Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Auctioneer, by Simon de Pury

Simon de Pury has for decades been an insider in the high-flying world of fine art.  Among other things, he has worked for Sotheby's, started his own auction house, and was personal curator to the billionaire and nobleman Heini Thyssen.  Along the way, de Pury became a world's leading expert in fine art and a sought-after auctioneer.

In The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade, he ostensibly pulls back the curtain on the insiders' world of fine art.  In reality, de Pury tells the story of his life and career, which happens to be in art, while telling name-dropping stories about his many encounters with the world's elite classes.  De Pury was hanging out with the jet setters before people really had jets.  He has spent his career rubbing shoulders with industrialists and entreprenuers, heirs and heiresses, titled nobility, politicians, and others who have millions of dollars to throw around.

As he tells his stories, I was sickened by the "lifestyles of the rich and famous."  These aren't the one percent that the Occupy movement gets upset about.  These are the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the world who spend seven or even eight figures on a single work of art.  They also have appalling morals and habits, and seemingly endless funds to finance their debauchery and profligacy.  I don't know if de Pury meant to cast these elite in a repulsive light.  I rather got the impression that he celebrates them and considers himself as one of them.

What I really would have liked to have read about is the question of art as a luxury good.  De Pury's clients and friends plop down ungodly amounts of money for art.  But he doesn't reflect on value.  While he talks about pieces whose beauty captures him, beauty often does not have a relationship to price.  He doesn't mind if they "ratchet up rates" since his customers are "a price-insensitive elite that would pay anything if they wanted the beauty we were selling."  And when they do drive up prices, it becomes a cycle: "Money brings recognition, and what artist doesn't want to be recognized?  That is the calculus of taste."

I conclude from his experiences that the value of a work of art is not determined by its intrinsic beauty or in the talent, skill, and workmanship that went into its creation, but simply by the price a promoter like de Pury is able to get out of the pockets of his "price-insensitive" clients.  While much of his career has been spent on recognizable masters, he proudly touts his role in promoting the careers of modern artists like Urs Fischer and Jeff Koons, who is most famous for his animal carcasses suspended in formaldehyde.  Google those two names, look at some of their work and ask yourself if they belong in the same pantheon as some of the great artists of past centuries.  Then ask yourself if you would pay a million bucks (if you had it) for one of their "works of art."

I know, I sound like an uneducated Philistine with buorgeois morality and unrefined taste.  But de Pury prides himself in bringing fine art to the masses, as demonstrated by his participation in a short-lived art reality show and some of his charity work.  (I can't imagine why that show wasn't a big hit. . . .)  If he really wants to make a contribution to the world of art, he needs to convince people like me that the prices paid for art are justifiable and not simply an expression of ego and power by oligarchs and heiresses, and that the value of a piece of art lies in more than the prices paid.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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