Haggling Hopper: “Chop Suey” Sets American Modern Art Auction Record

Those of you who are regular subscribers may recall that, back in September, I mentioned that one of the last great masterpieces by the American Modern artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) not already part of a permanent museum collection was coming up for sale. You may also recall my prediction that the pre-sale estimate of $70 million seemed rather low, particularly given both popular interest in Hopper, and the fame of the painting in question. “Chop Suey” (1929) is one of the artist’s best-known works, and has been used on everything from book covers to commercial animation shorts.

So it comes as no surprise to this scrivener that “Chop Suey” sold at Christie’s in New York last night for $91.9 million, more than double the previous record for a Hopper work sold at auction. Not only did the painting sell for well over its estimate, but the final result isn’t too far off the $100 million price tag I put on it. In fact, the final price would have been $95.9 million, except that Christie’s had to pay a third-party bidder $4 million in fees.

There’s no word yet on who bought the picture, or where it will end up next, but one suspects that at some point after the dust settles, it’s going to go on long-term loan to a museum. This is the sort of astronomically pricey bauble that, if you hang it above the living room fireplace, will cause your homeowner’s insurance premium to go through the roof. An interesting aspect of the bizarre times in which we live is that you could be fortunate enough to have a dining room full of great paintings by an Old Master, like these, but your household insurance assessment will be less than if your dining room only had a single work by a Modern or Contemporary artist on display.

Of course, this begs the question of whether “Chop Suey” *should* be valued at $100 million, as noted in The New York Times’ reporting on this story:

“Really, $100 million for a Hopper? I don’t know how they come up with these valuations,” said Howard Rehs, a New York gallerist specializing in American art, who, like other dealers, expressed incredulity at some of the estimates put on works in a “gigaweek” of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips art auctions that could raise at least $1.8 billion.

Of course, I’ve already explained how I guessed at an $100 million valuation when “Chop Suey” was announced for sale: it comes down to a combination of fame, rarity, marketing, and at least two very large egos with wallets to match. In a free market, as the Da Vinci “Salvator Mundi” sale showed, if two such mega-egos with significant funds at their disposal wish to jack up the price on a work of art by bidding against one another until one or the other gives up, then there’s nothing to stop them from doing so. We may not like it, and think it rather tacky or a waste of resources, but more fool they.

Lest one think that the dealers are innocents in all of this, as if they were merely people who just hang a picture on a wall or put a statue on a plinth, then stand back in amazement at the actions of the very wealthy, consider the dual nature of the Rehs Gallery itself, whose founder is quoted in the Times piece above. One incarnation of the gallery sells American bourgeois paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries, featuring the sort of images that are easy to like: romantic streetscapes of Paris in the rain, beautiful women and children playing with puppies, etc. But turn to their Contemporary Art entity and you’ll find a weird mixture of exactly the same sort of images, albeit 21st century versions of them, with plenty of porn and $4,000 graffiti “art” thrown in: just perfect for that little breakfast room in a Westchester County Mock Tudor.

That being said, everyone – not just dealers – working in or following the art market knows that there’s a bubble in the sale prices for Modern and Contemporary Art. It’s mentioned so often in the art press, that it’s practically become conventional wisdom at this point. Everyone is waiting for a crash to happen, and the only question seems to be, when will it arrive and how bad will it be? While there is evidence of price declines here and there with the work of individual artists, there hasn’t yet been the kind of catastrophic implosion, à la tulip fever back in the 17th century, that could restore some semblance of reasonableness to the market.

This then causes me to wonder: well, *IS* there, in fact, a bubble in the art market? The Hopper sale seems to belie that there is, and his coattails may well bring a lot of other representational (i.e., non-abstract) American artists from the first half of the 20th century along with him into the world of even higher sales prices, including Georgia O’Keeffe, George Bellows, and others. In the meantime, we shall just have to keep our eyes open, and see what happens.

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Art News Roundup: Houston, We Have A Velázquez Edition

As I spent a big chunk of yesterday in bed with a cold, here’s your day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, roundup of some interesting news from the art world for this week. For yours truly, the really interesting news this week is that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has recently re-attributed a painting in its permanent collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The canvas, titled “Kitchen Maid”, is believed to date to around 1620, when the young artist was working in his native Seville.

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Two other pieces by Velázquez, which were already very familiar to me, are related to this one. More obviously, there is a larger-sized depiction of a kitchen interior with the same model, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s probable that the Houston piece was a study or work-up for the finished version. Not many of Velazquez’ studies or drawings survive, unfortunately, so as a clue to his working method the newly attributed painting should prove to be a major object of study for both art historians and conservators.

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The other piece to which the painting is related is Velázquez’ “Kitchen Maid With The Supper At Emmaus” at the National Gallery of Ireland, from the same time period. This canvas is the most complex of the three, so it may well be that the Houston piece was the first study the artist made on canvas. That would make the Chicago picture, a second, more advanced composition, with the Dublin work as the final product. To have all three of these survive is rather unusual in art history, even though this practice was not uncommon at the time.

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While it may seem odd for the artist to have placed what would normally be considered a background scene to the main action in the foreground, the precedent comes from Dutch paintings and engravings of the time; as part of the Counter-Reformation movement it allowed the faithful to more fully reflect upon and imagine themselves being present at Biblical moments. Moreover, this is not the only example of Velázquez using this concept in his art. His better-known “Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary” (c. 1618), now in the National Gallery in London, is almost a companion piece to the Dublin picture, in this respect.

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While the attribution has not been fully put to the test, as is often the case the careful cleaning of dirt and varnish from the surface of an old, overlooked picture made all the difference for those experts who have examined it so far.

And now on to some other art news of interest.

Selfie Stupidity

Another day, another example of self-obsessed social media users ruining a work of art while trying to take a selfie with no thought for anyone but themselves. A group of women at an exhibition in the International Arts Center in the city of Yekaterinburg decided to take a picture of themselves, and in the process knocked over a display case (you can see a still of this below) containing engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Both pictures had their frames and glass damaged, but while the Goya appears to be fine, the Dalí was damaged from the glass shattering. Apparently no criminal charges will be brought against this group of Stygian witches, despite the museum requesting such action, but I would certainly love to bring a civil lawsuit against them.

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Sparkling Seaside

Yes, I do actually recommend Contemporary Art from time to time, not just Old Masters, and so it is with great pleasure that I let you know that new works by British Contemporary artist Gordon Hunt (1958-) will go on show tomorrow at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, and it looks to be an exhibition well worth your time. As the Northeast begins to settle into the long, dark, gray of late Autumn, Hunt’s images of sun and sea, pleasure boats, and people enjoying the water in his native Cornwall or along the Mediterranean are a light-filled joy; you may even feel the need to break out your sunglasses for some of his sunset scenes. His sparkling, glowing technique is reminiscent of the work of the French Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891), but updated for a modern audience. “Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives From England” is on show at Agora until December 1st.

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Bidding for Binney

For reasons best known to itself, the Philadelphia Bar Association has decided that it has too many portraits of dead lawyers on its hands, so it has decided to auction them – as well as hundreds of other objects – at Freeman’s American auction next week. Among the highlights are this magnificent 1833 Thomas Sully (1783-1872) portrait of Congressman Horace Binney (1780-1875), who not only turned down an appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice – TWICE – but was one of the few men in Congress to have the backbone to publicly stand up to POS American dictator…er, President Andrew Jackson. Binney certainly knew how to pick them, when it came to have his portrait painted, because as a young man, he was the subject of another magnificent portrait by the great Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) which is now in the National Gallery here in DC, but for some reason is not currently on view. It would be neat – is that the right word? – if the NGA were to purchase the portrait of the middle-aged Birney so that visitors could compare how artistic style changed in America.

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Taking Stock: Back From A Great Art Conference In Chicago

I’m just back from an excellent weekend in Chicago, where I attended the Catholic Art Guild’s Annual Conference, which this year bore the theme, “Formed In Beauty”. Although it’s only the second year that the Guild has put on this conference, word has clearly started to spread among those who care about the arts, as I met people from all over the country who came to attend the conference events: clearly a very positive sign for conferences to come. In fact, I had several instances of friends from social media, none of whom live in Chicago and none of whom I had ever met in real life, coming up to me and introducing themselves by their Twitter or Instagram handle, which is always a fun experience.

While the Conference itself took place on Sunday, there were also associated events on Friday and Saturday. This included the Mozart Requiem Mass for the Feast of All Souls Day on Friday, and an in-depth drawing demonstration with live model by artist Juliette Aristides on Saturday. This also left one plenty of time to go explore the pleasures of Chicago in the Autumn, and I got to enjoy watching the sun come up over Lake Shore Drive, snapping pictures of the diverse and interesting buildings for which Chicago is world-renowned, having a very thorough beard “sculpting” at a celebrity-frequented barbershop, and enjoying food and adult beverages at several excellent restaurants.

The Conference day began with a magnificent Mass at the equally magnificent church of St. John Cantius, home of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. If you’ve never begun your day with Mozart – in this case, one of his Missae Breves – you’ve no idea how it puts a spring in your step. We then adjourned to the Drake Hotel, one of my favorite places on the planet, for the rest of the day’s events. This included a luncheon, talks on architecture, music, painting, and sculpture by some truly brilliant practitioners of these arts, interaction opportunities with vendors, and a formal dinner, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A. I was privileged enough to be allowed to adopt my best Dick Cavett persona and moderate this closing event with the day’s invited speakers; I’ll post the video from the Guild’s YouTube Channel when it’s made available.

I also had the opportunity the night before the Conference to have a lengthy sit-down with one of the presenters, Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Expect an article encapsulating our conversation to appear in The Federalist in the not-too-distant future. This is assuming that I can edit such a wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from Susan Boyle to chainsaw log carving competitions to Pointillism, down into something under 2,000 words. He’s certainly one of the most engaging interview subjects I’ve ever had the privilege to have a chat with.

My sincere thanks to Guild President Kathleen Carr, Father Joshua Caswell, and all of those involved in putting on a splendid and thought-provoking event, and for graciously allowing me to participate. Whenever the next Conference is announced, I highly recommend that you put it on your calendar and plan to make a weekend of it. You’ll be supporting the work of an organization dedicated to returning beauty, truth, and craftsmanship to the arts, and have the opportunity to meet others who genuinely care about these things, in one of the world’s great cities.

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