Art lust

MERYLE SECREST is the author of "Duveen: A Life in Art."

When Gerald Reitlinger published his seminal study, “The Economics of Taste,” 40 years ago, the book — which charts the sales history of famous artists over a 200-year period — was all about the likes of Bellini, Vermeer and Raphael.

Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” was, after the “Mona Lisa,” the most famous painting in the world, and Reitlinger’s index does not even mention Gustav Klimt.

Now one of that artist’s paintings, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, has soared into the stratosphere, selling for $135 million. It is followed by Pablo Picasso’s “Garcon a la Pipe,” which sold for $104.2 million in 2004. Among portraits, recent runners-up are another Picasso, “Dora Maar au chat,” which sold in New York for $95.2 million, and an Amedeo Modigliani portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, at just over $30 million. The Old Masters, if not exactly spurned, no longer scale these rarefied heights, although in the 1920s and 1930s they made their chief proponent, Joseph Duveen, the biggest art dealer in the world.

Assuming one can equate worth with financial value, what happened? What has made Klimt rise to the heights? Indeed, what gives any painting such a commanding presence? Answering such questions requires an appreciation for art’s complex interrelationship with power and social status, both inextricably linked to exclusivity.

One likes to think that the masters — the Leonardos and Michelangelos of the world — are beyond the reach of taste and that only painters like the 19th century’s William Bouguereau and Lawrence Alma-Tadema go in and out of fashion, like bosoms, rap music and restaurants. Those who buy and sell know differently and can chart almost to the hour the moment a certain artist confers ultimate status on a collector and another descends a notch or two in the desirability sweepstakes.

The great age of collecting Italian Renaissance art and Old Masters reflected the goal of all right-thinking millionaires — Frick, Morgan, Bache, Mellon, Kress, Widener, Huntington and many others. They aspired to greatness, or at least social acceptance, and possessing the rarest, most desired and most valuable artworks put them on a par with princes, which in a way they were. What a truly clever dealer, like Duveen, learned to do was to plumb the recesses of those closed hearts and coax them to want what other men had already decided was the ultimate prize. Because competition was in their blood, he could clinch a deal by pitting one against the other. As the art historian Kenneth Clark wrote, “The first tug at the line is the real moment of ecstasy.”

In 1921, when Henry E. Huntington decided, with some nudging by Duveen, that he had to have Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” that 18th century portrait of an adolescent in old-fashioned clothes had already won the hearts of millions. It decorated untold living rooms, as well as biscuit tins and packs of playing cards. People had been trying to buy the original from the Duke of Westminster for decades. Duveen’s strategy was to offer to buy two other paintings that the duke wanted to get rid of and then slap a handsome price on all three — a then-record-setting $1 million.

For Huntington, owning “Blue Boy” was the summit of a lifetime’s ambition, but for the British, it was a frightful blow, like selling the crown jewels. Before the painting left Britain, crowds stood in long lines to look at it once more, and men bared their heads. Now the painting can be seen any day of the week in San Marino, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and there are never lines.

The symbols of greatness may go on changing, but the underlying human motivations remain unchanged. The sale of the Klimt, for example, illustrates one of the recurring themes behind the prosaic art-sale details of the transfer of funds, the locking and unlocking vaults, the crating and uncrating and, finally, the proud display with the new owner (in this case, cosmetics magnate and Neue Galerie founder Ronald Lauder) standing in the foreground. One hardly needs to belabor the point that the great collectors were almost all men, and that the sexual desire to possess has always figured into the equation. Part of the allure of painters like Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema was the way they managed to depict their demure, flawlessly proportioned and slyly dressed ladies in attitudes of yearning surrender.

Klimt took that approach a definite step further in his luscious 1907 gold painting of Bloch-Bauer, with whom he was madly in love; the fact that she was somebody’ else’s wife was a mere detail. That cascade of gold is a reference to the Greek myth of Zeus, who transformed himself into a shower of precious metals in order to possess the forbidden princess Danae. The object of Klimt’s affections, with her intricately linked hands and her soft eyes, looks as if she knows exactly what is going on. In contrast, Picasso’s mistress, Maar, with her disfigured, multifaceted face; her stiffly geometric body and vacant expression, comes a poor second. And Modigliani’s Hebuterne, holding her right arm awkwardly across her chest, gives no clue to the artist’s private involvement, or lack of it. No wonder she is, as it were, a $30-million bargain.

Clark, who came as close as Duveen to understanding the motives of great collectors, liked to recall Calouste Gulbenkian, one of the founders of Shell Oil. The Armenian billionaire had a private vice, and he was so secretive and passionate about his paintings that he called them his “harem” and declared that he wanted them all burned on his funeral pyre. (Luckily, that did not happen; they are in a museum in Lisbon.)

Then there was the dying Jules Mazarin, prime minister of France, stumbling through his picture gallery in 1661, past his Titians, Corregios and Carraccis, saying adieu to paintings “que j’ai tant aimes” (“that I so love”).

Perhaps very wealthy men only buy paintings as investments, but the evidence is to the contrary. Even Duveen, who after looking at beauty all his life was relatively immune, used to sit in the Tate Gallery for hours in front of a particularly wonderful Turner.

“If I owned this,” he once said, “I should want nothing more in all the world.”