On this day in 1998, Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Without Beard sold for $71.5 million. At the time, it was the third most expensive painting ever sold. Now (adjusted for inflation), it is 26th. As regular readers know, I’m not a big van Gogh fan. But he is unique. Still, prices like this for a work of art say nothing of the work and everything about the narcissism of the art collector.
And if you look at the most expensive art there is a remarkable sameness about it. It is overwhelmingly Impressionist (more accurately, post-Impressionist) and representational modernist work. And there is a smattering of Abstract Expressionism — Rothko and Pollock. But the main thing is that you know the people buying these works would have hated the works when they were being produced. For all I know, they hate them now. It’s just something to impress the swells with.
I do all my writing sitting right next to what I know was once a beautiful painting by Bernard Frouchtben. But like far too much art that no one has been told is good, it was badly abused. In its case, it was left out in a carport for years. But even if it had been treated with the care and respect it deserves, it probably wouldn’t even be worth as much as $10,000. As it is, it is worth nothing in terms of money. But I dearly love it, even though it also saddens me to look at it.
I love art. But art as commodity offends me. For the price of that one van Gogh, a hundred Bernard Frouchtbens could have been supported in perpetuity. Imagine what kind of works would have result from that kind of investment. But instead, these people buy art the way decorators do when they are furnishing a new Days Inn. And the truth is that if you told these art collectors that paintings of bullfighters on black velvet was the thing, they’d be spending millions on every Edgar Leeteg that went on the market. And I’m not saying that Leeteg is bad. But his paintings don’t sell for millions for the same reason that van Gogh’s do — at it has nothing to do with what the buyers like or don’t like.