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.


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.



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.


Portrait Created By AI Sold To Some Fool For Six Figures

As you may have seen in the news, last week a painting that was (sort of) created using artificial intelligence (“AI”) sold at Christie’s in New York for a whopping $432,500.

Christie’s take on the sale is rather disturbing, but then of course, they have a vested interest in what they’ve done here, and of course in the fee that they’re about to collect for their efforts in this charade. “It may not have been painted by a man in a powdered wig,” commented Christie’s head of prints and multiples Richard Lloyd, “but it is exactly the kind of artwork we have been selling for 250 years.”

Well no, it isn’t.

Let’s assume that this was in fact an Old Master painting, created by an actual French artist working in around 1760, and portraying a real French aristocrat. It’s a blobby mess of an image, with no particular distinction in terms of technique or composition, and the top of the picture appears to be cut off. Is Christie’s really maintaining that it would have gone to all of the effort that it has to market this work back in the 18th century, if it was just some chopped-off, undistinguished oil study by an unknown 18th century artist of an obscure, minor member of the French nobility? Such a claim is utterly lacking in plausibility.

British art historian Bendor Grosvenor who, despite my occasional differences with him, is still the best online read when it comes to looking at Old Master paintings in the contemporary world, is all over this story, as you might imagine. As he points out here, not only is the “AI” aspect of how the image was created somewhat suspect, but the portrait itself is little more than a Photoshop project:

But the much vaunted ‘AI’ artwork at Christie’s, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It’s you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is ‘my child could have done that’. But now we can replace that with; ‘my laptop could have done that’.

Over on ArtNet, Tim Schneider describes Christie’s actions as “reactionary”: not in the sense often used by the left to describe conservatives, but rather in the sense of someone jumping on the first available bandwagon, as it were. “To me, this is about as reactionary as looking up from a fortune cookie promising true love and proposing to the first person you see in Panda Express,” Schneider scoffs, “and it speaks volumes about how superficially the high-end of the market is engaging with art and machine learning right now.”

I won’t get into the issue, pointed out by Grosvenor and Schneider, among others, that a significant segment of the art community is bemoaning the fact that the “first” AI painting to be sold at a high-end auction features the image of a (supposedly) dead white man. For those of you who are interested in such things, there are plenty of comments to that effect scattered across social media. Yet wherever you fall along the social justice warrior spectrum, I don’t think that issues of race or gender are really the point here.

Rather, in this story we have further proof, as if that were needed, that the Contemporary Art world is first and foremost a speculative bubble. It continues to be inflated by auction houses, art dealers, art media, and the art establishment. The goal is not to celebrate and encourage the creation of great works of art, but rather to make money off of poorly-educated, socially insecure, extremely wealthy people.

The idea of the art world bilking the newly rich by convincing them to purchase art at inflated prices has been around for a long time. Renowned art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was giving intentionally iffy or flat-out wrong attributions on works of Italian Renaissance art to Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), art dealer to the robber barons, a century ago. That way, Duveen could jack up his prices, and Berenson could receive a larger fee for his services. Colin Simpson’s superb book, “Artful Partners” is still the authoritative text on this nefarious arrangement, which was the most significant, but not the only, one of these sorts of arrangements that existed during the Gilded Age. The Faustian bargain between the two deceivers ended up having a negative impact on art history for decades, and their actions still carry repercussions for art scholarship even today.

Recently I was fortunate enough to acquire the sort of painting that Duveen might have carried in his gallery a century ago. It’s an oil on wood panel depicting St. Jerome in the wilderness, engaging in prayer and penitence, and accompanied by his iconic lion. It dates to somewhere toward the end of the Italian Renaissance, and although reminiscent of the work of artists such as Palma il Giovane (1548-1628), I’m by no means expert enough to make such a firm attribution. It was purchased by a wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer from a European art dealer about a century ago, and donated to a Rust Belt art museum, which has now deaccessioned it for a hammer price that was no doubt considerably less than what the American collector who brought it across the Atlantic originally paid for it, in today’s dollars.

If our art collecting Northeastern industrialist were alive today, and of course he would not be in heavy industry but in some sort of digital business, the AI portrait sold at Christie’s last week would be exactly the sort of thing that an art advisor would recommend that he purchase. The impetus to acquire however would not be because the art in question was actually any good, but because his owning it would attract the notice of the public and the admiration of his peers. There is no such thing as “bad” publicity, in the present age.

There is a difference here, however, between the world of the early 20th century buyer and that of the early 21st century buyer. While a beautiful image of sacred art is always going to find an audience, so long as there are still Christians who treasure such things, it would surprise me to learn that someone living a century from now would pay the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars for an unremarkable piece of computer art. Perhaps I am wrong about that, of course, but fortunately, I won’t be around to find out.