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Playing with “Fire”

You may have heard the story about an art dealer in New York who sold several fake abstract expressionist paintings for about $80 million.  It isn’t the first time someone forged an artwork and fooled the art world, but it’s interesting it happened just this week, because we’re supposed to live in an era when information is so plentiful it’s hard to put anything over on anybody, and also that it was abstract expressionists that were being copied, since I often hear from students that these works seem like they require the least skill.


Jackson Pollock, “Free Form,” 1946 and Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (Gray, Gray on Red), 1968

In an interview I heard on NPR (Art Dealer Pleads Guilty To Selling Fraudulent Paintings, NPR Weekend Edition, September 21, 2013), New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz said the forger was skilled at imitating the artists, which included Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell.  But, he explained, that doesn’t mean the forger is just as good as the original artist:  “In a way, you have to think about Pollack as inventing fire, as inventing something that’s been with us… since the beginning, the drip.”


Willem de Kooning, “Fire Island,” 1946 and Robert Motherwell, “Wall Painting with Stripes,” 1944



Virtual Museum-going

As an art history professor, you’d think I’d be traveling the world on a regular basis, visiting the important sites and snapping photos for my PowerPoint presentations.

Yeah, right.  Maybe when I publish that book I’ve been meaning to write for about 20 years.

Fortunately for me, I can visit some of the great museums of the world while sitting in my office.

I just visited the Google Art Project, which has some great views of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.  I urge you to visit the site, but I’ve reproduced screenshots of two of the rooms I remember best from my one visit there a few years back.

Every semester, I spend some time talking about Giotto and his teacher Cimabue while looking at two of their paintings side by side.  That discussion would be much more fun in this room at the Uffizi!


Then I “walked” down the hall to the other most memorable room at the Uffizi for me, the Botticelli Room.  Lots of indescribably great works in this room, but the highlight has to be The Birth of Venus and Primavera arranged in close proximity.  I remember sitting on a bench in the rather crowded museum the day I went and just staring at each in turn.  All the meanings Botticelli put into the two works are still debated by scholars, but when you’re there with these two massive masterpieces you really get the message.


Two Paintings by Vincent van Gogh

The first is Bank of the Oise at Auvers (1890) from the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The second, entitled Sunset at Montmajour (1888), was authenticated as a van Gogh recently after being thought a fake for decades.  It’s interesting to compare these two works from van Gogh’s most productive period, which was, unfortunately, the last few years of his life.  Both show the characteristics that caused subsequent generations to recognize the artist as a genius who never got the credit he deserved while alive.

Image  Image

Bankruptcy Sale! Everything Must Go!

detroit-institute-ofIf you’ve been reading about Detroit’s bankruptcy, you may have heard that all the city’s assets may be up for sale.  This, unfortunately, could include one of the more beautiful city parks in the nation – Belle Isle – and a collection of art from some of the great masters.

At least among the paintings, I think the news stories generally tend to underestimate the value of the artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts, some of which are significant works by the greatest names in art history.

The names include a roll call of artists studied in ART 221 at KVCC:  Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Pissarro, van Eyck, Courbet, Matisse, Warhol, Breugel, Rembrandt, Titian, Boucher, Parmigianino, Poussin, Rubens, Fragonard, Gauguin, Cezanne, Manet, Seurat, Gainsborough, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Holbein, Picasso, and Caravaggio, just to name a few.

The DIA website lists 380 paintings in the European collection alone.  Overall, the museum estimates its collection at 60,000 pieces.

Many of these works are, of course, truly priceless.  However, to gauge what some of them might sell for, you can look at Wikipedia’s handy list of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, which has a work by Paul Cezanne at the top, having sold for about $259 million in 2011.  Cezanne is a biggy, but he’s no van Gogh when it comes to popularity.  For comparison, van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for the equivalent of $148 million in 1990 (the DIA has at least four amazing van Goghs, including a very famous self-portrait).

A report in the Detroit Free Press listed 10 paintings and price estimates that added up to $770 million.  The auction value of all the works in the DIA collection is probably in the tens of billions.  The city’s overall debt is in the area of $18 billion, so some or all of the artworks may end up on the table to settle that.

Two questions remain before the auction takes place:  1) Is the city obligated to sell off assets, including the art in the DIA, to pay off creditors?  2) Are they allowed to sell the art, which may be protected by Michigan law?