'THE AUSTRALIAN ART CURATOR': Defining art value (and the value of art crime)

I’ve always seen my role as a curator as a close second to my role as educator. But the way I teach others about art definitely veers from the traditional academic sense. Instead I find myself answering questions like this:

 “Why does this cost so much? It’s something I could have done myself.” 
“We don’t have any big budget at the moment. Can we just have some art that the artist doesn't want that’s lying in their garage?” 
“Why can't I get an [insert famous contemporary artist name] for my $5,000 budget?”

 A lot of the questions in arts consulting circle around money, how much do I have to spend and what will I get as a return? While most people know it’s ‘good’ to like art, they still like to try and wrap their heads around the money to value propositions.

For example, when’s the best time to buy, sell or keep? An emerging artist, like the one Art Pharmacy Consulting worked with above, could become extremely hot stock within a few short years (hello there, van Gogh). Or, they might not.

“Valuing art is almost incomparable to anything else,” explains curator, art valuer and darling Art Pharmacy friend, Amy Lugten-Taylor. “Art is all about taste. So the question then becomes one of how to put a value on taste?”

It’s not all about subjectivity. “Above all is authenticity,” says Amy. “Then comes artist and period … next, I look at the subject.”

Amy’s research at the University of Tasmania centre around the odd subjectivities of the art market, like the shadowy worlds of the black and “gray” art markets, why stealing back heritage art is ‘trending’ and how art can be a far more lucrative investment than property

Want to educate yourself a little more? Read on.

 Can it be hard to communicate value beyond ‘material’ value to someone not heavily involved in the arts?

Yes it can, but I think that many people, even if they are not involved in the arts or are art lovers, can appreciate the finest art. It makes a mark on us – especially things that resonate with us as people and as cultures.

It’s at that moment that art becomes about more than paint and canvas.

It is about a moment in time, and of course, it helps our mood and our outlook on life.  

 At what point does art that interacts emotionally and physically with the public become public property - and how does that affect its value? Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting, ' The Art of Ageing ' project

At what point does art that interacts emotionally and physically with the public become public property - and how does that affect its value? Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting, 'The Art of Ageing' project

What is it about ‘black market’ art items that suddenly makes them more valuable?

The black market for art is all about taboo. The black market for art is an international criminal trade with its own attractive elements.

There was a recent article that pointed out a trend involving theft of Chinese cultural heritage items. In the last eight years there have been quite a number of thefts of Chinese artefacts held in European museums. Many of these had originally been looted from China during the 18th and 19th centuries by European invaders.

In that case, is it morally right to steal it back?

The article, which was in the The Telegraph, discussed targeted strikes where the thieves are probably selling the artworks back to Chinese billionaires keen to collect their nation’s cultural heritage. They will pay good money, but probably less than they would on the open market or at auction.

What are some famous black market examples?

There are many interesting black market examples, and probably quite a few that should be more well known. Recently, Artsy ran an article on ‘informal markets’, blurring the margins of black and ‘white’ (legal) markets. This is gaining more traction as the wealthy wish to buy art, don’t want to do it illegally, but also wish to avoid tax implications.

 Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh, was recently rediscovered after being stolen.

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh, was recently rediscovered after being stolen.

In terms of the black market, selling the artwork is the hard part, rather than stealing it. The Camorra organised crime gang were recently discovered to be still in possession of two paintings by Vincent van Gogh 14 years after stealing them.

 Why are black market art practices so damaging? What are the negative impacts?

One of the most negative impacts of art theft and the black market is the disrespect that thieves and black market buyers show to our shared cultural heritage. When an artwork is stolen, and sold on the black market, we are all robbed of a link to our shared past.

In business terms, the black market for art funds crime in other areas. The infamous drug dealer Pablo Escobar was known to launder his money through buying legal and illegal artworks.

The black market for art is also largely untraceable, assisted by corrupt agents and middlemen who benefit from looking the other way. Organisations that operate in the black market for art usually are networked to other areas of crime. The black market for art could be worth up to $5bn USD annually, funding all these activities.

 A portrait of Francis Bacon by painter Lucian Freud was famously stolen in 1988, with Freud designing this poster in a bid to get his work back.

A portrait of Francis Bacon by painter Lucian Freud was famously stolen in 1988, with Freud designing this poster in a bid to get his work back.

 What are current trends on the art black markets? What’s popular?

I’ve mentioned the trend in stealing artworks belonging to early-modern China, particularly artefacts from the Summer Palace which was looted by marauding soldiers in the 19th century.

Insurance has traditionally had – and is still having – an effect on values for art stolen in the black market. Museums and institutions will be less likely to report thefts (which then move onto the black market) because of the impact on their reputation, and insurers are aware of this and so can ask higher premiums.

It’s a vicious circle.

In addition, insurers will often pay ransoms for stolen art because the buyback price is cheaper than paying out the value of the work to the museum or owner.

 How does public ownership and/or connection with a shared cultural experience affect the value of the artwork? When does art become ‘too valuable’ to remove from the public view?

When the Australian Government purchased Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock it in 1973, it was said to be the biggest waste of $1.3 million. Newspapers criticised it as the work of a drunk. Now it’s worth in excess of $350 million and considered a national treasure.

Where along the line did that change happen?

Well, maybe it happened right away. As Australia’s we can’t stand someone getting ahead, thinking they’re great, or posh, or whatever it may be. But we also instinctively recognised that we now had a badge of pride to show we were modern, cultured, and hip.

Some might have hated the expenditure on Blue Poles, but now we brag. Investing in a house? Expect only a 7 percent annual return, on average. Investing in the stock market? Maybe 11%. Investing in Blue Poles, or similar art? That’s close to a 14% annual increase in value over the life of its Australian ownership. Very savvy.

Are there any emerging or future trends in the valuing of art in Australia?

Collectors are now buying pieces from all over the world, particularly from the internet rather than galleries or physical auctions. That means everyone has something a little different, or something a little obscure. It doesn’t mean the works are worth less, or even more.

Their value, as collectors are beginning to appreciate, is relative to how much we enjoy art.

The best advice I can give – and any advisor worth their salt would say – is to buy what you love. An artwork with no value will only be depressing, but if you love it, there’s no risk of that!

 Amy Lugten-Taylor (L) Maria Villa (C-L) Francesco Cordua (C-R) and Emilya Colliver (R) at Dark Mofo 2017

Amy Lugten-Taylor (L) Maria Villa (C-L) Francesco Cordua (C-R) and Emilya Colliver (R) at Dark Mofo 2017