If you are at all intrigued by the link between art and commerce “The Ultimate Trophy” by Philip Hook, published by Prestel is worth a read. It’s a history of the critical reception of Impressionism in France, America, Germany and England and how in the 20th Century Impressionist paintings have turned into multi million pound status symbols for the wealthy. It’s not so much a story of the artist’s themselves as a biography of their creations. In one example he tells the story of Degas’s “La Place de la Concorde” which was initially owned by the insurance magnate Otto Gertsenburg, inherited by his daughter and then fell into the hands of one of the Red Army Trophy brigades during the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War despite being held for safe keeping in a fortress like anti aircraft tower in the Berlin Zoo. After falling into the hands of the Russians it disappeared from view until the Glasnost period where it was finally revealed to have been held in storage in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. “A sublime moment of resurrection” indeed.
He also talks about the critical reception towards Impressionism in the various countries, how it was quick to take off in America for example because U.S. collectors had less preconceived notions than the French as to what art should be about. There is an interesting section on the picture dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and how he was one of the first dealers to deal with the problems of selling challenging new work by getting the public to focus less on individual canvases than the span of an artist’s work. In order to achieve this he pioneered one man shows for artists. Some sections of the book seem to peter out rather quickly however and I was a little bit disappointed that he barely makes a mention of that other great picture dealer Ambroise Vollard. He’s so good at coming up with juicy quotes and anecdotes about less colourful characters I would have enjoyed reading what he had to say about him.
The author is the senior director of Sotherby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department and the book is filled with interesting recollections of his 30 years in the trade. For me there were many “well I never!” moments. For example I’d often been a bit confused as to why rich people donating their pictures to museums in America for tax purposes should be really that beneficial. Surely if you are only saving the tax on a donation how much financial gain can there be in that? Apparently the idea is to inflate the value of the painting for tax purposes far above the initial purchase price so that the donor not only covers the cost but potentially stands to make a profit. Sneaky eh? No wonder the President of the Chicago Art Institute at the beginning of the 20th Century could boast “We don’t buy Renoirs, we inherit them from our grandmothers!”
He’s also very good on the mania for buying Impressionist paintings during the 80’s amongst the Japanese. Apparently during the 80’s 53 percent of sales of modern art and Impressionist paintings were being made in Japan. You may remember the sale of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower pictures in 1987. It was initially valued in excess of £10 million but was finally knocked down for £24,750,000. As time went on it became clear that their enthusiasm for art had less to do with culture and more to do with a practise called “zaiteku” or financial engineering, a way of moving sums of money around illicitly. You sell a painting for 10 million dollars and then buy it back a couple of months later for 20 million, for example. Apparently this was particularly helpful with property as property prices were capped at this time and a painting could really be worth as much or as little you wanted. Well I never!
Hook saves his best anecdote until the end of the book however when he describes meeting the collector Mr D. who “had the faintly worried look that often clouds the features of the very rich, an anxiety that something better might be happening elsewhere, something that was being denied to him. It is the sort of anxiety that means, no matter how absorbing your conversation, you always break off and answer your mobile telephone when it ring’s in case it’s offering you a sharper sensation, a more piquant diversion”
Hmmmm. I rather find it hard to be so sympathetic towards what he calls the “insolence of wealth” but then Hook could not have succeeded in business as long as he has done by being rude about his clients. Anyway it turns out that what Mr D was in fact desperate to do was to show off his new sound system. On approaching the collector’s prize Monet the sound kicks in and the room is flooded with Debussy.
“I stepped back a pace or two and the music stopped. The next Monet, a water lilllies, triggered Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Finally I was encouraged to approach the van Gogh, a late and tortured landscape. A metre and a half away Frank Sinantra burst into “I did it My Way”.
What an ending that would have made to the recent Doctor Who where the time traveller goes back in time to 19th Century to meet the red bearded one.