Posts Tagged ‘Christie’s’


Commonplace objects are constantly changing… The pies, for example, we now see, are not going to be around forever. We are merely used to the idea that things do not change.

Wayne Thiebaud
I am not really hungry this morning but I felt like looking at some pies. Well, paintings of pies. And more specifically, those from Wayne Thiebaud, a favorite of mine. He’s going to turn 98 years old in November. I am not sure if he is still painting but I think he probably is. He was still painting two years ago when the following short film was produced by Christie’s auction house. If you have five minutes I urge you to take a look.

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pablo_picasso_les_femmes_d_alger_  Photo by ChristiesThis is Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O’), a 1955 painting from artist Pablo Picasso.  It created quite a stir yesterday when it became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it went for a cool $179.36 million at Christie’s.

And while that might seem like an unfathomable amount of money to pay for any piece of art- or a small town for that matter- it is only the tip of the iceberg for extravagance in the recent art market.  At the same auction, a life size sculpture, Pointing Man, from Alberto Giacometti became the most expensive sculpture sold at auction when it fetched $143.3 million.

Paul Gauguin- When Will You Marry?

Paul Gauguin- When Will You Marry?

And keep in mind that these records are for pieces sold in auction, not those sold privately by dealers or other collectors.  In February, When Will You Marry? from Paul Gauguin sold privately for a whopping $300 million to a Swiss collector.  There are rumors of many other similar private sales with fantastic sums of money attached.

It’s always interesting to see the prices that these pieces bring and how we, the public, respond to these over the top sales, almost like a cheering crowd at the big game rooting the bidders to go ever higher.  We do like a spectacle. The shame is that the focus becomes all about the money and less about the artwork.  But then again, these big sales really have little to do with the actual art.  These exhibits of extreme affluence have become performance art in themselves with the artwork a mere prop that acts as a catalyst in setting off a series of actions that result in prices that boggle the mind of the average person.  It’s the Picasso and Gauguin now.  In time they will be replaced by a new crop of props designed to set off the same reactive chain.

Do I believe these works deserve these incredible prices?  Well, I do believe they are great pieces of art, high in the pantheon of art history with stories behind them that deserve telling.  They would be great without those prices attached to them.  No, these prices aren’t the value of the work itself– they are the price someone is willing to pay to attach their own name and ego to the history of the piece.

It’s kind of a reverse provenance.  Normally, an artist’s work is validated and gains value when it becomes part of a prestigious collection.  In this scenario, it is the collector who is trying to gain prestige and validation through the attainment of the artwork.  And at the moment, the going price to get that kind of thing is well over a 100 mil.

I think both Picasso and Gauguin would be more than a little amused at these prices.  And probably a little pissed off that they missed out on this kind of loot in their own lifetimes. For myself, I don’t give a damn what someone else paid for the work.  I would prefer that someone with those kind of resources would try to use them in helping others rather than conspicuously consuming but that is not my decision, is it?

In the end, it is what it is, as they say…


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Beltracchi Working on a Fake Max Ernst (Vanity Fair)

Beltracchi Working on a Fake Max Ernst (Vanity Fair)

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on a German artist named Wolfgang Beltracchi.  I would be surprised if you had heard of him unless you know this story.  But you probably have seen his paintings if you have been in many of the great museums of the world.  You see, Beltracchi is an art forger who has dozens of fakes still hanging in many venues around the world.

There was a brilliant twist in his scheme to bring fake paintings to the public and especially to the big money collectors.  Rather than merely copy existing paintings from the masters, Beltracchi would more or less channel the artists, making paintings that he felt that they themselves might have painted if they had had the time to move in a given direction.  They are labeled as  lost masterworks. He would do great amounts of research into the artist’s body of work and biography as well as studying the materials and tools of the time periods so that everything gave it a genuine appearance.  His research was so meticulous that his paints often matched the chemical profile of the originals, making the fake almost impossible to detect with even the most sophisticated of scientific tools.

Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother in front of fakes

Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother in front of fakes

This genuine appearance made validating the work as original much easier.  But Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, completed the deal with a detailed backstory that made complete sense and was seldom challenged.  They claimed that the paintings were owned by Helene’s grandparents there in Germany and were hidden from the Nazis before World War II .  To make the illusion complete, they would make up Helene as her grandmother and take photos on old period photo paper in front of the paintings.

It was deviously clever deception that stumped the art world for many years.  Museums and high profile collectors (Steve Martin was duped by one of Beltracchi’s fakes to the tune of around $850,000) ate up his works, some being included in books of the best paintings of the last century as well on the cover of a high profile Christie’s Auctions catalog.

The deception was perfect.

Except for one tiny mistake.

On one of his paintings Beltracchi used a tube of white paint that did  not disclose that it included a bit of titanium.  Titanium white was not available as a pigment until 1921 and his use of it made the work instantly detectable.  The house of cards crumbled and both he and his wife were arrested.  They lost everything– the cars, the yachts, the plush homes and the huge stacks of  cash that their con had provided.  They are both serving terms in an German open prison, meaning that they go out each day to work and return at night.

Most of the works , which Beltracchi claims to be well over 1000 and maybe as many as 2000 by over 50 different artists, still hang in many museums around the globe.  It will probably take some time and effort to detect these fakes, if they do it all.  Nobody wants to admit they’ve been conned.

Bellini's "Saint Jerome Reading" at the National Gallery, DC

Bellini’s “Saint Jerome Reading” at the National Gallery, DC

It’s an interesting story.  I was immediately intrigued by Beltracchi’s claim that he could paint in the style of anyone except for perhaps Bellini.  I love Bellini’s work and was glad when this master forger thought it was beyond counterfeiting.  But I wondered how an artist who had this kind of ability, this technical prowess, could have no voice of his own.  The money and the thrill of the ruse were surely big factors in discarding his personal aspirations. For me, painting and art is all about personal expression and emotion.  To see someone with so much obvious talent to be without any personal expression that he would call his own is somewhat sad.

Perhaps he views this whole thing as some sort of performance piece in itself, in which case he may be the greatest artist of our time.  But I doubt it.

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