One of life’s great pleasures is the serendipitous discovery of a book. I especially love finding non-fiction and how-to guides. Such guides, though they appear obsolete, can be rich with historic revelation and insight. Imagine discovering your parent’s school textbooks. The content remains accessible and yet completely alien at the same time.
The coffee table at my office has a neatly stacked pile of books for visitors. These include the exhibition catalogue for the Postmodernism show at the V&A, a Gerhard Richter monograph, and the Tate’s catalogue for their 2011 Barry Flanagan exhibition. Hidden at the very bottom of the stack, I found a dusty, hard cover copy of Richard H. Rush’s Art as an Investment, published in 1961. None of my colleagues had any idea as to how it got there or who brought it in.
Art as an Investment is a snap shot of the late fifties art market in New York, when contemporary galleries were to be found on Madison Avenue and secondary dealers lined the cross streets around 2nd and 3rd avenues. The book is absolutely fascinating because its analysis narrowly precedes the sudden rise of the contemporary art market in the sixties. Rush, who passed away in 2011, had written a great deal on collecting. He is also well known amongst car collectors having written copiously on the subject. During his life he served as an advisor to President Harry Truman and the oil magnate John Paul Getty. In 1994, a library at Edison State College in Florida was named in his honor. The book’s dust jacket depicts Rush and his wife Julia with their art collection.
The most involving passages describe the Rush’s joint endeavours to unearth works by old masters and follow up on their finds. Despite their stamina, Rush notes that they occasionally succumb to “painting nerves” (caused by “looking at too many paintings in too condensed a period of time”). Rush’s ethos on collecting is positively egalitarian:
“(Contemporary art) appears to be so technical, so intellectual, and so abstruse that only those with a very advanced education and deep emotional and intellectual understanding of art can even look at a painting…nothing could be further from the truth”.
In other passages however, Rush’s sincerity reads amusingly, especially to modern readers. Describing German Expressionist painting as representing all the negatives of human experience, he notes that you can still find “pleasing, impressionistic landscapes” that “could not mar the décor of any home”.
The book invariably focuses on the collection of old masters. Later movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are referred to as “the controversial schools” (a reputation now somewhat obfuscated by contemporary standards). In a couple of dedicated chapters Rush observes that a market for contemporary art is slowly developing though he is reticent to make any firm conclusions:
“Whilst there exists a great demand for Abstract painting and there is little question that this type of painting is in vogue in the year 1961, this school may already be over the top in the public preference…Fifty years is time enough for testing public taste. In one hundred years the style is often ‘out of date’ and not until two or three hundred years have passed is the art of quality a treasure once again”.
Rush’s cautionary principles, for the most part, remain valid, despite an art market that presently gorges on hype and speculation. Ironically, Rush may have unwittingly contributed to this very development. What is most arresting about ‘Art as an Investment’ is how Rush visually illustrates the changing monetary value of art.
Six years after the publication of Art as an Investment, Peter Wilson, the then chairman of the board of Sotheby’s launched the Times-Sotheby art index. The index graphically charted the cost of paintings and thus equated art with other commodities such as oil and gold. Historically, the notion of art as an investment commodity is very young. After all, the Mona Lisa wasn’t painted with the intention that its value would exponentially increase. Wilson’s index implicitly promised that the changing value of art could be calculated with a scientific exactness. Contemporary art by living artists leant itself best to fulfilling this promise. Unlike the market for old masters, there would be far less of a need for expert verification. Living artists could verify whether a work for sale was really theirs. The production and output of young living artists could be controlled, manipulated, and monitored far more accurately.
In Art as an Investment, Rush charts the monetary values of particular movements by focusing on the prices of its most prominent artists. For example, focusing on the prices for works by Kirchner, Kokoschka, Munch, and Nolde he notes that the market value of the Expressionists rose from a base of 100% in 1950 to 1586% by 1960. Rush’s rudimentary graphs and diagrams prefigure Wilson’s index, demonstrating that such a conceptualization of art as a commodity was already in place in the early sixties. Wilson’s index cemented this conceptualization into the popular imagination. It has now become commonplace for a collector to review the worth of the world’s top artists in much the same way as an investor would peruse the NASDAQ. A simple web search will bring up hundreds of artist indices at a click. By 1961, an ineludible logic had been set into motion. As art was described as any other chartable commodity, art dealing gradually began to adopt the reprehensible behaviors associated with market trading (price inflation, speculation, manipulation etc.). Rush’s maxim that “only a very foolish man would buy a painting without thoroughly understanding the market price for the artist “remains ever true to this day.