The Millionaire’s Art Primer
DAVID GRAHAM PHILLIPS IN SATURDAY EVENING POST
In a cynical view, Mr. Phillips pokes fun at the rich Americans who invade Europe in search of antiques and curios and are well fleeced for their pains by the European art dealera. He dissects their motives and shows how their ignorance is playedon by expert flim-flammers.
OF the $400,000,000 — more rather than less—which, the bankers assure us, American travelers spend in Europe every year, most of it between April and October—at least one-fourth, perhaps nearer one-half, goes to “despoil the Old World of its treasures of art and antiquity.” And it is the American multi-millionaire and his wife and his daughter s, jvho do most of this stripping of Europe to make America splendid. Almost every American who goes abroad does a little of it, brings back something musty and fusty and frumpy which we are all expected to envy him or her and to burst into song over. But the very rich are our principal benefactors, the principal adorners of cur crude civilization, the wholesalers in importing “culture” and “refinement.” They want to be like the grandees of Europe; they can’t carry off the high-sounding titles and the beautiful, but, alas, most abominably insanitary and uncomfortable, castles and palaces; but they can carry off interiors and the decorations. And they do.
Usually they do not try to deal directly with the grandees. They are unable to see what cynical, commercial souls the European upper classes, with their motto of “Any dishonor before that of labor,” lightly veilunder a pretense of indifference to, and even scorn of, those things which will be of prime interest and importance to all human beings so long as the body needs food, clothing and shelter. The negotiations are carried ,C
on through intermediaries. The rich Americans either see the treasures they covet in the ancestral homes of the grandees and approach some art broker on the subject, or find the treasures already at the art brokers. And thus the golden rain crosses the Atlantic and descends in floods upon Europe.
Not upon all Europe. Common rain, the rain from Heaven, falls alike upon the just and the unjustBut the golden rain seems to fall upon the just by accident only, seems to prefer the unjust. This rain from the strong boxes of our very rich, who are very, very eager to be “refined and cultured” is true to the traditional nature of golden rain. It is a sad story: only the ill-bred and the hard-hearted could laugh at it. Time was when the rich American fell into the most obvious traps, was “trimmed” with the crudest kinds of shears. A man is always more or less of a fool at any business other than his own. When pcik kings and steel kings and railicad kings and the like first went abroad they believed implicitly everything too eminent critic, connoisseur or other barkers for dealers in antiquities and art told them. We all know this now. And when we go into the houses of the multi-millionaires who became art patrons in the seventies and eighties, or into the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Corcoran at Washington, or any of the museums of our cities for that matter, we see the laughable results of these worthy but
ignorant aspirants after the “higher life.” The American art patron of to-day is wiser than he of twenty years ago. He “knows a thing or to;” unfortunately he does not know more than that. The European art dealers and their “steerers” have adapted themselves to the new development. They play the same old game ; but they play it more adroitly. They fool the American just as they did before; and, as they are put to more trouble, they make him pay for being so much wiserjust as the Wall Street eminently respectable gambler and good-thing man robs his victims of more than did the old-fashioned gold-brick dealer or three-eard-monte man. The wiser one gets in this world, the worse he is done wuen he does fall into a trap.
The art dealers of twenty years ago used to be content if they fleeced an American rich “eome-on” of two or three thousand dollars. The art dealer of to-day feels, if he bears off less than twenty or thirty thousand dollars, much as Mr. Rockefeller would feel if he should find that in cleaning up a transaction he bungled it by leaving half of every dollar of possible profit in the field he had set out to mow. There are honest art dealers in Europe ; but they hate to deal with Americans. As one of them said last fall: “The temptation to swindle your countrymen is more than human nature can resist. I hate to isee a rich American coming. I know that if I don’t make him swindling prices and tell him fairy tales he will not buy from me. And if I do it, I can’t help feeling ashamed.”
A recent transaction will illustrate the present state of the “higher life.” In the house of one of our richest financial kings, one famed for
his knowledge of art, consulted and deferred to in such matters by our professional critics and connoisseurs, there now hangs—he probably has it up by this time—a piece of tapestry that is the joy of his heart. It is a genuine mediaeval tapestry— in that respect differing from a very large part of the stuff for which he has spent so much money. It is not bad to look at, as old tapestries go —most of them being really ugly to any eyes not perverted by “culture” snobbishness, and being full of disease germs, and great dust collectors to boot. The purchase of this tapestry was hailed as the crowning triumph of this cultured man’s career as a promoter of love of art in America, and it was especially noted that he had got it as a bargain. The tapestry came from an old castle in which it had hung for many centuries, and where, by the way, it was in the proper place; for the tapestry was invented to meet a certain necessity of interior decoration, and as that necessity had passed, it had passed also, except as a thing for the museum. Our multi-millionaire might as fitly go about with a jeweled suit of mediaeval armor on as to try to decorate his modem house with something at once useless and insanitary.
This tapestry was discovered by an art dealer named—let us call him Monsieur Martin, and let us call our American Mr. Smith. Monsieur Martin went over to the castle to buy a lot of tapestries ; he paid about $4,000 for the lot, and sold them for $8,000. In some way this one tapestry, much like any one of the others, was overlooked. By the time he discovered it the owner had learned something of the art business, enough to insist that this tapestry was worth $2,000 by itself. Monsieur Martin
did not like the raising of the price, And refused to buy. He went back to Paris and, talking business with A fellow-dealer, a Monsieur Poulet, let us say, happened to speak of it —without, of course, letting Monsieur Poulet into the secret of where it was to be found. The upshot of the talk was that Monsieur Poulet, who said he had a rich American sucker in his pen at the moment, agreed to supply half the $2,000 (10,000
francs) and to dispose of the property to the sucker and share the profit equally ith Monsieur Martin.
When Monsieur Martin went down to the old castle he found that the price of the tapestry had gone up to $3,000 (15,000 francs), that some one else was negotiating for it. He hesitated, wrote or telegraphed Monsieur Poulet, who answered, agreeing to the advanced price. When he returned to the castle the tapestry had been sold for 15,000 francs to the mysterious rival bidder, whose name the noble owner of the castle refused to disclose. A few weeks later Monsieur Martin and all the rest of the world heard that Mr. Smith of the United States, the modern Maecenas, the Nineteenth Century Lorenzo the Magnificent, had bought the tapestry and was gloating over the very reasonable price at which the priceless treasure had passed to American hands.
Monsieur Martin met Monsieur Poulet at lunch. “You have heard the news?” said Monsieur Martin.
“Yes. Very sad isn’t it?” said Monsieur Poulet.
“These Americans are getting more commercial all the time,” said Martin. “Who’d have thought lhat he would nose out that tapestry and haggle for it like one of us?”
Monsieur Poulet replied in the same strain and they separated. A
few days, and Martin discovered that Mr. Smith had bought the tapestry from—Monsieur Poulet! He was frantic with indignation; he set on foot vigorous inquiries and learned, from a source which he regarded as reliable, that Mr. Smifth had paid Monsieur Poulet not $3,000, the price, which Poulet had paid, but—fifty thousand dollars!
Instantly he brought suit for half the difference between $3,000 and $50,000. The case, in due time, came up for trial. As is the invariable rule in these cases, the business of art dealer began to be shown up in anything but an admirable light. And so great was the interest, so laughable the testimony as to the way “suckers” from American millionairedom were “trimmed,” that all their friends and fellow-dealers got at Martin and Poulet and forced a compromise. Poulet paid Martin one-half of the profit of $47,000— one-half of the 235,000 francs. As a franc in France is about equal to a dollar in New York, that last figure—235,000 francs—gives a better idea of the stupendousness of the robbing than the equivalent in dollars.
But this is not all. A few months passed, and Monsieur Martin met a fellow-dealer from another city. They got to talking about Mr. Smith —for obvious reasons, the art dealers of Europe love to talk about him, love to think about him, have him almost always in mind.
“That was a nice little deal that Poulet closed with him, wasn’t it?” said the foreigner.
“Very,” said Martin; “I was in, you know. I got my share of the $50,000 he paid for the tapestry.”
“Fifty thousand dollars!” said the foreigner. “Why he didn’t pay doi-
lars; lie paid pounds—fifty thousand pounds !’1
“Pounds!” gasped Martin. “Fifty thousand pounds !9 9
“Fifty thousand pounds,” repeated the foreigner. ‘1 Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars—a million francs.”
Martin flew to Poulet. “You thief!” he shouted. “You scoundrel! Give me the rest of my profit. I want three hundred and seventyfive thousand francs! You sold that tapestry to the American for a million francs. I have witnesses.”
And Poulet gave down without an audible protest.
Thus, a tapestry worth not more than $1,000 has become an indeed priceless treasure. In its long life it has had, no doubt, many curious and interesting experiences, grave and gay. None of these surpasses this, its latest experience, both grave and gay—how it netted a prince’s ransom for a pair of art dealers— how it suddenly swelled into value from a paltry five thousand francs to a million.
This incident is typical. Its like is happening every day of the warmer half of the year when the American should first visit the European waters. The American art lover does sometimes—not very often, but still sometimes—get a genuine thing. When he does he has to pay, pay, pay. Few, indeed, of the real art treasures of Europe have crossed the Atlantic, almost none of those treasures that are really worth looking at. But those few genuine things, most of them “highly unimportant if true,” have cost fabulous sums, their value many thousand times over —where they have any value.
If either beauty or skill were the test of a work of art such incidents could not occur. But neither beauty
nor skill have any part in determining value. Price alone is the measure, and the price is determined by elements into which neither the beauty nor the workmanship of the thing itself enters, except as an incident.
Most of the works of art exhibited not only in America, but in Europe, also, are not genuine, but are either reproductions or copies of the originals, or are the originals so “restored” that little of the original remains.
This fact is known to all the real experts, and they do not conceal it. They simply ignore it, this for a variety of reasons ranging from cynicism to commercialism. Further, no real expert speaking the honest truth will say that he or any other man can determine absolutely the authenticity of any work of art whatsoever.
In America, the profession of art connoisseur and critic is largely—not entirely, but largely—a snobbish fake. Our professionals have no motive of financial interest, as a rule, to make them liars and cheats. It is our old acquaintance, intellectual snobbishness, the patron saint of so-called “culture,” that prompts them to make their silly pretenses of which so many people, quite sensible in other matters, stand in awe—just as you will often find a man of brilliant education in the great university of experience sit silent and respectful before an ignorant professor or alumnus of some university where little of value is taught or learned. The basic canon of this cult of intellectual snobbishness is “Antiquity!” When the new is good, it is good only in so far as it copies the old— slavishly copies. The result of this cult is that our men of high artistic talent and genius either languish or are driven abroad, where there are
enough artists to combine and compel recognition.
Our critics are not to blame for their follies, except as human nature can be censured for yielding to its own most powerful and insidious weaknesses. They are under the intellectual domination of Europe, and not of the best in Europe—for, unfortunately, it is never the best that exercises a tyranny of any sort.
In Europe there are two kinds of art critic and connoisseur—the man who loves the beautiful and the skillful, and the man who makes his living by acting as “barker” or “steerer” for the unscrupulous among the art dealers. The critics of the first class are rare—that supreme, well-rounded common-sense which is called genius is always and everywhere rare. There are more of them now than there were a few years ago—for it must be remembered that Europe is only just emerging from its long twilight of the ancestor-cult, or the cult of antiquity. There are enough of them now to force the recognition of such men as Sargent and Whistler, as Rodin and Barnard. But they still make little headway against the ignorant and undiscriminating cult of the antique, because that cult is sustained by a powerful commercial interest.
Europe has swarms of kings and princes and dukes, of newly-rich men of peasant origin with servile souls; also it is visited each year by American multi-millionaires and their imitators and followers, all palpitating with eagerness to be “cultured like the high folks over yonder.”
Now, these persons with money to spend on works of art—the nobles no less than the risen peasants and the mushroom plutocrats—have no courage, no personal courage, in matters of art. They follow blindly the
tradition. It may be well that they do, but that does not change the fact. For prince no less than for plutocrat, all intellectual ideas, including the aesthetic, are conventional, ready-made, “hand-me-down.”
Demand creates supply—if it waves the “dough-bag” as it clamors. This particular demand had' plenty of money. Up sprang a huge class of art dealers. Now, an art dealer needs two accessories—an “impartial and authoritative” expert and a stock of wares whereon the impartial and authoritative expert may pass enthusiastically. The supply of antiquities was easily forthcoming. There are scores of great factories in or near the large cities of Europe which employ hundreds of expert workmen at turning out every kind of antiquity. Part of the product is sold frankly for what it is. The rest goes steathily to the art dealers to be mingled with the little genuine stuff they have. As Europe has been ransacked daily during several hundred years for its old stuff, obviously there can be very little left outside the great permanent collections, and obviously that very little could not be especially good.
With equal ease the dealers have supplied themselves with cappers, átool-pigeons and steerers. Every now and again there is a scandal in connection with the experts employed by seme great museum like the Louvre; and the public learns that some eminent connoisseur has been supplementing his salary from the state by taking commissions from those from whom he buys for the state—that he has been buying fake stuff at high prices. It is difficult to catch these eminent cappers. The profession of connoisseur is like any other; if you attack one, however justly, the whole
fraternity rises and denounces you as a liar, or, worse, as an ignoramus—and who can bear to be called an ignoramus, a Philistine, by a eritic renowned and revered throughout the world?
To keep to our rich fellow-countrymen and their woes, it is these critics, these connoisseurs, that lead our railway and banking and meat-packing nobility into the toils.
Mr. Jones, a meat packer who has devoted twenty years of his leisure to collecting alleged artistic objects, has been fooled a thousand times. He does not know it; he thinks he has been fooled only the five or six times when he has been forced to find it out—the art patron is as hard to convince that he has been roped and done as is the ordinary citizen. Still, he has become a shy bird. To get him into the shearing pen the most delicate chicanery is necessary. If he were not so determined to be a patron of art the task would be quite hopeless. But his passion is his undoing. In moving about London, or Paris, or Venice, or Rome, or Madrid, he meets, apparently by accident, a connoisseur of the highest standing and of reputation for the sternest virtue. It often is several years before this capper gets the absolute confidence of Mr. Jones. You can imagine how he does it — how many times he saves Mr. Jones from the wiles of this dealer or the other. At last, however, he lands his fish. Jones swears by the virtuous de Brantôme or von Greistahl or Cappiani or Morevos. Jones buys whatever the virtuous one advises— and the virtuous one is careful not to steer his man against any but firstclass fakes. This for two reasons— prudence and pelf.
You may wonder why suspicion is never aroused. That is the simplest matter in the world. In the
first place, remember that the art patron is not looking for objects of art, examples of beauty and skill, but only for objects alleged by the priest of the cult to be objects of art—and sometimes they are, though most often they are mere rubbish. In the second place, each patron of art realizes that the supply of genuine objects must be limited, he is always certain that he is getting the genuine thing, and that all the other patrons are fools who are being faked. If you wish to study this, go with any patron of the art to look at the collection of any other patron. He will praise a few objects, but most of the time he will be lifting his eyebrows and winking at you.
This fake “culture,” this tyranny of the slimiest commercialism, not only discourages artists—real artists —who are trying to do good work; it also prevents the spread of common-sense and natural taste in matters of art.
In one of our Eastern cities there lives a man who is the talk of his set because of his “almost superhuman intuition” in matters of art, because he isb so “sensitive to the aesthetic.” This man could not live, so he says, if his surroundings were not altogether and gloriously antique. His house is vastly admired—it is, in fact, a nightmare of junk and jumble. In his largest room, in the middle, is his greatest glory—a huge, really superb antique, which may not be described here more closely. In its proper place it would be beautiful ; in a drawing-room it is absurd. He paid an enormous price for it—more than a hundred thousand dollars, and it is said that he has willed it to a great public museum.
A short time ago a careless servant broke off a corner of this marveL •lie sensitive soul all but took flight from this coarse world. When he
eould get himself together again he took a pan and broom and, on hands and knees, went over the whole floor of the room, gathering together every tiny fragment. He put the pieces in a box and with many injunctions intrusted it to a friend who was going abroad. “Take these to X--,”
said he, giving the name of the most expert of the art restorers and repairers of Europe, “and have him put them together, no matter what the cost. If any bits are missing they are not to be replaced. I will have no profanation.”
His friend took the bits to the expert. “Yes, I can fix it up,” said the expert. “It will cost about $500.
“Very well,” said the American. “My friend will be glad to pay it.” “But,” said the expert, “why go to all this trouble? I can make a new piece exactly like the old one. It will only cost seventy-five dollars.” The American shuddered. “No, no!” he exclaimed. “My friend would be furious.”
“I don’t see why,” retorted the expert mender. “I made the whole thing from which this piece broke off. I made it about fifteen years ago. See, here’s my private mark on this bit. It is very small, as I did the work for a dealer who was going to sell the thing for genuine. ’ ’
When the American recovered from the shock, he said: “And how
much did you charge for it ?"
"I worked cheaper then," replied the mender, now revealed as a manufacturer of the best, the most priceless antiquities. "I only got $900 for the whole thing. How much did your friend pay ?"
"I don’t remember," lied the American. "But, please, don’t tell anybody what you have told me. And patch up that piece. I wouldn’t have my friend disillusioned for worlds.
Back of every one of these cults — educational, political, aesthetic, what-not — you will always find a greedy throng of commercial chaps— professors, politicians, connoisseurs, dealers—who are busy fooling others, and themselves, too, because there’s money in it. But of all these fakirs, about the most brazen are the art fakirs. And rich is the reward of their impudence. If only the trash they palm off on our leaders in artistic culture could be destroyed instead of being flaunted and vaunted ! This year the fakirs reaped a richer harvest than last. Next year’s harvest will be richer than this year’s, and so on, until—well, until men and women learn to like what suits them themselves, instead of pretending to like things that nobody - dares criticise, though nobody likes them except the art dealers and art critics who "need the money."