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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5 thoughts on “Butter and Basketball: The Price Of Contemporary Art

  1. Pingback: Flight Of Fancy: A Rare And Sacred Art Object | Blog of the Courtier

  2. spot on! I wonder how foolish Mrs Walton will feel years from now, or maybe her descendants, when that basketball will be banished to some basement corner, or better yet, given to some children to play with.

    Like

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