Sunday, May 30, 2010

Profit From the Unexpected

Last week I wrote about the opening of “The Birth of Impressionism” exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and mentioned the symposium that we were going to attend. The symposium, though part of the museum’s opening weekend program, was not organized by the museum but by Rick Brettell, former curator and museum director, who is now The Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair, of the department of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas, Dallas. We have known Rick for over 35 years, during which time we have followed his career as museum curator, director, author, and brilliant lecturer in his field of greatest expertise, the time of the Impressionists. We believed we had a pretty good idea of everything he might offer up on symposium day but, as always, he managed to surprise.

Rick decided, as he put it, he was tired of sharing the stage with the same familiar cast of Impressionist scholars. Therefore, the subject of the day was the teaching of art history of the French late 19th and early 20th centuries as it was taught on the west coast of the United States, as distinct from the Ivy League schools and other major art history departments at universities east of the Mississippi.

The morning program revisited the very different approaches of a series of West Coast professors, from those with a Socialist interpretation to the conservative approach which valued Academic Salon painting over the avant garde of the Impressionists. In the afternoon current graduate students from California universities gave papers on a varied menu of late 19th and early 20th century topics.

We spent our one free day in the downtown area where we saw several interesting exhibitions. SFMOMA has a 75th Anniversary exhibition that presents a chronological look at the San Francisco museum’s collecting of contemporary art. Obviously, what was contemporary when it was given is no longer so 25, 50, 75 years later. Since the donations and purchases were of work of the time, the show offers a fascinating review of recent art history, through a contemporary lens, particularly, though not exclusively, focused on Bay Area artists.

The greatest surprise, however, came at the one museum I only went to because a curator at the Museums of San Francisco recommended it. That was the Contemporary Jewish Museum where we saw a totally gripping exhibition. A French artist, Linda Ellia, was faced with a dilemma when her young daughter came across a copy of Hitler’s infamous anti Semitic tome, Mein Kampf. She asks the question: do we ignore it? ban it? burn it?, instead she created this exhibition, "Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf".

She decided to give out the pages, mainly to strangers, asking the recipients to react in image or text on the page itself. She found a second copy of the book in order to have both sides of each page available. The result is hundreds of pages of the most haunting images and commentary. About two thirds are on view and you would need to go back several times to take it in thoroughly.

If you are in San Francisco don’t miss these three great shows. The surprises they offered made our journey all the more worth while.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On the Road Again.....this time San Francisco

We are here for the Opening of “The Birth of Impressionism” paintings loaned from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The museum was created in a Beaux Arts train station over 20 years ago to present France’s collections of art of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Interestingly, at about the same time, in an effort to centralize access, the Louvre created an underground hall, topped by the now-famed glass pyramid by I.M. Pei, that was turned into the likes of a train terminal with ticket windows and many entrances and exits. So the French managed to turn a train station into a museum and a museum into a train station.

But, thank goodness, both retained their fabulous art collections and now as the d’Orsay has closed its top floor gallery for renovations they have generously allowed their art to go on tour.

We are also here because my wife, Penelope, worked for a decade as curator of European Art for the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. She worked closely with the director, John Buchanan, and his wife Lucy on developing major international exhibitions from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia. Through all that the director’s secret desire was to have a great Impressionist exhibition, the period closest to his training and to his heart. Not every wish is granted and there were several abortive attempts.

Now, as director of the Museums of San Francisco, that dream has finally been realized, in spades, with a fabulous exhibition about the beginnings of Impressionism.

At the opening we spoke with John Buchanan as he was standing with the director of the d’Orsay, Guy Cogeval, and they told us how the show came together. John was in Paris with the President of the Board of the San Francisco Art Museums, Diane Wilsey, at a lunch with Cogeval. They knew each other from previously working together when Cogeval was director in Montreal.

At lunch the d’Orsay director mentioned that his museum was finally going to do a long- anticipated renovation of the impressionist galleries. John suggested/asked if they might be interested in lending since the pictures were to be off view for a long period of time. This did not come as a total surprise since Cogeval was already making plans for a loan show. As John made a date to meet the next day to discuss the possibilities further, his wife, Lucy, was already on the phone getting their return flight reservations changed. They have been married for thirty years this week and Lucy knows what is really important to John!

When they arrived the next day at Mr. Cogeval’s office for their appointment they were presented with a preliminary check list of what was available with an understanding that it was amendable. Since John is not backward about coming forward, he asked to add many more of the museum’s gems. As he put it, “they only told me a couple of times that I was being greedy”. The d’Orsay did ask for a small quid pro quo of the loan of two Monets from San Francisco for their upcoming Monet show now and two Manet’s for the exhibition coming right after that. As much as he did not want to see a few of his treasures leave it was a small price to pay for the loan of over 200 paintings in two clearly defined exhibitions.

The exhibition that has just opened is part one and illustrates the genesis of the style, starting with the huge “grand format” paintings of the Academics, and moving on to introduce the diverse talents of the innovators who showed together in the Impressionist exhibitions. We will have to wait until October to see the development of the style as part two will begin where this exhibition leaves off.

I will let the art critics take off from there but, meanwhile, I look forward to attending the symposium on the exhibition being held in a few days and will report on that next week.

Monday, May 17, 2010

All This Talk About Money

Recently we have all read about the record $106.5 million that a Picasso brought at a Christies auction. The picture was titled “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” but what added significance to it was that it was quite personal for the artist since it represented his mistress at the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Many would say it was not even from his best period. Imagine what an early cubist piece by Picasso might bring?

Price does not represent value but only what someone is willing to pay at a given moment in a given venue. The auctions give a deadline that you do not get at a dealer. People feel if they don’t make up their minds at that moment they will never have another chance. While the dealer gives one the illusion that one has all the time in the world. Often a dealer will give a potential buyer a nudge: Mr. Jones buys all my widgets and he is coming in next week; or This is going into an exhibition or into a fair next month and it will may be quickly sold. One of the best dealer lines is, -- I love this piece so much I really hope that I can take it home. I have only said that twice in my career, when I really felt that way. In both cases, that was the closer. The collectors walked out with my piece!

In art while we do not have a market like Wall Street. One share of Apple is worth the same as another share at a given moment, while one Boucher may not be worth the same as another. We can get a pretty good idea of the range a Boucher may sell in. Then, depending on subject matter, salability, condition and quality the price is adjusted accordingly. But there are the rare, unique and extraordinary pieces, such as Michael Crichton’s Jasper Johns that was sold a few days ago at Christies for $28.6 million. Here we had a painting by a great American artist, from the estate of a world famous author, and most importantly the artist’s iconic image of the American Flag. This subject by the artist has been breaking records for decades.

Why is price so important? Well, I learned the hard, or should I say embarrassing, way. In 1981 an article about art was published on the front page of the New York Times. Not the front page of the art section but the front page of the newspaper.

It was a story by Grace Glueck in which she wrote about the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth buying a Velasquez from the Wildenstein Gallery for $6 million dollars. I was absolutely thrilled that an art article should appear on the front page so I called Grace Glueck to congratulate and thank her. I told her how happy I was about it but I wished she hadn’t had to write about the price. I could feel her patting the top of my head through the phone and saying, young man “how do you think I got the front page”! This brought the reality home to me. What sells newspapers and all other media is record prices.

So often I hear that the art market is doing well or badly based on the latest sale of contemporary art. I protest, to no avail, that the contemporary market is not the Old Master market or the Chinese art market or any other market. It is just a basket of commodities from one sector that forms the public mind about the entire art market.

What you need to decide for yourself is how the individual work you are considering compares with others in the same category. Then decide whether it is the best of what you can afford. That will be the piece that gives you the most pleasure and will best hold its value.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Was Your First Collection ?

Many years ago I was asked to give a course on collecting at the New School in New York. When I arrived at the school after I had worked months on how I was going to teach my first course, I was told, “You know, if you don’t get more than 15 students the course will be cancelled. “” Wait a minute, you tell me this after all this time!”

Well, to my surprise and delight it was standing room only and there were over 30 students. (I lucked out when they moved us to a larger classroom and it turned out to be the one that had Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today ‘murals (1930-31). These were subsequently purchased by AXA, the insurance company and installed in the lobby of their building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City, where they can be seen today).

To break the ice, I asked how many collectors there were in the class, expecting only a couple of hands to go up. Was I surprised when most of the class raised their hands! I had made the mistake of thinking of collecting only in terms of art. My students were collectors of stamps, baseball cards and even barbed wire.

Most of us start out collecting what our parents collected and then we realize we like better what our grandparents had, or we have our own ideas and go off in a completely different direction. One of our best-known clients began collecting French 18th century furniture as her parents had. She bought a few pieces and then came back to us saying that her friends put their feet up on the furniture so she needed to find other areas of collecting. She bought a Canaletto!

My personal interest had always been photography. I was an amateur photographer, spent long nights in the dark room was co-photo editor for my high school yearbook etc. I loved going to photo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art or at the early photography galleries such as the Witkin Gallery.

When I remarried in 1975, my new wife, who I dragged to many photo exhibitions, said, “Why don’t you buy something?” I was totally taken aback. I had never collected anything that was not in my family’s vocabulary, ie something that I had lived with at some time in my formative years.

Admittedly I was confused. I had already been selling art to collectors for almost a decade and I had been guiding them. But now I needed to apply similar rules to myself. What part of photography did I respond to most? The early years? between the wars? post war? What represented quality in photography? Was a vintage print better than a later one? I felt the former must be better when I applied the rules of some of my fields such as Renaissance sculpture, but I remained unsure. Believe it or not in the 1970’s the image was still considered to be all that mattered. No one thought about vintage prints or investment. Great photos could be had for a few hundred dollars and original prints could even be found for $25.

Coming to the point of a first purchase is a very strange sensation. You become nervous, and worried about making the right decision, but you just have to make the plunge!

Believe it or not, as I handed over a check to Lee Witkin I realized that my first purchase was a mistake: two famous Edward Western still lives, printed by his son Cole. I should have waited to get vintage prints by the father. Today, my prints are probably worth 10 plus times what I paid for them, but the images printed by Edward Weston himself would be worth a hundred times more. Even more importantly, I would have gotten greater pleasure out of living with them. But I won’t de-accession them. They were my first lesson as a collector in my own right!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Art and Statistics

As you will remember I was in Maastricht a few weeks ago attending TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair, organized by The European Fine Art Foundation. The Foundation has other projects aside from the fair. One is research to assist the art trade.

They commissioned a study of the art trade from a cultural economist, Dr. Clare McAndrew. Her initial publication “The International Art Market: A Survey of Europe in a Global Context, which analyzes the global art trade from a macroeconomic perspective, has been updated with the recently published “The Global Art Market in 2010”.

What can you possibly learn that you don’t already know from figures and analysis? Why do these surveys? What can we get out of them? There is, of course, the fun of finding out how the other guy is doing. There is always some field that does better or worse than yours. Why do we want to know the value of our art or our house, for that matter, if we have no intention of selling (well, who knows, someday we might!)

These facts and figures can have more concrete uses as well. Thirty years ago when the New York art world wanted to be sure not to lose City or State funding, they commissioned a survey showing how much revenue was brought into New York by the arts. Looking at art museums, art galleries, theaters, operas and the artists themselves all contributing to the economy by enticing visitors and potential participants to New York. They had to show that New York City was not only run by Wall Street but by Broadway, Museum Mile and Soho (today Chelsea) as well.

Another reason for these surveys is to influence governments and educate legislators of the consequences of the laws they may wish to pass. A very real issue in the U.S., which comes up regularly, are tax deductions for art donations to museums and other institutions.

When I was in Maastricht I listened to a talk given by Clare McAndrew based on her most recent art market survey and I learned about a new phenomenon in the art cosmos. She found that in 2009 while the U.S. and the U.K. were still the leaders in art sales with 30% and 29% respectively, third place no longer belonged to France but to China, with 14%. A few years ago China was hardly on the charts! That would certainly be a factor in my consideration of whether to open a branch in Beijing. Looking beyond the figures I found that contemporary art and older works made in China are selling well there, but not European Old Masters…. so maybe I better stay in New York!

Never fear, there has never been a volatile market for Old Masters with extreme highs and lows, and I learned from Dr. McAndrew’s talk that they continue to creep up in value.