Article: Banking and The Art World

Posted: 2012/11/15 in Articles, Just for Fun
November/December 2012
Rachel Cohen

Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering

Representations of Value, or The Unexpected Double History of Banking and The Art World

Discussed: Shadowy Holding Companies, The Questionable Ontology of Finance Itself, Very Public Vanitas, Financiers’ Tastes, A Whole New Shark, Begetting the Federal Reserve, Tiny Areas of Color, Vast Amounts of Liquidity, An Unexpected Madonna, Duccio’s Compatriots, Double-Entry Bookkeeping, Leaves Blowing in the Wind

“…In the Gilded Age, many of the banks that have recently played important and devastating roles in our financial life—Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers—were guided by men who had a passion for painting. J. P. Morgan’s collection was legendary. Paul Sachs, an early partner at the family firm, left banking to become a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, and to found the program in curatorial studies at Harvard. Robert Lehman and his father, Philip Lehman, each of whom ran Lehman Brothers, together assembled one of the great collections of Florentine and Sienese art outside Italy. Even the bank established to bail these other banks out, the Federal Reserve, had at its inception Paul Warburg. Warburg, often referred to as the “father” of the Federal Reserve, was the brother of Aby Warburg, one of the greatest scholars of the Italian Renaissance…”

“…For as long as artists have made a living from their art, even if a meager one, some version of the art market has been negotiated between people with power and people with artistic talents. But in each era, what was held to be valuable was different. Though the art market has always measured value, that value was not always expressed in exclusively financial terms. Take, for example, fifteenth-century Florence, where the Medici banking family held sway. At that time, bankers worked in long-term partnerships with one another, and painters had workshops that were passed down from master to apprentice. Ongoing relationships with men of standing were very valuable. The exchange between, say, Lorenzo the Magnificent and Botticelli took the form of an enduring patronage relationship with large-scale commissions for churches and palazzi. Much of the value exchanged was not monetary but religious or reputational. Both the banker and the painter were understood to be more pious and significant men as a result of their relationship..”

-excerpts from article “BelieverArt Issue 94 at

  1. Charity says:

    Yet the Italian Renaissance collector-donor was looked badly upon by the Church for usuries, and they or their families were terrified about going to hell. Punished by the Church and not allowed to take sacraments, collectors would commission works, not just paintings, but buildings as well, to buy their way into God’s graces, to get into Heaven. They also had pride in their new Italian city-states, and town centers with courtyards would have great public art works commissioned.

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