Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?

October 23 2015

Image of Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?

Picture: Sotheby's

News that Sotheby's will sell a $25m-$35m Orazio Gentileschi of Danaë recently on display at the Met in New York has raised the eyebrow with eminent US arts writer Lee Rosenbaum, who, on her blog, says:

[...] It now appears that Danaë’s golden sojourn at the Met was an extended presale exhibition. [...]

Veteran dealer Richard Feigen‘s family trust was outed yesterday by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Smith as the owner cryptically identified on the Met’s “Danaë” label as “private collection.” The trust stands to reap rich rewards from gilt-by-association: Sotheby’s has announced that “Danaë” will be the star lot of its evening sale on Jan. 28, bearing a presale estimate of $25-35 million. [...]

Does a dealer/collector have a right to show works in a nonprofit museum’s galleries before dispatching them to auction? Of course.

Should museums allow themselves to be commercially exploited in his manner? Of course not.

Loan agreements should contain a clause imposing a several-year moratorium on selling a work after its museum exhibition. Otherwise, museums may appear to be complicit in market maneuvers and curators may see their scholarly prose instantly recycled as sales pitches.

So, does museum exposure add value to an Old Master painting? In my opinion (as a valuer of and dealer in Old Masters), not really. What we're dealing with in this case is essentially a chicken and egg situation: does the Met's decision to hang a Gentileschi on its walls make it a great (and thus valuable) painting, or does the fact that Danaë is a great painting make the Met want to hang it on their walls?

It seems to me that the latter is the case here - and in fact it is almost all the time. In my experience curators like those at the Met and other leading institutions are no pushover, and are hardly likely to take up valuable hanging space at their museums by installing a second rate work just to do a favour to - gasp - a dealer, or even a private owner. Curators curate based on a painting's individual merits. Indeed, look at an auction catalogue and you'll often see pictures that have been recently on long-term loan to museums, even major ones, sell for not much money at all. After all, museums and curators are often interested in pictures for their academic and art historical value, and this is frequently different from their commercial value.

The situation I think is different when it comes to contemporary art, where, because we have generally lost our collective ability to objectively assess art made from old spoons (and the like) we look for institutional and curatorial approval as a means of telling us what is good or not. Hence all those contemporary art catalogue entries which list reams of exhibitions, even really minor ones, as a means of saying 'this work is Good', and thus valuable.

But in the Old Master market the dynamic is very different. Lee Rosenbaum may think that the sort of person to drop $25m on a Gentileschi is encouraged to do so because it was recently on display at the Met. But I'm not so sure. In my experience, Old Master buyers are perfectly capable of assessing a work of art objectively. The Danaë is without doubt a great painting - you can tell that just by looking at it, whether it's on the Met's walls or Sotheby's. And like most great paintings it has at some point in its life been exhibited at a museum. Big deal.

There are so many other factors to take account of in the Old Master market. Sometimes, an Old Master painting can generate the most excitement, and bids, if it is seen to be 'new' and previously unseen. Hence all those auction house press releases that say 'not seen for X years', or 'never before publicly exhibited'. The Old Masters that really get the market going are often those which have come out of an eminent collection, have not been seen widely before, are a bit dirty, and so on, or are important new discoveries. In those circumstances you are likely get both trade and private buyers bidding. But when a picture like the Danaë comes along, and everyone knows it well from being at the Met, and also that it belongs to a dealer, then arguably it's a harder proposition to sell because you're chasing just the handful of private buyers able to spend that kind of money. And they tend to buy what they like, not what a museum curator likes.

But let us for the sake of argument assume that a spell on loan does indeed add significant value to a painting. Should, then, museums be careful not to display such works? Should we take seriously Lee's suggestion of a 'several year' moratorium on selling works that have been on loan?

Well, why? I certainly agree that it is unseemly to swiftly sell something which has been on public display. But should we say to the public, you can't see this great painting, because it belongs to someone who might one day sell it, and make money because you liked it? I suspect most museum visitors wouldn't give two hoots. People want to see great art because it's great art, and would rather it was on public display not in a private house. Most of them know that such art is expensive, whether it's sold today, tomorrow or in seven years time. (And don't forget that once upon a time Gentileschi himself was likely paid a fair sum for his Danaë.)

I certainly agree with Lee that care must be taken when considering the relationship between private lending and institutional probity. But I also think we should be grateful to Richard Feigen for putting his pictures on display, and applaud those curators and institutions prepared to run the risk of criticism by accepting (with care) such loans.

Update - a dealer writes:

It is an interesting discussion wheather museums are providing a seal of approval to works of art that come to the market. As you know, a similar discussion takes place when a painting, sculpture or drawing is being published in a first rate journal or exhibition catalogue.

 At the request of the editor of The Burlington I have signed twice a statement that a work that was illustrated in one of my contributions was not due to appear on the market for at least five years. But when you think of it is a silly thing to do because, not being the owner it is not in ones hands wheather a work is going to be on offer for sale or not in the nearby future.

The Burlington is notorious for being windy about anything privately owned, or which might have anything to do with a dealer. Which is daft because a) dealers often make important discoveries, and The Burlington is merely recusing itself from the wider art historical debate and b) I fear, alas, that The Burlington is no longer important enough to really make a difference to the value of a painting.

Another reader writes:

And if having “displayed at the Met” does add value, the Met and the public have enjoyed the free display of a valuable work. The Met didn't rent the painting, as with some exhibitions, or have to invest in acquiring it so there was a quid pro quo if the display of the painting added any value.    Lending to an exhibition might add some value and curators still seek and occasionally pay for exhibitions loans of important works.

It is all right if a private party benefits from public display so long as the public gets an adequate benefit as well. Lending doesn't come with [tax] eductions that donations create.

Another reader adds:

Yes, to an established old master, I agree the pull-up is minimal, but public benefit museums should be just that - pro bono. Time on the Met's walls undoubtedly has a commercial value - and sticking pictures on their wall prior to an auction or indeed any commercial sale is not what they're supposed to be for. It just wouldn't wash in other commercial areas - it would be seen as a conflict of interests.

 And that grey area is being exploited - wthout anybdy questioning it - so supine is arts journalism. Dealers are using museums to lend credence and substance to private offerings in the most blatant way. The quid pro quo is obviously that the museum gets interesting exhibitions but the prime purpose of a museum should be objective presentation of material - not to tease the public into buying stuff.

The above reader then mentions a regional UK museum which recently staged two exhibitions on 20th Century artists which were sponsored by a commercial gallery. The commercial gallery, he says, had listed the works for sale on their website while the exhibition was on.

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