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Souvenir Hunting

MFA's Old Master exhibit reflects our modern desire to treat art as collectibles

Art collecting as a social habit has been around since ancient Greece but truly became a spectator sport in the 20th century. The rise of art super-prices -- $53.9 million for Van Gogh's Irises in 1987 and $82.5 million for the Dutch painter's Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1990 -- for works on auction at Sotheby's or Christie's has caused both public rubbernecking and critiques. Now everyone wants a piece of Poussin. People dig through their attics and scour second-hand shops, hoping theirs will be the next find in the Antique Sweepstakes. The once remote pastime of the aristocracy and wealthy elite takes place worldwide, even on-line with purported Rembrandts and Picassos for auction on eBay.

Art dealers, collectors and museums are the modern governors of the market; they're the ones responsible for the soaring prices and the collecting craze. In the late 1950s, when the art market had been stripped of Old Master works -- driving prices for even lesser works higher and higher and reducing museum endowments -- the U.S. government introduced tax deductions for museum gifts. This created an incentive for museums to overvalue art; inflated prices soon followed.

Perhaps as a result of this shift in the market, works that were once "made to order" for particular religious, commemorative or decorative purposes are now produced in an artist's studio before a buyer's name, address or tastes are known. The impersonal museum and the third-party collector finance the market these days; arts patrons, those who commission art and provide stipends directly to living artists, have all but vaporized.

Considering the public's fascination with the potential value of art, it is no surprise that the Museum of Fine Arts' "Rembrandt to Gainsborough: Masterpieces from England's Dulwich Picture Gallery" has been nicely attended. The exhibit is practically an ode to the economics of art collecting.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, a collection of 17th- and 18th-century Old Master paintings, is remarkable not just for its holdings, but also for its history, a less-than-romantic story of a London picture dealer and conspicuous status seeker, Noel Desenfans, who co-founded Dulwich, the first public art museum in England. Having once remarked that it was "only through the fine arts that the untitled could hope to achieve distinction in society," Desenfans seemed less interested in aesthetics than treasure hunting. He collected mainly dead artists and very few English ones, realizing that death or exoticism limits the supply and therefore raises the price.

Desenfans was appointed consul-general of Poland in 1790, with the "dignified task of collecting" for King Stanislaw Poniatowski (a former lover of Catherine the Great's), who proposed that works be assembled for a national gallery of Poland. The equivalent of an art consultant, Desenfans had some rather unglamorous obligations in his new assignment, among them, paying the debt of the Polish ambassador and financing Poles in exile. Stanislaw was forced to abdicate in 1795, and Poland was split into Russia, Prussia and Austria. After spending five years and his own savings purchasing more than 180 pieces of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish and English paintings, Desenfans never saw a single zloty.

And so began Desenfans's search for a home for his amassed Old Master works, a quest that eventually gave him a "nervous ailment." He was unsuccessful in selling the paintings to the tsar of Russia or in auctioning them off in London. Upon his death he instructed his collaborator and painting protégé, Francis Bourgeois, to bequeath his collection to the wealthy but academically challenged Dulwich College. Desenfans chose the school simply for the "beauty and rarity of its views." The exhibition space for the Dulwich collection -- as well as the interior mausoleum for its founders! -- was designed by distinguished architect Sir John Soane, whose sky-lit rooms furnished with backless viewing benches became the model for many art museums.

In the 1790s the idea of a public art museum was still fresh, the earliest having been established at the Ufizzi in Florence just some 50 years before. Goethe called these early museums "temples of art." But the late conservative author Joseph Alsop preferred to label them "tombs of art," arguing that art used to serve a utilitarian purpose, such as adorning a particular architectural setting -- a temple or a palace -- but once hung in a museum has no other purpose than to be art.

The presentation of the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection at the MFA supports Alsop's argument. The works hang on freestanding temporary walls that bear little resemblance to the paintings' original settings. Many works formerly hung in churches and were intended to communicate Biblical tales to the illiterate. Other works were never designed for walls. Tiepolo's Diana and a Nymph and Apollo and Nymphs, 1750, two sketches created for a ceiling decoration, were originally a single sketch but were later cut into two and displayed vertically for easier viewing.

Stripped of any significant context, these Old Master works are weighted down by their contemporary settings and sensibilities. The monetary value of the art seems to become the most important feature.

Another modified work, Paola Veronese's Saint Jerome and a Donor, circa 1563, is presented in the Dulwich collection as a bewildering fragment of the original altarpiece. The full altarpiece included Christ, some angels and Saint Anthony, now all cropped out, save the saint's left hand. A shrewd 18th-century art dealer cut and sold the altarpiece as three separate paintings, and each now resides in a different museum collection. Another example of such fragmentation is Poussin's Venus and Mercury, 1627-30. The Dulwich owns the right half with the two lovers, while the left half with cherubs making music resides in the Louvre. I wonder if the French are confused.

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