Monday, January 25, 2010
American silver: punching above its weight?
The silver punch bowl (left) has had American bloggers chattering this week after it sold at Sotheby's in New York for $5.9 million against an estimate of $400,000-800,000. The previous record price for a piece of American silver was $775,750, set in 2001 and again in 2002.
So what accounted for this seemingly extraordinary price, arts bloggers are asking.
Three points spring immediately to mind. The first is the obvious one that some objects are so historically significant that the usual rules don't apply. This bowl — by the Dutch-American silversmith Cornelius Kierstede (1674-ca.1757) — has a fascinating history, as the catalogue description, reproduced below, makes clear.
The second is that connoisseurship — upon which auction houses traditionally built their reputations — has withered on the vine in most fields, with many of the most knowledgeable experts jumping ship from the auction houses into the trade in order to partake of the greater riches that can be made there. So don't express too much amazement at the differential between an auction house's pre-sale estimate and the price an object eventually makes. Moreover, how frequently does this happen with blue-chip paintings, which rarely have arts bloggers dropping their marmalade?
The third — and the most likely explanation for the price of the silver punch bowl — is the arrival into the market in recent years of a new breed of collector drawn from the ultra-high-net-worth realms of banking, hedge fund management, private equity, and so on. Their identification of high-ticket fine art as an attractive portfolio-expanding haven in which to park their surplus wealth had a game-changing effect on the art market.
But while their involvement had previously been limited to painting and sculpture, more recently the financial speculators, art funds and other structured investment vehicles have begun turning their attention to decorative arts and collectables. The impact of their activities on the fine art market was made all too clear during the last art market bubble that burst in October 2008. All the evidence suggests that the cycle is now beginning again. Will it now spread into the decorative arts as well?
Some commentators are asking whether there is another, more intriguing, explanation for the price of the punch bowl. I suspect not. This is the nature of auctions. You only need two or three determined parties for whom money is no object and anything can happen. The punch bowl is unquestionably a museum quality object (which makes it even more attractive to investors), but that doesn't mean it will have been bought by a museum. However, if it does end up in a museum it will probably be thanks to a wealthy, tax-incentivized collector of the kind referred to above, many of whom (in the US, at least) sit as trustees on museum boards.
Tax-payer bail-outs notwithstanding, we've seen the size of the bonuses bankers are currently set to trouser after a record year. That might be the real story behind the punch bowl. If you're celebrating another boardroom bonanza, can you think of a better object from which to dish out the booze?
American arts blogger Judith Dobrzynski helpfully reproduced Sotheby's catalogue description for the punch bowl, which runs as follows:
The bowl has descended in the family of Commodore Joshua Loring, whose stately home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the Loring-Greenough House, has been preserved as an historic site. A Royalist, Loring abandoned his residence in August 1774 to take refuge in Boston, and the family emigrated to London in 1776. According to tradition, the bowl was hidden in a well on the property during the Revolution. Retrieved by the family, it descended quietly with them in England, completely unknown, until the owners sent a grainy photograph to Sotheby's London silver department in March of 2009.