During a recent conversation with a new client they asked me: “What does the phrase 'museum quality' mean?” Initially I had a little chuckle and then told her that the phrase is often used as a sales tool by many 'high pressure sales' galleries to make the potential buyer think they are getting a really good quality work … in some cases this may be true, but in the vast majority it is not.
After thinking about the conversation I thought it would make an interesting topic for an article. Many galleries like to use the phrase 'museum quality' when trying to sell a work of art, but what does that really mean? Have you ever really studied the works in a museum? Can you determine the level of quality for the works in the collection? Do you know how many museums there are in the Unites States, let alone the world? Do you know what type of work they display? Do you know how they obtained the works on display? The answer to most of those questions is probably: No. In most cases you probably do not care, and why should you?
You all know that I am always stressing the need for collectors to lend their works to museum exhibitions. It is my belief that museums play a vital role in our society and regardless of the quality or collection they offer, they bring to us many forms of art, antiques, fashion, etc. that individuals might never have the opportunity to enjoy. You also need to understand that there is a great disparity in the stature of museums … from a local collector who established a museum from his own personal collection, to those that have achieved international acclaim … The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre … and thousands in-between.
Many of the larger, and more important, museums have hefty acquisition budgets along with Board members who own very important collections. This not only allows those institutions to buy quality works, but they also have the knowledge that many important works will be donated to them in the years to come. On the other side of the coin are those institutions that have little or no acquisition budget and whose Board members may not have important works in their collections … many of these, rely almost exclusively on donations or fund raising to increase their holdings. And in today’s strong market, they are less likely to find themselves able to afford important quality works.
On top of this, there are many smaller museums that try to present a comprehensive collection, spanning many centuries. These museums often have many gaps in their collection and are eager to have works that fill those spaces. Frequently, the works offered are not the best in terms of quality or condition, but they do fill the need. It is important to remember that filling these gaps with something is, at times, more important than waiting for a stellar work that may never be offered.
We have all walked through local, or even more important, museums and noticed works of art that we were unimpressed by; often thinking to ourselves: why would the museum buy and display that work? Or … I have a much better example at home. As I just noted, it is important to remember that many of these works may have been donated to, and not purchased by, those institutions and without those donations the museum would be unable to offer even a glimpse at the period the work represents. And do not kid yourself, the museum staff knows that these works are not the best, but they still have an obligation to their viewing public and need to work within their current limitations to create a well rounded collection. Of course, they also look forward to the day when those works can be replaced, through future donations, with better examples.
Now let’s get back to the topic at hand …’museum quality’. Buyers will often hear this phrase when visiting galleries that offer contemporary works. Since many of these artists have little or no museum representation, sellers use the ‘museum quality’ phrase to give the works an air of legitimacy … trying to separate their works from the plethora of ‘decorative’ works in the market. My initial advice to you is that when someone starts stressing the ‘museum quality’ aspect of a work you should think long and hard before buying. I would even suggest that you thank them for their time and leave the gallery … giving yourself the chance to seriously contemplate the purchase, without the pressure often created in a gallery setting. If you do not, I can guarantee that there will be times you will regret the purchase.
Please do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with buying contemporary works of art (some of which will become museum pieces) … but the reason to buy them is because you like them and not because someone is telling you they are ‘museum quality’ works.
And what about those really minor pieces from major artists? Is a work ‘museum quality’ just because it is by a famous artist who is in many museum collections? I do not think so. And what about those really poor quality works that end up in a museum collection … are they really ‘museum quality’? Is something ‘museum quality’ just because it hangs in a museum? Again, in my opinion, the answers are no.
By now I think you get the point; not everything you see in a museum is a great quality work of art and the phrase ‘museum quality’ could relate to almost anything being offered in the art and antiques market.
As I always stress, when traveling through the art world you need to concern yourself initially with the beauty of the work; then worry about the artist, condition, quality and period. Working with well established dealers / galleries can afford you a big safety net since they have culled through 1000s of works and selected those they feel are among the best. These establishments consistently display works by artists who are already featured in major museum collections, and will offer works that museums could buy, or be happy to have donated to them. Of course, working with a well established gallery does not give you a 100% guarantee that a specific work is a good quality example in good condition … you must ask the right questions (I will hopefully have a story about this in a future newsletter). And do not forget that even the most important artists had, or will have, bad days, and some of those works will end up in museum collections.
NAPOLÉON - An Intimate Portrait
I noticed that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art has an interesting exhibit on display through April 22, 2007 titled: NAPOLÉON An Intimate Portrait. This traveling exhibition from the Russell Etling Company, offers visitors an opportunity to see beyond the "legend" of Napoléon Bonaparte to gain an understanding of this complex figure as a man. Created from the extraordinary collection of 1st Empire authority and author, Pierre-Jean Chalençon, the exhibit showcases rare, personal belongings of Napoléon I, as well as some of the most famous depictions of him by the greatest artists of the time. With more than 250 objects, paintings, prints, documents, and furniture from the Imperial palaces, the exhibition will shine a light on the extraordinary life of one of history's pivotal figures.
The exhibition’s signature artifact is Napoléon's hat, worn during the Battle of Essling in 1809. No icon of his extraordinary life is more recognizable than his famous cocked hat, worn "broadside on," with brim aligned to his shoulders, to distinguish himself from the other officers on the battlefield. In this hat and others like it, he strode across the European continent and into the pages of history.
Born in 1769, by the age of 26, Napoléon was a triumphant general whose lightening-fast campaigns had transformed warfare forever and changed the political face of Europe. At 35, he crowned himself emperor of France and set about ruling 70 million souls. He ended feudalism, brought equality to Jews and Arabs, reorganized the outdated governments of France and her empire into streamlined, efficient administrations that rewarded talent and hard work instead of status and privilege, and instituted a system of civil law known as the Napoleonic Code. By 52 though, Napoléon was dead, having successfully fought an alliance of European powers almost continuously for nearly 20 years, until the cost in lives and disrupted commerce became too much, and he met final defeat at Waterloo.
Napoléon Bonaparte has remained the object of intense fascination since his rise to power. He is said to rank second only to Jesus as the subject of published biographies and historical studies. December 2, 2004, marked the 200th anniversary of Napoléon and Joséphine's coronation as Emperor and Empress, which sparked a new century’s interest in this fascinating period and its central figure.
Howard L. Rehs
© Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York –March, 2007
Gallery Updates: Among the many works passing through the gallery this month were Maurice de Vlaminck’s Rue de Village; Daniel Ridgway Knight’s Julia Gathering Roses; Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupré’s La gardeuse d'oie; Guy C. Wiggins’ City Hall Park, New York; Charles T. Frere’s Along the Nile; Pierre E. Frere’s The Morning Meal; Theophile E. Duverger’s The Meal; four works by Edouard Cortes - Place de la Bastille, Rue Royale, Concorde in Winter, Place de l'Opera, Paris, and Fountain on Place de la Concorde; Antoine Blanchard’s Les Grands Boulevards; four works by Sally Swatland - Early January, Spring in the Tetons, Ocean Point, and Children at Play; three works by Ugo Giannini – Nudes, Landscape, and Landscape; Barry Oretsky’s The Wall and Salon of Valor; and John Kuhn’s Three Yellow Pears.
Web Site Updates: New works by the following artists have been, or will be, added to the web site this month: Ridgway Knight, Boudin, Herring, Dupré, Cortes, Blanchard, Banks, Swatland, and Harris.
Next Month: Will begin my Art Market Updates for 2007.