'Spot the fake' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (ctd.)

April 28 2015

Image of 'Spot the fake' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: BBC/Dulwich Art Gallery

In January, Dulwich Picture Gallery hung a fake painting in place of one of their masterpieces, and invited visitors to see if they could identify it. I thought it was a good idea - anything to encourage close-looking. Now they've revealed which picture the fake was; Fragonard's Young Woman. More here.

Tory blow to antiques trade?

April 27 2015

Image of Tory blow to antiques trade?

Picture: BG (miniature by John Smart at Cincinnati Art Museum)

Ivan Macquisten in The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that the Conservative party has pledged to ban entirely the trade in antique ivory. This is a reversal of their former position, which was (quite rightly) to ban ivory trading but to make a concession for that ivory which is clearly antique, such as in 18th Century portrait miniatures like the one above, by John Smart.

The ATG reports that the latest announcement was made by Conservative campaign headquarters, and not ministers, who have been supportive of the art market. Since it is a daft position, I'm sure it's a mistake. But it might not be. In which case, either buy all the miniatures you want to now, before the international market ends, or, similarly, sell.

Update - a reader writes:

This is utterly absurd. Obviously antique miniatures came into being long before there was a threat to elephant survival and the continued trade in them would have no bearing on this whatsoever. It is a classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Or do the Conservatives think they can grab votes from the Greens with this daft idea?

Update II - another reader writes:

Thank you for that pointer to the article in the ATG about the conservative position on ivory. Let us hope it is a mistake.

I have just been cataloguing a portrait for a forthcoming auction that has an important gilt artist-designed frame dating from 1868-69. One of its most distinctive and attractive features is a row of four ivory paterae inset diagonally across the corner butt joints. The sale room took the decision to remove the ivory and have it replaced with replica material so that the portrait could be sent for viewing in the US. Had they not done so, they tell me that there was a very real possibility that the frame would have been destroyed at immigration.

Surely - considering the contribution that the art trade makes to the UK economy - the Conservatives should be lobbying for our sensible legislation to be adopted worldwide, rather than removing the exemption on ivory in historic works of art. It seems to me philistine, indeed an act of vandalism, to have to remove the ivory keys from a William Morris piano, for example, so that it can be exported from the UK to an overseas buyer. An international convention could be adopted that would make it quite clear that it has no wish to endanger twenty-first century elephants, but cannot see how banning the antique use of ivory would help them.

Bacon self-portraits 're-discovered'

April 27 2015

Image of Bacon self-portraits 're-discovered'

Picture: BBC

When is a 'discovery' not a discovery? When the pictures have been known about all along.

Still, today's Bacon 're-discovery' story is a good bit of PR-ing from Sotheby's [via the BBC]:

Two self-portraits by Francis Bacon are going on public display for the first time after being rediscovered in a private collection, before being sold.

Although experts knew the works by the late painter existed, they had no idea who had bought them.

Descendants of the original owner have decided to sell the paintings, which are expected to fetch up to £15m each.

The artworks are titled Self-Portrait 1975 and Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1980).

A Bacon painting featuring his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it fetched $142m (£89m) in New York in 2013.

Oliver Barker, Sotheby's senior international specialist in contemporary art, described the discovery of the portraits as "a pretty extraordinary collecting moment".

"(Art dealer) Marlborough Fine Art kept a photographic archive and so both of these paintings appeared in a book on Bacon's self-portraits, but apart from being reproduced in books they've not been seen," he said.

"We knew of the existence of the paintings but simply had no idea where they could be. The first time I saw these paintings it was such a wonderful awakening. They're both so luminous."

Sleepers Alert!

April 27 2015

Image of Sleepers Alert!

Pictures: Shannon's Auction, Charterhouse Auction, and Neil Jeffares via Twitter.

It's a been a busy week for the sleeper hunters. At Shannon's auction in the USA, the above 'possibly 14th/15th Century Italian School' panel made $144,000 against an estimate of $6,000-$8,000. I've no idea who it's by, not my area.

At Charterhouse Auction in Dorset, the below small canvas called 'Follower of El Greco' made £98,000 (inc. premium) against an estimate of just a few hundred pounds. I asked for some better photos of the picture, but didn't bid.

And somewhere in Europe (I learn via Neil Jeffares) the below pastel study by Maurice Quentin de La Tour made €11,047 (inc. premium) against an estimate of €400-€500. Neil says on Twitter that it is a 'first preparation for Belle de Zuylen'.

Should museums lend paintings for cash?

April 26 2015

Image of Should museums lend paintings for cash?

Picture: The Scotsman/National Galleries Scotland (detail from Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ, which is on tour in the US)

A number of celebrated works from the National Galleries of Scotland (here in Edinburgh, where I now live) are going on a 'treasures' tour of the USA. Although the reason is not made explicit, one aspect of the tour is to raise money, either through donations or straight out loan fees for the host venues. Quite a few institutions do this these days. But in The Scotsman newspaper, Tiffany Jenkins says the practice should stop:

The danger is that once museum officials start seeing the loaning of art as a way to raise funds, we will see more loans to pay for all kinds of costs. With funding cuts, it’s not like the money is pouring in from other sources, so I understand the attraction. But this practice puts art at risk. Literally – because it is packed up, sent abroad, carted about and unpacked again. But also because art is increasingly weighed on the scales to see what funds it will raise.

And the recipients don’t gain much, either. They get a selection of highlights padded with the second rate, curated, not by an idea, but with a price tag in mind. Lost as a consequence will be a different kind of enrichment – loans conducted for scholarship, the spirit of inquiry and collaboration.

Today the National Galleries of Scotland is a kind of Swiss cheese museum; the best bits are elsewhere. That leaves us – the core audience – shortchanged.

All good things in moderation, I say. The NGS is trying to raise money for a much needed extension - and if sending some masterpieces on a lucrative tour helps bring in the money, so be it.

What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

April 26 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

Yet more from me on beanbag-gate, this time for a comment piece in The Art Newspaper. Apparently the Trust are going to run similar 'experiments' at nine other properties. Who knows what we'll find next? Readers are invited to keep a sharp lookout, and to keep me posted.

AHN was also quoted in The Independent today.

I thought for a brief moment of standing for election to the National Trust's 50+ strong governing Council (which as far as I can see has no professional art historians on it), but have missed the various deadlines. Although I definitely would not be seeking to be an approved candidate, even those who want to stand without first being vetted by the Trust (that's the point at which they weed out anyone who might ask awkward questions) have to go by the same timescale as the 'approved' candidates. The deadline for that was in February, even though the election is not until the end of this year. Oh well, maybe next year.

By the way, my rather ancient blog management system managed to delete a large chunk of my original post on the Ickworth beanbags, together with many excellent comments from readers. I'm sorry about this, and am trying to fix it, but it's not looking hopeful.

The lonely auctioneer

April 26 2015

Image of The lonely auctioneer


A reader has sent me the above photo - of a sale at Christie's South Kensington with no bidders in the room at all. Everything was being bought either on the phone or online. Amazing really.

Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

April 26 2015

Image of Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

Picture: Guardian

In Italy, they say they've dug up Caravaggio's bones, and can prove that he was killed partly by lead poisoning, which might have come from his paints. But it's all rather uncertain - there is no concrete proof the bones above are in fact Caravaggio's. More here in The Guardian.


April 26 2015

Image of Help!

The Financial Times want me to write a piece on the merits of hanging 'old' art on your walls, as opposed to contemporary art. Easily done, of course. But I need some illustrations of Old Master-y type paintings in modern settings, ie houses and offices. Can anyone send me examples they might have seen?

I was pleased to see a pair of old pictures on the front cover of House and Garden recentlyin a modern interior. There was even - gasp - a piece of 'brown furniture'. Is the lustre of the new finally beginning to rub off, just a smidgen?

View from the Artist - no.18

April 24 2015

Image of View from the Artist - no.18


Can you guess the location and artist? No prizes, just for fun. And no Google Image search cheating!

Update - a reader writes:

I'm sure others will get this, but I felt compelled to reply because it is a picture I always quite liked back home at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool - it's Joseph Wright of Derby's fantasy picture of fireworks over Rome. I have checked, and this detail appears to foil the Google search, which is good!

Quite right. Full picture here. Well done to those who got it.

Podcast with Nicholas Penny

April 24 2015

Image of Podcast with Nicholas Penny

Picture: Guardian

The National Gallery director Nicholas Penny has kindly agreed to do a podcast with AHN. This will be the first in a recurring series of interviews with senior figures from the art world. If you have any questions you'd like me to ask, please send them in.

How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

April 23 2015

Image of How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

Regular readers will have been following the Met's restoration of Charles Le Brun's Portrait of Everhard Jabach and His Family. Now, the Met's head of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has written a fascinating blog on how the Met acquired the work:

It goes back to the evening of February 25, 2013. I was in London for a conference, walking back to my hotel after dinner with my wife. It was the evening before my return flight to New York. Checking my emails, I noticed one from a colleague in one of the major auction houses: "Keith, next time you are in London, let me know. I have something important to show you." Despite the late hour, I quickly got in touch with him. There was a scramble, and the next morning my wife and I found ourselves making an unanticipated trip to a warehouse where, propped against the back wall of a large, gray, box-like space, was Le Brun's portrait of the Jabach family. My wife was overwhelmed by the sight, finding the picture completely compelling. A brief conversation ensued about its history, the circumstances of its sale, and the price. That the Metropolitan would be able to acquire the work seemed to me dubious or, at best, a long shot, for apart from the price, could one imagine that a picture of this importance—one that had been in the United Kingdom since 1794—would ever be given an export license?

Back in New York, I made a call to the director of the National Gallery, London: after all, there was no point in trying to move forward with acquiring the work if the outcome was already scripted and the National Gallery had plans. Much to my surprise, I was told they had another priority [a painting by George Bellows] and would not attempt to purchase the picture. The door had suddenly opened—or was at least ajar. So I sat down with Tom Campbell, our director, and also met with my colleagues in the Department of European Paintings. All agreed that if this work could be had, it would be one of the Met's great acquisitions.

Negotiations were handled with extreme discretion over the ensuing months, and in September—seven months after I first saw the picture—we found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to make an offer, thanks the same person who had come to our aid so many times over the past forty years and whose name was already attached to some of the signature works in the collection. Our debt to her is very great. Papers were done up, and I presented the picture to the Museum's Acquisition Committee in October for approval. The next step was the application for the export license, which was being handled by Christie's.

The matter of granting an export license went before the Reviewing Committee of the Arts Council of the United Kingdom in January 2014, with the anticipated postponement of a decision until May 9 to allow a British buyer to step forward with a plan to acquire the work. By what I believe was a piece of extraordinary luck, a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was also up for review at around the same time. Van Dyck, of course, had an active career in Britain and his portraits established the model for the next two centuries. His oval, bust-length self-portrait captured the attention of the press as well as the public. "Saving it for the nation" became a priority, and this, I believe, deflected attention from the Le Brun—to my mind a vastly more important and significant work. On May 9, I received the news that an export license had been granted.

This account is interesting on many levels. First, is the picture really the dramatically important work Christiansen thinks it is? Certainly, it's a great work, but regular readers won't be surprised to hear that I think Van Dyck's self-portrait is an infinitely more important work in the history of British art. Naturally, the Met are very proud of their acquisition. 

Second, should the National Gallery's acquisition of the George Bellows painting have gotten in the way of the Le Brun in such a manner? Ie, is it right that a mere question of timing stopped the National making an effort to buy the painting? Probably not, but then at £7.3m something had to give. The Bellows was £15.6m. Can we stop everything? Probably not, and we shouldn't forget either that the Bellows was a pretty audacious acquisition from a US museum. In the US, they have no export controls at all.

Perhaps I should say, though, that my own old-fashioned taste would see me prefer to have the Le Brun than the Bellows. Anyway, the Met are looking after it very well.

Art Detective strikes again (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Art Detective strikes again (ctd.)

Picture: Art Detective

The Art Detective website, which regular readers will know I'm involved with, has won a prestigious award; 'Best Museum Professional' website at the Museums and the Web conference in Chicago. Apparently this is the Oscars of the museum and technology world, and Art Detective's victory is the first time a Uk institution has won such a prize. 

Van Dyck sketches for sale (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Van Dyck sketches for sale (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

I mentioned last month two enticing look head studies by Van Dyck coming up for sale in New York. Well, they just sold, and I thought for quite a reasonable price, given that both have recently been exhibited in stellar company in the 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado.

The study above made $298,000, while the Boy with Clasped Hands made $274,000 (both prices inc. premium). Slightly to my surprise, a grisaille catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck', which was missing part of the panel from the right hand side, sold well, fetching $478,000.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Everybody out! (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

Yet more strikes at the National Gallery in London. Not content with holding 17 days of strike action this year already, the PCS union at the National will be on strike until 24th April. Much of the gallery is therefore shut.

The Art Newspaper report of the strike tells us, however, that the Sainsbury Wing remains open, because it is already under the supervision of CIS, the private form who have been brough in to cover security in temporary exhibitions.

The picture above shows Candy Udwin, the PCS union representative who was suspended by the Gallery last year. I think I can also see my troll in the photo above (the one who said I was liar for stating that staff at the Gallery have been on quite a few strikes recently). Udwin strikesMore here

Optical Coherence Tomography

April 21 2015

Image of Optical Coherence Tomography

Pictures: Optics Info Base

This sounds interesting - a whizzy new camera (seen above, in front of a copy of a Raphael at the National Gallery) can digitally take cross-sections of a painting. Normally, to find out the exact build up of layers in a painting (from ground layer to the tpyes of pigments used), you need to physically take a sample of paint, flip it on its side, and then look at the cross-section under a microscope (as in the colour photo below). But this new camera - developed at Nottingham Trent University - allows a virtual cross-section to be taken, and the results look as they do in the top image, the black and white one.

The process is called Optical Coherence Tomography.

You can read more about the new research here

What's right with the National Trust?

April 21 2015

Video: BBC

Ok, so the beanbags and the occasional daft comment from the Chief Executive are maddening - but we'd be stuffed without the National Trust, wouldn't we? Above is a video documenting the Trust's £8m refurbishment of Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland. Looks like they've done a great job - well done to all involved. 

Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

April 21 2015

Image of Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

Picture: Tate

The Mail on Sunday has more on Tate's recent decision to halt the restitution process of the above painting by Constable. Tate had been ordered to return the painting by the UK government's restitution panel - but last month said they had found new evidence about the picture's provenance. The Mail tells us that this includes:

Tate Britain chiefs believe the chance discovery of an export permit will bolster their claim that the 1824 oil painting – Beaching A Boat, Brighton – was legitimately brought to Britain.

The 1946 document bears the signature of a dealer called Karola Fabri and seeks permission for the transfer of artworks from Budapest to Zurich, including one by Constable identified as Fishing Boat.

The discovery of the permit in the archives of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts is the latest twist in an increasingly fraught dispute between the Tate and the descendants of the painting’s original owner, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who died in 1958.

The descendants of Hatvany – believed to be two daughters and a grandchild – say the Nazis stole the painting and smuggled it out of Hungary.

The discovery of the permit in the archives of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts is the latest twist in an increasingly fraught dispute between the Tate and the descendants of the painting’s original owner, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who died in 1958.

It turned up in Britain in 1962 and passed through several hands before being donated to the Tate in 1986.

The family launched a claim three years ago. The Government-backed Spoliation Advisory Panel, which rules on disputes over looted art, supported the heirs last year and said the Tate had a ‘moral obligation’ to return the painting. Sources close to the case say the export permit could prove the Tate’s claim that Hatvany voluntarily disposed of the painting while he was still alive.

The Tate does not dispute that the painting was looted by the Nazis but the gallery’s understanding is that it was returned to the owner after the war and then legitimately exported.

Gallery chiefs are expected to argue that the permit proves the work was still in Hungary after the war. But The Mail on Sunday understands the claimants will argue the permit doesn’t change anything as it does not identify Hatvany.

One source said: ‘If you had stolen the painting, you would still need to get an export permit to get it out of the country.’

The lure of the blockbuster

April 21 2015

Image of The lure of the blockbuster

Picture: TAN

I love a blockbuster exhibition, and I love smaller offbeat ones too. Many bemoan the prevalence of the former these days, but as Charles Saumarez Smith points out in The Art Newspaper,* blockbusters have always been with us. Do read the full article, which looks at the history of the blockbuster from the 19th Century in Britain. But Charles focuses onto his experience of such shows at the Royal Academy, of which he is Chief Executive:

In the past two decades, our most successful exhibitions have been the two Monet shows held in 1990 and 1999, which attracted 7,003 and 8,597 visitors a day respectively. The Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 drew 4,785 visitors a day; David Hockney in 2012 drew an average of 7,512 a day; and “Manet: Portraying Life” in 2013 drew 4,359 a day.  

What conclusions can one draw from a historical analysis of exhibition numbers? Statistically, exhibitions by the Impressionists have always come top, not just in Britain and the US, but most of all in Japan. The Pre-Raphaelites are also popular, as was evident when we exhibited Waterhouse in 2009, and when Tate Britain showed “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” in 2012. In recent years, we have demonstrated that contemporary artists can be as popular as the Impressionists. The Hockney exhibition was a mass cultural phenomenon, not only in London but also, more surprisingly, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, wh ere the show again got more than 500,000 visitors in a city with a population of only one million.

While we study our visitor numbers, and have to, this does not preclude trying to ensure a varied exhibition programme. We try to develop a portfolio of exhibitions in which the more commercial shows subsidise the loss-leaders. This year, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” drew 167,906 visitors; an average of 2,332 a day. Anselm Kiefer drew 184,910; an average of 2,341 a day. What the bald numbers disguise is that both were particularly successful in drawing new visitors to the Royal Academy.

*which has a zippy new website - looks nice.


April 16 2015

I'm very sorry for the lack of posts this week. I've been away (in Sicily), and tomorrow I'm filming for 'Fake or Fortune?'. So I'm afraid there won't be anything from me till next week.

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