Whirling Dervish – by Joseph Bravo
Are Record Prices for Historic Artworks Necessarily a Good Thing?
I have been looking at a lot of the work of Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun lately and took note when this painting entitled “Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape” was coming up at auction. Other works by this artist have been coming up for sale by both dealers and auction houses with some smaller early oil paintings going for as little as $50k and lovely mid-career pastels commanding three times that price. But when I saw this painting coming up I instantly suspected that this would be the painting to watch. Recent experience had led me to suspect that this painting would establish a new benchmark for the artist’s place in the art market and by implication a revaluation of her place in the historical canon.
Le Brun had a remarkable career and was widely recognized in her own time. But this painting stands out for scale and subject matter. Any woman painting a Dervish Khan during this period would have been an extraordinary event. Women painting Orientalism was exceedingly rare. This painting reflects Le Brun’s more developed style when she had come into her own and was less derivative. The painting displays confidence in her own talents and a tricky bit of foreshortening of the figure that subtly places the viewer in a supplicant position, something that would not have been typical among other European painters of the era. Full-length portraits were relatively rare for Le Brun as were figures set in the landscape. Such paintings were afforded a higher status during the period and this painting would have been a statement for the artist who was announcing her significance with such a work. La Brun asserts that she is a world traveler, a confidant of monarchs and potentates, worthy of tackling grand painting and as important a figure as any male artist of her era. It is perhaps not the prettiest painting Le Brun ever created but it is bold and her optic here is less conventional than in her other work. It is a standout piece in her oeuvre and has extraordinary value for its uniqueness if not its delicacy.
It is important to note that $7 million is a remarkable figure for any artist of Le Brun’s era and indicates more than mere speculation for women artists emerging in the market. Unique works command more interest and higher prices. That said, one might have expected this painting to reach the $2-3 million mark but $7 million is frankly disturbing for reasons that may be less obvious to those who are not in the market for historic masterworks. The difference between $3 million and $7 million may seem a moot point to those who don’t have a single million to spend. But a million here and a million there starts to look like real money when it’s your money. Even millionaires have a budget and they didn’t become millionaires by squandering their assets. Contrary to popular belief, serious art collectors have to make prudent decisions on how to allocate their collecting budgets because their resources are indeed finite. Seven million for a Le Brun means that a collector cannot afford to also bid on that $2.5 million Artemisia coming up at the next auction.
This is important because there is a difference between art collecting and art hoarding. A genuine collector establishes a context for artworks through their association within the collection’s rubric. In terms of art history, a conscientious and scholarly collector is creating a historical document that establishes an enduring narrative. In this way, the historical value of an important art collection may be worth a good deal more than the sum of its parts. Such collectors perform a valuable service by bringing artworks together over the course of a lifetime. They also tend to seek to preserve the associative context they have so patiently established and are reluctant to simply liquidate their collections thus erasing a lifetime of effort and added historical value. The diligent connoisseur collector who is establishing a stylistic, historical, biographical or even social narrative usually wants to preserve their own authorial handiwork and is more likely to donate the majority of their collection to a single institution where it will be preserved for posterity. This type of collector prioritizes historical legacy and art canon over speculative profit and social prestige. They are essential allies of museum curators and directors and are largely responsible for the majority of the museum’s permanent collection.
When something is worth $7 million the incentive to give it away substantially diminishes. Even a philanthropically minded art buyer may eventually decide that liquidation and redirection of the cash to some other worthy cause is more philanthropically prudent than making a single painting available to a museum audience. This is especially the case when that potential philanthropist starts to consider the prospect that their multimillion-dollar donation of a work of art will likely eventually be rotated out the exhibition gallery and into a museum storage vault for years if not decades at a time. When the acquisition of a single painting starts to cost half the price of a new wing to house it even museum directors start to consider their institutional priorities. A museum director moves up the institutional hierarchy to First Tier status by building facility expansions and growing revenue more than by building their collections. It is not a self evident proposition that either the director or the curator would rather have this single splendid painting by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun or three splendid paintings of equivalent quality and scale by Sir Anthony van Dyck or a new wing of exhibition galleries to feature exquisite artworks already languishing for years in their art storage facilities.
Prices for important historical works created by women are skyrocketing in general with pieces that could be acquired for a few tens of thousands just two years ago now routinely bringing high six figures. Seven-figure prices for women artists are still relatively rare but not for much longer because speculation in these works has reached fever pitch as museums are under increasing pressure to balance their collections with artwork created by women. Indeed, this is creating challenges for collectors who are having difficulties evaluating appropriate pricing for a given work when it has risen in market value by a factor of ten or twenty times in as many months. The market is at severe risk of overheating as millionaires are quickly being priced out of the market for important works by women painters. The train has left the station with historic women artists on it and it is clearly a bullet train reaching dangerous velocity. It’s fast becoming a billionaires’ game and the over-commodification means that these works are at hazard of becoming more important as speculative commodities than as art history.
This is significant because millionaires tend to be the connoisseur collectors who are more motivated by aesthetics and historical interests. They require works to be a reliable store of wealth but they tend to hang onto artworks for longer periods and are more likely to donate their collections rather than monetize them. Too much money is an attractive nuisance as a millionaire might easily donate a high six-figure work without much drama. But should their art holdings become hyper-valuable then their heirs start contacting lawyers, contesting wills and encumbering artworks as greedy family members seek to maximize their monetized options? A lifetime of legacy and historical context may be undone by the avarice of a single heir who places little value on the historical importance of their ancestor’s efforts.
Such hyper-valuable assets are increasingly held out of sight in secure storage and are less available for viewing and study. Billionaires are also notoriously secretive about their art holdings so even keeping track of the location and provenance of such works is becoming more difficult as they disappear as quickly as they emerge on the scene.
It is important to fully comprehend the distinction between the motivations of the billionaire art hoarder and the millionaire connoisseur collector. A millionaire didn’t generally become one by disregarding the accumulation of assets. Yet one might become a millionaire by pursuing a professional career in the law, medicine or even commerce. Making money might be important to that person but it very well may not be their sole or even highest priority. But show me a billionaire and I will generally show you a person who keeps score with a spreadsheet and whose metrics tend to be quantitative rather than qualitative. Billionaires don’t usually spend multiple millions on anything motivated solely by aesthetic fanaticism. At $7 million one can attain all the aesthetic satisfaction they can stand. Such a figure doesn’t represent aesthetic priority but the confidence that an asset will substantially increase in value. At $700k a connoisseur might still prioritize aesthetics or historical narrative but at $7 million the stakes are proportionally higher and at some point, aesthetic fanaticism becomes fiscal madness. At $7 million the property owner isn’t just looking for an enjoyable store of wealth that retains its value, they’re seeking an investment opportunity that will perform better than most other opportunities. Hence, at $7 million everything is primarily a commodity rather than a cultural artifact.
Lest we are too quick to harshly judge the billionaire for this, one should honestly ask themselves what their response would be to discovering that the old painting in their attic was valued at $7 million? Can you honestly say that your first impulse wouldn’t be to sell it because you too valued the cash more than having lifelong access to the aesthetic experience of a single painting? I’ll testify that if you find a work of art in my personal art collection that you are willing to acquire for $7 million, it’s yours. I will take that cash and spend the rest of my life traveling to every great museum in the world indulging in an orgy of aesthetic edification until my dying day. I might even donate a single million of that figure to establish an endowment that allows other people who could not otherwise afford it the same privilege.
There is also the problem of establishing provenance and attribution. Many of these artworks were overlooked for the last few hundred years for reasons other than the gender of the artist. Often the subjects of still-lifes, genre scenes, allegorical figures and intimate half-length portraits of female courtiers were considered of lesser historical significance regardless of their authorship. Add to this the former attribution of many of these works to lesser know male hands for reasons that reflected not only sexism but a general inadequacy of the scholarship of lesser-known artists. With greater awareness of this historical weakness (not to mention bias) in the scholarship has come a pent up demand that is leading to perverse incentives for dubiously justified optimism.
There is a rush on reattributing works to female artists because to do so now gains both the scholar and the work attention and adds a zero onto its price. Gender is now widely recognized as historically significant and the market is reflecting this overdue correction. But the scholarship of attribution is often scanty and once a work has been attributed to a known female hand by a single scholar, there is an understandable reluctance to rigorously contest this. The catalog raisoné of many of these artists is at best incomplete and there is less than a full scholarly consensus on what is verifiably in or out of the artist’s oeuvre. A catalogue that is twenty years old may not contain many of the more recently attributed works that are regularly emerging. Scholarship in this area is in its infancy and is emerging in a context of advocacy as much as epistemological rigor. Without a provenance that can trace a painting back to the artist’s studio, then the attribution of these often unautographed works is usually speculative and remarkably subjective. In a market with such hyperinflation, dealers and collectors aren’t exactly incentivized to solicit as wide a scholarly consensus as possible. With each opinion proffered comes theoretical hazard that it will not confirm the established attribution. Once a single allegedly scholarly attribution is acquired then there is little incentive to solicit potential dissent that might negatively impact the financial value of an important asset. Even a whiff of question about authenticity or attribution can severely discount the price of a painting. Hence, no news is often good news, so dealers and collectors are content in their optimistic ignorance.
Likewise, museum curators and directors are seeking opportunities to gain social and political prophylaxis from legitimate criticism of their historical myopia and are now eager to exhibit artworks for reasons that are as much appropriative tokenism as a sincere acknowledgment of epistemological gender bias. First-tier museums are concerned about provenance but less for the purpose of establishing the veracity of the catalogue raisoné and more for limiting their legal liabilities should a property claim be contested while the work is in their custody. The greater the monetary value of an artwork, especially one on private hands, the greater the incentive to make even spurious custody claims incurring litigation expense for the exhibition lender. With historic and attributed artworks, in particular, public exhibition is a two-edged sword which increasingly presents hazards that outweigh its advantages.
These hazards extend to scholars, curators and exhibiting institutions as well. The exhibition lending contracts are more frequently routinely encumbered by nondisclosure agreements that might prevent the publication of dissident scholarship or suppress scientific findings that fail to substantiate an artwork’s attribution or authenticity. Scholars have increasingly been sued for deattributing an artwork and most have ceased to publish opinions about authenticity if that opinion might lead to a loss of asset value for the property owners. Even an optimistic attribution made in good faith can incur a sincere scholar legal liability if it is questioned at a later date in another transaction. The stakes here for all concerned parties are higher than one might suspect. Speculative billionaire collectors may not be content to let their cash be tied up in less liquid assets and, the more valuable their collections, the greater their incentive to collateralize loans with art. A single scholarly deattribution could lead to a loss of confidence in a collateralized asset’s market value and a speculator might get an undesired margin call from a banker that could have catastrophic financial consequences which far exceed the monetary value of the artwork. For want of 10% of the capital required for a nine-figure commercial venture, an incredibly lucrative deal could fall through. Big finance involves big risk. In an art industry environment where scholars are paid for an optimistic attribution but sued for a pessimistic one, the incentives for objectivity are less than ideal.
There is an optimum price for any artwork including works created by women and, counterintuitive as it may seem, higher prices are not always a good thing. I am glad to see these historical works by women finally commanding the attention they deserve but too quickly climbing into the high seven and eight-figure price range is making it difficult to establish a broader base of collectors and puts these artworks out of reach for museum acquisition budgets. Many of these artworks may briefly emerge to set a record price only to once again vanish into the opaque world of international finance, money laundering, and illicit transactions.
Anything that appreciates inordinately in value over too short of a period also carries the hazard of an abrupt market correction as speculators begin to take profits. In a few years, there could very well be a crash in the prices of many of these artworks as they re-emerge on the market after the social fashion for works by women inevitably abates. Attaining a high price is one thing, perpetually sustaining it is quite another. Tastes are notoriously fickle as are social and political trends. Steady but more modest growth in prices would be preferable for sustainability and determining a more objective value and consistent track record for these important women artists. There will inevitably be a market correction of some sort because it is implausible that every work potentially created by a recognizable female name is invariably a masterpiece of enduring cultural significance. Ironically, we may eventually come full circle to discover that artworks were afforded inordinate value in the contemporary era when they were believed to have been created by certain women rather than certain men and that value may ultimately be reassessed upon deattribution to lesser artists of either gender. The market will inevitably shake out and some of the speculative darlings of today will become evidence of the irrational exuberance of the current market for historic women artists. Undoubtedly, fortunes will be lost as well as made as history rather than contemporary sociopolitical trend renders its more somber verdict.