The consistently low quality of art collections in Portugal is surprising given her fabulous past

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

One very remarkable aspect of life in Portugal is the low quality of art in her museums, her galleries, and her private collections.  This once metropolis of a globe-spanning commercial empire, and later fabulously rich owner of goldmines of Brazil (Joao V stopped summoning the cortez (parliament) because he did not need a penny in local taxes to support his lavish spending), so proud of her discovery of the world, has imported very little in terms of worthwhile art.  Unlike other empires — Spain, France, the UK, Russia — who have collected art on a massive scale, Portugal really has very little to show for her glorious past artistically.  What is there is poor (the “Sino-portuguese” pottery so prominent everywhere is rather poor quality “export porcelain”); or recent gifts (the Namban biombos (screens) at the Arte Antiga are a recent a gift from a Japanese collector); or imported collections (Gulbenkian).

It’s perfectly in keeping with the general lack of curiosity about the outside world which seems to characterize the whole nation.

Compare that to Poland — never a colonial empire, or much of an empire at all — whose collections over the last two centuries have been bombed, burnt, and stolen by foreign invaders — stolen on a massive, programmatic scale — and there is more and better art to be seen there, surviving all those cataclysms, than here where no such cataclysms have taken place.

Prices are high, perhaps reflecting more than just Portugal’s inclusion in the European market — after all, antique furniture — consistently better quality than her art — is about half the price of Paris or London.  Art prices are especially unreasonably high given the quality of what is on offer (with the possible exceptions of Indian and Lankan ivories which are good and plentiful) and perhaps reflect investors’ worry about the prospects of their currency (“panic investments”).

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