The Bidder And The Sweet

When the first caveperson artist put the last charcoal touch on a wall drawing of a six-legged beast, he probably turned to the crowd at the torchlit reception and said, "I'll let it go for five mastodon hides tonight, but it'll be worth at least 10 or 20 by the time the next solstice rolls around."

That's the implied nature of the art world in Peter Watson's fact-stuffed, intelligently gossipy From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market (558 pages. Random House. $35). Those who want deep background on why, over two days in 1990, Ryoei Saito, president of a Japanese paper company, forked over more than $160 million for one van Gogh and one Renoir should consult Bram Kempers's more stolidly written (in translation from the Dutch) Painting, Power and Patronage: The Rise of the Professional Artist in Renaissance Italy (401 pages. Viking. $40). Actually, London art-market columnist Watson never mentions cave dwellers, nor does art historian and sociologist Kempers allude to Saito. But between Watson's journalism and Kempers's scholarship, you get the big picture.

Kempers tells us that in 13th-century Siena, Italy, management skills and public safety improved enough so that people who wanted a little decoration in their lives could raise enough money to hire craftsmen, who could in turn get to the site without being robbed on the way. At about the same time, painters figured out how to make their pictures more realistic and began to think of themselves as a notch above members of the stonecutters' guild. They got together with the carpenters and concocted a better church embellishment, the altarpiece, and charged a lot for it. After 1400, painters started to circulate tracts laying out standards of representation and, indirectly, promoting their special abilities. The wealthy merchant families of Florence and Siena-who succeeded the mendicant religious orders as chief art patrons-found the painters' talents just the ticket for flattering themselves (putting their own likenesses in the company of saints) and insulting their rivals (showing them hanging by their feet). As patronage shifted to noble and papal courts, ostentatiousness reigned. Kempers writes that Pope Julius II's planned tomb "not only outdid by far his predecessors Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII, but also would have out-princed most princes."

But however highly paid and esteemed they'd gotten, artists were still taking their orders from clients. Jump-cut to "Manet to Manhattan," and the 19th-century romantics, who maintained that artists operated out of a genius that could not be dictated to. With them came art dealers, who provided would-be patrons with access to genius that might not otherwise be understood. The battle for public acceptance of impressionism (roughly 1865-90) proved the dealers right and set the stage for a really difficult art movement, 20th-century cubism. It required all sorts of interpreters to crack the market. Watson quotes Picasso: "What would have become of us if [pioneer dealer of cubism Daniel-Henry] Kahnweiler hadn't had a business sense?" By the time American pop art (and its Kahnweiler, Leo Castelli) turned the trick of making the exoteric profitably esoteric-and vice versa-the catechism for getting big bucks out of modern art was practically carved in marble behind the rostrums at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses: This art may look weird now when only you and a few others want it, but it'll soon look beautiful and everyone will want it. Then you can make them pay through the nose to get it.

Well, with a little push. Watson quotes Sotheby's current chairman, Detroit real-estate tycoon A. Alfred Taubman: "Selling art has much in common with selling root beer. People don't need root beer and they don't need to buy a painting, either. We provide them with a sense it will give them a happy experience." Watson notes that Christie's "Special Clients" department employs a young lady "whose necklines get lower and miniskirts get higher as the sale approaches." Think of the fortunates who in the "binge" years of 1987-90 purchased van Gogh's "Irises" and "Sunflowers" ($53.9 million, $39.9 million) and Picasso's "Les Noces de Pierrette" and "Yo Picasso" ($51.6 million, $47.9 million). They must be absolutely delirious.

Kempers's book essentially quits with the end of the Renaissance, but he supplies an epilogue on modern art that is simplistic in the extreme: "Abstract art ... developed because of the decline in commissions prescribing images." Watson concludes with some unsurprising investment advice: good art, over the long haul, is a good investment; bad art and the lust for a quick buck is chancier than Lotto. The recession ended the 1980s binge, he notes, but also several big dealers in Japan (the country responsible for as much as 40 percent of modern and impressionist auction purchases since 1987) have recently gone bankrupt, possibly because of corruption. This, says Watson, is a "sword of Damocles" dangling over the current art market. Better hang on to your mastodon hides.