Thursday, December 10, 2009

Picture of the Month

National Endowment for the Arts

The Weekly Standard has published an article on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) that may reveal that with the new administration a shift in priorities may be upon us that will certainly impact museums.

"The nation's arts organizations were among the countless businesses being threatened; many faced critical financial strains due in large part to a sudden plunge in private donations that followed the Wall Street crash. Salary support was one of the specific projects identified in the NEA's emergency grant guidelines. Symphonies and theater groups have employees who depend on paychecks just as much as auto companies and financial institutions.
Such controversies, however, are a reminder that the National Endowment for the Arts continually faces fundamental choices about how best to preserve the quality and seriousness of the arts and make people aware of their importance. There are today developments more worrisome and threatening to the agency's well being than any headline-grabbing "underground kinky art porno horror film." The time is rapidly approaching in which the NEA must once again consider whom it is intended to serve: the American artist or the American public. This is a central question with which it has wrestled over the entire course of its 44-year existence, and the way it responds now will determine whether it will continue to enjoy its current support in Congress and, indeed, whether it deserves that support at all.
The NEA has a new chairman, Rocco Landesman, appointed in May by the new president. Given the level of support from the arts community for Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, it was expected that his choice to head the endowment would reflect the interests of artists more than the interests of the public at large. That in and of itself did not necessarily portend trouble. Landesman, like the NEA's first chairman, Roger Stevens, is a successful Broadway producer and a man with proven business sense. This should serve him well when he goes before Congress to defend the NEA's budget and in steering it clear of public controversies. But it's also tiresomely pointed out that Landesman is a man who prides himself on pulling no punches, and his supporters are looking for him and his "sharp elbows" and "my way or the highway" attitude to shake things up at the NEA, as though stirring the pot were always a productive thing to be doing."

What is clear is that the Obama administration intends to be involved with the management of NEA and the role the agency might play in the future. This was demonstrated in the failed attempt of NEA's former director of communication, Yosi Sergant to organize young artists to support President Obama's national service program, United We Serve. Regardless of your politics Sergant was fired at NEA under pressure from the criticism that ensued in this veiled effport to politicize art. It seems logical to assume that something wasn't right here or Sergant would have weathered the storm. But more to the point is the influence of the Executive Branch is willing to exert which concerns many. The jury is still out on this one, but I can assure you that art institutions are watching.

NEA's mission statement is as follows: "The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established, bringing the arts to all Americans, and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Arts Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases. For more information, please visit"

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tribal Art Auction Update December 2009

Sothebys Paris - Arts d'Afrique at d'Oceanie December 3, 2009
Depending on who you talk to this sale was either an unqualified success or an unpredictable mixed message for the curators, collectors, and art dealers seeking to find a sign for 2010. Out of 112 lots 44 failed to sell. But there certainly were some high flyers that far exceeded expectations. The haunting Hunstein mountains Sepik mask from the Friede collection and a Carbon 14 date between the 14th and 15th centuries sold for 324,750 euros with an estimate of 130,000 to 180,000 euros. Friede's Korowari figure in Lot 22 also exceeded the estimate by selling for 240,750 euros. The superb Korowari figure in lot 27 also from the Friede collection sold beyond the estimate at 138,750 euros. Louis Perrois called the Punu mask in lot 88 a late 19th century masterpiece and it sold in the middle of the estimate at 264,750 euros. A 15" Kongo/Vili possible mid 19th century fetish also sold for 264,750 euros with an estimate of 70,000 to 100,000. Undoubtedly the star of the show was the very well know Duperrier Bamana mask from Rubin's MOMA Primitivism exhibition in 1984. Sothebys saw the upper limit on this mask at 400,000 euros. It sold for 1,408,750 euros. So there certainly were some great successes in this sale. Too bad some great objects like the Arussi figure (Lot 112) and the Dogon figure (Lot 46) were passed and that many objects were included in the sale that probably did not belong.

Bonhams and Butterfield, Sale 17539, Native American Art, 14 Dec 2009.
This sale was a large with Bonhams offering 628 lots of Native American Indian art. Approximately 26% or 165 lots were bought in. I suspect that in a general sense Bonhams was somewhat disappointed in this sale. However, there were some great Northwest Coast pieces some of which exceeded the high estimates by a considerable margin. Even in this strange market I actually expected two of these grease dishes to do even better than they did. The Haida frontlet also exceeded the high estimate by selling for $146,000. The early Mohawk shirt illustrated in lot 4529 and estimated to sell between $200,000 and $300,000 failed to meet the reserve. There also were some very interesting historic pottery in this sale. Again some pieces did well while others either failed to meet the low estimate or sold with the estimate. The Kiua storage jar (22" in height) was estimated to sell between $30,000 and $40,000 and sold for $115,900 with the commission. In the last several Indian sales the dealers have been active and successful in picking up bargains passed by hesitant collectors. It will be interesting to see what pops up from this sale in the coming months at the shows and in the magazine advertisements.

Monbrison cataloged Encheres Rive Gauche sale December 2, 2009 feature Oceanic and African art from the collections of Armand Charles and Leon Folks. We will review this in next month's newsletter. There were some very interesting and unusual objects in this sale that to us seemed to have very low reserves.

African Ivories Pierre Bergé & Associés Brussels, 9 December 09 - A number of our subscribers have asked for information on this sale that included a number of important African ivories. To date we have been unable to get the catalog or price list. We were subscribers but like many European based auction houses you can be on the list today and then off tomorrow. We will pursue this.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Quick Takes December 2009

1. "WASHINGTON, DC.- Best known for revolutionizing the art of photography, American artist Man Ray (1890-1976) produced a prolific collection of striking black-and-white compositions inspired by the African objects they depict. The Phillips Collection showcases these works in a new exhibition that explores the pivotal role photographs played in changing the perception of African objects from artifacts to fine art. Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens is on view at the Phillips from Oct. 10, 2009 to Jan. 10, 2010. ... After its presentation at the Phillips, the exhibition will be on view at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (Albuquerque, N.M.) from January 30 to May 23, 2010; the University of Virginia Museum of Art (Charlottesville, Va.) from Aug. 7 to Oct. 10, 2010; and the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia (Vancouver, British Columbia) from Oct. 29, 2010 to Jan. 23, 2011."

2. The controversial 3300 year old bust of Nefertiti that Egypt wants Germany to return has been moved to Berlin's Neuss Museum. The museum has recently completed renovations to the building damaged from World War II bombing. Nefertiti went on view October 17th bringing the story full circle as the bust has now returned to her original viewing site prior to the war. We find this story fascinating not only because of the looming repatriation question but also because some respected scholars believe this piece to be an early reproduction.

3. "The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which will open in 2013 as part of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island Cultural District, is being founded to fulfill an educational mission centered on the art of today. The museum will be housed in a distinctive building designed by Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most renowned contemporary architects. Like the Guggenheim in New York, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will build a permanent collection that reflects a specific point of view about the art of our time, namely its essentially global orientation. The new museum will include not only key examples of Western art, but also the rich and diverse fields of Asian, African, South American, and Middle Eastern art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries".

4. As a followup to the article from on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi there might be a little belt tightening in Gulf as Dubai wallows under a mountain of debt (for them) with estimates ranging up to 80 billion. Nobody outside of Dubai has the complete picture but projects have been suspended, contractors are not being paid, and creating financing is underway. Bond subscriptions are being offered as a stop gap to the crunch. And if you love irony some European banks may have exposure in the neighborhood of 40 billion. Bottom line question is whether Dubai will honor its outstanding contracts. With Dubai freezing all contracts and payments on 60 billion in debt that question is very much in doubt. Gulf watchers are speculating whether oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi will bail them out.

5. Good news for museums this month - The Metropolitan Museum will benefit from the expected legal decision that Brooke Astor's most recent wills will be found invalid and the result of her son, Anthony Marshall's coercion. Marshall was convicted by a jury recently of inducing Astor to sign new wills to his benefit even though she was determined to be incapacitated. In Texas Alfred Glassell's daughter Curry challenged his will leaving almost 500 million dollars to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Glassell Family Foundation upon the death of his wife Clare. The museum was represented by super litigator, Joseph Jamail, who with the unanimous vote of the museum's board, will attempt to enforce Mr. Glassell's clause requiring a complete forfeiture of any bequests for a beneficiary challenging the will. Mr. Glassell's wife of 46 years sides with the museum. Mr. Glassell is probably most known for his comprehensive and very fine collections of African and Pre-Columbian gold which were given to the museum prior to his death.

6. Big news also for the British Museum and the BBC who are collaborating on a massive project to change the way people think about the past. One project will consist of the public bringing objects to British Museum curators who will then tell the story that will give context within the history of civilization. It is being billed as Antiques Roadshow without the cash. The second and more comprehensive project will be a 100 part radio show which will feature one object on each installment representing an important part of the history of civilization. Noting the migration of previous successful programming this too will undoubtedly come to the States.

7. In a recent article The Economist offered the following amazing sales statistics for the two big auction houses Christies and Sothebys.
"Both auction houses have also put a lot of effort into advising buyers on how to improve their collections. As Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s European president, says, “We’re much more than an auction house now.” The recession has made many collectors nervous about offering their treasures at auction, so they are selling them privately. In 2007 Christie’s chalked up private sales of $542m and Sotheby’s of $730m, which means the two auction houses are now among the world’s biggest private dealers. Both often get calls like the one Sotheby’s recently took from a Moscow collector with $2m to spend on an “optimistic” Chagall oil, “not too feminine” and no more than a metre in height. “We put out the word and immediately received several offers from our offices in London, Geneva and New York,” says Mikhail Kamensky, the firm’s head of CIS business.
In 2007 private deals accounted for 8.7% of Christie’s business. Mr Pylkkanen expects that figure to go up to 20% of its revenue within three years. That should put the wind up private dealers." This shift certainly conjurs up all sorts of questions about the blurring of art world roles. Is the auction house representing a client or the auction house? I think I know how most will answer that one.

Repatriation - A New Idea from China

Repatriation of antiquities has been in the news again with the aggressive posture of Egypt's Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Council of Antiquities in Cairo. Recently, Zahi Hawass has requested that US Customs return a Pharonic era coffin that allegedly was illicitly removed from Egypt in 1884 or some 125 years ago. Hawass has stated that he will not be encumbered by UNESCO's magic date of 1970. It is disturbing for all collectors and museums that the New York Times has reported that US Customs has been trying to get the private US owner to give up the coffin. Certainly anyone knowledgeable in these issues understands that politics and intimidation are big parts of these disputes. Here is a list of the priority items Hawass wants back: 1. Rosetta stone - British Museum 2.
elegant bust of Queen Nefertiti - Berlin's Neues Museum 3. the Dendera Temple Zodiac -Louvre, Paris 4.Bust of the pyramid builder Ankhaf -Boston's Museum of Art.

Egypt and Greece have certainly been among the most vocal in the international community. However, now China is flexing its muscles in a brand new way. The Wall Street Journal reports;"
Chan Jixiang, head of the State Cultural Artifacts Bureau, said this week that the government is considering offering payment to get some of its stolen art back, Xinhua reports (in Chinese). While China will not concede any of its original claims of rightful ownership, Chan said that China may be willing to provide “fair and reasonable” compensation to the “benevolent holders” of its looted artifacts, in accordance with international treaties and conventions. Further details on the proposed program were not available.

To date, China has refused to pay for looted art treasures, although some wealthy patriotic citizens and overseas Chinese occasionally make a big show of buying stolen works at auction and returning them to the motherland. " Certainly a good part of this is based on nationalism, a concept that is certainly not new. It is new that China plans to send a team of experts around the world to visit museums and identify objects for repatriation. Now that China has become the creditor to the west the leverage may be increased significantly. One wonders whether this might also create security concerns where literally China puts a price on objects they consider part of their patrimony. What happens to international lending for art shows? If China is successful in repatriating objects by this means, will Greece, Egypt and others follow? This certainly will be interesting.