Portraits as Art Market Currency pt. 3 – artmarketblog.com

Portraits as Art Market Currency pt. 3 – artmarketblog.com

The last installment of “Portraits as Art Market Currency” received an interesting comment from a reader who said: “Is that why we have portraits on our banknotes? hehe! Maybe that’s what they thought when they designed them….”. All jokes aside, this comment is actually a good introduction to the concept of the portrait as a historical document – a concept that I want to explore with this post. Although we tend to think of paper money as merely a means of acquiring goods, the coins and notes that we use everyday are in fact historical documents of great value. The fact that there is such a vibrant and growing market in old and obsolete coins and notes confirms the fact that we place a considerable level of value on the historical value of money. I constantly hear of coins and currency notes being sold for astronomical amounts of money, thousands of times beyond their face value, because of their rarity and historical significance. There is no doubt in my mind that bank currency often has an intrinsic historical value and that most forms of bank currency could be considered to be historical documents in themselves. Considering that one of the most recognisable and common features of paper money is a portrait of some sort, it would be reasonable to assume that those portraits which appear on notes and coins also have a significantly high level of historical value. And if you think that people don’t care what the portraits on money look like then think again. When Australia changed over to decimal currency in 1966 a new portrait of Queen Elizabeth appeared on the one dollar bill . The new decimal currency bills were designed by Gordon Andrews who was widely criticised for portraying the Queen with what some people thought was a look of unhappiness, and for giving the Queen what some people saw as a slight scowl. Mr. Andrews defended the portrait by pointing out that “if you have someone grinning at you on a bank note, which you have to look at over and over again, you get to hate the sight of it”. A fair point I think. Another example of the extent to which the portraits on paper money are assigned value is a newspaper article from 1962 about counterfeit currency in which a US Secret Service Chief advised people to look at the portrait. According to Chief James J. Rowley “Counterfeit currency has a lifeless portrait, the fine cross-lines are not clear or distinct”. Sounds more like the musings of an art critic than a secret service agency.

Some may disagree with the concept of historical value as a type of intrinsic value but I think there is more than enough proof to suggest that the historical value that many portraits have can be considered to be intrinsic. The sort of value I am talking about is the value of what a portrait can tell us about various areas of history, not the value we place on a portrait because of the positive opinion we have for the person depicted – an opinion that could change depending on the information we have about that person. The US National Archives conducted an investigation into the Intrinsic Value In Archival Material in 1982 which came up with some useful definitions and information that is relevant to this post. According to the ‘Report of the Committee on Intrinsic Value’ it was determined that “Intrinsic value is the archival term that is applied to permanently valuable records that have qualities and characteristics that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. Although all records in their original physical form have qualities and characteristics that would not be preserved in copies, records with intrinsic value have them to such a significant degree that the originals must be saved.The qualities or characteristics that determine intrinsic value may be physical or intellectual; that is, they may relate to the physical base of the record and the means by which information is recorded on it or they may relate to the information contained in the record.” It is also worth noting that the committee determined that one of the characteristics of records with intrinsic value is “General and substantial public interest because of direct association with famous or historically significant people, places, things, issues, or events”. The findings of this committee confirm that historical documents can have intrinsic value.

One of the best sources of evidence that supports the idea that a portrait can have value as a historical document is the fact that the National Library of Australia has Guidelines for the acquisition of portraits that are acquired to “provide a documentary record of Australian life and achievement”. According to the guidelines “The National Library collects portraits of Australians of national significance as well as portraits of individuals and groups who are not necessarily known but who are representative of different occupations or of various social, racial or cultural aspects of Australian life. Portraits are acquired to provide a documentary record of Australian life and achievement”. Even more revealing is one of the selection criteria that the library uses to determine whether a portrait is worth acquiring. The following is one of the selection criteria:

2.2.2 The documentary value of the portrait

Portraits acquired must provide an authentic record of the physical appearance of the subject. In addition, some suggestion of the field of achievement of the subject is looked for in background details, dress or any objects shown in the portrait.

The extent to which the portrait offers insights into the personality and character of the sitter, and the originality of the portrayal, are also considered important. For some individuals an original portrait as well as a photographic portrait may be acquired if it is considered that they provide differing insights. However, for an original portrait to be preferred to a photographic portrait when both are available, the original work should display this quality to a much greater degree (see 2.2.1).

In the case of original works, a portrait painted from life is preferred to one painted from a photograph, as being more likely to provide the added dimension of character insight. The relationship of the artist to the sitter may also be of relevance here.
From a really young age, we learn to read faces. They have a language and can articulate themselves with nuance in a way that nothing else in the world around us can quite reach. The way an artist paints a face is highly distinctive, and portraiture tells you far more about the artist than it does about the subject. Get to know the vernacular of one artist’s face compared to another, and you can use that knowledge to hunt down other examples.

Non-representational works of subjects are not collected as generally these do not convey documentary information about the subject’s appearance.

Cartoons that offer insights to personality and character will be considered for acquisition.

As far as I can see the value that can be placed on portraits because of their status as historical documents is the sort of future proof intrinsic value that will always remain with the portrait and cannot be disassociated from the portrait.  It is this sort of intrinsic value that makes the portrait a good candidate for use as currency – a concept that I will continue to explore.

To be continued……………….

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications


Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

Welcome to part 2 of my series on the concept of portraits as an art market currency.  Before I continue, I would like to explain exactly what I mean by an art market currency for those that are perhaps slightly perplexed by the concept. Obviously, fine art is never going to replace paper money as the dominant form of currency.   My research focuses less on the actual use of currency as a medium of exchange, and more on the concept of currency as an indicator and a benchmark.  It is important to understand that my concept of an art market currency is merely a theoretical concept – the analysis of which I believe can provide valuable information and knowledge for investors and collectors.

In the currency world, the US dollar is used as a benchmark (world reserve currency) for all other currencies because of the political and military strength of the US, as well as the very strong gold reserves that the US held when the Bretton Woods system was introduced after World War II. Although the art market doesn’t have an official genre, period or style that acts as a benchmark for the rest of the market, the popularity and visibility of the contemporary art market means that it tends to be used as a de-facto barometer for the state of the art market.  Unfortunately, the contemporary sector of the art market would have to be the worst sector to use as an indicator for the health of the entire art market.  As we all know, the contemporary sector of the art market is a highly volatile and unstable market that is constantly at the mercy of cultural and social trends – and is often assigned a value that has very little to do with the actual art object.  So, if the contemporary art market is not a suitable indicator of the status of the art market, is there a category of art that is?  This is just one of the questions that I hope to answer with this series of posts.

Let me throw a scenario your way that will hopefully help make the reasoning behind the concept of portraits as an art market currency much clearer.  If I were to give someone who knew nothing about art 100 works of art consisting of: 20 cubist paintings, 20 conceptual  works, 20 figurative landscape paintings, 20 religious icons and 20 figurative portrait paintings – and asked that person to look at each category separately and rank the works in each category according to how much they thought each work was worth based purely on the physical characteristics of the art object (without knowing anything about who the artist is, when they were painted, who the portraits are of, the location of the landscapes etc.) – which category do you think they would find the easiest to rank?  I think that conceptual art would be the hardest, because with conceptual art the main component of the work is the concept, not the art object.   Because abstract art is so nonrepresentational, it is extremely difficult to assess unless the purpose or motivation of the artist is known, which rules out the cubist paintings as the easiest to rank.   Religious icons could be compared to portraits – however, the symbolic nature of religious icons means that their value is closely tied to the cultural, religious, social and art historical context in which they were created, which makes valuing such works difficult for experts, and virtually impossible for anyone who does not have a thorough knowledge of the genre.  Figurative landscape paintings would seem like a good candidate for the most easy to rank because of the representational nature of such works, the general familiarity people have with the way nature should be depicted, and also because the skill and talent of the artist are so easy to determine from the way the picture is presented.  What lets the figurative landscape paintings down is the lack of consistency in terms of setting, location, season, angle etc. which means making a comparison between two landscape paintings is likely to be very difficult.  Finally, we come to portraiture.  There are several factors that make the physical characteristics of portraits so easy to compare and rank, including:

– the consistency of the subject (human face)

– the universal nature of the face

– the common goal of figurative portrait painters (to accurately depict the human face)

– the ease with which virtually anyone can determine how skilled or talented the artist is at accurately depicting the human face

In my opinion the physical characteristics of figurative portraiture are the most comparable and easily ranked of all the genres and types of fine art.  I cannot think of another genre or type of fine art that has such consistent characteristics and is so universally decipherable.  The fact that the physical characteristics of figurative portraits are so comparable across the whole genre, and so easy to rank, means that they are also easier to value when compared to other genres.  It is the characteristics of figurative portraiture that I have discussed above which give figurative portraiture an edge over other genres when it comes to the concept of fine art as currency.

Stay tuned for part 3……….

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications