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Going to market

A Getty Research Institute exhibit traces the value of artworks by exploring the ties among artists, dealers, scholars and collectors.

March 21, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

One of the oldest items in the Getty Research Institute's juicy little exhibition "The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market" is a handwritten record of a straightforward transaction. Penned in ink on a small sheet of plain white paper by Bolognese artist Guercino, the receipt acknowledges payment for three paintings commissioned in 1663 by the Prince of Massa, Alberico II. The price was determined by the number and size of figures in the artwork.

Three centuries later, doing an art deal was much more complicated. About 1969, Willi Bongard, a German economist, art journalist and teacher developed the Glory Formula. This mathematical equation calculates artists' fame -- and thus the value of their work -- by factoring in recognition accrued through an intricate hierarchy of exhibitions, collections and publications.

Between those extremes lies the evolution of the art market, with all its economic realities, backroom mysteries, social implications and gossip. The exhibition condenses the saga into trenchant examples and case studies, but it's merely the most visible part of a much broader investigation at the Getty.

"The story of how objects of art get from the point of the artist's production to where they are today is a huge topic, and we have huge holdings," says Gail Feigenbaum, associate director of the institute, which advances understanding of the visual arts through its collections, databases, publications and programs. "The exhibition is a way to present some highlights of our collections in a narrative fashion. We hope researchers will find new evidence to use in their work and maybe new considerations of historical issues. At the same time, it's a great show for the general visitor who has a little curiosity about how all this goes in the heady, glamorous world of the art market."

One of the primary strengths of the institute's library is its mass of material on the history of collecting and the art market. That collection -- which supplied dealers' stock books, artists' letters, scholars' diaries, collectors' inventories, auction reports and photographs for the exhibition -- also provided a theme, "Markets and Value," for the 2003-04 visiting scholars and inspired a conference, "Beauty and Truth for Sale: The Art of the Dealer," at the Getty's Williams Auditorium on March 29-30.

The cast of characters falls into four categories: artists, dealers, collectors and scholars. But their roles often overlap. Artists function as dealers, promoting their work or that of friends and negotiating prices. Dealers collect and collectors deal. Scholars might seem to be above the fray, but they too get involved -- however inadvertently.

"Scholars, critics, researchers and historians all shape the value of art," Feigenbaum says. "You think you are pure, but you give an expertise and you are participating in the market. Your assessment of quality, authenticity or attribution makes you a player, like it or not. You go to graduate school and think about truth and beauty, but there's this whole other world that affects the truth-and-beauty factor."

The workings of that world shifted dramatically as private enterprise replaced a system of art production controlled by church and state patronage. The exhibition offers insights into the individual aspirations and sociological phenomena that shaped the change.

In the artists section, correspondence reveals their survival skills, including self-promotion and diplomacy. A letter to a patron from Guido Reni, an ambitious contemporary of Guercino, states that unlike "ordinary" painters who charge a fixed price per figure, Reni is "somewhat extraordinary" and deserves a higher fee.

The show catches up with Paul Gauguin before he made his reputation as a painter, when he was a stockbroker and an agent for his weekend art teacher, French Impressionist Camille Pissarro. In a letter to Pissarro, Gauguin reports that a colleague at the stock exchange has commissioned him to purchase two paintings and that they will be Pissarros.

Sculptor Alexander Calder pursues a 1955 commission for a small mobile from collector Douglas Cooper in a handwritten letter containing a sketch of the project. "But we said nothing about the price," Calder writes. "What did you have in mind?"

Among documents on scholars, modernist critic Clement Greenberg, who championed Abstract Expressionist and Color-Field painters and became so involved in their careers that he frequently breached ethical standards, appears as an artist's agent. In a letter to London dealer John Kasmin, Greenberg diagrams the proper way to display -- and sell -- Jules Olitski's paintings.

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