Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

$44.4 million buys the most expensive woman artist in the world: Georgia O’Keeffe

georgia o' keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe

Catalogued almost as though it were a botanical specimen, Jimson Weed⁄ White Flower No. 1 by Wisconsin born artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, sold for the staggering price of $44.4 million at Sotheby’s New York saleroom last week. A world record for a female artist, Georgia didn’t receive a red cent, having died at the ripe age of ninety-nine in 1986.

jasper johns

No. 8 Flag by Jasper Johns $110 million.

Click for list of the Top 20 most expensive paintings in the world.

Of the twenty paintings listed as the most expensive ever to come on the market, nearly all remain in private hands. Many will never be exhibited in public again. All the artists are male, and only one still lives, Jasper Johns.

From the hyper-inflated prices listed on the link above we can see the obscenely wealthy prefer their painters to be deceased. Using this perverse logic, to get his money’s worth, Pope Julius II would’ve had to have waited until Michelangelo passed away before commissioning him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Either that, or he could’ve beaten him down on price, citing, as a living artist, his work wasn’t worth the full whack. The Renaissance master might’ve proposed cutting corners. Instead of nine, there could’ve been only five or six scenes from the Book of Genesis, and some of those could’ve been in black and white. He could’ve saved money by using shoddy materials that wouldn’t last. I can almost hear the greatest painter of his era saying: “It may not last till Armageddon, but it’ll certainly see you out, Jools.”

If money were the sole motive for art, Van Gogh would never have painted anything for lack of motivation. As for any aliens on a space cruise round our galaxy, they could be forgiven for thinking money is the sole arbiter of good taste on Earth, to read gushing newspaper reports of the ridiculous prices paid for all sorts of stuff the idle rich regard as aesthetically pleasing. To judge from some of our Daily Sludges, it seems gilding the entire bodywork of a Ferrari and encrusting a Mercedes with diamonds are regarded as the height of good taste.

Most journalists present us with a rather warped view of art. Even the most intellectual art critic seems unable to resist the temptation to report how much a painting sold for, rather than much else about it, or its painter. So our newshounds were only too eager to report the latest Georgia O’ Keeffe result. The extra news element being it was the most ever paid for a work by a woman.

The Scream - doesn't it make you want to scream?The Scream – doesn’t it make you want to scream?

Doesn’t it just? A pastel version of The Scream, or Skrik in Nowegian, sells for $120m at Sotheby’s in New York. I doubt Edvard Munch would’ve been impressed, though he might have churned out a few more versions. Just for the hell of it … click to read more. And click The Scream-Edvard Munch’s Oslo for a walk through the Norwegian capital

Jonathan Jones got so carried away in last Friday’s Guardian he began to see the latest record price as striking some sort of blow for gender equality and feminism. His article was chock-a-block with the sort of glee usually reserved athletes breaking world time records, or pop stars reaching number one in the top ten.

“Money speaks volumes, and it is telling us that women are still not allowed into the pantheon of greatness, but have to stay in their own curious antechamber of fame, at once glamorised – O’Keeffe is famous for posing nude in vintage photographs as well as painting ripely erotic flowers – and mildly patronised”. Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, Friday 21 November 2014

‘Mildly patronised’, you said it, Jonathan. Not to say, mildly patronising. Along with the suggestible description ‘ripely erotic flowers’, Jones can’t resist his own bit of saucy patronisation by mentioning the nude photo, compensating by the vague implication others are vulgar to point it out. He should know that models have been posing naked for art since art began. It’s a cheap, and tellingly suggestive, slight. One it’s doubtful Jones would have stooped to had O’Keeffe been male.

As for imagining the rocketing value of one O’Keeffe painting to be another victory in the battle for female equality in the arts, I think I’d rather read the opinion of a female artist on that one. Surely it’s far more likely to be the result of a couple of old farts – almost certainly male – with oodles more dosh than anybody could possibly spend in several lifetimes, bidding against each other.

“It’s a hefty dollop of cash, but so much less than the most expensive paintings by men that it is far from something to celebrate.”

Such masturbatory excitement over an event, which means little or nothing to the rest of us, requires some sort of explanation from the art establishment, and those who write about it. A person who confuses the financial worth of a painting with its artistic value fits the definition of a philistine. Why does anyone, apart from someone with an attic full of O’Keeffe’s, have anything to celebrate? True lovers of O’Keeffe’s work will be disappointed knowing they will never be able to afford one. And if it disappears into a private collection, there is the distinct possibility it will never be possible to see this one again. How good a blow is that for feminism? Or art, come to that?

I can’t help thinking of the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. An image of cloying sycophants with sweaty palms persuading billionaires to buy outrageously overpriced art stuff, springs to mind. To polish up their cultural credentials, and in order to impress their peers, they buy art stuff for as much as possible. Like justice, not only must art stuff be bought, but it must be seen to be bought. So eager are they to outdo each other they have to believe some of the artist’s genius will rub off merely by owning their art stuff.

But the simple fact most only buy the work of established artists is the giveaway. True connoisseurs rarely follow the pack, because they are confident enough to trust their own expertise and educated judgement. Discovering new talent among the living is a much better reason for popping a few champagne corks than doing what everybody else does. Not only is it much cheaper, but the money goes to artists, not previous owners, who wouldn’t know their hogs hair from their sable.

In an article virtually dripping with saliva, Jones doesn’t just kneel in front of the altar to the art market – as opposed to art – he prostrates himself before it.

“The market, too, is passionate – when someone pays out millions for a painting it is not a sombre investment but an act of love and self-discovery: a way to say who you are and what you believe in”

We can guess where Jones’ passions lie. The someone he talks about could just as easily been a Saudi prince, a Russian oligarch, a drugs baron or a financial speculator. One thing is abundantly clear, Jones doesn’t mean someone like you or someone like me. Merely appreciating a painting doesn’t show the required amount of passion, love and self-discovery to his eyes. Without coughing up millions to own the painting, we won’t be saying who we are or what we believe in. The fact the someone who bought the O’Keeffe actually preferred not to say who they were, indicating a belief in remaining anonymous, seems to have escaped Jones. Does he ever read what he writes? After all, he expects the rest of to read it. Still, I think we can all guess what sort person spends over $44 million for something meant to hang on a wall, believes in, without his help.

Money certainly does speak volumes, but it cannot be used as a yardstick for greatness in art. Nor does it necesssarily speak of taste or specialist knowledge of the subject. Wild fluctuations in the art market from decade to decade show it is a fickle guide to the monetary value of art at best. Subject to everchanging fashions and unpredictable trends it is easily influenced by the very journalists writing about it, while wetting themselves over its whims.

The truth behind the desire to purchase works of art by proxy is often far less romantic than a voyage in self-discovery. More often than not, there are more temporal reasons for buyers not wanting to reveal their identities. Investing in valuable art and antiques has become another handy little conduit for laundering vast amounts of dirty cash, avoiding tax, and even getting tax-breaks. With so many low-lifes from international banking, business and the mafia, joining the chase, heated competition serves only to increase the value of the investment. Such large amounts of cash sloshing about inevitably spawns yet more ways of manipulating markets.

The Card Players Paul Cezanne

The most expensive painting ever was a version of The Card Players painted by the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne in the early 1890s.

The painting was rumoured to have sold for $250 million or more in April 2011 to The State of Qatar from the estate of Greek shipping magnate and art collector, George Embiricos, in a private sale.

The fact the very rich prefer their artists to be as expired, dead, no more, departed and as passed away as the proverbial Monty Python parrot, means the real art world, populated by real, living artists, sees little or no benefit at all. Rather than spend even a small fraction of their mind-boggling on wealth on a few living artists, the very rich, and the very criminal, prefer to invest their ill-gotten gains in old art. For them, apart from the kudos of showing-off at dinner parties, along with gold, antiques and property, famous paintings are yet another way of investing idle cash in a mixed variety of solid assets as hedges against the gigantic crash they see coming your way soon. The same predictable crash that threatens to plunge the global economy into an inescapable downward spiral, which is the inevitable consequence of the broader actions of an elite totally out of control.

The harsh reality of the art world can be understood best by looking at the life of Van Gogh. A Van Gogh painting has exactly the same artistic value as it did the moment he put down his brush, yet he never sold a painting in his entire life. That does not square with artificially-inflated market driven by a greedy 1% who have far too much money to spend when competing to show who owns the fairest (and most expensive) painting of all. But taste is one thing you can’t buy, no matter how much money you have. Something that is amply demonstrated by the crassness of the most wealthy when it comes to buying art.

Copyright ©2014 Bryan Hemming


5 comments on “$44.4 million buys the most expensive woman artist in the world: Georgia O’Keeffe

  1. ginjuh
    November 29, 2014

    I have a knock off of that very O’Keeffe painting that I did in ninth grade art class that I’d be willing to give you for 15 bucks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      November 29, 2014

      Not much call for that sort of thing these days, but I tell you what…I know a man …


  2. colltales
    November 28, 2014

    I absolutely agree: the art market became about the rich parking their money and taking away from museums and public insttiutions what should be available to all. That’s why when a excedingly talent artist decides to produz fakes for mass consuption and, at some cases, fooling even experts, I can’t help but think that there’s some kind of poetic justice about it. While many artists continue to produce exceptional art, and finacial compensation is crucial to keep them doing it so, I despise the world of marchands and investment bankers who advise billionaries on the market. It kind of restores a feudalism system, where art was available only within the high walls of castles and the aristrocry, which was of course enriching themselves with the misaerable lives of everyone else. Or in churches and monasteries, which would make them available in exchange for a commitment to religion and obedience to its high hierachy. You’re right, Van Goch would have never laid anything on canvas or paper if he was fully cognizant to the world he unfortunally couldn’t help but be hooked by. Thanks for this, Bryan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wendy Kate
    November 28, 2014

    I LOVE Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, and have stood in front of quite a few of her paintings in various galleries around the world and they quite took my breathe away. Sad, then, if this one is never going on public display. Such a lot of money, I can’t imagine sending that much on a painting no matter how much I loved it (and had that kind of cash!)
    You’re not keen a few of The Grauniad’s writers, are you Bryan?! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      November 28, 2014

      Generally speaking, these types of buyers rarely buy paintings they really like. As they know so little about art they don’t actually know what they like.They buy what other people like, either as an investment, or so they can gloat.

      I was a weekly visitor to all the major auction rooms in London when I used to deal in antique tribal rugs and textiles. When you knew what you are talking about, it becomes quite shocking to learn that a lot of the so-called experts don’t.

      While I was there, I often used to look at the paintings; the salerooms being one of the few places left where you could still get right up to major paintings by great artists.

      No, I´m not so keen on what The Guardian has become. It was one of the few papers that I found trustworthy. Nowadays, some of the most reliable sources for news are blogs, as the best writers actually check the facts and the original sources before publishing. Leading journalists get paid well, and should do their jobs far better.

      Liked by 1 person

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