Aesthetics and the Gospel of Ugliness

There’s a frequent refrain in more traditional schools of thought when it comes to the arts that goes something like this: if people were only exposed to beauty, they would prefer it to the ugliness which has characterized much of painting and sculpture, architecture, film, and music for the past century or so. I don’t deny that there’s some truth to that notion, particularly when it seems as though all aesthetic values are now utterly and perhaps irreversibly subjective. Yet I wonder whether the notion that, in effect, “If you build it, they will come,” is a bit too narrow of a view to take, when it comes to the intersection of aesthetics and values in art.

Last evening while watching television – a habit which is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, given the available offerings – I came across a commercial for yet another blood-and-guts program from a cable channel which, over the past several years, has singlehandedly revived the zombie genre for the small screen, as well as glorifying the drug trade, biker gangs, and other unsavory aspects of contemporary society. The theme music for the spot was the opening of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in D Major, a joyful piece of Catholic sacred music which, at least so far as I can tell, has nothing to do with a shoot-em-up series about a comic book anti-hero, even if God Himself is (apparently) a character in all of this mess.

Then there was this tweet from the Cathedral of Rochester in England, which has temporarily turned the nave into a crazy golf course (what the cousins call mini-golf over there.) Presumably, this is an effort to attract more visitors rather than worshipers, since in order to affect this alteration one presumes that a considerable number of pews had to be put in storage. No doubt St. John Fisher, whose seat this cathedral was before he alone among the English hierarchy had the cojones to stand up to Henry VIII, thereby losing his head in the process, is just as embarrassed for the people of Kent as I am at this extremely tacky turn of events.

In both of these instances, we’re dealing with artistic treasures of great beauty, but whose inherent dignity – and indeed ours – is being cheapened in the quest for popularity. Perhaps the use of Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece will attract viewers to the television show, but to what end? Is the sale of automobiles or contraceptives so vital for the survival of our culture that we need to make a blasphemy of sacred music in order to sustain these trades? No doubt, this new indoor funfair attraction in Rochester will bring the punters into the cathedral to get out of the summer heat. But how many of them will stay to pray, rather than simply play?

While such questions are simultaneously important and, on some level, frivolous, I bring up these examples in order to make a particular point.

It seems to me that it isn’t enough to simply introduce people to beautiful things, and expect them to immediately gain some kind of deep level of understanding, which thereby causes them to forsake the banal in favor of the sublime. After all, true beauty contains truth, but superficial beauty is just as appealing, and moreover subversively seductive and pleasurable. In and of themselves, beautiful things are not the panacea for our social and cultural ills that some would like them to be.

It’s all very well to go along to a great museum and look at images of beautiful figures in beautiful landscapes, or enter a magnificent concert hall to hear a great symphony, and tell people that these are the sorts of things which they must learn to appreciate above other forms of art. However, the reality is that life is one series of ugly events after another, from physical pain and mental suffering to poverty, loss, dashed hopes, and all of the other ills which categorize this existence as we know it. If the portrayal of ugliness is bewilderingly appealing, it’s probably because, most of the time, on an emotional level it’s much closer to people’s experience of daily living.

Instead, allow me to suggest that alongside a gospel of beauty, those of us who care about aesthetics must simultaneously learn to accept, and indeed to preach, a gospel of ugliness.

Yesterday, July 29th, marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most popular artists who ever lived, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Rejected by those in the art establishment who only wanted to look at beautiful things, today his paintings are the prize possessions of public museums and private collectors all over the world. People line up for hours to see exhibitions of his work, and on those rare instances when one of his canvases comes up for auction, it inevitably sells for an enormous sum. Meanwhile, the arbiters of 19th century aesthetic taste, or more precisely the artists whom they championed, who spent their careers creating things like soft-porn images of nymphs cavorting in cascades of flowers thrown by meaningless putti, are practically forgotten. Why?

Van Gogh was a terrible draftsman, and his painterly technique, such as it was, involved slathering on thick layers of paint in a rather childish way. He often used cheap pigments that, over time, have faded and muddled the colors of his paintings. He was also, by all accounts, someone whose mental illness caused him to sometimes cower in a corner, and at other times to be a quarrelsome, whinging, royal pain in the arse. No doubt, many who came to appreciate him after his death, when he was no longer around to annoy anyone, were drawn in by the romantic notion of one man suffering for his art, and that certainly explains at least some of the initial enthusiasm for retrospectives of his work – but it doesn’t explain his staying power more than a century later.

Perhaps his work still speaks to so many because, in the ugliness of many of Van Gogh’s images, we see something that isn’t airbrushed, auto-tuned, and plastic-wrapped. Its beauty lies precisely, and paradoxically, in its humility and its ugliness. We may not always like what we’re looking at, like the painting below of a pair of tattered, and probably quite smelly, pair of old shoes which, if we came across them on the street we’d probably toss in the nearest bin, using a stick to prevent ourselves from touching them. And yet as a work of art, the image of these hideously ugly shoes is imbued with a kind of dignity and indeed beauty which the man who wore them never enjoyed in this life.

Should you balk at this notion, I’d ask you consider the following:

He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

(Isaiah 53:2-3)

By way of conclusion, I don’t mean to suggest that one should start preferring the work of Le Corbusier to that of Borromini – because if that’s where you’re at currently, I really need to completely rethink this whole writing gig. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize that aesthetics alone do not provide the artistic answer to all of our socio-cultural problems. Something which appears to be ugly can do just as much good in providing a salve to the human soul as something which glistens with an approximation of supernatural perfection. For after all, no matter how frail, scarred, flawed, or weak a human being may be, that person is nothing less than a miraculously beautiful work of art.


Art News Roundup: Taking Stock Edition

My American readers are probably familiar with the White House Historical Association, founded by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, which helps coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service and several other government agencies to catalogue, conserve, and study the hundreds of artistic treasures in the permanent collection of the Executive Mansion. Over the past two centuries, the home has acquired everything from bronzes by Frederic Remington to Tiffany Studios designs for White House carpets, such as the example shown below. These items are documented and cared for by a group of civil servants and volunteers who recognize the historic and artistic importance of these items, which ultimately belong to the people of the United States.


Unfortunately, despite their love of fine and decorative art, the French don’t appear to be as good at such things. A new report published this past Friday indicates that an astonishing 50,000+ items – yes, you read that correctly – including paintings, furniture, porcelain, etc., have disappeared from the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of France in Paris, as well as from other government buildings. As Naomi Rea reports in ArtNet, in 2018 alone 87 items were reported missing by the Élysée – and that’s just what the staff of the Presidential palace happened to notice.

This story adds additional urgency, albeit on a much, much smaller scale, to the to-date haphazard effort I’ve made to inventory items in my own collection. I’ve been inconsistent about this over the years, which has led to a few unfortunate consequences. In some cases, I have everything from receipts, sales catalogue entries, and backup documentation concerning a piece and the artist who created it; in others, that information may be partly or entirely missing.

Now, to be fair, most of what I own isn’t particularly important stuff, and those pieces that are of greater importance are fairly well-documented. The majority of the items in my collection however, I like either because they are visually attractive, or because they hold a personal meaning for me in some way. Therefore it behooves me to make the effort to put together as much of that information as I can, not only regarding the who, when, and where, but also, where necessary, the why.

So take some time to photograph, document, and write down everything you know about those pieces in your collection, gentle reader, whether it’s a collection of Civil War medals or Great-Grandmother’s china or Charlie Brown comic strips. Otherwise, not only do you have a decent chance of forgetting some of what you own, but those who come after you will not have the knowledge that you’re currently carrying around in your head to help them identify these things after you’re gone. There are plenty of days when it’s too hot or too rainy or too snowy to be out and about doing much, when you can devote some time to this activity, in order to keep up with what you have in your home – unlike the President of France.

And now, on to some of the other art news that I’ve found interesting over the past week.

Sotheby’s Snag

Speaking of France, there’s been a snag in French billionaire Patrick Drahi’s plan to acquire Sotheby’s and take it private – which I told you about back in June – so as to better compete with its arch-rival, Christie’s, which is privately held by a company headed by French billionaire François-Henri Pinault. Three of Sotheby’s shareholders have sued the corporation and the board claiming, inter alia, that insufficient information had been disclosed for them to know whether to vote yes or no on the proposed deal, which includes a valuation of company stock at “$57 in cash per share, a 61% premium to the closing price on June 14,” according to Bloomberg. The first two complaints, filed on July 17 and July 19, respectively, have just been joined by a third, in which the plaintiff seems to be seeking certification for a class-action suit. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s and M. Drahi are moving ahead with their plans, which they expect to be completed by the end of this year.


Swedish Shipwreck

The Baltic Sea has long been a favorite hunting ground for marine archaeologists thanks to its deep, cold waters, which preserve perishable materials like ship timbers for remarkably long periods of time. Now, a new find may have revealed one of the best-preserved Renaissance shipwrecks located to date. The unknown vessel is believed to date from the late 15th or early 16th century, complete with rigging, masts, guns, anchor, and tender boat, and features a decorated transom at the back of the hull. You can check out a video from the lead archaeologist here. No word yet on whether the Swedes will be trying to raise the vessel, or if it contains any cargo, but I’d be very interested in seeing a) the Scandinavian sculptural elements carved on that transom, and b) if there are any late Medieval-early Renaissance ceramics still intact down in the hold.


Dandy Dickens

If you’ve ever watched the BBC show, “Fake or Fortune?” – and you should – you’ll know that art dealer Philip Mould and his team have a knack for rediscovering lost, important works of art. Case in point was their find last fall of a beautiful portrait miniature by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), depicting the novelist as a young man, just about the time that he was writing “A Christmas Carol”. The picture was well-known in Victorian times, but somehow ended up in a boxed lot of junk being auctioned off at a house clearance sale in South Africa. Now fully cleaned and restored, the piece has been acquired by the Dickens Museum in London following a lengthy fundraising campaign. Given that most of us are probably more familiar with Dickens from photographs taken of him later in life, balding, paunchy, and with a rather luxuriant goatee, Gillies’ portrait gives us an idea of why, when he first became popular, Dickens was well-known around London for being quite the dandy and ladies’ man.


Le Chevalier noir à Marseille: Batman in the South of France

Should you happen to find yourself in the south of France this summer, gentle reader, you may want to look up into the night skies for a different sort of light than that generated by celestial bodies:


Contemporary artist Alex Israel (1982- ) is perhaps best known in the art world for making use of his connections to the film industry in Hollywood, and coming up with paintings, films, and art installations that have a kind of plastic, pastel California feel to them. Broadly speaking, you can think of him as someone who is an artistic descendant of the Pop Artists of the 1950’s and 60’s, such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, but with a West Coast palette and outlook. No doubt had he lived back during the Studio Era, he would have been an artistic director for one of the major studios, orchestrating the overall look of films set in the Los Angeles of the time.

Mr. Israel’s most recent installation is just as cinematic, but it adopts a darker tone than much of his previous work, and for good reason. “Alex Israel”, which opened last month at the Centre d’art de la Cité Radieuse in Marseille, is dedicated to Batman. The highlight of the show, which is on display at the Centre’s rooftop, is a working Bat Signal, which the artist fashioned from an old World War II searchlight. And no need to raise a professional eyebrow, for those among my readers who are fellow attorneys wondering about intellectual property issues for this exhibition, since Mr. Israel obtained permission from Warner Brothers before slapping on the giant metal bat logo.

Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

In addition to creating a working Bat Signal, Mr. Israel has also somehow managed to (temporarily) acquire the Batmobile from the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” film. He’s surrounded it with special effects including lights, sounds, and a smoke machine, to make it seem as though the Caped Crusader is somewhere nearby, and could arrive on the scene at any moment. While to those of us who are in the States, this may seem somewhat standard fare, at least for those who go to things like Comicon or movie studio-owned amusement parks, in the south of France this sort of thing doesn’t happen all that often.


Indeed, Marseille may seem a rather odd place to throw up the Bat Signal, but as Mr. Israel explained in a recent interview, “I was inspired by the myth of Marseille, and that historically it’s been a bit tough, rough and dangerous.” It’s an apt observation, particularly if you consider the number of enjoyable gangster/action films set in whole or in part in France’s second largest city. Perhaps most famously, to American audiences, Marseille is an important location in “The French Connection” Parts I and II, but it also plays a role in numerous other films, from “Borsalino” to “The Transporter” to “The Bourne Identity”, as well as in several classic French mob films starring Jean Gabin.

So is this installation high art? No. But is it fun? Absolutely.

I think this exhibition is an excellent opportunity to point out to the reader that art does not always have to take itself seriously in order to be enjoyable. After all, many of those whom we think of as being in the high pantheon of Western art, such as Da Vinci, Dürer, or Rubens, not only created works that were intended to last forever, they also created ephemeral pieces that were meant to last for a few days or even just a few hours. These short-term installations provided visual entertainment to kings and queens, popes and princes, and even ordinary people, as they celebrated events such as royal weddings, church holidays, and military victories.

In this case, one can simply enjoy this installation for what it is, and the pleasure that it brings in seeing it. Mr. Israel mentioned that one of his hopes as a result of the exhibition was for visitors to look up into the night sky, see the Bat Signal, and realize that sometimes, “childhood dreams can and do come true”. Given how much of Contemporary Art (and indeed, contemporary society) is motivated by selfish narcissism, that’s not a bad counterpoint to want to make.

Alex Israel” is at the Marseille Modulor site at the Cité Radieuse through August 31st.Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

Art News Roundup: Sacking and Packing Edition

Before taking a look at some of the more interesting art stories of the past week, gentle reader, I wanted to direct your attention to an excellent lecture series on the recently-closed National Gallery of Art exhibition “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice”, which you may recall that I reviewed for The Federalist back in April. Presented by Eric Denker, Senior Lecturer and Head of Tours and Lectures at the National Gallery, the first of the videos may be found here, on the NGA’s YouTube channel; all four are well-worth your time, even if you didn’t get a chance to see the show in person.

Mr. Denker begins with a look at the social, political, and artistic environment into which Tintoretto (1518-1594) was born, and in subsequent lectures follows through the progress of the artist’s career from prodigious young cub to Venetian art establishment lion. The series concludes with a survey of where one can go in present-day Venice to see the painter’s works, whether still in situ, or housed in other locations.

I learnt a great deal from these presentations, since Mr. Denker is not only very knowledgeable, he is also the head of one of the charitable organizations in Venice whose headquarters was decorated by Tintoretto over the course of many years. One takeaway in particular was the importance of understanding how some of Tintoretto’s works appear to have a rather odd sense of perspective, which only makes sense when the works are viewed obliquely, i.e. from the side, rather than straight on. For example, the “Last Supper” (c. 1579-1581) shown below makes much more sense when you realize that the figure of Christ, at the far end of the table, is supposed to be seen tilted away from you, while the woman in the lower right corner would be the figure closest to you, if you were viewing the piece from its intended angle.



And now, on to some art headlines.

Sacking the Sacklers

Just weeks after the Smithsonian Institution (politely) declined a U.S. Senator’s request to remove the Sackler name from one of the institution’s main art museums, the Louvre appears to have suddenly given in to pressure from Contemporary artist Nan Goldin and her cohort, PAIN (“Prescription Addiction Intervention Now”.) References to the Sacklers, who have donated quite a bit to the world’s most famous art museum over the years, are now being removed or temporarily covered over. Publicly, the Louvre claims that naming rights had expired, but as ArtNews points out, things seem a bit “hazy”, noting that the Sackler Wing at the museum was technically supposed to have lost its moniker back in 2013. Given that the Met, Tate, Guggenheim, and now the Louvre have all taken steps to disassociate themselves from the Sacklers, it’s difficult to imagine that renewed pressure to rename the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian will not be bringing more protests here to DC.


Leaving in London

Meanwhile, novelist-activist Ahdaf Soueif has resigned as a trustee of the British Museum, explaining her reasoning in a post published in the London Review of Books on Monday. Among other factors in rendering her decision to step down, the author references workers’ rights, colonialism, the environment, and the Museum’s acceptance of corporate donations from British Petroleum. Last week, the Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, indicated that BP exhibition sponsorship would continue where appropriate, as the famed archaeological and anthropological institution would not be able to mount special shows like the upcoming “Troy: Myth and Reality” without such support. I shouldn’t expect that this resignation will make much difference to Mr. Fischer, but as anti-petroleum protesters have already promised to step up their actions at the Museum this fall, when the “Troy” exhibition opens, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes at the moment.


Coffin to Cairo

On a more positive note, exciting news for those who, like this scrivener, dreamed of being Egyptologists when they grew up. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb – known to scientists and archaeology nerds as KV62 – was discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his body was found inside three magnificently sculpted coffins: the outer and middle coffins were carved from wood and covered in gilded plaster decoration, while the innermost coffin was made of solid gold and inlaid with enamel and precious stones. Following careful study and photography, the boy-king’s mummy was placed in the outermost coffin and returned to its resting place, where it has remained ever since, apart from the occasional test or scan.

Now that nearly a century has passed, this outermost coffin is in serious need of conservation, and the decision has been taken to pack it up and move it to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo which, after several push-backs, is scheduled to open next year. This will be the first time since Carter’s discovery that all three coffins will be on display together. No word yet on what will be done with the pharaoh’s mummy, which so far as I’m aware is still in situ in the tomb, but as it’s been in a fairly poor state of preservation since its finding, I would imagine that eventually Tut will be heading to Cairo as well.


Lessons Learned: The Masterpiece That Wasn’t

Sometimes, even those of us who know a fair bit about art can get it wrong.

I recently acquired a work at a Connecticut auction [N.B. not the picture shown below this piece] that I was convinced was by an important French artist, someone whose work I didn’t know well – or indeed particularly like – but whom I had been reading about a fair amount of late. I thought I‘d made the deal of the century, because the piece was being offered for a far lower price than what that artist’s work normally goes for. I was sure that, if I chose, I’d be able to sell the piece for a very handsome profit, indeed: one that would pay for my vacations to Spain for decades to come.

Unfortunately, once the piece arrived at the Fortress, and I was able to take a look at it close up and out of its frame, I discovered that it was by someone else. While I hadn’t overpaid for the picture, it wasn’t the big win that I had been imagining. And now that the sting of my error has subsided somewhat, I think this is a good opportunity for your consideration, gentle reader, as I reflect on how I went about acquiring this piece in completely the wrong way.

My first mistake was in going after a piece from a period which I don’t know a great deal about. Yes, I’d been researching the particular artist whom I thought the picture was by, and I probably know more about them than the average collector, but I certainly wasn’t familiar enough with their work for me to roll out the old leap to conclusions mat. It was presumptuous of me to think that, just because I’d had past success in other areas of art collecting, areas in which I *did* know what I was talking about, that I’d have an equal level of success in an area of art that is most definitely outside my area of expertise.

In the past, the successes I’ve had in acquisitions have almost always been in areas of art that I’ve known for many years. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a general knowledge about, or am incapable of coming to learn more about, artists or artistic movements that reside along the edges of my knowledge area. Nevertheless, while taking a chance once in awhile is not necessarily a bad thing, sticking to what you know is a much better course of action to follow.

The second mistake I made was in being motivated by a desire for profit, rather than out of love. Now, I don’t mean to say that someone who deals in art for a living is wrong in discovering a picture, acquiring it, and then turning around and reselling it for a profit. Discovery is one of the constant themes in the art market, as pieces constantly vanish and reappear later, often in unexpected places. My mistake, if I want to cast blame upon myself, is in attempting to do so as an amateur, albeit one with a graduate degree in this sort of thing, with respect to a piece that I didn’t really know anything about, and didn’t really like.

There certainly wasn’t any love involved in what I was doing. At the end of the day, I didn’t even really care for the picture itself, since it wasn’t the sort of thing that I’d normally pay any attention to, if I saw it hanging in a museum or in someone’s home. Almost everything else that I’ve collected over the years has come into my possession because I loved it as soon as I saw it, and I was fortunate enough at the time to have the means to acquire it. With this piece, however, not only did I not really know anything about it, but I didn’t love it, or even intend to keep it if I could manage to turn around and sell it at one of the major auction houses or dealers.

So what are some of the takeaways from this experience?

The first must be the first rule of collecting: buy what you love. If something really speaks to you, and you’re able to acquire it, then that’s usually the best reason for adding it to your collection. Forget what the very wealthy do, i.e., buying ugly art that no one really likes for speculative purposes, and instead go buy what you love. You’re the one who’s going to have to look at it over the sideboard every morning, after all.

The second rule is – and this is just as important as the first – that you really do have a much better chance of doing better when you acquire what you know. In the past, when I’ve made good art acquisitions, it’s not only been because I liked the pieces I acquired, but also because they were from times, places, and artistic movements that I already knew well. They’re the sorts of things that I’ve done a great deal of looking at, reading about, and studying for decades. This is why continuing to educate yourself matters, both as a collector and indeed as an adult, since the more you know, the better you can trust your gut instinct.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll never take a gamble like this again in the future, whatever advice I may have just committed to these virtual pages for your consideration. After all, that’s one of the fun aspects of collecting art, at the end of the day: the possibility of making a major discovery of a lost masterpiece. Yet to temper that impulse, perhaps what I’ll need to do is hang my disappointing picture somewhere where I can see it, so that when I’m flipping through auction catalogues I can remind myself that whatever I think I’m about to do, I could very well be wrong, and should behave prudently.

In that respect, perhaps my latest acquisition will turn out to be of even greater value, after all.


Art News Roundup: Turning Up The Heat

Now that the heat of summer is fully upon us, I’ve been trying to catch up on my podcast listening, something that had fallen by the wayside over the past several weeks between vacation and other goings-on. For many years now, Catholic In A Small Town by Mac and Katherine Barron – which just recently celebrated its 500th episode – has been one of my favorites. In last week’s episode, Mac and Katherine got into a discussion regarding whether agenda-driven popular culture has reached a boiling point, in the sense of the proverbial frog slowly being boiled alive in a pot. [N.B. You can have a listen here, beginning around 1:06.] In discussing some of the more disturbing materials available to their children via online streaming entertainment apps, it was observed that driving an agenda often leads to bad art.

I’ve been thinking about this point, and there’s certainly a lot of truth to it when it comes to things like novels, movies, and television, but if we shift the analysis to the world of fine art, things become a bit more complicated.

Certainly most Contemporary Art falls into the category of agenda-driven bad art. To begin with, it usually has very little in the way of actual art about it – that is, if we think of the term “art” in the less pejorative sense of the word, “artifice”, displaying skillfulness or carefully-honed craftsmanship. Yet because Contemporary Art is so often agenda-driven, it’s become largely immune from serious criticism. Most art critics drink from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as the artists whose work they review, and those who don’t are usually too afraid of professional and social repercussions to point out that, whatever their agenda, most of today’s most celebrated artists don’t actually know how to draw, let alone paint or sculpt.

Of course, agenda-driven art isn’t necessarily always poorly-executed art, even if we disagree with the agenda itself. If we go back a couple of centuries and look at a major artist of international standing such as Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) for example, there’s no question that he knew his business as an artist. He could draw with great precision and clarity of line, with a skill perhaps unrivaled since the days of Ancient Greece. He remains a significant, highly influential figure in the history of Western art.

Unfortunately, David was also a fanatical Jacobin – having voted in favor of the execution of Louis XVI, among other horrors – and later became a Bonapartist. As someone who loathes anything and everything having to do with both the French Revolution in general and Napoleon Bonaparte in particular, I find much of David’s Napoleonic work in particular to be utterly ridiculous. No matter how well-executed his portraits of the little corporal, whenever I look at them I can’t help but recall the Spanish aphorism, mona en seda, mona se queda. (“A monkey in silk is still a monkey.”)

It’s also important to recognize that while an artist’s personal motivations inevitably inform his artistic point of view, “bad” people can make exceptionally good art. Quite a few great artists led lives that were, at least at times, not exactly circumspect: famous examples include some of my all-time favorites, such as Raphael, Velázquez, and Singer Sargent, among many others. They may not have been the sort of people you would have wanted your sister to date, but that didn’t make them any less the artistic geniuses that they certainly were.

A more recent irony however, is causing even the display of works by these artists to be called into question, as the art world begins to overheat in search of more people and concepts to attack. Even though those of us of a more rational mindset would never dismiss out of hand the work of a great artist such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), simply because he was an insatiable womanizer who fathered over a dozen illegitimate children with different mistresses, there is a slowly but steadily increasing effort to engage in post-mortem condemnations of dead artists, in the endless effort to engage in virtual signaling whenever possible. Thus, artists such as Gauguin and Picasso, who happened to live outside of the mainstream themselves, are now being chastised for nonconformity to present-day social positions championed by those who, a century ago, would have lauded their breaking of social and artistic taboos.

There’s an interesting statement from American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967), that I’d like to leave you with as something to think about, perhaps as a point for future conversation. In an interview he gave to the Smithsonian back in 1959, Hopper quoted from a statement which he had published a few years earlier in an arts magazine, in which he summed up his views regarding what an artist should be trying to achieve in his work:

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term “life” as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.


And now, on to some of the week’s more interesting art stories.

Valued Velázquez

That newly-rediscovered painting by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) which I told you about a couple of weeks ago, a 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X’s sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, ended up selling at Sotheby’s London for a little over $3.1 million, the high end of the estimate. In my book, that’s still a bargain for a Velázquez, but given the rather unattractive subject matter – who would want *that* staring down at them from above the sofa – it’s certainly understandable. There’s no word yet on the identity of the buyer, or where the picture will end up.


Beautified Botticelli

Following the recent sale of what may or may not be a work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), a work that is actually by the Italian Renaissance master – along with some help from his friend (and Michelangelo’s teacher) Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) – has just been beautifully cleaned and restored at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. “The Coronation of the Virgin” was painted around 1492 for a Camaldolite monastery in the area around Volterra, in Tuscany, and if you’ve never heard of the Camaldolite Order before now, trust me: you’re not alone in that. Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are known to have collaborated on a number of projects, such as in decorating the side walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, but this is the only known surviving work that they painted together.


Loaned Leonardo

Speaking of the Vatican, Leonardo Da Vinci’s (1452-1519) unfinished “St. Jerome”  (begun 1480) from the Vatican Museums will go on display next week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as the only object in an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist. The stark exhibition design, with the picture placed at one end of a black room, is rather reminiscent of the marketing campaign that Christie’s used prior to the sale of the Leonardo “Salvador Mundi”. The painting itself is a prime example of the artist’s fascination with careful attention to anatomy, landscape, and the depiction of unique physiognomy, although it must be said that not only is the scale of the lion completely wrong, but its behavior in roaring at St. Jerome is not in keeping with the saint’s hagiography. “Leonardo Da Vinci’s St. Jerome” is at The Met from July 15th through October 6th.


Take A Chance On Me: Buying A Botticelli (?)

Back on June 28th, a painting in the style of Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) – he of the iconic “Birth of Venus” (c. 1485), or as I like to call it, “Venus on a Half-Shell” – came up for sale at auction in Zurich, with a pre-sale estimate of $5,000. A bidding war ensued, and the final hammer price was $6.4 million. Clearly, some bidders were convinced that this was a piece by the Renaissance master himself, even though the auction house had made no such claim. I think it’s an illustrative example of why sometimes, when art comes to auction, it’s impossible to predict what buyers will do, and why you have to go in with your eyes open and a fixed price firmly in your mind, if you’re interested in bidding on something.


The picture in question, which shows a young man with red hair dressed in a blue tunic, placed in an architectural setting with a landscape beyond, is reminiscent of other portraits by the artist and his circle. For example, Botticelli’s bust-length “Portrait of Giuliano de Medici” (1478), now in the National Gallery here in DC, depicts the murdered brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The subject is placed in an architectural space with a half-open window behind him, although he looks down and away, rather than directly out toward the viewer.


If you take a look at the slightly earlier “Adoration of the Magi” (1475-76) which Botticelli painted for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and in which both Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici appear, the figure of a young man wearing a golden cloak and standing at the far right of the picture has always been believed to be a self-portrait by the artist. At this point in his career, Botticelli is a rising young star in the art world, and he’s receiving commissions from the most powerful families and Florence, so perhaps not surprisingly he appears to be a bit full of himself. The brushwork, the pose, and the shading are all rather reminiscent of the Zurich picture.


However there’s significant room for doubt here. A painting that is similar to the Zurich work, depicting a young man framed by an open window, is also in the collection of the National Gallery, and for many years was attributed to Botticelli. Many experts now believe that it is by one of Botticelli’s pupils, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). As in the Zurich picture, the model in the Lippi portrait has red hair, albeit of a darker shade, is dressed in blue, and looks calmly out of the picture at the viewer.


Then there is this picture, currently in a private collection, which shows another red-headed young man, this time dressed in black, standing in front of an open window and holding a small icon. Like the Zurich picture and the Lippi portrait, the gaze of the sitter is outward, calm, and confident. Attribution on this one is so uncertain that the best experts can commit to is that it could be by Botticelli, or it could be by other artists who trained in Botticelli’s workshop.


Tests carried out on the Zurich painting confirmed that it was painted roughly during the time period when Botticelli lived and worked. While not in and of itself dispositive, the results did rule out the possibility that the piece was a later copy or pastiche. However, the condition report on the panel when it arrived was not very favorable, and word was that there was quite a bit of overpainting and restoration, which doesn’t help in the process of identification.

Be that as it may, on the day three bidders entered into a frenzy trying to grab the picture. The auction record for a Botticelli currently stands at about $10.4 million, when a “Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist” by the master was sold at Christie’s New York back in 2013. Botticelli’s paintings rarely come on the market, since the overwhelming majority are held in museums. So if the new owner of the Zurich picture did his homework and got the piece properly cleaned and examined by experts who could confirm the artist’s hand at work in the painting, he’s almost certainly going to make money off his gamble.

And to my mind, gambling is exactly what was going on with the sale of this painting, particularly when, as stated earlier, the auction house made no claims as to who painted it. As I always caution others when they’re thinking of bidding on an object at auction, the way to think about a work of art that you’d like to own is to ask yourself what you would be willing to lose, if it turned out to be not quite what you hoped it would. It’s the same philosophy I employ on those very rare occasions that I find myself at a casino. I decide in advance what I’m prepared to lose, looking at my gambling stakes as a finite entertainment expense, and then I play until that amount is spent; my winnings, if any, don’t go back into my stakes.

In this case, in the cold light of day I don’t know that I would have paid $6.4 million or even $6,000 for this work. That’s a lot of lolly for something that isn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Perhaps this portrait is indeed by Botticelli, and perhaps it isn’t: I’m certainly not in any position to make a pronouncement. I just hope, for the new owner’s sake, that his hunch about the authorship of this picture is correct.

Art News Roundup: Blast Off!

As we celebrate the birthday of the greatest country in the world, I suspect that many of my readers may have the day off. You may well be sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and nothing particular to do until it’s time to head out for a swim or a hike, before going to a barbecue followed by the local fireworks display later this evening. So while you savor the deliciousness of freedom, we’ll take a look at some of the past week’s art news stories that have a particularly American flavor to them – just like burgers and hot dogs right off the backyard grill.

One shining moment of American pride that’s on the minds of many at the moment is the approaching anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, an event which took place almost 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969. As part of the commemorations, NASA recently restored and reopened the original mission control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to resemble as closely as possible what the room looked like on the day. From period sports jackets hanging on coat racks, to cups of coffee sitting perilously close to primitive computer systems, it looks like something out of a nerd version of “Mad Men”. As of this month, visitors touring the Center will now be able to step back in time to this major moment in history, and see this life-sized time capsule for themselves.



Meanwhile, for those who aspire to own something from the actual landing, on July 18th Christie’s New York will be auctioning off the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline. The book contains the full trajectory for the portion of the mission that involved the Eagle lunar module, serving as a kind of itinerary/survival guide for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It went to and from the Moon with the astronauts, and it even contains some lunar dust within its pages. To give you some sense of the volume’s historic importance, Christie’s notes that, shortly after landing on the lunar surface, “[Buzz] Aldrin had written Eagle’s coordinates in the Sea of Tranquility on page 10 of the book — the first writing by a human being on a celestial body other than Earth.”


The pre-sale estimate on the Timeline is $7-9 million, but don’t be surprised if it goes for considerably more than that. No, this isn’t a beautifully illustrated or bound volume, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it’s a work of art. Yet for what it represents, as an object of American and indeed human achievement, whose humble appearance bears no relation to its true value, it’s a good example of how even the most mundane of objects can, with the passage of time, come to hold tremendous significance and indeed tremendous worth for both private collectors and public institutions alike. Here’s hoping it ends up in a museum and not in the grandiose lair of the next Bond villain.

And now on to some other art news, in brief.

Sackler Stays

In follow up to my recent piece in The Federalist, regarding (among other things) efforts to disassociate the name of the Sackler family from various art institutions, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has declined Senator Jeff Merkley’s request that the late Arthur Sackler’s name be removed from the Smithsonian museum of Asian art that bears his name. Secretary Lonnie Bunch, in his letter to Senator Merkley, explained that the Smithsonian is legally bound to keep Mr. Sackler’s name affixed to the museum, under the terms of the gift that was made back in the 1980’s, and reiterated the fact that the philanthropist had nothing to do with the development or marketing of OxyContin, a drug created years after his death which is now the subject of heightened criticism and scrutiny. Interestingly however, notwithstanding the allusion to Mr. Sackler predeceasing the present dispute, it appears that the Smithsonian must have already considered if there was a way that they could remove the Sackler name, long before the Senator’s request, since Secretary Bunch noted in his letter that “the Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time.”


Collecting Caravaggio

It has emerged that the buyer of the purported Caravaggio “Judith and Holofernes”, which was pulled from auction last week following a substantial offer, is former Blackstone Group chairman J. Tomlinson Hill. Mr. Hill is a major collector, and opened his own museum/foundation in New York earlier this year to house his art collection. Until now, his most famous art world coup was purchasing Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” (1530), after an unsuccessful attempt by the British government to prevent the painting from leaving the UK, but that particular fight is not yet over. No word yet on whether a similar quagmire will engulf the exit of the Caravaggio from France to (presumably) its new home in Manhattan.


More Moran

For those of my readers who find themselves in The Hamptons this summer, take a break one day from the water and head to the East Hampton Historical Society, for an intimate look at the lofe and work of one of America’s greatest 19th century landscape painters, Thomas Moran (1837-1926). First, there’s a new exhibition on Moran’s first – but not his last – visit to the Rocky Mountains and points west in 1871, including paintings, sketches, notebooks, and photographs, which played a crucial role in convincing both the public and government officials that Yellowstone needed to be protected as a national park, rather than developed for commercial use of its resources. The grandeur of the images which Moran created, as part of a movement that included other significant American landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, helped lead the way to a greater appreciation of the wildness of the American landscape, the idea of “the West” in the American popular imagination, and ultimately to the creation of the National Parks system. After touring the exhibition, you can stroll down to Moran’s home and quirky, Queen Anne style studio, which was built to his own design largely using salvaged materials from demolished New York City buildings. “Thomas Moran Discovers the American West” is at the East Hampton Historical Society through November 9th.MoranT

Storming The Palace: Where Does Museum Shaming Go From Here?

In case you missed it, my latest piece for The Federalist was published yesterday, in which I shared some news and thoughts about the recent trend of what I would call “museum shaming”. This is when activist groups go after museums for receiving donations from groups or individuals whom those groups find offensive in some way. Over the last couple of years, the most press-garnering example of this has been the anti-Sackler movement led by American Contemporary artist Nan Goldin, and by pure chance she and her group led a massive protest at the Louvre yesterday, shortly after my Federalist piece came out. (I will leave it to the reader to conclude whether the two events are related.)

A few comments that I received related to the piece were critical of Ms. Goldin’s art, and the point is well taken. Ms. Goldin specializes in exhibiting unremarkable, blurry photographs of herself and others who live an existence which is, if one were to choose the kindest possible adjective, unappealing. Her work is largely derivative of Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol, without the piercing eye for composition of the former or the sense of humor of the latter. And as it happens, personally I think all three of them are for the most part terrible, grossly overrated artists.

Yet putting aside aesthetic considerations, there are a couple of further thoughts surrounding the present phenomenon of philanthropy protests that I’d like the reader to consider.

For one thing, there’s no question but that these sorts of protests – be they against a pharmaceutical manufacture, a fossil fuel company, or some other entity that a particular group of people do not like – are not to be dismissed out of hand. You may agree or disagree with Ms. Goldin’s cause, or that of climate change protesters, or what have you, but most of you are not running museums such as the Louvre. You have the luxury, if that’s the word, of simply not doing anything at all. If you’re in Manhattan for example, and you learn that there’s a group protesting at the Met, you can, if you wish, simply avoid the place, and go do something else instead.

Directors and curators who are suddenly faced with swarms of protesters “dying” all over the place on the premises of their museum aren’t so fortunate. Increasingly, they’re being forced to make decisions which, at least in some cases, may be somewhat institutionally unpalatable. Even if a particular cause is one which leadership may be sympathetic to on a personal level, their role is to do what is necessary for their institution to continue functioning: admission tickets need to be sold, major donors need to be courted, and so on. Anything that could significantly disrupt these core activities threatens the positions of those who lead a museum that is being targeted, even though the likelihood of the museum itself being forced to shut down remains highly improbable.

It also raises questions of what, if anything, might be attempted on the commercial side of things. Could protesters start moving against the auction houses and art dealers who do business with companies or individuals involved in areas that are despised by certain groups? Business is based on profit, after all, and where profitability is threatened, change is sure to follow.

Suppose for example, that an aging Baby Boomer actress and environmental activist, who also happens to be a prominent art collector, tweets that she will no longer buy and sell art at Christie’s, unless they agree never to buy or sell art acquired via the fossil fuel industry. With the help of her online minions and celebrity friends, she then kicks off a viral campaign targeting the company until they acquiesce to her demands. What, if anything, would Christie’s do about it? If art philanthropy is at least somewhat sensitive to public opinion, what about art commerce?

Although a reasonable mind could conclude that such a result seems unlikely, when one takes a step back and looks at the present state of society, the less fantastical it seems. Consider what Nike did yesterday concerning a pair of forthcoming sneakers featuring an American Revolutionary flag, merely because a former professional football player with a significant number of social media supporters found said flag offensive. If the athletic shoe market, which is far larger and more profitable than the art market, can be controlled in this way by those with a particular cause to advocate, it ought not to surprise anyone if art dealers and auction houses eventually follow suit.

Art museums were long treated as exclusive palaces for the wealthy, the intellectual, and the powerful, where these groups could meet and, among other things, congratulate themselves on being wealthy, intellectual, and powerful. Over time however, these institutions have largely abandoned that role for the sake of wider popularity. They have become more pedestrian, more concerned with garnering attention in popular forms of media, and more concerned with profitability than with exclusivity. We can debate whether or not this is a good or a bad thing.

The price to pay for that shift, however, is that business-oriented art institutions have become just as vulnerable as any other business, in a society which encourages the airing of angry feelings in as visible a fashion as possible.


Art News Roundup: Double Your Pleasure Edition

I know, gentle reader, I know: I didn’t post a longer-format piece on Tuesday. I was feeling under the weather on Monday, and thus the motivation to write on Tuesday simply was not there. So to make it up to you, instead of the usual 3 art news stories that I normally provide in the weekly art news roundup, today I’m providing you with twice the recommended allowance. Enjoy.

Verified Velázquez

This one completely flew under the radar until earlier this week, but a major portrait by Diego Velázquez (1599-1600) lost to art history since the middle of the 18th century has been identified, and is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s London on July 3rd. Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591-1657) was the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X – not the saintliest of pontiffs – and reportedly his paramour, as well. She’s not exactly what one would expect in a mistress to one of the most powerful men in the world, but then he wasn’t much of a looker, either; Velázquez’ famous circa 1650 portrait of the pope is still hanging in the gallery of his family’s palazzo in Rome. The estimate is $2.5-3.8 million, but given its fairly solid provenance and state of preservation, I’d expect it to fetch something on the high end of that, if not more.


Canceled Caravaggio

Speaking of unattractive paintings for sale, the is-it-or-isn’t-it Caravaggio painting “Judith and Holofernes” (1607), which has been making the rounds in the art press for years now, has been withdrawn from auction in Toulouse, where it was scheduled to go under the hammer today with a pre-sale estimate of $170 million. Apparently it’s been sold to a private collector, who intends to put it on display in a museum. A number of experts continue to have doubts about the picture, as Art News explains, and to be honest, I’ve always found something rather odd about the whole thing, even without being an expert in the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610). For starters, regardless of where the painting was found, one does not bring a major rediscovered work by one of the most important Italian painters of all time to auction in a place like Toulouse which, with all due respect to the people of that city, is a provincial capital: you sell it in London or New York. If you’re not sure that you can get an export license, then at the very least you sell it in Paris. Still, the thing is done, and perhaps if the piece does eventually go on public display somewhere, more experts will have the chance to study and think about it.


Staged Sendak

Whether your favorite is “Chicken Soup with Rice”, “Pierre”, or “Alligators All Around”, chances are there’s a particular book by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) that brings back fond memories of childhood. So for those of you who find yourselves in Manhattan this summer or fall, you’ll definitely want to march along to the Morgan Library to see their new exhibition on Sendak’s work for opera and ballet, including productions of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, and other classical performance pieces that appeal to children. Sendak often used the collections of drawings and prints at the Morgan for inspiration, and at his death left over 900 original drawings to the Library, a number of which are part of this exhibition. Below, you can see Sendak’s design for the proscenium curtain of an opera based on his most famous book, “Where the Wild Things Are”. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” is at the Morgan Library in New York through October 6th.


Copied Clock

Among the many architectural elements lost during the devastating fire at Notre Dame de Paris in April was the Cathedral’s Gothic Revival clock, which was smashed in the collapse of the roof and central spire. Unfortunately, schematic drawings for the timepiece were also destroyed, and restorers were either going to have to redesign it solely from photographs, or try to come up with some kind of an approximation. Miraculously, however, a researcher has located a nearly identical clock, sitting unused in the attic of the Parisian church of Sainte Trinite. It seems that when the parish decided to switch to an electronically-controlled clock system, the mechanical version was taken out and put into storage. Although the Sainte Trinite clock is, understandably, not quite as grand as that which once graced Notre Dame, restorers believe that its mechanism can serve as a model for recreating the one lost in the Cathedral conflagration.


Saved St. George

Speaking of restoration, remember that horrible, “Dragon’s Lair” restoration job in Spain on a Medieval sculpture of St. George and the Dragon? After months of painstaking work and spending tens of thousands of dollars, restorers have managed to reverse the damage, and return the piece to what it used to look like. Spain has, of late, become increasingly famous in the international art press for these botched restoration jobs – the ghastly “Beast” Jesus, the horrific “St. Anne and the Virgin”, etc. – and there remains a lack of consensus on the part of both the State and the Episcopate regarding the care of these art objects. A French system, in which the State controls all cultural property, is not the ideal solution, but unless the bishops start cracking down on educating and disciplining their own priests, this sort of costly nonsense will only continue.


Headlined Homer

We often think of the great American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910) as someone who spent a lot of time observing nature, and depicting man’s often conflictual relationship to it. What many may not be aware of however, is that Homer served as a correspondent artist for Harper’s Weekly magazine during the Civil War, and brought images of the people, places, and events of that conflict to readers around the country and indeed the world. Thus, an upcoming exhibition at Harvard titled “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” will be an eye-opener to many, as it explores Homer’s efforts to try to capture a sense of the front lines at a time when photography of these events was only beginning to have an impact on the public consciousness. It should also raise questions as to what degree Homer manipulated what he observed in order to more clearly reflect his own views, since we know that Civil War photographer Matthew Brady (1822-1896) also did some creative editing in what were previously believed to be purely on-the-scene photographs, including re-positioning bodies of the dead to achieve more arresting compositions. “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” opens at the Harvard Museums on August 31st, and runs through January 5th.



Art News Roundup: Spanish Stories

We’re back to the weekly roundup of curated news stories from the art world, and since I still have Spain on the brain – I just booked my next trip for after Christmas – today we’ll be looking at a few interesting items that touch on Iberian artists and architecture.

While many artists’ homes or final resting places in Spain have become places of pilgrimage for those who love their work, the physical legacy of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), is somewhat more elusive. For one thing, the church where he and his wife Juana – who tragically died 8 days after her husband, both of some type of fever – were buried was destroyed by French troops during the Napoleonic wars, and the bodies were never recovered. Today, if you go to the Plaza de Ramales in Madrid, where the church used to stand, there is a cross on a column indicating that, lying somewhere underneath the paving stones, are the artist’s remains. On one of the sides of the base to the column are the words, “The painter Don Diego de Silva Velázquez died on Friday, 6 of August of 1660: his glory was not buried with him.”


Similarly, once he became court painter Velázquez moved into grace and favor apartments in the Casa del Tesoro (circled in red below), a small palace connected to the Alcázar, the official royal residence in Madrid. This allowed him and other courtiers to be able to come and go from the king’s presence without having to go out into the street. Sadly, this structure, too, was destroyed by the French during the Napoleonic wars, in this case on orders from Napoleon’s brother Joseph, himself. [Note: If any of my readers can recommend a book chronicling the horrific cultural destruction wrought by Bonapartists in Spain, let me know.]


In Velázquez’ native Seville however, things are at least a bit brighter. The church of San Pedro, where according to parish records he was baptized on June 6, 1599, fortunately still stands, and a plaque in the baptistery marks the spot where this took place. Unfortunately, experts aren’t sure whether the existing baptismal font is the one that was used at the time, but then you can’t have everything.


On April 23, 1618, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco (`1602-1660), the daughter of his master Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), at the church of San Miguel in Seville. This was a large, grand 14th century building, whose architectural styles mixed the Medieval influences of Northern Europe with the Mudéjar architecture of southern Spain, which blended Islamic and Gothic styles into an elaborately decorative scheme. Unfortunately, this church like many others was ordered demolished by the leftists who dominated Spanish politics during much of the mid-19th century.


Yet perhaps the most interesting survival of all is Velázquez birthplace, a 16th century house which still stands in the center of Seville. It has been empty for a number of years, having served various functions over the centuries, including for many decades as the showroom for one of Spain’s most prominent high-end interior design companies. In 2017 the building was purchased by a group of prominent locals, with the idea that it will eventually become something like the Rubenshuis in Antwerp or the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.


The Casa Natal de Velázquez project is an ambitious one, but at the moment fundraising appears to be going rather slowly. You can see from their crowdfunding page that there is a lot to do, and they are proceeding piecemeal rather than attempting to raise all of the funds they will need at once. The hope is that if they can get one of the interior patios of the house back up to snuff, that interest in continuing to restore the rest of the house will follow.

So, if any of my readers are able to contribute, or know of someone who can, please do share this information. The world is already full of monographic museums dedicated to other Iberian artists, such as Picasso and Dalí. Yet surely the greatest of them all deserves to have his birthplace preserved as a center for future generations to come and learn about his life and work.

Pharaonic Folly

The city of Sant Adrià de Besòs, which lies just up the coast from Barcelona, can be picked out from a great distance thanks to the hideous decommissioned power plant known as “The Three Towers”. Built in the 1970’s, the three roughly 656-foot tall smokestacks spewed pollution all over this stretch of coastline for decades, until the place was finally shut down in 2008. That should have been the end of the matter, or rather the moment when the wrecking balls started swinging: instead, municipal authorities decided to hold a referendum on what to do about the building. Even though hardly anyone showed up to vote, those who did voted to keep the building standing, meaning that it would have to be re-purposed in some way. Now, an Egyptian company is proposing that the site be turned into a new university where Mediterranean institutions of higher learning from Europe and North Africa can meet to exchange ideas, research, and information, with the smokestacks serving as a symbolic reference to the legendary Faros of ancient Alexandria, and even a glass pyramid and giant Eye of Horus thrown in for good measure. You can see a video of the rather overwrought proposal here.


Litigious Lleida

A story that I’ve been following for awhile now involves a number of works currently in the permanent collection of the Museum of Lleida, in western Catalonia, which were taken from their respective parishes or dioceses against the will of the locals. In 1995 as a result of ecclesiastical map redrawing, the Vatican ordered the Museum, which is co-run by the Diocese of Lleida and the provincial government, to return 111 religious works of art to a new diocese that had been carved out in part from the western portions of the existing diocese. Both the bishop and the local government refused, and despite numerous attempts since then to try to reconcile the parties, the bishops are now suing each other over ownership of the disputed works. Given the utter mess that the hierarchy of the Church is in at the moment, one would think that the bishops could do their job, rather than squabbling over treasures like caricatures in a Bosch painting, but there you are.


Possibly Picasso

Before I left on vacation, the mainstream press was agog about the (possible) discovery of a Pablo Picasso in a car boot sale in the UK. The painting was purchased for around $300 by an antiques collector who was more attracted to the Art Deco frame than the painting itself. When he took it to an auction house some weeks later to get an opinion on whether he had overpaid, he was astonished to learn that he might have purchased an actual Picasso, believed to be a preliminary sketch of a known work, “The Seated Bather” (1930) shown below, which is now in the permanent collection at MoMA. The story took a sour turn when a prominent British art forger claimed that he had executed the work, a claim which was later proven to be false, but unfortunately it ended up tamping down market interest in the piece. At auction a month later, the painting only made about $10k, rather than the many times that which it could have made had it been properly authenticated and attested to by experts. One mystery for example, is the inscription on the piece which the auctioneers could not make out: is it in Spanish? English? French? That could have been tested using imaging technology. It does go to show, however, how the slightest hint of doubt regarding a piece can have a serious impact on the market value of a work of art.


Sotheby’s Under the Hammer for $3.7 Billion

I’m finally back to scribbling after a very pleasant sojourn in Spain – hope you appreciated the updated archival posts, gentle reader – and the big art world news at the moment is the announcement that the venerable auction house Sotheby’s is being sold to French telecom billionaire Patrick Drahi for $3.7 billion. [Full Disclosure: I earned my Master’s in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.] The deal has, understandably, tossed the art press into a maelstrom of chatter about what the purchase will mean both for the venerable auction house and for the future of the art market. Before we get into some of those opinions however, let’s try to get a grasp on some of the factors at play in this deal.

Founded in 1744, more than a decade before its arch-rival Christie’s, at the outset Sotheby’s was primarily involved in the rare books market. It was only later in the 19th century that it began to turn its attention to the buying and selling of paintings and sculpture, making the art trade the primary focus of its business from about World War I onwards. Those of my readers who are interested in corporate history – and Sotheby’s has quite an interesting one – would do well to pick up a copy of British historian Robert Lacey’s excellent “Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class” (1998) which, although missing the scandals and turmoil that hit the auction house beginning the year after the publication of Lacey’s book, remains the definitive biography of the company, warts and all.

Although still often thought of as a British firm, Sotheby’s has in fact been an American company since the early 1980’s, with its headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and some years later incorporating in Delaware. Beginning in the late 1980’s, Sotheby’s became a publicly-traded company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. With the purchase by Mr. Drahi and approval by the board of his plan to take the company private again, that will be coming to an end by the close of the 4th quarter.

Like Christie’s, Sotheby’s will now be controlled by a French corporate entity, but there are no plans to shift operations from the U.S. to France. In a letter released to the press, Mr. Drahi indicated that he is satisfied with things as they are. “As the future owner,” he notes, “I have full confidence in Sotheby’s management, and hence do not anticipate any change to the Company’s strategy. Management and their exceptional teams and talent around the world will continue to operate with my full support. This investment will further demonstrate the anchoring of my family in the United States, a country where we have been very welcomed since the successful acquisitions of [several U.S. telecom/media companies.]”

In purely financial terms, the sale of Sotheby’s is not a major event. As a luxury product, art is not a basic component of the economy in the way that petroleum, natural gas, or commodities such as meats and grains are. In 2017, Christie’s sold $6.6 billion worth of art, while Sotheby’s sold $6.4 billion. Meanwhile, in 2017 sales of U.S. beef cattle exports totaled nearly $7.3 billion. Even if we put the art market into a secondary category of non-staples, it’s dwarfed by the size of markets for consumer products: in 2017, for example, over $15.8 billion of athletic footwear was sold in the U.S. alone.

That being said, for the simple reason that art *is* a luxury good, the art market is always going to attract more media attention than the market for pork bellies or auto parts. This is partly due to Sotheby’s itself, which spearheaded the movement to turn the often hushed and discreet practice of buying and selling art at auction into an international media event. As Art Daily points out, “[a] key turning point was the 1958 sale of the Goldschmidt collection in London, a black-tie celebrity event attended by such luminaries as Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, W. Somerset Maugham and Dame Margot Fonteyn. As the first auction house to become a truly international enterprise, Sotheby’s was organizing sales in Hong Kong by 1973, Russia in 1988 and India in 1992.”

As I often explain when asked about the buying and selling of works of art, it’s important to understand that, from a market share perspective, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are the Coke and Pepsi of the art world. They far outstrip, in terms of sales volume and value, any other auction houses or dealers. And their decisions regarding what art they want to sell, and how much they want to sell it for, have far-reaching consequences.

Getting private collectors with deep pockets interested in acquiring the works of particular artists can inflate the prices achieved in the sale of those artists’ works not only at auction, but also at the dealer or private sale level. Naturally, insurance markets have to react with respect to those changes in value, which can skyrocket or collapse within a short period of time. Objects or works of art that ten years ago could be had for practically nothing can become extremely expensive and practically unattainable, if the two big players suddenly take a shine to those pieces, while items which Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold frequently and at high prices a decade ago could now be worth half or less than what they once were if the auction houses lose interest, thereby causing these works to fall into secondary markets.

Ripples from decisions taken by Sotheby’s and Christie’s can spread even wider, as well. For example, museums may decide to accession or de-accession works for their permanent collections based on what these entities are pushing, or they may even decide to mount exhibitions as a result of the attention that certain types of art are getting from the big two auctioneers. Art fairs will often feature artists whose work falls in line with what is doing well under the hammer, while journalists and researchers will often focus on the artists who are big sellers at auction and the major collectors of their work, rather than bring to the forefront of the conversation artists who exhibit talent but little or no marketability.

In theory, taking Sotheby’s private will allow it to compete more directly with Christie’s, in ways which it cannot currently do as well as a publicly-traded company. “Despite the soaring value of the global art market over the past two decades,” explains Eileen Kinsella over on ArtNet, “auction houses have struggled with high overhead costs and shrinking margins as collectors demand ever more favorable terms and houses enter into complex financial guarantees with outside parties to offset risk. Private ownership has enabled Christie’s to take arguably riskier moves and keep more of its financial information under wraps. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, has focused much of its energy on beefing up sales in the middle market and acquiring auxiliary art-related businesses.”

Putting Sotheby’s on a more equal footing with Christie’s should increase competition and benefit the art market as a whole. “In truth, it was time the publicly quoted company went private,” notes art market expert Georgina Adam in The Art Newspaper. “It was constantly at a disadvantage compared to the world’s leading auction house, Christie’s, because of the necessity of reporting its financial results every quarter. This revealed fine details such as the level of guarantees and other information, such as the existence of defaulting buyers. Once hidden behind the veil of secrecy of a private company, Sotheby’s will be battling Christie’s on the same terms and will be freer to do advantageous deals and outbid its rivals when consigning key works without the world knowing.

On the other hand, Hyperallergic raises similar concerns to those raised by Ms. Adam, noting that Sotheby’s going private will inevitably decrease the amount of easily accessible public information concerning the company’s sales. “For art market experts,” writes Zachary Small, “Sotheby’s return to privacy is somewhat worrisome for research purposes. This marks the presumable end to a paper trail of public records, filings, and disclosures that have provided scholars with significant data points for analyzing how the industry functions.” While there will still be some amount of information made publicly available, Mr. Small is right in expressing concern that, with no other major auction house having to fully disclose its dealings, the art market will be returning to what it was for many years: a secretive world in which backroom deals are the norm, and our understanding of shifts in that market will become even more limited than they are at present.

In recent years, Sotheby’s has been playing second fiddle to Christie’s in both sales and press coverage: thanks to major events like the auction of the Da Vinci “Salvator Mundi”, Christie’s has been top dog for close to a decade now. Will that begin to change once Sotheby’s goes private? Only time will tell.