March 5, 2020

🏺 How a 21st century art market resembles its 18th century counterpart: Lessons for collectors attending TEFAF Maastricht 2020

"La vista dell'antiquario" 1788 by Jacques Sabet
In Rome, in the late 1700s, the value of ancient art was far different from what it is today.  The city's ancient grandeur, the Mirabilia urbis Romae (The Marvels of Rome) had faded considerably.  Gone were many of the cities grand Roman temples, its proud colonnades and heat-saving porticoes, which once heralded the glory, and some thought eternity, of Rome.   

Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz writing in 1791 at the peak of the Grand Tour wrote sadly:

In spite of the great care taken not to touch the ruins of the great Coliseum, which has been done formerly, it falls by degrees under the power of time; huge masses of stone detach themselves from it and roll upon each other; as there are everywhere wide breaches between, and there is no cement to keep them together, it may naturally be supposed, that in a few centuries more [than] nothing of the upper part will be left: but the lower, with its enormous vaults, is made for eternity, and will surely outlast all the ruins of Rome. . . . Of the broken stones of this gigantic work, the palace of Farnese, St. Mark’s, and the chancery have been erected. Its amphitheatrical ruins are now held sacred, as so many Christians suffered martyrdom in them. Altars have been erected within, before which some devout souls are always praying, in order to obtain the indulgences annexed to those acts of devotion. 

People of the day roasted fish in front of the Pantheon and in the Roman Forum, where the temples of Vesta and Caster and Pollux once stood,  the grassy spaces were used as a cattle market.  Within this decay, an enormous gap developed in culture and art between what Rome was at the height of the empire and what it was to become.  

Think that with Pope Pius VI’s commitment to sanitize and remake Rome in the late 1700s, he paid important artisans like Francesco Antonio Franzoni, one of the most renowned sculptors and restorers of antique sculpture in Rome of that period, a mere 20 scudi a month.  Pontifical big wigs, by comparison would earn between 20-30 scudi per month and a captain in the Pope's army received a paltry 200 scudi a year.  All in a time when a mid-day meal in Caput Mundi would cost you half a scudi. 

The Barberini Juno
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museums
By artistic comparison, in Rome during that same period, a museum-worthy sculpture, such as the colossal Roman statue of Juno, discovered in my old Rome neighborhood (Monti) in the late 17th century, sold for 2600 scudi to the Pius and Clementine’s Museum within the Vatican. Private individuals, growing their collections, bought ancient marble works in a frenzy, for anywhere from 100-300 scudi a pop. 

Like in today's market, famous contemporary artists of the late 1700s likewise received eye-popping (for their time) commissions for their creations.  Take for example the fee charged by Antonio Canova to sculpt the funeral monument of Clement XIII in St. Peter's Basilica.  His asking price? 11 thousand scudi. 

Yet, while Italy's attention was turned to reshaping their past, Anglo-Saxon nobility, who considered ancient Greek and Roman statuary as a tie to their heredity and an important status symbol, gladly profited by taking ancient Roman and Greek art off their hands.  Their buying sprees allowed the English to fill their manor houses back home without thought to the future generations of Italians who now make great efforts to preserve the past.  

Likewise, the 18th century art market also had its plundered components.  To feed the appetites of its wealthy foreign collectors, merchants bought up entire collections and resold them at staggeringly wide margins.  In doing so they carted off Italy's neglected cultural patrimony by the boatload.   

An example of this can be seen in the maritime cargo carried by the English ship Westmorland, one of a dozen armed vessels used by art merchants plying their lucrative trade in Italy, used to transport artworks back to Britain.   Records tell us that the vessel, armed with 22 carriage guns and 12-16 swivel guns, was seized by two French warships off the coast of Malaga, Spain on January 7, 1779.  

Having set sail from the Tuscan port city Livorno, the Westmorland's bounty was bound for important collectors such as the brother of George III, Prince William, 10th duke of Norfolk, and the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. The ship's cargo was known to have included some 60 paintings, including works by Pompeo Batoni, Guercino, Carlo Maratti, Anton Raphael Mengs, Guido Reni and Guercino.  Alongside these cavasses were engravings by Piranesi, forty sculptures, 23 Roman marble vases, and various gouaches, watercolors, books and musical instruments.  This artistic treasure was also topped off with a sampling of Italy's food treasure: 32 rounds of parmesan.  

With France having joined the colonists in America's War of Independence, a January 9, 1799 naval trail established that the French were the legal "owners" of all cargo seized on the Westmorland and the merchandise was declared war booty.  The King of Spain, Charles III, in turn ultimately purchased the bulk of the valuable artworks, taking his pick of the pieces, some of which are now part of the collection at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.

Flash forward to tomorrow, where the the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) opens in the Netherlands for its 33rd edition.  Like their 18th century counterparts, many collectors at the Dutch fair, give little thought to the country of origin of the ancient objects they purchase or the sourcing practices of the dealers they buy from.  Their purchases focus on authenticity, beauty, and price,  just as their counterparts focused on centuries ago.

The same group of 21st century purchasers who might adamantly demand ethical sourcing practices in the consumable products they purchase, to ensure that the smartphones and designer bags they buy are manufactured by legal workers who work in safe working environments, fail, more often than not, to pay close attention to their art dealer's supply chain. While demanding transparency, human rights, and exploitation-free production in their ethical jeans, shoes, and watches, today's art collectors give only passing thought to an object's legitimacy and often assume (wrongly) that the dealers they buy from have taken the trouble to ensure that the artwork they are considering for purchase comes with a well researched and legitimately licit pedigree. 

Few collectors ask the truly hard questions of where the art work came from, or demand proof that it was sourced legally.  Some proudly defend questionable purchases added to collections as being done for the purpose of preservation, because source countries have failed to safeguard their rare material culture from destruction, either by environmental harm or by conflict. 

"The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest" by Willem van Haecht

If you are purchasing at TEFAF in Maastricht (or any other art fair) ARCA recommends the following:

Do Your Research 
Make sure you research who you buy your art from…and their suppliers. With a myriad of complex export regulations from one country of origin to the market country where the object is being sold, it is important to inform yourself of the export rules in the country of origin at the time your object left its home country.  

Stay Away from the Black Hats 
Assess whether the names listed in the provenance of your artwork are already suspect actors, known to have purchased, fenced, or participated in the looting of art in the past.   For this Google is your friend. 

Ask the Dealer Tough Questions 
Make your dealer show you all the documents they have in their possession on an artwork so that you can ensure that the purchase you are considering is an ethical one.  Do this BEFORE you agree to open your wallet.  As a buyer, it is your right to ensure that the art you are purchasing has been sourced ethically.  Don't let dealers intimidate you into thinking these questions are nieve, rude or inappropriate.  They service you.  You are the buyer.  If they treat you badly, walk away.  If all customers follow this rule, art dealers will quickly learn that their livelihood depends upon their suppliers being ethical actors.  This will in turn help hold the market to a higher standard with the knowledge that they are being monitored by their clients, and not just research groups like ARCA.

Spread the Love 
Encourage fellow collectors to also keep a close eye on their own art dealers and purchases. Work with them to create an aligned ethical collecting base.  

Practice What You Preach 
Ensure that you as well as your dealers uphold ethical sales practices.  Take a microscope to your own collection and if object's/artwork's purchased in the past  does not pass a critical ethical eye, consider voluntarily restituting the piece back to the heir or country of origin rather than turning a blind eye and selling an tainted object onward to another unsuspecting individual who hasn't done their homework. 

Take Advantage of ARCA 
In this world that we live in, ARCA publishes frequently on problems of bad actors plying their trade within the art market. Follow this blog or even write to us if you have questions about a problematic artwork in your collection.  We will try to help. 

Create a Community 
Encourage the art buying community to think like the conscientious consumer electronics community. Create networks that share knowledge and demand an ethical supply chain. 


Making sure your collection is ethically sourced is not a simple task, but it is good for you and good for humanity.  It is also essential to ensure that your 21st century collection habits do not mirror those of your 18th century ancestors. This benefits not only you (and your conscience), but also the citizen's of the source country where objects are stolen from. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

0 comments: