Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fake Estate

When there’s a great [artist], the people don’t know it-—and they let him
starve; and when he is dead and it is too late, his name fills the whole world, and the riches come.
This notion sparks the ploy in Mark Twain's 1898 play, "Is He Dead?," to fake the death of an impoverished artist in order to cash in on his paintings. I've only read the first of the three acts, and it's classic Clemens (insightful, funny, a tad jaded), but only learned of its existence via a note in today's New York Times reporting that it's being revamped and brought to Broadway:

The dates have been set for Mark Twain’s new play (yes, explanation to come). “Is He Dead?,” a farce about a group of artists who stage their mentor’s death to make his paintings more valuable, is to open Nov. 29 at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, with previews to begin Nov. 8. Michael Blakemore (“Deuce,” “Copenhagen”) will direct, and Norbert Leo Butz will star. The play, written in 1898, was rediscovered five years ago in the Twain archives at the University of California, Berkeley. David Ives (“All in the Timing”) is adapting the play, reducing the number of characters and further developing the plot.
The villain of the play, of course, is a "picture-dealer" who threatens to ruin the young hero artist unless he (the dealer) can marry the artist's beloved Cecile (the names throughout bear a resemblance to those found in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" [both produced previous to "Is He Dead?"...coincidence? Just popular names at the time?]).

I love how "picture-dealer" was the generally accepted term up through even the 1930s or later. I don't love, of course, how the dealer is portrayed as taking advantage of the artists, but...we've been all over that.

What's most interesting about this narrative, though, is how it demonstrates that the messy business of selling art has changed very little over the past 100+ years. Mostly it's done with charm, flattery, and a feigned sense of urgency. And it doesn't matter who's doing the selling. In the following speech, the lead artist instructs his comrades on how to quickly sell a room full of new paintings. No dealer is present:

Fall in! Attention! Now boys, prepare to receive the visitors and transact
business. Fasten onto them—hang to them—don’t let anybody get away without buying a picture at some price or other. Get two hundred francs for the small minor pictures when you can—take less when you must—but sell.
In the following scene, which I've edited to avoid the confusing sidebars (reading it, you understand why the producers are reducing the number of characters), Thorpe is a rich English merchant...a prospective buyer...standing before a painting by the protagonist (and soon to be fake dead, but currently unknown, artist) Jean François Millet. Everest is a young artist trying to help sell out the show:

(Before the [largest painting])
Dear me, that looks good. I wish I knew something about pictures.

(Turning to Everest.)
Beg pardon did you speak to me?

I was only saying it is good.

Thanks again. It looks very good. Do you think he will become known?

Without a doubt. Not a doubt in the world. That picture will be worth
a thousand pounds some day—maybe more.

Dear me! Well I’ve heard of such things. But one can never tell when it’s
going to happen. I wonder what its price is.

(Hesitating—pulling up his courage.)
Er – – – three thousand francs.
Makes me gasp!

I’ve a mind to take it. I’ve a mind – – –

He’s landed—I’ve got him, sure! By Jove our troubles are over and old
Millet’s safe!

Yes – – I will take it.

O, Lovely!

Tell me, young man, how do you know it’s a good picture?

Because I am an artist myself.
Well, that settles it then.

As we pontificate about flippers and speculators, as if they represented a new and dangerous scourge on the art world, such reminders that it has always been such are good to help us keep some perspective. The Merchant, without any knowledge of art, and not entirely sure the work was any good, was prompted to buy because he was promised it would appreciate. The seller (an artist), anxious to turn the canvas into cash, said anything he felt the buyer wanted to hear. It's a comedy, of course.

Labels: art market


Anonymous Anonymous said...

you know edward that the estate of the late steven parrino is now represented by gagosian gallery

seems very incongruous and apropos of your post somehow

just thought i'd mention it

8/01/2007 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

There's also, of course, the James Garner/Dick van Dyke movie "The Art of Love" where they fake van Dyke's death to bump up the value of his hpaintings (which he continues to make to keep up with demand):

8/01/2007 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Never saw that film, Ethan. Thanks for the heads up.

I have no inside knowledge of why Parrino's estate would pass to Gagosian, anonymous. There could be any number of reasons, from it was something his previous gallery facilitated to there was a connection there already before his tragic death. Most likely Steven's heir will benefit from the reach Gagosian has (not that Team isn't also highly regarded, they just don't have the global empire G has), which in the end is the ultimate concern. Which should in no way be interpreted to suggest I have any knowledge here or that I have any reason to think Team wouldn't do a great job representing the estate. It's simply what occurs to me as a likely explanation for the shift.

Such concerns {knock on wood} are decades least...for our gallery. In fact, we thoroughly expect all our artists to long outlive's in our contracts (just kidding).

8/01/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

It's amazing how relevant Mark Twain's work is to the current art world. I've always seen Tom Sawyer as an early precursor of people like Koons, Kostabi and Hirst (getting someone else to do your painting for you).

8/01/2007 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

So, David, if I might extrapolate from what you're saying it's that human nature and business have been ever thus and will be ever so (by degree, anyway).

8/01/2007 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Joanne, I don't think I had anything quite so universal in mind, but sure.

Both human nature and business have quite a range of possibilities, and who knows, maybe they evolve somewhat over time (business, anyway), but the basic tendencies are nothing new.

8/01/2007 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Recently the NYT had an article about how the Robert Ludlum estate was still churning out books attributed to Ludlum (written by Lustbader) even if the great writer was dead a decade ago. Seems that it is actually OK to do this as long as 'readers get the same quality and experience from the writing as when Ludlum was alive'.
The day would not be too far away when artists estates will start to churn out paintings attributed to the artist long after the person is dead.
I am sure the estate will come up with a corny reason for doing so and the public will only be too happy to lap it all up.
Hey, apparently in today’s world, it is ok to outsource your painting to assistants when the artist and still make millions...

8/01/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

I dunno, Ed, I think dying is a very risky career move. I live in mortal fear that I will die and instead of this causing my prices to peak, people will say, "This is by 'Pretty Lady'? Who? Whatever."

Perhaps I should start searching for a charismatic executor right away...

8/01/2007 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

think dying is a very risky career move

Yes, I agree...a certain degree of name recognition would seem a prudent prerequisite to attempting such a stunt.

8/01/2007 02:50:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Honestly, I would prefer to just be remembered as a nice person.

8/01/2007 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

You are, bambino, you are. I remember you as not only nice, but charming, which is better. ;-)

8/01/2007 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Ruyter said...

Oh god please tell me that Steven was faking it on his new bike. I still think i see him on the street sometimes. He had a great sense of humor, especially about the art business, but faking anything, that just would not have been him.

8/01/2007 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Sunil has a great point... if Jeff Koons, Kostabi, and Hirst just work on IDEAS until they die, their factories can produce work for deacades after they pass away, and the quality will be exactly the same! :)

8/01/2007 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

Ed, this has been a great week.

Shady dealers, robber baron credit card companies, and now dying before one's time...

This blog should be renamed GOTH 101.


Love it.

8/01/2007 07:49:00 PM  
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