Issue 22

Feb 2020

Issue 22

What’s the true price of art? Jubal Brown made headlines in 1996 when an inoffensive abstract painting – Composition with Red, White and Blue by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian – at New York’s Museum of Modern Art provoked within him such a violent reaction that he vomited all over the canvas.

A short while later, while Brown was perusing pieces at the Art Gallery of Ontario, another painting – The Port of Le Havre by Raoul Dufy – triggered the same bodily response. It later transpired that Brown was a multimedia ‘artist’ who viewed vomiting as a legitimate form of artistic expression. The gallery’s cleaners doubtless disagreed.

Back in 1970, Detective Inspector Frederick Luff, head of Scotland Yard’s wonderfully-named Obscene Publications Squad, presumably believed that erotic artwork from a newly-wed John Lennon was sure to provoke similar reactions, but for real. A day after the London Arts Gallery on New Bond Street opened a show dedicated to Lennon’s lascivious lithographs, the OPS shut it down. “It is perhaps charitable to say that they are the work of a sick mind,” declared Luff. Lennon’s sketches could originally be bought for £40. Today they fetch upwards of £10,000 (p.48).

History is littered with examples of unsuspecting folk fortuitously discovering precious artefacts. In 1820, a Greek peasant on the island of Milos dug up four statues, one of which was acquired by France’s Louis XVIII and presented to the Louvre. Venus De Milo has become one of the most famous statues in history. More recently, an art appraiser examining a painting in a Milwaukee house spotted another picture believed by the homeowners to be a reproduction of a van Gogh. It turned out to be the 1886 original. Still Life with Flowers sold in 1991 for $1.4 million.

“Sometimes you find something in one of these houses which, because of changing tastes, is now incredibly valuable and can be sold to pay for the roof – or a wedding,” says Lord Dalmeny, who, in his role as chairman of Sotheby’s UK, looks for ways of maximising the potential of art collections in Britain’s stately homes (p.28). One way of doing so is by opening up private collections to the general public, as Dalmeny has done at his own Rosebery Estate. Better still, history tells us, find a famous painting and have someone steal it.

In 1911, Italian house painter Vincenzo Peruggia sauntered into the Louvre and nabbed the Mona Lisa. During the year that da Vinci’s masterpiece was missing, more people visited the museum to marvel at a blank space than had visited in the previous 12 years. Similarly, when The Scream was stolen from Norway’s Edvard Munch Museum, an empty wall attracted more visitors than the painting itself.

Not all high-profile art theft is conducted in museums. In 1999 American ophthalmologist Steven Cooperman claimed $17.5million on insurance for the theft of a Picasso and a Monet from his LA home. Seven years later Cooperman was sent to prison when it was discovered he’d arranged for the paintings to be pinched himself. What a piece of work.

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