From the June 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Financial Times (27/4/55) has an article under the title "High Prices for Venetians"; dealing with the spectacular rise in prices of works of art sold in London Sale Rooms, instancing a painting by Canaletto £10,500, a pair of F. Guardi £9,000, one by Zuccarrelli £1,900, one by F. Post “View in Brazil 1661” £1,650, and a very fine copy of Audubon’s “Birds of America,” published 1827-1838, £9,200. These prices represent a ten to 20 times increase in the last 10 to 20 years. What a fine racket thinks the speculator, better than whiskey, or bomb making.
What is behind it, you may wonder. While one must remember the fall in the purchasing power of the pound, that is not the great part. The supply of such works of are as these mentioned above grows less each year, but the demand increases with the growth of immense fortunes in countries that did well in the last two world wars: the South American Republics, the Scandinavian countries, U.S.A., and also the great oil fortunes in Western Canada. The last are a great factor in the prices of Canadian paintings by Krieghof (painted 100 years ago) which sell at as much as £1,000 as against £100 in pre-war days.
S. America is coming up fast and it was Brazil that put on the San Paulo collection at the Tate Gallery last year. F. Post was one of the very few well trained artists to go to Brazil in the 17th century, so for buyers of S. American early art the choice is strictly limited; the £1,650 “View in Brazil” could be bought 20 years ago for £100 and the Audubon book for a tenth of the recent price.
The present writer’s memory goes back to a day in January at the winter Royal Academy Show of 18 Century Art, to Exhibit 361, “Making a Road,” a painting by J. Vernet, signed and dated 1774. The picture shows a French Landscape by a river with a castle in the distance, a three-arched bridge being built in mid-distance by many workers with a high wooden crane. Up on the right is a windmill with two donkeys being loaded, beyond the bridge a group of men pulling a long waggon filled with huge blocks of stone, and all along the road dozens of men with hammers, picks, ramrods, chisels, etc., constructing the road. In the foreground are four horsemen. The first, splendidly dressed, is looking at a document that the ganger, hat in hand, has given to him, on the pommel of his saddle a brace of pistols. By his side another well dressed and pistoled gent sits with whip held erect in his hand and behind him two men, who look like guards. While admiring the picture another visitor approached and remarked: “Nice picture! Who owns these beautiful things? Who were they painted for?” This one, I replied, now belongs to The Louvre, but you will notice by the catalogue the great array of Lords, Baronets, etc., who own the bulk of this splendid exhibition. As to who this Vernet was painted for, perhaps for the pistoled gent or at least someone such as the owner of the distant castle. What you see there in the painting—well over 50 men working and two well armed gents not working but obviously of the class who own the means of production—sums up nicely who owned such works of art and who owns them now. There stands the master class whip and pistol in hand: the pistol you put and keep in their hands every, time you vote them into political-power and the whip of necessity that keeps you working for those who own the means whereby you live. The fine art trade, like the fine jewel trade, is patronised almost exclusively by that very small class who own the means of wealth production; while the vast bulk of the people get a trickle of chain store art and “ fine ” jewelry. It is up to the latter, the working class, to say yes or no to such a system. Look at the world you live in and get an understanding of Socialism, which will finish all the luxury racket and make possible a world in which art will cease to serve the ostentation and speculation of the wealthy and be a means of enjoyment for all.