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A Load of Pollocks

by Dr. Mark Nicholson


14D (or was it 21B?) by Jackson Pollock


Any art dealer is going to regard me as hopelessly naïve and lacking in acumen but I would far rather have a beautiful painting by an unknown artist than a ghastly, uninteresting or unintelligible painting by a well-known (and note that I don’t say ‘great’) artist. Give me a Rothko for Christmas and it will end up on the bonfire (er, well, maybe not; Christies perhaps). Ditto for a Pollock. I am not supposed to say that. I am supposed to be empathetic and artistic enough to recognize the importance of two of America’s ‘greatest’ artists (except Rothko was a gloomy Latvian). If you want to see great American art, go and see the nineteenth century oils by Cole, Duncanson and Bierstadt in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

 

So maybe I am too thick, too philistine or old-fashioned. I do not dismiss Abstract Expressionism out of hand. Some work in that genre is amazingly beautiful but Rothko and Pollock are to my mind the most meaningless. Anyone who can pay $250 million for one needs their head examined, except they know they can one day sell them again for more. To me, it is the Emperor’s New Clothes (and Pollock at least knew it).

 

So let me start with a quiz: what connects Palawan, Kherson and Mark Rothko? Nobody can give me a feasible answer of course because the question is only relevant to me. Almost no one will know the first name, few the second even if quite a few people may have heard of Rothko. So let me explain.

 

A few years ago after a consultancy in Laos, a friend told me to jump on a plane via Manila for a few days off on Palawan, one of the most beautiful tropical islands on earth, which was originally attached to the Chinese mainland but had drifted away towards the main Philippine archipelago.


Annoyingly, I had left my book on the plane and arrived with no reading material. The ‘library’ at the resort consisted of books left behind by tourists. Most of the books were in Russian, Japanese and Chinese. Only one was in English, entitled Hammer by Armand Hammer, a 500-page autobiography by someone of whom I had never heard but who clearly had a high opinion of himself. It turned out to be the most riveting autobiography I have ever read.

 

Armand Hammer’s grandfather was a shipbuilder from Kherson, a Ukrainian city grabbed by the Russians two years ago,  reclaimed by the Ukrainians in November 2022, flooded by the Russians in June last year and still subject to daily bombardment. What is it with Ukrainian Jews? I had just finished re-reading about the Ephrussi family from Odessa [1], one of the wealthiest trading and banking families on Earth in the early nineteenth century. Then along comes a book about a Jewish migrant whose four wealthy grandparents came either from Odessa and Kherson and who had escaped the Pogroms in Russia with nothing, ending up in a Russian/ Irish ghetto on the Lower East side of New York. The family built a pharmacy business and soon cornered the world market in ginger. By the time he was 18, Armand Hammer was making a million dollars a year before deciding to study medicine. His father, a prominent member of the American Communist Party, started exporting medical drugs to Russia in 1919. Armand then set off to Moscow with a complete American field hospital left over from WWI in order to help in the typhus epidemic. He met Lenin (who spoke to him in good English), whom Armand found charming, humorous and sincere as well as having “dazzling intellectual flexibility”. He found Trotsky (conversing in German) highly intelligent, very brave but somewhat cold.


Traveling onwards to Ekaterinburg, Armand witnessed the full horrors of the famine and agreed to send over a million bushels of American wheat at his own expense ($1m) at a time when the American wheat price was so low that farmers preferred to burn it. In exchange, he was paid in furs and hides, which he sold in the USA for two million dollars. This trading continued until he was granted a huge asbestos concession east of the Urals.  It was not long before Armand was buying up Romanov treasures including art, Faberge jewels, rubies and platinum in exchange for American grain and pencils from Germany. In Leningrad (St. Petersburg), he buys a Rembrandt from an old picture restorer, which he later discovers is a superb fake, created by the Director of one of Moscow’s museums.  He wrote “I kept our fake Rembrandt for a many years as a salutary reminder of how easily a collector of art can be duped”. That comment would later come to haunt his grandson in the rest of this tale.


Armand Hammer had the Midas touch. He moved into merchant banking, cattle breeding, fine art, before acquiring Occidental Petroleum in 1957. He maintained close ties with the USSR and was very close to Brezhnev, advising Nixon/ Kissinger during the détente years. He died a very wealthy man in 1990. If you can ever find it, the book is an astonishing read.

Fast forward to November 2023. On a flight from Glasgow to Dubai, I could not find a film to interest me so I switched to documentaries. One called “Made to Look” began with a ‘Rothko’ painting at the centre of a storm.


Black in deep red by Mark Rothco. Yours for $250 million


Ann Freedman, the President of Knoedlers, America’s oldest art gallery founded in 1846, had been ‘invited’ to resign by the owner, Michael Hammer. Yes, Michael was Armand’s grandson. Armand had bought the gallery in 1971 for $25m at a time when the gallery was close to bankruptcy for buying expensive real estate. It continued to be run by wealthy New York Jews: Rubins, Geffens, Taubmanns, Freedmans etc.

 

Between 1992 and 2008, Ann Freedman had bought about over 40 Abstract Impressionist paintings, and sold them on to collectors making a huge profit, sometimes approaching 1000 percent. She had provided the provenance each time (“a private Swiss collector who wishes to remain anonymous”), which seemed to have satisfied the specialists in the field, even if they tended to be rather non-committal. Perhaps they were just too cheap. The problem was that both Freedman and Glafira Rosales who supplied the paintings seemed to have an endless supply of Rothkos and Pollocks. Freedman bought a ‘Pollock’ for $900,000 and sold it to a London hedge fund manager for $17 m. Domenico de Sole, a former CEO of Gucci and Chairman of Sotheby’s, and his wife Eleanore dished out a modest $8.3m for a ‘Rothko’.  A few years went by until exhaustive forensic chemical analysis proved that one of the yellow pigments in a fake ‘Pollock’ had not existed before 1970 (the artist died in 1956). Then a number of irate buyers started to sue. The painter of these masterpieces was Pei Shen Qian, a Chinese gentleman in New York, who quickly hoofed it to Shanghai. Rosales’ unpleasant Spanish boyfriend, the mastermind of the scheme, flew off to Spain and was eventually extradited to the USA. Rosales pleaded guilty but Freedman continued to maintain her innocence[2]. She, Michael Hammer and the company were all sued but all was settled out of Court. Knoedlers collapsed in 2011 after the company was shown to have made $80m in the sale of fakes. The scandal rocked the art world but privacy and lack of transparency continues to be the core of the art market.

 

Now I am no artist but with two pots of paint, I reckon I could rustle up a fake Rothko before lunch but it wouldn’t fool an expert.  A Pollock is even easier: one just has to dribble different colours onto the canvas. It is said that Pollock’s whole aim was to make a mockery of the international art market.

 

I enjoy my paintings even if they are not worth much. They mean something to me and they are pleasing. However, they have been in the same place for over 30 years and how often to I really look at them? My plan was to join forces with a group of aficionados and share each other’s paintings on a regular basis. My Colombian friends nearby, who have some great art, think it is a great idea and already want to nab my large oil painting of aloes in the Northern Cape, which was done to remind me of a great holiday. 


Koker Boom by Conrad Nagel Theys


Still, Rothkos and Pollocks have one advantage apart from paying school fees: they can be hung upside down or turned to the right or left for a bit of variety, so we can see idiocy and meaninglessness in four different ways. Or am I just obtuse?


[1] In The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2011)

[2] She now serves food in a Brooklyn diner

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