art market

PAM’s big coup & the art of money

Francis Bacon's $142 million triptych lands at the museum, bringing the game-shifting economics of the New World Order with it

Talk about a coup. The Portland Art Museum announced today that the most buzzed-about international painting of the year – actually, it’s three paintings, a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon titled “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” – is landing at the museum, where it’ll go up in a solo exhibition opening December 21 and continuing through March 30 of next year. As they say in advertising and greeting-card land: Happy holidays.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969

It’s tough to exaggerate the size and splashiness of this coup. The paintings are modern masterworks, and the fact that one of the 20th century’s signature painters, Bacon, chose as his subject another signature 20th century painter, Freud (who also happened to be a grandson of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud), makes them doubly significant. Add to that the well-known fact that Bacon and Freud were good friends and also, in a way, professional rivals, and the backstory threatens to come out front.

But what really makes this huge news is economics – the “dismal science” all dolled up in a sexy new outfit and ready to party. “Three Studies” rocked the art world (and made waves in the large part of the world that couldn’t care two figs about art) when it sold at auction last month for an astounding $142.4 million. The sale price is a record at auction. So far. In other words: Portland museumgoers are about to see not just a landmark of 20th century art, they’re also going to get to gawk at a trophy of the New World Order.

We don’t know who bought the triptych (“It’s from a private collection and the lender asks to remain anonymous,” Portland museum spokeswoman Beth Heinrich said Monday), and that anonymity is an undeniable part of the story’s allure. Who is this free-spending art lover? Is he (it’s probably a he) truly a lover of art, or did he buy it mainly because he can, as a symbol of economic swagger, rather like buying a $5,000 bottle of wine and never drinking it? Could it possibly be both? The fact that the buyer is willing to put his purchase on public display almost immediately, and in a relatively little-known regional museum, at that, hints that there might be genuine passion for the art behind the purchase. And not just Portland but the whole art world is going to be bubbling with the question: Who is that masked man? You can’t buy better P.R. than that.

But what about that 142 million bucks? The art world has a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with money. Several years ago, when I was editing at a large (at the time) metropolitan daily newspaper, I suggested that reviews of gallery shows should include in their information boxes a range of prices for works in the exhibits being discussed. I was shouted down. Money has nothing to do with the quality of the art, the critic proclaimed. Art is above economics, maybe even in an alternate universe from it. To discuss prices would be to commodify something sacred. I gave up. It wasn’t, frankly, that big a deal.

Yet in another sense, money is everything in the art world. Artists build their sale prices to a certain level, and from there they can go up but they can’t afford to go down, or their reputations will take a beating. During the 2008 recession and afterwards, a lot of very good artists saw their work sit unsold because they couldn’t drop their prices to reflect the new realities of a depressed market. On the everyday level of regional and non-superstar artists, those days have eased but haven’t ended. At the top of the market, things are going crazy. The $100 million sale price, not so long ago almost unheard of, is like that quaint 1,200 barrier in the Dow Jones industrial average: a nostalgic reminder of simpler times. Collectors are buying on the margin, betting that today’s astronomical price tag will be tomorrow’s bargain – and also, in the world of vast sudden fortunes, buying to add a patina of culture to their newfound assumption of raw economic power. This isn’t a new story – ever heard of the Medici? – but as the world’s wealth flows ever upward, it’s a resurgent one.

What does this mean to museums? For one thing, it means that loans such as this one will be the best they can hope for. The secondary market – those resales at the big auction houses – has become so bloated that even the wealthiest of museums, such as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can afford only occasional and strategically plotted major purchases. Again, this is an old story, different now only because it’s become even more exaggerated. For the museum-going public, it means that fewer great works will be available for viewing in permanent museum collections, because more and more top-rank works will be in private hands. And what THAT means is that museums must double down on one of their quietest yet most important roles: currying private collectors in the hope that at least a part of their collections will eventually come to the museums as a result of donations or bequests. If you believe that great art should ultimately belong to the public – and I do – then you should also believe that museums should be throwing vast amounts of energy into their relationships with collectors, because museums will never be able to compete with private collectors on the open market: they must rely on the collectors’ largesse.

Bacon, "Study for a Self-Portrait," 1985-86, private collection/Wikimedia Commons

Bacon, “Study for a Self-Portrait,” 1985-86, private collection/Wikimedia Commons

The same thing applies to loans such as this one. (The Portland museum can’t even begin to join the discussion of buying such a work.) Portland museum director Brian Ferriso and chief curator Bruce Guenther should be congratulated for pulling this off: odds are very high that their “luck” is largely a result of long work making connections inside the art world, so when the chance came, they were able to capitalize on it. The Bacon triptych will be presented as the latest in the museum’s “Masterworks/Portland” series that has also included temporary solo exhibitions of Raphael’s “La Velata,” Titian’s “La Bella,” and Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls on the Snake River.”

It’s intriguing that the Bacon/Freud announcement came just two days after the opening of one of Portland’s most interesting annual art events, at least from a social point of view: the People’s Art of Portland’s Big 400 Art Show, which continues through January 12 at downtown’s Pioneer Place Mall. The idea couldn’t be more different – more than 400 artists (more than 500, actually, despite the title), from unknowns and amateurs to well-known gallery artists – creating 8-by-8-inch works that sell for $40. More than 4,000 works are available, many of them quite good, some of them otherwise, but the point is closer to that unnamed critic’s contention that art and economics live in different universes. A lot of these artists will undoubtedly lose money on the deal, but they do it anyway, for love of the game. Plus, a share of the money goes to the Oregon Food Bank – people’s art, indeed.

On the other hand, we don’t live in a pristine world, and what value the world at large places on art is invariably the sort of value that arrives with a price tag. Witness the ongoing spectacle (a very nasty one) of the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the nation’s finest museums, whose masterpieces are in danger of being sold off – to private collectors, almost certainly – in order to help pay off the bankrupt city’s debts. The auction house Christie’s has its fingers all over this one, supplying the bankruptcy referee with estimates of the market value of individual works in anticipation of an auction. It’s just business, after all, although one can hope that Christie’s is also trying to make the case that a sale would bring a short-term profit that wouldn’t be worth the long-term loss.

And the art marketplace is further being roiled by the emergence of China as a major international player. The New York Times has just filed a fascinating report on the rapid rise of the mostly state-owned Beijing Poly International Auction, which has become the world’s third-largest art auction house, and what that might mean to the world market. If you want to play, you’d better have a very big wad of cash, and quite possibly a lot of lubrication.

In the meantime, we’re going to have “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” to contemplate, in the flesh, and we’ll have a chance to think of the triptych in both its artistic and economic elements. In a way, that heady sales price represents a rebuke of sorts to the world of the mid-20th century critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was a major champion of the abstract expressionists, and the economic triumph of Bacon and Freud is also a triumph for figurative art, which ab-ex and minimalism had so roundly rejected. The Portland museum’s purchase of Greenberg’s personal collection of mid-century art in 2000 may well have been its most recent big splash in international waters before the Bacon coup. What emerges, perhaps, is that Greenberg had a perceptive eye for something important that was happening in New York in the mid-20th century – and that the art he championed is now not the end of art, after all, but an honorable and honored chapter in the vast and continuing book of art history.

And what about these three Bacon paintings? Take a look, think, compare, contrast, soak in, feel, think again. Consider that $142 million price tag, but from a distance. What does it mean? Is it a reasonable measure of the paintings’ worth, whatever “worth” means? How does it compare to the Titian or the Raphael? Are we now to think of Bacon in the same way we think of Rembrandt, Brueghel, Delacroix, Dürer, Michelangelo, Turner, Picasso? Is he an Old Master? A New Master? A Not-Quite-New-But-Not-Old Master? Does it matter? How does he represent his time and place? How deep does his work go? When you see it, what do you feel? Are you in the presence of greatness? These are good things to ask. Let the questioning begin.