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Elephants' artwork: Raising cash and eyebrows
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Picassos they're not. But paintings by a group of pachyderms fetched a pretty penny at a benefit auction at Christie's on Tuesday night -- and raised questions about the meaning of art.
The auction of 50 paintings by seven Asian elephants raised more than $30,000 as bidding wars erupted over the abstract pieces that feature broad brush strokes and bold colors.
A deep blue painting by 6-year-old Indian elephant Ganesh, considered one of the savants of the elephant art world, drew the high bid of $2,100. Bids started at $350.
"I love the color selection. I love the lines. I just had to have it," said John Tunney, an entrepreneur who paid $900 for a painting by Lukkang, a 20-year-old elephant from Thailand.
The acrylic-on-paper paintings drew praise from many of the 300 auction participants. But others snickered at the idea of elephants wielding paintbrushes in their trunks to create modern art.
"We're all being laughed at, I'm convinced. If this is art then aliens have taken over the planet," said one participant who declined to be named.
Moscow-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid organized the auction to raise awareness and funds for Asian elephants, whose numbers have dwindled after a ban on the logging of teak left the animals and their life-long companions and trainers without a livelihood. The elephants were used to haul logs.
Komar and Melamid, once dissidents in the Soviet Union, have worked with elephant artists for five years and have created three elephant art academies in Thailand.
The art team first worked with an elephant named Renee at a zoo in Toledo, Ohio, in 1995. Three years later, they went to Thailand in 1998 to train elephants left idle by the logging ban in new careers as artists. The proceeds from the art sales supports the elephants and their trainers, or mahouts.
Painting came naturally to the elephants.
"For thousands of years, elephants have been making mysterious characters on the ground with stones or sticks. Elephant art is only new to people, but it's not new to the elephants," said Komar, 56.
Elephants have been painting in American zoos for two decades, with sales of paintings by Ruby from the Phoenix Zoo generating $100,000 a year.
Komar, who compared the style of many of his elephant students to the work of abstract painter Willem De Kooning, dismissed criticism that some of the paintings looked like the work of small children.
"Everyone is an artist and can put paint to a canvas, but quality is a different thing. Some of the elephants are more talented than the others," he said.
While animal art is unusual for Christie's, the tony Manhattan auction house said it wanted to support a worthy cause and offer a new perspective on modern art.
"Of course you think at first you may be criticized, but this is interesting stuff -- art has always been controversial," said Christie's Chairman Stephen Lash.
Komar and Melamid, who for decades have tested the traditional notions of art and beauty, are used to controversy.
"What started as travesty has become treasure. We started in the '70s with dog art, but later we changed our perspective. We fell in love with the elephants," Komar said.
The eccentric art team also has exhibited photographs taken by a chimpanzee at an exhibit in Venice, Italy, and aims to work with beavers using processed wooden boards on an architectural project.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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