What makes some works of art rare?
Rarity does not necessarily confer quality, but it always adds intrigue. It’s a propellant force in the value of art – a somewhat ambiguous quality that exists in relation to other factors.
When talking about art, rarity can be discerned in four forms: limited volume; rare to market; unusual subject or medium; and an unexpected idiosyncrasy. Limited volume is self-explanatory – something is rare when not many of its kind exist. Rare to market refers to works of art which rarely surface on the market. An edition may be sold out, and those lucky enough to own impressions are holding tight.
Unusual subject or medium speaks from within a more limited context, perhaps a movement or artist’s oeuvre. An unexpected quirk is even more narrow in its scope – a print run where just one impression is green? A Rothko owned by the Rockefellers? Rare.
As stated however, rarity is not desirability ipso facto. It’s a force that alongside other factors, uplifts the story of a work of art, its mythology, aura and connection to you.
A Rare Window
While the story behind Margit Pogany’s ‘Untitled (Two Trees)’ has a universal resonance, it’s a remarkably rare articulation.
An artist and Holocaust survivor, Pogany was one of the twentieth century’s most famous muses. She inspired her lover, Constantin Brancusi, to spend twenty years creating nineteen iterations of her form. The fruits of this, all entitled ‘Mademoiselle Pogany’, starkly departed from conventional portraiture. In 1948, Pogany fled Europe to settle in Australia where she resided until her death.
Pogany and Brancusi’s tale of love and creative obsession, intervened by two world wars, is echoed in this painting. In the milky Australian sky, two nimble trees sway together. It is remarkable that this image has survived seven decades, and more remarkable yet for the insight it offers us. ‘Untitled (Two Trees)’ is a portal into the artistic lives and loves of two hugely significant figures, a rare window into a receding history.
Charles Blackman was a prolific artist. He particularly relished printmaking, using the medium to traverse wide-ranging subjects, styles and techniques. In this cornucopia of creation, there are oddities, serendipities, winks in time, diversions off the beaten track.
‘Dancing Alice’ is one such serendipity. Despite being an etching, it's likely the only image of its kind – an experimentation which for some mysterious reason, never made it into an official edition. It features two of Blackman’s most iconic motifs – Alice, presented here as a schoolgirl, and a cat. The symbol for innocence, Alice, waltzes with a creature in control of her domain. The prone and powerful meet in an ultramarine caper.
When it comes to art, it can pay not to hesitate. An artist’s output is finite, as are limited editions. For an oil painter like Evan Mackley, who passed in 2019, the works that survive him are necessarily fixed. Each sumptuous painting is the only of its kind, a gesture of legacy that relies on collectors to endure.
John Olsen’s hugely popular ‘Giraffe and Balloon’ and ‘Giraffe and Balloons II’ prints are also near their end. We only have one of each remaining, framed and gleaming golden. Out on an art safari, to spot Olsen’s giraffes is an increasingly rare delight.
An art market expert once described rarity as the ultimate prize. Indeed, the thrill of happening across an especially rare treasure is enough to make any collector’s heart palpitate. What, however, is perhaps a bigger thrill is uncovering your bond to that object. That’s the real rarity – so rare in fact, that it’s unique to you and the work.