Art News Roundup: Recovered Gems Edition

Before getting to some art news of interest this week, I realize that over the weekend just past I forgot to link to my latest post in The Federalist, which you may have already seen, on pioneering World War I aviation artist Henri Farré (1871-1934). Due to the restrictions on space, it wasn’t possible to show more than a few of his paintings in the article, which I began researching on a recent trip down to the Tidewater Virginia area. More of his work can be seen on my Instagram feed, here and here, featuring some pics I shot at a current exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which celebrates Farré’s art and marks the centenary of the end of World War I. It’s a small show, but definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the area. If you can’t make it, pick up a copy of Farré’s superb first-hand recounting of his experiences as an aviator-artist, “Sky Fighters of France”, which you can find through online booksellers and auctioneers.

Pricey Pearl

Continuing this week’s market trend of low estimates and unexpected prices – I can possibly understand such a price for a Hopper, maybe, but who would pay over $90 million for a HOCKNEY? –  Sotheby’s Geneva just sold a diamond and natural pearl pendant once owned by Queen Marie Antoinette of France for $36 million; the pre-sale estimate on the piece, which has been owned by the royal house of Bourbon-Parma for centuries, was $2 million. The pendant was sold along with 99 other items of jewelry from the family collection, bringing a whopping $53.1 million in total. Rather bizarrely, this article in Art Daily states that the pendant was “owned by Marie Antoinette before she was beheaded…” I suspect it rather unlikely that it could have been owned by her *after* she was beheaded.

perla

Wee Warriors

Speaking of royal caches, you’re probably familiar with the famous terracotta warriors buried with the first Emperor of China, as examples of these tomb sculptures always prove a popular tourist attraction when they visit this country. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Prince Liu Hong, son of the Emperor Wu, who reigned in the 1st century BC, commissioned his own terracotta army for his grave, but at a more modest scale than his imperial ancestor. The hundreds of figures in the Prince’s tomb, which have now been fully excavated and documented following their original discovery about a decade ago, average between 9-12 inches tall, rather than life-sized. They’re accompanied by chariots, watchtowers, and other elements, which can’t help but remind one of an action figure playset – albeit a far more breakable one – and are a rare treasure, indeed. Details on the discovery and excavation have been translated into English and are available in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

guerrer

Revived Retablo

The Art Newspaper provides an overview of the history and conservation of the Battel Hall retablo, a rare, circa 1410 jewel of a painted English altarpiece that survived the Protestants – sort of – albeit with the faces of Christ, Mary, and the saints scratched out. It later suffered numerous other indignities, such as being used as a desktop in a school, where it was further scarred and dirtied over the centuries; someone, possibly the students, even carved “witch signs” into it, as protection against evil spirits. Fellow fans of the Dominican Order take note, this object was probably painted for a Dominican foundation, possibly a convent, since it features both St. Dominic and another Dominican (St. Albert the Great is my best guess, given the book and miter, but I may be wrong) as well as St. Mary Magdalen and St. Catherine of Siena. After two years of conservation and restoration work, the scarred Medieval altarpiece has now been hung in the chapel of Leeds Castle. For more information on the jewels of Catholic art and architecture lost thanks to King Henry VIII’s incontinence, get a copy of Eamon Duffy’s classic “The Stripping of the Altars” from Yale University Press: saddening, sobering, but fascinating reading.

reta

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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: Hopper on the Block

I don’t normally tell people what art they ought to buy or not buy, since the “what” of art collecting is really up to personal taste. That being said, it’s just been announced that the greatest painting by the American Modern-Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) left in private hands is coming up for sale at Christie’s. So if you happen to have $70 million sitting around, you should absolutely attempt to buy it.

Hopp

“Chop Suey” (1929) is classic, iconic Hopper, full of strong colors, unusual angles, and an air of mystery. You sense that we are in a moment somewhere between inaction and action, where with a single word, everything might change…or not. In fact, you’ve probably seen this image so many times, illustrating the cover of books from the Jazz Age or in retrospectives of Hopper’s work, that you probably didn’t even realize that this piece is privately owned.

This is a deceptively simple painting, until you really start to look at it. There are obvious questions such as, what are the two women talking about, or what are the young couple behind them talking about? But there are also less obvious points of enquiry, which always make trying to interpret a Hopper painting a great deal of fun.

Why, for example, does it appear as if there two light sources in the window above the man’s head, crossing over each other? Why is the fire escape ladder hanging down in front of the window at our right? Why do the couple have the little green-shaded lamp on their table, but the two women have theirs on the windowsill?

The $70 million estimate for this picture strikes me as a bit conservative: I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly in this market and given the Chinese-American thematic material, to see a Chinese collector pay $100 million for this work. The Chinese are primarily interested in brand names, when it comes to consumption, and Hopper is definitely in the upper pantheon of American artists when it comes to Modern Art.

Hopper’s current auction record is $40.5 million, for an interesting but unpopulated urban landscape painting, “East Wind over Weehawken” (1934). It depicts the slightly grim, rocky neighborhood that one drives through on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey. While Hopper’s landscapes and seascapes are nothing to sneeze it, they are more numerous than his figural paintings, which makes me think that “Chop Suey” will do better than its estimate.

And on to some other art news we go…

Beautiful Bath Tiles

The English city of Bath has welcomed visitors to its thermal springs since ancient times, when the Romans started visiting to take the waters. What visitors may not realize however, is that the current Bath Abbey, built in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, stands atop a far larger, demolished Cathedral that was built by the Normans beginning in the 11th century. Now, workers at the Abbey have uncovered some of the original Plantagenet floor tiles from that earlier building, and they are glorious things indeed.

azulejos

Blunders in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), one of the most important and highly influential Flemish artists of the 16th century, certainly deserves a stand-alone museum, and the good people of Brussels were about to give him one. It was to be in a Renaissance house located on the same street where Bruegel lived and worked after his marriage in the parish church nearby. Unfortunately, the Bruegel House museum, which was to open next fall, is now on indefinite hold. This is not due to a lack of funds, but rather due to an overabundance of what the Belgians are particularly good at: inventing convoluted bureaucracies with draconian and utterly stupid rules.

Under current guidelines, government agencies must request approval from the federal government before spending more than $65,000, and in this case the federal government turned down the request. Work on the project has been halted indefinitely, even though the agencies involved have more than enough in reserve to pay for the project. A spokesman for the Minister of Budget, Sophie Wilmès, told the press that funding the museum was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies.” One is put in mind of Jim Hacker’s “British sausage” speech.

Greedo

Da Vinci Doodles

Thanks to the latest bit of gee-whiz technology, you can now get closer to looking over the shoulder of a great Old Master painter than ever before. The Victoria and Albert Museum is digitizing its collection of notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and has put the first two volumes online for you to virtually thumb through. The remaining two volumes will be released online in 2019 as part of the commemorations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Not too much in the way of high art in this first release, but plenty of engineering sketches and, naturally, the master’s famous right-to-left handwriting.

Davleo