WOID XIX-11. Officer, book this art critic!

Friday, May 16, 2008 1:08 pm

My heart sank when I read that Roxanna Brown had died this Wednesday in a Seattle jail cell. Brown was the Director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum in Bangkok, a sixty-two year old scholar who’d come to lecture in America and was busted on charges of wire fraud.

Okay, I’m a callous beast, because my heart sank for all the wrong reasons: When I heard Brown had been charged with inflating the value of Southeast Asian ceramics in collusion with American dealers and curators my first reaction was: “There goes the market for fifteenth-century Sawankhelok export ware.” It turned out Brown and her co-conspirators were involved in hiking up the price of ceramics from Ban Chiang and Myanmar instead – what a relief!

Okay, not. Brown was co-busted by the IRS and the National Parks Service, with those not-nice guys from ICE on the sidelines. And for crying out loud, the lady was supposedly in a wheelchair and complaining she wasn’t feeling well when she was arrested. Then again, as the gravedigger said, "If you listened to each of them there wouldn’t be a dead one among them." If you listened to all of Roxanna Brown’s enablers you’d think the art world was full of angels. Still, it’s sad that Brown took the fall when there are hundreds of critics, art historians, gallery owners auctioneers and economists who for decades have been playing at wildly inflating the price of art. Not its value: its price.


You'd never know it reading all the artpimps - does anybody read them? You can read it between the lines of Carol Vogel's reporting on the auction scene in the New York Times: there are two sides to the art world. One's the side where artworks sell for millions of gazillions of dollars, and the other's the one where you can still pick up a nice Ming celadon in the very low hundreds, or less if you're smart and lucky. There's that world of breathless glamor we read about, and then there's the nice old man who's been selling pre-Columbian artifacts at reasonable prices for forty years, now, and some day he'll have the piece I want. Of course I'd better know a thing about ceramics because I'm going to want to live with that piece for a long, long time after I've bought it.

And this is how I want to remember Roxanna Brown: less than three years ago she lectured at UCLA on her area of specialization, which happens to be the Ceramics trade in Southeast Asia between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Chinese weren't particularly interested in exporting at that time, so local Thai and Vietnamese producers were making up for the slack; and because a good deal of it was ferried around by boat, today large numbers of ceramics are being recovered from the sea and river-beds. It's not "great" art but it's very attractive, and original in a derivative kind of way, and if nobody gets greedy there's going to be a lot of it around in junk-shops, antique stores and auction houses. Roxanna Brown is shown posing with what looks like several hundred bowls and they all look pretty much the same unless you enjoy looking at them closely, which I wouldn't mind doing at all, at all.

So I don't care if Brown was "guilty" by law, I want to know why, when, and if she went over to the Dark Side. This is the side of the art market that sees "opportunities" everywhere: Myanmar is closed to the outside world? Great, a restricted market! Ban Chiang is protected by Unesco? Good selling point! And then there are all the other ways of hiking the value of artworks, like breathlessly reporting on the astronomical prices of a handful of "major works" at auction while conveniently ignoring the many not-so-major works that stagnate. Or, if you're an auction house, you can simply cut down on your auctions of "not-major works," because that's not where the money is, and because that's not where the money is you can make a willing world believe that the only real art is the art you sell, the art that sells. If you're an economist like Michael Moses you can build an economic model of the art world and its unfailingly rising prices, based exclusively on prices reported by auction houses. Moses recently admitted he had "No idea what the non-auction market is doing, since there's no transparency of prices," which is only half of an explanation since he probably has no idea what the auction market's doing, either, though it's nice to have someone admit there is a "non-auction market" after all. But why should I care? If Roxanna Brown wastes her time and her life going for the greenbacks it's a loss to scholarship. With the critics and the auctioneers and the economists - who cares? Perhaps I should develop a taste for soap sculptures by convicts, a neglected field that's sure to expand. But then, if the critics and economists and the auction-house hustlers had an eye for art they wouldn't have to be doing what they're doing to begin with.