Who has time to read anymore? In the fast-paced auction business, we still manage to snatch a few minutes to curl up with a good book or check out an interesting film. Antiques appraisers, auctioneers and everyone else here at Skinner wanted to share our favorite fiction, nonfiction, and movies from the past year with you. Plus, if you’ve got an antique lover or art history buff in your life, these art, antiques & auction-themed books and movies could make some great last-minute holiday gifts.
#1 Bright Star directed by Jane Campion
How do you compete with the romantic poetry of John Keats? Don’t even try. Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion depicts the love affair between John Keats and “spunky fashionista” Fanny Brawne. Steamy, sure, but the rooms! Museum period rooms tend to be jammed with iconic objects, but Campion adopts a “less is more” approach with spare but luscious rooms. Fanny’s clothes, too, share an authentic simplicity. An accomplished seamstress, she was, nonetheless, an amateur. Campion’s restrained spaces, fabrics, and textures provide a rich support for the romantic dialogue between Keats and Brawne.
#2 Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny by A.S Byatt
A book that is as gorgeous as its subject matter, Peacock and Vine highlights unexpected parallels between the inspirations and innovations of Morris and Fortuny. Liberally sprinkled with illustrations as all good art books ought to be, it is also filled with extracts from letters so that it is easy to hear the voice of each designer while seeing their vision. Byatt makes interesting connections and imparts information in an anecdotal way, making this succinct little book a highly enjoyable read.
#3 Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated from Russian by Lisa Hayden)
This book was read for a Russian Contemporary Literature book club which I attend regularly. I would consider this literary genre Magic Realism which offers a glimpse into the ‘Russian Soul’ and Russian culture at a time when the plague was at its peak in Russia. The story and it’s tragic hero/healer call on the reader to question their perception of time, spirituality, nature, and the human condition. It’s like ‘The Odyssey,’ but a contemporary Russian version packaged beautifully in themes of good vs. evil, language, meaning, the Russian Holy Fool, symbolism in Nature, and love.
#4 Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
Fiction pick by Samantha Minshull, Appraisal & Auction Services
Susan Vreeland is a great fiction writer, and Girl in Hyacinth Blue is one of her best works. Each chapter brings you further back in time and across the world as it traces the ownership of a single painting from the current day back to its creation. Each chapter is masterful in its way of creating a deep connection between the painting and its various owners, and we, as the reader, form our own connections to them as well. What I love about this story is not just the apparent message of art’s impact on our lives, but the underlying truth that objects carry meaning, and their passage through time links us together. To own an object of beauty that has also given beauty to others in another time and place provides me with a sense of connection and belonging that can be difficult to find in the modern world of uninteresting and throw-away décor. It’s a beautifully written book that, I think, reminds us of the power of history.
#5 The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu
An elusive and mysterious collection of Imperial Chinese Porcelain is at the heart of this memoir. The American Born Chinese author weaves a narrative uncovering his family background across continents and cultures, and weaves-in politics, war, and intrigue in his hunt for his ancestry. I found the book engaging, and enjoyed the adventurous journey as an armchair traveler into modern-day China in pursuit of treasure.
#6 Brillo Box (3¢ Off)
My pick is Brillo Box (3¢ Off), an entertaining and personal tale tracing the provenance of a Warhol sculpture from the $1000 purchase by the filmmaker’s parents in 1969 to its 2010 appearance at Christie’s New York, where it fetched upwards of $2.5 million. The concise 40-minute film offers a fascinating insight into Warhol’s work and the market for modern and contemporary art in general.
#7 The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities by Richard Lyman Bushman
This book discusses the rise of an American genteel class in the 18th century that in turn led to a whole new consumer culture. It’s kind of academic, but well-written and fascinating for anyone interested in early American material culture. I must confess that my husband the history professor made me read it—and I did like it.
#8 Mr. Turner (2014)
Timothy Spall’s performance as the brilliant, irascible J.W.M. turner anchors director Mike Leigh’s biography of one of England’s greatest painters. Highlights include the artist’s last minute touch-ups of a seascape on varnishing day, Joshua McGuire’s starstruck portrayal of a young John Ruskin, and Turner’s bemusement while sitting for a photograph. A deliberate pace and arresting cinematography make this an engaging and rewarding film.
#9 The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
What is beauty? What happens when it is lost? How are you able to retrieve it, and if you do, how can you keep hold of it? This rich debut novel tackles all of these questions. The Gargoyle is about an unnamed narrator who has his physical looks taken from him in a horrific fiery car crash. Recovering in the hospital, the narrator meets a sculptor who weaves him fantastical tales of past lives and loves that the two have shared. Mixing truth with fiction, reality with fantasy; Davidson takes us through a gauntlet of emotions, and show what it means to overcome and learn from the past.
#10 The French Blue by Richard Wise
I just finished reading this novel about the famous 17th century gem merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier and the history of the Hope Diamond, which was called the French Blue for many years. The book was fun and fascinating! You travel with Tavernier to exotic places looking for the ultimate stone… It’s the art of the deal 17th century style.
#11 Provenance: How a Con Man and Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo
This fast-paced and thrilling account tells of an artist, a con-man and the power of provenance. As the narrative unfolds, dealers, collectors, and curators are ensnared in a forger’s deception supported by manufactured provenance.
#12 Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him by Danielle Ganek
Fiction Pick by Robin Starr, Vice President | American & European Works of Art
This book walks the balance of capturing the contemporary art market with the easy-going style of a novel. The result is a snapshot of the culture of the New York art scene in the pleasure of fiction. The book begins with the wildly successful auction of a stellar contemporary painting, describing some of the players (and “non-players”) in the room, then moves back in time to tell the story of the painting’s rise from obscurity to stardom. The writing is light and pithy, making it an enjoyable vacation read.
#13 The Madness of King George directed by Nicholas Hytner
This comedy/drama delves into the circumstances surrounding George III’s dementia and his restoration to health at the end of the 18th century. Aside from being a great film, I adore the gorgeous period costumes and over-the-top hairstyles of the Georgian royal court. As you can imagine from a member of the Fine Jewelry department, I also think the wonderfully accurate jewelry is to die for! And Helen Mirren stars as Queen Charlotte. Need I say more?
#14 Exit Through the Gift Shop directed by Banksy
Documentary Pick by Kevin Rota, Accounts Receivable
This fascinating and mysterious documentary follows the path of an eccentric Frenchman from his lowly beginnings as a street art fan with a video camera to his debut as Mr. Brainwash, who takes the art world by storm. This film turns the art world on its head, making one wonder, what really makes something art? And what makes something valuable or worthy of collecting? This film really illustrates the importance of the following advice: “know what you are buying, know who you are buying it from.”
#15 Thomas Crowne Affair (1999)
This remake of the ’68 version stars the delectable Pierce Brosnan, a wealthy business thrill-seeker who steals art. He meets his match when he falls for a woman who works as a detective for an insurance company. She’s working with the authorities to find the thief. He ends up putting the missing painting (a Renoir) back to win the heart of Rene Russo and to avoid capture. Though, he steals another painting… apparently, he can’t help himself.
and a bonus…
#16 The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
History Pick by Elizabeth Haff, Specialist, American & European Works of Art
Honestly, reading this book was like eating candy, I could not get enough. McCullough tells the story of 19th century Americans who ventured to France for work, for respite, for education — both intellectual and artistic, and who flourished there. The book opens with the stories of the early physicians, especially Elizabeth Blackwell, who could not obtain an adequate education in the United States. And the story of Charles Sumner, abolitionist Massachusetts U.S. Senator, for whom Paris became the one place where he could restore his health and wellbeing after being assaulted in the Senate Chambers in 1856. Then, of course, the artists (!) including Gus St. Gaudens and Samuel Morse, each story told with such detail and warmth that one feels one is in the Louvre looking over Morse’s shoulder or in St. Gaudens’ studio trying to finish the statue of Admiral Farragut destined for Madison Square Park. McCullough relates many more stories, all engaging and interesting. I recommend this book to everyone.