Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture of silence and intimidation surrounds Degas sculpture trade


A fascinating piece by Bloomberg's William D. Cohan yesterday (here) throws light on the disturbing industry of questionable Degas bronze casting that has become a multi-million dollar business for those involved.

Tellingly, it seems to have been a couple of rich collectors who allegedly kick-started what looks increasingly like a wholesale cashing-in on the Degas legacy after "discovering" a cache of plasters purportedly by the French artist in a Parisian storeroom in 2001. For the original source of this story, see Judd Tully's piece for Art Info and Art + Auction here.

Nothing could be more illustrative of the extent to which money is dislodging traditional connoisseurial expertise in today's art market than the news that a rich collector and his wife have been allowed to ascribe a cache of previously unknown plasters to Degas — one of the most academically problematic "sculptors" of the modern period — without the involvement of recognised Degas experts and scholars. Indeed, according to Cohan, Degas scholarship has suddenly descended into Trappist silence.

At the heart of this story is an issue that warrants further scrutiny — namely the willingness of the Degas heirs to rubber-stamp the suspect process of authentication in return for a share of the proceeds.

But Cohan's piece is really about the omertà that has descended among museum directors and Degas scholars who, despite deep reservations about the authenticity of the plasters from which the new bronzes have been cast, are reluctant to express their doubts to journalists for fear of being sued. Here is yet another eloquent symbol of the power of money to corrupt due process in the art market.

Sadly, it is by no means unusual for an artist's hears to authorise posthumous bronze casting. But is it right to do so, just because the artist in question left no explicit prohibition on such activities? As Cohan notes, Degas had his own reservations about it:

"Before his death in 1917, he repeatedly expressed concern that charlatans might highjack his legacy by casting his sculptures in bronze and selling them to collectors, and is said to have told his fellow painter Georges Rouault, 'What I fear most is not dust but the hand of man.'"

That hand, it seems, is proving more grasping than even Degas might have imagined. Nor is the dead hand of acquisitive opportunism by any means unusual in the sculpture realm.

Not long ago, at the opening of an exhibition of recent casts of works by an important late British sculptor, one prominent UK museum curator confided to me his serious reservations about whether these "new" works ought to have been made at all, particularly when many of them had been cast from models that were never intended for translation into bronze. But it's one thing to murmur such concerns sotto voce over a glass of cheap white wine at a private view and quite another to express them on the record for publication.

As for the ability of expensive lawyers to foreclose disputes before they can be properly explored, this too is becoming almost endemic in the art market. Last year, we heard how Joe Simon-Whelan had to retreat from his dispute with the Andy Warhol Foundation after being engulfed by a tsunami of legal costs. In an email to Bloomberg, he said, "I am deeply saddened that I was unable to reveal the truth in court, but when faced with threats of bankruptcy, continuing personal attacks and counterclaims, I realized I no longer stood a chance of proceeding further."

It's coming to something when disputes might be resolved the wrong way just to avoid onerous legal costs, but when differences of opinion don't even make it to the level of open public discussion, that is a lot more worrying. One of the Degas scholars Cohan spoke to expressed hope for a "litigation-free zone" in which to air the issues properly and without redress, a notion promptly scorned by Delaware law professor, Ann Althouse.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a similarly glaring mismatch between corporate muscle and the broader public good is playing out in the realm of public sculpture. A case currently developing in California is pitting the intimidating financial reach of an oligarch against not only an artist, but against a local arts-commissioning authority cowed by the threat of lawsuits. Watch this space.

As threats and personal attacks rain down from wealthy, bullying collectors and foundations, the experts scuttle for cover, lips firmly sealed. Whither the artist's rights?