An illustration by Edward Gorey hangs in my studio depicting two gentlemen at an open-air market with the description, “Haggling over a small black painting on the hunch that it’s a Chardin”. Next to that, by chance is the only piece of artwork I have who’s creator had any widespread notoriety and yet it isn’t worth a penny and looks like nothing more than a bedraggled piece of parchment, which it is.
There is no great word in English (that I know of) to describe the sudden inflation in value of an object by some revelation of its provenance. We might refer to such a treasure as, “a real find”, but this signifies the thing’s value after the fact of transformation, not in its midst. Nor is there a satisfying word for the tragic loss in value incurred by physical damage to an object in spite of having provenance of significance. Yet the effect of these dramatic conversions are familiar to us all and have given story to the material lives of art and antiquity. In truth, perhaps, the importance of provenance is merely as a set up for the narrative of an object. With narrative in mind we can interpret an object as having a life and so relate it to our own. Here is the abbreviated narrative of the aforementioned piece of bedraggled parchment.
My dear friend’s aunt is a printmaker and periodic collector of prints that on occasion she seeks at flea markets, auctions and antique stores. On a recent scavenging she came upon one of these “real finds”. In this case she had found a handsome etching of boaters that was being sold anonymously and affordably. After buying and researching it, she discovered it to be the work of renowned American artist, Winslow Homer.
While she was thrilled with her find, the print was wrinkled and in need of restoration. She put the task to her father, who is a veteran printer and framer. The print appeared to be on good rag paper, so her father did what he must have done many times over a long career handling prints, gently immersed it in water. Typically this would dampen the fibers of the paper without disturbing the oil-based ink and then be pliant enough to roll through the press, restoring the flat surface. However this turned out not to be rag paper and the water lifted the image right off of the surface of the print. The material was in fact genuine calfskin vellum. When it soaked up the water it turned back into flesh and writhed away from the parasitic ink.
One moment it was a piece of artwork by Winslow Homer, and worth a nice bit of money, the next moment it was a flaccid piece of vellum with a valuable story. Like a mandala, the elements that had come together by way of a particular set of craft and guile, were released from their task back into elemental form.
The valuation of artwork is a slippery and awkward topic. Art transforms materials into meaning and valuation negotiates its relevance back in the material world from which it escaped. An artist knows that the ways in which art can fail greatly exceed the ways in which it can succeed. If a success is convincing, then art is birthed into the world with an umbilical cord of provenance forever winding backwards to that point of origin, telling the story of its improbable existence and demanding some protection. Like its maker, artwork has both a material and spiritual life and if it has garnered some reverence and protection, a piece may well outlive its maker. The maker becomes part of the artwork’s story, contrary to its initial role.
Somehow for this etching, its author was forgotten and it lived on its own until this collector reunited it briefly with its legacy. It was mistaken identity that made it a real find, and mistaken identity again that erased it. Now it only exists in legacy.
The idea impregnated into a thing that makes it art may give it the illusion of being elevated from the laws of physics and hence immortal. There is beauty in unrehearsed and unexpected catastrophes, such as befell this Homer etching. They jolt the senses with a very negative emotion but a strong one that nonetheless opens one’s eyes to the artwork in a new way. The ephemeral temperament that was there during its creation as the artist struggled to make good, returns for an instant. The value in that moment of loss seems the greatest of all for it confirms that art is truly a spell and shows the power of meaning.
The Homer parchment was passed on to me and it hangs as a sort of memento mori in my studio, reminding me of the transient and wondrous value of art.