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Fixed Price?

14 January 2014

Why do we value art? What is it that gives a painting or drawing, in particular, monetary worth? If you think about it they’re made from comparatively inexpensive materials – paper, canvas, paint, pencil, chalk – and can sometimes be the product of only a short period of attention on the part of the artist. David Hockney even does drawings on his iPad which are subsequently printed out. So, is art’s value based on the name and reputation of the artist? Its authenticity? Its completeness as a beautiful object – allowing, of course for different conceptions of what beauty is?

The complexity of value, the art market, and how artists interact with it is something that I considered in a previous blog discussing the graffiti artist Banksy’s ‘residency’ in New York in October 2013. Grayson Perry also discussed the subject at some length in his Reith lectures. But what about art that is damaged, incomplete or, indeed, fake? All these would seem automatically to reduce art’s value and certainly make it of no appeal for a museum or gallery collection. Yet this kind of art invariably has the attraction of wonderful associated stories. We value these sorts of histories when interpreting types of museum object, for helping us to see how they were used and appreciated, or abused and ignored, in the past.

Indeed, this type of value seems to be gaining greater appeal in art galleries. In 2010, the National Gallery staged ‘Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries’, revealing ‘some of the most intriguing stories behind paintings’ discovered through scientific examination. Partly, this sought to highlight the important role of conservators in a painting collection, but its appeal was largely in the tales of past damage, mistakes and misattributions that could be told.

Head of a King or Bishop, late 15th century

Head of a King or Bishop, late 15th century Photo © John Crook. Reproduced by kind permission of The Dean & Chapter of Winchester Cathedral

Tate Britain recently showed ‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’, which told the stories of art attacked for religious, political and aesthetic reasons. I was struck by the difference between the religious art, mostly loaned from churches, that remained defaced and so powerfully evoked the emotions behind its damage, and the fine art from galleries. These had all been repaired so that their histories of damage could only be shown through much less powerful archival materials. Yet, one of the most compelling arguments for the power of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus is that it was attacked by a suffragette. So, the paintings are repaired to recreate their beauty and value, but their value is also in their damaged histories.

In a similar vein, Springfield Museums in Massachusetts opens ‘Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World’ later this month (21 January–27 April), exploring some of the infamous scandals in art forgery of the 20th century. Patricia Cohen has written recently in the New York Times about the security measures given to some of these works, equal to their originals. These are valuable paintings because of the incredible stories behind them, but they are also, now, by famous and fêted artists, as well as being beautiful objects in their own right.

So where does this leave us as guardians of national collections? In October 2012, Vladimir Umanets, leader of the ‘Yellowism’ movement, graffitied Black on Maroon, one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals in the Tate Modern. He claimed this was a creative act, comparing himself to Marcel Duchamp. Of course, we want contemporary artists to engage actively with museums, but there is never an excuse for wantonly damaging a national treasure. Yet, Umanets’ act is now an intrinsic and interesting part of the painting’s history. Should we ever consider keeping such marks rather than covering them up?

For more on this topic see Apollo’s January issue
Clare Finn discusses the prevalence of art forgery and the recent development of technical art history.

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