PAI’s The week in focus: Coronavirus and the gathering clouds

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Self-portait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed (1630) by Rembrandt

Coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus – how many more times must one hear the word without throwing up? And how many more times can one stomach dire warnings of the disease’s potentially catastrophic effect on the art market?

No, obviously we can’t ignore it. But, on the other hand, art collectors, buyers and sellers should be aware of what some auction houses and fair organisers are doing to ensure, as far as possible, market continuity and normality. Let’s start with reports by Barrons, The New York Times and others on Asia Week New York currently under way. Certainly, the number of galleries exhibiting is down on last year – with those not attending deterred not only by the coronavirus but also by the possible effects of the new import taxes slapped on works from China. Encouragingly, perhaps, the museums on Manhattan and surrounding boroughs have persisted with their complementary exhibitions even though there have been cancellations of opening receptions.

Let’s turn, then to Business Day and an analysis of how the pandemic is reckoned to be in the process of changing the art world for ever. Travel restrictions are pushing fairs, galleries and museums to go on line to present their collections to would-be visitors and buyers. The question is, how can an on-line presentation match that of seeing the real object? And how are buyers protected from possible fraudsters?

The changes wrought by the pandemic come just as the art market is getting to grips with the sophisticated frauds perpetrated over the decade up to 2018 by Inigo Philbrick. Artnet.com carries the full report on how Philbrick fleeced unwary (and perhaps too-trusting) modern-art collectors of millions. They were collectors who believed promises rather than their own eyes and those of their advisers.

Mind you, if you are in the game of art speculation and spotting the rising stars whose works might command soaring prices, take a look at the Artnet.com report on the New York mid-season contemporary sales earlier this by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. According to the publication, the sales’ results are purportedly indicators of who the coming artistic ‘winners’ might be.

There are, of course, no guarantees. And, if you are in the market as a conservative collector, where might you best be advised to turn? To turn with confidence? Perhaps the safest way is to turn your attention to the carefully built and fully documented collections that are being broken up. Take that of a collection original Old Master prints and engravings – works by the likes of Dürer, Rembrandt and others – with an impeccable provenance and collected over two generations of the same family. It was thoroughly researched over the years by its discerning owner and is being offered by Sotheby’s. In my mind it raises the question of how one chooses between Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or Rembrandt’s Self Portrait in Cap and Open Mouthed?

Rameshwar Broota’s The Trial (1978) had a pre-sale estimate from $100,000 to $150,000.
Courtesy of Christie’s.

Or perhaps there’s another more-modern and, dare I say it, more-international approach. This week, on March 18th, Christie’s was to have been offering 83 Indian works from the collection of Kito and Jane de Boer but has cancelled its open sales indefinitely. At the same time a further 70 works from the collection will be on offer on-line. Again, this is a collection with an impeccable provenance described by Bloomberg and further analysed in an interview by The Indian Express with a Christie’s specialist. At the time of writing, Christie’s had been joined by Phillips in cancelling auctions.

To close this week under gathering coronavirus clouds, there’s one delightful piece of serendipity reported by Robb Report and the WRAL local radio station. A woman has apparently just discovered a painted carving by Salvador Dali in a Kitty Hawk thrift store. The stuff that dreams are made of.