What’s in a name?
Technology has now advanced to the point where it is a trifle to “print” a painting by Van Gogh on a 3D printer. The painting “factory” of Dafen, part of the Pearl Riva Delta in China, is estimated to produce 60% of all the paintings that are produced each year if you count both copies and originals. They are all copies of known works – clients either want to reproduce much loved works or fancy a museum’s painting in the comfort of their own home. But with revenues in 2015 (the last period for which we have figures) at around $630 million a year, there is clearly money to be made in the art of copies. But what is the value of a “fake”?
The difficulty of using the term “fake” is that it’s meaning can change depending on the context. If an artwork is represented to the market as something that it is not then that is obviously a case of a fake. Especially, in the world of Old Masters, however, it is more complicated. Connoisseurship is dwindling. Fewer people know the brushstrokes of a particular artist and so it becomes harder to find people capable of identifying a work by an Old Master. Is it by Cuyp or a van Calraet? Even the great art historian Bernard Berenson made attributions that have been revealed to be wrong.
Perhaps the most sane approach to copies is not to resent them but to recognize that if you love a painting then it is worth it in its own right. Ultimately, a work of art should be about more than what it says on the label. It should have a character of its own and if that is what you admire in the work then it doesn’t matter what someone else thinks about it.
It is not just in the production of art that technology is having an effect. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are all the rage at the moment possibly spurred on by nothing more than the excitement of the new. As Mayfair gallery Dadiani Fine Art holds its first exhibition of art which can be purchased exclusively with cryptocurrencies, the question is how does bitcoin buy art?
The gallery focusses on emerging artists so the idea of exploiting a new money seems to align with the values of Dadiani. The difficulty, as always, is one of value. The value of these “new systems” of money are hard enough to define on their own so when they are being used to purchase the amorphous value of an artwork it feels less like the blind leading the blind than the insecure meeting the uncertain. As it happens Dadiani also offers a brokerage service which presumably is quite clear about defining the value of certain artworks against something like Etherium. This might be a flash in the marketing pan or it might be a sign of things to come but the fact remains that the cliché of something only being worth what someone is prepared to pay for it continues to hold true, even in the virtual world.
When people discuss the buoyancy of the art market they are frequently referring to the participation of the Chinese in it. It is no secret that it is the Chinese who have supported many of the auction houses star lots recently. What is less considered is how that participation has changed the market.
When China began to be discussed in art circles in Europe it was always with a hushed inquisitiveness about what Western art they would appreciate. How quickly times change. Now the conversations are more likely to be around how much they will buy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening of so-called Art Malls in China such as K11. Adrian Cheng, the founder of the K11 art foundation, which owns the art malls that combine art and retail has opened his latest incarnation of the model that sells art alongside luxury shops in Wuhan. He is planning to open another nine by 2023 to cater to the newly moneyed middle classes. There’s clearly enough profit swirling around such enterprises and they go to show that selling to the Chinese is no mystery, you just have to do it their way. The Western artworld consistently underestimated the Chinese attitude to commodities and the effect it would have on their markets. Yet this signals an absence of connoisseurship from the art buying process and a lack of understanding that the very best collectors seek out and unites the most rewarding collections.
Seymours has always recommended pursuing art that you enjoy rather than what the market dictates and we have a passion for a wonderful painting that isn’t necessarily fashionable. The Old Master market seems to have been dramatically undervalued for quite some time as the market struggles to supply the best works and find an audience that can appreciate some of the slower charms of older pieces. But could Salvator Mundi signal a change in fortune for this category?
Georgina Adam, one of the most trusted art market reporters around, certainly seems to think so and the February Old Master auctions in New York seemed to signal this was the case. The result from Sotheby’s Old Master evening sale showed a resounding 80% increase on last year and a sale of Otto Naumann’s Old Master drawings achieved $6.16 million against an estimate of $4-6 million. These healthy results suggest a renewal of energy in a category that has for too long been undervalued.
One of the greatest art collections ever to come to auction is being sold by Christie’s in New York in May. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller contains the very finest examples of every category that they collected. From a Rose period Picasso, an exceptional Matisse to a Pennsylvanian 18th-century Unicorn chest or a Meissen hoopoe bird, it is, uniquely, possible to say these pieces are without peer. Highlights are on display at Christie’s King Street headquarters from 21 February to 8 March. It might be worth taking a look at a collection that was built on the Rockefellers bringing together the objects that they loved.