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 the several stern negatives that nonsensical statement requires. No Tintoretto was acquired then; no Tintoretto of the subject exists in the Gallery; and so on. It is no part of the reviewer’s task, even had he world enough and time, and his readers’ patience, to list all the wrong dates, prices, and deductions made. But it should be carefully noted, and not forgotten, that it is no defence of these wild errors to pretend they never invalidate the author’s arguments. First, one would need to compute how ubiquitous they are. A glance at the list of Vermeer prices is not reassuring. There will be found the modest figure of sixty-eight pounds and five shillings said to have been the sum at which the “Girl weighing Gold” (now at Washington) was bought in at the Casimir Périer sale of 1848. It’s typical of Reitlinger, incidentally, that the vendor’s name is mis-spelled, presumably through ignorance of who he was, though a glance into even the Petit Larousse would have solved that one.
More serious, the priced catalogue consulted by the present reviewer shows that the picture fetched one hundred and thirty-five guineas—the exact sum given in Graves’s index of sale prices and virtually that in Redford’s comparable work. Reitlinger’s figure certainly fits in better with the two that are juxtaposed to it in his list, all three illustrating the low prices Vermeer usually fetched in the nineteenth century. But the argument loses force when one discovers the actual sum reached by the Washington picture; and one’s confidence in the authority, possibly already somewhat undermined, is on the point of dissolving altogether.
However, though Mr. Reitlinger must be read with every possible caution and never relied on without outside confirmation for even the tiniest fact, he should be read—and not only for laughs. The market for pictures is a fascinating and legitimate subject. It is undoubtedly interesting to trace the fluctuations in stock with names like Raphael, Murillo, and Gainsborough, and to gain some idea of who has invested in what at which date. The subject was already absorbing people well before the end of the nineteenth century and Seguier’s Dictionary—published in 1870—was an early attempt to combine lives of painters with notes on the prices their work had fetched in the sale room. “There was a time,” he wrote, “when we thought that two or three thousand pounds would purchase almost any picture, but that time has passed away…” Yes, one might say, and we thought once that two or three hundred thousand pounds would achieve the same end, and we have lived to see that time too pass away.
Of course it’s disgusting to think what society will now pay for Van Gogh when it would in his lifetime happily let him starve, but this is useless emotion. Indeed, one is perhaps better employed gasping at what society would pay at about the same date for artists like Alma-Tadema and Edwin Long—a subject on which Mr. Reitlinger has pertinent comment. The “Babylonian Marriage Market,” by Long, was bought at the Royal Academy in 1875 for seven thousand guineas and, five years later, fetched only a little less at auction—establishing a record price for a living English artist. And yet it is even possible to understand this until now forgotten transaction as an expression of taste. When every allowance has been made for the venal goings-on of the sale room, the fact still remains that there is really no other way in which the value of a work of art can be expressed except in financial terms. We must presume that seven thousand guineas represented somebody’s belief in Long’s picture; it has become a piece of the history of taste, along with the enormous prices that English eighteenth century pictures fetched into the 1920’s, partly under guidance of the American market by Duveen. Mr. Reitlinger thoughtfully reproduces Long’s picture: it makes us laugh now in its insipid awfulness (being not even a riproaring, shockingly awful picture) but the laughter dies down as one begins to consider who’s the Edwin Long of today. Posterity may wonder at some of the prices we have paid in a respect which is often as blind as anything in the past. The latest prices fetched by Cézanne can certainly be interpreted as the guilty expression of an older generation which could not quite appreciate him thirty years ago and which pathetically still thinks of him as “modern” nearly sixty years after his death.
When money talks we all listen. Mr. Reitlinger emphasizes correctly that interest in the price of pictures is no new thing and that by the eighteenth-century the press was manifesting something of its present pre-occupation with the subject. It is perhaps not an accident that that century was also a watershed in the history of taste, the last age that dared to codify aesthetics and set up an absolute pyramid of excellence, topped by Raphael. The financial expression of that aesthetic preference came in 1754 when Augustus of Saxony paid eight thousand five hundred pounds for the “Sistine Madonna”—the highest sum, according to the author, that had ever been paid for any picture. But well before the end of the century the pyramid was toppling and it was a gambler’s market, made more feverish by the French Revolution, which brought with it a new century and new aesthetic experiences. The “historical appreciation” which already affected Victorian prices has hardened in our own day to a catholicism which surely contributes to the buoyant picture market. Apart from the work of Edwin Long, that of virtually every other artist is desired by someone. Alma-Tadema himself has undergone a slightly scholarly regeneration very recently; his stock will probably rise. Indeed, it needs only a couple of museums or collectors to start a sale-room duel over some bit of posturing classical tushery by him, and one’s own Alma-Tadema in the attic may well become a thing of beauty, gilt-edged.
If Mr. Reitlinger does not read the market in quite this way it is because he recalls the much greater prices, allowing for inflation, such artists once fetched. Thus he points out that despite scholarly propaganda the sale-room prices of many seventeenth-century Italian painters are as yet scarcely up to eighteenth-century level. But in his sentence the words “as yet” hint at what is likely to come. His book is made up of two centuries of entertaining, erratic history in which great reputations have soared and fallen like miniature Roman empires, and in which others have risen to what seems unshakable eminence. There must be a moral buried in it all somewhere, but Mr. Reitlinger does not attempt to indicate it; and though his example is not always to be followed, in this case he is clearly the wisest of men. The ultimate subject of his book is human behavior. Every story he has to tell seems merely to illustrate the conflicting truth of Pope’s verdict on man: “The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.”
February 25, 1965