A journalistic history of the art market and the characters who created it

February 28, 1993|By Daniel Grant

FROM MANET TO MANHATTAN: THE RISE OF THE MODERN ART MARKET. Peter Watson. Random House. 558 pages. $35. The history of art and the history of art patronage are the same history, but many people have sought to overlook that fact. The preferred romantic conception is that art and commerce could not be further removed. Dealers are "lice on the backs of the artists," artist Marcel Duchamp claimed earlier in this century and, 100 years earlier, English poet and painter William Blake wrote, "Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on."

The author of the excellent "The Caravaggio Conspiracy," which dealt with a ring of art thieves and smugglers, Peter Watson emphasizes the mechanics of the art world. His interest is the selling price, not whether it's good art or bad art (or is it art at all?).

Mr. Watson assumes a certain familiarity with the current state of the art market -- that there were enormous, record-setting prices paid at auction for van Goghs, Picassos and other 19th- and 20th-century artists' work, and that a number of high-profile dealers also turn up the volume of hype for artists whose work they are selling. He then proceeds to describe how this system came to be.

His strength, and the heart of this book, lies in the descriptions of the characters who developed the art market over the past 150 years. People came to the art trade from other, often unrelated, fields, such as bookselling, banking, porcelain dealing, Wild West shows, the circus, law school and the selling of art supplies.

Paul Durand-Ruel, the first great dealer of the French impressionists, "wanted to be a soldier and was accepted by Saint-Cyr," Mr. Watson writes, "but his bad health ruled out any idea of a military career. A fervent Catholic, he may have considered becoming a missionary." Expertise in art, or even a longtime appreciation of it, was not a prerequisite for the job initially, and Mr. Watson indicates that it still isn't.

The "From Manet" part of the book's title reflects the point when a diverse art market actually arose in France and, later, elsewhere. Royal academies in Europe developed with the rise of the nation-state in the 17th and 18th centuries; their aim was to develop a national system of art education, exhibition and patronage. From the pool of artists within these academies, commissions would be assigned and sales might occur.

But by the mid-19th century, artists were finding themselves in conflict with these often conservative institutions, looking for new outlets to exhibit and sell their work. The renowned "Salon des Refuses" took place in Paris in 1863, after the French Royal Academy rejected a record 4,000 paintings and Emperor Louis Napoleon allowed a special exhibit next door to the official one in order to assuage the anger of the many rejected artists.

Sensing a new mood among the public, Durand-Ruel and a few others began to exhibit privately and to (try to) sell works by the impressionists. Over time, new dealers arose with new art movements, creating a varied market in works of the past and present. Auction houses, previously associated exclusively with books, took on art selling.

Mr. Watson is enlightening in his discussion of how external factors -- death duties, war, changes in government or the tax code -- have influenced the art market.

The lack of a British tariff on grain, he notes, led to a major increase in the volume of objects brought to auction and sold abroad. How? Cheaper wheat was imported from the United States than the British could produce, resulting in large losses by many of the vast inherited estates. To cover their losses, these landholders needed to sell their art and antiques, which "gave the British houses of Christie's and Sotheby's a shot in the arm." Fascinating.

Mr. Watson is weakest in his scholarship -- in fact, he is no scholar at all. He draws from a limited number of books by others TC for large sections of the earlier, historical chapters of "From Manet to Manhattan." "According to Theodore Reff, in the introduction to 'Manet and Modern Paris' . . . on which much of this section is based," Mr. Watson writes in one chapter. "According to Anne Distel, on whose authority much of this chapter rests," he writes in the next chapter.

Perhaps this can be forgiven, as he is a journalist who approaches history writing journalistically. He quotes experts rather than developing expertise himself. (Certainly, "The Caravaggio Conspiracy" was a work of new journalistic sleuthing). A large quibble may be found in the degree to which auction records become, for Mr. Watson, the measure of how the art market is doing.

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