Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

By Any Other Name

Salvator Mundi, the Louvre Museum, Paris, France, October 20, 2019 (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
The tale of a downwardly mobile portrait

Where is value found? Where — if anywhere — can it be located? In an era such as the one we are entering, this becomes more than a philosophical question. After the 2008 crisis, wealth rushed to the topmost end of the art market, in the belief (often correct) that a judiciously chosen canvas could harbor value better than gold.

Yet the rush of money into art always has a distorting effect, further exaggerating the value that auction houses and a tiny group of high-net-worth individuals place on the work of certain artists. And dulling even further our ability to appreciate art for other, less commercial reasons.

If an opera by Mozart lost its attribution, it would be unlikely to fall out of the repertoire. If the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists got their way and proved that the Bard of Stratford never wrote a word of his works, we most likely wouldn’t stop performing Hamlet. But in the visual arts, the attached name is everything. A fact I am reminded of almost daily, thanks to a painting that hangs on a wall of my house in England.

Because of the story of the Salvator Mundi, everybody has been recently reminded of the great upward-mobility plotline in art. In 2005 the wrecked painting was worth $10,000. After restoration and more, the work began to be exhibited as a work by Leonardo da Vinci, and was controversially included in an exhibition of the master’s work in the National Gallery in London. This helped the painting get flipped at auction three times in a decade, eventually selling at Christie’s in New York in 2017 for the record-breaking sum of almost half a billion dollars. Since that sale a certain amount of attention has been paid to what is now the most expensive painting in the world. Having seen it in London and noted its absence at the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi last year, I still find something uncomfortable about both the painting and its recent history. Partly because I cannot help wondering how much admiration the Salvator Mundi got before its latest attribution.

The subject is often on my mind because of a painting with a far less significant name attached. One that suffered the fate opposite that of Salvator Mundi. To protect various guilty parties I will be vague about certain details. But everybody who comes into my small house notices the work, and over the years of my telling its story the painting has come to seem suggestive to me about questions of value.

My downward-mobility story goes like this. Some years ago a great friend died, leaving me as one of his two executors. He was a man of modest wealth but considerable taste. His London flat had the sort of things that visitors admired. Above the fireplace in the main room was a portrait. The picture lighting was such that late in the evening it often felt as though this figure were a third person involved in whatever whisky-fueled discussion was underway. Clearly a gentleman of the 18th century, in a modest coat, and lace cuffs, he had that recognizable face of the Enlightenment.

My friend had purchased the painting some decades earlier from one of the major auction houses as a work by one of the great portrait painters of the 18th century. And as not merely a portrait, but a self-portrait. Paintings by this person figured in many national collections and would easily fetch a six-figure sum. It had reportedly been displayed at an exhibition of the painter’s work some years earlier.

Anyhow — there it hung, the pride of my friend’s walls, and admired by all. Perhaps certain friends overstressed their admiration for the painting. If so, they were wasting their time. On a number of occasions my friend gestured toward the portrait with his cigarette hand and told me, “That’s my retirement fund.”

As it was, he never made it there, the cigarettes playing their part in that event. But in just one way this proved a blessing. Tasked with executing the estate, I had to maximize my friend’s assets to benefit the intended recipient. As I and the other executor set about doing this, we did so confident in the knowledge that we had at least one item that would see us right.

Off our portrait went to the major auction houses, including the one that had sold the painting a few decades earlier. There we received the news. After inspecting the work, the auction houses told us that it was not a self-portrait by the artist in question. In fact it wasn’t even by the artist. Other opinions were sought, all of which solidified my existing suspicion that many auction-house experts are used-car salesmen with more affected accents. But here was our quandary: Our portrait had descended all the way down the social ladder. It was now a portrait of an unknown gentleman by an unknown painter. Auction-house aficionados will know this last stage. At “Circle of” or “Follower of,” the naughts all fall away. And there we were forced to languish. The leading auction houses said that the new de-attribution meant that the work no longer satisfied their selling threshold. They recommended a house a little further down-market. We took our “Circle of” painting there, and on the day of the auction nobody bid for him.

One final humiliation awaited. The house that had failed to sell the painting put it into a regional sale. And at that regional sale, unable to bear the degradation any longer, I bought the painting myself. Thus I was in the curious but legally proper position of being both the seller and the buyer. Shortly after the sale, my co-executor called me up. “It’s sold,” he told me jubilantly. “I know,” I told him. “I’m the bidder.” He did not conceal a laugh. A few days later I went to collect my purchase, took it home with me, and hung it opposite my own fireplace, where he still hangs and looks, to my mind, very handsome.

Why do I tell this story? It is not, I assure you, to cover my tracks. I believe I have satisfied the suspicious few who thought I might have carried out the most elaborate form of tax dodge. When visitors ask, I tell them the truth: that a painting that used to be one thing became another and, as a result, tumbled all the way down the social ladder, and for that reason only can I afford it to be on my wall.

The unknown gentleman by an unknown painter has lived with me for almost a decade now, and I like having him. First, because it is a fine portrait and hangs well. Second (and most important to me), because it reminds me of my late friend, and though it is now just the two of us, when I am alone with the portrait in the evening our late friend does not seem so distant. But there is another reason why I enjoy his presence. It is that he is a daily reminder to me of this difficult question of where value resides.

It has always struck me as curious how, when the gentleman in the portrait went from famous to unknown, his friends and admirers all deserted him. Those who had expressed great admiration — even devotion — when he had been one thing suddenly dispersed and found no time for him when he became something else. When the work came to auction, nobody else made an offer. I bought him at the reserve price.

I cannot deny that a little part of me daydreams of a day when my unknown gentleman might become someone again. The experts reconvene, inspect the back of the canvas once more, and find some missing clue. “What a characteristic example of the work,” they might say. Or (that golden phrase), “We always hoped this would resurface.” But it is a nonsense. I long ago came to accept him for what he is — an unknown unknown.

He still seems to give pleasure (and gather fresh admirers) from his position of anonymity. But whenever I look at him, I think of how curious — and contingent — our attitude toward art has become, or perhaps always was.

How many of us walk around art galleries scouring the room first for the accompanying cards with the artists’ names on them, rather than looking at the paintings first and bothering with this detail afterward? It feels like this habit has grown as the market has more and more given superstar status to certain names and ignored all other criteria and currencies. But we are all guilty of it. Partly because that is what the art market encourages us to become. And partly because in an age that believes taste — like everything else — is wholly relative, no other anchor seems to exist.

Still I like to think that there is, or can be, a currency of personal appreciation all its own. And that while the market may rely on the signature at the base, the rest of us occasionally need to be reminded that the truest value of things resides simply in those places where we store it.

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