Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.

Christ

Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.

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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.

subas

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.

criada

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.

Criada2

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.

Criada3

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.

MariaMarta

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.

Falling

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.

Med

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.

Binney