A Profile of the Art Market

The Economist discusses the current state of the art market:

The current downturn in the art market is the worst since the Japanese stopped buying Impressionists at the end of 1989, a move that started the most serious contraction in the market since the second world war. This time experts reckon that prices are about 40% down on their peak on average, though some have been far more volatile. But Edward Dolman, Christie’s chief executive, says: “I’m pretty confident we’re at the bottom.”
What makes this slump different from the last, he says, is that there are still buyers in the market, whereas in the early 1990s, when interest rates were high, there was no demand even though many collectors wanted to sell. Christie’s revenues in the first half of 2009 were still higher than in the first half of 2006. Almost everyone who was interviewed for this special report said that the biggest problem at the moment is not a lack of demand but a lack of good work to sell. The three Ds—death, debt and divorce—still deliver works of art to the market. But anyone who does not have to sell is keeping away, waiting for confidence to return.

Good thing then that other buyers have appeared in Russia, the Middle East, and China.  In fact China has increasingly used the art market to seek repatriation:

The sensitivity of the subject was shown up in February this year when the collection built up by the late Yves St Laurent, a French fashion designer, and his partner Pierre Berge was put up for sale. The auction included bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, two pieces that had been looted from the imperial palace of Yuanmingyuan by French and British soldiers in the opium wars in 1860. The heads, part of a series of 12 figures which dominated a zodiac fountain in the palace garden, had not even been designed by a Chinese artist but by a Jesuit priest from Venice who lived in the imperial capital. All the same, their provenance and history made their sale controversial.
The government let it be known that it did not approve of a public sale of the precious bronze heads in the West and did not want its citizens to take part. Even so, both the winning bidder and several underbidders turned out to be Chinese. One, a London-based businessman, had been planning to present the bronzes to the Chinese government as a gift. The buyer, Cai Mingchao, who secured the two pieces for EURO 31m ($46m), turned out to be an adviser to a Chinese foundation which seeks to retrieve plundered treasures. He announced very publicly soon afterwards that he would not pay up. The heads were quietly returned to Mr Berge. The government has since announced that it wants to catalogue all the pieces looted from Yuanmingyuan, which some believe is the first step in a campaign to reclaim them.

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Google to Create Digital Archive of Iraq’s National Museum

A detail from one of the exhibitsGoogle has announced it will create a digital record of the Baghdad museum’s collection, and will make the images available online by early next year.  As Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive announced last week, “The history of the beginning of – literally – civilization… is preserved in this museum.”  Over 14,000 images have been taken, allowing the Iraqi public, and the rest of the world to see the images. 

Rod Norland notes in an article for the New York Times that the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already digitized part of the collection, and created a website, the virtual Museum of Iraq.  So there is some duplication here.  A few things to take away from the announcement.

First, it seems like a good idea to digitize these objects, and make the images available to to public generally.  However many other museums are unlikely to take this step, at least in the short term.  We don’t know how expensive an undertaking this was, as the costs are born by the US State Department and Google.  But museums also will fear the loss of revenue from their own publications.  As many museums prohibit photography, often the only way to take home a photographic souvenir of the visit is to purchase the shiny museum publications.  Of course part of the impetus for this digitization project is to make these work accessible—at least in a digital way—to members of the public who are unable to visit the Baghdad museum.

Secondly, I wonder what procedures google followed with the project.  Are these high-resolution images which will be useful for scholars?  Will these images contain information on the history of the objects? When they were excavated? Where they were unearthed?  And finally, will these images be made available to the various stolen art databases.  If another tragedy were to befall this important museum, will these images be useful to help prevent the sale of artifacts? 

  1. Rod Nordland, Google Chief Announces Plan in Baghdad to Put Iraqi Artifacts Online, The New York Times, November 25, 2009.
  2. Google to digitise Iraq artefacts, BBC, November 24, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

German Court Orders Repatriation of Gold vessel to Iraq

Lucian Harris, for the Art Newspaper, reports on the claims by Iraq to a miniature gold vessel:

The case, which has focused attention on the sale of smuggled Iraqi artifacts in Germany, began late in 2004 when the slightly dented six-centimetre-high gold vessel was included in a sale at Munich auction house Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, described as being of Mediterranean origin, possibly from Troy and dated to the Roman Iron-age period (1st century AD). However, the vessel was spotted by an unnamed expert who believed that it was in fact much older and of Sumerian origin.
 . . .
The case has been something of a personal mission on the part of Iraqi ambassador to Berlin Alaa Al-Hashimy, whose interest in cultural affairs stems from his background as an architect . In 2007 legislation was passed in Iraq requiring envoys in foreign countries to monitor the appearance of any Mesopotamian artifacts on the commercial market. Furthermore, this August a letter of understanding was signed between the two governments to ensure cooperation in cases where Iraqi artifacts appear on the German market. A recent report on Azzaman news agency claimed that since the court’s ruling Iraqi diplomats in Germany have stopped the sale of 28 Mesopotamian artifacts believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq in the past five years.
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Reactions to the Culture Forum at LSE

I recommend Tom Flynn’s comprehensive overview of the cultural panel which took place Tuesday at LSE. It sounds like it was much of the same kinds of polite disagreements which these kinds of events typically produce.  Here’s a flavor of Tom’s reaction:

Cuno’s highly political presentation — which, paradoxically, sought to criticize what he saw as the politicisation of culture by source nations — was followed by a few short comments from Tatiana Flessas. 

Professor Flessas sought to point out that many encyclopedic museums are themselves national creations and are thus also instruments of nationalist agendas — actors taking up nationalistic positions by claiming the power to interpret, contextualise and assign meanings to the objects in their collections. “That building up the road is not a branch of museums UK plc, it is The British Museum”, she said, drawing one the few ripples of laughter in an otherwise rather po-faced evening. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Terrific Event on Culture at LSE on Tuesday

Those of you in and around London should strongly consider attending “Who owns culture?” on Tuesday Nov. 17th. The strong panel will include Dr James Cuno, Dr Maurice Davies, Dr Tatiana Flessas, and Dr Tiffany Jenkins.  These are some prominent folks, and they should present some interesting different opinions.  I’d be very keen if any folks who attend would send me any impressions of the event.

Here are the details:

Who owns culture?
Tuesday 17 November, 6.30pm until 8.00pm, London School of Economics Satellite Events
Venue: Thai Theatre, London School of Economics, New Academic Building, 54 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3LJ
Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Institute of Ideas website.


For the past two centuries, the West has acquired treasures of the ancient world to fill its museums, so that visitors to the British Museum in London for example can see historic artefacts from all over the world. In recent years, though, various countries and even ethnic communities within countries have begun to demand the return of artefacts. Several North American museums were recently rocked by claims from countries including Italy that objects in their collections had been acquired illicitly. In response they returned over a hundred objects. Meanwhile a former curator of antiquities from the prestigious Getty Museum is currently on trial for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities. In response to this controversy, UNESCO has encouraged the development of policies and laws which state that artefacts excavated after 1970 belong to the nation states in which they were found.

Where do treasures from the past rightly belong, and why? Should they be housed in the country of origin where locals as well as visitors can see them in their historic context, or in an institution with objects from everywhere? Often it is not clear what it means to say something belongs to a particular country. The Parthenon Marbles pre-date by millennia the formation of the Greek state, for example, while terracotta Nok sculptures found in Nigeria have little to do with that country’s culture today. Some argue the policy of repatriating such objects, along with ‘nationalist retentionist’ policies, promote divisive identity politics over a universalist appreciation of objects of art as part of world history. But is this just a self-serving argument on the part of Western institutions who already have much of the best ‘stuff’ from world history? Some argue museums should return objects or at least consult with the relevant communities as a form of reparations for colonialism. But does this unhelpfully politicise museums in the here and now? Others argue contentious artefacts should be entrusted to an international nongovernmental agency. But who might sit on this suggested nongovernmental agency and what power should they have? So are things best left where they are, or returned whence they came in the interests of fairness?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act takes effect

New legislation which took effect on Friday will allow national museums in England and Scotland to act to return works of art, based on the recommendations of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.  The panel resolves claims arising from the loss of objects to the Nazis.  There have been nine instances of wrongful takings in which claimants were compensated, yet the national institutions have been forbidden from returning objects outright.  The only remedy was payment.  This is a welcome change, and allows UK museums to do the just thing.  Andrew Dismore, MP sponsored the act, and said:

It shows what could be achieved by a determined backbencher: by rolling out my sleeping bag and sleeping on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight, I was able to become the first in the queue to apply for Second Readings after the balloted Bills, and this tactic paid off.

While I do not envisage the Act having to be used very frequently, this is an important moral step, to ensure that we can close yet a further chapter on the appalling crimes of the Holocaust.

  1. UK museums can return looted art, BBC, November 13, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com