Hanging right there

Posted: Apr 28, 2006 10:05 PM
Upcoming art auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in Manhattan are hugely noticed in the Arts section of The New York Times. Two Picassos are especially prominent. The first is labeled "Dora Maar With Cat," and it is expected to fetch $50 million. The second, called "Repose," is even uglier, and is expected to go for about $20 million.

The display raises several questions, the first of them being the interesting one, Why would anyone wish to own these Picassos? There is only a single answer to the question, which is, "Because they are so valuable." Imagine a situation in which you woke to find in the morning mail a package containing "Dora Maar." It is yours, with a single condition attached: You are not permitted to sell it.

What would you do? Call your friends and say, "Come on over to my house, and I will show you a painting by Picasso that auctioned for $50 million"?

The unhappy part of the deal is that in order to show it to your friends, you would have to hang it. To do that would ruin any composure that room ever generated for you. The only solution would be to devise a curtain to shield it from sight except when you pull down the cord, exposing the hideous agglomeration of eyes, mouths, fingers and -- yes, a black cat.

On the matter of the value of such as "Dora Maar," one recalls the wry economist who wrote of the phenomenon. A man arrives at U.S. Customs with an oil painting. It's only worth a couple of hundred bucks, he says. But the customs officer shakes his head: "I know a Picasso when I see one!" He wants a couple of million in import duties. The traveler appeals, and the canvas is shown to five art experts. Three of them say that it is genuine, two that it is fake. It is therefore worth $10 million, by a majority of one.

The viewer, who is inexpert, sees the same picture. The reason the genuine article brings crowds in from the streets to admire it isn't that it is manifestly unique. It is that it's worth $10 million. The economist permitted himself to wonder whether as many people might not be induced into that room in the museum if, exhibited in the same space, were $10 million in $100 bills.

The Times of London two years ago quoted art critic Robert Hughes on the sale of Picasso's "Boy With a Pipe." It went for $104 million at Sotheby's. Mr. Hughes said simply that the sale was "a cultural obscenity." He went on: "Such gestures do no honor to art. They debase it by making the desire for it pathological." Some collectors, Hughes commented, "use museums as megaphones for their own sometimes debatable taste." He expressed concern about the effects of speculation in art: "After 30 years in New York, I have seen a lot of the damage it can do -- the sudden puffing of reputations, the throwing of eggs in the air to admire their short grace of flight, the tyranny of fashion."

With advances in the technology of reproduction, there is no excuse for high art prices at this level. You can get an extremely good reproduction for a hundred dollars. If what you want is the beauty or the originality or the whatever -- you can have it.

The great revolution in music came with the phonograph record. You did not have to get in line beginning at 5 o'clock in the morning to get a ticket to hear Caruso. You paid five bucks and turned on the switch. There is no reason whatever to deprive the citizen of the finest music. Yes, it enhances the experience to be present physically when Caruso sings, but that is lily-gilding. If you wish to go in for collecting, you can go to an auction house. There, some months back, you could find the holograph of one of Beethoven's last works. A collector bought it for just over $2 million, a sum that wouldn't get you a soup can by Andy Warhol.

I knew and visited from time to time at the home of a publisher who had over his mantelpiece an oil by Renoir that I admired. The last time I was there and paused over it, he told me that I was now looking at a reproduction. He had sold the original to a museum, settling for this splendid copy. "It's a half-inch shorter than the original," he said. "That way, it cannot pose as the original." Otherwise, you couldn't tell.