The Re-assignment of Tracey's Knickers
I got into the business of fine art re-assignment by accident rather than design. I was in a public library reading up the history of wood marquetry. I like the patterns, you see. I like periodic patterns. I find them restful. Lack of symmetry I find disturbing. However, that is not the point. As a young reader I read books no one else borrowed, and decided to reassign them to my own collection. I knew that property was theft and reassignment the redistribution of wealth. You will be interested to learn, I think, that there is no significant connection between wealth and IQ. The rich may be the cream of society and very thick. Ergo if one is poor and bright a little reassignment is necessary. It is self-help. I cannot say that a little became a lot, but it did become a habit. People with higher IQs often get into more financial difficulty than others, you know, and that was my situation. However, I solved the IQ/wealth equation by turning casual reassignment into a solid business model. I did not need to be born in Vienna and go to Chicago to learn how. I was also active from the early Thatcher years when entrepreneurs were better understood. I say, "understood", but no one really knew what I was up to. A good re-assigner like a successful Swiss banker operates strictly in private. We have much the same customer base. So while most people in the art business work en pleine air, as consultants or appraisers, we re-assigners work in chiaroscuro.
Now provenance, while important to appraisers is what one might describe as "pathologically" essential to our business. My clients, you see, are often compulsive-obsessive. There is an interesting book by Philipp Blom about collectors and collecting. I suggest you read it. Aside from Blom you might try Eric Hebborn's "Art forger's handbook". He gives a nice overview of the market last century when both fine artists and re-assigners, or their fabricators, needed technical ability. They had to be blessed in that way because their modus operandi was imitation of genuine talent. But the market changed. Reputation became brand. The art object was of lesser, or no importance. On the other hand, its provenance was super-important. A doodle by Dali of good provenance was worth immeasurably more than a million doodles by another venal, paranoid psychotic.
After a successful career - although I do say it myself – I retired to Tuscany with a small art collection of my own and alternated for a few months between cocaine and lost ambition, before deciding to write down the details of my last and most successful case. The desire for a small patch of posthumous sunlight is a vice for those of us who succeed in vivo in shadow.
But before we get to the re-assignment of Tracey Emin's knickers, let me fill you in on the art scene at the time. I am not an historian, but a few facts are useful. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp – professional historians will argue the point – the spectator became as important as the artist. The object as trace of the art act was less important with regard to technical brilliance than its capacity to draw attention to itself and create opinion. Finally, of course, and now we are talking about the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of this, a successful artist might have no technical skill at all so long as he or she could generate twitter. The actual objects were, if necessary, made by contract fabricators. And in certain cases fabrication itself was replaced by selection. How did that work? Well an artist chose to objectify something, an unmade bed for example, and the audience encouraged by style makers then perceived that bed as so many tweets. Furthermore, the less they agreed about it the better the work of art. I am not sure why, but I am a re-assigner not a philosopher. One more thing: at the turn of the century, short tandem repeat kits for DNA analysis were introduced. That is all you need to know for the moment.
At the time, I was on my way back through Switzerland. It was cold. It was the beginning of the year. There was, I recall, another banking scandal: Hong Kong Shanghai Bank this time: the usual malarkey: big bonuses and no oversight. But of more importance to my case, Tracey Emin's masterpiece, My Bed, had recently changed hands at auction for a substantial sum. As someone wrote: "her mess is our post-modern metaphor". Perhaps I wrote it myself, but I am not sure I agree with it. I am a tidy person. It is necessary in my line of business. It goes back to the marquetry. However, the hedge fund market was just getting into its stride at the time and one needs not a few style makers to hedge the professional reputation of a successful artist.
For professional reasons I was travelling through Switzerland, cash-only, by train and taxi with no electronic devices about my person. And the request for help in reassigning Tracey's knickers had to wait for a reply until I visited an internet cafe in Basel. At the time I was on another case to re-assign a can of Piero Manzoni's faeces. The artist produced a limited edition of ninety cans in 1961. My re-assignment fabricator, a new one, had his workshop near Basel.
We shook hands, drank a glass of wine together, then he showed me the Manzoni. I used cotton gloves to examine it. It was an interesting piece. The cans cannot be opened, of course. For a re-assigner that means what is in the can is less important than what is on the can. The signature, the type of steel, the printing ink, the label, the paper, and of course the provenance must all be perceived as genuine. Over the years, I reckon I have perceived more than 180 genuine Manzonis. People do not usually show them in public, you see. Unfortunately, one did go on show in a retrospective somewhere, was mishandled and leaked. Fortunately no one thought to verify the DNA because a friendly Welsh Corgi had provided it. Now I think of it there is an interesting paper on DNA typing from faeces. When was it published? I cannot remember. It is the sort of thing one needs to know in my business. Following the Welsh Corgi leak I changed fabricator, of course. His contract came to an end and he died in a motor accident shortly afterwards. I always found the Russians very helpful in that way. However, the new fabricator had done a really fine job, and I had passed the Manzoni paperwork through a number of collectors and auction houses. The bottom line was 9000 Euros excluding the vodka emolument, and the premium just short of 130,000. A modest gain, but major pieces in the millions attract overmuch scrutiny. With that particular can of faeces, I remember, I included a nice article by a noted Marxist critic about commodity fetishism. Perhaps I wrote it myself. Most collectors like to know what to say about the work they own. They like to impart a few well-chosen words while mixing their own martinis. High net worth individuals can be surprisingly hands-on.
Reassignment of Tracey Emin's knickers would, I knew from the start, attract very close scrutiny. To begin with, they were part of her My Bed ensemble. They were biologically stained, and stains can be lifted and analyzed for DNA. To further complicate matters my client, for whom the stains were the attraction, was not only a collector of biological bibelots, but also a forensics wonk. She owned a medical testing facility in – well never mind where. It was going to be my toughest re-assignment. My only hope, I decided, was to remove the real knickers from the ensemble, re-assign them with their genuine DNA to my client, and replace them with a similar pair. I say "similar", but they needed to be identical aside from the DNA content. How? They were the best-documented pair of knickers in the world. Furthermore, they were inexpensive knickers and that made them more difficult to copy, but more of that later.
Gesualdo da Poco Prezzo, or Doctor Psycho, was neither a doctor nor an Italian. He was really a performance artist from Australia. The doctorate was borrowed from DC comics. A large man, his professional shtick, often featuring his own genitals, was re-arranging the work of other artists. After a brief and distinguished career as a classical actor his mind had turned a corner and he now survived on cigarettes and atypical antipsychotic medication. Occasionally the old Shakespearean would re-emerge in a bold quotation, but overall his new persona was in the saddle and often difficult to determine. He came to celebrity as a performance artist with "Fountain", when he urinated over a couple of works at an exhibition of the Royal Society of Watercolorist. However, excoriated by the Murdoch press, excused by psychiatric professionals and loathed by most, his career as a performance artist was assured if not meteoric. He was too unstable to tout at the Venice Biennale or Basel Art Miami because he was genuinely rather than decoratively mad. In other words he was exactly what I needed, although he must have no notion of his role in the re-assignment of Tracey's knickers.
St Martin's School of Art, London, now joined with other institutions had, in its glory days, a number of noted fabricators. I can think of three who specialized only in undergarments. They usually worked with defamation lawyers. At the beginning of this century there was a lucrative market in libel in London. You may recall the case of the Honorable R's jockey panties, in which the defendant denied all intimate knowledge of the transgender Miss X. Both prosecutor's brief and the defendant's briefs, the latter surprisingly produced in court with corroborative DNA evidence, were superb fabrications. You will not wonder why a lawyer would go to so much trouble, but may ask yourself why a creative artist would follow perfidious suit. It is a complex question. Fabricators are well paid, of course, and the emoluments are tax free, but they are not over rewarded. For my own part, I think it has more to do with artistic challenge than money. However, the fabricator of those infamous jockey panties – so well made, so carefully distressed and so intimately stained – was now long dead: a coronary event on a cruise and not a contract arrangement, by the way. And the skill, alas, that once sustained St. Martin's reputation in the field of forensic undergarments, was no more. After much soul-searching I was constrained, therefore, to try instead the Royal College of Art.
My Bed was on extended loan to the Tate Gallery, London. I visited a number of times in my capacity as an art scribbler with an interest in post-modern masterpieces. I got to know the attendants who sat, day in, day out, gazing with celestial detachment upon that brilliant ensemble of the "detritus of a sluttish oeuvre". I don't think I wrote that: I was working up an article and reading around the subject. "Cast adrift in the raging something of a tortured something..." Emin's masterpiece was increasing in capital value, I calculated, at the rate of about 5-10% per annum, adjusted for inflation. The individual value of the knickers as part of the ensemble was incalculable, but they were I noticed relatively inaccessible. Unobserved by an attendant a deft thief might seize the pantyhose, albeit memorialized on CCTV. In our business closed circuit surveillance is always a problem.
We met in the Genesis Cinema on the Mile End Road. I disguised myself as metrosexual passé with owl-like spectacles and a Joseph Beuys homburg of grease-stained, felt. My companion, on the other hand, looked perfectly extraordinary. A packet of peanuts and twenty minutes later he assured me he had the means to temporarily disconnect the CCTV in the room in question. I did not enquire how. In my line of business we respect each other's professional secrets and pay a handsome price if we prove untrustworthy. Traffic accidents are not the only fruit of error and ingenuity.
Winter passed into spring, and then into early summer, but still no knickers. I began to have second thoughts about the Royal College of Art. In the meantime I was working on the case of the missing Andy Warhol time capsule. Warhol left 600 plus boxes full of stuff. He was a lover of stuff: everything from acne medication to discarded photographs and letters. I recommend the online view of time capsule 21 if you are unfamiliar with the genre. Our own re-assignment consisted of a missing capsule from around the time of Warhol's attempted murder by Valerie Solanas. A radical feminist who promoted the elimination of the male sex, she shot Warhol – as a quasi representative of that group – on June 3rd, 1968. Warhol began his time capsule collection in the early 1960s. It was rumored a capsule went missing around the time of the Solanas' shooting. Radical psychotics and rumour, are a re-assigner's best friends. Collectors are readily prepared to believe in the existence of a missing work of art when it involves both a nutcase and a falsehood. My fabricator for the missing capsule was New York based and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sort of trivia that interested Warhol. You need to realize that the making of such a revered relic is extremely difficult. It must contain no fingerprints, or human DNA not consistent with Warhol himself. Finding and including the objects is the easy part. They are after all trivial, although they must be of the period. And only a few of the capsules contain biological items of fine art value such as used condoms, or Keith Haring's underpants. But the whole thing has to be assembled on a biologically clean bench under sterile conditions. To add authenticity we included a piece of gum once chewed by Warhol, and presented to a busboy on a menu. This contained verifiable, mitochondrial DNA. It is the sort of fine art flourish that one needs in my business. Discovery of the missing time capsule was coupled with a book deal with movie rights. It is not everyday someone re-discovers the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel in a cardboard box. This is the only time I have worked with a media don – not to be confused with a ghost writer. The latter is a talented hack hired to actually write a book as part of the deal: think, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. The don conceives, contracts, hires and produces the whole show. He hires the celebrity who nominally writes the book authored by the hack. And that's just for starters because a separate syndicate manages the movie rights. The celeb and the hack both sign agreements of non-disclosure. The celeb does the personal promotion. Both are reunited at their funeral. One coffin will do. I have only done the one deal because collateral bereavement is frequent.
Come the day, the Tate was very crowded. I noticed one or two fellow art critics in the crowd. There was a rumour that the artist herself might appear for some promotional reason. I nodded in the direction of the attendants. I was a familiar by then. There was that sense of awe that attends any great work of art. Everything was pretty much in place I noticed, and I stood captivated by the magisterial beauty of the work, although my inner eye ogled only the knickers. In my other pocket I felt their facsimile in a tamper evident bag. The key was to recover the originals and get the replacements on site without touching the replacements. Wearing latex gloves in the Tate would inevitably cause suspicion, and I was a familiar face. I would need to tip and arrange them within thirty seconds of the event. Would Gesualdo da Poco Prezzo aka Doctor Psycho do his bit?
About the replacement knickers: the only way to gain sufficient data for their fabrication was to photograph them, and my fabricator from the Royal College of Art had difficulty in doing this. It had to be accomplished using a covert micro camera over a number of visits. Should the theft be revealed, anyone visiting the bed on a regular basis would, if the CCTV footage were intact, be at risk. I had my own alibi, of course, as an art critic writing for a respectable journal, and I advised my RCA contact to register for a PhD on late twentieth century art. That way he or she would have a handsome alibi for scrutinizing the Emin masterpiece a fair number of times. I also had a word with a behavioral psychologist about what we call in the business the ETB Effekt. The description "eye of the beholder" is commonplace, but art psychologists stretch it to signify the process of perceiving especial value in mundane items like knickers. Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaners encased in perspex represents the most brilliant artistic manipulation of the ETB Effect. However, it does raise problems for those of us in the re-assignment business. Let me explain. Common sense will suggest that one vacuum cleaner is pretty much like another, but this is not so. A vacuum cleaner on exhibition in MoMa acquires a significant number of artistic peculiarities. Now if Tracey Emin's knickers appear mundane to a "reasonable person", as we understand that phrase in common law, those same knickers look extraordinary to a person trained in Duchampian exceptionalism. I am not a psychologist, I don't know, but I do know that the ETB Effekt is very important to my clients. They do not want a vacuum cleaner in a perspex box, they want THE vacuum cleaner in THE perspex box. Therefore, my final and most difficult case did not rest upon the deft replacement of one pair of knickers with another, but with the substitution of Tracey's knickers with another pair, however humble, deeply reminiscent of her fundamental, artistic sentiments. This was a most delicate matter to manage. Fortunately the fabricator did manage it.
Come the day, the Tate was highly crowded. I nodded in an amiable manner in the direction of the now familiar guardians of high art. One was already dozing off: familiarity with great works of art does not inure one to their real meaning. A large bum is a fat arse even if it is Rubenesque and surrounded by pudgy airbourne perversions of natural childhood. The congregation was as usual hushed and pensive. Occasionally a Moses would stretch forth a hand and cause the sea of calm to part with the odd remark about pantyhose or fluffy toy, but otherwise it was calm and unruffled. Modern Philistines, or ancient Egyptians, I don't want to be too picky, enter not the Temple of Post-modern Light. I checked my watch. The cameras would shut down in about a minute, providing a window of five, but still there was no sign of Dr. Psycho. Perhaps I had made a mistake in choosing him, although there was no one else with his performance credentials and psychoactive élan. There then occurred a murmuration. Perhaps "perturbation" is a better word. By the way, the better word has an interesting meaning in mathematics because it refers to an approximate solution to a problem. Well never mind the maths. There was a perturbation of the waters. The sea parted. Enter – all aflame in his underpants – Dr. Psycho. And his previous persona was alight with a line from Henry V: "Pistol's cock is up, and flashing fire will follow". Well not quite fire, or brimstone, but certainly there followed alarums and excursions. The Pharaoh, aka Dr. Psycho, drew nigh. He leaped from his proverbial chariot onto Tracy Emin's bed, seized a pillow and began whirling it about his head. Now Moses stretched forth his hand, and the assembled illuminati, nicely liberated from the tyranny of the style makers, seized upon the bed and "rent asunder its sluttish entrails". I quote from a contemporary rightwing blog. However, it was at this point that I reassigned the knickers and the good Lord conveyed Dr. Psycho to a welcome, posthumous life of infamy. A cracked skull, a subdural haematoma and a subsequent coma assured him of a cozy spot in history. Recorded on many an iPhone his art for art's sake went viral with an approving afterword from Tracy herself who arrived, in obedience to the rumour, not a minute too soon – with camera crew in tow – to applaud Dr. Psycho's "critical re-assessment" of her work. Fortunately, no one pointed a camera in my direction and my CCTV contact gave me six and not five minutes. In later re-arranging the bed and stock taking its items, I was very pleased to see Ms. Emin identified my knickers as her very own. In my business the wages of successful reassignment is absent praise.
Wilf Tilley is a neurophysiologist, artist and writer living and working in Tokyo.
The Ekphrastic Review
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