Sunday 04 Dec 2016

Art and Mammon
Sjef Frenken

Jack slammed down a folded newspaper on the table, saying “What do you think of this!?” (Aaaah, where is an interrobang when you need one?!)

I said “I won’t know what to think of anything in the paper till I have my short-range glasses on”, trying to dig up the recalcitrant spectacles from one of the several pockets I had available within arm’s reach.

It took too long for Jack’s patience: “120 million for Munch’s ‘The Scream’!” he shouted, causing a few startled heads around us to stop chewing. “Who would pay that much for a piece of crap?”

I said “now we’re getting to the very heart of the supply-and-demand, as opposed to the labour theory of value.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” asked Jack, still loud enough to raise a few eyebrows in the neighbourhood. “What does that have to do with art?”

“Everything,” I said. Then I noticed that Jack’s eyes were fixed on a photo of the painting. I decided to forego a brief exposition of the views of Adam Smith, Saint Thomas and Thorstein Veblen.

Jack said “If one of your children came home with a picture like that, would you even put it up on your fridge?

I had to admit that only parental love would persuade me to do that, not artistic merit. Moreover I told Jack that I had at least three children who could do better than that.

“Then why would anyone be foolish enough to lay out 120 million for that juvenile rubbish?”

I said “For one thing, it’s not so much that the painting is worth 120 million, but that people think it is worth that amount. Consider it an investment. Ever heard of the tulip mania in Holland during the 1600s? Single tulip bulbs were selling for what would amount to several hundred thousand dollars in today’s dollars. The real worth of that tulip bulb didn’t matter; it was the then current, and even more so, the future, value of that bulb that was important.”

Jack said “You have quite a few paintings and prints, why do you buy them.”

I said “The paintings are virtually all by members of my family and they were given to me. The prints are ones I’ve bought. And I bought them because they pleased and still please my eye. Mostly.”

Jack wasn’t going to let that slip by: “Why ‘mostly’.”

I said “because there is, I confess, an aspect of rarity involved. If I buy a print, I want to be sure there aren’t hundreds of them around. I remember when a particularly gifted Native Canadian artist died thirty, forty years ago, I went looking for one of his prints. I did find some in a gallery downtown. The print I was interested in was numbered as being one in a ruin of 500. I asked the gallery owner if the original had been destroyed. She indicated that as far as she knew it hadn’t been destroyed of disfigured, and that if more prints were needed, more would be printed. That, I thought, undermined the validity of the humber 500 of that limited edition.”

Jack asked “Were you interested in that figure as a potential investment?”

I said “No, not at all. But I did want some assurance that for the amount I was being asked to pay, there would be some measure of exclusivity.”

Jack said “So you don’t want the public at large to have a copy.”

I said “Maybe that’s part of it. I mean, I don’t want to deprive anyone of being able to look at a fine piece of art, but if it is going to be in every household, I’m not going to pay a lot of money for it. Just off the top of my head, I think there are three reasons to buy a piece of art: you like the picture or sculpture, you like the artistry or craftsmanship, or you like it as an investment. Sometimes people buy for two or all three reasons. For me it’s only the first two.”

Jack asked “Who are your favourite painters?”

I said “I don’t so much have favourite painters as favourite paintings. Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ is probably at the top. There’s a whole crowd near him, but none above. I’ve been looking on the internet for a copy of that Bruegel painting, but haven’t come across one yet. If my main interest is the beauty of the painting, I can derive just as much pleasure from a copy as I can from the original.”

I was about to ask Jack about paintings in his house, but then I realized that he has none -- nothing but posters from his world-wide travels. Very artistic ones, though.

I said “I’ve always been stumped by forgers. I remember a big to-do in Holland after the second world war, when it was discovered that what were thought to be paintings by Vermeer, turned out to have been painted by Han van Meegeren, including one painting considered by the foremost art critics at the time as Vermeer’s finest. True, he was a forger, a crook, but if his forgeries were that good, why can’t they be judged on their own merit? And that’s were, in my opinion, the investment aspect played a part: it undermined the value of Vermeer’s own paintings.”

Jack said: “You mentioned that you only buy prints and paintings because you like them, and …”

I interrupted Jack: “I added ‘mostly’. I have a rule about prints: I won’t buy any print that has a run of more than 30, with the assurance that the original is destroyed.”

Jack said: “ Let me finish!…and, you don’t buy them as an investment. So why worry about the number of copies? Are you some kind of snob after all?”

I said “Maybe just a little one.”

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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