Art News Roundup: Christmas Carols Edition

For those of you in the DC area, this evening at 7:30 pm is the annual Christmas Concert at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. Our musicians are quite exceptional, as anyone who has visited the parish inevitably comments, thanks both to great talent and the great acoustics of the building itself. The program will include seasonal sacred music composed across many centuries, and will conclude with an audience sing-a-long. A reception will follow in the parish rectory. For more details, please follow this link; hope to see many of you there!

In The Bleak Barcelona

I’ll be heading to Barcelona on vacation in two weeks, and I’m sad to say that the Twelve Days of Christmas there are going to be somewhat dim, thanks to the city’s very dim mayor, failed actress Ada Colau. Not only has Ms. Colau placed an ugly, disrespectful “Nativity” scene by a contemporary artist in front of city hall – which as it turns out cost twice as much as what citizens were originally told it would run – but she now has the unique distinction of having united most of the political parties in the highly fractious region, from left to right, in condemnation of the parsimonious lighting and decorations which the city has installed for the season. Christians are accusing Ms. Colau of deliberately downplaying Christmas, thanks to her hatred of Christianity; secularists are decrying the “gloomy” atmosphere of the city, which will have a chilling effect on the spending of holiday tourists, reduce wages for both union and non-union workers, and thereby cut into anticipated tax revenues. [Ben fet, idiota.]


Jingle All The Way (To The Bank)

You’ll recall that over the summer, I reported on an art dealer who bought an abandoned storage locker in New Jersey full of what at first glance appeared to be minor works of art, but upon closer inspection contained half a dozen late works by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Art Net is now reporting that his $15,000 investment has paid off rather handsomely, to the tune of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, an employee at a local auction house in Derby, England, realized that a ceramic pot he had purchased for around $5 several years ago, and was using as a toothbrush holder in his bathroom, was in fact a Bronze Age artifact dating back about 4,000 years; he recently sold it at auction for about $100. The moral of the story here, kids, is: learn your art history.


Five Golden Rings < One Copper Ring

While we associate the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (died circa 36-39 A.D.) with the events of Holy Week rather than Christmas, a remarkable find in Israel is nevertheless worth mentioning as we consider the age into which Jesus was born. Back in 1968, archaeologists excavating at the Herodium, a vast palace-tomb complex originally built by King Herod the Great just south of Bethlehem, recovered a number of items for analysis, including a copper ring whose inscription was too faded to be clearly read with the naked eye. Now however, thanks to modern imaging technology, the ring has revealed its original inscription bearing Pilate’s name. Scholars believe that it was probably a seal ring used by Pilate’s underlings to sign documents on his behalf, much as one might use a rubber stamp bearing a signature in a government office.


Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.


Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)


Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.


Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.


Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”


Storage Wars, Big Boys Version: A Locker Full of Modern Masterpieces

For nearly a decade now, one of the most popular television programs on U.S. basic cable has been A&E’s “Storage Wars”, which chronicles the adventures of buyers who bid on the contents of abandoned storage lockers at auction. The buyers never know for certain quite what they’re getting, and they gamble on some of the individual contents being worth more than what they paid for the contents as a whole. Yet while the current record valuation for the show is about $300,000, an art dealer in New York who himself recently purchased the contents of an abandoned storage locker may have just topped that figure – by many, many times that amount.

David Killen of David Killen Gallery in Chelsea, which sells art, antiques, jewelry, and other items at bimonthly auction, recently paid $15,000 for the contents of a storage locker owned by the late art restorer Susanne Schnitzer. At the time of her death, Ms. Schnitzer had hundreds of works in her possession, many of which had been sent to the business which she co-owned with another late art restorer well-known to the New York museum world. The executors of Ms. Schnitzer’s estate tried for years to track down the owners of these works, but in the end there were over 200 pieces which couldn’t be reunited with their original owners, thus becoming abandoned property.

You may know from personal experience that service providers such as cobblers, dry cleaners, and upholsterers often find themselves with items which their owners never return to pick up. As bizarre as it may seem, given the value of some of the pieces in question, the same thing happens in the world of fine art. People with large art collections who don’t keep an updated catalogue of their holdings sometimes forget what they’ve done with a piece, or circumstances prevent them from paying for the return of their property after the work has been done. Thus, after a reasonable period of time has passed, art conservators, restorers, and framers often end up owning these pieces, thereby amassing substantial art collections of their own.

Mr. Killen was not the first buyer approached by the executors of the Schnitzer Estate to help them clean out the storage locker in New Jersey where the art was being held, but it turns out that he may have been the wisest. After several major auction houses passed on the collection, Mr. Killen purchased the lot for $15,000, and went out to haul his new hoard back to Chelsea. He describes the bulk of what he saw as “junk”, but as the pieces were being loaded onto his truck, he started to come across several large crates which bore the name “de Kooning” on them. It appears that Mr. Killen may now be the very fortunate owner of a total of six paintings by one of the most important of all Modern artists, thanks to his storage locker buy.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others of the so-called “New York School”, who defined the genre known as “Abstract Expressionism”: this was the most dominant school in American painting after World War II, but before the rise of Pop Art in the late 1950’s. Unlike Pollock, Rothko, or Motherwell, I’ve always found de Kooning’s work more appealing and less repetitive than his contemporaries. The aforementioned painters tend to let black dominate their works, and generally ignore anything figurative, while de Kooning often uses a bright palette of shifting colors, and refers heavily to the figurative in certain periods of his career.

As you might expect, de Kooning’s work is extremely valuable. The painting shown in the image that accompanies this article, “Untitled XXV” (1977), was sold at Christie’s in New York back in 2016 for $66.3 million, which to date is the record auction price for the artist. It dates from a later period in his career, but is a good example of the sort of color palette that makes de Kooning one of the more likeable Abstract Expressionists, at least for those of us who prefer not to be depressed all of the time.

However this isn’t the highest price ever paid for a de Kooning – not by a long shot. In fact, until the sale of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” this past December, the highest known price ever paid for a work of art was for de Kooning’s “Interchange” (1955), a painting with a remarkable history to it, which was sold by entertainment guru David Geffen to hedge fund guru Kenneth C. Griffin for a whopping $300 million back in 2015. Now to be honest, I find such prices to be utterly ridiculous, but since it isn’t my money I don’t particularly care, other than for anecdotal or art market purposes: more fool, they. But I share them here to give you some idea of what was sitting in that humble New Jersey storage facility all of this time, unbeknownst to anyone.

I wouldn’t expect each of the six de Koonings, if fully authenticated, to be worth $66 million, of course, let alone $300 million. On the other hand, every major art collector and museum in the world wants to own a de Kooning, so who’s to say what they would ultimately sell for? Given their potential value, I’m sure Mr. Killen’s insurance carrier is going to be rather nervous unless and until he sells them.