Art Review: Rembrandt sold, half-off, with his arms akimbo

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The auction featured a number of signed lithographs, a few unknown originals and a few known. Artists Dali, Cezanne, Miro, Renoir, Peter Max,

Norman Rockwell, Remington, Erte and several others, not to mention several hand crafted, heirloom furniture pieces and innumerable fine Persian, Agora, and Azerbaijan rugs, some of them hundreds of years old.

Among the killings: a queen-sized, hand-carved, solid mahogany sleigh bed. Selling price? $700. Let me spell that out for you:

S-E-V-E-N. H-U-N-D-R-E-D. D-O-L-L-A-R-S.

I’ll be honest. I don’t quite know how to explain what I felt when I watched the John Williams, the auctioneer, sell that rich mahogany treasure for about the same price as a JC Penney sleigh bed. Of course, I don’t want to fault the man. He is not a demon. In fact, I had the opportunity to speak to him for quite awhile after the auction closed, and I got the impression that he was an honest fellow. But the scene this afternoon was reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. Over and over, beautiful pieces, their historicity and cultural relevance ignored, sold for pennies on the dollar.

Was it the audience? Is it the economy?

One South Atlantic employee explains, "The originals go for millions. But, a signed lithograph should go for $10,000 and up. But, with this economy, they go for less."

But still, I wonder if it's us — our value system, our “need” to get a “good deal” — a term that I overheard one purchaser use as he left the room with his credit card receipt? Should I be horrified, or is this how it should be?

Most of the people I know, including myself, are working artists of one kind or another, so it’s not surprising that I should want to talk to them about my experience this afternoon. One in particular, whose opinion I take very seriously, put forth the idea that perhaps it is a good thing for these works to have become more “affordable.” While I agree that art should be accessible to the masses as opposed to a privileged few, I’m not exactly sure that that’s what was going on. To demonstrate my point, let me share with you some of the auctioneer’s actual utterances during the proceedings:

“A thousand? My speech was worth more than that.”

“That’s the price of only this corner, folks.”

“Stolen, at three hundred dollars.”

“You’re really making me work for this.”

And my personal favorite: “That’s a shame.”

Economic or ethical, this is definitely (pardon the cliché) a sign of the times. While arts in our public schools are taken out of the classroom and reduced to half-hour art-on-a-cart exposure activities, Rembrandts are selling at auction for zilch. I have to wonder if the audience members even knew what they were buying. And, if so, I am curious to know what they were thinking when they started the bidding at a thousand dollars.

I watched an original Rembrandt painting sell for $3,000 on Sunday afternoon. Four years ago, it sold at auction for $23 million. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

You might wonder where I saw this, and the many other similar proceedings I had the privilege of witnessing yesterday. I happened to attend an art and furnishings auction, held at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in downtown St. Petersburg, and hosted by South Atlantic Auctions, of Eustis, an affiliate of Mid-Atlantic Auctions, based in Delaware. The viewing opened at 1 p.m. in the Palms Ballroom and ended at 4 p.m.

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