By Damaris Colhoun January 27, 2015
When Shahan Mufti went to northwest Pakistan in 2009 to do an investigative series for The Global Post on how the Taliban was funding itself, he wasn’t surprised to find an illicit trade in software, weapons, and drugs. What he didn’t expect to find was plundered art. But there beyond the Oakley sunglasses, in a backroom shielded by curtains, was a cache of Buddhist relics, headed for foreign markets.
Mufti had never reported on art, but he knew a “follow the money” story when he saw one. Eventually the money led him back to the upper echelons of the New York City art market, where the objects were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the buyers were anonymous. Mufti also found that most of the journalists covering the New York art beat were veteran insiders. With few sources of his own, he felt like an outsider. But this gave him an edge. The New York-based reporters didn’t think to ask about the origins of the objects, or consider their role in the dirty business of war.
It turns out being an outsider is often an advantage when reporting on the art market. Journalists who have covered it through the prism of crime, politics, business, or war, are less likely to get caught up in insider games or become seduced by power brokers and art stars. In a market where “gossip” is often “passing for criticism,” as art critic Jerry Saltz has written, a background in finance or international conflict can help a reporter cut through market-driven hype, or observe an insular culture from an aerial view. In Mufti’s case, an investigation into illegally trafficked goods would help him understand the complex set of factors that determine the value of a work of art.
“When I started this piece, going back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan, I didn’t know anything about what this art meant, how old it was, how valuable it was. All I knew was that the art market in Manhattan was a completely different environment. The reporters were completely different. And what I found interesting was that even though it was the same art, the same object, it had acquired a new value with this new decorum around it” once it arrived in New York, Mufti said. He might not have been struck by this sudden accumulation of cachet if, “I hadn’t been looking at it as an outsider.”
From his outsider’s vantage point, Mufti was also able to get a good look at how opaque the art market can be. In New York, there is no central database of galleries. Auctions and collections are often private. Walking into auction houses and galleries, Mufti had a sense that “people did not want to be found,” and that he was interloping in a private, exclusive club.
“It was very clear how guarded people are. There are no identities. It’s very much like the black market. You don’t hand out business cards and say, ‘I’m a journalist looking to find stolen goods.’ The galleries don’t necessarily put themselves out there, especially the private collections and smaller galleries,” Mufti said. “As a journalist, there was a sense that if you need to know about these places, you should already know where they are.”
Struggling to penetrate this world, Mufti turned to a channel he typically shuns: the PR department at Christie’s. To his surprise, it opened a window onto just how incestuous the art market can be. On a guided tour of the city, during Asian Art Week, Mufti found himself walking into the homes of private collectors, where he got a chance to look up close at Gandharan relics, ancient pieces from northwest Pakistan. He also got a glimpse into the inner-workings of New York’s art reporting core.
“That’s when I realized how difficult it was to tell the difference between a journalist, a buyer, a collector, and a seller, because the same people were all switching roles,” Mufti said. “I’ve done reporting in D.C., and people say those reporters are too close and cozy. But to me this was stark. I saw that a lot of journalists working around art are just dazed by the glittery shiny object.”
The allure of the glittery object would become a central theme in Mufti’s piece. “Spoils of War,” published by Harper’s in 2011, follows Mufti as he moves between a high-end auction house and the black market in Pakistan, where he poses as a buyer. Being an outsider in the New York art scene, and a kind of insider in Pakistan, he begins to apprehend why people are motivated to acquire the cultural objects of others, especially in times of war. “In the process, the primordial urge to own such objects is transformed into something else,” Mufti writes. “They become dynastic tokens, each with its own pedigree of connoisseurship and American wealth.”
For journalists who specialize in finance and crime, the art market can be a gold mine of material. Journalist David Grann has written about death penalty cases and Sherlock Holmes, but in “The Mark of a Masterpiece,” he delves into the shadowy world of Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian forensic art expert who claims to have invented a special camera that can tell the difference between the work of a master, and that of a forger. In a market where value is often determined by experts, Biro’s claim is heresy; if his camera truly works, who needs connoisseurs? By the end, Grann exposes Biro and his camera as frauds, yet remains deeply skeptical that a connoisseur’s “eye” is any more reliable. To the eyes of an investigative reporter, a market that turns so faithfully on its self-anointed experts seems irrationally tribal, endlessly subjective.
In a profile for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten assumes a similar vantage point, turning his “untutored eye” on the world of David Zwirner, a cunning gallery mogul. Paumgarten calls out his own outsider status in the opening lines of the piece: “Very important people line up differently from you and me. They don’t want to stand behind anyone else, or to acknowledge wanting something that can’t immediately be had. If there’s a door they’re eager to pass through, and hundreds of equally or even more important people are there, too, they get as close to the door as they can, claim a patch of available space as though it had been reserved for them, and maintain enough distance to pretend that they are not in a line.” Paumgarten’s account of the ultimate art market insider gives a blistering critique of the asset-buying class, and the lives of the one-percent.
According to Christopher Glazek, a journalist who has written about politics, student debt, and, on occasion art, the art world’s connection to finance capitalism makes it a beat that more business journalists should be paying attention to. “The 1980s stock market boom, the Reagan boom, was a really important inflection point for the art market. The art market heated up tremendously then,” Glazek said. “A lot of artists made the call that they were going to align themselves with the hyper elite, which was not the case in the 1960s and 70s. I don’t think art can simply be treated as this curio, bizarre part of the world, not when a lot of billionaires have a large part of their assets in art.”
Although Glazek says he writes about art from an “outsiders perspective,” he’s not an outsider to that world in the same way that Mufti or Grann might be. And yet he’s not an insider either. He simply has friends who are artists, and an interest in economic theory. These worlds came together for Glazek last December, when he wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about Stefan Simchowitz, a controversial art adviser and collector, whose approach to young artists left Glazek intrigued and alarmed.
“Simchowitz’s whole schtick is the power of the network, and how you leverage the network. The value of art is socially constructed. I mean that in a specific, rigorous way. It’s constructed by the social nexus surrounding a particular piece at a particular time,” Glazek said. “To me, Simchowitz’s question, who is the artist friends with, what are they making, how are they in the world, how many likes do they get on Facebook, those are the kinds of questions that don’t occur to a lot of collectors. But it’s really important. If you’re not talking to artists, you’re not getting the full story. The fact that Morgan Richard Murphey”–an artist who appeared in Glazek’s piece–“didn’t have a cell phone, and was just hanging out with his girlfriend, was a bearish sign to Simchowitz.”
Glazek is worried that people in the art world will think he got Simchowitz wrong. But he comforts himself by recalling “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Janet Malcolm’s essay in which she argued that Ingrid Sischy, the former editor of ArtForum, was savvier and more brilliant than her colleagues gave her credit for. “When people in the art world say Malcolm got it wrong about Ingrid Sischy, well, I like to think that maybe Malcolm saw something that you guys were too close to actually get.”
Damaris Colhoun is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. She writes about media, books, and culture.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2015 at 1:11 pm. It is filed under news & features, On the Beat and tagged with art journalism, art market, art smuggling, Asian art, black market art, journalism beats. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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