I stepped into a fascinating discussion between two local art gallery owners. One owner came calling on the other while I was visiting with the latter and their discussion was an eye opener. The visiting gallery owner was promoting the idea of a sit-down conference of the five or six major art gallery owners in town to design a free program of art lectures and seminars to qualified individuals and art buyers. He explained that he had spent countless hours talking with potential buyers about what art is, why art revolves around technique and subject matter, and most importantly, what justifies spending more than $1000 on a work of art.
What is the problem? An overall lack of general art knowledge on most people’s part, and wildly exaggerated statements and claims by the art marketers. One recent announcement for a major online art sale was a header that claimed a long missing painting by Pablo Picasso was now available for sale. The seller was a major player on the art market and I was instantly curious about the long missing painting. On closer examination I was amused when I saw the fact sheet on the missing work. The fact sheet clearly stated that the work was a drawing, and further claimed the technique was an etching. More curious was the fact that no provenance for the ‘long missing’ work was offered. (I’ll come back to this issue.)
Now I am totally confused. First it was a painting, then the details call it a drawing, and finally they claim it was an etching, which is a printing process. What exactly was it and, more important, who and where did it originate from? Why was it considered missing? Any uninformed buyer coming into the art market would have no reason to question the work of art; after all it was by the acknowledged master Pablo Picasso. Yet anyone with a semblance of art knowledge would immediately see the red flags waving above this piece.
Why was it first called a painting, then a drawing, and lastly described in printmaking terms? In all fairness, drawing and etching are not all that separate in the modern era of Pablo Picasso. Etching is a process where an artist could ‘draw’ on a prepared printing plate, and then acid etch (incise) the drawing into the plate. However, to extend the concept from there to a painting is a total exaggeration and is solely based on the fact the print was probably in color, and color means painting to the uninitiated?
Having taught both art history and art & visual culture for more than twenty-five years, I came to the conclusion that all art that is not three-dimensional, is ‘painting’ to the uninitiated. The need to educate most viewers to what art is, what the various methods and techniques are, and lastly to attempt to carry the discussion over into content and subject matter is a critical factor in educating art buyers.
But lets return to the fact that no provenance for the work was offered. To paraphrase an old quote about another artist; There are only four thousand Picasso etchings, and over seven thousand of them are in the United States. Provenance answers the question: What is the origin, the source and ownership history of this particular work of art? The seller openly claims it is a long missing work and yet doesn’t disclose where the work was or why it was considered missing. I would think the answers to the question would not only be a requirement for the sale, but would enhance the sale if the reasons and whereabouts were unique and justifiable. Were I the advisor to the person interested in buying this particular work of art, I would have to declare, “Buyer beware.”
The first significant and essential component of educating the art buyer is the trust developed between the buyer and the seller.