Sunday, November 27, 2022


The devastation in Ukraine caused by the Russian assault on civilian populations leaving cities without water or electricity, is hard to imagine from our comfortable lives. Looking to the future we all hope that Ukraine comes out of this not only victorious but also with their culture intact. If I repeat anything I wrote in the spring I will defend myself by stressing the increased cultural sins of the Russian forces and their leader.

It seems to be indiscriminate whether the Russians steal or destroy the art.

In the one case, however, the case of the Scythian Gold they clearly knew what they were doing. When I first read about this in the spring I was happy that the Ukrainians had hidden their most valuable, in every sense of the word, Scythian gold but obviously to no avail.

“When Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine began” according to The Guardian from last April, “the director of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol, in the south-east of the country, Leila Ibrahimova, arranged for a hoard of gold artefacts from ancient Scythia to be hidden. Just a few weeks later, she was kidnapped and interrogated by Russian troops. They demanded to know where the Scythian gold was; she refused to cooperate. Subsequently the museum’s curator Galina Andriivna Kucher was taken at gunpoint to the museum and asked to show a Russian “expert” and agents where the gold was. She also refused to locate the collection. Kucher was later abducted from her home on 30 April and her whereabouts remainsed unknown.”

In June, The Daily Beast wrote of the Russian plunder: “Since Russia began its invasion in February, 250 cultural institutions have been targeted by Russian munitions. Thousands of important museums pieces have been destroyed during the bombing of Mariupol and elsewhere. In Melitopol, Scythian gold artifacts worth millions that date back to the fourth century B.C. were stolen from crates the museum had hidden them in.”

According to a report on the theft in the New York Times, Russian troops eventually found the gold hoard boxed up in the museum’s basement. The items were taken to Donetsk, in the Russian-controlled Donbas region, for “safety”, with the museum’s newly installed puppet director, Evgeny Gorlachev, stating that the gold artefacts were not just for Ukrainians but “of great cultural value for the entire former Soviet Union”. His carefully chosen words were designed to erase the collection’s Ukrainian heritage and replace it with a Soviet one, suggesting Ukraine was back within Russia’s sphere of influence and control.

In July the American publication, Newsweek reported the following, “The accusation made by the Mariupol City Council on its Telegram account said that the alleged theft by Russians mimics actions of the Nazis during World War II, when Adolf Hitler's Third Reich ordered the seizure of cultural property that did not reflect Nazi ideals and could be sold for financial gain for the purpose of creating a new cultural museum in Austria.”

The Russian rape of art from Ukraine has intensified. Recently I saw an article in the German Art Magazine, Weltkunst, stating that 15,000 works were taken by the Russians as they were driven out of Kherson this month. The stolen art ranged from 17th century Icons to contemporary art. According to the article the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Museum was cleaned out!

The KYIV Independent newspaper reported that four trucks with stolen art arrived in Simferopol, a city in Russian-occupied Crimea and who knows where else they brought the purloined art. I am quite sure art experts were not there to vet what was taken so it was just to cause as much distress as possible. I know how upset I would be if objects that had sentimental value were suddenly taken from my home.

The Jerusalem Post expanded on the report that the Ministry of Defense in Ukraine wrote on its Twitter account: "The occupiers stole everything from Kherson: paintings from art galleries, antiquities from museums, historic manuscripts from libraries. But their most prized loot was a raccoon they stole from a zoo. Steal a raccoon and Die." They were even spotted stealing a Llama!

As I write this missive, what is of most immediate concern is the loss of human life and the suffering of those who survive, but in the long term the remains of the history and culture of a country are vital to its identity and the will of its people to carry on.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Paul Allen Collection

Paul Allen (1953-2018) was a businessman, computer programmer, researcher, investor, and philanthropist. He also owned a football team and a basketball team. He is best known, however, for having been a co-founder of Microsoft with his good friend Bill Gates. Now, I just read about the sale of his real-estate empire, but this missive is about his art collection which was recently sold at Christies.

I will give you the punch line up front. Part one of the auction brought in $1.5 billion dollars eclipsing the recent record of $992 million that the Macklowe sale brought at Sotheby’s.

A knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss this as an example of the ridiculous prices that modern art brings these days, but that would be totally wrong. When anyone asks me if art is a good investment, I say emphatically, NO! Sometimes, however, I amend that to say, unless you have the millions to buy the very best works by the leading artists and diversify into many fields. Until now I have never actually seen such collection.

Unfortunately, I have only seen the Paul Allen Collection in the Christie’s online catalog, but I could not believe my eyes. Here was a billionaire who obviously bought only what he liked. He did not try to fill in the blanks of a postage stamp album (which some art collectors try to do) or concentrate on one period of art, or one artist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. My wife and I, however, have had several collections of works that cost us from the hundreds to some thousands of dollars, but I cannot remember ever buying anything in the 5-digit range. We lost money on everything we sold except for our photography collection which we bought mostly in the late 70’s and 80’s.

Speaking of photography, Edward Steichen’s 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building in New York City was offered to us back when we collected in the field. We didn’t buy it because I just didn’t love it. Christies estimated Allen’s 1905 print of that image at $2-3 million, which I would have been happy with, but it brought $11 million dollars, even better!

One of my favorite artists Lucien Freud (1922-2011) was represented in the Allen collection with a masterpiece, “Large interior, W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-83). It brought $86,265,000. Like most of the pictures in the sale it has an extensive list of publications and exhibitions and the known provenance. Clearly Allen did his homework with the advice of scholars as well as the top art dealers from whom he usually bought his works of art.

“Day Dream” by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is a nude that might seem an unusual subject for the artist, but it is from a series of paintings he did of his muse, Helga. From Wikipedia I learned “Helga ‘Testy’ Testorf was a neighbor of Wyeth's in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and over the course of fifteen years posed for Wyeth indoors and out of doors, nude and clothed, in attitudes that reminded writers of figures painted by Botticelli and Edouard Manet. To John Updike, her body ‘is what Winslow Homers maidens would have looked like beneath their Calico.’ " If someone had asked me if this painting was a good investment, I would have said, no. I would have advised acquiring a painting more typical of the artist’s work, certainly not a nude which are often more difficult to sell. Wrong again! The painting was estimated at 2-3 million and brought $23,290,000.

There are several paintings by David Hockney (1937- ) in the sale but I have chosen this masterpiece “The Conversation” (1980) because we were well acquainted with one of the sitters, Henry Geldzahler. My wife worked with Henry when he was the curator of 20thcentury art at the Metropolitan Museum and he was a personal friend of many of the contemporary artists of the time, including Hockney. The painting, by a living artist, brought almost 8 million dollars.

What I so admire in the Allen collection is its breadth with quality being the only constant. Most of the works in the auction are from the 20th century with a few from the 21st. But the biggest surprise, for me, was the roundel masterpiece by Sandro Botticell (1445-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificat”, circa 1480’s. The provenance includes Rosenberg & Stiebel and we sold it to Barbara Piaseca Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson fortune. While not exactly in fashion because you cannot find paintings as important as this on the market today, it still brought a respectable $40 million.

In the New York Times Blake Gopnik lamented the fact that the Allen collection did not go to The National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum. I would ask why have those treasures go to a gargantuan museum with enough of their own masterpieces. If they were to go to a museum, why not a small institution which would put it on the map and the Allen collection masterpieces would attract visitors.

Through the sale, however, individual works of art will be spread far and wide and, in the scheme of things, many will end up in public collections. The proceeds are to go to charities that Allen chose helping those in need of assistance in many areas. Why does nobody ever see the positive sides of events. It is far too easy to criticize instead.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Art of Getting Attention

What do “The Extinction Rebellion”, “The Last Generation” and “New Seasons of Actions” have to do with each other? They are all part of an international movement to address climate change, and involve demonstrators going into museums and throwing food stuffs at famous paintings and gluing their hands or heads to pictures, frames or adjacent walls. Here two protestors glued a head and a hand to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” by Vermeer at the Mauritshuis in the Hague, The Netherlands.

The first time I read about the climate activists was the report where they threw tomato soup at a van Gogh painting of Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London. I was upset. But then when I learned the picture was glazed (protective glass in front), I had another thought. What a wonderful way to bring attention to a worldwide problem. Later I found that this was not a singular action, but it has become a movement all over Europe, not just in the Hague and London but in France one smeared cake on the Mona Lisa; in Germany they threw mashed potatoes (instant or homemade is anybody’s guess!) at Claude Monet’s “Moules”; in Italy they chose pea soup to throw at van Gogh’s “The Sower”; in Spain, they glued their hands to Goya’s Majas, and in Italy to Botticelli’s “Pimavera”… and who knows where else, oh yes, in Melbourne Australia two members of the Extinction Rebellion glued their hands to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea”.

They have not just chosen art museums for protests but also a Dinosaur Exhibition in Berlin and Madame Tussauds in London where they smeared chocolate cake on the face of King Charles III. Sorry but, I do not take Madame Tussauds too seriously, I find that one amusing. Shame on me!

I read various articles about the repercussions of these acts. In the case of Melbourne, the perpetrators were arrested and released when it was found the painting was undamaged. Barron’s reported that a Dutch court sentenced two climate activists to two months in jail, one of them suspended, for targeting Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring". But possibly in the best revenge of all, activists glued themselves to the floor of the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany and rather than call the police, the staff closed-up the museum for the night and left them there, allegedly unable to use the bathroom. The protest lasted for two nights and then the authorities arrested them.

Here are a couple of the statements from these activists while they were in the museums. "We are in a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting," and "I'm afraid because the science tells us that we won't be able to feed our families in 2050 ... This painting is not going to be worth anything if we have to fight over food.” Here is a brief video from Twitter of the German protest at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam Germany regarding the mashed potatoes thrown at a Monet:

So far protesters have chosen works of art with protective glazing for their attacks and damage has been mainly to frames. Unfortunately, these sorts of actions can lead to extremes with people who just wish to get personal attention and then great paintings may get damaged. To invert what the climate activists have said, if this trend continues and we do survive past 2050, we may have lost some of our great treasures in the process.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Old Songs with Lessons for Today

If you have been reading these Missives for a while you already know that I love what was known as folk music and today is often called Country Music and Musicals. Recently some songs have been coming to mind that were written 60 plus years ago but remain apt today.

I will name the song and the name of the lyricist, when the song was written and pick a pertinent stanza. Under the lyrics the singer and YouTube link to the entire song.

Border issues are nothing new. “Deportee”, aka.“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” written by Woody Guthrie, 1948. It is about the migrants that were brought in from Mexico to work in the fields and deported from California on the plane that crashed in Los Gatos Canyon.

“You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you is ”Deportees”
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted
Our work contract’s up and we have to move on.
Six hundred miles to the Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves”

Sung by Woodie’s son Arlo:

Do you remember the John Birch Society, lyrics by Michael Brown, 1961.

It was the forerunner of many groups today such as the Oath Keepers. It was then in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and Russia.

“Be careful when you get there, we hate to be bereft
But we’re taking down the names of everybody turning left”
“Join the John Birch Society, help us fill the ranks
To get this movement started we need lots of tools and cranks”

Sung by the Chad Mitchel Trio:

What Did You Learn in School Today, written by Tom Paxton and first sung by Pete Seeger in 1963.

What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers never die.
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me.
That’s what I learned in school.

Sung by Pete Seeger:

Tom Paxton also wrote “Buy a Gun for your Son” in 1965

“So buy a gun for your son right away, sir
Shake his hand like a man and let him play, sir
Let his little mind expand, place a weapon in his hand
For the skills he learns today will someday pay, Sir.”

Sung by Tom Paxton and a short interview by Pete Seeger:

This song written by Bob Dylan in 1964, “The Times they are a’changin’”

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin'
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Sung by Bob Dylan:

This is from a musical written in 1949. The show was “South Pacific” and the song was “You’ve got to be carefully taught”.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

Sung by Bill Lee (dubbing John Kerr) seen with Ezio Pinza from the 1958 movie version

“Where have all the Flowers Gone” was adapted from a traditional Cossack folk song "Koloda-Duda", Pete Seeger borrowed an Irish melody and adapted it for a an anti-war song in 1955. The last line of every verse is an appropriate ending.

“Oh, When will they ever learn
“Oh, When will they ever learn”

Sung by Peter, Paul and Mary at their 25th anniversary concert: