Getty seeks to buy major Parmigianino
August 30 2016
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has bought, or at least is seeking to buy, a major work by Parmigianino currently in Britain; 'The virgin and Child with St John and Mary Magdalene'. The LA Times reports that the sale is being brokered through Sotheby's, and an export licence has been applied for. But no value is given, and so far I can see no reference to the picture on the export licensing website - so it must be in the early stages of the process.
The picture is part of the Sudeley Castle collection. It used to be on loan to the National Gallery in London. I hesitate to place a value on such a rare and important thing - but it must be in the tens of millions. Let us hope some UK museum wants to lead the charge to keep it.
Incidentally, I see from the export license website that the application to export the £30m Pontormo Portrait of a Man has been deferred till October. Which presumably means someone is making a bold bid to keep it in the UK - though there has been no public campaign.
'Can Old Masters be relevant again?'
August 29 2016
What is it with the New York Times and Old Masters? Here's another piece saying that the Old Master market is declining. It follows what has now become a fixed formula for their articles on the Old Master market: lead with an innacurate and selective statistic; quote prominently from an auctioneer of modern and contemporary art whose obvious interest lies in pushing, er, modern and contemporary art; and bury the thoughts of anyone positive about the Old Master market at the bottom of the piece (if they're quoted at all).
First, here's that statistic:
[in auctions in 2015] the values of works by old masters — a pantheon of European painters working before around 1800 — fell by 33 percent, according to the 2016 Tefaf Art Market Report.
This would be big news, if it were true. In fact, what the Tefaf report actually said was that the overall sale totals of Old Master paintings sold at auction (only part of the wider market picture) in 2015 was down by 33% compared with 2014.
Of course, a decline in the accumulated sale totals of Old Master paintings offered at auction does not relate to the actual 'value' of Old Master paintings. Because the Old Master market is relatively small, and because not every sale contains a £30m Turner or a £45m Rubens, annual sale totals can be quite volatile. In fact, 2014 saw a bumper year for Old Master auctions, and if you look at the catalogues of the leading Old Master sales in 2015 you'll find very few mega pictures. So the 33% change in sale totals from 2014 to 2015 is not the headline news the Times has made it out to be.
Indeed, the next Tefaf report will surely post a sharp increase in Old Master sale totals for 2016. We have already had the sale of Rubens' £45m 'Lot and his Daughters' (above) in London in July, on which three new Chinese collectors bid, and also the $30m Gentileschi sold in New York in January. Of course, don't hold your breath for any 'Old Masters are back!' articles (except from me).
Incidentally, if you look at the Tefaf report in detail (and here's Art Market Monitor's summary) you'll see that the volume of Old Master sales rose by 4% - which was against the trend in the wider art market. In other words, more people were buying Old Masters last year. The answer to the New York Times' headline, therefore, is; 'Yes'.
The Times article also illustrates, though perhaps unwittingly, why anyone who really knows about the art market doesn't equate the Old Master market directly with how the modern and contemporary market works:
Christie’s, for example, trains its old master specialists for six to seven years, whereas its contemporary experts get three to four years.
In other words, selling Old Masters is expensive, because you have to do it well. You can't just cut and paste your Cy Twombly notes from one auction catalogue to the next, and look forward to raking in the commissions. You have to think and work hard at selling Old Masters.
Here is an earlier AHN sticking up for Old Masters under attack from the New York Times.
Update - I tried to point the statistical innacuracry out gently to the author of the piece, Robin Pogrebin, but got no response. There was me thinking the New York Times always strived for accuracy...
Update II - another part of the Times formula for these articles is to quote a long-standing art dealer who is mystified by today's market. Previoulsy, Richard Feigen in New York has been relied on for a good quote, but this time it's Guy Sainty of London:
The London dealer Guy Sainty, who has long specialized in old masters, said that he is mystified and frustrated. “I’ve been an art dealer for nearly 40 years, and I just don’t get it — I don’t understand where the collectors have gone, the people with knowledge,” he said.
The quote is a good reflection of how the Old Master market has changed. In my experience, collectors are still out there, you just have to know how to reach them. It's not good just doing the same old art fairs. Above all, dealers can't just rely on people 'with knowledge' walking into their upstairs galleries any more. Dealers now have to help impart that knowledge, and enthuse new collectors; we need to be ambassadors for our product. At the moment, it's the auction houses that are doing this most effectively - so it's no wonder dealers are losing market share.
Marian Jeffares 1916-1986
August 25 2016
Picture: Neil Jeffares
Regular readers will know about Neil Jeffares' art historical work, and also his blog. He is the leading expert on French 18th Century pastels, and his freely searchable Dictionary of Pastellists has revolutionised our ability to learn more about this unjustly neglected corner of painting. AHN appointed him a 'Hero of Art History' some time ago, though such is his modesty and industriousness that he will squirm to read these sentences.
Anyway, I've just read his extraordinary and moving account of the life and work of his mother, Marian Jeffares, who is, as Neil says, 'entirely forgotten' these days, though she enjoyed critical success in her lifetime. Above is a drawing made during the war, in 1944. I encourage AHNers to read it, not only because the story is fascinating in itself, but also because I've rarely seen an example of art writing that is at once so compellingly passionate and dispassionate about an artist and their work. It is in that sense a powerful example of good art criticism - which of course is the fundamental skill of a connoisseur (and Neil is a great connoisseur).
Britain's regional collections
August 25 2016
Picture: ArtUK/National Trust
There's a good piece by Martin Gayford in The Spectator on the richness of Britain's regional collections. Here he recounts a visit to see a pair of Claude's in Cambridgeshire:
Last Sunday, I went to see two of the greatest paintings in Britain — at least in the estimation of our Georgian ancestors. When they first arrived here, in 1790, they were accompanied by a special naval escort. After Turner saw one of them, he said the experience made him both ‘pleased and unhappy’, because it seemed beyond his powers to imitate.
These are the so-called ‘Altieri’ Claudes, by any reckoning among the most spectacular pictures produced in late 17th-century Rome. Today they hang at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, where — at least on the afternoon I was there — few others had found their way to see them. Not that the place lacked visitors. The car park was packed; the park and gardens full of family parties sitting in deck chairs enjoying the unusual experience of hot weather in an English summer.
There were plenty of people in the rest of the house, diligently examining the bedrooms, bathrooms and possessions of the late Lord Fairhaven, who left it all to the National Trust. But not many penetrated to the room where the Claudes hang, down a staircase near the end of the circuit, although a mother came in while I was there together with a toddler who took an intense interest in both ‘The Father of Psyche sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo’ (1662–63) [above] and ‘The Landing of Aeneas at Latium’ (1675). We could both examine the fabulously delicate treatment of woodland shade, distant hills and light-filled air in tranquillity, far from the madding and maddening tourists and tour groups you would be surrounded by in, say, the Louvre. It was a good example of an old-fashioned experience: going to the country to look at art.
Jacky Klein and I will be highlighting other treasures from Britain's regional collections soon in 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (for which I'm afraid you'll have to expect many more plugs in the coming weeks). It's currently scheduled to begin on BBC4 on Wednesday 14th May at 9pm.
In the meantime, Art UK allows you to rummage through all of Britain's paintings, whether in London or the Shetlands.
Update - just heard today that the schedule has changed for 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces'; it looks like it is now going to start on Thursday 24th September. Will confirm more as soon as I know.
Medieval 'Death Poem' on view in Stratford
August 25 2016
Picture: Coventry Telegraph
A rare medieval church wall painting in Stratford upon Avon is now on view to the public for the first time, after a £100,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The paintings were covered up during the Reformation by John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare's father. More on the opening here, and more photos of the painting, and others in the church, here.
August 25 2016
There are three new jobs open at Tate - one of which is as Assistant Curator, Modern British Art. To qualify, you'll need:
[...] a degree or post-graduate degree in art history or a related field, along with a broad knowledge of twentieth-century art, and demonstrable relevant work experience working with displays, exhibitions or a permanent collection. You will also need specialist knowledge of at least some aspect of the area that the post covers: Modern British Art.
The salary, however, is £24,360, for a full-time position. AHN has huffed and puffed about low curatorial salaries before (e.g here). But it's especially curious to see such low salaries being offered at Tate, one of the world's leading and best funded museums. Only a few weeks ago they opened a new £260m extension at Tate Modern. If it was possible to raise such sums for a building, why not a fraction of that to pay people properly?
Over on Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton has done some further number crunching, and points out that:
[...] with starting annual salaries of £24,360 [...] the average monthly rent in London, £1,561 (~$2,065), will gobble up all but £5,628 (~$7,450) — or 23% — of that.
Though Tate’s entry-level assistant curator salary works out to £13 (~$17.20) per hour before taxes, comfortably over the London Living Wage of £9.40 (~$12.44) per hour, it amounts to just half of the average London salary of £48,023 (~$63,500).
And don't forget the cost of those degree-level qualifications you'll need to apply - the average student debt in the UK is £44,000. For a PhD it's way more.
The Tate's job website says:
Our jobs are like our galleries, open to all.
But the reality is that the low pay offered, twinned with the expensive skill requirements, means only the better off can afford to apply - and this can hardly lead to the diverse workforce Tate aspires to achieve.
Meanwhile, Tate in Liverpool is looking for artists for a 'Socially Engaged Commission'. The artist will need to:
[...] research and deliver a new commission in Spring, 2017. The commission process will include a research period with the opportunity to develop a new work at Tate Liverpool, in collaboration with local communities and a network of established partners in the North of England and beyond. [...]
Artists should have experience of working in the field of collaborative socially engaged practice, understand the ethical issues involved, be relevant to local conditions and engage a broad audience.
You get £40,000 for that.
Update - here's an advert on Codart for a Junior Curator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so in terms of experience and seniority a broadly comparable job as that advertised at Tate. You need to have a degree, though no mention is made of post-graduate degrees. The salary depends on experience but is a minimum of €34,344 a year, with a maximum of €44,928.
Quite a difference - and I bet Amsterdam's a cheaper place to live than London.
August 24 2016
I've decided to have a go at Instagram. Here's my so far dormant account, if you'd like to come along for the ride.
My first task is to get a new phone, with a camera that actually works.
Update - not so fast, Groves: of course, getting a phone upgrade (from O2) involves a world of pain and 'computer says no'.
New discoveries in the Sewell collection
August 24 2016
Christie's, who are selling the collection of the late Brian Sewell, have made some important discoveries amongst his Old Master drawings. Reports the ATG:
One of the Sewell’s notable finds was a finely executed study on paper of a soldier carrying a ladder [above]. While the identity of the artist has long been a mystery, the drawing has now been attributed to the Florentine artist Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630) by Dr. Julian Brooks – the recently appointed senior curator and head of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The technique of using black chalk heightened with white on blue paper was found to be characteristic of Ciampelli in the late 16th century, while the subject of the two figures (one with a ladder and the other a torch) was deemed to relate to a Medici marriage in 1589.
Doig or didn't he? (ctd.)
August 23 2016
Picture: New York Times
3.15pm US central time, Judge Feinerman rules that Doig: 'absolutely did not paint the disputed work'.
Update - various outlets report some of the judge's remarks and findings. Here's Artnet News:
“While most narratives have gaps,” Feinerman went on to say, “and certainly both narratives have gaps, the evidence conclusively demonstrates that despite some gaps, Peter Marryat Doig absolutely did not paint the disputed work.”
Feinerman then reviewed all the details of the case, painstakingly going through the evidence and repeatedly stating that Peter Doig and his mother Mary had “testified credibly” about Doig’s whereabouts, employment, education, where they were backed up by more than ample evidence.” Most importantly, the judge stated that Peter Doig “Could not have entered the Thunder Bay Correctional Institute in August and could not have been the author of the painting.”
As for the contradictions between the timeline Doig initially sent to his own gallery, stating that he didn’t go to high school in ’76/’77, Feinerman called this a “hiccup” in the narrative and underlined that this “understandable mistake that does not harm Mr. Doig’s credibility because it was 40 years ago,” citing his own imprecise memories of being a counselor at Camp Ojibwa decades ago. Feinerman took a similar position on Doig’s lack of tax records, pointing out that not many teens even file taxes for part-time employment, much less keep records for decades afterwards.
Saying that glitches in Doig’s statement would have had more significance if it wasn’t for the “unmistakable and unimpeachable evidence” that supported his final timeline, including a letter from the summer of 1977 from Mary Doig to her own mother in Great Britain saying that “Peter phoned from Edmonton.” Reading aloud that “Peter’s hair is long and messy and if you smell his hat, it smells of oil,” Feinerman emphasized how Mary would have had no conceivable motive to invent these details, which corroborated her son’s timeline about where he was when the painting was made.
Turning to the evidence that Peter Doige “almost certainly painted the work,” Judge Feinerman described the deceased man’s sister’s testimony as “the third cherry on top of the sundae.” [...]
The judge ruled against the plaintiffs on both counts, ruling that the painting wasn’t by Doig, and that this “unjustified interference” in the painting’s sale at auction was, in fact, justified. Underlining the fact that Doig’s representatives had threatened suit only if the painting was sold “as a work by Mr. Doig,” Feinerman stated that “An artist is well within his rights to ensure that works he did not create are not sold under his name.”
Doig's lawyer said:
“I have rarely seen such a flagrant example of unethical conduct in the US courts nor a case that inflicted such needless burdens on a defendant,” said Matthew S. Dontzin, the lawyer representing Doig and his gallery, Michael Werner, in an email to artnet News. “Artists should be grateful to Peter for having the ethical and financial fortitude to fight tirelessly to ensure that justice prevailed in today’s verdict.”
Doig said (in the New York Times):
Mr. Doig, who was not in court but called in to hear the ruling, said from Rome by telephone that he felt angry that he had been forced to prove he had not painted the work.
“I feel a living artist should be the one who gets to say yea or nay and not be taken to task and forced to go back 40 years in time. It was painstaking to piece this together,” he said.
This trial must go down as one of the most ridiculous in art history. Frankly, the judge should be ashamed of himself for allowing it to go ahead. Nothing in his verdict can come remotely as a surprise to anyone who spent even half a day reading the details of the case. A week long trial was not necessary, and a waste of Doig's and the court's time. It was blindingly obvious that this painting was not by Doig, and that those who claimed it was had no evidence whatsoever that he had painted it. They presented merely supposition and conspiracy to the court. At best, the plaintiff's case was one of mistaken identity - this picture was surely painted by the late Peter Doige. But Judge Feinerman fell for it. Perhaps he enjoyed the publicity. The case will stand as a model for how attributions should not be decided in court.
It is also an uncomfortable example of how the US legal system permits legal harassment and bullying. Doig should never have had to go to the lengths he did to prove he did not paint this picture. Having to rely on dragging your mother to court, and the fortunate survival of letters from the 1970s (to prove he wasn't in jail) placed an unjustified burden of proof on Doig. What if those letters had not survived, or his mother had passed away? The court gave every indication that it was not enough for Doig to simply say he did not paint the painting - he had to prove he did not. But how do you prove a negative?
The conclusion in the press and amongst commentators is that this case gives comfort to artists, and allows them to say that they did or did not create works. In fact, it does not do that; as far as I can see, there is no precedent set in this case where the judge has said, 'an artist has the right to say they did or did not create a work'. On the contrary, Judge Feinerman has made a point of going through all the evidence about who was where when, specifically to see if Doig was correct in saying he did not paint the picture. In that sense, the case simply demonstrates that any old chancer with access to a lawyer and a US court can create distress and financial loss to an artist for having the temerity to give an opinion on a work of art.
Worse still, the case presents an even greater dilemma for experts in antique paintings. In Doig's case, we had an artist in the dock saying 'I didn't paint that' - and still that wasn't enough to persuade the judge. So what do we do for a Rembrandt, who is very dead?
Say you're an expert on Rembrandt in the US, and a dealer sends you a painting they say is by Rembrandt, and which might have been valued as such, for appraisal. If you think it is not by Rembrandt, are you now going to feel able to say so? Might you be worried about being sued for 'interfering in the sale' of the painting, and be harassed for damages? You'd be right to be worried, for the Doig case shows that even the most groundless claim on attribution can now be dragged through the courts at great expense over years. This daft case could yet have a worrying effect on art history.
[...] I don't think artists should be especially heartened by the decision. The case still stands as a warning that an artist who disclaims authorship of a work -- even on facts as ridiculous as these -- faces the possibility of thousands of hours of wasted working time and stress and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Update III - Marion Maneker of the AMM tells me on Twitter that under the 1990 US Visual Artists Rights Act, an artist has the right to say a work they created is no longer their work. But in this case, because the painting was not by Doig, or might not be, the Act afforded Doig no protection. Which of course is baffling. Marion also tells us that Judge Feinerman said in his summary:
An artist is well within his rights to ensure that art he did not create is not sold under his name.
Which begs the question of why Judge Feinerman felt compelled to hear this case in the first place?
I hope Doig seeks and gets full costs from the plaintiffs.
Update IV - a reader writes:
In regards to Update III of your recent Doig post [...] the 1990 US Visual Artists Rights Act. 17 U.S. Code § 106A reads:
Subject to section 107 and independent of the exclusive rights provided in section 106, the author of a work of visual art— (1) shall have the right— . . . (B) to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create;
In fact, I believe it would have been under this law that Doig would have been able to sue Fletcher and Bartlow if they had tried to go forward with the sale.
Clearly, in this case, Doig was not afforded the protection the act would appear to afford. Either that, or the judge did not pay sufficient heed to it.
Two new series of 'Fake or Fortune?'
August 23 2016
I was wrong about a new series of 'Fake or Fortune?' being commissioned - in fact there will be two new series.
Here's a list of the artists we've investigated so far, in order, along with a score of whether the pictures were deemed to be genuine or not.
- Monet - No (scandalously, in my opinion)
- Winslow Homer - Yes
- Van Meegeren - Yes
- Rembrandt - No (Isaac de Joudreville instead)
- Degas - Yes
- Turner - Yes
- Van Dyck - Yes (the portrait of Henrietta Maria)
- Vuillard - Yes
- Constable - Yes & maybe (though subsequently upgraded to yes).
- Chagall - No (a modern fake alas)
- Gainsborough - Yes
- Lowry - Yes
- Renoir - No (scandalously)
- 'A Mystery Old Master' - attributed to Francesco Montemezzano
- Munnings and Churchill - Yes and No (wrongly, in my opinion)
- Freud - Yes
- Delaroche - Yes
- Rodin - No
- 'Three Portraits' - De Kooning (Yes), Mercier (Yes), Menzel (No)
More information on all the episodes here.
'Dutch Flowers: In conversation'
August 23 2016
Video: National Gallery
Nice discussion here between a curator (Betsy Wieseman) and collector (Brian Capstick) of Dutch flower paintings.
Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)
August 23 2016
Picture: AHN reader
The French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine is a satirical weekly publication, something akin to the UK's Private Eye. So I report the above article, kindly sent by a reader, with caution. But it alleges that the panel of experts asked by a French judge to look into the authenticity of the painting bought by the Prince of Liechtenstein as a 1531 work by Cranach the Elder for €7m from a London dealer in 2013 has concluded that it is 'un faux'. For more background to the story so far, see here and here.
Quite how 'faux' the painting has been deemed to be is unclear at this stage - the article cites no direct sources. It appears to quote from a report of some description, but whether this is the actual report commissioned by the judge, we are not told. The paper claims that the panel on which the picture was painted has been dated to the 18th Century, that signs of artificial ageing have been detected on the paint surface, and that pigments 'not in accord' with the period of Cranach have been detected.
However, one source of my own tells me that the pigments used in the creation of the panel have not, as the article claims, been proved to be later, but that any traces of later pigments have been put down to restorations. This is entirely possible - Old Master pictures are often re-painted and fixed or improved throughout their lives, and the detection of later pigments is far from proof that the whole picture is 'not right'. Any strong claim that this Cranach is fake will have to assert that the faker was so clever they not only used old pigments to make it, but deliberately created some damages and then used modern re-touching media for the repair. Possible? Of course. Likely? Not easy to say.
The Canard story also reports that the panel has been determined, by dendrochronology, to be 18th Century. Now, dendrochronology is not, in my experience, the perfect science most people assume it to be. The Canard report states that the Prince of Liechtenstein has been assured by another expert in wooden panels that his panel is indeed consistent with one made in the 16th Century. If the later dendrochronology is deemed correct, then the possibility must remain that the painting is not a modern fake, but a very good old copy (or rather, something created in the 18th Century that was intended to decieve, and has been decieving people for centuries ever since).
Nevertheless, if it is the case that the picture is determined to be a modern fake, then Le Canard Enchaine is right to suggest that this will now create 'une belle panique' in the Old Master market. Everybody will be drawn into the scandal - auction houses, dealers, museums, advisers, curators, and scholars.
And though I hesitate to get off the fence at this stage, I feel I ought to report my own opinions sooner rather than later. I have not seen the Cranach in the flesh, so cannot in truth give an opinion on the picture. From the high-res photos I have wondered about the nature of the craquelure. But I must admit that until the whole possibility of fakery was raised, I did not think look at the picure and immediately think; 'that's a wrong 'un'. The same goes for another picture that has been mentioned in connection with this case. However, for what it is worth, I have seen one of the paintings mentioned in this case in person, and I am pretty convinced it is indeed a fake. I may well be wrong.
Museum buys back Durer print
August 23 2016
Picture: Art Daily
Art Daily reports that the Kunsthalle Museum in Bremen has acquired a 1501 engraving by Durer, 'Saint Eustace' (above) - over a century after it sold the work. When it was founded, the Kunsthalle had two versions of Durer's print, but sold one in 1905 to raise money to buy new works. Sadly, the retained print was destroyed in World War Two - so now the gap has been filled.
Trump - the gargoyle
August 23 2016
Picture: Samira Ahmed/Twitter
This photo (of a 700 year old Gargoyle on Southwell Minster) surfaced on Twitter this morning. It seems the fates have been trying to warn us about Trump for centuries.
Christie's at 250 years
August 23 2016
Nice montage of auctioneering life in the film above.
How to be a collector
August 23 2016
Marvel at the Paris mansion featured in Sotheby's above video (the collection of Robert de Balkany); not a spare inch of space in the whole place.
Doig or didn't he? (ctd.)
August 22 2016
We're expecting Judge Gary Feinerman's verdict in the Peter Doig case tomorrow afternoon, according to an anonymous courtroom visitor who has been posting details of the case on Instagram (here). Sadly, it appears the verdict will be an oral verdict, so there will be no written record of the judgement. More pertinently, we won't be able to properly scrutinise why Judge Feinerman permitted this ridiculous case to go to trial, and so cause pointless pain and expense for Doig and his family. Perhaps he wanted to be remembered for presiding over the most fantastical court case in art history.
You can get an idea of the futile and aggressive nature of the plaintiff's case in the anonymous Instagrammer's full summary here. Here's just a taste from day 5:
Marilyn Bovard, Peter Doige's sister [recap - the painting was made by the late Peter Doige], testified. [...]
Doige made art since childhood. She remembers seeing many of his paintings and drawings. His 1976 Lakehead University ID was in his wallet when he died in 2012. Bovard began to cry when she viewed the disputed painting. She firmly believes it is her brother's work. She recognized the signature as her brother's. She showed a photo of a similar work of a desert by her brother.
On cross-examination Zieske aggressively tried to impeach her veracity, implying she had committed perjury and was subject to penalties. It was a bullying attack. He suggested she wanted her brother's life to have meaning by claiming he had done this painting which was really done by the famous Doig. She said she didn't really like Doig's work, that the painting was meaningful to her because her brother painted it. After her testimony, she was crying in the hallway. Zieske approached her with feigned solicitude. Doig's attorney yelled at his younger associate to get her away from Zieske. Tomorrow I will summarize the afternoon events. This lawsuit is unbelievable and so abusive.
Who do these $24m Cranachs belong to?
August 22 2016
Picture: Norton Simon Museum
A long-running legal despute over a pair of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder appears to have been settled. Cranach's 'Adam and Eve' (above) were bought by the Norton Simon Museum in California in 1971 for $800,000. But Marie von Saher, the heir of the Jewish Dutch art dealer Jaques Goudstikker, whose collection was looted by the Nazis in 1940, has been suing the Norton Simon for a decade in her battle to get the pictures restituted. In her battle to reclaim Goudstikker's collection, Ms von Saher has so far successfully sought the return of over 200 other pictures from collections and museums worldwide. But the Norton Simon museum has resisted her claim from the outset - and now looks to have won, after a US judge ruled in their favour last week.
In this case, Goudstikker's ownership of the paintings was never doubted. The Norton Simon museum acknowledged that he had owned the pictures between 1931 and their forced sale (to Goering) in 1940. But the museum relied on the fact that in Holland, the Goudstikker family failed to lodge a claim for the Cranachs before a Dutch government imposed deadline to do so for looted property in 1951. Because of that, Goudstikker's art collection became the property of the Dutch government, and was distributed to various Dutch museums. Therefore, as US District Court judge John Walter ruled:
“This Court is required to apply a ‘strictly legal’ approach, as opposed to one based on policy or moral principles [...] That ‘strictly legal approach’ compels the conclusion that the Dutch State acquired ownership of the Cranachs, which necessarily resolves this action as matter of law in favor of Norton Simon.”
You might well think that such a narrow ruling ignores the wider moral question. However, there is a twist in this tale. The Cranachs turned out to have been looted twice; they had in fact been bought by Goudstikker from the Soviet government, in a 1931 auction of the Russian aristocratic Stroganoff collection. This meant that in 1966 the Dutch government returned the pictures to the Stroganoff heir, George Stroganoff, who had launched his own restitution claim. He in turn sold them to the Norton Simon in 1971.
The case therefore raises a number of interesting questions. First, how far back do we go on the restitution question? To World War Two? To the Russian revolution? To World War One? To the Napoleonic era? There is no easy answer, and all four periods have recently seen pictures seized or restituted (here's an example of the oddest case, from all the way back in 1818!).*
Following on from that first question, which wronged owner do we feel the need to give recompense to most in this case? The Russian aristocrats or the Dutch Jew? It's certainly a difficult choice - both parties and their families were victims. But in this case, does the successful Stroganoff claim mean that Goudstikker's ownership of the Cranachs was effectively unlawful, in the sense that Jacques Goudstikker didn't have proper title to the pictures when he bought them in 1931?
Here, however, the answer is clouded by two factors. First, Ms von Saher's claim is that although the Cranachs were sold in 'the Stroganoff sale', they were in fact not part of their collection, but were taken from a church in Kiev, the Church of the Holy Trinity. Second, it comes down I supposed to what we define as 'lawful'.
On the first point, the evidence is not certain that the pictures were taken from the Kiev church. The pictures were claimed as Stroganoff pictures at the time of the sale, but there is also no concete evidence of that before the 1931 sale (which is not unusual, of course, and proves little). Neverthelss, even if the pictures were taken from a church and not the Stroganoff family, they are still surely 'looted' in some sense - and doubtless the Ukrainian government of today would say so too.
Secondly, on the legal point, by the standards of the day Goudstikker thought he was buying his pictures perfectly legally. The notion of restitution, and of someone subsequently challenging his ownership, evidently did not matter to Goudstikker even though he knew the circumstances of their sale. And in turn, Goudstikker's forced sale of the works was itself 'legal' under Nazi laws passed at the time. These laws were of course immoral and illegitimate in a thousand ways - which is why we have the European Human Rights Act - but the point is that today's restitution cases are governed by today's moral standards as much as today's laws. As a result, the Dutch government has already handed back to Ms von Saher some 202 pictures, even though under Dutch law the fact that Goudstikker's family missed the 1951 deadline meant that the pictures became property of the Dutch state. Rightly, the Dutch government decided to change its policy on restitution in the 1990s.
In that sense, I can share the concern of some restitution campaigners that a US court has based its ruling on a law from another state which is no longer recognised by that state as being morally valid. For quite rightly, we today view arbitrary claim deadlines such as the 1951 date used by the Dutch government as irrelevant.** So I find the judge's ruling in this case somewhat unsettling.
And yet, it seems to me that the question is not so clear cut. Ultimately, Ms von Saher was seeking the restitution of two Cranachs which could only morally have been hers in the first place if she ignored the fact that they had in turn been seized from their previous owners - whoever that may be - by the Soviet government. It's a difficult case. But I can see why the Norton Simon museum felt obliged to challenge the claim to pictures they bought in good faith. What do readers think?
* My own view is that some form of generational time limit should be imposed on restitutions. For example, should the children and grandchildren of looting victims be given recompense? Of course. Great-grandchildren? Probably. Great, great grandchildren, or other relatives four generations on? Not so sure.
** The State of California passed a law in 2006 limiting Holocaust era claims to 2010.
'Fake or Fortune?' - plug!
August 21 2016
The final episode of this series of 'Fake or Fortune?' goes out today, Sunday, at 9pm on BBC1. It's on immediately after the Olympics finishes, so it'll be interesting to see how the audience numbers do.
A sixth series has been commissioned, though I'm not sure when filming starts.
In the meantime, 'ForF?' fans may be interested to know that I'll be in a new series on BBC4 this September called 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces'. More on this soon...
Update - we got 3.83m viewers, which was pretty good considering the scheduling was quite a gear change from heavyweight Olympic boxing.