PAI’s The week in focus: ‘P’ is for provenance

Laundress Carrying Linen, Edgar Degas (1888-92)

Trust someone to come up with facts or indulge in innuendo about questionable morals in the global art market. Take a look at the article by the Financial Times, and an art tyro might be forgiven for believing that a swathe of transactions, particularly those concluded between two principals rather than in the open-cry auction market, have something of the dubious about them.

The newspaper’s article delves into new EU and UK regulations designed to force disclosure not only of the identities of those involved in a transaction but, also, of the provenance of each artwork traded. The newspaper’s columnist asks, who today knows the whereabouts or ownership of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi auctioned with great fanfare for $450m a couple of years ago, or even a version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers sold in 1987 for a then spectacular $39.9m to a Japanese buyer (or possibly his company)?

Well, whatever rules might be devised to pry into the identities or reputations of those buying and selling art, it can be hard to visualise total openness. Take the report by ArtnetNews on the private sale of two Picasso’s for $105m. There’s no secret about the buyer, American casino mogul Steve Wynn, and the seller, the estate of the late financier, Don Marron, who died this past December. Ownership identities and provenances are impeccable and, while these transactions have made the headlines there are also unconfirmed reports that artworks worth a further $200m from the Marron collection have already found homes. One, according to Bloomberg, was a 1957 Mark Rothko work entitled No 22 (reds).

With, perhaps, the exception of the Leonardo work, these are all acclaimed and fully documented masterpieces. And, if you have the inclination to acquire another work with an impeccable provenance, pay attention to the reports by The New York Times and on an oil on canvas by Edgar Degas being offered by Hammer Galleries at the European Fine Art Fair, known as TEFAF, in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

The provenance of the work Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts is, again impeccable, acquired by the industrialist Armand Hammer in 1969, and it has been widely exhibited around the world since then. The asking price? No-one is reportedly saying, except that it is north of the all-time Degas auction record, the $37 million paid at Sotheby’s New York in 2008 for the pastel and gouache Danseuse au repos (circa 1879).

Whether it’s imagination or otherwise, the start of this year appears to be seeing the unbundling, sale and dispersal of a number of meticulously built and well-documented, eclectic collections assembled by serious collectors over the years. Take the reports by Bloombergquint and on the sale by Sotheby’s in early-March of the collection built by the food mogul ‘Hunk’ Anderson and his wife ‘Moo’.

There’s another Rothko here for anyone who missed the one from the Marron sale, and it could be going for a lot less – the entire Anderson collection is only estimated at $55m ahead of the auction sale.

Building a collection, it would be trite to say, calls for commitment and taste as well as deep pockets. But the ones mentioned above come from individuals in what might be called the older generation. What of the newcomers? Take a look at the report by CNN on how auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are thinking ahead towards future clients by arousing the interest of a younger generation, the ‘Gen X’. The houses are entering into partnerships or associations with a plethora of rock stars, sneakerheads and even a Spice Girl to provide a touch of glamour that might provide cachet appealing to younger, would-be collectors.

But I have unintentionally fallen into the trap of focussing solely on works by Eurocentric artists when there’s a whole world of non-European, non-American art equally as meritorious to be considered. One of the greatest and virtually unknown abstract works to come to the market recently will be on offer by Sotheby’s in New York on March 16. It is an untitled 1963 work by the late Indian master, VS Gaitonde and, according to The Week, despite its never until now having appeared in public, it is expected to command a price of at least $15m.

Untitled, 1963, by VS Gaitonde. Image courtesy of Bonhams

While much of the world is trying to predict what the coronavirus outbreak will bring, it is already affecting the globalised art market. As The Value, Artnet and others report Sotheby’s has decided to delay and shift its Hong Kong spring auctions to New York in April and to defer other sales to later in the year.

Thank goodness for the internet and even ‘steam telephone’ that will allow bidders to participate remotely. How they might collect their purchases from virus-affected spots is another matter.