Monday, July 09, 2007

Fickle Collections: Deaccession of Work by the Living

A deaccession of over 1,000 paintings, statues and other objects from the Dutch national art collection is getting a good deal of attention (including this report in The New York Times [scroll down]) because it's being sold via eBay. I have mixed feelings about this choice, I must say. On one hand, I feel it's probably a good thing in that it could give collectors more options with regards to selling work (and that's really just a nice way of saying, I don't mind that Sotheby's and Christie's etc. might have some competition here). On the other hand, however, the Caveat-emptor nature of misinformation on eBay is not something I'd wish on any budding collector (and yes, here I am compelled to note you get expert information when you purchase through a well-established auction house).

For example, in looking on eBay for the works the Dutch are going to sell there (I'm guessing they're either not up yet or the sale already happened), I decided to search simply on "painting." The first item in the results list sounded really interesting:


EARLY AMERICAN OIL PAINTING ON STRETCHED CANVAS, 20x24
Wow, I thought. Perhaps eBay is going to give the auction houses a run for their money. Someone is selling an painting from the early American period (something I'm particularly attuned to at the moment because of
Sarah Peters' excellent exhibition up in the gallery at the moment [no, I'm not above the shameless plug]). But clicking on the search result link, I came to this page (scroll down to the bottom...bidding has ended on this item) with this painting:



And this caption:


THIS IS A VERY NICE PAINTING THAT IS FRAMED. I HAVE ENJOYED IT VERY MUCH BUT IT NO LONGER GOES WITH MY DECOR. PREOWNED, VERY GOOD CONDITION...
OK, so there's clearly an opening for an obnoxious joke or two about the new decor (leopard skins and all), but my objection to this listing is that "Early American" might be relatively subjective with regards to many things, but when it comes to art, it's really best reserved for items created prior to 1830.

But that's not the crux of what I wanted to highlight here (I simply had to get that off my chest). The deaccession, including works by living artists, from a national collection raises some questions to my mind.

First is actually the context of the sale. By not bringing the work to a specialized art seller, what is the Dutch government saying about the value of the work? One artist's response to the plan suggests he shares my overriding sense that eBay is, in general, the place you go to sell off your junk:

The government’s decision, a response to the cost of conserving the works, has outraged some artists and cheered others. “They called me the Picasso
of Amsterdam,” complained one painter, Robert Kruzdlo. “I do not paint rubbish.”
I'll concede that Kruzdlo's comment might be directed at the deaccession itself, and not the venue. Also, some artists are very happy to sell their work on eBay and do well at it.

The second issue here for me, though, is the one I'm most curious about: what are the ethical obligations (if any) with regards to selling off work from a collection by artists who are still living. I'm not talking about financial compensation (I assume Holland will share the profits, if any, of the sales with the artists), but rather the societal protocols. Does the state, or any institution (I'll leave private collectors out of this, as I feel that's very different), have an ethical obligation to consider how best to carry out deaccessions, being especially aware of what their actions might do to an artist's career or pride?

Consider this incredibly careless (to my mind) statement by Dutch government:

Marina Raymakers, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, which manages thousands of state-owned art works, said, “These are works that have not been on display in 100 years or works that do not fit in with the kind of exhibitions in museums.” She added that many were produced in the 1980s under government subsidies to support artists.
OK, so putting the implied swipe at state-subsidized art aside for the moment (although I tend to agree it's problematic, coming from a government official, can I just say, "Yikes!"), how fickle are the curators/directors for this collection that in 20-some years many of their choices already don't fit in with the exhibitions they're interested in producing?

The entire project strikes me as somewhat heartless, I must say, but not all the artists involved think so:
[A]nother painter, Willem Oorebeek, said, “I don’t see the auction as a loss, but more of a renaissance of my work, a rediscovery.”
Which is a healthy way of looking at it, I'll admit (i.e., better that someone should enjoy the work than it sit in storage). Still, other questions remain, such as do the artists whose work is being sold now have to take that collection off their bios? Or was the original purchase and the prestige that went with it theirs to tout forever? Would the government be wrong to protest their leaving it on their bio if they chose to?

There are perhaps more pertinent ethical questions (and feel free to raise them), but these ones alone strike me as problematic enough that deaccessing work a high-profile institution purchased relatively recently might be given a bit more thought than just that they "do not fit in with the kind of exhibitions in museums." We know the kinds of exhibitions in museums can change with new curatorial leadership. (Which brings to mind a delicious scenario in which the government one day is faced with the decision of whether to buy back a piece they sold off, but, I digress....)

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16 Comments:

Blogger George said...

Someone correct me with the details, but I believe the Dutch government bout artworks from artists as a form of social welfare. As far as I know this was discontinued.

7/09/2007 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not sure if it's been totally discontinued (but would agree with that decision), but know that there was something very much akin to social welfare in place in the Netherlands for artists (from an artist who was a beneficiary of that practice. That still leaves some ethical questions to my mind about deaccessing them while the artist is alive.

7/09/2007 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Ed,
Agreed the Dutch government could have done a better job of spinning the thing, but isn’t this a natural evolution of ‘brick and mortar’ business model to ‘click and barter’ internet based model. These are the fledgling steps towards dismantling of institutions like Sotheby’s, Christies and cliques like them to a more open way of art exchanging hands…
I thought you were championing this sort of thing in your previous post (which was a good one) that railed against the book by that guy (I think his name is Mr. Keen or something) who is predicting the fall of civilization because of YouTube, blogs and Wikipedia...

7/09/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I thought you were championing this sort of thing in your previous post

I have no problem with selling art online. I just think when it comes to secondary market works (especially those of supposed museum quality), buyers benefit from (and to my mind deserve) the sort of expertise from their online venue that will help them avoid costly mistakes.

Imagine if the buyer for that "Early American" painter was new to collecting, or was buying that piece as a present for a friend who seriously collected Early American art. There it is, in print, that this was an "Early American" painting. They buy it, present it to their friend, and then discover their mistake.

That's an extreme example, granted, but I strongly feel expertise is important in such matters. Should Sotheby's or Christies or any other institution with curatorial expertise decide to harness the power of the web (and effectively do so), I'll be the first to champion that.

It's not that eBay is online that raises my concerns. It's that as a context for secondary market fine art, it has some limitations. For artists selling their own work or other primary market options, I don't feel those limitations exist as much. Taking the experts out of the equation when the artist is no longer part of the transaction is where you run into potential for costly mistakes, in my opinion. The virtuality (is that a word?) of the venue isn't the issue.

7/09/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Ed,
Point well taken. Yes, you are right about the secondary art market being stronger in the hands of Sotheby's et. al. (in my view again, this is only for now). I think we are close to seeing this form of business also being moved over online (at least a significant part of it). Sotheby's recently has added a whole video segment before the start of important auctions and this is heraldic of things to come in this niche. Yes, eBay does have a lot of limitations in the secondary market especially in this context.

7/09/2007 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

eBay's not soooo bad:

http://cgi.ebay.com/Byron-Kim-Belly-Painting-blue-1990_W0QQitemZ130132884807QQihZ003QQcategoryZ20135QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

7/10/2007 12:49:00 AM  
Anonymous pp said...

"Mr. Sifton oversees the daily Arts pages, the Weekend sections and Arts & Leisure. He is a former editor of the Dining section."
from New York Times

7/10/2007 07:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, Do you know that small auction houses like Ro Gallery (New York), GoAntiques.com and others use Ebay Live Auction. http://www.ebayliveauctions.com/
Look this Jasper Johns silkscreen, http://cgi.liveauctions.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&category=28245&item=190127604753

7/10/2007 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the info, Anonymous. Some of what's on eBay Live Auction looks very good indeed, but kind of supporting my scepticism there is this listing.


Why does this artist/seller get away with calling it a Warhol? Who's policing the claims here? Buyer beware indeed.

7/11/2007 08:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's not calling it a Warhol, per se. He's just using that as a search tag. I suppose he thinks that people who are looking for a Warhol on eBay might also be interested in his horrible paintings. This thread did open my eyes, though. I never thought there'd be a Byron Kim or a Jasper Johns on eBay.

I must search more now. I think I'm hooked.

7/11/2007 04:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real question is: why is a Byron Kim only $125????

I am highly suspect.

7/12/2007 12:20:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

christie's and sotheby's aren't going anywhere anytime soon, for better or for worse.

7/12/2007 12:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about Phillips? Flash in the pan? Or a real contender? And for what it's worth, I can't imagine that the Byon Kim painting is a real offering. The Johns looks legit (for a print) but why would a Kim painting only be 125? Is his market that dry? When was the last time he had a show?

7/12/2007 12:47:00 AM  
Blogger Val said...

This is an interesting topic. Market expansion means more people are going to find ways to move more art. ebay's one of them I suppose. What sellers may not realize is that, for the most part, ebay exists on the outermost fringes of the artmarket. the good thing is that any sales on ebay are unlikely to affect an artist's market, the bad thing is that it steals sales from galleries, real auction houses and artists themselves.

The Johns print that anonymous posted seems like it's an appropriate item to be sold online. Prints, by their very essence, have always been borne of market demand. If I was in the market for a Johns print, I'd probably look on ebay. But the Byron Kim paintings seem out of place. Would it ever occur to anyone who was actually in the market for a Belly Painting to look on eBay? Do you think someday we'll be seeing those Chapman Bros. penis-nosed mannequins on ebay?

7/12/2007 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a lot of work that auction houses turn their noses up at, so stuff's bound to end up on eBay.

7/12/2007 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous robert kruzdlo said...

Hello Edward,

Thank you for the informatio. Robert Kruzdlo/Picasso

Please look at:http://www.volkskrantblog.nl/blog/2431

Girona Spain

7/25/2007 06:52:00 AM  

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