Butter and Basketball: The Price Of Contemporary Art

A recurring theme in these pages is that of valuation in the art market. Having spent a decent amount of time and some considerable lolly in studying the art trade at Sotheby’s in London, I like to keep up with trends on the business side of things, particularly when they intersect with museums and public collections. Now bear with me, gentle reader, because this morning I’m going to be sharing a couple of different art stories with you that don’t really have much of anything to do with one another, but I think you’ll see my point in the end.

Over on Art Market Monitor, there’s a report about Art Bridges, an art lending foundation headed by Alice Walton – of Walmart fame – that has recently gone on what that publication refers to as something of a “buying spree”. Ms. Walton, who is also the foundress of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is focusing on getting more museums to share items in their collections in collaborative exhibitions with other museums, so that these works can be seen by more people and spend less time locked away in storage. On the surface, that’s certainly a very laudable effort.

Except…well.

What caught my eye in the piece was a reference to the foundation purchasing a piece titled “Untitled”, by American sculptor Robert Gober. I’m familiar with his work, from having seen it at The Hirshhorn here in Washington and at The Whitney in New York. As you can see, this particular example appears to be an unwrapped stick of butter, although in fact it’s made of beeswax, wood, and wax paper. What you can’t tell from the photo is that this is the biggest stick of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” you’ve ever seen, measuring about 4 feet long.

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Now we can agree that, from a *craft* point of view, this is a pretty neat item. It looks just like the real thing, right down to the blue labelling on the unwrapped wax paper, which we see from the underside in reverse. In its way, it’s in the vein of similar food objects which artisans have created for centuries: colorful glass grapes from the island of Murano outside of Venice, for example, or wooden tea caddies in the shape of pears or apples that were popular in England and America during the Georgian period.

But, as painstakingly well-crafted as this object is, there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable basis here for justifying its price tag of $2.285 million. Because really, isn’t this just a great, big, melting slab of kitsch? Ricky Schroder could have had it in his bedroom on the 80’s sitcom “Silver Spoons”, and no one would have batted an eyelid.

This isn’t the only item acquired by the foundation whose valuation is rather head-scratching. “One Ball Total Equilibrium (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)”, by well-known provocateur Jeff Koons, was purchased for a whopping $15.285 million at Christie’s last year. The work consists of a basketball suspended in a Perspex water tank. Interesting, perhaps, but $15 million worth of interesting? At best, it seems more of a ho-hum homage to British artist Damien Hirst – who formerly specialized in dead animals floating in tanks of formaldehyde – and doesn’t present anything particularly interesting to the viewer.

Koons

Elsewhere in the art news world, there’s an interesting factoid in The Art Newspaper this morning about a work by the Mexican Baroque painter Cristóbal de Villalpando (1649-1714), one of the most important artists in Mexican art history, which was discovered hanging in the office of the President of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The Adoration of the Magi” had been in the possession of the university for many years, but had not attracted a great deal of attention. An expert in Villalpando’s work had gone on a hunt for it some years ago, as The Art Newspaper describes, and now this work along with a number of others by the painter are part of an exhibition of his work at The Met which runs through October 15th.

Magos

How would you value this recovered masterpiece, alongside the aforementioned butter and basketball? Neither of us will ever own it, in part because I don’t have the wall space for it, and you probably don’t either. But given its age, beauty, and complexity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Villalpando’s painting was worth far more than the two contemporary sculptures we’ve looked at today – and you’d be utterly wrong.

It’s difficult to know what this particular altarpiece would bring at auction, not that Fordham has any intention of selling it. Pieces by Villalpando come up for sale occasionally, and from my (admittedly rather quick) research, smaller-sized works by this artist will go for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. The price of a very old painting such as this depends on a number of factors, including the subject matter, the materials used by the artist, and the overall state of preservation.

So what would this fairly well-preserved, impressive Villalpando depiction of a beloved scene from the Christmas story, which stands over 6 feet tall, fetch under the hammer – $500,000? Perhaps $750,000 if there is some serious institutional interest? On a good day, maybe it could make over $1 million? That’s still far less than what was paid for the two contemporary sculptures which we looked at earlier.

As I said at the outset, I freely admit that comparing the work of two living American sculptors to the work of a 17th century Mexican painter is illogical: an apples and oranges argument or, if you will, a butter and basketball argument. But quite honestly, I don’t care. Logic was abandoned long ago by the people who produce, promote, and patronize most of contemporary art, and we need to call a spade a spade.

We live at a time in which purveyors of the vapid, protected from reasonable criticism by the gatekeepers of high culture and their patrons, are valued more highly than the masters of the sublime. A fool and his money are soon parted, as the old proverb goes, and so if Ms. Walton and others like her wish to be fools, they live in a free country which entitles them to do so. By the same token, however, their fellow citizens are equally entitled to not only laugh at the garbage art which they are trying to promote, but to not even go look at it. (After all, that’s what you have me for.)

What you can and should do, frankly, is go see the work of truly great artists like Villalpando and others, whether at The Met or at your local museums and galleries. Learn about them, and come to a greater appreciation of the fact that their skill still speak speaks to us down the centuries to today. Your reward will be far greater, and you will have far fewer scratches on your scalp.

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Finding Fakes: New Museum Confronts Old Problem Head-On

Collecting antiquities is fraught with peril, and not just if you are Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. With advances in technology and scholarship, more and more museums and collectors have discovered that some of the prize possessions in their display cabinets are not what they appear to be. Although this kind of bad news is often swept under the rug rather quietly, by institutions or individuals who do not wish to damage their prestige, I want to share an interesting example of how one American museum recently handled this situation in just the right way.

San Francisco’s Mexican Museum was founded in the 1970’s, and over the past 40 years it has amassed a collection of over 16,000 objects, dating from Prehistory to the present-day. For most of its existence the Museum has been somewhat nomadic, lacking a permanent home and with its holdings scattered in warehouses around the city. Beginning in 2019 however, a new high-rise tower currently under construction in the SoMa district of the city will house the Museum on four of its floors.

In 2012, the Museum won a coveted Affiliate Museum status with the Smithsonian Institution, a relationship which allows it to draw upon the resources and expertise of the Smithsonian in areas such as exhibition planning and object conservation. As part of its due diligence in granting affiliate status, the Smithsonian required testing and authentication of the objects in the Museum’s collection. The oldest part of that collection includes a large number of Pre-Columbian artifacts, i.e. objects that were created by native peoples before the arrival of Columbus.

The analysis of these objects has just been completed by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and, unfortunately, it turns out that a significant portion of the Museum’s holdings – such as the pot pictured below – are either fakes, or cannot be authenticated“According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home…”

As an aside, I find it somewhat curious that a “Mexican” museum would be housing (alleged) Inca artefacts. The Inca Empire, even at its fullest extent, did not reach anywhere near Mexico, nor did the peoples of present-day Mexico and Peru share a common language, culture, or religion. It’s a bit like putting objects from Norman England into a museum dedicated to the history of Seljuk Turkey. But there you are.

In any case, it’s anticipated that, as the analysis of the other objects in the Museum’s collection continues, more fakes will probably be found. The Museum expects that the number of red flags will decrease as the relative age of the objects under examination decreases. This seems a reasonable expectation, particularly once the analysis reaches into the 18th-20th centuries, although no doubt there will still be things like fake retablos and reproduction pottery to sort through.

While the findings were rather shocking, the damage here is not ultimately fatal. A collection of over 100 authentic pre-Columbian objects is still a significant one. For our purposes moreover, there are a couple of takeaways for us to consider as part of this story.

First, kudos to both the Smithsonian and to the Mexican Museum for doing their jobs properly. They thoroughly examined the collection under a magnifying glass, using the best experts available, and then publicly addressed the results pf those findings. It’s a breath of fresh air to see public institutions appreciating their duty to the public whom they serve, more than they appreciate their own egos – see, e.g., the current disastrous situation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Second, this is a very useful cautionary tale when it comes to collecting antiquities, whatever culture they may come from. Most of us are not in a position to purchase large numbers of these things, but there are certainly tempting objects out there for us to acquire. In fact, you could go to an online auction right now, and purchase something that was (supposedly) made centuries ago, by a long-vanished civilization. This story ought to show you why it’s important to be extremely cautious, before acquiring something described as a Middle Kingdom ushabti, a Tan Dynasty bronze, or a Classic Maya pot: even museum curators can be fooled.

This Centuries-Old Church Was Just Bulldozed

Here is a bizarre, and indeed sad, bit of news to start your Friday.

It appears that the citizens of San Pablo del Monte, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, have some rather strange ideas. Last weekend, they decided to demolish the 18th century Franciscan chapel of Santo Cristo. Yes, you read that correctly. The entire pasted-colored Spanish colonial chapel – bell towers, dome, et al – was completely razed by bulldozers early in the morning on Tuesday, with no word to either government or religious authorities.

The bishop of Tlaxacala, Francisco Moreno Barrón, has called the demolition an act of “barbarism”, which was not authorized by the diocese. In response, the Governor of Tlaxacala announced at a press conference that, in cooperation with federal authorities, he has filed charges against the person or persons responsible for the illegal destruction of the chapel. The action seems all the more surprising, in that the region is known to be a deeply devout Catholic area, so there is no suggestion that leftists carried out the action.

At present, local police believe this was an act of ignorance, which grew out of the combination of two rather unfortunate ideas. Some residents were concerned that cracks in the chapel walls indicated that it was in danger of collapse, and therefore razing the building was a matter of public safety. However authorities from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the federal agency charged with historic preservation of Mexico’s cultural patrimony, say that the building was structurally sound, and pointed out that any building more than a century old is bound to have some cracks in it which do not affect the integrity of the structure.

In addition, while it may not have been the initial justification for the demolition, ultimately locals may have supported it because it was commonly felt that the chapel blocked the view of the parish church across the street.  Said building is a comparatively more modern confection, in terms of construction date, which looks something like a child’s idea of a castle in the Alps. As one can see in the photographs accompanying the news reports, it was certainly a far better candidate for demolition than the Franciscan chapel.

Although the goal of historic preservation can create annoying procedural norms for developers, architects, and officials to follow, this latest example of what happens when it is ignored is a potent reminder of why enforcing such measures continues to be necessary, and why they ought to be taken seriously. Whether the destruction is as vast as that of Penn Station in Manhattan, or as small as that of this side chapel on the road to Veracruz, when we intentionally destroy beautiful and historic buildings, we irreparably lose an important part of who we are. These structures are not simply utilitarian combinations of materials expressing particular aesthetic views. They are places touched by the lives of those who built them, and those who passed through them, decade after decade, century after century. As such, they are one of the very few tangible connections we have to the past. When they are lost, they are lost forever.

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