All but priceless: the curious business of art collecting

How can a blank, varnished canvas be worth millions of dollars? A veteran art expert and collector unveils some unvarnished truths.

In John Mortimer’s Rumpole and the Genuine Article, our ragged old barrister-hero Horace Rumpole is engaged to defend one Harold Brittling, a mediocre artist accused of forging a work by his late revered teacher, Septimus Cragg. When Rumpole confronts the hapless Mrs De Moyne, the buyer of the picture, he zeroes in on what is the essential question: “The picture hasn’t changed since you bought it, has it? Not by one drop of paint! Is the truth of the matter that you’re not interested in art but merely in collecting autographs?” Later, Rumpole implores the jury to remember that “Brittling is no forger. He is a fake criminal and not a real one … he is guilty only of the bitterness felt for men of genius by the merely talented”.

In modern times, there can scarcely be a more dramatic demonstration of that bitterness than the case of Han Van Meegeren, an artist and collector who made an excellent living during the Second World War brokering art sales to, among other people, Hermann Goering. After the war, the Dutch authorities arrested Van Meegeren on charges of collaborating with the Nazis, specifically of retailing a Vermeer painting called The Supper at Emmaus and as the questioning became more heated, Van Meegeren grasped at the only defence that might save him – the utterly impossible truth: “Idiots!” he sneered at his interrogators, “you think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. It’s not a Vermeer. I painted it myself”.

In fact, Van Meegeren carefully simulated the canvas and materials of the master’s 17th century working world, so that his forgery might withstand the scrutiny of specialists. But the one thing for which he hadn’t taken much precaution at all would seem, on the face of it, to be the most important: his The Supper at Emmaus doesn’t look much like any Vermeer painting anybody had ever seen. Looking at the canvas in the retrospective knowledge of the forgery, it’s hard to imagine anybody thinking the thing was, as Rumpole might call it, the genuine article.

For a time, anyway, Van Meegeren fooled almost everybody, and he did so in large part through collusion with the art world. It was in 1937 that Abraham Bredius “discovered” The Supper at Emmaus and began to sing its praises. Bredius had a reputation of impeccable heft, since he’d already personally discovered two genuine Vermeers, and the art-fancying world was hungry for more.

It hadn’t always been so. Vermeer was forgotten as an artist even before his death in 1675, and long after, in 1813, his painting The Lacemaker was bought by the Louvre for the equivalent of around Dh2,850 in today’s money. It is for all intents priceless today, and yet, as Rumpole might point out, not one drop of paint has been added. The seismic shift that has happened all around that small patch of canvas ¬- and all the similar such patches of canvas (and fresco, and statue, and what have you) in the intervening centuries is thus an almost bewildering combination of mob psychology, historical relativism and sheer whimsy. Why do some artworks multiply in value over time? Why do some multiply so much faster than others? What sets those prices, and why are some connoisseurs willing to pay them?

The connoisseurs themselves are often just as in the dark on these matters as anybody else. In Diary of an Art Dealer, well-known collector Rene Gimpel wrote of travelling from Europe to Boston and visiting the city’s art luminaries in February 1930. At a dinner with dignitaries from Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, Gimpel breezily noted that the museum had recently bought a Botticelli “for nothing, a mere US$20,000”. Expert Gimpel could easily foretell an upsurge in the painter’s market value, and later years proved his instincts correct (those years were less kind to the man himself, who died in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944, retroactively making his happy, sunlit journal entries almost unbearably sad to read).

The murkiness of much of these art world fluctuations, the seeming caprice of them, can be a cause of confused despair to all those crowds of spectators who watch that world from the outside and routinely roll their eyes at the astronomical, headline-grabbing prices fetched by works of art at auction.

Veteran art expert and collector Michael Findlay, who was for nearly 20 years a consulting expert at Christie’s and has worked in the New York art world for half a century, has written his first book, The Value of Art (a deceptively thin volume, a thing of courtly steel), in an attempt to pierce that murk and resolve that confusion.

His book is part-primer, part-scorecard, part-revelation and part-exposé – and it opens with a brutal illustration of everything most of those outsiders find angeringly controversial in the modern art world: a 68-by-56-inch acrylic-on-canvas work by John Baldessari from the late 1960s called Quality Material. The work consists entirely of black-lettered words on a white background: “Quality Material – Careful Inspection – Good Workmanship. All Combined In An Effort To Give You A Perfect Painting.” There’s nothing else – no illustration, no colour, not even any calligraphy. In 1968 it was priced at $1,200 and had no buyers. In 2007 it sold at Christie’s for $4.4 million. Since Quality Material contains on its face no aesthetic components at all, that price needs some serious explaining.

Findlay supplies. His book is much quieter than Tom Wolfe’s 1975 masterpiece of pretension-skewering, The Painted Word, but it’s ultimately every bit as telling – and unlike Wolfe, he begins with the basics so that even the most uninitiated can follow. Art evaluation concepts such as provenance, authenticity, exposure and the various measurements of condition are explained in clear, only slightly acerbic lines of considerable grace. The early portions of The Value of Art will perhaps bore the experts but, for the general reader, they simulate what some of us have been lucky enough to experience directly: walking around a first-rate art museum as a knowledgeable friend calmly lays out the ground rules.

And at every point, Findlay stresses the human elements that rule his speciality. “A missed flight, a child’s cold, or a business reversal,” he tells us, “can make the difference between a new record for an artist’s work and the failure of a much-advertised ‘masterpiece’ to sell.” And binding his book’s many side-discussions and glittering array of anecdotes is Findlay’s contention that his subject, the value of art, is divided like Caesar’s Gaul into three parts – represented by the three Graces. There is Thalia, goddess of abundance, representing Commerce. There is Euphrosyne, goddess of joy, representing Society. And there is Aglaea, goddess of beauty, representing the essence of the thing itself, beauty. All artwork, Findlay says, is composed of these three elements – the social, the financial and the aesthetic – in constantly shifting latticework combinations. Van Meegeren’s social (and sometimes gullible) element, Gimpel’s fluctuating financial element and poor old Rumpole’s Keatsian beauty and truth.

This is a kind but unsparing book, because Findlay is a true believer in the ecstatic, almost redemptive power of art. He’s been involved with the Thalia and Euphrosyne aspects of art for all of his professional life, advising collectors and art houses on the financial value of their holdings. But it’s the Aglaea aspect that has his first loyalty. The Value of Art finds him browsing through an endless series of galleries and exhibits, urbanely eavesdropping on the multitudes and sometimes frowning on their ways. Considering how much of his life Findlay has spent in museums, it’s perhaps not surprising that he sees their shortcomings full-on – sees them, in fact, as often orchestrating the experience of art-viewing in a way that hurts that viewing.

“Living or dead,” he tells us, “if the artist or his or her ghost were standing at your side, do you think they would want you to read the artist’s name, the title of the work, the date it was done, its size, what it is made of and what the curator thinks it means before you look at it? How about standing in the middle of the room and looking for one work that hooks your visual attention, then contemplating that for a good two minutes?” The enemy of that interval, those contemplative two minutes? The museums themselves: “Easier said than done in the era of the blockbuster exhibition with timed ticketing.”

The era of timed ticketing in the West is also the era of compulsive over-explaining, another bane of our author. Findlay wants the works of arts to speak for themselves (there are wonderful passages in his book describing the unprompted enthusiasm with which groups of children encounter and discover great works), and he reserves some sharp words for what he calls “the single greatest deterrent to the understanding and enjoyment of art, the recorded lecture”.

Watching the crowds in the galleries can be a depressing sight: “Instead of friends and strangers enjoying works in museums, turning to each other in agreement or disagreement, making up their own minds and expressing their own ideas and opinions, I now see tribes of zombies clutching audio guides.”

Given his extensive expertise, it's natural that Findlay spends a great deal of his book touring readers through the private as well as the public aspects of the art experience. Dealers, connoisseurs, speculators, art houses - the Byzantine and often bizarre backstage manoeuvrings of the various groups that structure the art world are laid bare in these pages by a gimlet-eyed arbiter who knows them warts and all. He tells us of the old, now mostly abandoned, practice of art houses lending collectors money to allow them to purchase paintings - with the paintings themselves held as collateral (Sotheby's lent Alan Bond, an Australian collector, $27m to help purchase van Gogh's Irises for $53.9m - he drastically overextended himself and never, in the end, took possession of the painting). He tours the private homes of collectors who seem to have no commercial avarice about the works hanging on their walls. He relates the story of a paranoid client in Taiwan who presented him with two paintings by Salvador Dali ("identical in virtually every respect, probably finished within minutes of each other") and demanded to know which would appreciate in value faster.

All of these stories come back to money, a centrifugal tendency one gets the impression Findlay deeply dislikes. He has delineated an art world in which three rivers converge: art for its own sake, art as a social lubricant and art as a financial investment. But The Value of Art underscores - almost against its own will - that the third of these is often immeasurably the strongest. Findlay charts a pattern of boom and brake, with art speculation blossoming (in the 1960s, the 1980s, the early 2000s), giving rise to rampant, record-setting buying (and a concomitant crassness that rankles Findlay down to his toes: "Some of the most expensive art made and sold since 2000 is neither designed for nor receives meditative examination," he scolds. "Not unlike certain forms of literature, film and music it accommodates short attention spans. McArt. Go, run and get it"), and then stalling as the money dries up. He anatomises the ways the social element of the art experience feeds into the financial element, how "the opening of a new museum or a new wing of an old one in any community across the country will provoke a frenzy of gown-buying and cufflink-polishing by the local high rollers". He is stunned by the estimated $250m the Qatari royal family paid last year for Paul Cezanne's The Card Players - but he's not surprised by it.

Which makes it all the more surprising that he would assert "the purpose of art is not to make money for its owner. The capacity of a work of art to hold, lose, or increase commercial value is incidental to its meaning. This is not always easy for an investment-addled culture to understand". Indeed, it's not always easy for the investment-addled culture to understand this because it's nowhere in evidence. If money weren't the root of all art speculation in the modern world, it's hard to see how any such speculation would exist in anything like its current form. What but fad and speculation can explain the existence of - let alone the market for - such barren exercises as the blank canvases of Kazimir Malevich and Yves Klein? If you stretch a blank canvas over a backing, varnish it without putting a single mark on it and dare to put a price tag on it, you are absolutely counting on the lunacy of a mob market. Such would-be owners can't be motivated by aesthetics, since a blank canvas by definition can't have any.

So this is necessarily a story of money, not just as a suborning but also as a motive. As the wonderfully irascible art critic Robert Hughes has written, "on the whole, money does artists much more good than harm. The idea that one benefits from cold water, crusts and debt collectors is now almost extinct, like belief in the reformatory power of flogging".

Hughes considered the modern speculation-mad art world as having been born roughly in the 1960s and being the product of the last century's general increase in disposable income. Findlay sees boom cycles going back far earlier, but he's insistent on stressing the personal over the financial element - and always with that characteristically fastidious sniffing at personal shortcomings, at the way viewers fail their viewing: "Every visit to a work of art on public display," he points out, "is a social experience. Even if you go alone, you will encounter other people sharing the experience. Some may even be blocking the view of your favourite painting, chastising their children, or trying to find a cellphone signal".

This is a melancholy refrain throughout The Value of Art: that the art world has fallen into a decadence that both derives from and enables its adherents - the implication, in other words, that museums might be better places if not for all the museum-goers. Findlay genuinely celebrates the public aspect of art in our lives, the way it can knit communities together and facilitate vigorous conversation between friends. But at the same time he urges that all great art, even public art in public museums, be approached privately - and quietly. It's an odd juxtaposition since, as he points out, most people will only encounter great works of art in public museums, where they'll be surrounded by other people. It's a contradiction that has a great deal of Old World charm about it, however hypocritical - after all, where would Findlay's own career be if art required no explication? And who can seriously claim that such explication can't enhance appreciation? Reading the wall-labels of museum paintings - and even listening to the dreaded headphone lectures - can often serve as a demystifying first step towards exactly the kind of uninhibited emotional response Findlay wants. Some people need to know what they're looking at before they're willing to open themselves to it. "If I jog through a museum cruising the labels and snacking on famous names," he writes, "I am unlikely to have an 'aha' moment."

Findlay himself has sometimes been accused of aiding the enemy. A guide at Ohio's Toledo Museum of Art once took him to task for inadvertently promoting commercial art over its more spiritual dimensions. She told him that thanks to the activities of appraisal experts such as himself, her students "just want to see the van Gogh because the one thing they had learnt at school or at the dinner table was that it must be worth millions of dollars. Innocence lost".

In our own present era, this linking of art and art's price - indeed, almost the equating of the two - is perhaps best typified by the British artist Damien Hirst, who gets mentioned in the press far more often for the staggering prices fetched by his works on the market than for the artistic merit of the works themselves. Those works, often consisting of creatures suspended in formaldehyde (Findlay somewhat disdainfully refers to them as "pickled animals"), command astronomical sums from collectors undeterred by the prospect of replenishing industrial chemical solutions for the rest of their lives.

And yet, right to the end, Findlay holds that his third aspect of art - the Aglaea aspect - "transcends appropriation, attitude and fashion". If he's right, if this is indeed all we know on Earth and all we need to know, then he has found a verity in modern art that Tom Wolfe all those years ago never dreamed of claiming. If the value of art (even modern art - even blank canvases) comes down to our private, contemplative reactions to it, then no art is damned and all art lovers are saved. It's a very comforting picture, although readers may wonder if Findlay the professional picture assessor hasn't, from time to time, sold a very different article to the connoisseurs in his business ledger.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.