Sunday, September 15, 2013

What's In a Name?

I referenced last week a photography dealer, Lee Witkin, who fought against the concept that the name of the artist is what is important.  This is a concept that drives many dealers nuts because we all know works of art that are wonderful in their own right that are not by famous artists.

I am a photographer on the side and I have taken some pretty good photos myself and even entered them in exhibitions but my work has no intrinsic value.   The truth is that probably 99% of even those who consider themselves professional artists will have no resale value.  That does not mean that they may not produce some good works of art.

The truth is that there are a number of reasons that an artist rises to the top even though often they fall again at some time in history.   We judge an artist by many factors but most important is their entire body of work.  The name does not make the work of art though we may pay more attention to  it because of its familiarity but it’s the quality of the piece and whether it pleases us that is important.  Think of a political candidate with the name of Bush, Clinton or Kennedy.  The name catches your attention bur then you have to decide if you agree with their point of view and ability to do the job.

I learned some years ago that the name of an artist well known on the East Coast may not be known in the Midwest, nor are famous artists out here in the Southwest necessarily known by an East coast audience.

Time is also a factor.  My older kids were born in the late 1960’s and when I talked to them about Jack Kennedy when they were in their early teens they weren’t sure who he was!  I, of course, remember exactly where I was when the announcement that he was shot was broadcast.  An artist who is a household name during his lifetime may also be quickly forgotten   

It is a cautionary tale that one of the most famous and rarest old master artists today, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), disappeared totally from history for almost two centuries after his death and was resurrected by an art historian in the 19th century.  Only 35 paintings have been attributed to him but his reputation has grown and grown until today when exhibitions of his work draw blockbuster crowds.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Astronomer” The Louvre, Paris 

There are reasons other then scholarly that one might buy a work of art and sometimes they are very personal.  Every night before I went to sleep my father brought me a glass of himbeernsaft to put next to my bed.  Literally translated it means raspberry juice though it was actually raspberry syrup mixed with water.  When I found a photograph by a German artist, Otto Umbehr (1902-1980), known as Umbo, representing a cupboard with a bottle of himbernsaft I had to own it.  It came from the very famous collection of Julien Levy (1906-1981) who had a gallery that included photographs and much of his collection was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Years later I learned that this was a very rare print and it was requested for a travelling exhibition of Umbo’s work.  As an aside, it never made the catalog.  They managed to do two editions of the catalog and leave it out, but still we did not see the print for two years!  I only have a letter to prove it was in an important museum show in Germany.

"Laden Ecke" by Otto Umbehr (Umbo) 

Unfortunately, during the last generation art has become commoditized out of exploitation.  Several segments of the art community are responsible, most notably the auction houses.  When the British Railway Pension fund started to collect art as part of their pension portfolio, 1974-1981, it marked the official beginning of art as investment.  While none of the dealers or auction houses voiced any complaints at the time, in retrospect, I find it depressing.  Part of the fun is taken out of collecting if you are concerned only about its return should you decide to sell it.

I have found over the years that some of what we have collected personally such as Art Nouveau furniture and Jugendstil pewter has lost much of its value, while other collections such as our photographs and Native American Art have increased in value, sometimes significantly.  Interestingly enough the names have not necessarily helped if they were not in fashion at the time we sold.  We have, however, enjoyed it all and do not regre having lived with it.  To paraphrase a client of ours, where else can you own and enjoy something for decades and even have the opportunity of getting your money out of it again.  You can’t do that with your car or yacht particularly when you consider their upkeep while you owned them.

"Hopi Snake Dancer" by Roy Fredericks

There is no question that the name of a famous artist can add to the value of a work if the art is being sold where it is familiar to it’s audience.  That alone, however, will only add a certain amount and the rest will depend on the quality of the work itself.  If you learn the field that interests you as best you can, view as much as you can in that area narrowed down to a style and period you will probably do well financially more times than not by just buying what you like best.  

No comments:

Post a Comment