In an article published on Wednesday in the International Herald Tribune titled “The Impoverished Connoisseurs,” longtime art and auction correspondent Souren Melikian recalls an era that lasted from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, when European art buyers “who went in for small Medieval objects, antiquities and the rest did so because they wanted to live with them, not because they looked for tokens of social status or clever investments.”
The ranks of these collectors included figures such a man known only as “Hautmont,” who was able, despite having little cash at hand, to amass “a hoard of superb objets d’art.” Another, a certain Monsieur Poitevin, “was a onetime blue-collar worker in the car manufacturing industry who liked small bronzes from Ancient Rome and the Middle East.”
A better-known “impoverished connoisseur” is also mentioned:
One of the great English antiquarians, Anthony North, who died in June, came from a modest background. With no college education but a rare instinct for spotting great objects, he formed a very fine collection. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Mr. North spent 38 years, he became the guru to whom everyone looked up in the Metalwork Department.
Now that entry-level curatorial jobs require a PhD, it seems impossible that Anthony North could have risen to prominence at one of the world’s great museums without the benefit of a college degree, in a career that stretched from 1964 to 2002.
Not that it isn’t eminently reasonable to rely on credentialed expertise. In any walk of life, we should be assured that those entrusted with positions of authority have undergone a rigorous process to verify that they know what they’re talking about.
In Melikian’s view, however, this process may or may not have anything to do with a passion for the object or a rage for beauty in all of its forms. It has also undone a longstanding if delicate balance in the appraisal of works of art:
In the museum world, the academic approach now prevails over visual appreciation. This in turn has helped spread the political correctness that would have us believe that all art deserves equal consideration. It has revolutionized the scale of values and sent soaring sky-high the prices of works once dismissed as derivative or kitsch.
While Melikian is talking about pre-Modern works, the implications for contemporary art can be clearly inferred — a topic too complex to go into now.
However, his recollection of impecunious art lovers who relied solely on their eye to surround themselves with beautiful artifacts brought to mind the famous tale of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, the subjects of Megumi Sasaki’s charming documentary Herb and Dorothy (2008), who built a collection of nearly five thousand Minimal and Conceptual works by spotting talent early and buying only what they loved.
Herbert Vogel, who died in July, was a postal worker and Dorothy is a retired librarian. The couple built a wall between art and money to such an extent that when they decided to give their collection away instead of selling it, they chose to donate it in its entirety to the National Gallery of Art because it does not charge admission. They later devised a scheme called Vogel 50 x 50, designed to distribute 2,500 works to fifty museums across all fifty states.
If only the Vogels weren’t the exception. Melikian bemoans the “entry into the market of innumerable buyers with aims like the search for social glamour or profitable investments [who] sent prices rocketing sky high.”
This was in part the consequence of intensifying competition but, above all, of their dependency upon auction houses that they trusted to advise them about prices or artistic merit.
The auction houses landed like big-box stores in the middle of a mom-and-pop oasis:
In recent years, some long-established specialist dealers found no one to take up their business. On retiring, they consigned their stock to be auctioned. The connoisseurship of some of them is now missing in many areas. Academic knowledge, backed merely by the passive exercise of looking at museum glass cases, cannot be a substitute for their kind of expertise.
Interestingly, Melikian speaks of “democratic collecting” and “democratic access to art,” which has been eroded by a battery of economic and historical forces, among them “political correctness that would have us believe that all art deserves equal consideration” and that “sent soaring sky-high the prices of works once dismissed as derivative or kitsch.”
Reading between the lines, one could make the case that connoisseurship, which Melikian describes as “natural gift” that no amount of study can secure, as a form of elitism freely accessible to the non-elite:
[…] like any talent, is the privilege of a minority. Like a pianist’s innate talent, it must be groomed through intensive practice.
And, as a gift to a non-elite minority, it can be seen as intrinsically subversive.
It is a form of analysis that innately grasps the truth or falsity of an object and builds its argument from a piecing-together of visual details. In a way, it is no different from the sniff-test in politics. If something doesn’t smell right, it usually isn’t right.
Connoisseurship as a means of discourse is as hard-earned as it is fragile. It may be intuitive, but it doesn’t remotely resemble the half-baked gut-checks that George W. Bush regularly visited upon himself, which only magnified his ignorance and delusions. It is rather a continual dialectic of assertions and counter-assertions, a process predicated on an awareness of its vulnerability to distortion and manipulation.
Hautmont, Monsieur Poitevin, Anthony North and Herb and Dorothy Vogel knew that it takes a certain amount of money, combined with a keen eye and a little luck, to surround themselves with the art “they wanted to live with.”
But that was the only role it played. It is noteworthy that, in Melikian’s take, “democratic” is not synonymous with “popular” or even “populist.” It signifies instead a communal value that goes to the root of our social, historical and cultural character. And no amount of money, from auction houses or Super PACs, can bury it.