A Kerry James Marshall painting depicting Harriet Tubman with her first husband was sold at last week’s Christie’s auction, Artnews reports. The perfectly legitimate, if not strictly tasteful, sale went mostly unremarked in the cacophony surrounding the record-breaking hammer on “Salvator Mundi,” purportedly the last Leonardo in private hands, the same night.
The sale of Marshall’s “Still Life With Wedding Portrait” (2015) nonetheless raises its own sticky questions. The artist donated it to a benefit auction for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015, where Jay Jordan, the owner of a private investment firm based in the posh Chicago suburb of Deerfield, bought it for $750,000. At Christie’s last week, the painting sold for $5.04M including fees, a record-breaking price for Marshall, which, depending on your inclinations, reflects either an exciting new level of success for the artist or the breathtakingly glib flip of a work with enormous artistic and historical significance (or both).
Flipping has long been a bit of a boogeyman for art dealers and many high-level collectors, as it can distort an artist’s market and disrupt the careful calibrations of pricing and placement that guide art career management. In a 2014 statement, however, Christie’s told the Times that, “The speculative art buyer, or ‘flipper,’ motivated purely by short-term investment potential, is the anomaly in our experience.”
While it may be anomalous, the case of “Still Life With Wedding Portrait” perfectly encapsulates how dicey the dance between cultural capital and actual capital can become. Even if there’s a boon to the artist in vaulting to a new price range, flipping the work in this way also reflects a one-dimensional view of a multifaceted artwork. Focusing purely on the transactional dimension marginalizes — and risks effacing — its non-monetary value as an aesthetic, civic, and historical contribution.