Thursday, May 13, 2010

Civil servants on the price of Picasso

With the UK's budget deficit making the Grand Canyon look like a mere hole in the road and the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government lying in its incubator being carefully tended to by civil servants and watched by a concerned electorate lest it expire at any moment, one hardly expects Whitehall's attention to turn to the art market.

But following the recent New York sale of Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for $106m (£70m), the civil service intranet has just conducted a brief online survey of its employees to ask "Do you think it's worth it?"

My spies inside DWP inform me that a staggering 4183 votes were cast. The results were as follows:

There's a need to draw a line, this is too much60%

— The price is Surreal [note the capital S], but you can't put a price on great art18%

I wish I had the money to buy it!20%

Hard-working mandarins at DWP clearly have better things to do than specify what "drawing the line" might actually entail, but I think we should be told.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ooh...Aah! The erotic frisson of high-end art auctions

Roberta Smith has just filed a diverting little piece for the New York Times concerning our perennial curiosity about the likely buyer whenever an astronomical price is paid for a work of art at auction.

"If you follow art auctions even peripherally," writes Smith, "you know that each one leaves a trail of question marks. Who bought the van Gogh? Who bought the Johns? We would very much like to know. Sooner or later we usually do."

That 'usually' should read 'occasionally', because more often than not we don't. Generally speaking, the buyers of so-called 'blue-chip' works such as Picasso's Garçon à la pipe ($104m/£58m), Warhol's Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) ($71.7m/37.7m) and Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust ($106m/£70m) remain shrouded in mystery.

Bloomberg's art market reporter Scott Reyburn recently scooped the buyer of Giacometti's ($103 million) Walking Man at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern sale in London on February 3rd, revealing it to be London-based Brazilian-born billionairess Lily Safra.

Reyburn succeeded in locating two dealers who corroborated each other's version, a minimum prerequisite if a story is to hold water. Otherwise, it remains pure speculation, as with the unsubstantiated 'rumour' that Paris-based Philippe Niarchos was the buyer of Warhol's Green Car Crash (above left) at Christie's New York in May 2007.

Clearly there are plenty of reasons why purchasers of expensive prestige objects choose to remain anonymous and Roberta Smith helpfully outlines a few, security and privacy being the obvious ones, tax dodges and other financial incentives perhaps also occasionally playing a part.

An arguably even more interesting question is why the rest of us are so curious. What's to be gained from knowing that Lily Safra has a Giacometti parked in her living-room? Would it matter more, or less, if the buyer had been Roman Abramovich? Or Steve Cohen? Or Eli Broad?

Smith's article playfully rehearses the bizarre notion that our curiosity about these matters may have libidinal roots: "Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast at it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic," she writes. This is a kind of exhibitionism, Smith suggests, in which anonymity becomes, for those watching, "pleasurable and voyeuristic," the spending of money "a turn-on."

There is another reason why some of us want to open the auction kimono and it has less to do with a notional eroticism and more to do with the increasing opacity of auctions. The problem with high-end art auctions is that nobody knows what kind of deal has been stitched together behind the scenes beforehand. Sotheby's and Christie's glitzy evening sales might look like spontaneous theatre but they are more studiously choreographed than many people realise.

And there's the rub. The day fine art auctioneers ceased operating solely as agents and became principals in the transaction was the day the 'public auction' relinquished any last claim it had to transparency and openness. How much of what goes on is ethical business and how much of it is the art world equivalent of insider trading?

This might sound like a classic Us and Them conspiracy theory, but it's a serious issue when nine-figure sums are changing hands. We're encouraged to believe that because it's art rather than, say, ethanol futures, credit default swaps or an exotic mortgage derivative, it doesn't matter. But in any other trading arena the structuring of such transactions would be subject to a minimum of external regulation. What, precisely, is the extent of the auctioneer's involvement when the hammer falls at these head-spinning prices? Is the auction house a site of sensuality, or the locus of hocus pocus?

Hats off to Roberta Smith for putting a whole new gloss on the stultifying boredom of evening art auctions. Next time I drop down to Sotheby's or Christie's for one of their glitzy Imp and Mod sales I'll keep a beady eye out for the gavel-grinding voyeurs and the scopophilic saleroom swingers.

I've nothing against a bit of harmless rostrum frottage, you understand. It's the bean-counting that concerns me.

Christie's face lawsuit over 'misattributed' Leonardo drawing

The picture illustrated left is not a work by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. But if you could get the right people to say it is, it could be worth...ooh... think of a number and add six or seven noughts.

Christie's sold the picture in New York in 1998 for $21,850 (£11,400), when it was catalogued as by a relatively minor 19th century German artist. Shortly afterwards, a leading Leonardo scholar reattributed it to Leonardo and wrote a book about it. Abracadabra! $150 million!

Now the original vendor, Jeanne Marchig, is suing Christie's for negligence.

Given the monstrous prices changing hands at the top of the art market (cf this week's Picasso in New York), it's not surprising that 'La Bella Principessa', as she is now known, is suddenly at the centre of a multi-million dollar legal action. But quite how Ms Marchig can have a case against Christie's when a bullet-proof attribution to Leonardo hasn't been made (and probably never will be) is a moot point.

There are legal precedents regarding an auctioneer's duty of care, most notably the Court of Appeal's decision in 1990 over Luxmoore-May v Messenger May Baverstock.

This concerned an English provincial auction house, Messenger May Baverstock, which sold two seemingly anonymous sporting paintings in 1985 for £840. A few months later the paintings were offered at Sotheby's as works by George Stubbs, where they fetched £88,000. The original vendor, a Mrs Luxmoore-May, sued Messenger May Baverstock for the difference, claiming that the auctioneers should have known the works were by Stubbs.

The court found in favour of Messenger May Baverstock on the grounds that a distinction needed to be drawn between a provincial auctioneer, who could be described as a general practitioner, and a London firm, who could be expected to show specialist knowledge. Within the parameters of their professional function, Messenger May Baverstock merely expressed an opinion and thus were not negligent, the court ruled.

But the case of the 'Leonardo' involves Christie's, who one can reasonably assume qualify as specialists, if not connoisseurs (a critical distinction). Moreover, not everything in the art market can be definitively researched. Pictures often present greater difficulties than objets d'art, although that realm can be a quagmire too, as the case of the Islamic rock crystal ewer at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury in 2008 vividly illustrated.

True connoisseurship is now a moribund skill, having long ago been replaced by the vulgar imperatives of the art market whose ever-widening maw now sucks in not only Wall Street speculators but academics and "freelance art consultants", all bewitched by the siren chime of the cash register. Brush strokes, fingerprints, chemical analysis, carbon-dating...bring 'em on!

The Leonardo market stinks like a Cinquecento latrine.

Back in December 2009, London Old Masters dealer Simon Dickinson was at the centre of a legal wrangle after allegedly taking a commission of more than £600,000 for selling a Leonardo da Vinci drawing to an American client.

According to the Daily Mail, the drawing had been consigned to Dickinson by private art consultant Daniella Luxembourg, who in turn had been instructed to sell it on behalf of a mysterious Liechtenstein-based foundation called Accidia. 

The Mail reported the subject of the drawing as "the Madonna and Child with St Anne and a lamb," and yet the three or four known documented Leonardo drawings of that subject are all in national museum collections. Had another authentic Leonardo drawing of that subject been found it would have been major art market news and worth a lot more than three or four million. So what was the drawing Dickinson sold?

For the most informative piece on the La Bella Principessa reattribution controversy, see Richard Dorment's excellent piece for the Telegraph here and for the recent news of the impending court action, see Dalya Alberge's summary for The Times here.