Saturday, September 9, 2017

Women of Medieval Art at the Getty

A most interesting exhibition is closing soon at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on September 17th.
Titled "Illuminating Women in the Medieval World," makes use of the Getty's expansive collection of illuminated manuscripts and Medieval texts to explore the lives of women long ago. As in today's world, women's lives in the Middle Ages were varied -- reflecting difference in religious, geographic, and financial circumstances.
Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read from a book of hours, about 1430-40, France or England, Master of Sir John Fastolf. Image: The J. Paul Getty Museum

As an art appraiser and art historian I have a particular interest in women in the art world, particularly in California art. This is an interesting and very old account of such an important role women played in the formation of art and storytelling. As the exhibition catalog describes, "this exhibition presents the biblical heroines, female saints, and pious nuns who embodied ideals of proper behavior, as well as figures who strayed from the path of righteousness."*

What is perhaps even more fascinating are the the manuscripts made by women. Some important texts were commissioned by wealthy women patrons and others were painted (illuminated) by women themselves. There was duchess as well as a middle-class woman who commissioned some of the manuscripts. An entire group of nuns at a Medieval monastery commissioned a series of manuscripts for their personal use.

Imagining how difficult it would have been for females to make their way in a the Medieval world is fascinating, much less working in a field dominated by men. This revolutionary exhibition helps us better understand how women working in the shadows achieved remarkable beauty and contributed the history of book production.

*Sciacca, Christina. Illuminating Women in the Medieval World. The J. Paul Getty Museum. 2017.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A New Book on Francis De Erdely: Call for Paintings and Drawings

Francis de Erdely, Day’s End, c. 1947 (Courtesy: Laguna Art Museum)

As an art historian and writer, my focus has been primarily on California Art. While in graduate school, I realized how little scholarship had been written on artists working on the West Coast, a major art center of the mid-century. It became my interest to research and write about the art of Southern California for my thesis. I choose to document the painting of Francis de Erdely.

*My thesis is now being published as the first major biography on the artist, Francis de Erdely. We are in the process of locating ALL KNOWN paintings and drawings by De Erdely. If you have a work by the artist (or know of someone who has one), please contact me directly.

Francis De Erdely (1904 - 1959) was born in Hungary by the name Ferenc Erdelyi. Formally trained and having studied the great artists of Europe, De Erdely established himself as a respected young artist. Traveling throughout Spain, De Erdely's was strongly influenced by the elongated, sinuous, figures of the artist, El Greco. After creating controversial drawings documenting the Spanish civil war, the politically critical artist came under the scrutiny of the Fascists. He was soon forced to flee Europe during the 1930s and moved to New York City and, briefly, Chicago.

Eventually he made his way to Southern California where he settled. As an American artist now, De Erdely painted traditional subjects such as portraits to make a living. He was also one of many immigrant artists who made their way to Southern California, a beacon of artistic innovation and collaboration of the time. California had already been rich in a history of Spanish and Mexican culture. During the 1800s it also became an influential center of American art, specifically California Impressionism. Many art schools had been formed in Southern California, including Chouinard Art Institute, Otis College of Art, and USC among others. This attracted teachers and artists from around the world.

De Erdely became one of mid-century California’s most influential modernist painters and teachers.
While De Erdely was classically trained artist, throughout his career he remained committed to painting the figure. His portraits of migrants, gypsies, laborers, and dancer were painted as a modern commentary about the joys and plight of the human condition in Southern California. His works remains as salient today as when it was created a half century ago.

ART of Southern California in Art History

There is a growing movement of interest on the art of Southern California, including the major 2002 exhibition, Pacific Standard Time, organized by the Getty Museum. This is one of most exciting exhibitions ever organized and centered around the art of Southern California.  Pacific Standard Time developed into a collaboration amongst more than 60 museums and cultural institutions across California, highlighting the work of some artists who hadn't been recognized since the 1940s and 1950s. Viewers were able to see paintings by extraordinary but lesser known artists like Henry Lee McFee, Bentley Schaad, Millard Sheets, and Sueo Serisawa.

Culminating in a series of top notch exhibitions at major museums, the exhibition called Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980 were on display from October 2011-April 2012 across Southern California. The revolutionary collaborative exhibition inspired more than 40 publications to document Los Angeles' impact on art history during the modern and post-war years. 

Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. also garnered international press and spurred other offshoot exhibitions at galleries and institutions across the world. Los Angeles' art historical significance had finally begun to be recognized. Currently a continuation of Pacific Standard Time is being organized the Getty, called La/La: A Celebration Beyond, which will continue to spread the word about California's impact on art history.

Another exciting addition to California art history is new museum called the Hilbert Museum of California Art which has one of the strong collections of California art, second only to The Irvine Museum

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Art as Investment?

Many people are interested in investing in art instead of the stock market. When someone wants to build an art collection as investment, it is important to stress the risks involved. Since the 1800s art dealers have been advising clients to buy the art they love. This is the single, most important element of collecting. If a piece loses its market value after purchase, the buyer still has a personal attachment to it. Buying what you love is the safest way to invest in art.

Building an art collection from a pure investment position creates an entirely different set of issues. Some economists suggest art investment can be more lucrative than the stock market, but the mercurial trends of the art market can make art a riskier asset than stocks.

In 1637 a Dutch event called tulip mania took place, where prices for rare flower bulbs of the recently discovered tulip reached extraordinary heights and then suddenly collapsed. In the spring of 1637, a single tulip bulb sold for approximately ten times the annual income of a working craftsman. It is generally considered the first recorded economic bubble.

The tulip was unique from other flowers known to Europe in the period, with a saturated petal color unknown to mostly flower collectors. The nonpareil tulip became a status symbol and coincided directly with the rise of new trade fortunes of Holland's elite.

By 1636 the tulip bulb became the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands, after gin, herrings and cheese. The price of tulips skyrocketed because of speculation in tulip futures among people who never saw the bulbs. Many men made and lost fortunes overnight. The collapse began in the town of Haarlem when buyers suddenly did not show up for the routine bulb auction.

In the art market, especially with contemporary art, hedge fund managers like Steven A. Cohen have stimulated a heightened interest in art as investment. As a collector, his interest in specific artists has built a confidence in the art market at large.¹ Some suggest that his interest in certain artists has validated the value of comparable artists and even for art for the art market itself. The high prices he has paid for his collection appears to have mostly turned into a profit. Purchases of recognizable works by famous artists for high prices is more of a traditional collector's tactic, but gambling on the long-term profit from a lesser known contemporary artist may provide larger gains.

Economists like William Goetzmann, David Kusin, and Michael Moses have conducted studies evaluating the monetary gain for a collector using art as a primary investment. They attempt to compare the gain from stocks versus that of art by analyzing artworks which sell multiple times at auction. Goetzmann says that indeed the rate of return for art exceeds the rate of inflation.² But the cost of selling art works is very high, which decreases profit. Also, the likelihood of a willing buyer willing is unpredictable, even with reliable auction records. Unlike stocks, art is not a liquid asset. 

Value is not determined by a large group of people, but instead by individual or group's changing taste. The selling price of a piece at auction is determined by the mood of one or two, single bidder, rather than multiple shareholders.

In her article "Art as an Investment," Wendy Cromwell discusses the difference between art investment funds and traditional collectors. She says, "Individual collectors are driven by passion, . . . informed about auction history, and they consider provenance and condition as important variables in determining what to pay for a work of art, whether privately or at auction." Collectors are typically educated about the artists whom they collect and which pieces are expected to hold value. They compile multiple factors into their buying approach.

Many art investment funds try to diversify their collection in a similar format as a stock portfolio. This model has worked for funds like the British Rail Pension Fund who make a 12% profit by controlling the slow sell off work from a variety of art styles.³ Other investment groups such as the Fine Art Fund are following the same model.

Investment funds often try to collect iconic works by famous artists, rather than pieces they love, to insure their financial gain. This is another risky move. As Cromwell suggests, the provenance of a thoughtful collector's vision often adds value to its marketability. A random selection of paintings that is sitting in a vault might be viewed negatively, as commodities, rather than unique pieces of art.

For a collector, Moses suggests buying lower-priced art, with room for growth. Contemporary art can be risky. When asked what he would invest in, Kusin would buy modernist drawings and sculpture maquettes in order to build a strong collection with a focus There was a decline in value in the 1990s, Goetzmann says pre-war and post-war art but it remains a good investment because the works are "high beta." The means the art genre swings consistently both upward and downward in value.  It is risky but has a strong profit potential.

Collectors are now using art as collateral loans from companies like Art Capital Group Inc. or Citigourp Private Bank, which is an interesting concept. But, this often means a collector would be putting a treasured piece of art into a warehouse for ten years rather than enjoying its beauty. This is considered a preposterous idea by many in the museum and art historical fields. 

Although one can research auction records through a database like the Mei/Moses Index, the auction market is difficult to gauge. Moses says, "The S&P 500 and the Dow 30 are broad measures of how those markets are doing. We need the same thing for art." But galleries do not report such data, making art investment much less trackable than the stock market. Also, in an auction, a piece that sold for a record-breaking price might not actually be worth that price. 

Value can be constructed by a set of collectors who falsely bid up the price in order to insure their own interests in the artist. The results can also be based on the mood of the bidders rather than concrete, reliable data. Thus, a collector cannot insure that their piece of art will sell for its predicted price.

In Finken's article, Goetzmann also sees a discrepancy between the stock market and the art market in terms of a public marketplace. Unlike the visible, transparent public realm of the stock exchange, art buying is conducted in private. The choice of pieces is often minimal and collectors must rely on dealers and specialists for access to. This narrows the market and controls supply and demand.=

These economists suggest that art investment can be lucrative but perhaps riskier than stocks. Art collecting has to be done in a strategic manner, as consistent data in the art market does not always exist. 

If advising a collector who wants to build an art collection, it seems best that art exist only as a portion of one's investment rather than the main investment. Art held for a long period of time seems to accrue the highest value, assuming the artwork is kept in proper condition. The traditional model of collecting art one loves still seems to function best. If it rises in value, that is only icing on the cake.

¹ Landon Thomas Jr. and Carol Vogel. "A New Prince of Wall Street Uses His Riches to Buy Up Art." The New York Times, March 3, 2005
² Jori Finkel. "Painting by Numbers." Art and Auction, April 2004. Pp. 77 - 83
³ Wendy Cromwell. "Art as an Investment." Art on Paper, March/April 2005