A Note on Art Appraisals

Image result for Stock images art auctions

People approach me all the time with requests for appraisals of works of art. While it is clear that the demand is present here in Jamaica, and that I could perhaps make a pretty penny if I would offer such services, I am reluctant to do so for two reasons. One is that I am more comfortable working on the non-profit, academic side of the art world and do not generally involve myself in the art market. The other is my discomfort with the lack of professional standards and accreditation mechanisms in the field of art appraisals in Jamaica. Although there are persons who do such work with great diligence and integrity, I often see and hear things that make my toes curl.

Let me first clarify what an appraisal is, since many in the local art world conflate it with a valuation, although the latter is of course the most common part of it. Appraisals may involve other considerations, such as ascribing a work of art to a particular artist, place of origin, and period, or ruling out forgeries (and art forgeries do occur in the Caribbean). Appraisals may also involve the production of condition reports, although these are often better done by a professional conservator; provenance documentation; and assessments of an art work or collection’s quality and significance. Appraisals and valuations are done for different purposes, for instance to determine the fair market value in the case of a sale between willing parties; for insurance, estate or taxation matters; or in any other case where such a professional opinion is needed.

The international standard is that appraisals should be conducted in an ethical and professional, manner, by persons who are appropriately qualified and accredited, and the processes involved must be transparent, verifiable, independent, and knowledgeable. The valuation part provides an informed estimate of the art work’s value for the purpose that this estimate this is needed – the valuation for an auction may be different, for instance, from the one for an insurance claim. The key point with regards to valuations and authentications is, however, that these should not be pulled out of a hat, represent wishful thinking, or worse, amount to an unethical attempt at influencing the market, in favour of the appraiser or a third party affiliated with the appraiser. The article linked here provides a quite thorough overview of standards that apply in the US context and what appraisals may be used for.

As a general rule, art appraisals are done by experienced art historians or other persons with advanced and verifiable qualifications in the field. Since appraisals require specialist knowledge, it is expected that the appraiser will have the appropriate specialist scholarship and experience on the sort of art to be appraised: a specialist in, say, Italian Renaissance art would not have much to say about the work of a Jamaican painter from the 1930s or 40s; nor would a specialist in Jamaican art be called upon to appraise, say, a work from the Russian Avant-garde. In-depth knowledge is also required of the market(s) in which a work of art may appear, and the valuation part of an appraisal is also contextual: a Jamaican painting may have a different market value in the Jamaican context than in, say, in Canada. The findings presented in an appraisal of a particular work of art may also change over time, as new information and authentication technologies become available, and as market dynamics change. And ultimately, no matter how diligent the appraiser is with his/her research and evaluation, an appraisal remains, in most cases, an informed opinion, based on rather subjective factors. It is necessary to keep in mind that art values are among the most subjective of all property values.

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Salvator Mundi

The attribution of Salvator Mundi, which some authorities have claimed is by Leonardo da Vinci himself and which consequently sold at auction for a record US$ 400 million in 2017, is an example of how widely those opinions can diverge. The painting’s authenticity has been repeatedly challenged and is presently once again in doubt. And the recent controversy that the work may have been for  sale when it was exhibited at the National Gallery in London in 2011, as a confirmed work by da Vinci, illustrates why public museums ought to stay away from actions that may influence the art market, as its critics imply that this powerful but perhaps ill-advised endorsement, by means of its inclusion a major museum exhibition, would have influenced its market value inappropriately.

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“It’s All Broken” – or, Why the Imagination Needs to Rule

“It’s all broken,” the child said to his mother. And right he was, as there is very little that remains intact and functional at the once bustling Kingston railway terminus on Pechon Street in downtown Kingston. The occasion was a recent guided tour, facilitated by Kingston Creative, and guided by the Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar. It was my second visit to the station (the first one was many years ago) and my most comprehensive to date, as I was able to visit the freight section, which I had not seen before. There is still a functional, air-conditioned office in the main building and a fair amount of staff, including a resident caretaker. Like most of the visitors present, I was however shocked at the deterioration, which is taking parts of the complex to the point where rehabilitation may become very costly and even impossible.

While I do no share his extraordinary photographic eye and technical skills, and can only contribute amateur photos taken with my phone camera, I was inevitably taken back to the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster’s haunting photo-essay Beware the Promise Today, which was published on this blog in October of last year. In this photo-essay, Brewster used the demise of Guyana’s train system in the early 1980s as a metaphor for the failings of that country’s political culture and the detrimental effect this had not only on the abstracted, depersonalized national economic plane, but also on a human level, deeply affecting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, while benefiting undeserving and corrupt interests. I had to ask what the neglect of Jamaica’s railway system says about Jamaica, and its own political culture, which may be different from Guyana’s but nonetheless has much in common, and what this says on a more general level about the postcolonial Caribbean.

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The opening of the Kingston terminus and the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway in 1845 (source: Wikipedia)

The history of Jamaica’s railway system starts in 1845, with the inauguration of the Kingston terminus and the first part of the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway, from Kingston to Angels in St Catherine, a 14.5 mile track. It was among the earliest such ventures in the Western Hemisphere, along with the railway system in Guyana, which opened a year later. The very first was actually the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the USA, which transported freight and passengers, and which was inaugurated in 1827 with a 13 mile long track. Initially, the main impetus to introduce trains to Jamaica was the modernization of the sugar cane industry, in the wake of Emancipation, and it was driven by the economic interests of the plantocracy rather than the transport needs of the common person. The railway system was however steadily expanded during the 19th century, and gradually became focused on passenger transport as well as freight. By 1895, it was possible to travel from Kingston to Montego Bay by train. This opened up previously inaccessible parts of the island and allowed for efficient and affordable travel between the country’s cities, towns, and other centres of economic activity. Trains also played a major role in the inland postal service and in getting produce from the country to the urban markets.

Below is an archival video from 1913, part of which was filmed from a train leaving Montego Bay (scene starts at 1.20″).

With the start of bauxite mining in the 1940s, the train system was further expanded and acquired an additional role, the transport of bauxite and alumina to the ports, and of the chemicals used to process the bauxite to the plants. What is left of Jamaica’s railway system still fulfills that function today. Lack of maintenance and investment, and the impact of several major hurricanes, however caused Jamaica’s railway infrastructure to deteriorate and the Jamaica Railway Corporation, which had been established as a government corporation in 1960, began to accrue major losses. Several trajectories stopped operating and public railway transport ceased in 1992, save for a brief revival of the May Pen to Linstead line in 2011-2012.

Jamaica’s train routes c1945, before the addition of the bauxite lines (source: Wikipedia)

The vision and mission statement of the Jamaica Railway Corporation board (there must, of course, be a politically appointed board for what is largely a defunct organization) reads as follows:

Restore………….. Modernize………… Expand…………

To recommence a safe, reliable and affordable freight and passenger rail service throughout Jamaica, to synchronize with other modes of transportation, with emphasis on the cost effective movement, while meeting the needs of the JRC, its customers and stakeholders in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, always striving to develop the communities served.

At least there is hope, it appears, but it is hard not to be cynical. While we toured the train station, a fellow visitor spotted a water-damaged file folder which had been casually left among the debris in the freight terminal. Its header was “Rehab Plan” and the folder appeared to date from 1989, when the passenger train system was on its last legs. The folder says it all in a way, as there have been many such plans since then, and even more political announcements, none of which have thus far come to fruition

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“Rehab Plan” c1989, Photo: Veerle Poupeye, January 26, 2020

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“Jamaica, Jamaica,” or, the Problem of “Good Enough”

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Philharmonie de Paris building, designed by Jean Nouvel

In 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris for the opening of Jamaica, Jamaica, a major exhibition on Jamaican music curated by the French music journalist Sebastien Carayol for the Philharmonie de Paris/Cité de la Musique. I did so in my capacity as the then Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I am always rather skeptical of how Jamaican music culture is represented in the global sphere, as this is often couched in rampant exoticism and reductive stereotypes, and I came to the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition opening in Paris with those concerns. While not entirely devoid of such issues, which are after all an integral part of the dynamic that has surrounded the subject since the 1970s, I was blown away by the exhibition, and the excellent and very engaging way in which it had been curated and designed, with an expansive, immersive vision which perfectly captured the conquering spirit of Jamaican popular music. Those who know me well, know that I am not easily impressed but I was delighted to be proven wrong on that occasion.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, Philharmonie de Paris, 2017

Discussions about having the exhibition at the NGJ had started from the moment the exhibition was first planned, with the understanding that not all loans to the original exhibition would be available for travel but that this would not be a major problem, as there are enough memorabilia, other artifacts and images available in Jamaica to make suitable substitutions. I am delighted that this has now come to fruition, at the NGJ and in a collaboration between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum. It was already known in 2017 that the exhibition would travel to Brazil, where it was shown in 2018 (with, if the online photos are anything to go by, an equally spectacular installation, to which sections on Brazilian reggae were added), and the consensus was that it could come to Jamaica as its concluding edition, which would also coincide with the return to the island of those artworks and artifacts that had been borrowed from Jamaican sources, including the NGJ collection. It made perfect sense.

Jamaica, Jamaica is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Jamaican music to date. That Jamaica has itself failed to initiate and produce an exhibition at this level despite having a Jamaica Music Museum for more than ten years now, is nothing to be proud of, as it suggests a near-inexplicable lack of initiative, in contrast with the drive and ambition that have fueled the Jamaican music industry itself. And that the Jamaica Music Museum is still in small, temporary premises at the Institute of Jamaica and does not yet have the large, suitably outfitted museum building or the collections needed to mount comprehensive exhibitions is downright embarrassing, especially after countless political announcements. The now-routine excuses about the lack of resources no longer have much credibility, as resources have been found for many other, less worthwhile ventures. It is simply a matter of priorities, and of vision, or rather, of the sad lack thereof. Jamaica, Jamaica, by implication, shows up these deficiencies and, having originated in France, also raises question of cultural ownership.

So it ought to have been clear from day one that showing Jamaica, Jamaica in Jamaica would be a fraught affair, which would generate all sorts of discussions, and that the stakes would be high in terms of how the Jamaican edition would be presented. In addition, it was obvious that it would be challenging to translate the complex and ambitious exhibition design into the more regimented spaces of the NGJ’s exhibition galleries but there was no doubt in my mind that it could be done, as the NGJ team has designed and installed complex exhibitions many times before, on limited budgets and often in record time.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica

The NGJ had no new exhibition after the closure of last year’s Summer Exhibition, which left the museum exhibition-less for the normally busy Holiday season. This was, in and of itself, unusual and disappointing but I assumed that this meant that the NGJ was pulling out all the stops to present Jamaica, Jamaica in grand style, and to equal or surpass the manner in which it was shown in Paris. It would have been helpful if there had been an announcement from the NGJ as to why Jamaica, Jamaica was not shown in November, as had been originally announced, and I only heard of the new February 2 opening date by happenstance, because of communications with an overseas contact. The NGJ was, once again, publicly silent on these matters and did not start promoting the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition until about two and a half weeks ago, which is very late for a major exhibition. Many people I had mentioned the exhibition to recently did not know about it at all, which illustrates the detrimental effect of such late, low-key promotions. Unfortunately, these long silences and last minute announcements have now become the norm with the NGJ’s public communications and it is hard to fathom why it has come to that after all the efforts to increase the public visibility of the NGJ.

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Peter Tosh machine gun guitar, as shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica

My eyes were admittedly trained by the extraordinary Paris edition of  Jamaica, Jamaica, and I am aware that those who saw the exhibition for the first time yesterday may have reacted differently to it, with the keen excitement that inevitably comes with seeing the first general survey of Jamaica’s music history ever to be shown in Jamaica. The exhibition certainly has its moments, if only because of the inclusion of rarely seen iconic objects such as Peter Tosh’s machine-gun guitar. And there are some excellent music-themed wall-paintings that were specially commissioned for the exhibition from the downtown mural artists Bones, Gideon and Ras Lava. But that does, as such, not make for the caliber of exhibition I had anticipated, and critical unpacking is necessary. I will not comment on the music scholarship that is on display in the exhibition, as this is outside of my area of professional competence, but I will instead comment on how it is curated and designed.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, at the National Gallery of Jamaica, 2020

What I saw yesterday afternoon was, at least from my perspective, an exhibition which was curated downwards, rather than re-imagined and re-curated with the sort of inspired vision and panache I would have expected from the subject’s country of origin. There is a polite and tediously conventional “picture on wall, picture on wall, object on a stand, label to the side” approach to most of the installation which takes it down to a pedestrian level that does not do justice to the nature and significance of the exhibition subject.

My heart wept when I saw how the iconic long-sleeved “star” shirt worn by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come was mounted. It does not get more unimaginative and pedestrian than that – just compare how it is shown in Jamaica with the manner in which it was shown in Paris, where something as simple and achievable as the effective use of accent lighting and background colour made all the difference. The same held true for Peter Tosh’s machine gun guitar, an object that has tremendous charisma and resonance, but which was practically stripped of these evocative qualities because of the unimaginative manner in which it was mounted. Exactly how such objects are mounted, contextualized, and lit is of paramount importance in exhibitions of this nature – that is Exhibition Design 101.

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