Art and Value
Vermont State Police said three people arrested Monday in the thefts of large sculptures from inside and outside of artist Joel Fisher's studio last month were after the raw materials, not the works themselves, reports the Associated Press. The 30 works stolen are valued at a total of about $1 million; authorities recovered 23 of them from a scrap metal yard in Hinesburg, Vt., which paid more than $4,000 for the 3,000 pounds of metal. Bronze contains copper, which has skyrocketed in value from about 75 cents a pound in 2004 to upwards of $3 today.The question of course is how do we determine the value of a work of art. It's a question we deal with constantly in the gallery (and I've blogged about it here), but stepping back and considering more than the issues of supply and demand, stories like the Fisher theft suggest it partly depends on who you know. The thieves were not, I'm guessing, connected enough to hawk the work as "art," which could have brought them a much greater return for their efforts. Indeed, three suspected thieves were arrested Christmas Eve and have been identified as "Joshua Staples, 18; Anni Wells, 26; and Roger Chaffee, 29." Strong they must have been ("some of the sculptures weighed up to 800 pounds"), but underworld masterminds, not so much. Had they known either Fisher (or his reputation) or someone within the segments of organized crime who can unload a stolen artwork, they might have managed better than 0.4% of the market value. (OK, OK, so this assumes there's demand on the black market for Fisher's work, but you know what I mean.)
All of which reveals that the rarefied environment in which hundreds of thousands of dollars would exchange hands for bronze crafted just so (versus what it yields once melted down again) is quite contrived. (No sh*t Sherlock, I know, but stay with me here...I'm verging on having a point.) Indeed, it seems to requires the complicity of more than a few people.
Or does it?
Above I noted it partly depends on who you know. I think it also depends on what you expect or hope for. We went to see post-apocalyptic film "I Am Legend" over the holidays (because nothing says "Merry Christmas" like the world's last man running from zombies, eh?) and Bambino and I both elbowed each other during the scene in Will Smith's character's house where it was obvious he had pilfered a few paintings from the deserted city's museums for his own abode (he had "Starry Night," and a Rousseau [was it "The Dream?"] and a few others...suggesting MoMA was his museum of choice). Of course his character was a wealthy doctor, who (to maintain his sanity in this lonely new world) went out of his way to maintain some semblance of civilization between dodging danger. It was a fantasy I've imagined myself actually (if the city were deserted and I could help myself to any artwork, what would I take?), only without the undead chasing me.
There was something quite chilling about the notion in "I am Legend," actually. It reminded me of "The Rape of Europa" which documented the efforts of a team of artists and historians within the Allied troops in WWII who risked their own lives to salvage the architectural and art treasures of bombed out European cities. Likewise in the Smith film, because the zombies had the run of the city and no qualms about trashing it, perhaps he stole the works not so much for his own personal enjoyment (he wasn't exactly a man of leisure) as to protect them for the future when he hoped normal life might return.
This casts an entirely new light on the question of art and value, to my mind. Like the WWII "Venus fixers," the Smith character was counting on normalcy returning after the nightmare was over. When that time came...when civilization was restored...folks would regret not having the great art of their ancestors. It might not have much value in fighting zombies, but as a vessel for both hope and remembrance, it was, in fact, invaluable.
This is the last post I'll have time to make before the New Year. Here's hoping much health, success, and fun find you in 2008!