Thursday, May 22, 2014

Getting Dragged Around to the Great Art Museums of the World

My wife loves to drag me to art museums.  I love her and she is willing to go to my baseball games so I go along with the plan – always with a good book in hand.

Together we have visited the Uffici, the British Museum, the Musee d’Orsay, the Tate Modern, the National Gallery of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Vatican Museums, and the Louvre, to name a few.  

I am not a student of fine art and would prefer to play in a good poker game than see another masterpiece.  But let me hypothesize (in my naiveté) on the four major reasons for visiting an art museum: 1) To enjoy a beautiful setting;  2) To be educated and entertained via a great story about the history of the art; 3) To see beautiful paintings and sculptures; 4) The pride of ownership or bragging rights of being able to say: “I saw the original Starry Night by van Gogh or Michelangelo’s Statue of David”.

Reason #1 comes down to relishing the beauty of the buildings and grounds.  Even if everything else is a letdown, at least you have enjoyed something.  From my angle, the Vatican Museum had the most gorgeous setting of any art museum I have ever visited.

Reason #2 – and this is big for me, is the museum tells an entertaining and educational story.  I think too many museums do a horrible job of educating and entertaining.  I walk by a painting by Pablo Picasso and the only story or information available is “Pablo Picasso 1901, Old Woman”.  This museum curator would starve if she had to make a living as a film writer.  Granted many art museums rent out the headsets with the recorded tours, but I have not found these very well produced.

Reason #3 (see beautiful paintings and sculptures) can be achieved by seeing the original or a great replica. In today’s museums, most masterpieces must be viewed from a distance – for the Mono Lisa which is only 30 inches by 19 inches, one can generally not get closer than about 10 feet and you can't really see the details very well from that distance. And because everyone wants to see this masterpiece, you probably will have to fight the crowds and only get about 15 seconds to study it before being pushed on to the next painting. I think I would enjoy the beauty almost as much by spending more time and getting closer to a great copy rather than fighting for this short glimpse of the original? In fact I have an altered (I would say enhanced) copy of the Mono Lisa playing cards in my poker room.

Let’s consider Reason #4 – the bragging rights associated with seeing the original.  But first, how does one really know that it is the original?  In order to authenticate a piece of art, the qualified authority frequently needs a high-resolution multispectral camera, a DNA test of the paint, carbon dates from the  canvas, studies of the brushstroke patterns, and reviews of the known provenance of the work. Every now and then a faint centuries old fingerprint can be found on the canvas and this tends to seal the deal about who actually painted it.

If I put the original The Card Players by Paul Cezanne (which sold at auction in April 2011 at a record $273 million) and displayed it in the British Museum alongside a great forgery, no one, not even the top experts in the world could tell the pieces apart from the designated viewing area.  

So I can see a beautiful replica and meet Reason #3 without seeing the original.  But what satisfaction is there in bragging about having seen a near perfect reproduction?  In this picture of the Mono Lisa, the coloring is amazing and her eyes seem to follow you as you move around. 

It is gorgeous, but here is my question: How much more beautiful is the original than a high quality photo or a million dollar forgery?  I would suggest that on this one dimension (Reason #3), the difference is negligible.  (I expect plenty of criticism on this point from art connoisseurs. Please don’t hold back.)

Which brings us to Reason #4 (bragging rights associated with seeing the original). At least I think I saw the original Mono Lisa at the Louvre.

Consider the Pride of Ownership for a stolen piece of art.  You can’t really brag about it (if you do, you will get caught.)  Few people want to buy a stolen piece of artwork.  The black market value for the original Mono Lisa drops closer to its core value (its beauty) but without the Pride of Ownership value of being able to brag about owning it.  And even its beauty cannot be appreciated much if you must hide the piece under your bed.

Back on August 21, 1911 when the Mono Lisa was stolen from the Louvre the world feared that the painting had been lost forever. It turns out that Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had grabbed it during regular hours, and hidden it in a broom closed before walking out with it under his coat after the museum closed.  Nobody even noticed until the next day!

The day after it was stolen, a frequent patron of the museum, walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years and noticed that it was missing.  He notified the guards, but they were relaxed because they assumed the painting was being photographed for marketing purposes. A few hours later the museum authorities confirmed that the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers – it was gone. The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid in investigation of the theft.

But after stashing the Mona Lisa in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he tried to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  It was exhibited all over Italy and then returned to the Louvre in 1913. While the piece was stolen, it had virtually no Pride of Ownership premium for the thief or any potential buyers of the stolen loot. 

And here is another interesting twist in the Pride of Ownership Premium for this painting.  The massive world-wide publicity about the theft made the Mono Lisa more famous and substantially increased its Pride of Ownership Premium and overall value.  Today it is the most famous painting in the world.

By the way, when I was at the Louvre, I didn't read or hear a thing about its famous theft.  The Louvre likes to pretend that its visitors come to visit the museum only for Reasons #1 (Venue) and #3 (Beauty) and not the more earthly Reasons #2 (Great Story) & #4 (Bragging Rights).


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