A Serendipitious Discovery

The small nocturnal bird “Ottus thilohoffmannis” really exists, and it lives in the South of Sri Lanka. Biologists have known its call for 200 years, but the owl was never clearly identified until a serendipitious moment in 2001 in the rain forest. And it is already endangered.

The little bird, just about 17 centimeres tall, was entered into the catalog of animal diversity as “Serendib Scops Owl”, and given the Latin name of a man who devoted large parts of his life to the preservation of the Sinharaja Nature Reserve: Thilo Hoffmann, the artist’s eponymous uncle.

Now, the Ottus thilohoffmanis is staring back at you six-fold. Hoffmann commissioned six different Chinese repro artists to paint an oil-on-canvas picture of his Sri Lankan namesake, based on a photo Wim de Groot took, a member of the original group that discovered the bird.

From the shimmering green-turquoise background of de Groot’s photo the six small bird portraits now vie for the viewers attention. Which portrait pleases the viewer’s eyes most? Which copyist captured best the spirit that the photographer caught? Which of these paintings will you hang on your wall?

Always shining a new light on the perception of art, it is at this point is that Hoffmann and his creative collaborators become blatantly transparent: They indicate the modest fee that was paid to the Chinese copycats, and mark it up six fold, as is common in the current art scene.

This transparency only raises the number of questions that arise around the owl and its serendipitous entry into the art market. Who is the creator, who is the artist, what is the process, and what is in a name?