At Museums, the Customer Matters Least
On two successive evenings last week—at the New York auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s—a half-billion dollars worth of art changed hands.
I am fascinated by the art world—the work itself, the lives of the artists, collectors great and small, and the value and prices that art commands.
Plus, of course, the business of auctions and museums is intriguing.
Relatively few people have money to buy great works of art for their homes and yachts.
Fortunately for the rest of us, many of the great collectors either founded public museums of their own or left their art to established institutions.
Since no advertisements were booked for this publication in the first week of May, my wife, Peggy, and I fled to Madrid to get our heads out of our various businesses and to see great art and flamenco.
I returned home having experienced two epiphanies:
* Museum directors are lousy marketers;
* I saw two paintings so powerful that they could change the world.
The Price of Art
At a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years ago, I chatted with a guard just outside a large room that houses one of the institution’s crown jewels, a crucifixion by the Flemish master, Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464). It is a painting I always pay a call o, with its exquisitely rendered, life-sized figures and red backdrops as brilliant as the day they were painted more than 500 years ago.
“Was this the most valuable painting in the museum?” I asked the guard. Only Cézanne’s giant composition of bathers on the floor below was insured for more money, he told me.
Because of the Philadelphia van der Weyden, whenever I visit other museums I always look for this artist.
Unfortunately, finding van der Weyden—or any artist—is not easy because, at many of the world’s great collections, the customer matters least.