If you're like me, then you're a sucker for the artist's sketch. It might be just a scrap of paper, a scribble, something short hand, something percolating, something being worked out, something barely conscious, something intuitive, something seen out of the corner the eye; an impression, a gesture, a vision, a reach. But to some of us it is something special. Something magic. Art nectar. An epiphany straight from the ether. A tip of an iceberg. A glimpse into the sublime, the divine, the unfathomable.
It is what happens when the artist's fingertips, holding pencil, charcoal, pen, crayon or brush, meet the receptive light of paper. When the visual intelligence, emotion, and imagination of the artist coalesces, fuses, swirls into existence from a confluence of forces from muse and nature and experience and the unconscious, from eyes and brain and heart and will, and then travels down arm to hand to fire like explosions off the tips of fingers onto the open expanse of pristine and beautiful smooth or textured paper.
Things happen on paper with the lightning speed and unfathomable depths of inspiration. Which is why I prize any scribble by any artist above the finest print by that same artist any day of the week. A scribble is unique, and it is awash in touch.
Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frida Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, and Jean Michel Basquiat made miracles of a scrap of paper. And then of course there was Picasso, perhaps the artist most famous for turning a paper napkin into a fine meal.
The things that happen on a scrap of paper are where they happen first, and sometimes never again. This is what makes the sketch so special. The flower of the imagination finds its way onto paper first. This explains why so many true connoisseurs covet the artist's drawing above all else. It may also explain why so many artists eschew working from drawings and go straight to the medium of the final destination, paint, canvas, metal, stone, found materials, installation space, etc. to make sure that what got them there, the inspiration, the impulse, the unconscious force of creation, is all there, and that none of that gets left behind.
My friend, the rare book dealer, John Wronoski, has always had such wonderful things on paper that I could never restrain myself. Everything from sketches and watercolors to manuscripts and letters and ephemera. My artist friend Martin Mugar and I could never quite believe what we were holding in our hands as we perused his treasures on visits to his shop tucked on a back street in Cambridge, a stone's throw from the Fogg Museum and Widener and Houghton libraries at Harvard. A handwritten Kazantzakis manuscript. A Garcia Lorca drawing. Magic trapped in paper like amber. The artist's touch.
That is it, isn't it? The artist's touch. The artist's hand. There are those who believe that it is all in the touch. I am one of them. We can't help it. Touch matters.
About ten years ago I discovered that I could find works of art at auction on line. I started by searching for a Matisse tapestry that had been in my family and had gone lost. I had enjoyed live art auctions already, but the prospect of being able to participate in an auction in Paris, or London, or New York without leaving my home, and then tracking down and finding works by artists that I cherished, that was a huge thrill.
It goes without saying that one has to be on one's toes. That fraud and art go hand in hand. Growing up on Via Margutta in Rome I watched in awe and wonder everyday as gifted artists sculpted and painted, and made something where there was previously nothing. I also watched with almost equal admiration as very skilled craftsmen on the same street created fake objects of art and antiquity for the tourists and unsuspecting collectors.
Years later I also followed my art history professor and mentor, James Kettlewell, around some of this country's finest museums as he explained how to spot a fake Rembrandt. Apparently they were everywhere, and there were lots of them. It was almost funny. A game of amusement. Sport. Spot the fakes.
After what transpired at the venerable and most reputable Knoedler Gallery in New York over the past few years, where major works of art by modern masters were sold to big collectors and then exposed as forgeries, the art world will never be the same. Everyone becomes suspicious when that kind of fraud takes place at the top of the art world, and for good reason. If you can't trust them, who can you trust?
It is said that Frida Kahlo produced far more work after her death than she ever did when she was alive. Two or three times more. It is also said that Stalin had factories cranking out forged works of Russian modernist art, and that almost nothing we see these days in exhibits and museums is authentic. I also heard it said that it was the ravenous hoards of collectors from the great state of Texas who put so many forgers to work, creating a huge market for knock-offs from the Dutch Masters to the Impressionists.
Which brings me again to one of my favorite opportunities to own a scrap of paper brought to life by the artist's touch. Art auctioning on line. It is fascinating, exhilarating, and fun. There have always been lots of wonderful small auction houses all over the country that handle estate sales, fine art, furniture, jewelry and collectibles. Now their live auctions can be accessed either through their own website/service, or through a larger "aggregate" service like Live Auctioneers, Bid Square, or Invaluable.
These auction houses come in all sizes, with varying reputations, from barns to posh establishments, and some are family owned and have been around for generations. You can make bids on your computer, a tablet, or even on your phone while you are out and about, at work, or having lunch.
Some auctions use live video streaming so that you can see what is actually happening and feel like you are in the room. This heightens the level of anticipation and excitement because bids come from individuals either on the floor, the telephone, or the internet, and you get to see and hear all of that, including your own bid.
You are guided as always by the auctioneer, who lets you know everything from the lot number and lot at hand, to the amount for the opening bid, the current high bid, and if the current lot is about to close, so hurry, or if it has not met its reserve and is being passed. If you are the high bidder they will let you know. If you win, and that is what they call it to further enhance the experience, that will be confirmed before they move on to the next lot. For your victory you will pay a "hammer" price which goes to the consignor, and a premium, which goes to the house.
Some auctioneers can be quite colorful and charming, and will give you a little extra, like a bit of trivia or history or if the piece on the block has generated a lot of interest. They spice it up. Sometimes they even acknowledge regulars in the room and address them by name. They make the occasion special and each one has their own style and way about them.
This is a ancient form of purchasing goods that doubles as entertainment; it is an outing; an event; an opportunity to see and be seen; and enjoy the company of old friends while getting something you prize in the bargain, and, hopefully, for a bargain. There are also strictly art auctions, horse and cattle auctions, car auctions, property auctions, and charity auctions, etc. It is another world. There is theater to it. And for about the last twenty years it has been on the internet.
And of course the internet is a mixed bag. With an up side and a down side. To many auction enthusiasts it has spoiled both the charm and the opportunity of the experience. Who knows who is who or what on the internet. It makes it that much harder to spot a shill, someone with a hidden agenda just trying to fabricate interest and drive up the price. But it has also created more positive competition and brought in new clients from all over the world.
So enter a little auction house called the Preston Hall Gallery, in Dallas, Texas. I really like these people and what they bring to the table. They have a style all there own.
Because it is nearly impossible to get something authenticated these days, either because of the daunting expense, or politics, or because artist foundations have simply shut down the process, the Preston Hall Gallery doesn't even bother trying to tell you if a work is authentic, but instead simply lists almost of if it's lots as attributed to, or in the manner of.
So unless the work in question is listed in a catalogue raisonne, an exhibition catalog, or has detailed sales receipts from known galleries, collectors, or houses, you are entirely on your own. One common almost comical recommendation is that unless you have a photograph of the artist in front of the work, with you preferably in the photograph, don't buy it, because anything and everything else can be faked. Forgers are clever, thorough, obsessive about every detail from the craft to materials to signatures to provenances, and they are incredibly successful.
So you do your homework; you decide if it looks like the real thing, if it rings true, if it passes the smell test; and if you would like it anyway even if it is an innocent copy or a downright forgery. Again, you decide.
Strangely enough this aspect of risk brings another level of excitement to the process. How did I do? Did I hit a home run or strike out? Did I just get a gem, or was I fleeced?
You may never know. Which is why liking the lot in question is so important. Maybe that will be all you have in the end. The chances are you may just have a scrap of paper that reminds you of an artist you want to have a little piece of in your life.
Often the works have a detailed provenance with names, and places, and dates. It might reassure you as to the possible authenticity of said works. How these lots end up at auction in the first place is sometimes anybody's guess. You can always ask the auction house. More often than not they come from estate settlements, descendants quietly unloading unwanted things their parents or uncles or grandparents collected. Sometimes collectors are simply discreetly downsizing, raising cash, or letting go of things which no longer hold their interest.
By big auctions house standards the lots at PHG are ridiculously inexpensive. Impossibly inexpensive. But rightly so. They are not listed as genuine, and they are not backed by the reputation of a Christie's or a Sotheby's. The risk is as plain as day.
It is also worth noting that quite a few of these "attributed to, and in the manner of" lots sold at PHG and other small auction houses have ended up authenticated, on the block, and sold at those same big auction houses for the kinds of figures that one would expect to pay for drawings and watercolors by artists of such stature. It happens, and it is a matter of public record.
But if you are like me. If you are a fool for scribbles by the artists you love. If you like a treasure hunt. If you trust your eye and your nose, and are thrilled by the prospect of having a work by an artist you admire, and could not otherwise afford, then the risk and trade off buying art at small auction houses like PHG is well worth it. Who knows? You just might get lucky!
Forgive me, but it is also worth noting that we gamble everyday on a million things. Being in the stock market is a prime example of gambling, although most investors have been led to believe otherwise. My own feeling is why not gamble on something you love that you can see and feel and that enriches your life by its mere presence.
The Preston Hall Gallery auctions are generally beyond belief for all the treasures available right before our eyes. Wonderful. Incredible. Too good to be true. That is what makes this process so difficult at times. Scraps of paper by the world's great painters and sculptors, each an artist's artist if not a household name, are mixed in with watches and furniture and coins and books. It is just too hard to believe. Chagall, Warhol, Rothko, Basquiat, Klee, Mitchell, Twombly, Schiele, Picasso, Whistler, and on and on. A veritable who's who. A sheer delight. One has to pinch one's self. Kid in a candy shop. But be careful.
Thanks to that mentor of mine, James Kettlewell, I got to spend time at the great American sculptor David Smith's home and studio at Bolton Landing on Lake George in upstate New York. Thanks to Preston Hall Gallery I have two lovely David Smith drawings I get to marvel at every day.
When I was in my late 20s I was invited to curate and write a catalog for a three woman show at Bard that included Elaine de Kooning. As a result I was invited to visit with her and her husband, my great idol, out at their Long Island home. Unfortunately due to circumstances I had to decline the opportunity and the visit. Thanks to the Preston Hall Gallery, however, I have a Bill de Kooning drawing dancing as fast as it can any time I look its way.
A long line of Parks grandfathers to great-great-grandfathers and so on are buried not far from Piet Mondrian in the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, and thanks to the Preston Hall Gallery I have two of his small flower drawings. Casting their spell.
On that charming street of artists I grew up on in Rome, Via Margutta, my favorite artist to spy on while he worked was Nino Franchina. Nino hung a small painting of mine on his living-room wall along with a blue slashed canvas by Fontana, a futurist painting complete with painted frame by his Futurist master father-in-law, Severini, and a little Calder mobile. Thanks to the Preston Hall Gallery I now have a wonderful Calder drawing from that special time in my life. Just a little scrap of paper with the artist's touch. It means the world to me.