Sunday, June 27, 2021

What’s It Worth?

These days before starting a new Missive I have to look whether I have written on the same subject before. When I searched for this title, I found I had but you probably don’t remember, because it was about 550 Missives ago in 2010. At that time, I was speaking of quality and discussing a French 18th century console table. 

This time it is about paintings and the market in general. Since I do not believe in buying art as investment, I have not been paying enough attention to the incredible prices that some art brings.

In 1962 the Louvre had to find a value at which to insure the Mona Lisa, said to be the most valuable painting in the world. The value that was put on it at the time was an unprecedented 100 million dollars. Why? I would say because of all the hype, that has surrounded it after it had been stolen in 1911. There is now a new kind of bullet proof glass which it hides behind in a gallery where a nearby Titian and Veronese are ignored by hordes of visitors.


In 2017, however, a painting attributed in whole or in part to Leonardo after having long been thought of as a copy and dating from the first decade of the sixteenth century brought a bit over 450 million dollars. I will be honest with you, if you had asked me whether to buy this painting, I would have advised against it considering that if it was doubted before it might fall into doubt again.



If you want to feel a bit better about this figure, with inflation the 1962 valuation of the Mona Lisa would be the equivalent of $860 million today. I am sure that is part of the issue. Today people figure the net worth of a work of at in percentage related to inflation … but how many people can afford that kind of money? Not many, and that is why the art world is thought of as elitist. 

Back to prices. For part of my wife, Penelope’s career at the Met, she worked in the 20th Century Department, at the time, directed by Henry Gelzahler. He was described by New York Magazine as, ‘the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’. He was also the darling of all the artists. He spoke to Andy Warhol every day and Arnold Newman photographed him at home. 


David Hockney solidified his reputation as a great artist with his painting of Henry Geldzahler and his significant other, Christopher Scott (1969). Not the other way around as some people think. The painting, however, never belonged to Henry and Christopher but in 2019 it brought £37,661,250 or $49,557,100 at Christies, London. Why? Because it was a watershed moment for Hockney and Henry who had become a very important personage in the formation of the New York style. 


What is most astounding is that this painting was at the bottom of the list of the ten most expensive ten paintings sold that year. Of course, iconic names topped the list such as Monet, Koons (could have fooled me), Rauschenberg whose painting does include an image of JFK, also Cezanne, Picasso and Warhol.

On the National Day of Reflection in the UK, Banksy's “Game Changer” sold for £16,758,000 having had an estimate of “only” £2,500,000 5o 3,5000,000. The painting appeared at University Hospital, Southampton, England after the first wave of Covid-19. It appeared with this note, ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”
After 10 months Banksy donated it to Southampton’s Hospital Charity which put it up for auction. The proceeds are to be used to support the wellbeing of University Hospital staff and patients as well as benefiting associated health organizations across the United Kingdom.


Banksy is the “Nom de plume” for a street artist whose work has appeared on buildings and other publicly visible surfaces including self-built physical prop pieces. Though never identified for sure his biography goes on for pages on Wikipedia! So why did that painting bring a fortune? Surely all the publicity his work has gained over the years has helped. His work is popular, his prints have sold very well and, particularly this past year, people want to support the good works of the medical community. 

Art could never be commercially explained. Why do people fall in love with apiece of art. Unfortunately, in recent times some think of it as investment or fill in the blanks like a stamp collection but most people still buy for the thrill of discovery and love of the work.

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