When an object at auction fetches many multiples of its expected price, as happened with the Newark Museum’s recent sale of a Dan Peoples mask for $15,000—a whopping 50 times its estimate of $300—either the owner and the auction house are clueless about what they are offering, or at least two competing buyers believe it’s something that’s much more valuable than the seller realizes.
Chris Crosman, founding chief curator of Crystal Bridges Museum (who had tipped me off to the Newark Museum of Art’s 217-lot deaccession binge), offered these insights about after reading my report about about the eyebrow-raising discrepancy between the actual price of this Dan mask, sold by Newark…
…and its predicted price (to which I had called attention in my previous post). Here’s Crosman’s take:
I really do wonder how their curators could let go of that Dan mask. It tells all you need to know about the invention of Cubism and the origins of modernism. More importantly, perhaps, for today’s visitors to the Newark Museum, it informs descendants of the African diaspora about their ancestors and their own rich cultural heritage.
I have noticed that housekeeping (and house cleaning)—reorganizing, dusting off, and occasionally tossing, the old, to make room for the new—is often less carefully implemented among older, financially strapped institutions founded in late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially museums that began their existence as wunderkammer (cabinets of curiosities) by founders who were often as curious about science and history as about works of art.
The unwanted grandma’s attic residue of these museums is part of the history of how museums began and why. That’s especially true for the Newark Museum, where Charles Cotton Dana essentially invented the museum in America.
As I suggested in my previous post, part of what set the Dan mask apart from other African objects offered by Newark was its embellishment with woven hair and shell beads:
Together with a group of public officials, prominent businessmen and local collectors, he [Dana] established the Museum in 1909 at the Newark Public Library. He provided the intellectual leadership that made it one of the most progressive cultural institutions in the country….
Dana himself made two collecting trips to North Africa in 1924 and 1929 and made substantial purchases, forming the nucleus of the African textile collection.
Speaking of disconnects between estimated values and amounts realized, what are we to make of the outsized price for the shredded Banksy—Girl with Balloon (pre-shred) aka Love is in the Bin (post-shred), estimated to sell for $5.5-$8.2 million when it returned to Sotheby’s in its fringed state last Thursday (three years after its celebrated $1.4-million first auction outing)? Defying its estimate by a long shot, it sold in London this time for $25.4 million, after a masterful sales job by Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s chairman of modern & contemporary art, who contrived to convince the credulous by means of this over-the-top hype [boldfaced emphasis added]. My own commentary is in brackets:
“Love is in the Bin” was born of the most spectacular artistic happening of the 21st century [a century with almost 80 years to go]. When “Girl with Balloon” ‘self-destructed’ in our saleroom, Banksy sparked a global sensation [only among those with a narrow focus] that has since become a cultural phenomenon. During that memorable night, Banksy did not so much destroy an artwork by shredding it, but instead created one. Today this piece is considered [by Sotheby’s] heir to a venerated legacy of anti-establishment art that began with DADA and Marcel Duchamp more than a century ago. Notorious, daring, and culturally ubiquitous [let us hope not], “Love is in the Bin” is the ultimate Banksy artwork and a true icon of recent art history.
At the risk of seeming “icon”oclastic, I’ve gotta say: “Alex, be careful what you wish for!” In this post, I had described Banksy‘s “elaborately orchestrated send-up of the auction market—contriving to have his $1.4-million ‘Girl with Balloon’ self-mutilate at the fall of the hammer” as “the subversive gift that keeps on giving.” But I also warned that “this attention-grabbing gambit could spectacularly backfire, not only on the auction house but also on the artist. If it wasn’t perpetrated by the work’s creator [which apparently, it was], Friday’s ‘prank’ might be more properly called ‘vandalism’—no laughing matter if someone else—another artist, a protester, a disturbed person, or all of the above—is inspired to make a similarly destructive copycat ‘statement.’” (Thankfully, that hasn’t happened.)
Even Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s auctioneer for both “Balloon” and “Bin,” seemed leery about the possibility that more unexpected mayhem might ensue, admitting this (at the end of the video below): “I can’t tell you how terrified I am to bring down this hammer!” (an allusion to what had happened the last time).But with Sotheby’s having taken “additional precautions to avoid an encore performance,” as reported by Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal, all went smoothly this time:
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