Hughes on Supply

In 1984 Robert Hughes delivered this splendid insight which is really a fragment of one of the many lectures he delivered in his career. I wish I could write like Hughes did but I can’t so I will quote from this lecture and then tell you why I find his observations so interesting and still relevant today in 2013.

Robert Hughes, 1984: “Let us look at the implications for historical art first.

A hundred or 200 years ago, Old Master prices were low – with all exceptions granted – because the supply exceeded the demand.  From the attics of ducal homes in Kent to the crypts of churches in Umbria, Europe was crammed with unrecorded, uncleaned, unrestored, unstudied works of art, the raw material for another century of intensive dealing.  The number of collectors then, as against today, was tiny.  And the support system that we take for granted as a normal part of the landscape did not exist.  Few and unsystematic museums; fewer departments of art history and the pensioni of Florence were not full of anxious doctoral candidates swotting up for their dissertation on the size of the Christ Child’s organ in a previously unrecorded predella fragment by the Master of the Bambino Vispo, and whether this holy member signified ostentatio or pudicitas.

70It must have seemed, then, that there was no possibility of the demand for Old Master painting outstripping the supply.  The historical deposit seemed as inexhaustible as the herds of elephants on the Serengeti plain.  In fact, it was as soon depleted.  Our great-grandfathers could not have foreseen what the growth of the museum age would do.  And as the major works entered museums, there was more competition for the minor, ones; and then the task of revival and re-evaluation of schools and artists for whom our Victorian forbears had no time at all began in earnest.  In due course there would be no schools or artists left to rescue from oblivion.  There is no oblivion.  Today, virtually everything that was made in the past is equally revived: there will be more argument about its meaning and its relative merits, but the universal resurrection of the formerly dead is pretty well an accomplished fact.  In this way the disinterested motives of the scholar go hand in hand with the intentions of the art market.  To resurrect something, to study and endow it with a pedigree, is to make it saleable.  And what is not worth studying for aesthetic ends can generally be revived by an appeal to the sensibility of camp.  Twenty years ago the word “antique” had an agreed meaning: it denoted something not less than 100 years old.  Today it is used indiscriminately of anything made the day before yesterday, like 1940’s nutmeg graters.  For those objects which were too ephemeral, ugly, dumb or recent even to pass as modernist archaeology, the word “collectible” was invented.”

Hughes, for me, always seems to nail it with his observations that are like beautiful little diamonds of insight and in this short extract he cleverly distils the supply dynamic and how so very quickly the world’s voluminous offering of undiscovered and unappreciated art was transformed and gobbled up in no more than a century by that complex mix of eager art historian, expanding collecting appetites and the rise of public institutions that completed the circle of supply and demand.

But his observations about the reassessment of periods and the easy application of the tag “collectable” or lax use of the word “antique” for me are a bit tough and a little overladen with conspiracy theory – but I tough is what I like about Hughes commentary. Hughes seems to suggest that some sort of collective commercial effort was made to turn the “not so old” or “not so classically beautiful” in to saleable things worthy of appreciation. My inkling is however that much of the reassessment of post-war design and ephemera and art came more from the individual who found sentiment and comfort in finding and buying things that reminded him/her of a moment or a place, rather than a “strategising dealer of the not so old”.

The most relevant part of this piece for the modern day auctioneer however is what Hughes really touches on but doesn’t explore here and that is what happens to markets when supply wanes or moves elsewhere or simply dries up? This is the question I find most tantalising as an auctioneer. Just what will fill our rooms in ten, twenty and thirty years? Will there even be “rooms” or will everything be in a “cloud”? Not the fluffy white thing in the sky but the digital one! Well, I’m not sure really so in the meantime we will keep experimenting with new categories, interesting and beautiful creations in two and three dimensions and rest easy in the knowledge that there will always be interesting things to sell whether old, oldish or very recently new.

John Albecht