Thursday, 14 March 2013

What's it worth? Eavesdropping at the Wallace Collection

                                             Picture: Wallace Collection
I came across a tour group at the Wallace Collection recently, and I couldn't resist eavesdropping.  The guide was excellent, giving intelligent and engaging commentary on the composition and art historical background of the Huysum still life (above).  But he couldn't resist talking about how much it's worth, telling them that a Huysum sold for more than any other still life except for Van Gogh (though surely Cezannes have also sold for more).  I've overheard tour guides elsewhere talk about monetary value, but I don't like it. 
I have no truck with the current high-minded fashion for disdaining the art market; art and money are old bedfellows, and kudos to the rich people who buy great art rather than trendy fripperies.  But talking about cash seems out of place in a museum, and monetary value isn't the same as artistic value.  The price of art is influenced by all kinds of factors, like fashion and rarity, that may be only tangentially linked to art historical importance and aesthetic greatness.   Price is interesting, but once a painting enters a museum collection the focus should be on artistic worth rather than monetary value.  Otherwise it begs the question of what everything else is worth.  If this Huysum is £5m and this Fragonard is £1m, is the Huysum five times better?  Maybe the Frans Hals is therefore, say, twenty times better than the Huysum?   It's a peverse way of thinking about the relative worth of art in museums; guides should stick to the art history.


  1. You've probably seen this already, but I thought you'd enjoy the 1pm talk on 15 May: 'Safe as houses' - an insight into security at the Wallace Collection.

  2. I completely agree. I suppose it is easier for some who are incapable of judging artistic merit to rely on the price as a guide (one only has to see some of the contemporary art purchases of the nouveaux riches!). You probably know this already but there's a good debate on this subject on IQ2

    And there's also this one -
    slightly unrelated but some good insights

  3. Thanks for the links - I hadn't seen that debate before.