Auction houses and galleries are trying to stage ‘museum quality’ shows
Why do galleries and auction houses keep saying they want to be more like museums? Despite their riches, do they crave the cultural kudos that only distinguished curators and an adoring public can confer? Or is it more of a marketing technique to lure in new buyers and press and lift the value of their art to ‘museum quality’? Perhaps it's a bit of both.
I've seen three commercial shows in London recently that advertise their ‘museum quality’ work and the museum-style installation of their shows: the excellent ‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years’ at Gagosian Gallery, curated by the Picasso biographer John Richardson and including loans from MoMA New York; the weaker ‘Henri Matisse: Reve de Bonheur’ at Helly Nahmad with important loans from Tate Modern; and ‘Juxtaposed: Masterpieces through the Ages’ at Christie's, which showcases top lots from its summer sales as though they hung in themed museum galleries, enabling viewers to make visual connections across the centuries.
Pablo Picasso, 'Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto', 1903. Oil on canvas, 70.3 x 55.3 cm. Photo © Christie’s Images Limited 2010 I'll discuss Christie's here because their show truly does contain masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Picasso, Klimt and Warhol, not to mention an illuminated Bible commissioned by François I and a stunning vase made for China's Yongzheng emperor, the most refined of the fabled ‘Three Emperors’ of the Qing dynasty. It’s only on through Thursday, so – despite the ‘museum-quality’ tag – this could be your last chance to see some of these works before they vanish into private collections.
At the opening, Jussi Pylkkänen, President of Christie's Europe, said, ‘I began working at Christie’s in 1986, just before we sold Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, and we’ve never had an exhibition of this kind in the time that I’ve been here. I was very keen to put together this juxtaposition of masterpieces to look at how they measure up against the best, from other periods and other parts of the world.’
The reasons for this embarrassment of riches at the top end of the art market are obvious to anyone watching their savings and investments teeter off a precipice: blue chip art keeps getting more valuable. ‘A Monet will always be a Monet, a Picasso always a Picasso, gold is always gold – it’s the flight to quality,’ says Pylkkännen. Sellers know – as they did in 1930, which, as Pylkkänen pointed out,saw the only other comparable surge in auction sales – that now is the moment when they can achieve top prices for top quality works. What’s interesting now is how the definition of ‘blue chip art’ is expanding as collectors emerge from new parts of the world.
Claude Monet, 'Nymphéas', 1906. Oil on canvas, 90 x 100 cm. Photo © Christie’s Images Limited 2010 The stars of the show are the classic ‘Blue Period’ Picasso portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto, 1903, (above, est. £30-40 million) from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and the Monet ‘Waterlillies’ (1906) (left, est. £30-40 million), a classic version of this now trademark theme that belonged to Monet’s dealer Durand-Ruel and his family for about a century. The iconic Picasso – ‘one of the greatest paintings of the decade to be sold at auction’ according to Pylkkänen, drew crowds to the Andrew Lloyd Webber collection exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2003. It is a portrait of Picasso’s friend and fellow Barcelona artist in a bar – the attenuated hands and features nod to El Greco while the absinthe proclaims their modern, bohemian milieu and the work seems to point both to the artist’s past and future. The painting was withdrawn from a Christie’s auction in 2006 following a failed restitution claim by the heir of Berlin collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a Jewish banker targeted by the Nazis who was forced to sell the work in 1934. It is now being sold by the Andrew Lloyd-Webber foundation to raise money for charity.
Gustav Klimt, 'Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III)', 1917. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 180.7 x 89.9 cm. Photo © Christie’s Images Limited 2010 Works restituted to heirs of Holocaust victims are among the top lots on display. If I won the lottery, I’d buy the Klimt portrait of Ria Munck III (right; est. £14-18 million) but failing that, I hope Leonard Lauder does so that this ravishing portrait can be put on display beside its peers in the Neue Galerie, New York. This is a doubly tragic work, as Giovanna Bertazzoni, Head of Christie’s London Impressionist and Modern Art department explained to me: ‘Ria Munk committed suicide after her fiancé broke off their engagement. Her family commissioned this posthumous portrait, which was the third version – her mother wouldn’t accept the previous two.’ This might account for the painting’s enigmatic contrast between the Ophelia-like background of flowers surrounding her and her enigmatic unfinished body, sketched in grey charcoal, as though the subject of the painting is vanishing before our eyes. Ria’s mother Aranka kept this posthumous portrait in the family villa until 1941, when the family was deported to concentration camps and the Gestapo looted the art collection. Through an Austrian dealer and collector, it ended up in the Lentos museum in Linz. In 2009, the city of Linz finally voted to restitute the painting to the 27 heirs of the family, for whom this painting is now being sold.
My other lottery win picks would be the Giovanni Bellini ‘Madonna and Child’ thought to be from the end of his career, around or after 1510 (below, est. £2,500,000 - £3,500,000). Delicate yet determined, the gaze of a Bellini Madonna is hypnotic. This painting, if I’m honest, can’t compete with the very best (in Venice’s San Zaccaria for example), but, like them, in her tender gestures she expresses the infinite love of a mother for her child and evokes a sense of eternity.
Giovanni Bellini, 'The Madonna and Child in a landscape'. Tempera and oil on panel, 65.8 x 48.2 cm. Photo © Christie’s Images Limited 2010 Alighiero Boetti’s ‘Mappa’, 1989 (below), would also be in my fantasy collection. I’ve adored his work since I first saw it at Sculpture Projects in Munster in 1997. The last time I asked the price of one of his ‘Maps’ series of tapestries was about four years ago at the Basel art fair, where a gallery there quoted me the price of $300,000. Today’s estimate is £900,000-£1 million – more than a threefold leap - but then it really is ‘museum quality’, since a comparable work from this series hangs in MoMA in New York. When the art history books of the future are written, I’d bet on this work still being in them and becoming even more important. Why? Because the Italian artist was prophetic in the way he pioneered one of the first examples of the globalised world in art: in 1989 he designed the map of the world with its flags and employed Afghan carpet weavers exiled in Peshawar to execute it. Around the border of the tapestry, he wove a poem by the Persian poet Sa’di that also adorns the Hall of Nations at the UN. The optimistic way that art interacts with history in this work, made at a moment when the world seemed to be opening up and becoming more unified, seems particularly poignant.
Alighiero Boetti, 'Mappa', 1989. Embroidered tapestry, 116 x 217cm. Photo © Christie’s Images Limited 2010
These and other fantastic works on show at Christie's should compel readers to run, not walk, to see them before Thursday night. Not everything is a masterpiece but it's a wonderful opportunity to test your eyes and taste. Still, I query Christie's museum ‘hang’ on a number of levels. First, museums provide information about the works on display. Jussi Pylkkänen repeatedly extolled the beauty, quality and history of the 12th-11th century BC Chinese bronze vessels from the Hardy collection on display. I can confirm that they are indeed beautiful objects, well worth coming to see. But sadly, I gained no deeper understanding. Why did Christie’s bother arranging the work according to rather arbitrary – and occasionally fatuous (anyone for Zoomorphism?) - themes, without providing accessible information about individual works of art? It is particularly perplexing since they have such high quality texts in their catalogues and press releases that could easily have been condensed into booklets, labels or even an iPhone app.
A very rare bronze ritual tripod food vessel, Li Shang Dynasty (12th Century BC). On a deeper lever, however, 'museum quality' isn’t just about great works, and good looks. It implies a body of knowledge behind the work: museums research, publish, teach, show and – above all - share art in with the public. This public airing of art confers its value. Before museums, churches, the aristocracy and royalty did this. Born in the Enlightenment and still one of its strongest legacies, museums are a vital part of the public sphere. But they are increasingly at risk in our cash-strapped times, facing budget cuts, layoffs and dwindling acquisition budgets. This matters because knowledge about art will suffer, which ultimately will affect the art world and anyone who cares about culture. This seems particularly ironic at a time when auction prices are shooting higher and auction houses are imitating museum shows. Plus, as the success of exhibitions such as the RA's ‘The Real Van Gogh’ and museums like Tate Modern prove, the public appetite for art has never been higher.
Perhaps though, there is an opportunity here for greater and more creative partnership. When I spoke to Pylkkänen, he praised the fruitful relationship the auction house had working with curator Ann Dumas on the RA's recent Van Gogh show: ‘It’s been one of our greatest collaborations with an art institution. We put her in touch with our collectors and there was a large amount of work from private collections in the show that haven’t been seen publicly before. I love the fact that the RA is brave - putting together a show focusing on his letters was not the most obvious choice for a Van Gogh show but it was an enormous scholarly and public success.’ Clearly this is a mutually beneficial relationship, since collectors see the value of their works skyrocket once they have been shown on high profile gallery walls.
Could such collaboration extend to auction houses working more actively to cultivate collectors as patrons of the arts, especially encouraging new collectors to lend and donate to art institutions? And perhaps, out of the riches of their new record prices, the art market could create a fund to help museums study, acquire and exhibit work, as well as to support university art history programmes. In Britain, the art market - which profits so greatly from the wider public awareness of art - could collaborate with arts institutions to encourage Government to create tax incentives for charitable donations and long term loans to museums, like those that exist in the US. These ideas may seem utopian, even naive, but if ‘museum quality’ is to mean anything in the future, it’s time to think laterally.