I begin my exploration of Route 66 on Good Friday. The destination is Laughlin, an oasis of sin on the Colorado River. It is situated in the sliver of Nevada between Arizona and California. The radio talkback shows are in proselytizing mode. The religious connotations of this journey are thrown into stark relief as I leave the last vestiges of civilization behind me and enter the Mojave Desert.
This whole trip is a pilgrimage of sorts. If museums are the new cathedrals, the centerpieces of a town’s civic pride, then surely my journey across America has echoes of Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela. And Route 66 is as good a pilgrimage route as any. But Lourdes doesn’t have gaming floors. And nowhere on the Camino de Santiago offers a $3.49 all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet with waffles served ‘just the way you like ‘em.’
Laughlin is a side trip, an attempt to break up the monotony of the long journey between Los Angeles and Phoenix, where the next Hopper resides. There’s very little art on my mind as I lose four $20 bills in quick succession at a blackjack table at Aquarius Casino Resort. I dine at Pizza Hut Express, a few feet from retirees losing their savings on Wheel of Fortune slot machines.
Earlier in the day, as I crossed the Mojave Desert on Route 66, the peaceful surroundings inspired thoughts of a more profound nature.
What Price for Art?
Many of my preparatory conversations for this trip touched on the question of value. Curators and collectors alike are astounded by the prices which Hopper pictures are fetching these days. The latest Hopper sale raked in nearly $27 million at auction. This was none other than ‘Hotel Window’, from Steve Martin’s personal collection, which he had bought for only $9.5 million a few years earlier.
This sale came up again during my discussions with a private collector in Los Angeles who owns a Hopper painting. The extraordinary monetary value put on Hopper’s art has changed this collector’s relationship with his Hopper picture. Interestingly, it has made his relationship with the picture more private, something to be guarded from outside influence. He did not wish for me to view his Hopper in person for fear of being subjected to my opinion of its value.
There have been a flurry of private sales of Hopper’s pictures over the last decade. Many of the long-term holders of Hopper’s pictures have died. Meanwhile, many companies which held Hoppers as part of their corporate collections, including Forbes Inc. and Weil Brothers Cotton, have divested their art collections. Tracking the new owners of these pictures is difficult. As Gail Levin, the Hopper biographer, puts it, ‘Most of the current owners…are so wealthy that they no longer reveal themselves.’
This represents a loss to the art community and the general public. Many private collectors generously lend their pieces to museums and traveling exhibitions. Still, there is less chance that the public will gain access to privately held works of art. Even the Huntington Library and Art Gallery has difficulty arranging viewings of private collections.
Hopper was a quintessentially private painter. Should his pictures stay private or do they, in the words of Indiana Jones, belong in a museum?