It seems like Adriaen Coorte, a Dutch painter of the late 17th century, is all the rage these days. Featured in today’s Art Market Monitor (AMM), Coorte has two works that have recently been discovered and will be available through Sotheby’s soon. Estimates range from €100,000 to 150,000. His works have sold for considerably more. Called an Old Master, which I suppose is a title given to an artist whose work can fetch a pretty penny at an “Old Master” auction by Sotheby’s or Christie’s, Coorte painted all manner of works in a long, but mostly uncatalogued career. There are some interesting notes to make about the case, however.
First, according to Sotheby’s materials, as relayed on AMM, “Coorte was almost completely disregarded until the 1950s when a series of articles and an exhibition curated by Laurens Bol drew attention to him.” The late Laurens Bol, who passed in 1994, was a crucial source on the subject of Old Masters. His primary writings on Coorte spanned from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s and helped to put Coorte on the map. He also served as a long-time Director of the Dordrechts Museum. It was in this capacity that he organized a Coorte exhibition that is believed to have put Coorte on the map. The significance of this is that even directors of middle tier museums have influence on the wider art world, to place prestige on certain artists, values, and ideas. Though many have difficulty accepting the free market’s role in this, it is hard for me to believe anyone really wants government to use its premiere, coercive role in life to propagate the art of its choice on people.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what has transpired in a burgeoning scandal in the United States, where the strictly non-partisan National Endowment for the Arts recently worked with the White House to engage sympathetic artists to fight for the President’s agenda. Artists are already free to do this. What’s new is that a government agency that by law is non-partisan has been co-opted. As I wrote recently, this sets a terrible precedent for the government. No one wants the arts to be a pawn of whoever happens to be in the White House at the time, especially when it only patently works for one side of the aisle.
The second lesson I take is yet another free market one. Sorry, you knew what you signed up for when you started reading an art blog from me. Apparently, Coorte, who is now considered an Old Master, was once fined for selling art but not being a member of the “guild”!!! According to a 2003 brochure from the, sigh, National Gallery of Art, “Only one contemporaneous document mentioned Coorte, and that concerned a fine levied against him in 1695 because he had sold paintings in the Middelburg market when he was not a master in the local artists’ guild.” That pretty much sums up the utility of any kind of union. The members inside the union benefit, but consumers, that is, everyone else does not because they endure higher prices as a result. In this case, consumers were being deprived of a master’s work because he had not submitted for guild membership, for whatever reason. Guilds, unions, and other petty restrictions should be fought. It reminds me of the unfortunate case of Star Trek: Insurrection, written by Michael Piller, in which a utopian society forces people, if they want to be artists, to train for no less than 60 years. Somehow, this is argued as a good thing in the movie. Those who rebel, I guess insane tea party-loving libertarians, are exiled from society. Again, who is society to judge what “good” art is? This is not what we need more of.
We should be mindful of these lessons, for they remain timely.