Wednesday, May 13, 2009
How much is a Michelangelo painting worth? Until recently, that question was academic. The Sistine Chapel frescoes aren't going anywhere, and only three portable Michelangelo paintings were known: a masterpiece in Florence's Uffizi Gallery and two unfinished works in London's National Gallery. Today Fort Worth's small and scrappy Kimbell Art Museum announced it had bought Michelangelo's earliest known painting, The Torment of St. Anthony.
Or did it? The New York Times write-up places a question mark in the headline ("By the Hand of a Very Young Master?") and brims with qualifications. It notes that one prominent Michelangelo expert, Michael Hirst, was a doubter. But Metropolitan Museum curator Keith Christiansen examined the work in the Met lab and believes it's authentic. The Met will be showing the work this summer, before it goes to Fort Worth.
You will find no reservations about authenticity in the Kimbell's press release, nor in the Texas media. The Dallas Morning News reports,
The Kimbell refuses to reveal what it paid, and no one in art circles is willing to put a price on a Michelangelo painting. Sotheby's won't guess what the Kimbell paid. It offers up its 2002 sale of a Peter Paul Rubens work, The Massacre of the Innocents, for $69 million as comparable, although rarity wasn't a factor as eight Rubens paintings sold at auction in 2002.
What most experts say is there's no Michelangelo precedent. "Priceless" is the consensus. But apparently there is a price for priceless. "We were able to afford it," says Lee, whose institution estimated that it had an endowment of $350 million in February.
The New York Times is (slightly) more forthcoming: "Although no one will disclose the price, experts in the field say they believe the figure was more than $6 million."
"Priceless" marked down to $6 million plus? That's not so surprising, really. Nobody knows what an authentic Michelangelo painting should be worth—and this isn't a positively indisputable Michelangelo. When you look at the history of ambitious reattributions, the odds aren't so good. Lately, pocketable Michelangelos have been crawling out of the woodwork. Last year, the Italian government spent over $4 million on a wooden crucifix purportedly by Michelangelo. Experts aren't so sure. One, Francesco Caglioti, felt that "The attribution wrongs Michelangelo, as well as the history of 15th-century Florence." He said that "every time something beautiful emerges, they attribute it to a famous name. It would seem like everything done in Renaissance Florence can be attributed to 10 people with a thousand hands."
In 1996 a scholar decided that a marble cupid in the French Embassy, New York, was by Michelangelo. It got a lot of press at the time and also a lot of negative verdicts from experts. After a while, the excitement died down.
For the sake of argument, suppose there was a magic machine that was able to determine the accuracy of any attribution. Scan the object (objet), type in the supposed creator, and it gives you a yes-or-no verdict. We try it on the Kimbell painting, and it says it's by Michelangelo. How much would it be worth then?
Well, it's not a great time to be selling nonessentials. Even so, an authentic Michelangelo would almost have to fetch 9 figures. Middling Picassos topped $100M pre-recession, and so did Gustave Klimt's greatest painting. Wonderful as Klimt is, he wouldn't necessarily make a list of the 100 greatest artists, or Western artists even.
The Kimbell painting would not be Michelangelo's greatest by a long shot. He would have been only 12 or 13 when he painted it, and it's a mere copy (in paint) of a famous print by Schongauer. It would still be in the ballpark of 100M, easy.
And if it was shopped around and sold for just over $6 million, that would count as a vote of no confidence. According to The New York Times,
Asked why the Metropolitan didn’t try to buy the painting, Mr. Christiansen replied: “The timing wasn’t right. We had other acquisitions on the dock.”
I doubt they're buying anything as important as an original oil and tempera painting by Michelangelo. The subtext is that Christiansen couldn't convince the Met's powers that be that it was authentic.
The Kimbell purchase illustrates two classic determinants of prices. One is risk-aversion. Nobody wants to buy something unless they're sure it's all they hope it is.
Dealers are in business to make money. They don't automatically ship masterpieces off to Fort Worth. Most of the world's great museums don't have a Michelangelo. The Louvre doesn't. The Getty doesn't, nor the U.S. National Gallery. Presumably the dealer, Adam Williams (who bought the painting for $2 million) made sure these and other institutions and collectors were informed of the painting. An easy-credit deal could have been arranged. That it wasn't implies that no other well-heeled buyers were sufficiently interested.
Why? Because the deciders-in-chief fretted that the painting wasn't by Michelangelo. Whoever approved the purchase would look like a fool, if and when it was shown to be a fake.
From a strict risk-neutral stance, the Kimbell purchase may make sense. Let's say that the chance it's authentic is 10 percent (hugely pessimistic, going by the press release). Then the expected value is 10 percent of 9 figures, or 8 figures. The presumptive 7 figure price looks great.
That's not the way museums (or most collectors) think, of course. They may be crass but not in that way. They demand 100 percent certainty and pay a premium for it.
The purchase also illustrates the "winner's curse." In an archeotypic, Ayn Rand free market, the highest bidder is whoever wants the commodity most. All well and fine. Introduce a note of uncertainty. The commodity may be what it seems to be and may not. In that case, the high bidder is whoever has the most optimistic estimate of the odds. This too could be fine, assuming that high bidder knows more than everyone else does. But suppose the high bidder is simply more unrealistic (not an unrealistic assumption).
I imagine that all museums and collectors concur in the pre-eminent importance of Michelangelo in the grand narrative of European art history. It appears, however, that there are great differences of opinion about the probability that this particular painting is by Michelangelo. This makes it likely that the high bidder will be an outlier on the attribution controversy.