Christie’s Visionary Collector – Mr. Paul G. Allen?

I guess the good news is that the Allen collection going up for sale at Christie’s this week contains seven photographs.  Allen is by Christie’s hailed as a visionary collector, a self-made connoisseur, who took no advice from experts and collected with his heart, for himself, and on his own.

Yet, the only thing that made sense in all the hype I read, was that he was drawn to the pointillists and Jasper Johns because of their use of dots and letters and random words, which Allen could relate to from his time working with, and developing code.  The rest feels a lot like one, or two of everything.

The stars are all here and of course, as a constellation, they are labeled by Christie’s as a visionary collection.  It seems over a period of relatively few years, Allen was able to use his bottomless pot of gold to assemble a collection of art works, which as a whole has neither depth, nor much vision that I can tell, but which all share the same characteristic; the works are all ‘safe’.  The artists are already in the cannon of art history.  There are no flyers, no mistakes here.

Of course there is the possibility that Christie’s only picked the smooth, leaving the rough for the local North West auction house to sell.  Yet, I wonder if this is the usual self-made person, turned insanely rich, turned art collector/patron, turned museum director darling, fundraising target….  One of those people who helps the art market, without really helping art.

Like the bored spouses of hedge fund managers with nothing to do, who are trying to make their own museum.  This, in an effort to be taken seriously on the cocktail circuit and catch the eye of the museum director, in order to secure a seat on a coveted board of trustees.  They collect to gain acceptance.  They collect to be seen and to gain access.  They bring nothing to the party, other than the frightening smell of eau des nouveaux riches.

I am of course being harsh, and probably overly critical, but doesn’t it always seem that museum directors spend their time collecting ‘patrons’ of the arts who 25 years ago wouldn’t have known a pie chart from a Damien Hirst spin painting?  Patrons who with their money bought their way into a society, which is volatile and insecure, and entirely dependent on a bank balance at one particular moment in time, and of course a squeaky clean personal history with no suspect behaviour that has not been covered up properly.  They carry the designer handbag, outrageously expensive fragrance, and single-use outfits worth as much as the annual culture budget of a mid-size town.

The problem is it doesn’t help.  It is safe.  It does not support the artists that need the help now, not when they are dead.  The true visionary artists that are living in cold studios and who rarely benefit from their work until the obituary has been written.

Paul Allen – visionary – collecting visionary artists…. hardly.  But let us for fun have a look at the seven photographs that made the cut and joined the Allen collection and are now on sale with all the hype that Christie’s can provide.  The 7 are in order of catalogue appearance….. drum-roll please:

Edward Steichen:  Flatiron 1904/5, acquired in 2001

Man Ray:  Swedish Landscape 1925 (Rayograph), acquired 2000

Andreas Gursky:  Bibliothek 1999/2014, acquired 2014

André Kertész:  Cello Study 1926, acquired 2000

Irving Penn:  12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet, New York, July 1, 1986, year of acquisition not indicated

Paul Strand, Mullein Maine 1927, acquired 2002

Thomas Struth, Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald, Germany, 2009, acquired 2015

It seems to me that there is neither head, nor tail to these seven; not in process, subject matter, period… they have only one thing in common, they are safe names and they are expensive.  They are, like the rest of the visionaire’s collection, safe work by safe artists.  This just goes to show that with deep pockets comes…. no forget it.  Nuf said.


The Risk of Buying and Selling at Auction

The Case of the Marc Chagall Painting

The New York Times published a story recently about a painting by Marc Chagall on the verge of being destroyed, because a committee of experts in Paris declared it a fake. The story should be a warning to all art collectors.

The story begins with the purchase of a water colour painting by Marc Chagall at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994.  A couple of years ago, the buyer decided – in consultation with Sotheby’s – it would be a good idea to sell it again, as the owner had moved to a smaller house and no longer had room to hang the painting.

In 2008, Sotheby’s valued the painting for insurance purposes at $100,000.

When the decision to sell was made, Sotheby’s insisted, as a pure formality, that the painting should be authenticated by the Comité Marc Chagall. The Comité is a Paris based organization that appears self-appointed by ‘experts’, who include in their number the granddaughter of the artist. The comité was founded in 1988, and takes responsibility for the authentication of work by Marc Chagall. It is unclear to me on who’s authority they operate.

Assured by Sotheby’s that it was only a formality, the seller sent the painting to Paris.  Surprise, surprise, The Comté Marc Chagall declared the painting a fake.  And worse, the report stated that the heirs were requesting the French judiciary seize the painting, and that it be destroyed.

In short:  Sotheby’s lists and sells the painting as a genuine Chagall in 1994.  Sotheby’s reaffirms the authenticity of the painting in 2008.  It recommends that it be authenticated by the Comité Marc Chagall and is sent to France.  The painting is deemed a fake and is to be destroyed. 

A happy ending:  Sotheby’s apologizes for its error, admits that it got it wrong, not once, but twice, and pays for the shipping to France and the inspection by the Comité Marc Chagall, as well as refunding the original purchase price.  Case closed….. but, sadly no.

The real ending: Sotheby’s claims it is not their fault, somehow the listing in their catalogue is not really a validation, or certification of anything, it was a long time ago, and therefore they are not liable any more. In fact, they claim that liability for when they do get it wrong is only five years from the date of sale, which of course is written in tiny font worthy of any insurance policy in the terms of sale.

The loser: The lady, who Sotheby’s assured was taking little, or no risk sending the painting to Paris for authentication, is out of pocket for the purchase price, the shipping and authentication costs in Paris, and it seems will even lose the painting itself to fire, or shredding.

The Lesson: Be careful, and be aware of the risk of buying and selling at auction.

The commitment, and what it really means

Where did it all go wrong? Everything of course – absolutely everything – comes down to provenance; the well documented chain of ownership from artist to gallery to the present owner. For true authentication this chain must be unbreakable and rock solid. 

In the Chagall case, the breakdown is in part because very often there is no chain of custody available at an auction house, often because the seller wishes to remain anonymous and provides no evidence, nor, it seems, does the auction house demand it.  The buyer has to rely exclusively on Sotheby’s say so. Anonymous means the chain of custody – the provenance – is broken.

The message here is that you should always try to make sure that the chain of custody goes right back to the artist and is papered as such.  Does the gallery where you bought the work represent the artist?  Do it work with the artist? Has it provided you with written documentation to this effect?  Is the description of what you have bought complete? Is there a date of creation, description, title, signature, condition report, a date of sale, a signature, etc.? 

All this is only second best.  Best of all is to get to know the artist a little bit and buy with their knowledge, either directly form the artist, or through a gallery that they recommend. The gallery may go under and no longer exist, but anything you have from the artist directly discussing the work or describing it is gold – pure gold – when it comes to provenance.

Lesson I:  Buy directly from the artist, or at the direction of the artist in a gallery of the artist’s choosing whenever possible, and get as much background and description in writing as you can.

Lesson II:  If the artist is no longer alive, then get the same information from the family of the artist, or the estate of the artist.

Lesson III:  Ask a lot of questions.  A gallery that has a reputation to keep will answer all of them to the best of its ability. Only buy when you feel good about it and, of course, with as much paperwork as you can get. 

Lesson IV:  Print your emails, keep records, because when it comes to re-selling, proof of authenticity – as best you can provide it – will very much influence the price you will get for your work of art.

Be smart about buying art, be aware of the risk of buying and selling at auction. Keep all your records in case you need them one day.



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