Art's new issue: integrity

IN recent years the art issues that Americans have thought about have generally been artistic style, quality, and price. Now there is a new one: integrity. The issue arose with the admission by a major international auction house, Christie's, that on one occasion it had lied about painting sales by announcing that three major works had been sold whereas only one actually had. The evident purpose of the untruth was to keep art prices from falling by making some art appear more salable than it actually was.

Some persons in the art world long have suspected that some art sellers employ tactics of dubious ethics to keep sales prices high. They believe that some firms have employees, acquaintances, or the seller bid against the would-be purchaser of a piece of art, although they have no intention of purchasing it.

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is investigating art-auction houses in its city; it is trying to find out whether such conduct exists.

Underlying the whole issue is the important role of art auction houses in establishing the value of individual paintings and in causing the works of individual artists to be sought after. Many collectors depend heavily on experts at art galleries and auction houses to evaluate the worth of paintings and other works of art.

Organizations that sell art have the only tangible records of monetary value: They can point to the precise prices paid for individual works or for those by specific artists. These prices often become the principal measure of the worth of the art, or the artist.

It would be one thing if prices always were determined by the bidding of artistically knowledgeable individuals without any dubious efforts to ensure artificially high prices. We presume that the vast majority of art dealers are scrupulously honest; but there is suspicion in the art world that some dealers use improper tactics fairly often to inflate prices.

Art once was thought of as artistic truth, as seen by the artist and painted or carved. Integrity was assumed.

That perspective need not have disappeared permanently. It is time to restore unquestioned integrity to the fine arts. Dealers, auction houses, galleries, appraisers, collectors, and other prospective purchasers all have a responsibility. Art once again should be appreciated primarily for its visual value to the viewer, not its financial worth to its owner's ledger.

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