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.

overhead

 

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Art News Roundup: Can You Dig It Edition

Before getting to some news from around the art world, I wanted to share at a bit more length some news about a structure that has fascinated me for some time, but which most people have probably never heard of.

The massive Canfranc International Railway Station, located in the Spanish Pyrenees a few miles from the French border, was completed in 1928 and formally opened by King Alfonso XIII. At the time, it was the second-largest train station in Europe, its sheer size explained by the fact that the differing Spanish and French railway gauges forced both passenger and freight trains crossing the border to exit the train they were in and transfer to one suited to the gauge in the country they were entering. Massive tunnels were dug through the mountains, along with service roads and other infrastructure, in order to make the new undertaking possible. However, most of the station has been closed since a derailment on the French side of the border in 1970 destroyed a railway bridge, which the French never bothered to rebuild.

After many years of semi-abandonment and neglect however, the station will now be coming back to life. Plans were announced this week for the grand 1920’s station to be converted into a luxury hotel, while a new and modern station will be built alongside to handle both regional rail traffic as well as a re-opening and expansion of rail connections between Zaragoza and Bordeaux. In a sense, the hope is that this will prove to be for the Pyrenees what the revived and renovated St. Pancras has been for its part of London.

While one might reasonably wonder who would bother to go to a luxury hotel out in the middle of nowhere, Canfranc station is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery:

Canfranc

With snow sports in winter and hiking in the summer, lush forests, streams and lakes, small villages with ancient churches and castles, it’s a location that, if it had been in the Alps, would have been developed as a tourist resort destination centuries ago. Even in its current state of semi-abandonment, for the past several years the Canfranc station itself has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually: train buffs, mountain hikers, nature enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, and so on, so giving these visitors a chance to stay at their destination seems to be a safe bet. It’s a real pleasure to see this fascinating building come back from the brink, and interesting to speculate on where these new tunnels for the expanded rail network will end up going.

Canfranc2

And now on to some other digging about…

Dead Lawns of Devonshire

A recent summer heat wave in Britain has been killing off the lawns of houses across the island, but perhaps nowhere as spectacularly as at Chatsworth House, the estate of the Dukes of Devonshire. Beginning in the 1750’s, the famous English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783) ripped out the formal, terraced gardens that had surrounded the house during the 17th century, replacing them with vast expanses of lawn. With the current heatwave however, the outlines of those long-gone parterres have suddenly been exposed. Frankly, I find them preferable to Brown’s obsession with perfectly maintained but ultimately rather boring turf, an obsession which continues to affect homeowners on both sides of the Atlantic down to the present day, but I suspect His Grace will not be digging up the back yard in response to this temporary reveal.

Chastworth

Sharing the Spoils

A German farmer is (potentially) a far wealthier man today, after his local government tried to swindle him out of his fair share in what at the time was described as one of the best-preserved Roman sculpture finds in Germany in many years. After archeologists dug up the head of a bronze horse in 2009, from what is believed to have been an equestrian statue of Caesar Augustus dating to about the year 9 A.D., the local government paid the farmer on whose land the piece was discovered roughly $56,000 for his share in the discovery. Later, it was revealed that the head was actually worth somewhere around $1.8 million, and he had been low-balled by the government. The man rightly chose to sue for his share, since under German law the owner of a land on which treasure is dug up is entitled to half the value of the recovery, and won a whopping $904,000 plus interest. No word yet on whether the government will appeal the decision.

Caball.jpg

Levon’s Labyrinth

In the world of “Honey-Do” lists, this example puts just about everyone else’s to shame. Back in 1995, in an Armenian village not far from the capital city of Yerevan, a wife asked her husband to dig her out a root cellar underneath their modest, one-story house. He obliged, but took things a step further. Over the next 23 years until his death in 2008, he tunneled out what is now known as “Master Levon’s Divine Underground“, a catacomb of chambers, tunnels, and stairs which he carved out in his spare time, guided by prayer, dreams, and meditation. “Once he started digging, it was impossible to stop him,” said his widow recently. “I wrangled with him a lot, but he became obsessed with his plan.” Today she leads tours into her late husband’s subterranean world of columns, mosaics, halls, and niches.

Armenia

Thought-Pourri: Mergers and Acquisitions Edition

Very exciting times at the Fortress of Solitude of late, since I’ve recently acquired several new works for my art hoard and one of them I believe to be…if not by an actual Old Master whom we can name, at least a piece dating from the mid- to late-17th century. The interesting part is going to be having it cleaned, as it is absolutely filthy from years of dirt, grease, smoke, and who knows what else. However this is the only teaser you’re getting so far, gentle reader, as I’ll probably write up the experience of the reveal for The Federalist if all goes well. Now to find an art restorer who doesn’t charge me museum-level cleaning costs…

In the meantime, on to the art news we go.

Seeing Santander

The massive HQ of Banco Santander, located in the Spanish city which gave it its name, will soon become a major new private museum. The bank, which is the largest in Spain and has become far more visible internationally (including in this country) in recent years due to a number of significant mergers and acquisitions, was founded in 1851; its leadership has called the rather grandiose Pereda Building along the city’s waterfront promenade home for about a century. The financial giant is now moving into a new building, where it will consolidate many of its operations, and turn the older HQ and a neighboring building into a museum and cultural center.

British architect David Chipperfield recently won the competition for the museum portion of the project, although no estimated completion date has yet been announced. Over time, Banco Santander has accumulated a massive art collection of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings include pictures by El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Van Gogh, among many others, as well as sculpture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and other decorative arts. Most of these are currently held at an exhibition location maintained by the bank in suburban Madrid, which to be honest I had never heard of until this press announcement.

Once completed, the museum will certainly become a major stop on any cultural tour of Northern Spain. While somewhat uneven, as institutional rather than personal collections tend to be, there are some real gems here, particularly of turn-of-the-century art being produced in Barcelona and Madrid around the same time. One examples is this 1899 portrait of an unknown gentleman by the great Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Current scholarship suggests that this is the lawyer, art historian, and one-time mayor of Madrid Manuel Escrivá de Romaní, Marques of Alginet and Count of Casal, since Sorolla inscribed the painting, “A mi amigo Manolo”, and “Manolo” is a nickname for Manuel.

Sorolla

Found Fountain

More than 70 years after it ended, the Nazi looting of Europe for art treasures continues to yield bizarre stories of loss and recovery for art historians, governments, and individuals to wrangle over. This lengthy, fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the creation, fame, disappearance, and rediscovery of a major work of German Art Nouveau sculpture, “Drei tanzende Mädchen” (“Three Dancing Maidens”), created by Walter Schott (1861-1938). It won the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, and copies were acquired by several cities and institutions; in fact, one is located in Central Park in Manhattan. The fate of the original, as you will see, is a bit murky, and the article does not resolve the question of its fate.

fountain

Getty Grief

The deep pockets of the Getty Museum and its mandate to study, inter alia, classical Greek and Roman art continue to cause problems for the Los Angeles institution. Recently, the Getty acquired the magnificent 2nd century AD bust of an unknown Roman, possibly one of the Antonine emperors, such as Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, an Italian judge has recently issued a decision against the Getty involving a long-standing dispute over the museum’s famous Ancient Greek bronze “Victorious Youth”, which may have been created by Lysippus, personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.

The Getty has always claimed that because the piece was recovered from international waters, the fishermen had every legal right to sell it. However the Italian government has successfully persuaded the courts up to now that, because the piece was brought to shore in Italy, and was first sold there by its finders without an export license and without notice to the Italian government of their treasure find, the Getty must return the sculpture. It seems that Italy is arguing that the Getty has possession but no title, which any of my readers who are fellow lawyers will recognize is a classic problem in tort law with respect to tangible property ownership. Appeals are expected to continue for some time, as this will be a fight to the death, given the exceptional importance of this sculpture to art history.

Victorious Youth (Greek, 300-100 BC) - detail