Fate has a way of making you realize that you might have stepped in something without realizing it.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last several days when it comes to the upper end of the art market, which is in a bit of a tizzy just now about a situation that it created all by itself over the past few decades. If you follow the news at all, you’ll know that art prices have become increasingly insane in recent years, thanks to a concerted charm offensive on the part of dealers, auctioneers, banks, the press, and even museums to persuade the very wealthy to buy Modern and Contemporary art for investment purposes. After all, not only is it (well, in some cases) nicer to look at than a stock certificate, art is also easier to transport and turn into liquidity than many other convertible assets, particularly if you’re trying to keep ex-wife #4 from getting her manicured claws on your hedge fund winnings.
Now however, both the US and the EU are working on increased regulation of the art market from a financial services perspective, in order to address issues such as buying art as part of a money laundering scheme. The art world is up in arms over this, naturally enough, because the livelihood of many who work in that arena depend on the artificially inflated market bubble for atrociously awful art. If the super-rich no longer see art investment as a safe haven, they fear, that money will be shifted elsewhere, and prices for such commodities will collapse. Forgive me if I don’t feel particularly sorry for these people.
First there was the “brah” incident at the Franklin Institute, in which an idiot broke off the thumb of one of China’s legendary Terracotta Warrior to keep as a souvenir. Now it appears that, during the reinstallation of Bernini’s “Saint Bibiana” (1626) above the high altar, following its return from an exhibition at the Borghese to its eponymous church in Rome, someone has broken off one of the statue’s fingers. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest of all Italian Baroque sculptors and architects, and either directly or through his influence had an enormous impact not just on the art and architecture of the city of Rome, but of the entire world. As noted in the Italian press, this was the first time the sculpture had ever been lent out in its 400-year history. I rather doubt that it will be lent out again.
Ah, the vicissitudes of history. While American cities are dismantling, altering, or otherwise arguing over the issue of historical monuments which may or may not be controversial – personally I think that most monuments to Confederate leaders should be sealed in concrete and thrown into the sea – in Poland a similar cultural battle over art of a comparatively more recent vintage is being waged. Like many countries behind the Iron Curtain, Poland was filled with art depicting Communist propaganda, as part of an effort to erase both Catholicism and Polish historical memory: fortunately, neither effort succeeded. While to those of us who have never had to live under Communism, it might seem only logical to remove monuments dedicated to Marxist oppression once the country reverted to democracy, there are still those in Poland who want to keep such things, and are fighting the ongoing government effort to remove them. Should they be destroyed, or should they be placed in some kind of museum? And if the latter, who should be responsible for maintaining such things? It’s an interesting question, and one which I leave to the Poles.
Some good news from the world of art crime for a change: Italian police have recently recovered three Early Renaissance paintings stolen from museums in and around the city of Bologna, including a 14th century painting of St. Ambrose brazenly taken from the National Pinacoteca in the city during regular opening hours. It appears as though the alleged thief was spotted using digital analysis of surveillance camera footage, and caught when he was seen “acting suspiciously” around another art museum in the city. The Carabinieri tailed him and eventually were able to search his home, where they found the missing art. A happy ending to an all-too-common problem in Italian cities, where the theft of art and antiquities is a perpetual headache for police forces.