Friday, 27 May 2016

Market share and the past: part 2.

Venus visits the Guggenheim. Digital collage by JH
New York dominates the world's art market, and it really does not matter what kind of art we are talking about. It also does not take a lot work to find out something about the market shares of contemporary versus ancient art: any recent New York auction news will tell you that.

So let's start with the ancient and Sotheby's June 3rd 2015 New York Egyptian, Classical, and Western Asiatic Antiquities auction where the sales almost doubled the pre-sale estimates and totalled $6,389,875 for the 64 lots.

There is something very traditional about even the name of the sale: If you took "Western Asiatic" and placed it before "Egyptian" and "Classical" you would have the basic composition of just about every school book on the ancient western world published in the last few hundred years. We are mostly impressed by our own level of civilization, but we do pay some attention to how we got here. Everything else is just barbarism.

Turning to contemporary art, we have news of Christie's May 10th 2016 sale of post-war and contemporary  art which only achieved a total close to the low pre-sale estimate. Still, that total for the 60 lots was  $318.4 million. All modern art, to some degree, is regional, so it was no great surprise that the star of that show was an untitled painting by the Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat showing his graffiti origins. It fetched $57.3 million. What could be more New York than graffiti? Some years ago my wife was talking to a Russian who grew up in the Soviet Union and had recently moved to Canada. During a visit to Toronto, the lack of graffiti there made him shudder. It reminded him too much of the old Soviet Union. "Toronto the Good" defines what should stay and what should go. What remains could better be described as street murals. I still regret, after nearly forty years, that my favourite piece of Calgary graffiti was removed from the 8th street downtown underpass. It said "Free Elmer Fudd". I can't tell you why it seemed so Calgary to me, it just did.

Guennol Lioness
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if you look hard enough, the rules are always still referenced in them. The 5,000 year old Guennol Lioness, (only 8 cm high) found near Baghdad, for a few years, held the record price for a piece of sculpture at auction at $57.2 million at Sotheby's in 2007. But it had previously spent 59 years on display at the Brooklyn Museum of art. The mass of the figure reminds me of the work of Aristide Maillol.

I am overjoyed to be able to include the photo of the Guennol Lioness, not just because it is one of my favourite pieces of ancient sculpture, but because I noticed, for the first time, that Wikimedia Commons has placed this photograph in the Public Domain as the artist (obviously) had died more than a hundred years ago. For many years, photographs of three dimensional ancient art had copyrights claimed by the photographer; an organization such a museum; and even a nation. This made a mockery of the copyright protection for the artist fought so hard for by William Hogarth in the eighteenth century by having even the images of ancient art possessed by the state and its representatives.

More on this series on Monday. Have a contemporary weekend and free Elmer Fudd wherever you might find him.

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