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Those Rich Americans

I am bothered in so many ways by this article (L'art fait fortune à Palm Beach, February 7) by Harry Bellet in Le Monde. It is supposedly about the Palm Beach Classic, a "new antiquities market" in West Palm Beach (Florida): according to their Web site, this year is the eighth annual installment of the sale, which ended today. However, most of the piece is devoted to softcore gawking of wealthy potential clientele for this venture, across Lake Worth in the exclusive neighborhood of Palm Beach. Not only does the nexus of wealth and fine art disgust me in many ways, but the salivating over the outrageously ostentatious lifestyle of this tiny sliver of Americans reinforces the absurd stereotype of Americans as obsessed with money and status. Here is my translation of an excerpt:

In Palm Beach, you see convertible Ferraris parked with the keys left in the ignition: they are watched over by cameras installed at each intersection, on the traffic lights. The sky here is always blue. That is the reason why wealthy Americans come here to warm their rheumatism when snow is covering the rest of the United States.

When he moves into his winter house, William Koch (Bill to his friends), carries in his luggage the Botero sculptures that he cannot do without: several tons of bronze that follow him in his travels and come to winter on the lawns of this garden that, stretching out on each side of his very large house, covers the whole width of the island. Botero is one of his friends: the Colombian artist even dedicated to him a portrait, representing Bill dressed as a chubby little sailor, holding a miniature sailboat model under his arm.

In his cellar, Bill has dozens more: all the boats that have won the America's Cup since its inception are lined up as models in glass cases. The one from 1992 is his, a boat using revolutionary technology (Le Monde, May 19, 1992). He had his Boteros transported to the lawn of the house he rented then, by the San Diego Yacht Club. Bill is a passionate sailor and collector. He also likes good wine: his cave holds around 35,000 bottles of the best vineyards and requires twenty employees. At the entrance, a touchscreen computer allows you to choose a vintage and to find the bottle thanks to a detailed map. At the back, in an alcove, there are a half-dozen rarities behind a gate: Château Lafite 1737, brought back by Thomas Jefferson from his ambassadorship in France.
What does any of this have to do with an antiquities market or just with art in general? Well, the rest of the article does examine what Bill Koch and some other collectors buy for their homes. I am always disturbed when Europeans believe that this sort of story represents a large part, or even the majority, of the American population. When talking with people in Europe, I often have to make clear that the average American (someone like me) has a lifestyle remarkably similar to that of the average European. Often, especially when an American is traveling in Europe, the assumption is that you must be wealthy.

Lest we think that this sort of voyeurism is a European phenomenon, the sale and Mr. Koch were also covered in an article (Everything Is Hardly Enough, February 5) by Christopher Mason in the New York Times. At least there, it's in the Home and Garden section, instead of the Culture section. (There are even pictures of Mr. Koch's house in the much more detailed write-up by Julie Carlson (Bordeaux, Boats and Botero: The Passions of Collector William Koch, February 4) in Antiques and Fine Art.) I am all for rich people spending money on art, especially when the money goes to artists, but if you want to be thoroughly depressed about how too much money ruins art by making it elitist and inaccessible, read Souren Melikian's report (Time to sell in a hot market, February 7) on recent art auctions in the International Herald Tribune.

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