Eric Clapton’s $34 Million Gerhard Richter And The Provenance Problem

Let me start by saying that I’m a huge Eric Clapton fan. I could listen to the Derrick and the Dominos “Layla” album for days on end. I still have my vinyl version of “Disraeli Gears.”

But on the day when the Nobel  Committee bestowed their Peace Prize on the European Union, the sale of Clapton’s Gerhard Richter “Abstraktes Bild” for a record $34, 190,000+ seemed, if not quite as absurd, certainly over-the-top.

That is not to say that this is anything but a superlative painting.  It is, and Gerhard Richter is a stupendously talented artist. These things are givens.  But the truth of the matter is that the hammer came down on this particular work at this particular price not because of the painting itself, but in very large part because Eric Clapton owned it.  And while provenance counts, so, too, does connoisseurship.

It is that connoisseurship that I fear is fading in the current over-populated art market, a market defined increasingly not by great art, but by high prices and a focus on art investment so popular CNN International devoted an entire prime-time segment to it just last night, the reporter barely mentioning the names of the artists as the camera skimmed quickly over the works themselves; the real subject here was the prices.  The art was merely incidental.

All of which strikes me as symptomatic of a celebrity-besotted zeitgeist and a culture that increasingly associates fame with money and in which value and quality have less and less to do with one another in virtually all areas of public life.  (Long ago, the late Bruce Wolmer, the longtime editor of Art & Auction and Artinfo, wrote a commentary bemoaning the loss of “connoisseurship” – he referred to it as “taste” — from the art discussion. Sadly, no one seems to have paid very much attention.)

Take, for instance, publishing.  Last week, as most people now know, “Girls” star Lena Dunham” signed a book deal for $3.5 million. Monica Lewinsky is rumored to have completed a deal for her book for a whopping $12 million – matching what President Bill Clinton received for his memoir. The hook: Lewinsky’s book will include some of her love letters to him (what, she kept copies?). By contrast, Edmund de Waal reportedly received an advance of £10,000 (about $16,000) for his masterful The Hare With the Amber Eyes.

And the same is true, by the way, in journalism – or what passes for it much of the time. Contributors to online publications these days are frequently paid not for the quality of their work, but for the number of unique “hits” their articles receive. Hence the writer of a piece headlined “Justin Bieber Seen Kissing Kim Kardashian” or the ever-popular “Five Ways To Walk Off The Weight” is sure to be far better remunerated for his work than is the author of an investigative expose of, say, the sex slave market in Minneapolis. (For the record, I made this up. I am not aware of any sex slave market in Minneapolis, nor of Justin Bieber kissing any of the Kardashian sisters.)  Perhaps this has, on the surface, little to do with the concept of “connoisseurship”; but the writers of these more popular stories are frequently less than the best of all writers.  Accuracy is often beside the point. Their postings tend to have “I”s, “me”s, and “who”s in all the wrong places.  They tend to make extensive mention of things they consider “very unique.”

Which gets me back to the Richter. It is, indisputably, a stunning painting, its shimmering bright primary colors vivid and rich across the canvas. As San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier, whose 2012 TEFAF booth boasted one of the most exquisitely poetic RIchters I’ve ever seen, observed, “It was a beautiful large domestic scaled Richter that two people coveted beyond the most recent records — again demonstrating the desirability of Richter and of beautiful paintings.”

But my question is whether the desirability of this Richter, this beautiful painting, was, in this particular instance, proportional to the actual work itself, independent of the fact that Eric Clapton used to own it; and I have to conclude that it was not.  And yet from here on, this $34 million price – also a record for a work by a living artist — will be an historic fact, and more than that, an historic landmark, defining the value of Richters and, on a wider scale, the value for works by living artists in general.

True, last May, Christie’s set a record for the artist with the sale of a 1993 work – from the same series and with a similar history, though somewhat larger —  at $21.8 million.  The estimates for the two paintings was virtually identical: $14 – 18 million at Christie’s, $14.5 – 19 million at Sotheby’s.  The difference is that the Clapton painting sold after the Christie’s record sale, suggesting that in fact Sotheby’s experts – who are, at least officially, barred from considering the value of a celebrity provenance in their estimates — saw this work as being less important than the 1993 painting. (And this despite offering a glowing video presentation about the work on the Sotheby’s website.)

And with good reason: the painting that sold at Christie’s – Abstraktes Bild 798-3 from the series – is far more complex, and carries more of the muted, misted quality that characterizes Richter’s oeuvre. (He himself has said, “The smudging makes the paintings a bit more complete …. [it] can help make the painting invincible, surreal, more enigmatic.) 798-3 is a more intimate painting, more inviting, more enveloping; 809-4, the Clapton work, vibrates, nearly screaming in its intensity. That seductive, alluring mysticism that makes Richter’s art works so universally compelling seems absent here, at least to me.

Granted, this is a matter of taste, in large part – not the kind Wolmer alluded to, in which taste is relegated to the back of the room while celerity and cash stand at the front – but the weighing of things of similar artistic merit. And the honest truth, really, is that at the very least, the Clapton Richter is not more than half again as good as the other. It just isn’t.

Now, obviously, Gerhard Richter is no Monica Lewinsky.  But the point here is that judgment matters. Aesthetic discrimination matters.  Connoisseurship matters.  We need to see more of it.

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