Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is the Art Dealer Scene Out of Control? What Next?

On this day in 1890 Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh died from a gunshot wound.

When avant garde art dealer and collector Ambroise Vollard died, he purportedly owned 10,000 works of art by many of the leading painters of the previous half century, including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Roualt, and the prolific Picasso. With Van Gogh's Vase with Sunflowers selling for more than $80 million, one wonders what Vollard's collection would be worth today.

Vollard purchased 27 canvases from Picasso in 1906 and continued a relationship with the effervescent artist till the dealer caught an early death in a freak accident on the road to his chateau in 1939.

The Second World War was just around the corner and I'm curious to know to what degree these works were successfully whisked out of the country before the Nazi occupation. I recall reading somewhere that after his death efforts were made to send the collection to North America and the first boat, with 500 pieces aboard, had to be routed to Canada.

No doubt Vollard knew the treasures he had. But I am totally convinced that he'd been apoplectic to learn the kinds of prices such pieces have been obtaining in the new art market.

In May, Forbes magazine had a story about this sea change in art valuations that has occurred since Warhol arrived on the scene. The article is something of a sketch in that without filling in all the details it shows us with a few deft lines how things changed. Leo Castelli, himself a collector of avant garde artists' works, was in the center of it -- the center now being New York. After the Nazis set their jackboots on Parisian soil, many of the most talented and intelligent artists and thinkers made a break from the Continent, and a new power center formed in the heart of Manhattan.

Counterfeit Warhol portrait of Ennyman
Caleb Melby's piece, titled Larry Gagosian, Andy Warhol And The Rise Of The Superdealer, shows how the Vollard eye combined with a new collector culture  has made an immense difference in valuations. What changed isn't the interest by some in collecting, but rather, "the explosion of the global nouveau riche, the proliferation of international fairs like Art Basel and, most critically, the fetishlike cult of contemporary art, a phenomenon that has metastasized over the last 50 years."

Interesting word: metastasized. Is Melby calling today's art collecting the new internet bubble? All three definitions of metastasize carry ominous overtones, the first being its association with cancer. The second  is simply, "to spread injuriously." And finally "to transform, especially into a dangerous form."

When Pablo Picasso died in 1973 Andy Warhol read, or heard (I don't have my fact-checker up yet this morning), that Picasso had produced 4,000 masterpieces. Warhol quipped, "I can produce 4,000 masterpieces in one day." Indeed, his screen print presses did crank out volumes. His "work alone accounts for roughly 20% of the value of the contemporary art market."

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My take is this. You like a piece of art? Don't buy it in the hopes it will increase in value. It's real value is in your relationship with it, your ability to appreciate and cherish it, not just for a few moments in a gallery, but on a wall in your home or office... for the rest of your life.

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For what it's worth, next week on August 5 I will be giving a talk on Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece at the Tweed Museum of Art here in Duluth. Never been to the Tweed? They have a great collection. Check it out sometime.... You will be impressed.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it!

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