Stephen Bayley

Estate agent

Legacies are usually controlled by squabbling heirs, opportunist collectors and vengeful harpies. Stephen Bayley meets the German lawyer trying to civilise the process

A big misunderstanding about art is that it excites serene meditation and transcendent bliss. But anyone who has worked in a public museum or a commercial gallery knows that this is untrue. The moral climate of the contemporary art world would embarrass the Borgias.

Art excites peculation, speculation, back-stabbing, front-stabbing and avarice while fuelling nasty spats about attribution and ownership between heirs, relatives, executors and collectors. Nowhere is this more comically apparent than in the matter of artists’ estates. Once a private concern of family and lawyers, the ‘artist’s estate’ is becoming recognised as a tangible and valuable entity that needs professional management just like any other financial asset.

Art history is an essentially German discipline and one of its precious concepts is Nachleben, or afterlife. Once afterlife meant earnest studies about the survival of classical gods in medieval iconography, or some such. Now it applies to building reputations and managing legacies. Artists, even the second-rate ones, are increasingly aware of this. With the voodoo of brand management, scientific investment stratagems and the alchemy of adroit PR, artists’ estates are being monetised.

There is a very particular context: the market for Old Masters is in abrupt decline and Rembrandts can be hard to sell, but demand for contemporary art is hard and strong. Critics no longer determine value; that is the job of art consultants and financial advisers. And it is not only the art itself that has value. Look at all that detritus of old magazines, champagne bottles and torn-up books in the famous photographs of Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio. Properly managed, rubbish has value too.

Hyper-rich global nomads, culturally ill at ease with Old Masters, see contemporary art as the ultimate luxury product. Any merely rich person can afford a private jet — a Cessna Citation Longitude is about $26 million — but you need real money to buy a Giacometti or Jeff Koons.

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