'God hates Renoir'
October 6 2015
Picture: Boston Globe
Here's a great story from The Boston Globe:
It’s nothing personal, says Ben Ewen-Campen, he just doesn’t think French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is much of a painter. Monday, the Harvard postdoc joined some like-minded aesthetes for a playful protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts. The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society,” the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin !” and “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” Craig Ronan, an artist from Somerville, learned about the protest on Instagram and decided to join. “I don’t have any relationship with these people aside from wanting artistic justice,” he said. The museum hasn’t commented on the fledgling movement, but a few folks walking by Monday seemed amused. “I love their sense of irony,” said Liz Byrd, a grandmother from Phoenix who spent the morning in the museum with her daughter and grandchild. “I love Renoir, but I think this is great.”
I think I'd definitely have joined the protest. I had to spend way too much time in the (un-indexed) Renoir catalogue raisonné for the latest series of 'Fake or Fortune?'.
October 5 2015
Video: Metropolitan Museum
With its new series #MetKids the Met continues to leave other museums in its wake when it comes to online presence.
'Le Catalogue Goering'
October 4 2015
I recently ordered a copy of a new book on Goering's 'collection' of looted art. It's the sort of book anyone doing provenance research needs to have, not least because of the sheer scale of Goering's looting. The book is useful in that it is illustrated and is a simple transcription of the inventory kept by Goering himself. But it is maddeningly un-useful in the fact that it has no index, and nor are the artists listed alphabetically.
Still, I recommend it. Although quite why this material is not already online somewhere is a mystery.
Men on top
October 4 2015
Picture: via Flickr
Here's Susan Jones in The Guardian:
The Cultural Value and Inequality report by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien, discussing inequality within both the creation and consumption of cultural value, indicates that women make up nearly 70% of the workforce in museums and galleries. But according to my research, within those top galleries getting £1m+ of Arts Council England funding, just 37% of director or CEO roles are held by women. The situation is only a little better in the other UK nations, with women leading in 40% of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50% of those in Wales.
For those 'national' museums and galleries (ie, those funded directly by DCMS) the situation is even worse; just one director is a woman.
October 4 2015
Double disappointment yesterday at AHN towers, with two potential sleepers slipping the net. The first was a rather damaged possible Rubens sketch, which I didn't bid very strongly on. It might have had nothing to do with Rubens at all, and as I've mentioned here before optimism is an art dealer's worst enemy. But it's also the thing that drives you on.
The second was a composition that recorded a lost work by Giorgione. Was it by Giorgione? I doubt it very much. But the annoying thing was I didn't get a chance even to dream - the auction house hung up the phone line just as the bidding got under way. They made no attempt to call back, and wouldn't answer the phone when I called. Cases like that make you wonder if there's something awry going on.
That said, it's a moot point whether it's ever worth going to sleepers in France. Under French law, a vendor can cancel a sale if a picture was incorrectly catalogued, or sue the buyer for the difference in value - and what is more they have a twenty year window in which to do so. Pehaps it was just as well the auction house today was useless. Bof.
National Gallery strike over
October 2 2015
News just in that the strike is over. It seems to be a more or less complete defeat for the Union. 'We will not be slienced', they said last week when protesting about 'privatisation' at the Gallery. But now they've agreed unanimously to silence themselves. The Securitas contract will go ahead, as it always would. Here is the strikers' statement:
Our members at the National Gallery voted unanimously today to return to work after we reached an agreement to end the dispute.
The news comes shortly after we marked 100 days on strike since February.
We opposed the privatisation of the gallery's visitor services staff and regret we have been unable to prevent it going ahead.
We are however pleased to have reached an agreement with the gallery and contractor Securitas that would mean protection of terms and conditions and a return to work for our senior rep Candy Udwin. We thank the new director Gabriele Finaldi and the company for their commitment to genuine negotiations.
Strike action is being suspended pending ministerial approval and a ballot of our members over the deal, which also includes union recognition with the company and the London living wage.
Staff will meet outside the gallery at 9am on Monday 5 October to go back in to work together.
More information will be published as soon as it is available.
Our general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "We are pleased to have reached this agreement and on behalf of the union I would like to pay particular tribute to Candy, who is looking forward to returning to the job she loves, and to all our members at the gallery.
"We still do not believe privatisation was necessary but we will work with the new company and the gallery to ensure a smooth transition and, importantly, to ensure standards are maintained at this world-renowned institution."
The terms and conditions and London Living wage were agreed long ago, and are already part of the Securitas deal. The only 'victory' here for the strikers seems to be the reinstatement of Candy Udwin, something AHN predicted a few weeks ago as the only way out of the impasse.
However, the PCS union and the strikers had presented this battle as one against the Securitas deal in any form. 'No privatisation at the National Gallery' was their rallying cry. And so by their own terms they have failed to achieve anything meaningful. Over 100 days of continuous strikes, with no pay for striking staff, tens of thousands of visitors disappointed, numerous education trips cancelled, all for the reinstatement of one employee who was always likely to be re-instated anyway by an employment tribunal. Was it really worth it? What did all that social-mediary, rallying, shouting, petitioning, and protesting really achieve?
However, let us hope that lessons have been learnt at the National Gallery on how not to conduct negotiations like this in the future. With greater political deftness the whole affair might easily have been avoided.
Update - there is some heroic spinning of the outcome over on Socialist Worker. It's worth looking at their coverage in full. First:
Gallery bosses have conceded to almost all of the strikers’ demands.
Hmm. Not really, since the 'all out strike' was an attempt to stop the Securitas deal in its tracks, and was called in response to the Gallery signing the contract. By giving in now, before the Securitas regime has even taken over, the strikers have effectively signalled their acceptance of a 'privatisation' they said would be museum armageddon.
[...] the strike has forced Securitas to agree to recognise PCS in the gallery.
Nothing unusual there. Even 'privatised' workers have the right to union membership. And should they wish to join a union other than PCS, they are perfectly able to.
And [Securitas] have guaranteed that terms and conditions will not be changed without the agreement of the union. They have also won guarantees on rosters and staffing levels.
By law, staff transferred from the public sector to the private sector are guaranteed the same terms and conditions. So the 'agreement of the union' is moot. As The Socialist Worker later concedes '[Securitas] had already agreed that conditions for existing staff would not change.'
Securitas have also agreed that new staff will be recruited on terms and conditions “broadly comparable” to those of existing staff.
'Broadly comparable'. In other words, Securitas are not under any new obligation here at all. Window dressing.
Securitas will continue to pay workers the London Living Wage plus enhancements, which they won during the course of their dispute in April.
Yes - 'won... in April', long before the 'all out strike'.
Meanwhile gallery bosses have agreed to a review of the privatisation after 12 months.
An unconditional 'review'. More window-dressing.
And there will be an investigation run by the gallery into relations between bosses and workers broke down in the run up to the first strike in January.
But the reinstatement of Candy is one of the biggest victories of the strike. The fact that it was one of the strikers’ key demands is the reason she is getting her job back.
Good news for Candy, and from what little I can gather, deserved. But was the reinstatement of one worker really worth the wider disruption and campaign? Would a fairly run Employment Tribunal hearing not have come to her aid anyway? One would like to think so, but she has been reinstated before the hearing, which was due later this month.
The Socialist Worker calls these 'huge concessions' and argues that they are 'proof that strikes can win'. But these are not huge concessions. They are barely even minor ones. Instead, they are what diplomats call a 'pont d'or' - a carefully choreographed series of 'golden bridges' over which the PCS union could retreat without too much loss of face.
The article ends with a warning of further action to come:
“We feel like we’ve come a long way,” one striker told Socialist Worker. “But there’s also a feeling we have to take it further—and we are going to take it further. We’re still opposed to the fact that a private company is going to be running the National Gallery.”
New ivory trade ban
October 2 2015
The US and China have agreed a new 'almost total' ban on ivory trade. The bad news for lovers of portrait miniatures (which, since the early 18thC were painted on ivory) is that there is no concession for authenticated works of art like portrait miniatures. Here is the text of the US order banning the ivory trade - you can bring in an 18thC portrait miniature for an exhibition, but not for sale.
Whether preventing the sale of, say, a 1770s miniature by Richard Cosway will save any elephants remains to be seen.
Update - a reader has pointed me to this exemption for antiques. However, as far as portrait miniatures is concerned, the crucial paragraph of the regulations is this one:
The importer must provide documented evidence of species identification and age to demonstrate that the article qualifies as an ESA antique. This can include a qualified appraisal, documents that provide detailed provenance, and/or scientific testing. The Service considers this to be a high bar, particularly as it relates to the import of African elephant ivory (because the AECA moratorium prohibits the import of most African elephant ivory, including most antiques). Notarized statements or affidavits by the importer or a CITES pre-Convention certificate alone are not necessarily adequate proof that the article meets the ESA exception.
The 'high bar' referred to is a little vague, but in effect it means that you have to prove your portrait miniature on ivory is from an Indian elephant, not an African one. It so happens that Indian ivory was in fact the medium mostly used for portrait miniatures, but it's more or less impossible to scientifically prove that fact (with DNA testing) without destroying the miniature in question. And nor is it cost effective, when most miniatures are sold for less than £10,000. All the signs are, so far, that the US authorities are not goint to take a simple factual or art historical statement as proof that the ivory is of the exempt kind.
Update II - a Consultant Hydrometallurgical Engineer writes:
There is apparently a non-destructive scientific method for determining whether ivory is African or Asian. A summary is presented in Paul Craddock's book "Scientific Investigation of Copies, Fakes and Forgeries" p.422 et seq, along with references to assorted learned publications which detail the methodology. The equipment (a Fourier Transform Laser Raman Spectroscope) is something most university chemistry departments will have.
I used one of these many years ago and the same instrument was being used by the conservation department at the National Gallery of Australia to examine paint pigments on assorted items in the collection (including Pollock's Blue Poles).
Providing the methodology holds up to closer scrutiny, then it shouldn't be too costly to distinguish between the two different elephant ivories.
Fascinating. Emails like this are one of the reasons I love doing this blog.
National Gallery strike - end in sight?
October 1 2015
The new director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, held his first press conference yesterday, and a few interesting things emerged. First, it seems there has been a drop of 35% in visitor numbers over the summer (reports The Art Newspaper). And second, Dr Finaldi appears to have stated (as reported in The Guardian) that the Securitas contract will still go ahead, in November as planned:
Finaldi confirmed that the jobs will be outsourced to Securitas from November, but said he hoped for a smooth transition with no jobs lost, and all staff paid the London living wage. “I hope to see all our staff back to work as soon as possible, and to offer an open gallery to all our visitors.”
Today, the BBC reports that the PCS union has spoken positively of new talks with the Gallery. This is most unusual - the PCS' language has until now been brimming with hostility. Says the BBC:
A PCS union spokesman said talks with the National Gallery had made "good progress".
"We are very hopeful of a resolution shortly," he added.
Since the PCS has turned this strike into a campaign against any outsourcing and privatisation at the Gallery, it's hard to see how they can back down now without having stopped the Securitas deal from going ahead. I wonder what has changed.
€160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)
September 30 2015
Picture: via Tribune De L'Art
It's official - the Dutch and French governments have agreed to buy one each.
Update - this goes up and down like a yo-yo. A reader writes:
The deal is not official. Our minister of finance reserved €80 mil when we would acquire both portraits. Now it's one, there is no reason to take the reservation back and give just half. In the NRC newspaper Dijsselbloem (financial minister) stated that he sees no reason to ask the Rijksmuseum to gather at least half of half price of these pictures. This means that the Rijksmuseum is possibly still looking for €40 mil! In my book this doesn't sound like a done deal at all!!
Evidently, when you get two governments involved in buying such major works of art, you also get a degree of posturing and premature announcements.
Update II - so it seems that the Dutch government, when it appeared last week that the French were not going to go 50/50 on the paintings, pledged €80 as a 50% contribution, with the other half to be found by private donors (or perhaps not at all). Some institutions had already stepped up to the plate, such as the Rembrandt Association, with €5m. But now that the French are back in, and the Dutch government's €80m only has to account for one painting, those who had pledged money are backtracking. Bit of a mess, really. But better than the original French government plan, which was to not bother to keep the paintings in France at all.
Here's the latest view from Didier Rykner, whose estimable blog Tribune de L'Art started the whole thing off.
Update III - the BBC reports that the deal was clinched at the UN with a meeting between President Hollande and the Dutch PM Mark Rutte.
New Michelangelo discovery!
September 29 2015
Picture: PR Newswire
Or perhaps not. Here's a press release from a Swiss art authentication firm:
The hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti from 1494 was presented to the public at a media conference on September 8, along with an explanation of the detailed study of the sculptures by the «Art Research Foundation».
The study analyzes the plausibility of the object's time of origin using technical and scientific methods.
An analysis report on the pigments and bonding agents has been written by Professor Dr. Hermann Kühn of Munich. The examination of the surface and the sequence of layers in the cross sections and their appearance under the microscope clearly verify that the paints represent the first or original polychromy. In addition, the analyses of the pigments and bonding agents confirm the time of origin as circa 1494 and the country of origin as Italy. Prof. Dr. Kühn has also written a report on the state of preservation of the Atlantese consoles, in which the pair of sculptures is described as being in a very good state, bearing in mind that the wood sculptures are more than 500 years old and still in their unspoiled, original condition, including the painting.
The14C-dating was carried out by Dr. G. Bonani of the Institute for Particle Physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The dating of the wood, which was performed using AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry), showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.
Only when the period of creation had been proven beyond any doubt could the analysis in the context of art history be embarked upon and stylistic comparisons drawn with confirmed works. In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.
In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.
Note to scientists: proving that these curious cherubs, which might happily grace the bow of a ship, were made in the late 15th Century is not the same as proving they were made by one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived. A bit of documentation or art history would be much appreciated next time.
Update - a reader writes:
The putti are attractive but if they are fifteenth century & very early Michelangelo and in excellent condition then 1) what is the provenance which enabled them to remain intact and together, 2) who cleaned them and when. Anything half a millennium old accumulates a coating of smoke and pollution which has apparently been cleaned. That coating contains information regarding where they were and when. If they were cleaned regularly during the centuries it is unlikely that the paint would be intact so the cleaning was probably recent.
“Possibly by Michelangelo” is much better than some candidates that appear which are only “allegedly by Michelangelo”.
Sotheby's take Old Masters to Hong Kong
September 29 2015
Interesting to see that Sotheby's are taking a selection of Old Masters to Hong Kong - and they're all for sale. The private treaty offering includes the above portrait of a Shepherdess attributed to Rubens & Studio, which was recently part of the Rubens in Private exhibition at the Rubenshuis museum in Antwerp. The display is from 2nd October to 7th.
A Polish restitution
September 29 2015
Picture: Washington Post
The above portrait by Krzysztof Lubieniecki was looted during WW2 by the Nazis from the National Museum in Warsaw. It was recovered by Allied forces, but as seems to have happened quite often was quietly taken back to America by a US soldier. Recently, the picture was traced to Ohio, and the current owners have agreed to send the picture back to Poland. More here.
Help clean this Rubens?
September 29 2015
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery in London has launched a new online fundraising campaign (after the success of their recent first effort) to raise money to clean the above painting by Rubens, The Birth of Venus. The Gallery seeks £34,500, because:
Preliminary cleaning tests undertaken by National Gallery conservator Paul Ackroyd have revealed the shimmering white and grey tones of the original sketch, which would have vividly evoked the lustre of polished silver. By removing the top layer of discoloured varnish, Rubens’s modelling and detailing will be revealed.
£34,500 seems an awful lot of money just to remove a layer of old varnish. If my conservator quoted that price to me for such a straightforward job, I'd tell him where to go.
But still, it's a good cause, and I guess they like to take their time at the Gallery. The picture itself seems to be in excellent condition. More here.
Update - a reader writes:
[...] I guess [the appeal is] part of a new initiative to raise funds for smaller projects, following on from that for the frame for a Titian earlier.
Problem for me is that it’s for the wrong project.
It’s a primary function of the Gallery to look after their (i.e. our) paintings and they have established an extensive conservation studio to do this so, in effect, this appeal is reimbursing them for something they should be doing already. Indeed, and as the published Minutes for the Board Meeting in May note, the Gallery started the process last May. By this appeal are they indicating that it won’t go ahead if the money’s not raised?
And, as you rightly point out, It’s a lot of money. As the work looks fairly straightforward, it would be interesting to find out what their estimated hourly rate they are using to come up with the figure. And they do tend to take their time over things – Rembrandt’s Rihel portrait was in the studio for three and a half years. [...]
Why don’t they appeal for additions to the collection? Edinburgh have greatly enriched their collection over recent years by purchasing significant, but relatively inexpensive, acquisitions – this sort of project would be the ideal subject for fundraising through JustGiving.
I think I agree. Relatively low-level online appeals like this, which I am entirely in favour of, are probably best used to acquire things, be they frames or pictures. There's an element of 'crying wolf' here; if the National Gallery is seen to be using such appeals to simply substitute things they should already be doing, and indeed in this case have already started doing, then people may begin to tune out, and ignore appeals they think are just yet another way of boosting the coffers. I really don't think the high price tag in this case helps either. And, while I'm at it (National Gallery development team please note) these appeals really need to be better presented - video, better photos, that sort of thing.
September 29 2015
Picture: Doc Martens
Those clever fellows at Dr Martens have made a range of shoes and bags with Hogarths on them. They were unveiled in London last night at the Soane Museum.
They're a bit too Rabelaisian for me. But if Dr Marten ever turn to Van Dyck, I'm in.
Creating 'value' in the contemporary market
September 28 2015
Scott Reyburn in The New York Times* looks at how values for contemporary artists might be set:
Say, for example, I discover a brilliant young artist on Facebook. After a crazy week at my house in the Hamptons, he has made 30 abstract paintings for me, which I’ve bought for a total of $90,000. Having posted examples on Instagram, I enter one of these paintings into a contemporary day sale and ask two business associates, who are cut in on the deal, to bid it up to $150,000. After the sale, a benchmark auction price posted on Artnet, and news of the artist’s inclusion in a forthcoming museum show — which happens to be curated by a friend of mine — establishes my new acquaintance as a hot young artist. Over the next six months, we discreetly sell 20 more paintings at auction and privately for an average price of $70,000 each.
This fictional scenario may or may not have parallels with last year’s mania for “flipping” young art at auction. But there’s no escaping the increasing opacity of certain moments at recent public sales. Just what exactly is going on when a dealer tops up the bidding on a young artist in whom he has taken an investment position? And are there conflicts of interest when an auction house shares a financial guarantee with a third party?
Does this sort of thing happen? Of course. Which is why the auction market is a perfect way to stoke prices for contemporary art - there are so many ways people with a vested interest can help massage the figures, and those figures are so publicly accessible. Add in a bit of glitz, fashion and prestige, and hey presto - it's boomtime.
But the practices outlined by Reyburn can only happen as long prices overall go upward. In a deflationary market, very few people are going to pile into auctions to help fix 'values', because they'll know nobody else is waiting to follow suit and pick up the baton. In other words, the contemporary market, at all levels, is mostly still driven onwards by genuine interest and competition. At least, for now.
The question on everyone's lips is - should we 'regulate' this market? I don't know if that's possible for a start. The market is too international and fluid. And in any case what is there to regulate? Authenticity? I'd like to see governments try that. More likely to be regulated is the financial element of things. Certainly, I think it's wrong, given the importance of published auction prices in this market, for false 'prices' to be published - as they sometimes are when you have guaranteed lots.
But mostly this question comes down to whether buyers are well-informed or not. All these alleged dodgy practices are in fact fairly well known. It should be fairly obvious when an artist of little track record is suddenly 'worth' lots of money, merely because a few of their works have sold well at auction. You just need to do your homework, like you would when you buy a house. In my old-fashioned view of the world, there's still something to be said for keeping responsibility in the hands of the buyer. The state can't always protect us from ourselves. Caveat emptor.
Update - Robert Millburn on Barrons.com notes how top heavy the modern and contemporary market is:
Art investors should also note that the market is built on an increasingly flimsy foundation. Based on 2014 total sales volumes, investors buying top-ranked artist, Andy Warhol, spent a whopping $653 million for the privilege. By comparison, the value at fine art sold at auction last year was $16.2 billion. The top ten artists in 2014 accounted for almost 20% of the art market’s entire value; back in 2005, the top ten accounted for just 13% of the total.
Of course, the work of artists like Warhol is perfectly suited to an auction market boom; auction prices make his work easy to price, with all those series and formats. So if a 'Triple Elvis' makes $Xm, then a double is worth so much, and so on. But such 'values' depend entirely on whether the price set is both a) accurately reported and b) set in a competitive manner.
* I learn via Art Market Monitor
Italian export laws - an overhaul?
September 28 2015
In The Art Newspaper, Ermanno Rivetti reports that the Italian government is being lobbied to change the laborious procedures for exporting works of art from Italy. At the moment, any painting of any value, even if it's just €1, must apply for an export licence. The idea is that Italy's art trade will get a much needed shot in the arm if reform of things like export laws is undertaken.
Last week, I spotted an interesting picture coming up in an Italian auction, by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. The estimate was just €800. But I gave up trying to book a phone line, for the time and expense of dealing with the auction house's bureacracy (passport, various forms to fill in, and a guarantee to be made that I was prepared to buy the picture at the reserve even before the auction had started), as well as applying for an export licence, meant it just wasn't worth it.
Gratuitous white glove shot (ctd.)
September 28 2015
From the Telegraph and Sotheby's comes a new gem in the genre. To highlight the news that Sotheby's is to sell John Constable's own version of The Lock (est. £8m-£12m), we have here a photo of a Sotheby's porter (female, naturally) lifting the painting from the top and the side, all whilst up a ladder. Some feat. What did she have for breakfast?
Christie's recently sold another, better known, version of the painting for over £22m. Wonder what this one will make.
Update - I'm told it's not a porter, but a press officer.
€160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)
September 25 2015
Picture: via Tribune De l'Art
According to AFP, the joint acquisition of Rembrandt's Portraits of Marten and Oopjen Soolmans between France and Holland is back on the table. It seemed earlier this week that only the Rijksmuseum was going to make an attempt to buy them. According to AFP, however, the Bank of France is going to buy one picture at €80m. And with the Dutch government saying they'll already put in €80m for another, then that would appear to be job done.
The paintings will rotate between the two museums. If this comes off, it's a pretty good result. Not ideal, if you're French and want the pictures to stay in France. But given the price and lack of money, a joint purchase, spreading the Rembrandt-ian joy between two countries, is quite an attractive outcome. Didier Rykner of Tribune De L'Art, who first broke the story, is not happy at the way the whole affair has been handled.
New Director for the British Museum
September 25 2015
Congratulations to Hartwig Fischer, who has been appointed the new director of the British Museum. He was formerly director general of the Dresden State Art Collections. More here.
Has Mona Lisa been found?!
September 25 2015
After four years, the search for Mona Lisa's bones (led by Silvano Vincenti, above) has come to an end. All they have is a bit of leg which is being hailed in the news as 'Mona Lisa', but actually there's no proof it's her. They were hoping to do DNA testing on Lisa Gherardini's descendants, but there's not enough material to take a DNA sample from. In other words, the whole thing has been a waste of time. As some people said when it all started.
I'd like to know who paid for all this, and why?
Update - according to Fox News, the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo di Caprio.