Bonhams & Butterfields

"Provident Children disposing of their deceased Mother's Effects for the Benefit of the Creditors!"
"Provident Children disposing of their deceased Mother's Effects for the Benefit of the Creditors!"

A couple weeks ago, the lovely Mrs. Lulu had the chance to find her own little niche in our charming global depression. Below is a guest commentary:

Wednesday March 25th, 11 am in LA. The line of people hoping to sell their family treasures stretches around the corner onto Sunset Blvd. I am at Bonhams & Butterfields‘ monthly free appraisal event in West Hollywood. I am here to get an appraisal for three Salvador Dali lithographs that my father gave me for my seventeenth birthday. I’ve loved them, displayed them, kept them through decades, carried them through several moves, but now, as one of the 10.5% LA unemployed, I’m ready to sacrifice them for the sake of more basic needs. […]Others in line have paintings, prints, furniture, ceramics, jewelry, photographs, rare books, silver, sculptures, and objets d’art ranging to the truly weird. They carry their items in bags, wheel them on carts, drag them along the sidewalk, as we lurch forward every few minutes or so. One man, with a very large canvass taped up in bubble wrap, pushes it way ahead of himself along the building wall, then leaves it there to wait for the line to catch him up. Some people appear shy and protective of their precious loot; others proud, turning their goods to catch the sun or face the street. I chat with the two women behind me in line. One is bringing an oil painting that she had purchased years ago at a garage sale. Another has an old glass vase, a family heirloom that had been handed down from her grandmother. I speculate that the economic downturn seems to have sent many people to their attics, but the woman, who has been before, tells me that this monthly event is always packed.

I have to admit the staff seems to have this potential madness well under control. The line moves quickly and within 20 minutes I am at the large open door being greeted by a pleasant woman asking me what manner of items I’ve brought. She hands me a colored slip of paper with the words prints and photos and the number 65 written on it and directs me to the appropriate station. Inside is a well-oiled operation. The large, open space is filled with tables behind which experts with computers and books examine the offerings brought to them. The air is filled with the sounds of information being exchanged in earnest tones. I take a seat in my section and wait for my number to be called.

While waiting, I muse on the other-worldliness of all this—the collector mentality, the expert knowledge of things, the secondary art market as a system of valuation based on pure exchangeability—for these objects possess little-to-no functionality. The only question is whether someone else wants them, and, if so, how badly. Aaah, capitalism. Seems a fair enough method for assigning social or public value. How badly someone wants your good is the determining factor in whether it sells. So the story goes; it sounds so democratic. “Don’t worry, it’s fair, the market is free.” But here’s the rub and the lie of it. It all boils down to how fairly the economic voting rights are distributed. It’s hardly the one person/one vote political freedom of a democracy. And yet we are brainwashed to believe that these systems entail one another.

A half an hour wait, my reverie disturbed, my number called. I make my way to the table and show my goods. So what are they worth? The expert, quite professionally, whispers against the schadenfreude of others, “very little.”

3 thoughts on “Bonhams & Butterfields”

  1. There was a spate of forged Dali prints that began in the late ’70s, made by the art forger Leon Amiel, Sr. I inherited one of them in the early ’90s, but at the time I didn’t know it was a forgery.

    Alfred Field, the official Dali estate archivist, lived in NYC at the time, so I made an appointment with him. He examined what I had and pronounced it a fake, telling me about Amiel, who had a long history of art forgeries, and he showed me an authentic version of the same print that he had in the archive. It was obvious mine, though a beautiful image, was an inferior copy. (I should mention that I was in rooms surrounded by hundreds of works by Dali, an unforgettable experience.)

    Field told me my print, called “Song of Songs,” was a restrike of an original etched plate by Dali and worth nothing but the cost of the framing, but he also said I should not be embarrassed to own it. After all, he said, it was struck from a plate made by the hand of the great Dali and so carried his intent, if not his authorization, and it was still a beautiful piece.

    He gave me a letter detailing the forgeries history with the name of the forger. I taped it to the back of the frame and “Song of Songs” now hangs in my bedroom.

    Amiel’s son, Leon Jr., has carried on with the family business. You can read about his arrest here and also some amusing information about Amiel Sr.’s wife, who was allegedly the person who forged Dali’s signature on the piece I own, here.

  2. What a great story. Ms. Lulu crafts a poignant narrative. :)

    Where can I read the full version? Looks like a piece was cut for brevity’s sake.

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