May 4 2016
Sotheby's new video series, 'Imagine the Conversation', is the guff gift that keeps on giving. Yesterday we had a 'curated dinner', today we have:
[...] eight decadent truffles inspired by art from our May Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art sales.
The chocolatier given the mission by Sotheby's, Katrina Markoff, talks of how she made a truffle Cy Twombly:
With the Cy Twombly piece, obviously very intense red drippy strokes, and we used beet red died chocolate to do strokes that were similar to that on the painting, those strokes give energy and movement, and fluidity to something that's quite static, like chocolate.
My favourite, though, is the Warhol truffle, 'inspired' by Sotheby's forthcoming $7m-$10m Warhol 'Fright Wig' self-portrait:
I imagine if you bite into it, it's empty.
Sotheby's aim with these videos is to draw in new buyers. But does associating a painting with a powdered truffle, an amuse bouche, make anyone want to fork out $10m for it? Isn't the whole point of marketing the more ephemeral end of the contemporary art market instead about creating an environment of nodding, po-faced seriousness, and engendering the sort of earnest conversation that helps elevate the status of one of thousands of prints into an apparently unique masterpiece. Who drops $10m on a joke? Or is the joke on us?
Update - you can buy the truffles here. $45 per box.
Update II - Marion Maneker kindly picked up on my post, and writes on Art Market Monitor:
Actually, the joke is on Sotheby’s who have violated one of the basic taboos of advertising and marketing by resorting to borrowed interest. That’s where you try to create excitement around a brand or product by associating it with something wholly unconnected.
In this case, Sotheby’s has gone a step further. The videos end up promoting the food products far more than they do the art.
Marion also writes that I'm 'no friend of Contemporary art', and I can well understand why my AHN rantings would give that impression. But I love art from all periods, and (secret!) actually have more contemporary art on my walls at home than Old Masters. It's the upper reaches of contemporary art market that I'm no friend of.
Update III - another reader writes:
I can only assume your culinary criticism is due to a surfeit of boarding school food!
Some transitory fun with food delights the senses: forget the bullshit.
To a foodie presentation is everything: inspiration from art and nature: soon recycled.
Unlike Hirst and Emin that stick around like bad smells!
So stick to your day-job and keep your anorak on!
May 3 2016
Regular readers will have seen some truly magnificent art guff over the past five years of Guffwatch. But I think in the video above we have finally reached a new nadir. Yes, Sotheby's has held a 'curated dinner':
Blurring the lines between art and cuisine, chef and performer Michael Cirino of A Razor, A Shiny Knife curated a dinner at Sotheby’s on 29 April like no other. Interpreting the dialogue between the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary artists in our two-week Imagine the Conversation exhibition, Cirino prepared an haute cuisine meal with no shortage of surprises. Watch the video to delight in the art-inspired evening and visit our New York headquarters to see the exhibition for yourself.
I have watched it three times, desperately hoping it was all a joke. It's not. People actually went to Sotheby's and took this stuff seriously, as they 'seguewayed' from an 'Impressionist starter' (a salad, because, like, the Impressionists worked outside) to their Warhol-inspired soup (it came out of a Campbells can, but held with white gloves, so that made it important). Christ.
That's it, game over. The modern art market has finally jumped the shark.
Update - Marion Maneker of The Art Market Monitor, tell us that Sotheby's also:
[...] tore up all the carpeting on the floors so the galleries would have bare concrete to make them hipper.
Update II - a reader writes:
How about an old master portraits dinner, with, say, a Mytens starter, segwaying (if that is what one does) through a Rubens main course, and a Van Dyck pudding. Er bring it on.
The perils of online bidding
April 29 2016
Tens of millions of pounds have been spent on online bidding platforms, but it seems to me to be an extremely unreliable way of buying at auction. I certainly won't be risking it again after two recent misses.
The most recent was at Sotheby's in their Old Master mid-season sale. The sale started off ok, and I was cheerfully logged in watching auctioneer Andrew Fletcher, who always conducts his sales in an entertaining and friendly manner. But then just before my lot came up, disaster. As the bidding screen froze, the clerks on the desk beside Andrew started poking around at the back of their laptop. The sale carried on, despite me shouting uselessly at my computer, and by the time the bidding icon reappeared the hammer had fallen. The bids office were very apologetic, but explained that once the hammer had fallen there was nothing they could do.
More frustrating was a recent bid on the-saleroom.com, the leading platform for regional auctions in the UK. A few months ago a wee sleeper-ette appeared in the shires, the above sketch by George Romney of Lady Hamilton. I believe it was called Portrait of a Lady or some such, and the estimate wasn't much more than £200. There I was again logged in, and clicked away until the hammer went down, and the website told me that I had the winning bid. But when I called the auction house to pay the bill they said it had sold to someone in the room, even though I distinctly heard the auctioneer say it had sold to an online bidder (which I assumed at the time was me). I recall it sold for about £800.
I wasn't too distressed when I saw the picture reappear this week in Christie's Old Master sale in South Kensington as a Romney (officially blessed by Romney scholar Alex Kidson). It had an estimate of £4k-£6k, which I thought was about right for a picture in somewhat compromised condition. But to my surprise it made £30,000.
Some you win, some you lose.
Dobson self-portrait for sale
April 27 2016
Bonhams are offering William Dobson's earliest known self-portrait in their forthcoming July Old Master sale in London. The estimate is £200,000-£300,000, which strikes me as quite reasonable. A very similar painting of the artist's wife is in the Tate gallery. Tate should be really buy this one too.
Bonhams kindly showed me the picture the other day; it is compelling, and in good condition. Although painted around 1635-40, the most noticeable thing about it to me was how un Van Dyck-ian the technique is. Instead it seems more Dutch if anything. Although Dobson's tecnnique does become a little more Van Dyck-ian later on, in its smoother application of paint, early works such as the self-portrait at Bonhams only raise further questions about where Dobson emerges from, in an artistic sense. Was Dobson really a pupil of Van Dyck, as some sources suggest? Not on this evidence, at least. Sadly, we know few certain details about his life.
The above film was made by ZCZ Films, the Great Waldemar's production company. Waldemar is probably the world's no.1 Dobson fan, and made an excellent film on the artist some years ago.
Christie's 'Classic Art Week' (ctd.)
April 16 2016
There has been much chatter in the Old Master world about the wisdom or otherwise of Christie's moving their main New York Old Master sales from January to April. The move also saw a re-branding to 'Classic Art Week'.
The Old Master sales were yesterday, and it looks to me as if the results were very strong indeed. The gamble has paid off, and we must congratulate Christie's for doing something bold and different - and also, more significantly, for halting what appeared to be a slide in their New York Old Master fortunes. There have been some key new appointments in the New York office in the last year or so, most notably Francois de Poortere, the new head of Old Masters.
The 'Part 1' sale total was $30.4m. Last year's major January Old Master sales at Christie's (their 'Part 1' and 'Renaissance' sales combined) made just under $25m. This year's 'Part II' sale did better than last year's too. Here's Christie's press release heralding the news.
Christie's top lot was a small El Greco (above, 11 x 7.5 inches) of The Entombment, which made $6.1m (inc. premium) against an estimate of $4m-$6m. El Greco is one of the Old Master artists of the moment - his quirkiness and bright colouring appeals to today's artistic taste. Next up was an early 15th C gold-ground painting by Bernardo Daddi, which made $3.8m (inc. premium). There were very few buy-ins in the Part 1 sale. See the full results here. The newly discovered almost-sleeper Rubens I mentioned earlier, sold well at $269k (est. $120-$180k).
So, although I am of course a perennial Old Master optimist, I think this is all a good sign for the market. There were no real mega-star pictures in Christie's sale, but they still got a good total with decent selling rates. Should Sotheby's move their sale too? I hope not - I think it's a good thing the major Old Master offerings are spread more evenly throughout the year. Dumping so many pictures on a small market all at once always struck me as an odd strategy.
New Rubens discovery in New York
April 1 2016
I was glad to see the above picture in Christie's forthcoming New York catalogue, correctly described as by Rubens. It had previously been in a Christie's South Kensington sale as 'Flemish School', and though I was disappointed to see it withdrawn shortly before the sale, the sleuther's loss is the consignor's gain.
The estimate of $120,000-$180,000 seems quite reasonable. The sale is on 14th April. Other highlights include a fine, small El Greco of The Entombment at $4m-$6m, and an important newly discovered Virgin and Child by Joos van Cleve $600k-$800k.
Breughel's 'Birdtrap' at Dorotheum in April
March 7 2016
I like to keep an eye on auction house's social media efforts, so it's good to see that Dorotheum (Austria's pre-eminent auctioneers) are making videos now. The above looks at a Pieter Brueghel the Younger 'Birdtrap' on offer in their April Old Master sale. We learn the astonishing fact that there are apparently 46 versoins of this scene by the artist.
No estimate is given in the video, alas. (Dorotheum folks, estimates are essential in videos like this!).
Update - a reader writes:
Brueghel estimate in the video on the label on the wall, bottom right €700-900k estimate. Not clear I grant you!
Henry Wyndham to leave Sotheby's
February 29 2016
Video: Creative Choices
I learn from Georgina Adam on Twitter that Henry Wyndham is to leave Sotheby's. For auction lovers this is sad news indeed, for he was the best auctioneer in the business. Although any succesful auction is usually thought to be down to whether things like the estimates or attributions were right, the actual performance of the auctioneer on the night is a large, and underrated, aspect of the whole operation. Wyndham's sales were always conducted with the perfect blend of humour (with Sotheby's George Wachter often playing Ernie Wise to Wyndham's Eric Morecambe), deadly earnestness in focussing on bidders (with a sharp 'are you bidding?' directed at anyone wavering), and just the right amount of bluff (auctions are all about bluff, especially when the bidders are thin). Despite his many skills, however, there was never a sense of 'look at me' with Wyndham on the rostrum, as there can be with other auctioneers.
Though I've only met him once or twice, I must have been to dozens of his sales, often just to see how he did it. A key technique was to focus on the pace of a sale. In a Wyndham auction there was rarely a moment's silence, for he would rattle off bids like a racing commentator with Tourette's. Other auctioneers sometimes let the room go too quiet when they're looking for bids, which immediately signals that something's about to 'buy-in' - in which case people sit on their hands. In a Wyndham auction one always had the sense that someone else was about to bid, so you felt you'd better get your hand up quickly.
In the video above, he talks about his career at Sotheby's, and how he got started. I wonder who'll replace him?
Update - and of course the more significant questions are; why is he going, and is he going anywhere else?
Update II - Melanie Girlis in The Art Newspaper reports that Wyndham, who was of course Chairman of Sotheby's Europe, will take a break for 'six months before deciding what to do next'.
$24m Taubman Old Master sale
January 28 2016
The Old Masters from Alfred Taubman's collection were sold at Sotheby's last night for a total of $24.1m (inc. premium). The pre-sale estimate was $21m-$30m (excluding premium) - but the estimates were already high, given the need to recoup Sotheby's guarantee of $515m from the Taubman sale. Indeed, it seems the sale went better than Sotheby's expected, and last night they were able to cut their expected loss on the Sotheby's guarantee from $6m to $3m. Possibly, given some minor remaining lots in future auctions, and judicious private selling of those works that did not sell last night, the auction house might in time even come out just ahead on the deal.
Overall, though, the sale last night was seen as good news by those in the 'trade'. When the small Raphael portrait, the first major lot of the Old Master week, sold for $2.7m against an estimate of $2m-$3m you could almost feel the whole room relax. Sotheby's specialists must have been under a heap of pressure going into the sale, and I think they did well, aided of course by the incomparable auctioneering of Henry Wyndham. Sotheby's also sensibly cut the reserves on some of their more over-estimated lots, such as a Beccafumi tondo which hammered at $1m against an estimate of $2m-$3m.
The best pictures went way above estimate, such as the above Valentin de Boulogne, which sold for $5.1m (inc. premium) against an estimate of $1.5m-$2m. As ever, Venetian vedute paintings sold well (you could even say there's something of a boom in this market), with a Bellotto making $3m against an estimate of $1.5m-$2m, and fierce competition on a Bellotti selling for $490k against an estimate of $150k-$200k. Taubman's British art did quite well too, with his full-length Gainsborough selling for $3.2m (inc. premium) against an already ambitious estimate of $3m-$4m. The bargain of the night for me was a 50x40 Gainsborough portrait in excellent condition, which sold to the UK trade for $187k (inc. premium, est. $100k-$150k). A Guercino Magdalene bought in against an estimate of $500k-$700k, and could presumably be bought cheaply after the sale if anyone's interested.
January 21 2016
A reader alerts us to the above 'Ecole Hollandaise', which soared to a strong six figure hammer price yesterday in France, against an estimate of a €6k-€8k. It is believed to be by Gerrit van Honthorst.
Sotheby's New York 'Master Paintings'
December 28 2015
I'm going to be away from the blog for a few more days, but in the meantime feast your eyes on no less than six Sotheby's Old Master catalogues for their New York sale. Though it seems we must now call them simply 'Master Paintings', for the word 'old' has been dropped. I think I can just about manage this change, though describing Titian and Raphael as simply 'the masters' confusing golf fans might be a challenge.
Anyway, there are treats aplenty, and I'll write up a more in depth preview in the New Year. For now, my pick is the above small portrait by Raphael of the medalist Valerio Belli. The picture is signed, has great provenance, and is one of the last known Raphaels in private hands. All that for an estimate of just $2m-$3m, which seems cheap, even if it's a small thing at 5 inches wide.
The sale catalogues are: the Taubman pictures here; a private collection of Italian landscapes here; 'Master Paintings' part 1 here; Master Paintings day sale here; the effective part 3 is not yet fully online, but the print catalogue is here; and the drawings catalogue is here.
I'll be in New York for the sales by the way. If any readers want advice on pictures for sale, just ask.
Update - the advice is gratis, by the way.
Is the Old Master market dead? (ctd.)
December 21 2015
So, another article by Scott Reyburn in the New York Times about the apparent decline of the Old Master market. It follows his last one in July, here, which quoted veteran Old Master dealer Edmondo di Robilant saying “People don’t go to galleries any more, and they don’t buy Old Masters. They’re not part of the overall mood of today’s taste.”
Back in July, I wrote that di Robilant was wrong, and that his remarks reflected not a decline in the wider appetite for Old Masters, but in the way the market now works. To recap, the old retail model of many art dealers has finished, thanks to a number of factors including the transparency of prices (ie, the internet), the transformation of auction houses from wholesale to retail operations, and the decline of the traditional art fair. For those old fashioned dealers who can’t keep up with the new market it’s easier to say ‘nobody wants Old Masters’ than to admit failure (or for that matter to accept the greatly reduced margins we must all get used to in this more efficient age).
Nevertheless, there still seems to be no shortage of dealers prepared to make statements like di Robilant’s, which feed into the narratives of observers like Scott in the New York Times. But quoting these old school dealers is a bit like, in the age of Amazon, talking only to high street retailers and concluding that nobody's shopping anymore. People are shopping - just in a different way. The same goes for the Old Master market. For example, few seem to believe Sotheby’s impressive statistic that this year 46% of bidders in their Old Master sales were new to the field (and I’ve certainly not seen it quoted anywhere).
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Scott Reyburn thinks the Old Master market is dying, or indeed very nearly dead. Nor, as we’ve seen, is he the only observer to think that. Here’s his main theme in the New York Times:
[In the 1970s] Rembrandt was the gold standard. But the Dutchman and his fellow old masters have fallen out of fashion and are no longer as coveted by collectors and investors.
As a measure of that fall, 10 works have sold at auction for more than $100 million since 2004, and all of them were made by modern or contemporary artists in the past 120 years. Older paintings have seen their value, in relative terms, level off or decline. The trend was plain to see in recent weeks, as London’s auction houses tried to find buyers for their latest tranche of old masters. As has been the case in recent years, there were few works by major names.
Leaving aside the fact that ‘recent years’ have seen a £30m Turner and a £29.7m Raphael sold at Sotheby’s alone (and the fact that one of the few Rembrandts to appear at auction was bought by a new Chinese collector), let’s first deal with the main point here - comparing Old Masters with the ballooning modern and contemporary sector.
So pervasive is the idea that art must go up and up in value, as (for the moment) it seems to in the modern market, that the steady ticking along of Old Master values is somehow seen as disastrous. But of course the Old Master market has always just ticked along. That’s part of its virtue. It doesn’t go roaring up, and nor does it go roaring down. Furthermore, in the Old Master market we’re dealing with artists who are long dead, whose reputations are long established, and where there is little chance of certain artists or genres ever becoming ‘hot’ in the way that fuels speculation in the modern market. It baffles me that this comes as a surprise to some people. I don’t think the fact that no Old Master painting has made more than $100m at auction is relevant - and making the comparison to a different art market is simply wrong. (Incidentally, one Old Master painting did sell for more than $100m in the last two years - Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi).
Then we must look more closely at the figures Scott deploys in his article. First, there’s no denying that the December 2015 Old Master sales in London were disappointing in their overall totals. As I’ve written in the latest print edition of The Art Newspaper, Christie’s £6.4m evening sale was their worst since 2007. But do one year’s figures make a trend?
If used selectively, they would appear to do so, yes. For example, Scott mentioned one painting - by Francesco Fontebasso - which made a loss for its consignor:
[…] Christie’s was offering the mid-18th-century canvas “Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well” by the Venetian artist Francesco Fontebasso at a low estimate of £120,000. The pleasant piece of rococo decoration had been bought at auction in 1990 for $286,000, according to Artnet. At the Dec. 8 sale it fell to a single telephone bid of £115,000, about $170,000, before fees. Investors do not expect to incur a loss of about 40 percent a quarter century after buying a Warhol or a Basquiat.
First, I’d really like to be around in a quarter of a century when someone who bought a Warhol this year tries to get a handsome profit on their ‘investment’. Second, it’s not entirely fair to compare the price of something with buyer’s premium and taxes on the one hand, but without it on the other. And yet, there’s no denying that the values of pictures by the likes of Fontebasso has indeed suffered as a result of changes in taste. That kind of mid-18th Century Venetian picture is not as exciting to buyers these days as slightly earlier works. Unless they’re by a Tiepolo, such pictures can be seen as too flighty and bright. Nor is the Old Testament any longer on everyone’s wish-list. Indeed, another Fontebasso offered at Christie’s this December, The Continence of Scipio, sold for just £30,000 when it had been bought in 1974 for £12,600. That’s a hefty loss adjusting for inflation (the 1974 purchase price would be the equivalent of about £118,000 in today’s money).
However, any decline in Fontebasso’s prices cannot be uniformly applied to suggest a decline across the entire Old Master market - for there are complex changes in taste within the Old Master category itself. As Colin Gleadell highlighted last week in the Telegraph, 15th Century ‘gold ground’ pictures seem to be ‘fast becoming a fashion accessory’ (though they’re not my cup of tea). One could also point to the rise in values of Tudor historical portraiture as evidence of a similar trend; in the 1990s Tudor portraits were not generally that valuable, but today even pedestrian portraits of Elizabeth I make good money. There’s something about their two-dimensional naivety and colouring that fits well with contemporary taste - and the same goes for gold ground paintings. Such pictures go better in a contemporary apartment than a mid-18th Century Venetian picture by poor old Fontebasso. But maybe Fontebasso's time will come again, who knows.
Of course, changes in taste are nothing new in the art world. Van Gogh only sold two pictures while he was alive, while the works of the artist who was setting records in Van Gogh’s day, Jozef Israels, can now be bought in cash terms for about the same as they cost in the late 19th Century. The point is, if we pick out individual pictures, as Scott did with the Fontebasso, we can find figures to suit any argument.
For example, we could quite easily construct a narrative of booming Old Master prices from other individual sales in the December Old Master auctions. A Holy Family by Sebastiano Ricci sold last week for £389,000 inc. premium, but ten years ago it sold for £187,000 - more than doubling in ten years. A picture by Francesco Ubertini bought in 1965 for £16,000 (or £276,712 in today’s money) sold at Sotheby’s for £365,000, handsomely outstripping inflation. Perhaps the most successful ‘investment’ of the sale was the Joseph Wright of Derby Grotto (above), which sold for £665,000 - that picture had been bought directly from the artist in 1780 for £105, a sum which, if invested inline with inflation, would be worth just £16,833 today. So individual picture prices can be misleading.
We need to look instead at a broader indicator of value. In the New York Times, Scott Reyburn compared this December’s sale totals with those of five years ago:
As a point of comparison, the combined £29.1 million total from those old master sales was 34 percent less than the £44.2 million Christie’s and Sotheby’s took in at equivalent events five years ago, in December 2011.
This is correct; the £29.1m total for this December’s Old Master sales was indeed 34% less than the £44.2m both auction houses took in December 2011. But if you go back to December 2014, you’ll see that month’s total of £67.87m was 53% more than both auction houses took in December 2011. And I don’t recall many pundits declaring a boom in Old Masters then. As the old Fleet Street adage goes, ‘good news is no news’.
So, it again seems that taking one or two figures can be made to fit any argument. In fact, taking two sale totals just four or five years apart only really demonstrates how dependent Old Master sales are on one or two big picture consignments. This is, after all, a small market catering to a small wealthy elite, fuelled by a finite supply. It makes a difference if a £30m Turner is on the block. This year there has not been a single major picture at auction in both London and New York for either Christie’s or Sotheby’s over £10m. That’s really unusual, and helps account for this year's low sale totals. Next January, however, we’ll see Sotheby’s in New York sell an Orazio Gentileschi for at least $25m.
Let’s look then at the wider sale totals over the last decade. I started with Sotheby’s, because their website is easier to use, and their press office is more efficient than Christie's. Below is my chart showing Sotheby’s combined sale totals from both London and New York, for all Old Master sales (including ‘Day sales’) from 2005 to the end of this year. I decided to combine both London and New York, because it gives a more consistent figure, since, as I mentioned, overall totals can fluctuate significantly if a Turner or a Stubbs is up for sale. I also converted the prices into GBP, for which I used a historic GBP/USD exchange rate for the beginning of each year in question.
As you can see, in cash terms the overall trend is up.
Then I adjusted the Sotheby's figures for inflation (above), using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. Again, the trend is up.*
The sale totals for Christie’s (below) present a slightly different picture. My maths may not be as consistent when it comes to Christie’s, for they’ve had a tendency to move sales around a bit, or hold one-off sales such as ‘the Art of France’, which would ordinarily go into an Old Master sale. In some years I’ve had to go into the sale results and subtract sculpture sales. In cash terms, Christie’s overall trend is up over the last ten years, but only just. Their London sale total trend rose steadily until 2012, but has then been gently falling (and this year, crashing). This pattern, I’m sad to say, fits Christie’s tendency to lag Sotheby’s in the Old Master market recently. Why this has happened is worth a post in itself (and bad luck has played a part, as in the Beit Collection fiasco), but suffice to say momentum can shift very quickly in a duopoly - and I'm afraid Christie's needs to undergo some radical changes.
Nonetheless, if we add Christie’s overall sales total to that of Sotheby’s, then we might be said to be looking at a broadly representative snapshot of the global Old Master spend over the last ten years. (Obviously, I’m afraid this excludes private treaty sales by the auction houses, as well as other strong centres of Old Master sales, such as Dorotheum in Vienna, not to mention salerooms in Paris and Germany.) As you can see below, in cash terms, the trend is broadly up. It’s also interesting to see that there wasn’t the massive dip in Old Master sale totals around the time of the 2008/9 recession, as happened in other sectors of the art market. By way of comparison, if you’d put all your money into the FTSE100 in 2005 (and not reinvested dividends) you’d only be marginally better off in 2015, and the intervenind decade would have been quite a scary ride. And of course it was only this year that the FTSE100 surpassed the level it reached back in late 1999.
Anyway, if we then adjust the overall sale total figure for inflation (again, only on the Bank of England’s inflation data) then the trend is... pretty much flat.
And that, I’m afraid, is the boring truth about Old Master prices. They have always tended to remain static and frankly, the sooner we stop talking about art as an ‘asset class’ the better. People don’t, and shouldn’t, enter the Old Master market for investment purposes. As far as investments go, Old Masters have only ever been a medium to long term store of value. Art in any case is an illiquid asset, and the margins to get in and out are sizeable. The profitable ‘flipping’ we see in the modern and contemporary sector is a relatively new phenomenon. Most people buy Old Masters because they like them, and that’s as it should be.
I’m aware that only ten years worth of data is not enough to draw long term conclusions, and that flatlining sale totals are hardly news. We can also see perhaps begin to discern increasing volatility over the last few years (which I suspect is linked to the major dealers no longer bidding as much as they used to). But the point is that for about ten years now we’ve also been told consistently that ‘taste’ has changed, and that Old Masters are a shrinking sector. Well, even if my maths is a little out, the numbers just don’t confirm that thesis. In fact, if we accept that this year’s sale totals are unusually low because of the lack of any major consignments over £10m, then the data actually shows Old Master prices rising strongly above inflation.
Finally, we come onto the fundamental question of whether we can be sure that people still actually ‘like’ Old Masters? Is there ‘depth’ in the Old Master market, even without a floor of dealers to underpin prices (as you get in most other auction markets)? I think so. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s ‘Day sale’ totals in December were quite healthy, as, to be fair, Scott Reyburn points out in his latest article. Sadly, I have no hard data to prove whether people in general do or don’t like Old Masters any more or less than they used to. But I did notice people queuing to get into ‘Late Rembrandt’ at the National Gallery in London last year. I was amazed at the public response to the National Portrait Gallery’s appeal to buy Van Dyck’s ‘Self-Portrait’. And I still see visitor numbers at ‘old art’ galleries like the Frick in New York and the National Gallery in London rising healthily. I may simply be an art loving an optimist - and yes, one with a vested interest**- but I’m not giving up on Old Masters yet. And I wish others would stop claiming to see any writing on the wall before it's actually appeared.
Update - an economist writes;
First it is absurd to speak of the Old Masters market as being homogeneous. It is like speaking of the Jewelry market where brooches are now less fashionable and colored diamonds are more fashionable with fluctuations in natural pearls. The same true of books and porcelains and furniture.
Within the broad Old Masters market there are fluctuations in fashion. Vermeer was only rediscovered more than a century after his demise and some contemporary price leaders will be forgotten after their demise. Some changes in fashion occur as a result of scholarship and exhibitions and more because taste leaders decide to buy something that was unpopular and good value. American Hudson River School paintings were popular when painted then became were very inexpensive for nearly a century and then prices rose sharply especially during the past twenty years Chinese and Indian art are rising in price because of newly wealthy collectors in those countries.
There is a steady demand for Old Masters of quality and variations in demand based on subject matter and artist. Unsurprisingly, flower portraits were popular in the seventeenth century with the Tulip Bulb Bubble. Religious paintings of less than top quality are unlikely to become popular again for a long while unless the Second Coming occurs.
Aggregate auction results are misleading and only reflect that which is currently for sale. The data don't include private sale increasingly arranged by what were just auction firms.
The supply of top price Old Masters in the market in any auction is small and unpredictable as increasingly they are donated or sold privately to museums. And unlike contemporary sales, an auction firm can't call an investor/collector and suggest a great deal with guarantees and negative fees if he sells a couple of pieces that he bought in the soft market six years ago. Owners of Old Masters tend to be long term collectors as is evident from reading the provenance of important works. They are owned for decades or across generations.
In all Old Masters collecting isn't a field that can provide an immediate supply of works to a new insatiable collector but, like a good marriage, can provide great satisfaction to a long term participant.
Update II - Michael Savage, who is head of Traded Credit Policy at RBS, but online writes as The Grumpy Art Historian, has weighed in to disagree with AHN, as he often does. I don't think he quite understands how the art market works; but it doesn't stop him from declaring the Old Master market 'dead'.
The thing is, he does so without actually disagreeing with the evidence presented above. Instead, his point is that the Old Master market must be dead, because when compared to the Modern and Contemporary market, sale totals rising with inflation are not good enough. He says, for example:
The important question is what you're comparing against. The value of money itself changes, so you have to adjust for inflation. But over time economies tend to grow, so any sector simply keeping up with inflation isn't doing so well. Sectors wax and wane, of course. But if the auto industry is booming and Ford's sales are increasing in double digits, it's not enough for General Motors to say they're doing great because their sales are in line with the overall economy. Bendor's charts show old masters just about keeping up with inflation at a time when the potential market is booming because there are far more very rich people in the world, with far more disposable income. It's just that they're spending that income on modern and contemporary art, which is booming. That can't be explained away as a speculative bubble, because it's supported by strong market demand that's boosting all kinds of luxury products—except old master paintings.
He concludes this section of his post by saying that because asset growth these days is sluggish people are diverting their rising disposable income to consumption like art;
So it makes sense for the elite to divert resources towards consumption—which, again, is exactly what we've seen in the luxury good industry, and in every sector of the art market except old master paintings. Old masters really are the anomaly.
First, let's just deal with the comparison to the car industry. Yes, General Motors and Ford can be compared as indicators of the modern car industry. But to stretch that argument to the world of Old Master Paintings and contemporary art is plain wrong. It's like saying the classic car market must be compared to modern car sales. Both markets may deal in the same product - cars - but they're very different beasts. It still surprises me that so many observers see 'the art market' as something homogeneous, to be compared with from century to century.
Here's why it isn't. The Old Master market covers five centuries of art. The Modern and contemporary market covers one at the most. As I tried to explain in my post above, changes in taste and fashion exist within the Old Master market (e.g. gold-ground paintings and Tudor portraits). It's just that because they get subsumed within the wider Old Master category, in which some areas have fallen (such as 18th Century Italian religious art) they're harder to notice. If Christie's and Sotheby's had a dedicated sale every year for 15th Century gold ground paintings, people would doubtless say 'Aha, the Really Old Master market is booming'.
Then there's the fact that the modern and contemporary market are fuelled by some people who bid not just because they like the pictures, but for speculation and investment purposes. It's impossible to deny this, although somewhat naively the GAH thinks everyone only buys contemporary art for consumption, like a luxury good. When of course it's partly because the returns on modern and contemporary art have outstripped other asset classes like stocks and shares ovedr the last few years that we have the sort of booming modern market that we've seen over the last seven or eight years. We also have dealers bidding for the work of artists they represent, because auction prices are seen as good benchmarks of 'value'.
None of this happens in the Old Master market. There are far fewer vested insterests. Remember, in an auction-led market, it can only take a handful of extra bidders to set prices on an upward trend. And as I have tried to explain, the Old Master market is also affected by the decline of the old-fashioned retail dealer model (for example, dependence on more private buyers has led to increasing volatility).
In other words, one end of the art market (the contemporary and modern sector) is a quasi-financial asset market. The other, Old Masters, is not. Inevitably, this has a bearing on prices and trends. So the fact that Old Master sale totals tick along roughly in line with inflation cannot be seen as a sign that the market is 'dead'. If it was a dead market, nobody would be bidding. And trust me, I would love to buy a Titian for peanuts. In any case, how can we really be sure that the modern and contemporary sectors won't have a more significant correction over the next decade? It's too early to tell.
To recap, I am not for one moment trying to say that taste has not changed, and that many people these days are buying contemporary art and not 'old' art. All I am trying to argue is that the Old Master market is not in its death throes, as some people say it is.
A few other points. The GAH somewhat betrays his ignorance of the complexities of the Old Master market when he writes this non-sequitur:
And there are still plenty of dealers buying at auction and then selling retail in Mayfair or at Maastricht. I think the bigger story is that old master dealers are being squeezed in a declining market, not that their old business model has suddenly failed.
He can't have it both ways. Either there are still plenty of dealers buying retail for Maastricht (who are they? I don't know them, and neither do the auction houses. Discoveries are the life-blood of the trade at the moment). Or they're getting pinched by a declining market.
The GAH also adds this point;
[...] the only element [of my figures and price comparisons, above] I really object to is comparing performance with the FTSE without reinvesting dividends, which is meaningless (do we assume the dividends were just eaten?).
Why is it meaningless? Art pays no financial dividend, so we cannot compare one asset class as growing with compound returns, but not another. And of course many people do spend their dividends.
Update III - an art dealing reader writes:
Thanks for your insightful analysis of current the OM art market. There is one thing, in my view, that also should be taken into account and that concerns whether or not a picture is fresh to the market. If a picture is sold at auction, in dirty state and with a horrible frame, and is offered again in a rather sort span of time, this time cleaned and with a nice appropriate frame, it is in a way difficult to compare. The difference is the appeal of something fresh to the market versus something with an aura that it has been around in the trade recently. Moreover, dirty pictures often have the promise that they will clean beautifully, which is of course not always the case.
For example, the small Hobbema that failed to sell at Sotheby’s this month. The picture was sold in 1990 at Christie’s for 550k sterling hammer and subsequently offered by Noortman. It failed to sell at Christie’s NY in 2004 and at the time the auctioneer said to me technically it is private property for years. Two weeks ago it was bought in at Sotheby’s at 290k sterling, which is (inflation take into account) about a third of the amount it was sold for in 1990. It appears that the picture was purchased in 1990 by an investor who gave it in consignment to Noortman (who asked fl 2.4 million for it but never sold it). It seems to me that the fact that it failed to sell this month has much to do with the circumstance that it has been available since 1990. If so, it proves how important it is that paintings are truly fresh to the market. Therefore it is difficult to compare results of pictures at public sales since paintings are another type of commodity than oil or diamonds.
Yes, this is all correct, and one reason why it's so difficult to take single pictures and use them as overall indicators of a market. When the Hobbema was first sold, there were so many other factors affecting its desirability, to both the trade and private buyers. And again, so many of these factors do not affect the modern and contemporary market.
Update IV - an economist makes the point more succinctly and better than me:
The relevant point, and the only relevant point, that the distinguished RBS banker makes is that the Old Masters market, such as it is, has a declining share of total art sold. How it is sold whether at auction or by dealers in galleries or at fairs is of importance only to the sellers. To compare total volume of sales of a luxury good with declining supply to goods which are currently manufactured, namely Ford cars and contemporary art, is unrealistic. A realistic measure of the Old Masters market would be a price index or price indices for each major artist. Total volume keeping up with inflation with declining units available for sale indicates that there is some real growth per unit in inflation adjusted prices. Old Masters isn't booming like contemporary which is art, an asset class for investors, filling new museums, and decorating contemporary residences. It is more than holding its own.
I wouldn't suggest becoming an Old Masters dealer because supply is declining, Old Masters can't supply enough art for new collectors needs, much of the subject matter is undesirable to non Western collectors, it doesn't provide the lively social life that contemporary events provide, and it isn't a growth business. But if you love the art there is enough around and there are enough buyers for an individual dealer to have a reasonable business. Just watch your inventory, keep you overheads and leverage low, and buy well
As an asset class art in general [it] holds its own while individual names and sectors have each had their era. Few do well across centuries and these become the next “Old Masters.”
Update V - a collector writes:
[...] the more OM are slagged off the more confident I become.
Update VI - a reader writes:
Here are a few more arguments in support of your valiant defence :
1. Old Masters market is not dead, just quiet. Contemporary art market is on a high, just as it was at the end of the 19th century (Jules Breton, Ernest Meissonier… Do you remember them ?) and for the same reasons (new, uncultivated billionaires in a time of shifting economics and easy money).
2. Contemporary Art market “indexes” or “trends” do not take into account the “centrifugal effect”, almost undiscernible in the Old Masters market, by which artists disappear from the market, without a trace.
3. Of course art pays a dividend, an aesthetic one. For collectors, not speculators, this is the one and only reason they do collect.
* The trend lines are automatically made by Excel, not me and my optimistic ruler.
** Although the meagre handful of pictures (I'm sorry to report) that I might sell a year is neither here nor there.
December 2 2015
The above small canvas (50 x 31.5 cm) came up in Austria the other day as 'Attributed to El Greco'. As such, a price of €54,000 wasn't too unusual. But the estimate of €400-€800, with a starting bid of just €200 certainly was cheap.
Goya, or not?
November 24 2015
There's an interesting picture coming up at Bonhams Old Master sale in London, in December, called 'Circle of Goya'. The subject is La Boda, and the estimate is £40,000-£60,000.
The catalogue note, however, lists an array of people who think the picture is actually by Goya:
Given the inevitable polemic which arises when a previously unknown work is proposed as an autograph work by a major master it has been held prudent for this catalogue entry to present the evidence and to catalogue this painting as 'Circle of Francisco José de Goya.' The case that the present painting should be regarded as an autograph work by Francisco Goya has been forcefully argued in separate articles by three leading Goya scholars. The painting was first published as a work by Goya by Professor José Gudiol in January 1982 in his lengthy article discussing the relationship between the cartoon of La Boda in the Prado and the present painting (it was unknown to him when he wrote his four volume catalogue of Goya's paintings in 1971). Gudiol wrote: 'After simultaneously analysing both the "cartoon" of "La Boda" and the recently discovered hitherto unknown version, we can confirm with absolute certainty that Goya painted both pictures without any collaboration whatsoever.' In the same year, Eric Young, a Goya biographer and the author of monographs on Bermejo and Murillo, wrote: 'its quality leaves little possible doubt of its being an autograph work of the master'.
The case that this is the modello for the Royal Cartoon of La Boda was further taken up by Professor Diego Angulo, then Director of the Prado Museum. He arranged for this to be discussed in an article which he fully endorsed and which was to be published in Archivo Español de Arte, of which he was editor, although his death resulted in its subsequent publication in the Boletin Del Museo e Instituto 'Camon Aznar' at Goya's home town of Saragossa in 1987.
[...] an attribution to Goya has further been widely accepted by a number of very distinguished scholars: Professors Michael Jaffe, Federico Zeri, Justus Müller-Hofstede, Seymour Slive, P.J. van Thiel, Sir Denis Mahon, James Byam-Shaw and Xavier Desparmet Fitz-Gerald are all on written record as finding the attribution to Goya convincing. Furthermore, Dr. Jose Manuel Arnaiz of the Istituto Tecnico de Expertizacion Y Reastauracion of Madrid and author of the authoritative publication Francisco de Goya Cartones y Tapices has written 'en la boda de cuyo autor estoy mas convencido cada vez.'
Another leading authority on Goya, Juliet-Wilson Bareau does not think the picture is by Goya. It all seems to come down to the question of whether Goya did replicas or not. Many artists did, some did not.
The accepted version is in the Prado (here). And, thanks to the wonders of zoomable high resolution photos, you can compare the two online, and decide for yourself.
Decoding a still life
November 17 2015
Christie's have a good website feature on the above still life by Edwaert Collier, looking at all the things we see in still lifes, and what they mean. The picture is coming up for sale in December at £80k-£120k. Clever marketing.
How to buy an Old Master drawing
November 17 2015
More clever marketing from Christie's - here, drawing specialist Benjamin Perronet offers a seven step guide to buying an Old Master drawing (which, even for big names, can be relatively cheap):
Works we have sold range in price from £700 to £26,000,000. Yet over 90 per cent of drawings have a market value of less than £10,000 — only a very small proportion are worth a fortune. It is absolutely possible to find very good drawings from good, well-known artists for £4,000–5,000.
You can find a perfectly nice little drawing executed by Fragonard during his early days in Italy when he was copying the Old Masters for £4,000 to £6,000 (see above), or even a little Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault. The students and followers of Ingres working in the 19th century such as Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Hesse, Savinien Petit and Félix-Joseph Barrias were gifted technicians whose beautiful drawings sell for around £1,000 to 1,500, sometimes less.
Warwick Castle pictures at Sotheby's
November 11 2015
It is with some sadness that I see number of important paintings are being sold from Warwick Castle in Sotheby's London Old Master evening sale. There's a Studio of Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (above) estimated at £800k-£1.2m (lot 9), and a Van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria at £1.5m-£2.5m (lot 28). The pictures were bought with the castle when acquired by the Tussauds Group in the 1970s. You can see the pictures in the print catalogue here (the online version is not yet up).
Warwick Castle is a great place, but over the years little effort has been made to make their great art collection a part of the castle's story. For a while recently, it looked as if they were going to make more of their pictures, and I was asked to advise on one or two works, even making a little discovery (a picture partly by Van Dyck). But now a different approach has evidently been taken. The Castle is part of the Merlin group, who also own Alton Towers, where a roller coaster disaster recently left scores of people with serious injuries. Perhaps - and I'm guessing - the decision to sell is related to the financial losses that followed.
Anyway, the two pictures are important things. The Henry VIII I examined closely in situ some years ago. It's of extremely good quality, and in my view better than a very similar version sold just recently by Sotheby's from Castle Howard (for £965k). The Henrietta Maria would seem cheap at £1.5m-£2.5m, but perhaps the cautious estimate is due to the fact that a) it's a second version (the original is in a private collection in New York) and b) it was extended at some point in the 18th Century into a full-length (by, it is said, Sir Joshua Reynolds).
Guffwatch - the 'curated auction'
November 9 2015
Contemporary art evening auctions are not just auctions these days, in the sense that they're made up of things people want to sell. Oh no - they are 'curated auctions'. In case you're wondering what a curated auction is, here's Christie's to tell us:
The Artist’s Muse is a curated auction and exhibition that celebrates the subjects and sitters who inspired the greatest artists to produce some of their finest works. From Modigliani’s Nu Couché to Roy Lichtenstein’s 'Nurse', with Giacometti’s definitive late 'Portrait of James Lord' and Gustave Courbet’s radical 'Femme nue couchée,' the inspiration that is at the heart of these works makes for art that is intimate, passionate and enticing. They are works that inspire and breathe life, that exceed mere portraiture.
So now you know.
By a strange coincidence, I shall be in New York this week while all the contemporary sales are on. Into the belly of the beast.
Taubman sales at Sotheby's
November 6 2015
It's been interesting to see the various takes on Sotheby's handling of the Taubman collection so far. To recap, the late Alfred Taubman was a former owner of Sotheby's, but later went to jail as a result of price-fixing with Christie's (Christie's 'co-operated' with the authorities and nobody from there was jailed). Despite the family connection, Taubman's heirs courted both Christie's and Sotheby's for the chance to sell the collection, eventually ending up with a $500m guarantee from Sotheby's.
This week, the more valuable works from Taubman's collection have been sold, with Modigliani, Picasso et al taking their turns on the rostrum. The headline sale has been felt to be disappointing, taking in $377m with premium, against a $375m lower estimate (which doesn't include premium). And consequently, some are interpreting this as a sign of market 'concerns', or, as the New York Times put it, a 'market chill'.
So, is the music stopping at the top end of the art market? I doubt it. The Taubman sale estimates were already punchy - as you would expect with a collection secured by guarantee. It was always unlikely things would fly away - and market watchers seem obsessed by the idea that art values have to go up; stability is never good enough. 90% of the works sold, which normally is a good result.
Certain circumstances were against Sotheby's. First, it can hardly be said that the Taubman provenance was a plus (whether that's right or wrong is another matter), and nor did the pre-sale chat about various Taubman family spats help matters (the traditional step-mom/widow vs children kind of thing). There's also been a typical New York art world bitch-fest over whether Taubman's 'taste' was any good, as amusingly surveyed here by Marion Maneker. I thought the pictures were perfectly good.
The most interesting question for me, however, is whether Sotheby's were right to place a half billion dollar bet on the collection of the their former owner. Will Sotheby's make money on the deal? It's hard to see at this stage, at least not mega money worthy of a $500m punt. It was perhaps always going to be difficult to do so, and maybe the auction house felt little choice but to stump up - to prevent the PR faux-pas of rival Christie's getting the collection. Here's Sotheby's new (and refreshingly honest) CEO Tad Smith on how they're doing so far on the numbers:
“With more than 400 works still to be sold over the next several months, we are on track to cover most of the total guarantee[...]"
Update - a reader writes:
Perhaps art market watchers are obsessed with the idea that art prices have to go up, because they know that current prices (and prices paid in the recent past) are entirely predicated on a fallacy of ever-increasing returns. When it comes to twentieth century masters in particular, the market has been locked in a self-reinforcing inflationary spiral in which almost no amount of money was too much to pay for say a Warhol, because it would surely be worth 2x five years in the future. If the market really has plateaued, the implication is: the greatest fool has been found. And that would be a terrible thing for what is, at its heart, a speculation-driven asset bubble.
Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?
October 23 2015
News that Sotheby's will sell a $25m-$35m Orazio Gentileschi of Danaë recently on display at the Met in New York has raised the eyebrow with eminent US arts writer Lee Rosenbaum, who, on her blog, says:
[...] It now appears that Danaë’s golden sojourn at the Met was an extended presale exhibition. [...]
Veteran dealer Richard Feigen‘s family trust was outed yesterday by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Smith as the owner cryptically identified on the Met’s “Danaë” label as “private collection.” The trust stands to reap rich rewards from gilt-by-association: Sotheby’s has announced that “Danaë” will be the star lot of its evening sale on Jan. 28, bearing a presale estimate of $25-35 million. [...]
Does a dealer/collector have a right to show works in a nonprofit museum’s galleries before dispatching them to auction? Of course.
Should museums allow themselves to be commercially exploited in his manner? Of course not.
Loan agreements should contain a clause imposing a several-year moratorium on selling a work after its museum exhibition. Otherwise, museums may appear to be complicit in market maneuvers and curators may see their scholarly prose instantly recycled as sales pitches.
So, does museum exposure add value to an Old Master painting? In my opinion (as a valuer of and dealer in Old Masters), not really. What we're dealing with in this case is essentially a chicken and egg situation: does the Met's decision to hang a Gentileschi on its walls make it a great (and thus valuable) painting, or does the fact that Danaë is a great painting make the Met want to hang it on their walls?
It seems to me that the latter is the case here - and in fact it is almost all the time. In my experience curators like those at the Met and other leading institutions are no pushover, and are hardly likely to take up valuable hanging space at their museums by installing a second rate work just to do a favour to - gasp - a dealer, or even a private owner. Curators curate based on a painting's individual merits. Indeed, look at an auction catalogue and you'll often see pictures that have been recently on long-term loan to museums, even major ones, sell for not much money at all. After all, museums and curators are often interested in pictures for their academic and art historical value, and this is frequently different from their commercial value.
The situation I think is different when it comes to contemporary art, where, because we have generally lost our collective ability to objectively assess art made from old spoons (and the like) we look for institutional and curatorial approval as a means of telling us what is good or not. Hence all those contemporary art catalogue entries which list reams of exhibitions, even really minor ones, as a means of saying 'this work is Good', and thus valuable.
But in the Old Master market the dynamic is very different. Lee Rosenbaum may think that the sort of person to drop $25m on a Gentileschi is encouraged to do so because it was recently on display at the Met. But I'm not so sure. In my experience, Old Master buyers are perfectly capable of assessing a work of art objectively. The Danaë is without doubt a great painting - you can tell that just by looking at it, whether it's on the Met's walls or Sotheby's. And like most great paintings it has at some point in its life been exhibited at a museum. Big deal.
There are so many other factors to take account of in the Old Master market. Sometimes, an Old Master painting can generate the most excitement, and bids, if it is seen to be 'new' and previously unseen. Hence all those auction house press releases that say 'not seen for X years', or 'never before publicly exhibited'. The Old Masters that really get the market going are often those which have come out of an eminent collection, have not been seen widely before, are a bit dirty, and so on, or are important new discoveries. In those circumstances you are likely get both trade and private buyers bidding. But when a picture like the Danaë comes along, and everyone knows it well from being at the Met, and also that it belongs to a dealer, then arguably it's a harder proposition to sell because you're chasing just the handful of private buyers able to spend that kind of money. And they tend to buy what they like, not what a museum curator likes.
But let us for the sake of argument assume that a spell on loan does indeed add significant value to a painting. Should, then, museums be careful not to display such works? Should we take seriously Lee's suggestion of a 'several year' moratorium on selling works that have been on loan?
Well, why? I certainly agree that it is unseemly to swiftly sell something which has been on public display. But should we say to the public, you can't see this great painting, because it belongs to someone who might one day sell it, and make money because you liked it? I suspect most museum visitors wouldn't give two hoots. People want to see great art because it's great art, and would rather it was on public display not in a private house. Most of them know that such art is expensive, whether it's sold today, tomorrow or in seven years time. (And don't forget that once upon a time Gentileschi himself was likely paid a fair sum for his Danaë.)
I certainly agree with Lee that care must be taken when considering the relationship between private lending and institutional probity. But I also think we should be grateful to Richard Feigen for putting his pictures on display, and applaud those curators and institutions prepared to run the risk of criticism by accepting (with care) such loans.
Update - a dealer writes:
It is an interesting discussion wheather museums are providing a seal of approval to works of art that come to the market. As you know, a similar discussion takes place when a painting, sculpture or drawing is being published in a first rate journal or exhibition catalogue.
At the request of the editor of The Burlington I have signed twice a statement that a work that was illustrated in one of my contributions was not due to appear on the market for at least five years. But when you think of it is a silly thing to do because, not being the owner it is not in ones hands wheather a work is going to be on offer for sale or not in the nearby future.
The Burlington is notorious for being windy about anything privately owned, or which might have anything to do with a dealer. Which is daft because a) dealers often make important discoveries, and The Burlington is merely recusing itself from the wider art historical debate and b) I fear, alas, that The Burlington is no longer important enough to really make a difference to the value of a painting.
Another reader writes:
And if having “displayed at the Met” does add value, the Met and the public have enjoyed the free display of a valuable work. The Met didn't rent the painting, as with some exhibitions, or have to invest in acquiring it so there was a quid pro quo if the display of the painting added any value. Lending to an exhibition might add some value and curators still seek and occasionally pay for exhibitions loans of important works.
It is all right if a private party benefits from public display so long as the public gets an adequate benefit as well. Lending doesn't come with [tax] eductions that donations create.
Another reader adds:
Yes, to an established old master, I agree the pull-up is minimal, but public benefit museums should be just that - pro bono. Time on the Met's walls undoubtedly has a commercial value - and sticking pictures on their wall prior to an auction or indeed any commercial sale is not what they're supposed to be for. It just wouldn't wash in other commercial areas - it would be seen as a conflict of interests.
And that grey area is being exploited - wthout anybdy questioning it - so supine is arts journalism. Dealers are using museums to lend credence and substance to private offerings in the most blatant way. The quid pro quo is obviously that the museum gets interesting exhibitions but the prime purpose of a museum should be objective presentation of material - not to tease the public into buying stuff.
The above reader then mentions a regional UK museum which recently staged two exhibitions on 20th Century artists which were sponsored by a commercial gallery. The commercial gallery, he says, had listed the works for sale on their website while the exhibition was on.