San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Art for Art's Sake

Van Gogh died in poverty. The highest price he fetched for one of his paintings was $17. A hundred years later a Japanese businessman paid $82,500,000 for van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet.

GachetOf course everyone has heard of Vincent van Gogh. He's been at the hub of the Impressionist Movement for generations. His paintings are valuable because wherever there's a wholesale focus of attention on something, the specter of money is always nearby. So I was more than surprised the other day to see an unsigned painting by an unknown artist worth in the neighborhood of fifty million dollars. The painting was leaning on an easel in front of a real estate office in San Felipe.

There was no price tag on it. I only discovered its value when I went inside the office and learned it was an artist's rendering of a future condominium complex to be located south of town. The man who told me this had eyes that flicked about the office like a frog tagging houseflies with an especially adhesive tongue. He was middle-aged, high-octaned and had a thick thatch of hair that hung in layers from the crown of his head. It made him look like a palm palapa on a moonless night.

By the way, before entering the office I noticed an ornament on the window ledge, a squat sand-filled vase whose flower was in full bloom, a bouquet of cigarette butts. I’ve come to learn that such a bouquet is the natural spore of real estate people.

The man who accosted me when I entered the office was a member of the nomadic realtor tribe that had recently discovered San Felipe was secretly wedded to the holy grail of their marketable resort profile, a profile well proven to be as lucrative as sharing DNA with a Rockefeller.

Resort-building real estate people all seem to share the same lexicon, the same disinterest in local history and geography, the same sign painter and the same desk, where they sit with one hand in a box of superlatives, ready to confetti the head of anyone who crosses their threshold.

Nomadic realtors often partner with neon-lit developers who dash about like dogs in a sniffing fever, scenting their land with power poles, billboards, metal coyotes and cement fountains. These developers are usually once-removed from public contact but like the real estate agent, they will do their best to fling verbal confetti when cornered. And of course, both silently celebrate the uninformed buyer.

I quietly sat in that office while the unending superlatives hailed about my ears. And although it required a certain amount of spears and shield tactics, I learned there was no condominium building. Nothing existed off the artist's canvas that echoed its color and lines. There was an empty expanse of sand near the sea where a few large earth-moving machines droned up and down between surveyor's pins. I was asked to image the building was actually there, my condo readily accessible. I was given a cerebral tour of my apartment, presented the incomparable vista with a sweep of an arm. I was even told what I would be doing with my evenings when I lived there. And since the mind always confuses the thought with the thing it represents, it was easy to see how people could be swayed to sign papers in exchange for an hour of confetti and an ocular tour of an artist's depiction of the proposed project.

Once or twice I managed to coax a double dose of confetti from the salesman with the mention of a key word or phrase that obviously triggered a programmed response. It was like watching a Carmelite whipping himself into a lather of atonement. One of the words was fideicomiso. Another was Title Insurance. A third was notario.

I must have absently nodded once because a paper-clipped manuscript suddenly appeared under my nose which I was expected to sign. The paperwork represented a series of strings that were engineered to legally extract $300,000 from me. The real estate man seemed unconcerned I lived in a trailer and that it would take me one hundred years to save that amount of money. To him the amount was a single brush stroke against the canvas on the sidewalk outside his office.

Condo PaintingScores of real estate venues have appeared in San Felipe. They all have artist's renderings of various condominiums, track homes, gated communities and golf courses. Each painting represents millions of dollars to its owner. And somewhere in basement studios around the globe, the artists are furiously dashing them out, receiving their modern-day equivalent of seventeen dollars for each one.

Meanwhile, throughout the turbid activities of the real estate people and the developers, the desert and mountains suffer the silliness with stoic grace. They know the security of longevity which elegantly outlasts fideicomisos and title insurance. They have staked their claims in the geological vastness of the planet's diurnal clock. They are patient, which is the perfect antidote for today's local climate of impatience.

Of course I left without signing anything. It's sad that many people do not. They unfortunately confuse a real estate salesman's passion for money with an enthusiasm for an unsubstantiated building project. It can't be too tragic though. If you look west you can see the mountains smiling. Or maybe it's just they way Darwin's shadow hangs across them.