In Paris …
A secret ingredient?
It was a bad week for L’Arpège, the three-Michelin-star restaurant where the tasting menu—sans beverage—costs $475 and “every ingredient comes with its own passport and provenance.” Almost every ingredient. The small piece of soft plastic found in one diner’s fleurs de courgette recently was “of unknown origin,” according to The Times of London. Worse, “the recipient of this indigestible morsel happened to be reviewing the food for one of France’s most influential newspapers.” Sure enough, Stéphane Durand-Souffland let fly in Le Figaro: “From beginning to end, the dinner left us in a state of great perplexity. [Chef Alain] Passard was passive, without energy, as though going through some soulless routine. In this category, at this price, it’s unforgivable.” Catastrophe? Bien sûr.
In Antarctica …
Raise the Endurance? The explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship sank in 1915 and was discovered, just last March, in nearly 10,000 feet of water by the maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound. Bound noted recently that the Endurance will eventually “decay out of existence” if it isn’t raised and preserved. “We’ve got to think about conserving it and the process of that, which museum is going to take that, which could take forever and a day,” he said in The Guardian. “But if we leave it there, it’s organic, it’s going to decay some time beyond our lifetime.” Alexandra Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter and the ship’s legal owner, said after its discovery that she preferred the Endurance to remain where it is.
In an undisclosed location in China …
Someone has a new treasure
It was—is—a “large Tianqiuping porcelain and polychrome enamel vase … with globular body and long cylindrical neck, decorated with nine fierce dragons and clouds,” according to the auction catalogue, and, following ferocious bidding, it went to an unidentified buyer in China for nearly $8 million. (Add another million for fees.) But here’s the curious thing: the Osenat auction house, in Fountainebleau, outside of Paris, had estimated the vase’s value at $2,000. As a result, the unnamed expert who concluded it was a 20th-century decorative piece, and not a far more valuable 18th-century artifact, is out of a job. “One person alone against 300 interested Chinese buyers cannot be right,” Jean-Pierre Osenat, the auction-house president, told The Guardian. “He no longer works for us. It was, after all, a serious mistake.”
Like the buyer and the expert, the seller remained anonymous. The vase had been in her family for generations—they used it for flowers—and she was said to be “completely unsettled” by its apparent value. Meanwhile, the expert is standing by his opinion, said the newspaper, and even the head of Osenat’s Asian Arts department “is still not entirely convinced the expert was wrong. ‘We don’t know whether it is old or not or why it sold for such a price. Perhaps we will never know.’”
In hindsight …
Picasso and #metoo
In 1976 Jonathan Richman sang, “Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso”—though eventually it did, and often, with the painter’s treatment of women getting dissected by former paramours and biographers. Next year it’ll be 50 years since his death, and in the #MeToo era any exhibitions marking the anniversary will have to reckon with the issue further. Indeed, one new show, at the Montmartre museum, in Paris, is centered on Picasso’s relationship with Fernande Olivier, the artist and model who lived with him for eight years—and recorded a diary. (“Picasso, due to a sort of morbid jealousy, kept me as a recluse. But with tea, books, a divan and a little cleaning to do, I was happy, very happy.”)
Hmm. But Cécile Debray, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, said that “Picasso’s relationship with Olivier was one ‘almost of equals,’” reported The Times of London. “Certainly, he was jealous,” she added, “but he was also tender and loving, the only lover of that type that Fernande Olivier ever had.” And Nathalie Bondil, the art historian curating the Montmartre show, “called for the artist’s reputation to be saved from feminist wokery,” according to the newspaper. “At a time of cancel culture,” she noted, “it would be better to talk about context culture.”
In Saudi Arabia …
Having a second look
Salvator Mundi, the putative Leonardo with the eyebrow-raising appreciation in value, is back in the news. The controversial painting was bought in 2005 for $1,175 by a consortium of art dealers, and sold in 2017 for $450 million to Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, representing Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, or possibly to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman—definitely not to AIR MAIL; time to put those rumors to rest—and hasn’t been seen in public since. But Martin Kemp, the British art historian who was crucial in attributing the work to da Vinci, revealed that Saudi Arabia wants to bring him over for another gander.
“It is in Saudi Arabia and the country is constructing an art gallery, which is to be finished in 2024 I think,” Kemp said in The Times of London. “There have been moves to get me out to look at it and I have been slightly reluctant to go to Saudi Arabia for very obvious reasons”—what he later described as “the iniquities of the Saudi regime.” But, reported the newspaper, he felt that “if it helped bring the painting ‘into the light’ he would consider it … [Kemp said] that he was still ‘confident it is Leonardo’s original’ but that he could not say that ‘every brushstroke was by Leonardo’ because the work was ‘quite damaged’.” Leonardo or not, Salvator Mundi is the most expensive painting ever sold.
In Hampshire …
Into the wild, blue yonder
A vintage Spitfire aircraft, the World War II Royal Air Force legend and bane of the Luftwaffe, can cost about $5 million today. So Steve Markham, who lives near the old R.A.F. Spitfire base and has wanted one since he was eight, built his own. Markham, a retired engineer with a pilot’s license, worked from a kit but had to locate a few minor parts—propeller, engine—himself. In the end, he spent “11,250 hours painstakingly piecing together his version in a barn, with help from his wife, Kay,” said The Times of London. “It has taken him more than a decade, and he has finally been granted permission to take to the skies. ‘It flies beautifully, it feels fantastic, it’s quite fast—about twice as fast as the other aircraft I’ve flown before. It’s something special,’ he said.”
The newspaper noted that about 70 airworthy Spitfires exist, though “most have been restored using new parts or cannibalising old ones from other aircraft.” Markham hopes to fly his replica to Rome next June with Kay—“to have a nice Italian lunch with her.” —George Kalogerakis
George Kalogerakis, one of the original editor-writers at Spy, later worked for Vanity Fair, New York, and The New York Times, where he was deputy op-ed editor. A co-author of Spy: The Funny Years and co-editor of Disunion: A History of the Civil War, he is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL