How the stage fell in love with the art trade

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The Independent Online

It takes a lot to get Madonna to act on a stage, an arena where her non-singing vulnerabilities might be cruelly exposed. So why should she do it?

We assume that the play must be a work of rare quality, from some hot young dramatist who has protégé status with the Queen Mother of Cool. But it's not. The more likely reason for her choice is the role in which she will appear when Up For Grabs opens this month. Ms Ciccone will play a ruthlessly ambitious art dealer who pits her well-heeled clients against each other as they try to get their mitts on an original Jackson Pollock.

Art dealers? I used to think art dealers were ruminative old sweethearts like Arthur Negus in Going for a Song, or effete chaps in bow ties who writhed like aesthetes and banged on about the wondrous brushwork and the thick impasto on the canvas before them. I didn't realise they were chic, sexy, dynamic, Madonna-style people.

But how could I have been so blind? As we speak, the world is waiting to hear whether prison awaits Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby's, who was found guilty of a colossal, transatlantic, price-fixing scandal involving Christie's and its former chairman, Sir Anthony Tennant.

The combination of names from Central Casting (you can picture Taubman as the Bronx go-getter, Tennant as the smooth British knight) and what we know of the cloak-and-dagger secret meetings, million-dollar stitch-ups and private jets revving on the runway has all the glamour of escapist fiction. The actress Sigourney Weaver apparently came to the court hearings to check out the demeanour of Dede Brooks, the Sotheby's chief executive, in the hope of playing her in a forthcoming movie.

And you thought auction houses were all Peter Wilson banging his gavel and shouting "Sold to the lady in the heliotrope mules"? Think again. We're talking global intrigue here, and the glamour of fraud. Write it all down, put in a scene where the defrauding duo snort a line of cocaine off a Rubens, get Guy Ritchie to direct it, and you'll clean up.

We're talking Jilly Cooper as well. The mistress of the schlockbuster has a new 550-page novel out next month. Entitled Pandora, it's set in "the international art world where the more beautiful the picture, the greater the backstabbing". It's all about a stolen painting by Raphael and a hunt to retrieve it, culminating in an Old Masters sale at Sotheby's.

And in William Boyd's new novel Any Human Heart, the diary-writing Logan Mountstuart hits his prime in 1950s New York, running an art gallery and trying to buy as many Jackson Pollocks as he can after the artist's death.

When did we get so keen on the art world as the source of imagination and the epitome of modernity? It's not as if we spend many waking hours buying artworks and bidding at auctions. But the combination of beauty, high sensibility and unscrupulous dealings is irresistible to the western spirit ­ the pictures and works of art becoming emblems of purity, to be fought over tooth-and-nail by terrible, mercenary soldiers in a secular crusade.

Madonna's character in Up for Grabs, the Sothebys price-fixers and Jilly Cooper's shrieky dramatis personae are all driven by greed and money-fixation; but the presence of art as the currency in which they deal somehow ennobles their behaviour.

Would Madonna have agreed to take part in the play if the role had been a junk-bond trader? No way. Would Taubman and Tennant have been so abused had their cartel been price-fixing tinned tomatoes? Absolutely not. How intriguing to find that the big concept of Art still lurks, like God the Holy Ghost, behind our trendiest and our most venal impulses.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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