Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The 12.8 million dollar question

Extraordinary prices on the international art market recently are putting huge pressure on art institutions. The question is whether to sell works from the collections which are judged not essential but have become exceptionally valuable. These sales, the argument goes, provide funds that can be used to make purchases more relevant to the institution’s mission. In New Zealand deaccessioning, as it is called in the profession, is uncommon and its processes have often not been made public. The Govett-Brewster in an exception having deaccessioned a number of works over the years via an advisory committee including an impressive painting by American John McLaughlin.

So consider the dilemma presented by Russian artist Natalia Goncharova to the national collections held by Te Papa. Te Papa has seven works by Goncharova. Three of them came into the collection in 1973 via Alexandra Larionov who Goncharova's companion and fellow artist Mikhail Larionov married after Goncharova's death. Ten years later another four paintings were gifted by the National Art Gallery’s London agent Mary Chamot.

Apart from Porteuse de raisins (Woman carrying fruit on her head) from 1911, which has been shown off and on over the years, most of the Goncharova paintings have spent most of their time in store. That in itself is not so newsworthy but the huge escalation in value of these works over the last couple of years certainly is. A group of vastly rich Russian men (they all seem to be men, most of them “bankers”) have shaken up the global art market showing a particular interest in contemporary Russian art and work produced early in the twentieth century. Recent auction prices show the depth of their oligarchic pockets.

Goncharova’s Picking apples, a painting made a couple of years before Te Papa’s Porteuse de raisins, achieved $NZ12.8 million last June at auction. More recently a semi-abstract work titled Bluebells, another 1909 work, was sold for $NZ8.1 million. Last week at Christie's these prices were held when her 1912 painting, Les Fleurs sold for $NZ14.5 million. Serious money. Of course it’s hard to know how much Te Papa’s works might bring (for some reason non of these paintings are illustrated in Te Papa’s database) but it's going to be more than chump change.

So here’s a question. Now that Te Papa no longer collects or shows much concern for international art, how important are the Goncharovas to the collection? Is having them on the racks in store enough of a reason to hold on to them, given their new escalated values?

Museums around the world (from MoMA down) sell works to buy more relevant examples, new work, or to build up interest-bearing funds for future purchases. Now the extreme auction prices for Goncharova brings this challenge to the doors of Te Papa. At the very least it's worth a discussion.
Image: Natalia Goncharova looking disarmingly like Rita Angas