Art into Money

Almost weekly, the newspapers report new record prices for works of art. Monthly, expensively glossy magazines bulging with dealers’ advertisements, chronicle the art market’s latest trends with respectful minuteness. And every year, art’s present peculiar status, as conspicuously high-priced merchandise, inspires more and more books of one sort or another—most recently two breathless accounts1 of the takeover of Sotheby’s auction house by an American syndicate headed by Alfred Taubman.

All this commotion, lurid as it sometimes seems, is not absolutely unprecedented. Just over eight centuries ago in China, the late Sung dynasty critic and theorist Ts’ai T’ao mournfully wrote: “The love and enjoyment of art has become the fashion everywhere, and [works of art] are regarded as merchandise and bribes; this is indeed the evil of our age.”2

The truth is that whenever art too crassly becomes merchandise, the transformation has a way of shocking some people. It is more important, however, to note another set of facts of rather deeper significance. In all the millennia since art began on earth, tens of thousands of tribal cultures and scores of higher civilizations, almost all rich in art, have come and gone without producing anything really resembling the transformation of art into merchandise. This is in fact a sternly culture-bound development, or at any rate it was culture-bound before the present unprecedented era of worldwide cultural homogenization.

The reasons for this culture-boundness are not far to seek, either. Before homogenization set in about a hundred years ago, no more than five cultures in the whole long, culturally multifarious history of art had so much as imagined art collecting, art history, and an art market for the collectors. The three main ones were the classical culture that was born in Greece; the Imperial Chinese culture; and our own Western culture rooted in the Italian Renaissance. To these must be added Japanese culture after its extensive importations from Sui and Tang China, and in a limited way, later Islamic culture after the Mongol invasion of the Middle East; and there the list ends. Furthermore, whatever the cultural surroundings, art collecting, art history, and an art market for the collector must all be present and briskly interacting before the transformation of art into merchandise can begin. Hence the stern culture-boundedness.

Fortunately, it is needless to explore all the complex data needed to convince those who may doubt the completeness of this culture-boundedness. The doubters can simply cling to art history as their chosen clue, for nothing resembling art history can be found anywhere, even in primitive form, beyond the limits of the five cultures named above. In the art-into-merchandise transformation, moreover, art history, which supplies the art market’s labels, is just as important as art collecting, which supplies the art market’s customers.

To see why the labels are absolutely essential, it is only necessary to choose at random a few objects among the art market’s most expensive current offerings—say a Mosan chalice, an Achaemenid or Sassanid wine vessel, a Meissen platter from the Swan service, and one of the Tang or Sung whiteware spittoons that dealers now delicately call “leys jars.” The first two objects incorporate intrinsically valuable raw materials; the second two, being intact, can be put to immediate practical uses. But neither gold, nor silver, nor usefulness matter in the least, as compared to these objects’ authenticity, which simply means the correctness of their art historical labels. For if the labels are erroneous, the awful murmur, “they aren’t right,” goes round at once; and thus the merchandise is dramatically devalued.

With the necessary broader background thus sketched in, it is now possible to examine the art-into-merchandise transformation in the West—for a case history is also needed. Beginning at the remote beginning, art collecting had vanished as a social habit in Western Europe, and indeed in the whole Western half of the world, for about eight hundred years by 1300 AD and art history had vanished, too. Of course treasure collecting continued, as did the gathering of holy relics and normal patronage of the arts; for artists were naturally called in regularly, throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, to build or to enhance cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and churches, and to enrich the dwellings of magnates and rich burghers. In Italy during the fourteenth century, however, a small number of true art collectors dimly and mysteriously emerged, almost as though from nowhere. The cause of their emergence was probably the same impulse that led the fourteenth-century Italian humanists to their comparably mysterious adoption of a wholly novel secular view of history. This is a guess, but it is a fact that the development of art collecting as a social habit in fourteenth-century Italy directly depended on a new view of art, a view so firmly secular that the earlier centuries’ Church-dictated fear of classical art as devil-tainted albeit sometimes pleasingly skillful now at last began to be discarded for good.

The purview of the fourteenth-century Italian art collectors was surprisingly limited. Their prizes were not their own era’s works of art, although the fragmentary data suggest that they fully understood their own art’s greatness. To them, Giotto was a giant, no less than the grand restorer of an art “which had lain buried,” as Boccaccio wrote; and they saw Cimabue as well as Giotto’s leading contemporaries and followers in proportion. The choices of the first art collectors nonetheless tended to reflect their humanist contemporaries’ reassessment of history, which caused Petrarch’s surprising assertion that the Dark Ages had begun with the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine.

As a result, the all but exclusive prizes of the new collectors were stumps of time surviving from the classical past: Greco-Roman marbles including sarcophagi; carved gems and vessels in hard stones; and the ancient medals and coins which Petrarch himself gathered for a while, and then presented to Emperor Charles IV in 1354 as object lessons in the glories of a long-gone but better era.

More strangely still, these odd limitations on fourteenth-century art collecting continued in force throughout the shining progress of the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Contemporary works of art were lavishly commissioned by private and public patrons, but even so they did not become art collectors’ prizes. The Italian art collectors of the fifteenth century instead continued to pursue classical works of art all but exclusively.

Magnate-collectors became more and more numerous in the main Italian centers. Competition grew stronger for the grander objects. Prices rose accordingly, as can be ascertained by comparing the dazzling posthumous inventory of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s possessions, drawn up in 1492, with the last of several inventories of his father, Piero de’ Medici, who died in 1469. There were even recurrent collecting dramas, as when the future Pope Julius II, then Cardinal della Rovere, sought to establish exclusive rights over a particularly promising excavation site in Rome but was foiled by agents of Lorenzo the Magnificent digging clandestinely at night. During the fifteenth century, the record also begins to show occasional indications of what may have been art dealing, with antiquities the proto-dealers’ sole stock. The founder of classical epigraphy, Cyriaco d’Ancona, was probably an art dealer on the side, and perhaps on a considerable scale. Still, nothing resembling an organized collectors’ market, on which classical works of art became merchandise by being traded as such, seems to have grown up anywhere in Italy until near the close of the fifteenth century.

There is no direct evidence for such a market emerging even by that time. Fortunately, however, there is a simple and never-failing indicator of the moment when the organization of a primitive art market begins to transform art into merchandise, even when this process is so obscure it leaves no trace for later generations to study. For obvious practical reasons, art faking automatically starts as soon as there is an art market, however inconspicuous, on which premium prices are regularly paid for desirable works of art; and art faking in Italy is first fully attested in the last years of the fifteenth century. Some pseudoclassical objects were no doubt produced earlier. But all the same, Michelangelo was the first clearly identifiable faker in the history of Western art.

The youthful Michelangelo fled to Bologna from Florence after the flight in 1494 of the second Piero de’ Medici, the feckless son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the resulting collapse of Medici rule of the city. About a year later, he then felt it safe to come back to Florence again; but he was evidently at a loose end, and so decided to prove, once and for all, that he could equal or even surpass “the ancients”—the supreme, never-varying Renaissance test. He therefore sculpted a Sleeping Cupid in a conspicuously classicizing style. This dawn-Michelangelo has now disappeared, most probably in the confused dispersal of King Charles I’s collection. Or if it was then carried from London to be offered on the main art market of that era in Amsterdam, this work just might have been the long lost “kindeke van Michel Angelo Bonalotti” disposed of at Rembrandt’s bankruptcy sale in 1656. Even in 1986, in any case, the Sleeping Cupid’s ultraclassicizing style can be clearly inferred from what happened when the ambitious young sculptor showed his new marble to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who had smugly remained in Florence despite the ruin of his more famous cousins.

Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was evidently startled by the young Michelangelo’s success in recapturing the style of “the ancients.” Hence he gave him not very creditable advice: “If you were to treat [the Cupid] so that it seemed to have been buried in the earth, I would send it to Rome and pass it for an antique, and you would sell it for a far better price.” Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s advice seems strong proof of the restricted preferences of the art collectors of his time, who were especially numerous in Rome. The quotation comes from the life of Michelangelo by Ascanio Condivi, the adoring quasi-factotum of the master’s old age. This strong contemporary testimony has been brushed aside as too scandalous by some leading modern art historians including Charles de Tolnay, although de Tolnay himself admitted Condivi’s value as a witness. Indeed Condivi is very likely to have retold the story exactly as the aging master had told it to him; and he saw no scandal. Rather, he remarked admiringly that Michelangelo was able to make his Sleeping Cupid seem “to have been made many ages ago” because he was a man “to whom no mode of skill was unknown.” After being cleverly “antiqued,” the statue was duly confided to an agent in Rome, where it was promptly bought for 200 ducats—a very large sum for a work of art in those days—by the reigning papal nephew, Cardinal Riario.

There is no need here to trace the details of the row that ensued both because Michelangelo felt he had been cheated by his Roman agent and because Cardinal Riario discovered he had acquired a fake. The row was a turning point in Michelangelo’s career; for he followed his temporarily successful fake to Rome, there got his commission for the drunken Bacchus, and went on from that to the triumph of the Pietà in St. Peter’s.

What matters more for present purposes is the early and decisive evidence that Michelangelo’s fake indeed revealed the obscure organization of a thriving Roman art market for classical works of art of all sorts, with Greco-Roman marbles more and more in the lead. This Roman market burst into the open in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. Great stirs occurred, for instance, both when the Laocoön was found and, later, when the rather awful bust of the emperor Commodus as Hercules was excavated. By papal command, both pieces of sculpture were taken for the statue court of the Belvedere; but in both cases very handsome money rewards were paid to the finders, obviously as compensation for the prices they could have got on the market. In the correspondence of Isabella d’Este, Gian Cristoforo Romano warned the Marchesa in 1505 that one now had to be very wide awake to get a “really good antique” in Rome at a reasonable price; and a little later, Giorgio di Negroponte gloomily informed Isabella that he knew of a mere coin of Nero, bought when excavated for six ducats, but no longer possible to secure after cleaning for less than twenty-five ducats. In 1510, furthermore, Francesco Albertini published the first guide to the antiquities by then to be seen in Rome, and this was followed by Ulisse Aldovrandi’s much more ambitious, longer, and more widely used work on the same subject in 1556.

As to the effect on the art market of the taste for antiquity revealed by Albertini and Aldovrandi, it is to be found most oddly reflected in a book notably curious in its own right, the Ricordi of Fra Sabba da Castiglione. Fra Sabba was a knight of Rhodes who loved art, and especially classical art, which made trouble for him when he served at his order’s prinicipal commandery, on Rhodes itself. The Grand Master of the order, at that time a grim Frenchman uninfluenced by the fashions of Italy, still held the medieval view that classical works of art were demon-tainted; and Fra Sabba feared—or so at least he wrote his friend Isabella d’Este—that he might be handed over to the Inquisition because of his improper tastes in art.

Fra Sabba’s Ricordi are a miscellany of bits of advice he set down at different times and published at last in 1549, with which he hoped to guide a nephew of his, who also became a knight of Rhodes. His most curious ricordo, apparently written long before his book’s date of final publication, further has a claim to be considered the Western world’s first modern-style essay on interior decoration. In it Fra Sabba strongly recommended pieces of classical sculpture as the finest of all possible ornaments for noble interiors. To this recommendation, however, Fra Sabba added the melancholy admission that his first choices tended to be prohibitively expensive; so he went on to advise works by Michelangelo and Donatello as second and third best!

This piece of advice particularly deserves to be recalled, because it would not have seemed quite so incomprehensibly astonishing right down to the nineteenth century when Lord Elgin, for the first time, brought the connoisseurs and art lovers of Europe face to face with a large number of unquestioned Greek originals—in short, the Elgin marbles. Before men’s eyes were gradually changed by seeing Greek originals, the greatest art lovers of Europe had a different vision which we can hardly understand today, of the enormous multitude of Greco-Roman marbles that had been dug up, mainly in Italy, in the hundreds of years since art collecting revived there in the fourteenth century. From London to St. Petersburg, from Berlin to Naples, every prince and magnate wanted a sculpture gallery; and the Greco-Roman marbles that filled these galleries, often very dubiously stuck together and restored by the Roman dealers who mainly supplied the Europe-wide demand, were the most reliably gilt-edged merchandise on the European art market—except for the best-known major works by the greatest masters of the High Renaissance.

This was, in fact, an extraordinary episode of mass self-delusion. Yet it was very far from disproving the vital role of art history in the transformation of art into merchandise. It proved, rather, that you are unlikely to get very accurate art history, if you have the text alone—chiefly Pliny in this case—without any of the actual objects discussed in the text, and indeed without anything really closely resembling these actual objects. The market-correction and the correction of art history both occurred very smoothly and promptly, as soon as Greek originals became available for study. And no doubt luckily, we shall never know the value as merchandise of any Greek original such as the lately fished-up Riace bronzes, since stringent laws now prevent such things coming on the market; and even if a dealer some day clandestinely secures anything comparable and then offers it on the sly, modern art collectors and modern art museums will surely be too timid to pay the dealer’s price.

It may be that the reader has been surprised by the rise, long success, and the final fall of Greco-Roman marbles, for all this happened long ago. Yet this is by no means the sole surprise offered by the Western story of art-as-merchandise. To begin with, there is the fact, already briefly touched upon, that there is no evidence at all for dealers handling or collectors seeking Renaissance works of art until after the fifteenth century’s close. Patrons always sought the Renaissance masters, and no doubt patrons’ deaths or bankruptcies also brought works by leading masters onto the market on occasion. But if so, the works in question were seemingly consigned to the riggatieri, the omnipresent Italian second-hand dealers, along with other household furnishings. To be sure, Fra Sabba da Castiglione listed works by fifteenth-century painters—most notably Fra Filippo Lippi and Piero della Francesca—as suitable for interior decoration along with Donatellos; but he offered no indication where these might be found, and he wrote in the sixteenth century in any case. Thus, the earliest hint of an organized art market for Renaissance painting is again the story of a fake.

Shortly after Raphael’s death in 1520, Federigo Gonzaga, then still marquis but soon to become the first duke of Mantua, decided that he must have a major Raphael for his Mantuan gallery. He was captain general of the Holy See, and the second Medici pope, the unfortunate Clement VII, already occupied the throne of St. Peter. Perhaps for this reason, Federigo fixed upon the glorious Raphael portrait of the first Medici pope, Leo X, with the two cardinals, which had by then descended to Clement VII’s relative in Florence, Don Ottaviano de’ Medici. At the behest of Federigo, Pope Clement told poor Don Ottaviano to hand over his picture. Evidently Don Ottaviano dared not offer frontal resistance to the formidable combination of the Holy Father and his captain general; so he asked for time to have a copy made for himself and wisely called in Andrea del Sarto. A little later, Giorgio Vasari was invited to have a look at both pictures when Andrea del Sarto had completed his assignment. Thus we have Vasari’s own eyewitness testimony that there was no discernible difference between the original and Andrea’s copy when the copy was first made.

Vasari’s verdict may well have emboldened Don Ottaviano to keep his Raphael and send the copy to Mantua. At any rate, this is what he did. In Mantua, moreover, the copy was received with unsuspecting rejoicing, not only by Federigo Gonzaga but also by his recently appointed chief painter-in-residence, Giulio Romano, who had been Raphael’s principal studio assistant before he was recruited for Mantua. The first duke of Mantua in the end died without knowing that he had been fobbed off with a copy of the Raphael he wanted.

It was not until a visit to Mantua after Federigo’s death, presumably because it was now safe to be forthright, that Vasari finally told Giulio Romano what had really happened. According to Vasari, Giulio at first refused to believe the Mantua picture was not the original, and he even protested that he could spot the contributions which he had made with his own brush in Raphael’s studio. Nor did the story end there. Long after Andrea del Sarto’s copy had reached Naples and Don Ottaviano’s Raphael had found its present home at the Uffizi, a mid-nineteenth-century museum director in Naples claimed that the Naples picture was the one by Raphael, thereby firing the first shot in a protracted and angry verbal war between opposing clans of Italian art historians.

As one should expect, the earliest evidence for a serious market for Renaissance works of art, including paintings, appears in the surviving record almost simultaneously with Don Ottaviano’s deception of Federigo Gonzaga. In 1527, François I sent the anti-Medici exile Giovanni Battista della Palla back to Florence as his purchasing agent; and besides serving the king of France, this man then bought and even commissioned works of art on his own hook for profitable resale to lesser French grandees. Della Palla was an unpleasant and disreputable fellow who met a bad end after the final restoration of the Medici; but he was almost certainly the first serious dealer in the glorious products of the Italian Renaissance. Others naturally followed later, like Jacopo Strada, who acquired the Raphael drawings that had belonged to Giulio Romano and bought largely from the collections of declining Venetian great families.

Strada’s chief customers were Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria and Emperor Rudolf II, but, soon enough, the developing Italian art market ceased to depend so heavily on exports. The Italian buyers, inevitably, were grandee-collectors, among whom assorted cardinals generally pre-dominated. The resulting situation in Rome is nicely illustrated by two stories from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, both appropriately redolent of the peculiar shadiness of most art market stories.

Thus, the minor Pesaran master Terenzio lost the patronage of the rich Cardinal Montalto by painting a Raphael pastiche on an old panel and profitably palming it off on his patron as the real thing. The cardinal was so pleased with his new supposed Raphael that he showed it off with ostentatious pride to the Roman connoisseurs, who quickly if unkindly proved to the cardinal that he had been duped. Far worse, moreover, was the case of Cardinal Sfondrati, who literally stole from the Church of Santa Maria del Populo two works by Raphael dedicated to the church nearly a century before by Pope Julius II: the portrait of Pope Julius which Professor Konrad Oberhuber recently rescued from the reserves of London’s National Gallery, and the version of the Madonna of Loreto, long thought a studio work but now shown to be an original, which is in the Duc d’Aumale’s collection at Chantilly.

The double theft was made possible by Cardinal Sfondrati’s briefly privileged status as the reigning papal nephew in 1590 and 1591. When his uncle, Pope Gregory XIV, died all too soon, Cardinal Sfondrati used his two stolen Raphaels as loss leaders to get a high price for his large but otherwise most undistinguished art collection. After several disappointments, he found a buyer who would pay his price for the whole mixed bag in order to get the Raphaels. This was yet another papal nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. And the Borghese inventory numbers on both the Madonna and the London portrait of Pope Julius have now served as key proofs to persuade the art-historical world to restore these two pictures to the near-sacred list of original Raphaels.

In the seventeenth century the theme of art as investment is then to be found in one of the letters of Mme. de Sévigné. In August 1675, to be precise, she let her cousin, Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges, add a postscript assuring Mme. de Grignan that paintings were “comme de l’or en barre,” and could always be sold again for “double” their first price; and this, of course, is the kind of remarkably bad advice that is always to be heard whenever an art market boom excites the uninitiated. Art as merchandise may make money for dealers, and curiously enough, it may accidentally make money, too, for those who deeply and disinterestedly love works of art. But no worse investment for the greedy and ignorant has ever been invented.

The eighteenth century, in turn, saw the first great revaluation, of Dutch seventeenth-century cabinet pictures with works by Gerrit Dou and Nicholas Berchem as prime favorites, plus the first dim stages of that most profound and dramatic of all our revaluations, the rediscovery of the Italian primitives.

Revaluations, as I have called them, require some further notice, since they bulk large in the story of art as merchandise. All but invariably, the pioneers are a person or persons wishing to collect works of art yet unable to pay the prices prevailing for the high-cost merchandise on the art market of the time. This is clearly attested to in the case of the pioneer revaluer of the early Italian painters, who was a Venetian friar-intellectual, Fra Carlo Lodoli. His biographer plainly states that he began to acquire the early Italians because, “poor friar as he was,” he could not afford the high prices for Titians and the like. Lodoli probably began collecting in the third decade of the eighteenth century. Revaluation of the early Italians went forward from there, but slowly, for just about a hundred years after Lodoli began collecting, a cultivated Englishman, the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres of that day, could still be both surprised and awed by the discovery of Piero della Francesca’s frescoes at Arezzo. And nearly another century and a half passed before this same Earl of Crawford’s small but very lovely Duccio crucifixion was sent to market by a descendant, and fetched no less than $1,700,800.3

Yet the real interest of revaluation, now not an uncommon development in certain areas of art, is not that it causes revolutions in the money value of art as merchandise. Revaluation is so interesting, rather, because it both expands and enriches the sources of delight open to those who take delight in works of art. No process, incidentally, more loudly calls out for careful study. Few can respond to the Apollo Belvedere with the same honest excitement this now down-graded Greco-Roman copy used to arouse; but in the past few could have reponded, say, to pre-Columbian art with intense delight and excitement that are now aroused by the remains of the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs.

Much more remains to be said—needs to be said—about the developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, for instance, large numbers of people for the first time began to covet and pay high prices for other people’s old furniture—beginning with the luxurious products of the French ancien régime, but going on from there until, at present, no old furniture of good quality can be called a bargain. In the early twentieth century, again, the first era of super prices for all sorts of approved old masters (instead of super prices for Raphaels, all but exclusively) opened when great old master collections were first formed in this country, mostly with the aid of foreign dealers like Lord Duveen. As for the era of super prices for almost everything, this opened after the Second World War, and it still continues as these words are written.

For art-as-merchandise, however, the most important single new feature of the postwar era was the collapse of the former dominance of the big art dealers, and the rise, replacing the dealers, of the big firms of art auctioneers. The two books concerning the takeover of Sotheby’s, mentioned earlier, make much of this change of market leadership from the dealers to the auction houses. Nicholas Faith’s book in fact credits the change almost exclusively to that strange genius, Peter Wilson, who created the modern Sotheby’s and then over-extended the firm so greatly that it became a natural target for a takeover.

Inaccuracy and superficiality seem to be the besetting sins of all works spawned by the current interest in art as merchandise; and the books on the Sotheby’s takeover are no exceptions to this rule. Above all, it really was not Wilson’s creation of the modern Sotheby’s that ended the long reign of the big art dealers. They had only reigned for two reasons. The people who wanted to sell works of art before the Second World War did not usually want it to be known they were selling on the one hand, and on the other hand they were usually so ignorant of the art market of their time that they often parted with their treasures to the dealers for rather modest sums of cash. But the “spreads” in price Duveen customarily achieved between noble English sellers and millionaire American buyers would never in any circumstance be possible today.

It is not the rise of the big auction houses that has made such “spreads” impossible, either. Those who still have a share in the ever-decreasing pool of glorious and privately owned works of art, have no trace of the old embarrassment about selling, and know the value of what they own, too. In the present era of super prices, furthermore, scarcely any art dealers can offer sellers great sums in hard cash for major works of art; for this would cause the carrying charge of a really grand dealer’s stock to be almost the same as the carrying charge of an unrented skyscraper in New York.

Peter Wilson’s achievement was simply to persuade sellers that he could get the best prices for them in cash without delay, and no “spread” beyond his auctioneer’s percentage—which was substantial, but far less than a Duveen-style “spread,” and capable of being diminished further for the objects Wilson and his experts considered sure to fetch real super prices. Wilson’s genius in fact lay all but exclusively in his hardheaded perception of the all-importance of cash. Yet as vast sums in cash draw into the auction houses more and more of the privately owned works of art in that ever-decreasing pool, the question arises: How long can this go on? And the question is all the more urgent because the specter of museum proliferation hangs over the scene.

A leading modern English philosopher and aesthetic theorist wrote a few years ago that a world of art without art museums was wholly unimaginable. Yet until this century, art in fact got along quite nicely without art museums in most regions of the earth. Before the general trend to homogenization (or destruction) of most of the world’s non-Western cultures in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, anything really like a public art museum was utterly unheard of in any but the rare cultures which produced true art collecting. Even among these few cultures, furthermore, the kinds of public art museum the English philosopher took for granted were unknown before modern times, except in the two cases of the classical culture and our own Western post-Renaissance culture.

Greece and then Rome had public art museums of a sort in late Hellenistic and Roman imperial times. In our own Western culture, the first true public art museum deriving from art collecting, and not a princely collection that could be closed, was the Statuario Pubblico, opened in Venice just before the end of the sixteenth century. By now, however, nearly every major work by every leading master of the Western art tradition’s earlier and more self-confident epochs has already been entombed in a museum—with logically predictable effects on the prices of these masters’ few works which are not yet behind museum walls. One can easily foresee a time, too—and within the lives of the generation now in the universities—when museum doors will also close on just about all the important works of the West’s nineteenth-century masters as well as all the chief masters of the first half of the twentieth century. And already museums are also gathering in more and more of the surviving significant works of art of every non-Western culture that has left remains behind for art historians to identify, analyze, and write about.

This enormous museum proliferation has quite naturally affected art’s modern situation in two different ways. First and most conspicuously, a huge premium of prestige and hard cash now awaits the dealers, auction houses, and art historians (or the art historians may lead and the others follow) who rediscover forgotten masters of the past, or better still, show why undervalued masters should be highly valued. The boom in the aesthetic stock of the American “luminists,” such as Martin Johnson Heade, with all its attendant learned publications and its inevitable market repercussions, is an obvious recent case in point; and it is only one case among many. That is not all. Museum proliferation is also more and more dividing the world of art into two separate provinces, of museum art and contemporary art.

Soon enough, one can foresee, there will be no art except contemporary art to serve as merchandise on the market, because all the products of all the artists of the past have either been gathered in repositories beyond reach of the market, or have perished from accident or inattention. Already, too, the gap between museum art and contemporary art appears to be widening, and many attempts are therefore being made to close this gap, by establishing museums of contemporary art. So far as I can judge, however, this has done remarkably little to eliminate the division between the two provinces of art. But I should probably hold my tongue because persons past seventy years of age almost invariably see what they have become used to in the past in an excessively golden light.


Art & Money January 29, 1987

  1. 1

    Nicholas Faith, SOLD: The Rise and Fall of the House of Sotheby (Macmillan, 1986); J. Hogrefe, “Wholly Unacceptable“: The Bitter Battle for Sotheby’s (Morrow, 1986).

  2. 2

    Ts’ai T’ao, T’ich Wei Shan Ts’ung T’an Chapter 4, 23 verso, translated by E. Zurcher in “Imitation and Forgery in Chinese Painting,” Oriental Art, ns 1 (1955).

  3. 3

    It was bought by the British Rail Pension Fund, which tried to sell the Duccio to the Getty Museum, and finally passed it on for $2,360,000 to Manchester Municipal Art Gallery.