How Much?

The first edition of this book was published in England in 1961 and the present one is of 1964. Not a jot of the original text appears to have been altered and thus collectors have the book in its perfect pristine form, with no error—however gross—corrected and, it need hardly be added, no opinion modified.

Although The Economics of Taste has several merits, among them the telling of a lively tale of the rise and fall of the picture market from 1760 to 1960, the book contains such a host of mistakes, mis-spellings and over-emphases passing into inaccuracy, that the reader eventually goes under, denying his own sanity in the richly erratic light cast so confidently by this will-o’-the-wisp. Strange shadowy persons drift through the pages, possessed of a halflife, at times recalling names of actual people garbled by an illiterate doorman: Meiergraefe, Denys Mahon, Count de Seilern—one would almost swear one knew them under that form, just as one begins to believe Mr. Reitlinger’s idiotic remarks about Correggio’s mutilated pictures and about Reynolds’ “pasting” of Tintoretto—to say nothing of the mythical dates.

Of course, there is delightful entertainment value in comparing notes on how many foolishnesses you can find in five minutes of reading; but for the less experienced, there is considerable temptation to read and repeat glib and nasty inaccuracies like that, for example, which states that before Berenson’s researches “any picture that looked like an early Titian but a bit harder passed as a Giovanni Bellini.” The unconscious slur on Morelli is as misplaced as the fashionable puff for Berenson.

Some people may be surprised to find such statements, even on the rare occasions when they are accurate, in a book that is intended to trace the rise and fall of the picture market over a period of two hundred years from 1760. The trouble is that Mr. Reitlinger has ambitions to explain taste, and is never content with giving us an unvarnished account of sale room facts. Nor does he stop at explanation; we must also suffer every vagary of his own taste, loudly proclaimed with the desperate over-emphasis of a comedian playing to a half-empty house. Indeed, the heart of the trouble is in the determination to be brash and to let fly some personal sallies which will set the establishment stalls rocking—if only with suppressed anger. Perhaps it’s even an admirable intention—though mocking at Pietro da Cortona or stigmatizing Hobbema does not suggest any very daring iconoclastic intent—but to do it you must be accomplished and, for heaven’s sake, accurate. The man who believes Rembrandt’s enormous output was “mainly of oil-sketches” will obviously believe anything.

Detailed consultation of the lists of pictures bought and sold shows that this credulity is by no means restricted to marginal matters: following Reitlinger, we learn that in 1944 the National Gallery (the London one is meant) bought the “Departure of John the Baptist for the Desert” by Tintoretto for £12,000. Only Dr. Johnson could growl out deeply enough…

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