Butter and Basketball: The Price Of Contemporary Art

A recurring theme in these pages is that of valuation in the art market. Having spent a decent amount of time and some considerable lolly in studying the art trade at Sotheby’s in London, I like to keep up with trends on the business side of things, particularly when they intersect with museums and public collections. Now bear with me, gentle reader, because this morning I’m going to be sharing a couple of different art stories with you that don’t really have much of anything to do with one another, but I think you’ll see my point in the end.

Over on Art Market Monitor, there’s a report about Art Bridges, an art lending foundation headed by Alice Walton – of Walmart fame – that has recently gone on what that publication refers to as something of a “buying spree”. Ms. Walton, who is also the foundress of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is focusing on getting more museums to share items in their collections in collaborative exhibitions with other museums, so that these works can be seen by more people and spend less time locked away in storage. On the surface, that’s certainly a very laudable effort.

Except…well.

What caught my eye in the piece was a reference to the foundation purchasing a piece titled “Untitled”, by American sculptor Robert Gober. I’m familiar with his work, from having seen it at The Hirshhorn here in Washington and at The Whitney in New York. As you can see, this particular example appears to be an unwrapped stick of butter, although in fact it’s made of beeswax, wood, and wax paper. What you can’t tell from the photo is that this is the biggest stick of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” you’ve ever seen, measuring about 4 feet long.

butter

Now we can agree that, from a *craft* point of view, this is a pretty neat item. It looks just like the real thing, right down to the blue labelling on the unwrapped wax paper, which we see from the underside in reverse. In its way, it’s in the vein of similar food objects which artisans have created for centuries: colorful glass grapes from the island of Murano outside of Venice, for example, or wooden tea caddies in the shape of pears or apples that were popular in England and America during the Georgian period.

But, as painstakingly well-crafted as this object is, there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable basis here for justifying its price tag of $2.285 million. Because really, isn’t this just a great, big, melting slab of kitsch? Ricky Schroder could have had it in his bedroom on the 80’s sitcom “Silver Spoons”, and no one would have batted an eyelid.

This isn’t the only item acquired by the foundation whose valuation is rather head-scratching. “One Ball Total Equilibrium (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)”, by well-known provocateur Jeff Koons, was purchased for a whopping $15.285 million at Christie’s last year. The work consists of a basketball suspended in a Perspex water tank. Interesting, perhaps, but $15 million worth of interesting? At best, it seems more of a ho-hum homage to British artist Damien Hirst – who formerly specialized in dead animals floating in tanks of formaldehyde – and doesn’t present anything particularly interesting to the viewer.

Koons

Elsewhere in the art news world, there’s an interesting factoid in The Art Newspaper this morning about a work by the Mexican Baroque painter Cristóbal de Villalpando (1649-1714), one of the most important artists in Mexican art history, which was discovered hanging in the office of the President of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The Adoration of the Magi” had been in the possession of the university for many years, but had not attracted a great deal of attention. An expert in Villalpando’s work had gone on a hunt for it some years ago, as The Art Newspaper describes, and now this work along with a number of others by the painter are part of an exhibition of his work at The Met which runs through October 15th.

Magos

How would you value this recovered masterpiece, alongside the aforementioned butter and basketball? Neither of us will ever own it, in part because I don’t have the wall space for it, and you probably don’t either. But given its age, beauty, and complexity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Villalpando’s painting was worth far more than the two contemporary sculptures we’ve looked at today – and you’d be utterly wrong.

It’s difficult to know what this particular altarpiece would bring at auction, not that Fordham has any intention of selling it. Pieces by Villalpando come up for sale occasionally, and from my (admittedly rather quick) research, smaller-sized works by this artist will go for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. The price of a very old painting such as this depends on a number of factors, including the subject matter, the materials used by the artist, and the overall state of preservation.

So what would this fairly well-preserved, impressive Villalpando depiction of a beloved scene from the Christmas story, which stands over 6 feet tall, fetch under the hammer – $500,000? Perhaps $750,000 if there is some serious institutional interest? On a good day, maybe it could make over $1 million? That’s still far less than what was paid for the two contemporary sculptures which we looked at earlier.

As I said at the outset, I freely admit that comparing the work of two living American sculptors to the work of a 17th century Mexican painter is illogical: an apples and oranges argument or, if you will, a butter and basketball argument. But quite honestly, I don’t care. Logic was abandoned long ago by the people who produce, promote, and patronize most of contemporary art, and we need to call a spade a spade.

We live at a time in which purveyors of the vapid, protected from reasonable criticism by the gatekeepers of high culture and their patrons, are valued more highly than the masters of the sublime. A fool and his money are soon parted, as the old proverb goes, and so if Ms. Walton and others like her wish to be fools, they live in a free country which entitles them to do so. By the same token, however, their fellow citizens are equally entitled to not only laugh at the garbage art which they are trying to promote, but to not even go look at it. (After all, that’s what you have me for.)

What you can and should do, frankly, is go see the work of truly great artists like Villalpando and others, whether at The Met or at your local museums and galleries. Learn about them, and come to a greater appreciation of the fact that their skill still speak speaks to us down the centuries to today. Your reward will be far greater, and you will have far fewer scratches on your scalp.

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Selling Off: An American Museum’s Treasures Go To Auction

For the last few months, a BIG controversy going on in the art and museum world has been the decision of the Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to sell off 40 of the objects in its collection, including paintings by some of America’s most important artists. That decision has incurred the wrath of art experts and museum executives around the world, and not without consequence to the museum. At the same time however, the upcoming sale of the Berkshire’s art treasures will give other institutions an excellent opportunity to pick up some major works of art, which in some cases have never appeared on the market before.

Earlier this summer the Berkshire announced that, after a two-year period of soul-searching, it will shift its curatorial focus in order to survive as an institution. To do so, it would have to sell off a significant number of works of art in its collection. It wants to build up its endowment, renovate its facilities, pay the bills, and change from a more traditional, catch-all small museum to one focused on the promotion of science and community activities. You can read more about that process by following this link.

The Berkshire’s decision was condemned by art and museum experts around the world, but more importantly earned the ire of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which provide professional accreditation to the Berkshire, as well as to hundreds of other American museums. Sale of a work of art in a museum’s collection – known in the trade as “deaccession” – in order to purchase another work of art is, while rarely a good thing, a reality for many institutions; the sale of a work of art to fund other purposes however, may be considered a professional ethical violation by the AAM and AAMD.

In an excoriating joint press release released in July, which you can read in full here, the two professional bodies condemned the Berkshire’s decision to deaccession its art:

Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

About 6 weeks later, the Berkshire announced that, by mutual agreement, it was withdrawing from affiliation with the Smithsonian. As the reader probably knows, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum organization in the world. It not only runs nearly two dozen museums and research centers of its own, but it maintains affiliate relationships with well over 200 museums around the country. These arrangements allow smaller museums to have access to Smithsonian curatorial expertise, scientific research, lending privileges for exhibitions, and so on. Given the difficulty and indeed the prestige involved in becoming a Smithsonian affiliate institution, abandoning that relationship is not something to be taken lightly – but there you are.

I’m not going to weigh in on the deaccession controversy here, other than to say that selling major works of art from your collection, so that you can have a place to teach local kids how graffiti is cool, with the result that they grow into anti-social, juvenile delinquents inordinately impressed by their own cleverness, is a stupid idea.

Among the works of art scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby’s this fall are two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, which the artist personally donated to the museum during his lifetime, and whose sale has infuriated the Rockwell family. The earlier work of the two, “Blacksmith’s Boy” (1940) is rather massive, at almost 6 feet long, but that should just fit over your sofa, if you’ve got $7-10 million sitting around.

Rock2

The later Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is a compositional tour de force of complex angles, surfaces, and lighting effects, a truly major work by America’s foremost illustrator of the 20th century, which entirely justifies its $20-30 million dollar auction estimate.

Rock1

Other paintings up for sale include works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, and George Inness, arguably the three most important American landscape painters of the 19th century. There is also a prime example of one of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s (great-uncle of my friend and new media gadfly Neal Dewing) classic Tonalist interiors populated by languid ladies of leisure.

Dewing

And there is a rare, large religious work depicting the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar by the 18th century American academic and historical painter, Benjamin West.

West

Also on offer are portraits by Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, as you may know, were America’s most famous family of artists during the Revolutionary and Federal periods, who painted iconic portraits of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to Lewis and Clark. The Berkshire is selling off its portrait of General Forman, by Peale the father, and General Washington, by Peale the son.

PealePere

In addition to the forgoing there are also sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Calder, two of the most prominent American sculptors of the early and mid-20th century, respectively. Continental works include paintings by William Bougereau, Raoul Dufy, Pieter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edouard Vuillard, and others. There are even a few Chinese antiquities, including a massive, 10-panelled lacquered screen from the late 17th century Qing Dynasty.

Not every piece heading to the Berkshire auction is by a major household name in art history, of course. Still, every one that I’ve seen listed for sale is certainly museum-worthy. It’s a pity that the collection could not have been preserved, and given to a museum on better financial and philosophical footing. But in the end, whether purchased by other museums or acquired by collectors who later donate their collections to museums, these works may end up being better-known and more widely seen, once they leave the institution where they are currently housed.

The Cats Are Alright: Historic Tails From Russia To Florida

Whenever a disaster affects a country, city, or even a single building, we naturally – and correctly – think first about the effect on human lives. But almost inevitably, we come across terrible stories about how people deliberately abandon their pets in cruel circumstances, such as leaving them chained up outside as a gigantic storm rolls in. So I wanted to share with you some good news for a change, involving two sets of my favorite species of domesticated animal, the felis catus, who live at two very important historic sites that recently came under threat.

On Friday, a small fire in the basement of the Winter Palace, one of the buildings that make up the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, got very little press in this country. This was partly because no works of art were damaged, and also because coverage of the impending strike of Hurricane Irma dominated American media. For art, history, and cat lovers however, the news was of immediate concern because, famously, the basement of the Hermitage is where the museum’s resident cats hole up, when they are not patrolling the vast corridors of the former Imperial palace looking for rodents.

Fortunately, despite reports that four of the Hermitage’s resident cats had been killed in the fire, it appears that all of the museum’s feline guardians are doing fine. First responders initially believed that four of the cats were dead, but it quickly turned out that they suffered severe smoke inhalation and needed medical care. They were taken to a veterinary hospital, and all are expected to recover. Here you can see one of the museum’s curators and a fireman taking one of the cats away for treatment.

Hermitage

The cats themselves are not a new phenomenon at the Hermitage, although they are not the descendants of the original fluffy residents. In 1745, the Empress Elizabeth specially commissioned that cats with good mousing skills be imported from the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, which was famous for the breeding of such felines. These cats throve in the cellars of the palace for the next 300 years, outlasting even the Romanov Dynasty itself, until they were lost or killed during Hitler’s siege of the city during World War II.

After the war, a new feline family was brought in to the Hermitage, and the offspring of these cats continue to live in the museum today. Like their cousins, the palace’s previous residents, they too have seen dramatic historic changes taking place in the world around them, such as the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unimpressed by human overexertion, as cats usually are, they simply continue go about their business of napping in sunbeams, looking for people to pet them, and keeping one of the world’s greatest collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts free from pests.

Closer to home, authorities in charge of Hemingway House, the beautiful tropical villa of writer Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, have announced that not only did the historic home withstand the impact of Hurricane Irma, but the property’s cats are all safe and accounted for. Although I don’t care for much of his work, I appreciate the fact that Papa H was a fellow cat fancier, as you can see below. The cats who presently live at the house are the descendants of the original felines which sauntered about the property during the author’s lifetime.

PapaH

Famously, Hemingway’s furry friends are not just ordinary balls of floof, but genetic curiosities known as polydactyl cats. Polydactyls, as the name implies, suffer from an unusual abnormality known as polydactylism – from the Greek “poly” meaning “many, and “daktylos” meaning “finger”. Many of the cats on the property have six or even seven toes on each paw, instead of the usual five on each of the front paws and four on each of the hind paws.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fact that, before Irma hit, the museum’s authorities called in reinforcements – in the form of the local Catholic priest:

On Thursday, after mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church in Key West, the Rev. John Baker blessed the house, the Hemingway Home staff and the cats. Gonzales told our correspondent, Francisco Alvarado, that he felt sure no cat would lose any of its nine lives.

Who knows: perhaps St. Gertrude of Nivelles – patroness of cat owners and their purring charges – was looking out for these historic and unusual animals.