Tom Clyde: $110M Monet purchase is morally myopic at best, a repugnant impression at worst
There was big news this week in the art world. A painting by Claude Monet sold at auction for $110.7 million. I’m assuming that included a nice frame. For what it’s worth, that works out to about $95,000 per square inch. I suspect that one doesn’t buy a painting for $110.7 million and nail it up over the hall table with all the phone chargers on it. If you were going to hang it somewhere, you’d best use molly bolts so it doesn’t fall off the wall if somebody slams a door somewhere in the house.
Despite having spent most of my life in Park City, where economics don’t make a lot of sense and each day’s excesses are more ridiculous than yesterday’s, spending $110.7 million on a painting seems, I don’t know – morally repugnant.
The painting itself is one of a series of 25 paintings Monet did of haystacks in his native France. There’s nothing all that special about French haystacks, but in 1890, they were all the rage. No proper chateau was complete without a painting of a haystack, with or without peasants. This painting is entitled “Meules,” which translates to “expensive forage” in French. It is a great example of plein air landscape paintings, according to Wikipedia. I think that means he painted it outside in le plein air. Monet is most famous for not having cut off his own ear, like Van Gogh up north. (A Picasso painting that is supposed to be his wife petting a dog, but, being Picasso, could be most anything, sold for a modest $54 million that day.)
The Monet haystack paintings are big deals in the art world. Most of them are in museums. This was the first to come to market in 20 years or more. The articles I read on the auction said there were 6 active bidders, none of whom had ever lifted a bale of hay in their lives or would know which end of a pitchfork to hold. The bidding was fast and furious for 8 minutes. That’s forever in auction time. The successful bidder was not identified, but was an individual and not a museum buyer. The seller’s name was not published, though both are probably well known in social circles that don’t include you and me.
My reaction, of course, was one of shock and revulsion. What kind of person would spend $110.7 million on a piece of art? Imagine the disposable income you need before that seems like a reasonable thing to do. I could take the dog for a walk, but instead, maybe I’ll pop into Sotheby’s and see if there’s a $110 million painting that would liven up the breakfast nook of my fifth home. We’re talking real money here. Do you know how many antique tractors you could buy for $110 million? All of them. That would buy whole cul de sacs in our snootiest gated neighborhoods with money left over to remodel them into the kind of places that are suitable to hang a $150 framed print of a Monet. And nobody could tell the difference. For that kind of money, I can sell you some hay, and you could put a real haystack in the back yard.
Would you actually hang a painting of that price on a wall somewhere? I read someplace that there is a booming business in art restoration on yachts. Expensive paintings people buy for their yachts (and why not?) get water damaged or smeared with caviar during wild parties, and need to be patched up. Would you hang a $110 million Monet on the yacht? It belongs in a house somewhere, but at 32 x 36, the dimensions are wrong for that space over the couch. There’s no joy in owning it and sticking it in a vault where it can’t be seen. But maybe there’s less joy in hanging it on the wall and watching the grandchildren go at it with crayons. It’s so far beyond my economic range that I don’t even know what’s involved. Do you keep a guard standing in front of it in the living room? What modifications to the fire sprinklers do you make?
The article said that the seller of “Meules” had purchased the painting back in 1986 for what was then a pretty hefty price of $2.53 million. They decided to redecorate, and the colors in the painting really didn’t go with the new carpet, so they had a yard sale at Sotheby’s and replaced it with something else. They made $108 million on the deal. And while they had to sit on it for 33 years, it turned out to be a pretty good investment. I suspect that in 33 years, my 1941 John Deere B tractor will be worth about what I paid for it. The difference must be that the Monet doesn’t leak oil on the garage floor.
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It wasn’t that a cloud of imminent danger hung over Heber Valley during my first trip to Park City but I must admit to a certain degree of wariness.