I think about the function of museums all the time. What real purpose do they serve? The answer, of course, has to do with knowledge of the past. Or, at least I think that was the original function of museums. There might also have been an idea of presenting a picture of places that were far flung and remote to the average citizen. Is that function relevant today? I am not so sure, although perhaps it is for some museums. Certainly, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum, for example, and still have that experience, but today museums seem to want to present culture in a particular light, focusing on what they see as current and contemporary and worthy for our consideration. That is a responsibility and because it has been mishandled so many times in the past, museums are gun shy, in my opinion, about saying, “no”, even to some really strange ideas.

I just read John Banville’s novel, “The Sea”, a Mann Booker Prize winner that is a sensuous and vivid exploration of the past, specific times within the narrator’s life that he continues to try and grasp and come to terms with. Banville’s prose is poetic and painterly which heightens the confusion the narrator feels about these events. Clearly, the past needs interpretation as it can be read, and then read again, into almost any version that fits the psychological holes that need filling. Interpretation essentially becomes a function of necessity with the translation of events subtly changing. Inconvenient truths are possibly not remembered to enable the process. We don’t know nor does it matter.

As I see it, the presentation of culture, any culture but particularly contemporary culture, to a museum audience is a tricky thing. Interpretation is necessarily involved and, as in Banville’s book, we know that interpretations change. I certainly don’t mind museums trying to do this. In fact, it is a relevant point of view, but it will almost always put a museum and its mission under close scrutiny, if not today, then in the future. This judgment will be necessarily focused on what and why museums have acquired the pieces they have–they are public trusts, after all. In some cases, I am quite certain, they will seem prescient, but in others—who knows? And is there any shame in being wrong? Not really because the mere fact that a museum, particularly large established museums, takes a stab at something will, in some way, give that idea credence. To my way of thinking, it is a rather peculiar state of affairs.


The Summer Exhibition of the Olympia Fine Arts Fair used to be one of the great events in London in the month of June. Olympia would open on the first Friday in June and then the Grosvenor House Fair would open the following Wednesday. It was a time when you could do some very good business, both buying and selling. But since the close of the Grosvenor House Fair five years ago and the opening of Masterpiece, which opens at the end of June, the incentive for attending Olympia, at least from my point of view, has vastly diminished.

The primary reason is that the fairs are now too far apart in date and of the two, I would rather see what is happening at Masterpiece. Masterpiece, having those dealers at the apex of the market, is what drives the market, not Olympia. This is a great regret as I have bought many wonderful items at Olympia over the years and, I have to say, that the level of knowledge of many of the Olympia dealers is such that they often uncover great and rare items. It was a great fair for visiting Americans in many, many ways with enough items available that you could be assured of getting something quite good.

The business has changed, of course, and there is less business happening all around. But I feel that the (bad) timing of Olympia is no different than the bad timing that auction houses, particularly in New York, have as well. I know that it is difficult for the houses to have French, English, American and continental sales as they did in the past, but the goods are now so diffuse that collectors are lost among all the catalogs they receive. Somehow, there needs to be a realignment of sales so that people who wish to buy can know when the items they are interested come up for sale.

It has been said that competition helps, not hinders a market. More sales of similar goods clustered together on a regular basis will only help the market. The only auction house doing the same thing they did fifteen years ago is Doyle Galleries and that regularity is, I would assert, one of the reasons why their sales have picked up over the last year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, I suppose, feel that they have been slapped hard on the wrist for collusion and are chary of talking to each other about anything at all. I think that is a sad state of affairs although it is Olympia that I really miss, because there you were aiding and abetting the people in your own market when you bought something.