Monday, March 11, 2013


This crisp Madonna and Child was painted in the 1490s by Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517). Earlier this year Christie's New York described it as oil on panel, a tondo in its original frame. The picture had remained in private hands in Italy and unknown to scholars until its first publication in 1992, when it was sold through a London dealer to the present owner. Described only as "property of a distinguished private collector" the painting was sold on January 30th for $12,962,500.

Perhaps I am finally getting my head around the fact that Old Master paintings, whatever their degree of rarity or loveliness, sell for a smallish fraction of the price demanded for a good example of Abstract Expressionism or Pop. There is a scene toward the end of Michael Haneke's first feature film (The Seventh Continent, 1989) where a prosperous Austrian couple, having withdrawn their substantial savings from the bank, systematically tear up the cash and flush it down the toilet. I can understand the impulse, when money-value seems absolutely at odds with the sort of intangible (even supernatural) value of Fra Bartolommeo's tondo.

The Market Review column in the January issue of Apollo began like this –

It seems incredible to report but, despite the gloomiest of economic conditions across the globe, over $1bn was spent on modern and contemporary art in five days in New York. It may be precisely because of the economy that this should be the case. There is little else to invest in, and it is hard to imagine that all those prepared to pop tens of millions for a Rothko, Warhol, Bacon, Richter, Basquiat, Kline, De Kooning or Koons have waited until now to express their deepest passion for the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.