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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

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