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THOMPSON: Art collecting by wealthy rarely a pretty sight

July 19, 2021 - 12:00 PM



While most of my painting has involved two coats on a bedroom wall, I’ve studied and appreciated fine art for decades. Seeing da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre in Paris…Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City…Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands…and on and on…is worth way more than the price of admission to those museums.

I appreciate wealth a good bit less. And, it’s not that I’m jealous…though I must admit vast amounts of money seems wasted on some folks. But when art collides with wealth…well, far too often it’s almost unbearable.

I’ve known a few mega-wealthy people who collected art…not that they appreciated it so much. Collecting art was simply what they thought wealthy people should do. An heir to a banking fortune who lives in Naples, FL has a Picasso on his living room wall. He knows what it’s worth in dollars…though he confided to me it’s not something he really likes. Likes? He spent $2 million to acquire it…searching not for a particular artist or art period he appreciated…but rather for a painting by someone famous that would impress others.

Also, I knew two couples who lived in the same condo building in Florida…so-called “friends”…one couple bought an up-and-coming artist’s painting for $700,000. Two weeks later, the other couple approached the artist about another smaller…and less expensive painting…$550,000. The couple said they would take it…but insisted on paying 725,000…twenty-five grand more than their “friends.”

Art colliding with wealth is rarely a pretty sight. Wealth rarely has anything to do with art appreciation. It turns out that if you’ve got money…there are loads of folks who can find you a piece of art that costs enough to give you bragging rights over anyone unlucky enough to call you “friend.”

Last week, a drawing (actually a sketch) of a bear’s head the size of a Post-It Note by Leonardo da Vinci sold at a London auction for $12.1 million. Far from the most ever paid for a painting, the bear’s head - drawn in the 1480s - is a record for a drawing or sketch. It was a preliminary sketch for a larger piece da Vinci did later. I’ve seen better drawings of bear’s heads…just none with Leonardo’s signature.

My theory that most people with wealth don’t appreciate art as much as they appreciate appreciation of their art is supported by the mere existence of freeport storage places in Hong Kong and Singapore and Luxembourg…and, of course, the largest…Geneva, Switzerland.

Freeports are nothing more than warehouses for the ultra-rich. Paintings worth hundreds of millions, millions of bottles of collectible wines, rare books, even automobiles are in air conditioned comfort - not in palatial homes across the world - but in warehouses. They sit tax-free…waiting to be sold by those waiting for the next cycle of appreciation…no, not art…but money.

In November 2017, another da Vinci painting - “Salvator Mundi” - sold at auction for $450.3 million. It is the most expensive painting ever sold…though art critics say it is a lesser work than da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”…which was assessed in 1962 at $100 million…or about $860 million in today’s dollars.

Museums used to be the primary purchasers of paintings by old masters…leading artists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But now it is the mega-wealthy who buy such art…at auction or privately through dealers.

Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” was bought at auction by the Saudi Minister of Culture…but later discovered that the new owner was actually Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud - colloquially known as MBS - who became Crown Prince five months before the auction. MBS the art lover is also MBS the murderer…the man who approved the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Most art worldwide is sold through dealers and galleries rather than auction houses like Sotheby’s. But wealth - or the dream of it - is a magnet for liars, cheaters, scam artists and con men…oh, and did I mention lawyers. The higher you go in the art world…the more unseemly it seems to get.

Take, for example, the aforementioned “Salvator Mundi”…which was bought by a consortium of speculative art dealers in 2005…for just $10,000. By 2013, after extensive restoration, a couple of experts declared it the work of da Vinci…rather than a copy or the work of students of the Renaissance master.

Enter Swiss art dealer and freeport storage magnate Yves Bouvier, who paid the speculators $80 million, storing it in Geneva for a few months before selling it to Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127 million.

And even though Rybolovlev - a Russian fertilizer tycoon - was the one who sold the art for $450.3 million four years later for a tidy $323+ million profit, he’s suing Bouvier. In fact, the Russian art fancier claims Bouvier has swindled him out of $1 billion in the last decade for “Salvator Mundi” and 37 other paintings. This is the stuff of novels and movies.

Fortunately, for most of us, art - pieces that we love and make our spirits soar - are much more within our reach than what brings the gavel down at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. You can spend anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars at galleries and with art dealers in the Okanagan. Though sometimes that piece by your granddaughter on the refrigerator brings you as much joy as any art you might buy.

Art can be about the aesthetic…or the story behind the art…or simply your emotional response. I’ve caught myself smiling just walking into a room with art that I find appealing. Perhaps art is what you say it is…nothing more…and nothing less.

The Bear’s Head sketch - attributed to Leonardo da Vinci - sold for $12.1 million last week at Christie’s in London, 3” x 3”.
The Bear’s Head sketch - attributed to Leonardo da Vinci - sold for $12.1 million last week at Christie’s in London, 3” x 3”.
Image Credit: Leonardo da Vinci

Pencil drawing granddaughter Capriella Pelliccia, 10,refrigerator art, 3” x 3 “.
Pencil drawing granddaughter Capriella Pelliccia, 10,refrigerator art, 3” x 3 “.
Image Credit: Capriella Pelliccia

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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