'A really crass, inept painting'
March 9 2015
Remember the case of the newly discovered Constable sketch (above), which made $5m at Sotheby's New York after being sold as a copy by Christie's in London for £3,500?
Well the Christie's fightback has begun. At the time of the Sotheby's sale, Christie's put out a statement casting doubt on the attribution, saying:
“We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”
And now they have provided, to the New York Times, the name of a Constable scholar who doubts the attribution. And he doesn't just doubt it, he says the picture is not even close.
The scholar is called Conal Shields, and his Constable resumé is impressive enough - in a letter published online (in relation to another matter) he says:
I was formerly Head of Art History and Conservation at the London Institute and am now co-curator of the Thomson Collection and the Thomson Archive of Art, and fine art advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet, whose collection of paintings, drawings and prints by John Constable is the largest in private hands.
I have been co-organiser of two Tate Britain exhibitions devoted to John Constable, one of these the official bicentennial celebration, and am presently preparing a Constable exhibition for the Royal Academy, London, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Clark Institute in the U.S.A. I am co-editor of the final volume in the Suffolk Record Society's series of Constable documents and was keynote speaker at the National Gallery of Australia's Constable Symposium. I act as a consultant to both Christies and Sothebys.
But does he have a good Constable 'eye'? I don't know, as I've never met him, and have no means to immediately judge his track record. What is curious, though, is that his reaction to the picture is so viscerally different to that of say, Anne Lyles, the former Tate curator who is recognised as the current pre-eminent Constable scholar. Where Lyles saw a fine sketch by Constable, Shields:
“could see no sign of Constable’s hand in the work [...] It’s a really crass, inept painting.”
So this is not a case of Shields saying 'I'm not sure'. He's saying that Lyles, Sotheby's, and the market in general (I heard of not a single dissenting voice when the picture came up for sale as 'Constable' at Sotheby's) is wrong, massively wrong. For what it's worth (though I claim no Constable expertise at all) I saw the picture twice before it was sold in New York, and I had no doubt it was indeed by Constable.
All this, it would seem, comes in the context of whether Christie's are in danger of being sued by the consignors of the picture when it was sold for £3,500 in London. In the New York Times piece, Lady Hambleden, the named vendor in the Christie's catalogue, says that:
[...] when she first learned the painting was by Constable, “I felt like a fool! I know it’s not my fault, but that was my first feeling.”
But she said she has no intention of suing over a work for which she had little affection and that her mother-in-law had stuffed in a cupboard for 60 years.
“It was sold under my name,” she said, “but on behalf of my children. So it would be their decision whether or not to bring legal action.”
Her sons did not respond to a number of messages seeking comment.
I don't know, but I suspect they're looking into it quite carefully. Remember, the key thing here is negligence, not whether Christie's made a simple mistake; did Christie's make all reasonable efforts to ensure that they looked into the possible Constable attribution? If they showed it to Conal Shields before the sale, and he said 'nah', then they might be in the clear, even if Shields turns out to be wrong. The recent Sotheby's 'Caravaggio' case gives us a good template of how such cases will work, and how hard it is to prove negligence against a major auction house. But it still seems to me that the special weakness in Christie's case is the presence of the £5m Claude in the same minor sale as the Constable, which was only withdrawn at the very last minute.
Incidentally, a reader kindly sent me an interesting quote from an earlier case on attribution heard in a British court, over a putative Van Dyck in 2002. Then, Mr Justice Buckley, in relation to who was qualified to make an attribution, said:
From listening to them both I understood that [the expert ‘eye’] to mean rather more than just observation. Whilst it is vital to have keen observation it is also necessary to have knowledge of an artist’s methods and style and to be sufficiently familiar with his work to be able to recognise his artistic ‘handwriting’. Even that is not all. It involves also a sensitivity to such concepts as quality, emotion, mood and atmosphere. To an extent ‘eye’ can be developed but, like many other human attributes it is partly born in a man or a woman. Were it otherwise there would be many more true experts.
Very true, m'lud.
Update - a reader writes:
It may be the inherent nature of the blog that it is quickly written but assuming that you want your opinion to be taken seriously I would query your claim of 'no Constable expertise at all' and yet have 'no doubt that it is by Constable', whatever Shields says!
Nobody should take me seriously.