PAI’s The week in focus: Ars gratia artis*

My Horse Anarchist, by Sir Alfred Munnings. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

When is a copy not a fake but a work of significant merit in its own right? And, even when there is no secret that a piece in question is a copy of one of the art world’s great masterpieces, should it merit a place in the connoisseur’s collection?

If you need convincing, turn to this CNN article or to the Sotheby’s catalogue for the auctioneer’s sale in New York this week – Master Paintings & Sculpture Day SaleCopies of works by Leonardo, Bosch, Caravaggio, Velasquez and others will be auctioned. Their originals are priceless and only on view in the world’s great public museums. The originals rarely, if ever, travel. These copies, initial estimates reckon, will each be sold for a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Please excuse my staccato writing style above. But these are works that are themselves a few centuries old, that enjoy their own provenance and that should be savoured for themselves alone. Contrast them with some of the modern works being offered by the auction houses in this early part of the year.

First, and to much media fanfare by the likes of or, is Damien Hirst’s Medicine Cabinet on the block at Phillips in London on February 4. It is precisely what its title says – a medicine cabinet, half a dozen shelves loaded with packets and bottles of pills and potions. The media’s pre-sale estimates put the hammer price at anything from £1.2m to £1.8m, and that for a work that Hirst put together for his 1989 degree show at Goldsmith’s, University of London and which he sold to the present owner for £600. He even delivered the work himself to the buyer’s residence.

Damien Hirst’s Bodies (1989) above Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear (1992). Courtesy: Phillips

Knocked down to $3.5m

Somewhat more conventional are two paintings of horses (what else?) by Sir Alfred Munnings, which will be on offer at Sotheby’s in New York this coming Friday, January 31st. Take a look at the report by Times Union. Their provenance is impeccable, Marylou Whitney’s private collection, with one, commissioned by no lesser personage than the Aga Khan himself, estimated to be knocked down for $3.5m.

But now we have moved into a higher price bracket. So, let’s turn to works, often by artistic newcomers, that are being promoted through online sales at lesser prices by the likes of auction house Christie’s. On January 28th the Christie’s 100 auction sale will kick off with a great many opening bids of $100 – yes, a hundred dollars. It’s designed to attract newcomers into a market they might otherwise have overlooked.

Then, for those who are already ‘hooked’  but whose pockets go only so deep, take a look at the report by The Art Newspaper on what is in store at Sotheby’s in London on the evening of February 4th. Four works by Van Gogh will be on offer, estimated at no more than half a million sterling apiece. Of course, they are not oils from the artist’s ‘exuberant’ French years. Rather, three of them are drawings made in Holland. But they are a master’s original works.

Four works by Van Gogh

All four of the Van Gogh works come from a single collector, and it is sizeable collections being offered, voluntarily or involuntarily, that are exciting the auctioneers. Let’s start with the works from the Macklowe collection – having to be sold on the order of a judge in the couple’s divorce case. Take a look at the reports by the likes of Art Critique, The Daily World and others that report on the competition between auction houses to handle a sale reckoned to deliver hammer prices totalling $700m.

The collection, it is reported “… includes works by major artists like Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol. Vest with Aqualung by Koons and Nine Marilyns by Warhol are among the most exciting works to come to auction in the collection and have an estimated value of $10 million and $50 million, respectively”. No date has yet been set, but the sale will be sometime in the Northern Hemisphere’s Spring.

Vest with Aqualung by Jeff Koons. Courtesy of the artist.

Collections coming to market are what the auctioneers have been hoping for – collections such as that of Jan and Kito de Boer. The De Boers have amassed more than 150 modern and contemporary works by Indian artists and, according to The New Indian Express, their sale by Christie’s in New York will be the most-important single-owner sale of modern South Asian art ever.

Question is: Is the market for Indian art the market of the future? Take a look at the report in India Blooms that says Sotheby’s initial auction in Mumbai was a “great success” recently. But, a little further west, there had been expectations elsewhere that petrodollars might give the Middle East’s art market a boost. Apparently, it’s not yet working as hoped according to The Art Newspaper and The National, both of which report that Christie’s has cancelled its Dubai auctions and is contenting itself with a single one with a Middle Eastern theme in London this year.

The year, though, is still young. Too soon to wonder if the art market is due to lift off or repeat its performance of last year.

*Art for art’s sake.