Certainly the Old Master field deserves greater attention from collectors, but it is a challenging one for many and mysterious and forbidding one for most. Questions abound of attribution, condition, and provenance, both historic and recent, and determining the value of any single picture is complicated by a host of shifting criteria: the date of the work within an artist’s career, the decorative appeal of its subject (or its absence), the historical importance of the artist, and so on.
How then “to grow” the staid market for Old Master paintings? The answer, it would seem, is to bring some of the excitement, vigor, and money of the contemporary art market to the stolid world of old European paintings. Especially the money.
There have always been “cross-over” collectors, those active across different fields, and today’s are being celebrated as heroes and paradigms. Christie’s website currently features three videos of owners discussing the pleasures of alternating Old Master and contemporary works in their homes. Also on the site is an article with a collector describing how his Pontormo portrait “faces down the gallery and looks at a 1975 de Kooning. I think they really speak to each other,” he says. (Imagine that conversation!) Across town at Sotheby’s, a video shows dealer Fabrizio Moretti exhorting the new collector to hang early Italian religious panels alongside twentieth century minimalists: “I can see a gold ground with a Rothko, a Fontana, a Castellani!” We are not just being given permission to expand our notions of domestic decoration. It seems as if all those old paintings will be lonely without some cool downtown company.
But buying the Old Masters to go with the modern works requires time, study, and awareness of the issues raised above, which is why the Old Master market remains fairly static—populated by a relatively small band of dedicated collectors who analyze a potential purchase with the intensity of playing a match of championship chess. To them, buying a contemporary work is about as demanding as a game of tic-tac-toe.
How then do you entice the tic-tac-toe crowd—who know little about the period, and probably don’t care to learn about it—to make the jump and raise the paddle? The latest effort seems to be by insinuating familiar contemporary references into the arcane world of the Old Masters: what better way to make the neophyte comfortable than to show that the lion can lie down with the lamb, that Pontormo talks to de Kooning, and that we are all equal in artistic paradise?
Perhaps most blatant and irrelevant (and offensive) are the analogies carted out to supplement the impressive Portrait of a Young Man with a Book by Agnolo Bronzino. As a preface to the erudite entry on the painting by scholar Carlo Falciani, patrons are treated to a bizarre mash-up of the history of portraiture starring Cindy Sherman, Joseph Cornell, Lucien Freud and Andy Warhol. Somehow they are all being presented as coequals of Bronzino, if not tacitly superior to him due to their contemporaneity. Warhol’s Mao is presented as a counterpart to the Bronzino portrait, echoing “Bronzino’s fascination with power and fashion”— neither quality, it might be noted, being especially evident in the painting being auctioned. The catalogue stupidly informed that “Although there is no evidence of any knowledge of his work, there is a parallel between the portraiture of Bronzino and that of Andy Warhol, the most celebrated purveyor of ‘iconic’ images of the 20th century.”
YEAH SURE, THE SKILL THAT WAS REQUIRED TO MAKE BRONZINOS PAINTING ABSOLUTELY EQUALS THE EFFORT IT TOOK TO MAKE SOUP CANS.
Auction houses, of course, are not in the business of education, but in that of selling art. However, with their new approach to finding new buyers they risk alienating their core audience and trivializing the art they hope to sell.