Saturday, January 30, 2010

'Who's the artist?' - Open Forum at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A podcast of the open forum I chaired at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge on 21st January is now available via the Fitzwilliam Museum website here and via the University of Cambridge's Streaming Media service here.

The panel, which included the sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld, Dr Timothy Potts, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Rungwe Kingdon, director of the Pangolin Editions bronze foundry, and Johannes von Stumm, President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, convened to discuss the relationship between contemporary sculptors and the studios or foundries that execute their work.

The discussion touched on issues relating to authorship, originality and authenticity, knowledge of materials, the role of criticism in the reception of contemporary sculpture, and the impact of the market on craft skills and techniques of manufacture.

The event was organised to coincide with the closing days of the Fitzwilliam Museum's annual 'Sculpture Promenade', (right), which this year featured work by Terry New, Diane Maclean, Wu Wei-shan, David Begbie, Johannes von Stumm, Andrew Stonyer, Charles Hadcock, and Richard Fenton.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Open wide, say 'Bomaaaaaarzo!'

Has British tennis ace Andy Murray been taking time out from net practice to stroll the cultural pleasure grounds of southern Italy?

The curious gaping cavern that opened in his face on winning the Australian Open this week bore a striking resemblance to the grimacing grotto that graces the Mannerist sculpture park at Bomarzo in Viterbo.

You can fit around fifty tourists in there at any one time.

And the grotto at Bomarzo accommodates around the same number.

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.