Marc Quinn, “Song fo the Siren” (2010), 18 carat gold (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

Next week on October 17, Sotheby’s London will auction off a coterie of gold artworks and objects in an event cheekily titled The Midas Touch. If you were worried that the Banksy affair this month had somehow shifted the auctioneer’s attitude toward the market’s glut, then let me assuage your fears. This lot trades class for crass.

“The language of gold is universal,” bloviates the auction house’s press release. “The precious metal has consumed alchemists, compelled explorers, decided the fate of civilizations, and dominated the world’s economy.”

A gold mounted dagger (Kris) and scabbard, Malaysia, 19th century (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

Gold also dominates the interior confines of President Donald Trump’s infamously gilded Manhattan penthouse residence on Fifth Avenue. And according to The Midas Touch‘s catalogue of fineries, it looks like Sotheby’s is taking many of its visual cues from the reality star’s asinine aesthetic. Gold chairs? Duh. Gilded books? Double duh. Golden jewelry? How dare you ask. Daggers? Why yes, there are two for sale.

Though the auction house is not the first cultural institution to see gold as a thematic device. For example, the Belvedere Museum in 2012 had its own large exhibition devoted to the precious metal, simply titled Gold. While the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, Florida, celebrated their 50th — the gold anniversary — with an exhibition simply titled, GOLD (yes, with all caps).

A gem-set gold necklace (lebba), Morocco, probably Fez or Meknes, circa 18th century (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

An Imperial carved giltwood ceremonial fauteuil, designed by Percier and Fontaine, made by Jacob-Desmalter in 1804, commissioned for Napoléon’s Throne Room at the Palais de Tuileries (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

While all that glitters is — yes — literally gold here, the concept behind the auction is considerably more muddy. Perhaps the Sotheby’s marketing department forgot: Midas’ touch was actually a curse. The mythological Phrygian king’s hands turned everything into gold — including his food. He starved to death in pursuit of material wealth. But what’s a little momento mori when there’s a couple hundred thousand dollars to spend?

Besides, not everything on sale is as glitteringly trite as golden ceremonial plates and christening gifts; the artworks for auction are practically aggressive in their gaudiness.

Yves Klein, “Monogold san titre (MG 44)” (1962), gold leaf on wood panel (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

Look at post-conceptual artist Mike Kelley’s dumbfounding gold leaf homage to recycling. Look at Yves Klein’s “Monogold sans titre” (1961), which is appraised  between £800,000 and £1.2 million (~$1 million to ~$1.5 million). At least Marc Quinn’s golden bust, “Song of the Siren” (2010), has the decency to know that it’s indecent. The artist’s work is said to evoke the image of supermodel Kate Moss. What could be more heavy-handed than a gilded homage to a global cover girl? The Sotheby’s cataloguers who wrote the sculpture’s breathless 530-word description on the Sotheby’s website make some bold claims, comparing Quinn’s pop-cultural spectacle to the likes of Nefertiti, the Virgin Mary, and the Venus of Willendorf. “The present work boldly articulates the artist’s characteristic investigation into ideas of beauty and celebrity,” the description states, “and the female body becomes the vehicle through which he explores such contemporary concerns.”

It’s 2018 and auction houses are still selling their wares by comparing women to automobiles. Which reminds me, The Midas Touch is also selling a metallic gold-painted 1977 Ferrari 512 BB for around £300,000 to £400,000 (~$386,000 to ~$514,00). That’s nearly the same estimate set for Kate Moss’ head.

Kelley Walker, “Untitled (2006), gold leaf on laser cut steel (image courtesy Sotheby’s)

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

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