Readers will recall the rather stunning news I reported on a month ago, that “The Mocking of Christ”, an extremely rare panel painting by the proto-Renaissance Florentine painter Cimabue (c. 1240-1302) had been found hanging in the kitchen of a somewhat humble apartment in France. The small picture, which was once part of a larger altarpiece, was auctioned in suburban Paris this past Sunday, and carried a pre-sale estimate of between $6-7 million. In the end, it sold for over $26 million, which is not only a new record sales price for the artist, but is also the highest amount ever paid at auction for a medieval work of art.
There’s no word yet on who bought the painting, or where it will end up, but we do know that it was purchased jointly by two anonymous collectors. Fabrizio Moretti, one of the most successful of the (comparatively few) younger art dealers handling Old Masters these days, bid on their behalf. I suspect that I probably would have reacted as he did, when he was able to see the Cimabue for the first time. “It’s one of the most important old master discoveries in the last 15 years,” Art Critique quotes him as saying. “When I held the picture in my hands, I almost cried.”
Part of me is left wondering what the astronomical price paid for this picture really represents. Bear in mind that this was an auction, not a gallery sale. That means that at least two bidders were willing to go tens of millions of dollars over the estimated value of this work, in order to obtain it. We don’t know why these bidders wanted the picture, but we can think of some explanations for why they overpaid, which a more rational, detached observer might conclude that they did.
The easiest explanation of course, is the economic one. In this analysis, the value of a piece is set by what buyers in the marketplace are willing to pay for it. In turn, what those buyers are willing to pay is based on a number of factors, such as scarcity, condition, fitness for purpose, and so on. It’s also the case generally that, the rarer and more highly valued the commodity, the fewer people there are with the resources necessary to obtain it.
Yet there’s also a very important intangible to consider here, which is at least partly reflected in S. Moretti’s reaction to the Cimabue, and that is the question of taste. In this instance, we don’t know whether the taste which motivated the buyers of the Cimabue was entirely of their own motivation, or whether it was one which their dealer has been helping them to develop. At the end of the day, an art dealer needs to make a profit, since the trade does not run on a mantra of “l’art pour l’art”, but what distinguishes a good art dealer from a bad one are not only things like market knowledge or negotiating skill, but also a willingness and indeed an enthusiasm for educating his client.
In my own case, if I were to put myself in the shoes of a potential buyer in this situation, what would I have done? Certainly, I recognize the significance of both Cimabue and this tiny panel, because owning this object carries with it a great deal of responsibility to make sure that it is preserved for future generations. I have to ask myself however, whether I would have paid nearly $27 million for it, assuming of course that I had that kind of lolly just lying about.
The answer, I’m afraid, is no.
It’s not because I dislike Cimabue, I hasten to add, nor is it because I deny the picture’s historic importance, or because I dislike the subject matter. This is a lovely jewel of a piece, by a figure of immense importance to art history, which depicts a scene of great spiritual significance in the faith which I profess. In short, I’m very aware of what this object is.
No, the reason I wouldn’t want to spend that much comes down to that slippery question of taste. Don’t misunderstand me: I’ve always loved Florentine art, and have studied certain aspects of it for decades. I wouldn’t mind owning a small piece like this, whether a scene from Scripture or the lives of the saints, of the classic gold ground panel housed in a carved, gessoed frame variety.
Yet there comes a point in late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian art in which these dismembered limbs from once glorious altarpieces, that were chopped up a century or more ago in order to make them easier to sell to collectors, become difficult to tell apart. Just last weekend, for example, I wandered through one of the Renaissance rooms of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where there are perhaps a dozen or so 13th century panels hanging on the walls or inside display cases. Admittedly, I had never seen any of these pieces before, and I only know just enough about Italian art from this period to get myself into trouble, but without looking at the placards it was almost impossible for me to identify any of the painters of these objects.
In the end, the Cimabue is a beautiful painting of great quality, but is it $27 million worth of beautiful? Particularly when one could, for example, obtain a very rare religious work by Velázquez – such as this wonderful painting sold at Sotheby’s a few years ago of the early Christian martyr St. Rufina of Seville, as modeled by one of the artist’s daughters – for a bit more than half the price? I know which one I’d choose – although, as long as we’re playing fantasy art collector league, I wouldn’t say no to a $10 million Duccio.