Thought-Pourri: Living Edition

It has been a very busy week at the Fortress of Solitude, even with the holiday thrown in on Monday that gave me a bit of time to get some much-needed matters squared away. Between work, research on upcoming travels, and keeping on top of art research and writing projects, among other things, it has not been a dull February. As the month of March nears, warmer temperatures return, and new life starts bursting forth here in the capital, there are always new things to see and think about, so here are a few for you to ponder from the world of art news.


Still Life

Should you happen to find yourself in Belgium or Italy in the coming months, you’ll want to check out “Spanish Still Life”, a simply-titled but object-rich exhibition of 80 works covering the development of still life painting in Spain between 1600 and the present. A joint effort by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), and the Musei Reali de Torino, the comprehensive show brings together paintings belonging to a number of private and public collections in Spain and around the world, and features works by big names such as Velázquez, Picasso, Goya, and Dalí, as well as masters of the genre who are lesser-known outside of specialist circles, but whose works have been prized by collectors for centuries, including Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) and my personal favorite, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Among the more unusual pieces in the show is this 1937 work by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983): the artist gives these everyday objects an almost metallic quality, as if they were reflected in an oil slick. “Spanish Still Life” opens at BOZAR tomorrow, and runs through May 27th, before heading to Turin for the summer.


Low Life

While as a general rule, anything that makes the oppressive government of the People’s Republic of China unhappy makes me very happy, an exception to this rule may be found when it comes to the preservation of cultural artifacts. Some of the famous terracotta warriors from the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) have been on loan since Christmas to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as part of an exhibition that runs through March 4th. It seems that a Millennial (natch) guest at a party held at the museum and some of his friends decided to sneak into the exhibition, which was closed during the festivities, and have a look at the objects on display. After his friends departed, this individual (allegedly) decided to throw his arm around one of the statues to take a selfie – WHICH I HAVE WARNED YOU ABOUT BEFORE – and then (allegedly) broke off the left thumb of one of the warriors, taking it home with him as a souvenir. As is to be expected, this imbecile apparently forgot that museums have security cameras. Good luck with your court case, brah.


Lush Life

If you’ve ever dreamed of staying at the legendary Hôtel Ritz in Paris, now’s your chance to own a part of its history. From April 17-21, Artcurial in Paris will be auctioning off nearly 3,500 objects from the hotel, which recently underwent a major renovation and restoration. Items include everything from beds, bathtubs, and bar stools, to plush carpets and bronze lamps, as well as highly unusual objects such as a Louis XV style dog bed for a particularly pampered pooch. Some of the objects come from suites in the hotel that were habitually used by celebrities, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel. No word on whether they will playing “Fascination” – the recurring theme music in “Love In The Afternoon”, the classic 1957 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Maurice Chevalier which was shot at and centers around The Ritz – on an endless loop during the sale.


The Discreet Chair of the Bourgeoisie

Regular readers of these pages know that I often take the time to write about individual works of art, or the artists who created them, as touchstones for the examination of Western culture in general.  Yet an interesting consideration here which I do not often touch upon is one which, to a large degree, has to do with economic forces.  The value of a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of furniture is not readily apparent, and yet can be measured almost as predictably as the widgets, guns, and butter which are often the commodities being studied in the area of economic theory.  And because of this, no matter how much the art and antiques market may change, there is something about it that is probably always going to remain decidedly bourgeois.

While watching “Antiques Roadshow” last evening, something which I do on a regular, if not strictly scheduled, basis, the thought struck me about how very conservative the whole program is, despite its being a production of the decidedly left-wing PBS.  Of course some of the objects being appraised, the owners of the objects, and those performing the valuations are not conservative themselves.  However there is something interesting about the fact that the show distinguishes between the intrinsic and the emotional value of a piece being examined.

A common response for example, from one of the appraisers to an inquiry as to the valuation of a family heirloom, is something along the lines of, “Of course you would never want to sell it, since it means so much to you, and you can’t really put a value on such things.”  Another, related response is when the expert notes that, “Well the value lies in what it means to you, since it is not actually worth very much.”  Yet even when the owner of the object is forewarned, as it were, that they are not going to be able to retire on the worth of their object, they of course still want to know what the value is.  I cannot recall seeing an episode where at least some stab at a valuation has not been asked for or made, even if in an off-hand way without the estimate appearing at the bottom of the screen.

Similarly, there is the idea of the “bidding war”.  When an object is rather unique, the expert will give the valuation and tell the owner that their valuation could be a conservative one.  For if two collectors really wanted to get their hands on that particular object at an auction, the price could skyrocket well above the estimated value.  In such a situation even the insurance value placed on an object, for example, which is generally higher than the auction estimate, and given to give some idea of what one would have to pay in a retail shop to replace it with something similar, can be blown completely out of the water into fantasyland.

However the bidding war situation is one in which emotion and greed can sometimes outweigh common sense entirely.  Academic paintings of the 19th century, for example, while certainly very popular in their day, do not tend to fetch as high prices now as they did then, in real terms.  One wonders whether the same will be true a century from now for things such as “installation” art, which fetch astronomical amounts of money and yet only a very rich fool would want to “install” in their home.  There is something about the accumulation of trendy objects that are poorly made which tends to deflate their value later on, when the bourgeoisie get around to purchasing them as second-hand.

And then there is the art market itself, which paradoxically both encourages and discourages collecting based on income.  To the person of average means, the expert on a program such as Antiques Roadshow always advises caution: the owner of an object is told that the best way to collect is to buy what you like.  However if you are a collector with deep pockets, this sensible advice is sometimes abandoned by the art expert, letting the collector know that so-and-so, a famous collector, has one just like this, and so perhaps you ought to pick one up as well.  This is little more than peer pressure or keeping up with The Joneses, with many “0’s” on the end.

Most of us are never going to find ourselves in the situation where art investment advisers from the banks – and yes, there are such persons – are emailing us with photographs of poor art for sale at rich prices, trying to get us to purchase such things.  We have to be content with grandmother’s pearls, or Uncle George’s collection of Vanity Fair caricatures, or that reproduction Louis XV chair we picked up for a song at a garage sale.  And while this may not, for many, be the most exciting end of the collecting market, it is certainly the bread-and-butter of that market, despite its being more cautious and prudent as a segment.

The next time you have a chance to watch a valuation program like Antiques Roadshow, try to separate yourself a bit from the excitement and the emotional quality of what is going on, and look at the practicalities of it.  The people you see may be wearing jeans and t-shirts, and the chair they are looking at might be something that no Founding Father or Eminent Victorian would ever have considered putting on display in their parlor.  Yet the inherent basis of the market for that object remains the same as it did in earlier times. Prudent purchasing at a low price, with a higher valuation than what was originally paid, continues to be celebrated as a “good investment”, and the purchaser is complimented and told they have a “good eye”, both for the object itself, but also for a bargain.

The times may have changed, but when it comes down to it the bourgeois joy of collecting things like art, furniture, silver, and so on at reasonable prices, it really has not changed much at all.

Illustration of Antique Louis XV-style chairs
from “The Furniture Collector” by Maincent and Guilmard (1871)

The Way to Collect

As those who have been to my home or office know, I have a decent collection of mid-20th century paintings and signed prints from Spain, and unfortunately not enough wall space on which to hang them.  They are works I have collected over the past couple of decades, and I continue to augment that collection when I come across new finds, even though I will definitely need a bigger house in which to display them all.  So while reading through my normal blog roll this morning I spotted a bit of news involving a local art and antiques dealer, and thought that this might be a good opportunity for me to share some thoughts  about what I believe is the best way to approach collecting, whether art, books, sports memorabilia, or what have you.

I was sad to learn, via Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan, that Antiques of Georgetown is closing for good, after more than forty years in the trade.  While my favorite place in the village to browse over the discarded artifacts of times past remains L’Enfant Gallery – where there is a 17th century Spanish cabinet I have been drooling over for years – I have enjoyed dropping into this old curiosity shop, first as an undergraduate and later as a “townie”.  There will still be many places in the neighborhood to browse for such items, but of course each time one of these long-established businesses closes, they seem to be replaced by something of the chain store variety, making shopping for that unique item somewhat less, well, unique.

In my experience, the best professionals in the field of collecting are not going to dismiss or ignore you for having questions and being interested, as they are, in such matters.  Merely because you are not in the market for a million-dollar work does not mean that you cannot learn about and enjoy art, antiques, and collecting from those who engage in this activity professionally.  For example, I periodically have exchanges about collecting art (and neckties) with one of the experts on the American version of “Antiques Roadshow”, which began with my emailing him and asking where he found the exceptional necktie he wore on a particular episode.

As is the case with many things in life, the important thing is to get over one’s fears of the unknown, and start exploring.  There are vast amounts of printed and online material to help you, of course, but one of the best ways to learn about such things is through the first-hand observation and tactile experience of them.  Taking the time to examine things up close, and touch them where possible, will provide a far greater understanding of the object than can be gleaned from books or online publications, as invaluable as those resources are.

Many people are put off by having an unpleasant experience with a dealer when they first attempt to put their toe in the water, and certainly when I was a teenager I can remember being shooed away by shopkeepers who thought I might break or steal something.  Today, when this sort of thing occasionally happens, I simply cross that shop off my list and do not darken their doorstep again.  There is an antique bookshop in Barcelona, for example, where a few years ago I purchased a very rare, autographed edition of a book by one of my great-great-grandfathers.  I returned a year or so later to find out whether they had any other books by him, but was treated with something approaching derision by the shopkeeper.  Therefore, I no longer patronize them, and warn people off shopping there.

However to give these people their due, remember that they do not know you from Adam, and have no idea of what a good fellow you are.  They are usually independent business owners, and oftentimes the objects which you are examining are both their livelihood and unique.  If you fumble through a pile of jeans in a chain retail shop, there will likely be no damage at all to anyone; the items on display were mass-produced and easily replaced.  If however you are fondling a rare, late 19th century crystal claret jug and you damage it, the shopkeeper may never see a return on his investment or be able to find one like it.

When it comes to the question of what one collects, I always think that the best advice is to take a two-pronged approach.  First and most important of all, you should collect what you love, rather than what someone else tells you that you ought to love, simply because it is popular or because it is presently viewed as being valuable.  I realize that for my friends and former classmates who are now art advisers, this would be viewed as something of a dig at their profession, but as I am not writing this post for the nouveau-riches who want to acquire by purchase with their millions what nature denied them in personal taste, I will leave it to them to keep their clients informed as to what is worth having.

The second, equally important bit of advice is to find the best example of what you like, rather than obtain something simply because it comes into the general category you are hunting for.  A small collection of well-chosen objects is better than a large collection of a few hits and many misses, at least from my point of view.  You do not need to create a hoard of paintings, books, etc., in order to have a good collection.  Rather like life, having many acquaintances but only a few close friends not only makes things easier from a logistical point of view, but also indicates that you possess at least some level of discernment.

Self-education is unquestionably the best way to get to know your subject, and I would suggest that attending auctions and estate sales, going to flea markets, and consignment shops, will prepare you in ways which simply reading about these things will not.  Do not worry about going along to these things, for no one is expecting you to accidentally put up your hand and bid for the Rubens.  You can ask questions and look at things, research what you have seen, and build up your understanding through seeing not only how you react to something, but also to how others react to it.

At the same time, do not shy away from having a quiet one-on-one visit to your local antiques dealer or gallery, in order to avail yourself of their knowledge and experience – that is, if they prove to be receptive to sharing it with you.  If they really want to cultivate you as a customer over time, they will share their thoughts with you, in the hope that you will return as you are able.  This makes the experience unlike the hard-sell, and more like the relationship you develop over time with your tailor or barber – and that is a relationship which is certainly worth cultivating.

“Interior of the Salon of the Archduchess Isabella of Austria”
by Willem Van Haecht II (c. 1625)
Norton Art Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida