The idiosyncratic mid-life career change of Michael Montias

Not more often than once in a lifetime does it happen that a senior practitioner of a given field can move to another and revolutionize it. That was the achievement of the later Michael Montias.

In 1972 a quiet publishing event took place that not many people noticed at the time. The small art-historical publisher and bookseller DAVACO brought out a reprint of the trade edition (1905) of a German dissertation (1901) by Hanns Floerke on the art market in the Netherlands from the 15th to the 18th century. Although it was common for such reprints to be enriched with new introductions or supplements, Floerke’s book was reprinted with no changes or additions at all. The reason for this was as simple as in retrospect it is shocking: between 1905 and 1972 there was virtually no new research conducted on the art trade in the Netherlands. For three-quarters of a century, art historians were content with the findings on the subject of a German student.

Floerke’s book is a compilation of citations from 17th- and 18th-century sources and antiquarian research of the 19th century. Although it was about the art market, which after all is an economic system, his book contains no tables or charts or averages or statistics. If I am not mistaken, the first table of digested economic data concerning Dutch painting was not printed until 1978, in an article on artists in Delft by the American economist John Michael Montias (born 1928) in the English-language Dutch journal Simiolus. (At the time, I was an editor as well as publisher of Simiolus; when I designed that chart, I had no idea that I was making history.)

What brought Montias to Delft is far from a quiet event. It was nothing less than the impending collapse of the Soviet economy. “I was an expert in the economic reforms of Eastern Europe,” he told me, “specifically the interaction between institutions and the market. By the 1970s it was clear to me that the reforms were getting nowhere. I had the feeling the half-hearted moves they called reforms were making things worse rather than better. I saw no possibility for the introduction of the true open-market mechanisms that I thought would help. I found myself losing interest in my field.”

In the meanwhile, the Yale professor had begun collecting Dutch paintings, under the guidance of his colleague Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, a Dutch art historian who had moved to America. Out of curiosity he began delving into the literature on painters and when his interest in five-year plans faded he decided to apply his training to the history of Dutch art. His first plan for doing research in the field was to write a comparative study of the guilds in various Dutch cities and their impact on the economy of art. Institutions and the market, one could say, in another form. The main printed source on the guilds was a journal from the 1880s known as Obreens archief. Because the first guild in Obreen was the one in Delft, Montias started in that city, in 1975. In 1982 he published his pioneering study (filled with charts and graphs), Artists and artisans in Delft: a socio-economic study of the seventeenth century, and in 1989 Vermeer and his milieu: a web of social history. The comparative study of the guilds never appeared. [Instead, Montias moved on to Amsterdam, where he continued to reconstruct webs of social-economic-artistic history. See his Art at auction in 17th-century Amsterdam, Amsterdam (Amsterdam University Press) 2002.]

Once Montias began publishing on the economics of Dutch art in the 1970s, it was impossible for anyone else to work in the field without referring to him. Thanks to the man’s own lack of professional jealousy, this has not bred resentment. Well, not more than a little. When on 10-12 December [1998] the congress Kunst voor de Markt is held in Middelburg, the first congress ever devoted to the subject, not one of the 25 speakers will have framed their research questions without first having read and taken account of Montias, who is probably the single most frequently quoted authority on Dutch art of the second half of the 20th century. This is an extraordinary achievement for a French-American economist who never studied art history, published his first article in the field at the age of 50 and never mastered either present-day Dutch or the jargon of the dyed-in-the-wool art historian.

The extent of Montias’s success is a sure sign that his work filled a deep need. That need was in fact so deep that the field itself was unaware it existed. Art history was begging for the attention of an economist without knowing it. While they never tired of praising Dutch artists for having been small entrepreneurs who worked at their own honest risk rather than filling orders for corrupt courts, art historians nonetheless implicitly denied that economics had anything to tell them about the work of those artists. The most likely explanation for how things reached this pass is that art history was responding too uncritically to current developments in the creation of art itself. The period between Floerke and Montias was the Age of Modernism. These were decades when critics like Herbert Read and Clement Greenberg praised contemporary art for its intrinsic qualities alone. Works of art were thought of as unique and autonomous creations; whatever the market may have to say about them was by definition beside the point. Art historians, with the exception of some Marxists who made themselves impossible with sweeping, deterministic theories, related to the objects of their study in the same unworldly way. But to many of us, it came as a great relief when an outsider broke the ice. Montias told us things about art that we always wanted to know but were afraid to ask. He calculated the relative price of paintings of different subjects, he figured out how much artists earned on a painting, how fast they worked and therefore how much they had to produce in order to stay alive. For art historians who denied even wanting to know these things, he came up with a theory which none of us can ignore: in 1987 he launched the notion that the style shift from highly colored to more monochromatic paintings that took place in the 1620s was the result of what economists call process innovation, a way of cutting costs. A development that had always been analyzed in terms of esthetic preferences was now said to be driven by sheer economic motives. The proposition is still the object of hot debate.

The two Dutch historians who have followed most successfully in Montias’s footsteps, in very different ways, are Ad van der Woude (1932) and Marten Jan Bok (1958). Van der Woude is an influential professor of economic history at the University of Wageningen. He was one of the general editors of the new Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden, which was distinguished for its embrace of an impersonal, anti-anecdotal, heavily statistical view of history. Van der Woude is the kind of historian who lops off singularities, leaving out of consideration on principle the curve-breaking, one-of-a-kind examples which skew the statistics. Nothing could be further removed from the style of the art historians of his generation, who devote their entire careers precisely to the most exceptional works of the most exceptional artists they know. Van der Woude, who thinks of the history of art as nothing more than a minor branch of social history, never wrote on art at all until at one point he was challenged to do so by Jan de Vries, with whom he was collaborating on a book on the economy of the Dutch Republic. The question van der Woude asked, typically for him, was one that no art historian had ever broached: how many paintings were made by Dutch artists in the 17th century? If his esthetically inclined colleagues were annoyed by his question, his answer drove them up the wall. His first estimate, voiced at a lecture at the Getty Center in Santa Monica in April 1987, was “15 million, give or take 5 million; at that level, it doesn’t matter.” To scholars who spent their lives weighing the attribution of single paintings, this was anathema. At art-historical congresses van der Woude, in contrast to Montias, gets involved in bitter exchanges. Despite this, however, his message is getting across, and art historians are at least beginning to think about numbers.

Ad van der Woude’s inroad into art history was a one-time campaign. Marten Jan Bok, who was trained at Utrecht University as an historian, is devoting his life to it. Bok practices an extremely rich mixture of art history, economic history and antiquarian research that is a model for a new generation of researchers. Like Montias, he has a passion for archive research, which in his case is informed by an instinctive familiarity with the historical and social environment of Holland in the 17th century. He is equally adept at reconstructing genealogies (most notably Saenredam and Bloemaert) and entire schools of painters (Utrecht). The larger questions he asks have to do with the viability of art as a profession in relation to the spending power of the public. He explains the collapse of the Utrecht School by a sharp decrease in the marginal earnings of the collecting class. Here too, as in the case of the rise of monochrome painting, a proposition that art historians always studied in terms of taste alone was revealed to look quite different in the light of economic analysis. No one in the field can ignore findings such as these.

However strenuous their crossing of the border between economics and art history may have been, one wonders whether Montias, van der Woude and Bok have gone far enough to secure their position in the long run. None of the three, for example, pays much attention to the neighboring field of cultural economics, which has also been on the rise in the past two decades. One can understand why. Cultural economics is a bloody battlefield between champions of the untrammeled market and defenders of state support for the arts. The founders of the field are adherents of 86-proof neo-liberalism, convinced that the free choice of market players is the be-all and end-all of all economic systems, cultural or not. This position is now under attack by economists in search of more abiding, if less calculable values than today’s quote on Dali lithographs. At first sight, the debate may not seem to have much meaning for the art of centuries long past. But it does. Montias, van der Woude and Bok all adhere unquestioningly to a rather mechanistic view of cause and effect in economics. Should this position be challenged effectively in cultural economics, the assumptions on which the Montias school is based will be weakened.

Danger also lurks on another front. The three are notably uninterested in the debates on the truth value of scholarly claims raging among art historians. They maintain a positivist, nearly unquestioned belief in facts and their value. They do not think that their conclusions are endangered by the shifting sands of fashion in scholarship and the arts or by the unknowability of historical reality. They are convinced that their archival discoveries and statistical analyses will keep well, no matter what waves of scholarly politics may wash over the beach and lick at the dunes. Again, I wonder. A fact may be indestructible, but is interpretation – and the economic history of art is interpretative – ever that?

For the moment, these potential weaknesses in the new economic study of Dutch art still exert benign effects. Compared to the highly polemical meetings of the Association of Cultural Economics or the bitter disputes between the “theorists” and their enemies in art history, Kunst voor de Markt promises to be a model of interdisciplinary cooperation. What makes the program so fascinating is that not all or even most of the lectures are about specifically economic subjects. Conservation scientists are going to speak on technical issues with regard to their implication for costs, pricing and marketing, traditional art historians on the business aspects of kinds of artistic competition that were previously thought of as idealistic contests for glory. Rather than narrowing discussion to points of dogma, as seems to be unavoidable in cultural economics, the economic study of historical art expands the terms of discourse in old discussions.

Provisional or not, the confidence of the Montias school is well justified for the moment. Its example is being followed by students of Flemish, French and Italian art. The economic history of art is one of the fields in which Dutch studies, thanks to an American interloper, are in the international forefront. How long this will last is open to question. The kind of research done by Montias and Bok demands intensive training in economics, history, language, paleography and art history. Neither of them nor van der Woude has students to succeed them. [This situation has improved notably since 1998, with the appointment of Bok to a teaching position at the University of Amsterdam.] If a new generation is to rise anywhere, Bok suspects it will come from Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina. There the American economic historian Neil De Marchi and the Belgian art historian Hans Van Miegroet are producing an impressive body of joint research on the Antwerp art market while instructing students in their ideas and techniques. Close interdisciplinary teamwork of this kind can achieve results beyond the possibilities of individual researchers. It is also a good thing in itself, forcing scholars to take full account of the opinions and inclinations of others. The idiosyncratic mid-career change of Michael Montias has been a blessing in more ways than one.


© Gary Schwartz 1998. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 5&7 December 1998, p. 27

The proceedings of the congress in Middelburg were published as Kunst voor de market: Art for the market, 1500-1700, vol. 50 (1999) of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, Zwolle (Waanders Uitgevers) 2000. ISBN 90-400-9420-9

Responses to

Other columns on the Schwartzlist