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.

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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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Banksy’s Auto-Da-Fé Strips Bare The Contemporary Art Market

By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.

There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.

Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.

Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.

For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?

Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”

As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.

Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.

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