Friday, 7 December 2007

Does Christie's Care?

The young man showing the lots during the Christie's sale of Impressionist and Modern Art, on the 28th of November 2007 in South Kensington, was quite charming. Holding up a lot upside down is no shame and it actually contributed to the informal atmosphere in the room. The lady auctioneer was the embodiment of charm. Her smooth style of auctioning, friendly voice and sharp wit were very entertaining for the attendees. Even the hallway in which the auction was held, created quite an interesting, and indeed charming, scene. Movers walked by all the time, carrying the most fascinating and random objects. The passing-by of antique chairs on their shoulders, sculpted unicorns on their carts and painted crucifixions in their hands made this auction visit feel like being in a cabinet of curiosities.

Despite all this charm, there were also some trouble spots. There was a moment of agitation when an employee who bid on behalf of a client on the phone didn’t know what her winning bid had been. Rather more serious was Christie's treatment of the works in their care. With no intention of telling Christie’s how to run their business, some things have to be noted and shared. The paintings that were sold during the afternoon were piled against the wall, with no protection in between, like a pile of books. In some of the paintings, the canvas could be seen trembling when they were picked up and handed from hands to hands. The people showing them in front of the room were not wearing any gloves. The thing with most works is that they are framed. Still, it is not a great idea to even touch the frames, especially when they are originals.

I was visiting the auction with a Courtauld colleague and ambulances could almost have been called for us when two drawings by RenĂ© Magritte were auctioned, not only because of our love for drawings, these being particularly interesting ones, but mostly because they were unframed and held up like a just-received diploma on ones graduation day. However, I must admit, I was more careful posing with my diploma, than the charming young man was with these drawings. He didn’t even try to balance them on their sides in his fingers, but bluntly touched the fronts and backs. His fingerprints might show up in future scientific analysis. Let's hope they are not mistaken for Magritte’s own!

These concerns might sound very panicked and far-fetched, but touch can really damage art works in the long term. Have these people never visited a museum and seen all the “please do not touch” signs? They are there for a reason. Whether art is bought as investment of for pure enjoyment, it should be treated as carefully as possible. I would have certainly expected this attitude to be in evidence at an established auction house like Christies. As a relative novice to the world of auction houses and despite the first impression of charm all around, it made me wonder afterwards about the atmosphere in the current art market. Which attitude will prevail when all else is lost, cash or care?


Will C. said...

Thanks for your contribution, Lieke.

It's important to keep in mind that you were at the bargain basement Christie's South Kensington, with lower value objects and, apparently, lower standards of object care. It's not entirely fair to indict Christie's as a whole from the observation of their budget branch.

Second, one could, and I would, argue that one of the positives of auctions, especially for history of art students, is that in such a context works of art cease to be remote, canonized things for quiet contemplation amidst "Do Not Touch" signs. Any of us can walk into Christie's and handle paintings and drawings in upcoming sales because the rules of the museum are not in effect. This allows a different relationship with the object and exciting opportunities for scholarship- flipping a painting and seeing how the canvas is stretched, feeling the carving of frames and the thickness of impasto, all these are valuable to students. It does sound like the staff of Christie's South Kensington was a bit lackadaisical with their standards of care but let's not go too far and insist that the reverential atmosphere of museums be imposed on the auction house. We would stand to lose a lot from such a change.

Lieke W. said...

I agree on the difference between museums and auctions, and the oppurtunities this can bring. However, it should be a standard, not to touch art works with your bare fingers, especially drawings. Whether this is in the bargain basement of Christies or in the National Gallery should not matter.

Will C. said...

Not even that is really an absolute: there's plenty of debate between gloves and bare hands in the museum world. The Courtauld's own prints and drawings collection among many others asks for visitors to simply wash their hands before handling drawings, removing the damaging surface oils and avoiding the risk of reduced grip and damaging organic materials contained in reused gloves. As a student of ceramics, the majority of museum decorative arts departments I've encountered now use washed hands instead of gloves. Despite the risk of damage to the metal oxides in glazes from finger oils, gloves can present their own set of risks. I think you can be fairly confident that your charming lad had not just eaten a dribbly mess of fish and chips before coming out. Current opinion holds that his presumably recently washed hands presented little risk to works on paper.

That said, Christie's should be using gloves simply because it appears more professional and gives an air of class and refinement that is in short supply at South Ken!

Tova said...

Lieke, the question posed at the end of your post is quite interesting and the 'cash or care' debate is one that goes on and on, especially in the art business when gallerists have to constantly tackle the ever-annoying question: 'how can you put a price on art?' Leaving that aside, I think the answer is that both will prevail. Without cash, there is no art; without art there is no care; and without care, there is no cash. It's a cycle that has been going on, well, forever.

Will, Christie's South Kensington isn't a bargain basement. No auction house is a bargain basement. It is always possible that an auction house can put something in a South Ken sale today that will be worth millions in a few years. Art fads change all of the time and gallerists, collectors and museums consider those auctions very carefully because you never know what's going to be there. Not to mention that sometimes, auction houses don't know what they have, and they could misattribute something. I cannot even begin to tell you how many small auction houses in the middle of nowhere I've had to look in to, just to make sure that there wasn't anything 'of interest'.

As for care of artworks: paintings are stacked all of the time. It doesn't affect the canvas and they are usually stacked carefully so that the frame isn't damaged. What they do have to pay attention to is the climate control in the room, meaning its humidity and temperature. That is what can really damage a painting, or a panel for that matter.

On the gloves issue: In my humble opinion, it depends. Everyone should be wearing gloves if they are going to be touching the front of a drawing. We don't know what kind of affect the oils in our skin may have on a drawing's condition so it's better to be safe than sorry. I have no idea about ceramics or metal objects.

Will C. said...

It goes without saying, Tova, that something could hit it big at Christie's South Kensington, but the fact of the matter is that it is their branch for lower estimate items. We've all seen objects at minor auction houses that matter. This is besides the point. Christie's South Kensington is not even the flagship branch in London, let alone globally, and it's problematic to draw larger conclusions about their priorities from a low estimate auction.