial project was not only about controlling people, land, raw materials, commerce, capital; it was also about controlling history, the stories that are written about those nations and their material culture. There is great power in that process. We cannot turn the clock back on the colonial period and undo the crimes of Empire, but we can return to those formerly subaltern nations the power to write their own histories. Those narratives often begin with material culture, with objects, as the British Museum's '100 Objects' project makes clear. While the British Museum covetously holds those objects, the original source nations can only do as they have been expected to do for the past two hundred years — shut up and listen.

As if it were not enough for Western museums to have expropriated the material culture of colonised peoples during the Age of Empire, they now insist on the right to construct and narrate the history of those objects, to market them, to merchandise them, to broadcast them (what are the economics of this '100 Objects' project? We've never been told). And all without criticism, please.

Now I know what it feels like to have someone speak for you. Next time I'd prefer to speak for myself, even if it is "very much a minority view".

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome: The Andy Warhol Authentication Board dismisses Brillo Box 'copies'

I'm looking at my fragile copy of the catalogue of the 1968 Andy Warhol exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (left), which included a number of Brillo boxes, made for the exhibition to Warhol's instructions according to the exhibition's curator, the late Pontus Hultén (1924-2006).

Warhol's original series of Brillo boxes were created for his first show at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York in 1964.

Now, The Art Newspaper has followed up on investigations conducted in 2004 by the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which revealed that the boxes shown in the 1968 Stockholm exhibition were not wooden Brillo boxes at all, but rather cardboard Brillo boxes sourced from the Brillo factory.

This would not be quite so newsworthy were it not for the fact that Pontus Hultén, the curator of the Stockholm exhibition, went on to sell some of the wooden Brillo boxes that he claimed had been made with Warhol's blessing and to his specifications for the 1968 show (box from the 1968 catalogue, shown below). The Belgian dealer Ronny van de Velde paid Hultén $240,000 for 40 of the boxes in 1994; and London dealer Brian Balfour bought 22 of them for £640,000 in 2004. Christie's later sold ten of them to renowned London dealer Anthony d'Offay for £475,650. The 'provenance' of Christie's boxes was bolstered by letters from Hultén and the Warhol board.

Brillo box from the Stockholm show
But according to The Art Newspaper, the Authentication Board of the Andy Warhol Foundation has now decided to issue its definitive statement on the Brillo boxes and has effectively pronounced the Hultén boxes as fakes (although the Board has been too spineless to use that word). In the absence of documentary evidence that Warhol authorised the production of the Hultén series, the board has classified them as "exhibition-related copies."

Here, then, is final proof, if any were needed, of the absurdity of the Warhol market. The risible and all too-powerful Warhol Authentication Board acknowledges that it can "neither verify nor invalidate any verbal agreement" [between Hultén and Warhol] and yet, because Hultén is no longer around to testify, he is condemned by the Board for having "misrepresented these works and falsified their history." Misrepresentation and falsification. Would lawyers call that fraud or forgery?

But how 'original' are 'original' Warhol works anyway? This is surely the art market minefield of all art market minefields.

As Andy once said: "I tried doing them by hand, but I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don't have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could." (Warhol, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968).

The New York City dealer Janice Washburn was among those who attended Warhol's début exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1964 when the Brillo boxes were first shown. She went along with her friend James Harvey, a painter who augmented his artist's income as a freelance packaging designer.

Harvey had been the designer of the original Brillo box and was also a friend of Warhol. Janice Washburn later recalled, "Jim nearly collapsed when we went in to the gallery and saw people actually buying Warhol's identical version. All Jim could do was write it off as part of the madness of life." (Quoted in Laura de Coppet & Alan Jones, The Art Dealers, Potter, New York, 1984, pp69-70)

One can't help wondering how all those collectors (and indeed dealers) must feel, sitting on Warhols that the Stalinist 'Board of Authentication' might at any moment condemn as a "copy" or inauthentic. Aren't those pronouncements really designed to shore up the market value of the Foundation's own Warhol holdings and diminish those held by others?

Brillo pads used to get the grime off stuff. But some of it just won't budge.

Stockholm Syndrome: The Andy Warhol Authentication Board dismisses Brillo Box 'copies'

I'm looking at my fragile edition of the catalogue to the 1968 Andy Warhol exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (left), which included a number of Brillo boxes, made for the exhibition to Warhol's instructions according to the exhibition's curator, the late Pontus Hultén (1924-2006).

Warhol's original series of Brillo boxes were created for his first show at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York in 1964.

Now, The Art Newspaper has followed up on investigations conducted in 2004 by the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which revealed that the boxes shown in the 1968 Stockholm exhibition were not wooden Brillo boxes at all, but rather cardboard Brillo boxes sourced from the Brillo factory.

This would not be quite so newsworthy were it not for the fact that Pontus Hultén, the curator of the Stockholm exhibition, went on to sell some of the wooden Brillo boxes that he claimed had been made with Warhol's blessing and to his specifications for the 1968 show (box from the 1968 catalogue. The Belgian dealer Ronny van de Velde paid Hultén $240,000 for 40 of the boxes in 1994; and London dealer Brian Balfour bought 22 of them for £640,000 in 2004. Christie's later sold ten of them to renowned London dealer Anthony d'Offay for £475,650. The 'provenance' of Christie's boxes was bolstered by letters from Hultén and the Warhol board.

But according to The Art Newspaper, the Authentication Board of the Andy Warhol Foundation has decided to issue its definitive statement on the Brillo boxes and has effectively pronounced the Hultén boxes as fakes (although the Board has been too spineless to use that word). In the absence of documentary evidence that Warhol authorised the production of the Hultén series, the board has classified them as "exhibition-related copies."

Here, then, is final proof, if any were needed, of the absurdity of the Warhol market. The risible and all too-powerful Warhol Authentication Board acknowledges that it can "neither verify not invalidate any verbal agreement" [between Hultén and Warhol] and yet, because Hultén is no longer around to testify, he is condemned by them for having "misrepresented these works and falsified their history." Misrepresentation and falsification. Would lawyers call that fraud or forgery?

But how 'original' are 'original' Warhol works anyway? This is surely the art market minefield of all art market minefields.

As Andy once said: "I tried doing them by hand, but I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don't have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could." (Warhol, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968).

The New York City dealer Janice Washburn was among those who attended Warhol's début exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1964 when the Brillo boxes were first shown. She went along with her friend James Harvey, a painter who augmented his artist's income as a freelance packaging designer.

Harvey had been the designer of the original Brillo box and was also a friend of Warhol. Janice Washburn later recalled, "Jim nearly collapsed when we went in to the gallery and saw people actually buying Warhol's identical version. All Jim could do was write it off as part of the madness of life." (Quoted in Laura de Coppet & Alan Jones, , Potter, New York, 1984, pp69-70)

You can't help feeling for all those collectors sitting on Warhols that the Stalinist 'Board of Authentication' might at any moment condemn as a "copy" or inauthentic.
Don't those decisions shore up the value of the Foundation's own Warhol holdings?

Brillo pads used to get the scum off stuff. But not all of it will shift.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Please remove your hard hats: the British Museum's wretched 'History of the World in 100 Objects' is mercifully over

It would be funny were it not so outrageous. This morning, BBC Radio Four's Today programme went to the British Museum to help BM director Neil MacGregor unveil the 100th object in its 'History of the World in 100 Objects' project. The final object was the one chosen by those listeners credulous enough to have bought in to this shameless exercise in imperialistic self- aggrandisement.

At the given moment, MacGregor pulled back the veil to reveal a solar-powered lamp and charger. The sense of anti-climax was palpable. This merely underscored what Radio Four presenter Evan Davies described as "the nonsensical secrecy" in which the entire project has been shrouded.

Evidently many people had expected the 100th object to be a credit card. And in fact when the veil was removed, a credit card –the 99th object – was there, sitting beside the solar charger. 

"The credit card can only be used in advanced societies, societies that are urban and developed," explained MacGregor, adding: "In a way, we wanted to cheat – you'll not be surprised."

No, we weren't surprised. The British Museum has been cheating nations and communities out of their cultural heritage for 150 years. But this dismal collaboration with the BBC has taken the post-colonial project to new depths. Cheating doesn't get near to it.

Having watched big capital drive untold millions into ever deeper immiseration and poverty through mortgage derivatives, credit default swaps and any number of other Wall Street black magic tricks, we now have to watch the Universal Museum sector collaborating with the BBC to promote the tool most likely to exacerbate and perpetuate that process of credit-enslavement.

"We wanted the solar-powered lamp," said MacGregor, "but also the charger that gives mobile phones to the world because the mobile phone is, of course, the credit card in large parts of Africa and South Asia." 

In other words, the credit card is the very mechanism that allows the banks and financial speculators to continue their relentless exploitation of the world's poor.

Well, to hell with the British Museum and its Faustian pact with late capital.  My choice for the 100th object is a hard hat (above left) of the kind worn by the 32 Chilean miners, freed over the last twenty-four hours to universal jubilation.

But before we cry 'Arriba!', let's swing the media spotlight onto the Bolivian silver mines of Potosí, where the mineros can expect to live for no more than twenty years after starting work in the toxic mines polluted with every imaginable heavy metal. When, in the mid-16th century, the Spanish heard of the rich silver deposits in Potosí, they enslaved the indigenous people to mine the silver before shipping it back to Europe where it effectively kick-started European capitalism. 

As Patrick Stack has pointed out, between 1545 and 1824, some 8 million Indian and African slaves died in the process of producing silver for the Spanish Empire. No wonder they call it The Mountain that Eats Men.

Neil MacGregor, in his naiveté, believes technology "gives a whole range of people power over their lives," blithely ignorant of the fact that it also gives banks the power to enslave the poor of the developing world.

But of course, MacGregor is not remotely interested in solar-powered mobile phone chargers. What his odious 'History of the World' project is designed to do is disguise the deeper agenda of the Universal Museum, the foundations of which are being steadily eroded by those very nations subjugated by the colonial project 150 years ago. 

Shame on the supine BBC for conspiring so uncritically in such a loathsome carnival.

For an exploration and analysis of Marx's theory of primitive accumulation of capital, see the catalogue of the current exhibition – The Potosí Principle at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which includes an abridged version of my paper on the Universal Museum.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Art Price: The Movie (PG)

Another day at the office
I always had Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann down as a bit of a maverick. The corporate video he recently posted on the company’s website (here) is surely a contender for Oddbox corporate video of the year.

Artprice is the most bellicose player in the cut-throat battle of the art price databases that has raged since the dot-com bubble of 1999-2002.

Having raised unprecedented amounts of capital on France’s Nouveau Marché tech stock exchange in 2002, Ehrmann retreated to a post-industrial bunker in the small town of Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, near Lyon, and began acquiring art market archives and databanks that would have made Georges Wildenstein’s eyes water.

The company’s corporate video opens (above left) with the wolfish Ehrmann loping through a breaker’s yard en route to his office – an underground labyrinth in his so-called Abode of Chaos, its walls daubed with arcane symbols, satanic hieroglyphs and snarling skulls – like the set from a Dan Brown movie designed by H.R.Geiger and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I kept thinking of all those bad serial killer movies where the cops break into the bedroom of the unsub only to find the walls plastered with spidery graffiti written in blood.

Monsieur Ehrmann likes to be seen in demented Rick Wakeman mode (right), hammering out a concerto on his server keyboard or seated behind a bank of flickering PC screens outlining his plans for world domination. Then the camera breaks free and starts prowling down the graffiti-scrawled corridors. The staff – who look like neurasthenic lab-rats suffering from a vitamin D deficiency – all spout the same corporate gobbledygook about “asymmetry” and “disequilibrium” in the market. “As soon as one of us gets an idea, we model it to analyze its ramifications,” says one breathless data-inputter.

Hmm…sounds like an easy-going, laid-back kind of office. “I fancy a coffee.” “Good idea! Hold on, while I analyze its ramifications.”

A moment later we stop beside the desk of a Juliette Binoche lookalike who admonishes the art trade for its secrecy. “The message we send to the market is that it is not in its interests to withhold information.” You have been warned.
 Another member of staff poses in front of a frescoed wall portrait of Saddam Hussein (left), and explains: “Artprice has destabilized the small world of the art market that used to be a handful of initiates who had the information but didn’t want to communicate it because it represented their business assets.”

Artprice’s “business assets” now embrace historical paper archives (most of them already digitized or in the process of being so), plus a mind-boggling amount of electronic data that can only be expressed in geek-speak. “We have more than 25 million statistics” says Ehrmann. “…115 million artworks listed in our database in high resolution… 1,800,000 biographies… 1,300,000 subscribers… 18,000 shareholders… we distribute close to 6,300 journals… we have1,000 terabytes of data…the digital volume of our images alone will soon have exceeded 1 petabytes…” Mercy! Enough, already!

If you haven’t glazed over by now, you may be the sort of person Artprice is looking for – someone for whom a petabyte means more than a Pontormo or a Primaticcio.

Monsieur Ehrmann, judging from this video seemingly unsure whether he’s revolutionizing the art market or starring in his own sci-fi movie, may be suffering from delusions of grandeur. This may be a bi-product of running a technology company in a market that has for centuries relied on something called 'connoisseurship' and which is now undergoing seismic change. Ultimately the market will judge Artprice, not on its terabytes of data, but on the revenues it generates.

For me, Artprice, with its illiterate content and satanic black Home Page (I now know why it looks like that), remains a user-hostile, confused, inaccessible, and plain old weird runner-up to Artnet. I can’t imagine ever switching my monthly subscription.

But the one thing I still can’t get my head around. Why stick a portrait of Saddam Hussein on your office wall?


Earlier this year, art market analysts Skate’s reported that misfortunes at Artprice were continuing: “The firm has suffered a double blow — poor financial performance in 2009 coupled with a massive and litigious dispute with the auction industry heavyweight Christie’s.” (The latter concerns Artprice’s wholesale reproduction of Christie’s auction catalogues).

Artprice’s characteristically bullish response to Christie’s litigation can be read in a press relase issued by Artprice’s parent company, Serveur Group, here

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wide awake in Málaga: Spanish museum guards don't sleep on the job

Museo Picasso, Málaga

There's been much animated discussion following the theft on August 21 of a Van Gogh painting from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum (see Security problems abound in Egypt's Museum on for a summary).

Understandably, the Khalil Museum's inoperative surveillance and alarm systems have come under fierce scrutiny, as have the museum's security guards. Associated Press reporter Hadeel Al-Shalchi offered a first-hand account of guards visibly slumbering on the job or engrossed in reading the Quran instead of keeping an eye on the objects in their care.

I recently wrote to Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities tsar, requesting a face to face interview. I wanted to ask him a host of questions about cultural heritage restitution, museum commerce, museum security, and the rest. I pitched the idea to The Art Newspaper, but having recently run an item on Hawass, they wanted a stronger news hook. At that moment, a week before the theft, there wasn't one. There is now.

In the wake of the theft, Hawass told reporters he was satisfied with his museums' security ("I am assuring everyone that all of my 23 museums are well-protected and have good security systems," Hawass told reporters.) That is manifest rubbish, as the van Gogh theft makes clear. Hawass, a bellicose figure in the cultural heritage repatriation debate, may have been attempting to see off the inevitable accusations that Egyptian museums can't look after their own treasures. But let's not get too high and mighty. Last week the British Museum was evacuated after an unidentified toxic emission scare. We're just better at spinning the media.

Ton Cremers, one of the world's leading authorities on museum security and art theft, rightly pointed to the yawning gap between the cost of an up-to-date museum security system and the market value of the sort of art being targeted by thieves. Ton's right, it's a no-brainer, but does anyone heed that logic? It's easier to find a scapegoat. According to The National, the Egyptian courts are now chock-full of rueful museum officials and culture ministers awaiting punishment for their part in the incident (11 facing trial for negligence after thieves steal van Gogh painting).

To those of us who monitor art crime closely and professionally, this judicial outcome is a queasy thing to witness. Few European or North American art thefts have ever led to the prosecution of museum directors or ministers of culture, despite the fact that ultimately they are probably to blame. Were any officials in Paris fired after it was found that the alarms weren't operative during the recent theft from the Musée d'Art Moderne? No. (Or not yet.) If a corporate building were broken into and and its valuable assets stolen, heads would doubtless roll. But generally speaking, with museum thefts we merely shrug and put it down to constrained resources, an occupational hazard. In many cases, however, it's due to lamentably poor management. Perhaps it takes a legal precedent like the one unfolding in Egypt to encourager les autres.

Last week, I visited the Museo Picasso in Málaga in southern Spain. At first I thought I'd inadvertently wandered into Málaga airport when a security guard insisted that I surrender my bag, which was put through an airport-style electronic scanner and then confiscated for the duration of my visit. (A shame, as I'm rather attached to that box-cutter).

Security could not have been tighter, which is perhaps not surprising given that Picasso is the prime target for high-end art theft. But although it took longer to get into the Picasso Museum, the process was neither onerous nor intrusive. Once inside, I noted that all the rooms were patrolled by young, alert-looking security guards in chic, tailored suits. They may have been toreadors working part-time for extra cash, so even if you got the painting off the wall, you'd need to be pretty bullish to get past them.

It goes without saying that guarding a museum is not as exciting as bull-fighting, but there is no question that the young Spaniards looking after Picasso's bequest take it seriously. And they were smiling and courteous too.

The Physical Impossibility of Buying and Selling in the Minds of the UK Museum Establishment

The breakdown of talks between the Arts Council and Charles Saatchi over Mr Saatchi's plan to donate his gallery and collection to the public touches on a critical issue facing museums today. How to sustain the institution as a dynamic entity without engaging more actively with the market?

According to The Independent (Saatchi rues lost art of conversation as gallery donation talks collapse), the discussions broke down over the mooted plan to part-finance the new publicly-owned gallery by buying and selling works from the £25 million collection. (Incidentally, that valuation seems absurdly low given the hike in prices since Saatchi first invested in work by Damien Hirst and his Brit-Art cohorts in the late 1980s).

How to engage with the art market is arguably the thorniest issue confronting museums today. The Code of Ethics that underpins the UK Museums Association expressly forbids the sort of commercial activities which, over the last twenty years, have allowed Charles Saatchi to build the institution that bears his name. But if the relevant chapters on ethics in my copy of The Handbook for Museums are anything to go by, one can see why most museum mandarins still see the art market as shark infested waters.

It's those two dirty words — buying and selling — that stick in the curator's craw. If you keep to the guidelines, then buying doesn't present an ethical problem (although in economic terms buying is now more difficult than ever as art market prices rocket, museum management costs rise too, and acquisitions budgets whither accordingly.) But selling — or 'deaccessioning' to use museum jargon — is another matter altogether.

Like him or loathe him, Charles Saatchi has been instrumental in expanding British public awareness of contemporary art, using his resources to build a collection that the public visits in droves. In principle, his approach has not been all that different from that pursued by the great proto-museum pioneers of the European Enlightenment who began by sourcing objects from around the world and building collections for their own delectation before donating them to the nation. The British Museum would not exist today without the intellectual curiosity and pioneering acquisitiveness of Sir Hans Sloane, but there are numerous other examples — the Wallace Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery to name just two.

The eighteenth-century Weltanschauung from which the British Museum emerged still dominates museum thinking in Europe. It has become a seriously constraining factor, notwithstanding a prevailing belief in the crowd-pulling power of contemporary art that most museums now strive to capitalize upon.

Saatchi's decision to offer his collection to the public was grounded in a desire that it would be "a living and evolving collection of work, rather than an archive of art history". That is a model that many museums aspire to, but which few will ever attain without a step change in attitudes towards deaccessioning.

This is not a manifesto for commercialising museums, or for turning museum directors into corporate CEOs (many fulfill that role already). Rather it's a call for a more enlightened approach to collections and for more innovative ways to engage with the market.

Finally, some of the resistance to Saatchi's donation seems based on a fear that it might in some way conflict with Tate Modern. Tate Modern may be an incredible building — with an even more striking extension rising as I write — but the collection is decidedly second-rate. That too can be blamed on British museum conservatism at a time when America was pioneering taste.

The Saatchi Collection remains a big draw for tourists. There's no reason why it shouldn't continue to be so without taking anything away from Tate. But if the talks don't progress just because of Establishment sensibilities over 'buying and selling', one can be fairly sure Saatchi will look to donate his collection elsewhere.

Then, like Ms Emin, London will have made its bed and will have to lie in it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is social networking killing off art criticism?

A few days ago, the Australian writer and broadcaster Marcus Westbury blogged a piece about art criticism following the Australia Council’s annual arts marketing summit in Brisbane, which posed the question: 'Whose the critic now?' (Now Everyone's A Critic, Who's A Critic Now?)

The unanimous conclusion the panel reached was: "We all are." The era of social networking, of the free and instantaneous digitized flow of opinions and shared experiences across geographical and other boundaries has done for the art critic.

That's it. RIP. Here's Marcus Westbury describing how the murder was committed:

"The internet has created a plethora of blogs, email lists, social networking, and marketing strategies that are cheap, easy to access, and bypass the traditional critic entirely. Word of mouth — long the holy grail of marketing people everywhere — has become massively amplified by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re all critics the moment we see a show, read a book, watch a film and share our reactions to it. Many of us are creating our own criticism, commentary and feedback without thinking about it."

So, perhaps it's not a murder after all, but a redundancy notice: "Sorry, Smithers, we're going to have to let you go. Here's your P45."

A more disturbing development, however is the conscious decision by younger artists to avoid the attention of professional critics. Westbury claims to know "many" artists who prefer not to be publicized in that way:

"Their assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that they have much better conduits for establishing a reputation or building an audience and they don’t need the 'authoritative' attention of someone who isn’t their audience and may not understand their work."

Or are they, perhaps, fearful of proper, searching criticism and the rigorous testing of their work against a range of exacting aesthetic criteria?

The discourse of social media is predominantly frivolous, mutually congratulatory, obsessed with the fleeting nature of social life, fixated on the ephemeral, surface qualities of fashion, travel, music, and indeed art. It's the economy of the degraded attention span.

Then up popped Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, who posted an item on a similar topic (Did Bravo TV's 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' really redefine art criticism?) about the eponymous TV game show (by all accounts not unlike the BBC's 'School of Saatchi' programme that aired in the UK a few months ago.)

Knight was responding to an item posted a few days before on New York magazine's Vulture blog which suggested that 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' had created a new way to practice art criticism. "In online forums and the comment sections of blogs and across Facebook pages, 'people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism or power were given voice.'"

Knight took issue with this, countering that most of these Facebooked and Twittered 'criticisms' were penned without their writers ever having seen the works in any form other than mediated through a TV set. More importantly, he concludes, "To confuse social networking, which can be fun (and certainly useful), with art criticism is quite a blunder. It's probably to be expected, however; Bravo's savvy integration of cable television reality-contests with the Internet hasn't happened before for art, artists and art enthusiasts. The new often disorients."

The Australian panellists, meanwhile, didn't seem remotely disorientated, but they may not have looked critically enough at the topic they came together to discuss.

According to Marcus Westbury, the Australian panel comprised writers, critics, broadcasters and arts marketing people. But where were the artists?

I had an idea that my many professional artist friends might look differently on this topic compared with broadcasters and marketing people, so I polled them. The question I put to them was this:

If you had a say in it, would you prefer your exhibitions to be viewed and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics (whether or not their conclusions were positive or constructively negative), or would it be enough that friends and other 'lay' visitors might mention your work in some way via Facebook, Twitter, etc., which may reach a different, but potentially much broader audience?

I too found a consensus, but not the same one as Marcus Westbury's panel outcome. Here's a small, but representative sample of the responses I received:

"I have been fortunate enough to receive a huge amount of press coverage in the world media and I strongly believe the art critic's opinion is the only one of relevance. Comments on Twitter & Facebook tend to have no weight behind them; on the other hand the art critic helps to contextualise the artist's practice within the broader debates of contemporary art but also, and perhaps even more importantly, from an historical perspective. The absence of the informed opinions of the art critic would create a huge void in the art world.

The art critic is crucial and the more critical the better. Social networking sites will rarely offer the high level of criticality which is essential for an artist to constantly push their practice forwards...constantly challenging preconceived notions and moving forwards with as open a mind as possible. Long live the art critic!" 

"To quote Malcolm Muggeridge talking about television in 1959 I think social networking sites are 'a social menace of the first order' and don't in any way deliver an alternative to an informed debate about art or any other subject for that matter. That notwithstanding, it is inevitable that the vast free availability of the written word has hugely cheapened it and will continue to erode the livelihood of writers in the same way as it does that of photographers and musicians."

"I am more on the side of the 'professional art critics'. As an artist I may enjoy Twitter comments etc. — comments off the hat even — can be pithy and fresh — even fun — open forum for everyone; anything goes. The broader audience could have its value, but it does not kill true art criticism.

On the other hand, the professional art critic carries with him/her: knowledge, scholarship, a trained mind and eye, true service to the art community worldwide.  Imagine a person who jumps up onto the concert hall stage, sits down in front of a Steinway grand and plays chopsticks. Then think of the 'players' who have 'paid their dues', who have studied for years — developing enduring excellence. Art critics' opinions are still relevant, and 'how.' Preserve them."

"The problem should not be pitched in terms of serious art criticism versus casual mention on social networking sites, but should rather focus on the impact of market forces on the quality and content of writing about the arts. To put it bluntly, art critics of whatever calibre seem only to be interested in, or else are encouraged by their editors only to take an interest in, the major, money-making shows.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was able to attract 'serious' art criticism for my shows, this swing towards "blockbuster criticism" was not as yet apparent. Nowadays, as most PR agencies engaged in the art world will tell you, it is extremely difficult (almost impossible) for smaller organizations or galleries to attract anything in the way of lengthier pieces containing detailed analysis. In view of these circumstances it is no wonder that most artists would be (sadly) only too grateful if their friends and supporters would spread the word about their work via social networking sites.

Another related observation: an art critic friend of mine, taking the very brave step of openly criticizing her own profession, once remarked on the at times very apparent pressure placed on critics by those organizing exhibitions to follow a prescribed script provided in the form of a Press Release. Demands on the critic's time mean that much of these texts will be transcribed verbatim instead of being viewed and assessed critically.

Art criticism is not in decline because of social networking sites but rather because of its loss of independence from the market and the money imperative. Critics write to sell newspapers, art or tickets to exhibitions. Most artists would love to have their work viewed and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics (whether or not their conclusions were positive or constructively negative), but the reality is that most will not unless or until they join forces with a powerful enough institution."

"In terms of critics – their comments are highly influential and for my forthcoming show I proactively sought out a critic, who I knew had some knowledge of my work and commissioned him to write a text for my catalogue.  This I consider to be money very well spent as critical text can introduce art audiences (of varying knowledge) to new ways of viewing work(s) or raise issues about, and associated with, the artist/their research/their painting methodology and so forth.  His critical text also benefited me directly providing a fresh perspective…quite valuable when most of one’s life is spent in isolation in the studio!

Over recent years, I find that articles on painting in some media are fairly lacklustre and unsubstantial – could it be that we are losing a generation of critics who understand how paintings are conceived and developed, the materials and techniques used and references to art historical contexts?  Some articles seem to skim the surface referring to the work in the context of an overall ‘image’ or the concept alone or, even, the celebrity of the artist(!)...perhaps this is part and parcel of the dumbing down of painting in favour of conceptual art over the years…who knows?

A good article/essay/book is worth its weight in gold and our shelves are heavy with the weight of these which are part of our lives both within our practice/research and also teaching."

"If you rave and praise, even to an obvious and ridiculous degree people would believe you, if you venture to say anything less you get the thumbs down. I feel that good art criticsm is especially important now that the goal posts are staked on Everest and beyond. We live in times where only the superlative counts - maybe good art criticism can help people understand what is going on."

"I would prefer my exhibitions to be viewed by all and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics. (If I could choose one it would be Clement Greenberg but unfortunately he is no longer with us.) Positive or negative criticism is a good thing providing it is understandable and makes sense. This is what you should expect from a professional art critic. The professional art critic's opinion in my view is still relevant and valued enough to be preserved.

On the other hand a broader audience like the man in the street or on social network sites are also important because one never knows what can be gained by those thoughts, good or bad. Like Robert Rauschenberg once said, “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics."

I am sure that every artist would appreciate the comments of a knowledgeable art critic. Comments on Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to replace a thoughtful essay.

Thinking about write ups of exhibitions I made the observation that newspapers in the UK are less interested in reporting about venues which are not at the top end of the market. When I have a show in Germany local and regional newspapers write regularly about my work on show. Showing in the UK for the last 15 years  I got once a proper article in our local newspaper. Galleries in London are employing public relation agencies to receive the attention of the press. Newspapers in both countries seem to have a different approach to report about the visual arts.

With the decline of the newspapers their influence will vanish and the internet will provide even more fractured and .incomplete information. Artists and galleries being able to master the technicalities of the internet will be the winners in the future."

"At my stage of career the idea of having an art critic write and talk about my work whether positive or negative still seems like bit of a holy grail. It would be amazing to have a 'well informed' person analyse it, and I'm sure would be a learning experience.

Last summer when I organised a joint show with a group of other early stage artists, we tried a few avenues to get someone to write about it (inviting a writer from the writers guild, contacting a curatorial assistant with an art history background we knew...) but none of or efforts came to fruition. We might have tried a bit harder and it was just one of a number of activities, but we didn't really know how to go about it. So in the end our efforts did revolve a lot more around marketing. We did have a press release that we sent to a number of newspaper and art organisations, but no one picked it up. The only success we got was with a few listings websites where we were included in 'things to do'. Great, but not really critical assessment of the show or work. If we had managed to get an art critic to write about our show, we would probably then have used our network of online methods to publicise that further.

I do think the art critic's opinion is still important, and adds (at least the perception of) an unbiased underwriting of the quality/importance of an artist's work. However, I do have to admit that I don't actually read enough of the art press, and couldn't say that I really know much about who the current art critics are or their particular points of view. (I know more about past art critics!) I seem to know more about who the big collectors are, as they seem to be more prominent in popular press as well as the specialist art market press."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Melting point: Scrap metal dealers can be art thieves too

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure
In antiquity they used to tie sculptures down for fear that they would walk or fly away of their own volition. Such superstition eventually gave way to a grimmer reality governed by economic rationale. Public sculptures no longer move of their own accord — now they're stolen and melted down for scrap.

One of the most interesting items posted to the Museum Security Network in recent days was the Guide to the Problem of Scrap Metal Theft published by The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP Center).

Although only a relatively small aspect of a larger problem, the theft and subsequent melting down of bronze and other metal statues is a branch of art crime that seems to be on the increase. The social impact of these losses is often more acutely felt than thefts of paintings from museums since public sculpture is highly visible, shares our social space, helps local people relate to their environment, and fosters social cohesion. 

Only this morning, an item in the Lancashire Evening Post (also circulated via the MSN digest) reported on the recent theft of two popular bronze animal sculptures from a public park in Cottam in Preston, Lancashire (Fury as bronze statues stolen from city estate). The works were by Dutch-born artist Marjan Wouda, who lives in Darwen, East Lancashire. Such thefts have a deleterious effect on the quality of life of local communities.

"It's such a shame," said one local resident, appalled at the way the sculptures had been crudely hacked off at their bases. "We’ve shown friends them as we’ve walked round the area. They were a local feature." A town councillor added, "It was just something you used to come across and it was quite nice. It was like a focal point."

The POP Center Guide referred to above suggests that scrap metal crimes are often committed by drug addicts and other petty criminals seeking access to quick cash. Some scrap metal merchants, it seems, are only too happy to turn a blind eye to the origin of the material they're melting down, just as many provincial auctioneers used to ask no questions when interesting and valuable consignments turned up straight off the back of a Volvo.

The importance of instilling Due Diligence procedures into the art and antiques trade is by no means complete, but at least most auctioneers are now aware of the risks of handling unprovenanced material and are more scrupulous about what they accept for sale. The broader trade seems to be a harder nut to crack.

It would be interesting to know what measures police and law enforcement agencies are taking to target the scrap metal merchants who are helping turn these objects into hard cash. One suspects it's not easy encouraging the adoption of a rigorous code of conduct in an informal trade that still has about it the whiff of the Victorian rag-and-bone man.

The scrap value of stolen sculpture — which is governed by prices on the London Metal Exchange — is a mere fraction of its true art market value. The Henry Moore Reclining Figure (above left) stolen in December 2005 may have been worth around £3 million on the open market, but its scrap metal value was estimated at just £1500.

Perhaps what's needed is a cost-effective solution to securing sculpture in public spaces. The Pangolin Foundry in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which casts all work by the late Lynn Chadwick, now strives to attach to its public sculptures large armatures that are deeply embedded in the ground, in an attempt to minimize the chance of theft.

I can think of something else that deserves to be deeply embedded in the ground — scrap metal dealers who melt down public sculptures.

Recent UK Statue Thefts

December 2005 — A Henry Moore bronze sculpture, Reclining Figure, valued at £3 million, stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire.

January 2006 — Part of a Lynn Chadwick bronze, The Watchers valued at around £600,000, stolen from Downshire House in the grounds of Roehampton University.

May 2006 — A bronze statue of a First World War soldier on horseback by Henry Pegram, valued at around £30,000, stolen from its plinth at St Leonard's Church in Semley, Wiltshire.

May 2006 — A bronze statue in memory of First World War veteran Sydney Mason Collins, valued at £15,000, stolen from St Mary's Church in Chedzoy, Somerset.

April 2009 — A bronze sculpture of a horse by British sculptor Elisabeth Frink, valued at more than £200,000, stolen from a garden in Surrey.

December 2009 — An unusual steel sculpture of two deer leaping over a fence stolen from a garden in Somerset.

March 2010 — A bronze statue commemorating Camilla Hamilton, a young girl killed in a car crash, stolen from the grounds of her Essex school.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is the world-famous Wedgwood Museum under threat as a result of ill-drafted Pension Fund legislation?

Wedgwood's Portland Vase, 1789

It's a familiar scene in those wildlife documentaries on the Discovery channel — a pack of mangy, slavering hyenas lope around a herd of wildebeest, eyes glued to the frailest family member as it struggles to keep up with its sturdier older relatives. The wildebeest herd senses danger, gets skittish and starts to canter away; the hyenas sniff fear and close in. The young wildebeest panics, staggering around in circles, helplessly isolated. A couple of seconds later he's on the ground being dismembered by ravenous predators.

When it comes to the modus operandi of your average private equity group, I prefer this analogy to the heroic sporting metaphors trotted out by the likes of Michael Psaros of US-based private equity group KPS Capital Partners, who recently waited in the long grass while Ireland-based ceramics and glass business Waterford Wedgwood struggled to stay on its feet. At the given moment, KPS moved in. Blood everywhere.

"We are a hard-core, full body contact, operations-driven turnaround operator," a triumphant Psaros told the Telegraph in March 2009, doing his best to sound like a gung-ho marine in a war movie. The KPS "turnaround" meant picking the flesh from the insolvent Wedgwood Waterford and leaving the carcass of debt for others to worry about (standard practice out in the corporate bush).

Among the bones left behind was a pension fund deficit of around £134 million.

It subsequently emerged that five employees of the Wedgwood Museum Trust Ltd., (a wholly separate charitable entity that runs the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke on Trent), had their pensions in the Wedgwood Waterford pension scheme. It now seems that the the Wedgwood Museum itself might be vulnerable.

A royal visit to the Wedgwood factory
Evidently an obscure and complex piece of pension fund legislation — (ironically originally drafted to protect pension funds from fraudulent practices) — means that the Wedgwood Museum Trust could be liable for the whole £134 million pension deficit left over after the sale of the Wedgwood Waterford business.

I'd spell this out for you, but I'm not too strong on particle physics. Even Simon Wedgwood, a descendant of the great Josiah Wedgwood, was at something of a loss to explain the masonic intricacies of the legislation when we spoke earlier today.

But what it means, in essence, is that the future of the Wedgwood Museum could be endangered if the Pension Protection Fund (the body established to provide a guaranteed minimum level of pension payments to members of eligible pension funds in cases like this) refuses to bail out the pension fund deficit.

In such an eventuality, the Wedgwood Museum collection — an unrivalled collection of ceramics and glass — could be lost to the nation and its assets sold to meet the pension deficit. Or, perhaps more likely, the nation might be asked to stump up to buy the collection in order that the Pension Protection Fund is spared having to foot the bill. Either way, the outlook seems bleak.

The Wedgwood Museum website recently posted the following comment:

"Five of the Wedgwood Group Pension Plan's 7000-member scheme were employees of the Museum Trust when the Wedgwood companies became insolvent last year, leaving a large deficit in the Pension Plan. As a result, the Museum Trust is now deemed to be liable for the shortfall. The Museum's Trustees are in discussions with a wide range of stakeholders as to how the Trust's internationally renowned Designated Collections can be preserved, and are determined to ensure the survival of the Wedgwood Museum."

Meanwhile, one assumes that Wedgwood Waterford is now benefiting from the €100 million that its new owners KPS Capital Partners promised to inject into the company, which includes not only Waterford crystal glass and Wedgwood ceramics, but historic brands such as Royal Doulton china.

Having bought it out of administration, Michael Psaros reckoned the business would be profitable in twelve months. "The team will expand Waterford Wedgwood into 'huge untapped' emerging markets – India, China and Russia," Psaros told the Telegraph. "Administration is a pedestrian event, not even worthy of being talked about."

It is when a historic museum collection is under threat of extinction.

Top left: Josiah Wedgwood's copy of the Portland Vase, 1789.
Lower right: A royal tour of the Wedgwood factory

Monday, July 19, 2010

Researching the history of collections: America forges ahead as the UK lags behind

An article by Suzanne Muchnic in this weekend's Los Angeles Times — American art collectors ripe for study — focuses on the fertile research resources open to those interested in the modern history of collecting in the United States.

Muchnic's piece makes clear that researching the history of the art market — who bought what, where, when, and why — is now viewed by American scholars as a noble pursuit that interlocks constructively with the established discipline of art history. The number and range of significant archives available to scholars is expanding all the time. Well-heeled foundations like the Getty Research Institute and the Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Collection in New York, to name just two, offer increasingly rich opportunities to mine historical auction catalogues and the manuscript and business archives of former dealers.

As questions of provenance and due diligence become ever more important within the art trade and among collectors, so the importance of these archives grows accordingly.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the great American industrial and financial barons began drawing on the services of British über-dealer Joseph Duveen (above left), to help them build their art collections. With his assistance, they went on to amass extraordinary holdings of the finest art Europe had to offer, which provided the foundations of some of the greatest art museums in North America.

In recent decades, American institutions have hoovered up a host of business archives of important dealers and collectors in an approach that mirrors the art-collecting activities of Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Stotesbury, et al, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Back then, the rich craved art; today, as Google has shown, information is an equally prized commodity and many of the institutions that now collect art business archives are digitizing them as well. Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the Getty now holds the vast Duveen archive, which is in keen demand as scholarly interest in the history of collecting grows.

Duveen's brilliant insight was that America had money but wanted art and Europe had art but wanted money. He exploited that simple equation with staggering success. As a result, if today you want to see many of the great paintings Duveen transacted, you will need to travel to America to do so. However, the same is not true of the digital information relating to those transactions, much of which is being gradually made available to scholars via the internet.

Given the increasing accessibility of that information, there is no excuse for Britain to lag behind the US in developing the history of collections into a scholarly discipline. Sadly, however, with the exception of Sotheby's and Christie's Fine Art courses — which chiefly serve their own business interests — few UK universities look positively on the history of the art market, instead treating it with sneering disdain. This is all the more lamentable given that the vast majority of young art history graduates will go on to work in the art market in some form or another, be it in a museum, an art dealership, an auction house, or even an archive.

Having just returned from my annual stint teaching a course on the history of the art market for the ARCA Masters Course in International Art Crime Studies in Italy, I can vouch for the keen interest in the history of collecting shown by the many graduate students and established art professionals who enroll on the course each year. The vast majority of those students, however, are North American.

If we want a better understanding of how today's art market evolved — to say nothing of clearer insights into what motivates collectors and indeed art criminals to do what they do — we need a more scholarly approach to the history of collecting. America is lighting the way.

Useful archives and other resources
Durand-Ruel (The archives of 19th century French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel)

The Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance (PSCP) (The Getty Research Institute's Provenance Database)

Center for the History of Collecting in America (Frick Collection, New York

Smithsonian Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC)

Journal of the History of Collections (Oxford University Press)

The Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art (Yale University)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 'Universal Museum': an anthropological perspective

Dr Magnus Fiskesjo of Cornell University's Department of Anthropology has kindly sent me a link to his recent paper, Global repatriations and 'Universal' museums, published in a special repatriations issue of Anthropology News (51.2, March 2010, pp10-12), which can be found online here.

Thanks, Magnus

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Encyclopaedic museums and the 'Primitive Accumulation' of cultural heritage

An abridged version of my paper on the Universal Museum is to be published by the House of World Cultures (left) in Berlin in October to coincide with an event exploring current thinking on 'encyclopaedic' or 'universal' museums. I'll be giving a paper on the Universal Museum at the panel discussion in Berlin on 9th October.

Among the topics slated for discussion at the conference is the theory of 'primitive accumulation' (of capital) — a notion derived from classical economics, which seeks to explain how a small percentage of the population came to control, at the expense of the majority, a disproportionate amount of wealth.

I've been pondering this in the context of the universal museums and their own 'primitive accumulation' of the world's cultural heritage. Whether one can helpfully map a theory from classical economics onto the history of museums is a moot point, but there are interesting crossovers.

Following Adam Smith's concept of 'previous accumulation' of capital, Karl Marx illustrated his theory of 'primitive accumulation' by reference to the theological notion of original sin. Extrapolating from that, Marx goes on to sketch an economic process that might equally be applied to the development of the great universal museums, often at the expense of colonized peoples who were left correspondingly impoverished:

"In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal élite; the other, the lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. [...] Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work." (Karl Marx, 'The Economics: 1857-1867', quoted in McLellan, D, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, OUP, 1977, p483).

That contrast between the "diligent, intelligent, frugal élite" and the "lazy rascals" (the subaltern Other, for our purposes) echoes the rhetoric used by the "civilizing" imperial powers to justify their accumulation of the material resources and cultural treasures of colonized nations during the nineteenth century. (See, for example, Sharon Sliwinski's excellent paper, 'The Kodak on the Congo: The Childhood of Human Rights', published by Autograph ABP to coincide with 'Mémoire', the recent exhibition of video work and photographs by Congo-born contemporary artist Sammy Baloji at Dilston Grove, London).

If you missed Sammy Baloji's 'Mémoire' at Dilston Grove, it's worth looking out for at other venues. Yet how ironic that so much contemporary art of this kind now finds itself in the collections of the new economic élite, rich on the fruits of their own primitive accumulation of capital.

Italy 1 Spain 0 — Madrid museum shown red card for acquiring looted objects

If UNESCO showed red cards for cultural heritage misdemeanours, it would surely be Spain taking the long walk back to the changing rooms this week after Madrid's National Archaeological Museum was found in possession of a bunch of Attic hot pots acquired in 1999 in clear defiance of the UNESCO 1970 Convention. Sadly, unlike FIFA, UNESCO doesn't hold disciplinary panels. It was left to The Art Newspaper to blow the whistle.

In an article in this month's paper, Fabio Isman focuses on a number of Attic amphorae in the collection of Madrid's National Archaeological Museum that bear a striking resemblance to pieces discovered in Giacomo Medici's Geneva warehouse during the now famous Italian/Swiss police raid in 1999 (Watson, P & Todeschini, C., The Medici Conspiracy 2006) (see image above left). No, hold on, let's not beat about the bush. They're the same pots.

"Is it right, or moral," Isman asks, "for museums (places established to conserve and exhibit objects, but also to educate and promote culture) to display artefacts plundered after the 1970 Unesco Convention, (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) rather than, as in centuries past, during wars and conquests? What type of 'culture' are these museums exhibiting, promoting and teaching: the culture of clandestine excavations and fraud?" Good question.

But to imply, as Isman does, that the objects acquired by museums "in centuries past" were acquired exclusively "during wars and conquests" is simply factually incorrect. More importantly, his sentence seems constructed in such a way as to absolve museums of earlier collecting strategies, by implying that war and military conquest represent legitimate circumstances in which to loot countries of their material heritage.

Anyone caring to scrutinize the circumstances in which most of the great encyclopedic collections were formed would have to conclude that very significant quantities of objects in those collections were acquired unethically (whether one judges one's ethics by 19th century or 21st century standards).

I'm often criticized for conflating pre- and post-1970 museum acquisitions and I can understand Paul Barford's constructive criticism of my recent blog posting (Tom Flynn Blames the Museums) that it is not always helpful to mix the question of post-1970 (ie post-UNESCO Convention) acquisitions with acquisitions made prior to that, particularly those made during the age of imperialism.

Nineteenth-century acquisitions are too hot a potato to handle and condemning them probably doesn't help clarify the more pressing and demonstrably unethical post-1970 acquisitions of the kind Isman refers to.

But like an oncologist looking to your family DNA for the cause of your illness, I have good reason to continue conflating these issues.

As Paul Barford points out in his comments on the Madrid affair, the archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said of his 1999 acquisition: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US”.

Here, then, is further telling evidence, if any were needed, that European and North American museums remain locked in the same competitive race towards an encyclopedic embrace of the world's material culture, no matter what the consequences might be for archaeology.

That is why I continue to focus on the underlying modus operandi of our museums — namely the Enlightenment-born idée fixe that seeks to place the whole universe "'neath one roof".

And as I said in my earlier piece, that macho museum model is what inspires the private collectors to do what they do. We won't beat the looting and the private collecting of illicitly acquired antiquities until we reform the museums.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Senegalese slave trader: Should he stay or should he go?

The portrait, left, of the 18th century Senegalese Muslim aristocrat, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), by the British painter William Hoare, was recently sold at auction in the UK. Its export has been stopped while the National Portrait Gallery tries to raise the necessary £550,000 to keep it in the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund have already provided grants, but £100,000 is still needed if it is not to leave the country.

Should it stay?

Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was from a family of aristocratic Muslim clerics who traded on the west coast of Africa in the early 18th century (that's a Qur'an around his neck). He was also a slave trader. In 1730, while conducting family business, he was himself mistaken for a slave and shipped to America, where he was bought by a Maryland plantation owner and set to work in the tobacco fields. After his escape and subsequent recapture and imprisonment, he was finally recognised by a British lawyer who sponsored his passage to England where he was welcomed by aristocratic British society.

This immediately brings to mind the case of Omai, the Tahitian who also fascinated British society after being brought to England by Captain Cook in 1774 and whose portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (right) was sold at Sotheby's in November 2001 for £10.3 million.

While unquestionably a compelling image, Hoare's half-length portrait of Diallo has none of the dramatic swagger of Reynolds's full-length portrait of Omai, which has the Tahitian swathed in billowing drapery and wearing a turban, strolling through an extensive English landscape like a tattooed Roman orator. It's not a fair comparison, but while the Reynolds image combined great painterly qualities, art historical importance and an intriguing subject, the image of Diallo is altogether more problematic.

Recent discussions of the painting have focused on Diallo's victim status as a slave, despite the fact that he was himself, first and foremost, a slave trader. Indeed on his return to Africa, Diallo resumed his privileged lifestyle, which included keeping his own domestic slaves.

His obvious 'Otherness' notwithstanding, Diallo was embraced by British aristocrats who identified with his aristocratic bearing and sophistication. Should the National Portrait Gallery be seeking to raise public money for an image of a slave trader whose passage into polite society was secured first and foremost by his privileged background?

One would have to conclude that it is.

Diallo's predicament, if one can call it that — his misfortune at being mistaken for a slave — has a particular resonance in this increasingly globalised world where the currents of late capitalism are rendering growing numbers of people immiserated and powerless.

We in 'the West' are all, in our way, beneficiaries of the many contemporary versions of slavery taking place in developing nations where bonded labour, child labour, and forced labour are used to produce the commodities we take for granted. To say nothing of sex-trafficking, which is arguably one of the worst blights on humanity and to which we all but turn a blind eye.

For these reasons alone, the portrait of Diallo is more thought-provoking than one may at first realise and for that reason ought to be saved for the nation. In 1772, a year before Diallo died (presumably peacefully in his comfortable West African home), a black slave composed a poem which was published in the New London Gazette. Even today, it stands as an eloquent reminder of how conveniently compromised are our attitudes to slavery and other forms of oppression:

Is not all oppression vile?
When you attempt your freedom to defend,
Is reason yours, and partially your friend?
Be not deceiv'd — for reason pleads for all
Who by invasion and oppression fall.
I live a slave, and am inslav'd by those
Who yet pretend with reason to oppose
All schemes oppressive, and the gods invoke
to Curse with thunders the invaders yoke.
O mighty God! let conscience seize the mind
Of inconsistent men, who wish to find
A partial god to vindicate their cause,
And plead their freedom, while they break its laws.

(Quoted in Albert Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century, Thames & Hudson, 1990, pp29-30)

Anti-slavery website

National Portrait Gallery Appeal