Cleaning Dobson

April 11 2017

Image of Cleaning Dobson

Picture: Waldemar Januszczak

The Great Waldemar, who is among many things the world's number one William Dobson fan, has decided to fund the conservation of one of Dobson's most intriguing paintings, Portrait of a Musician, which belongs to the Ferens Gallery in Hull. The painting has been difficult to assess properly in recent years due to layers of dirt and old varnish. AHN looks forward to seeing what the cleaned picture reveals...


April 11 2017

Image of Award!

Picture: RTS

This is nice - 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' has been nominated for a Royal Television Society award. The programme was co-produced by two Scottish companies, Tern and Iconografie Films (my wife's production company) so it is up for a Scottish RTS award. All finger's are crossed here - and we hope that the RTS typo is not a bad omen...

Update - a reader writes:

Let’s hope that AHN’s own typo (‘All finger’s are crossed here' - presumably the work of predictive text software) isn’t a bad omen either…..

Predictive dyslexia!

Sleeper Alert!

April 11 2017

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Adam's Auctioneers

The above copper panel of Christ made €120,000 at Adam's auctioneers yesterday in Dublin, against an estimate of €800. Such is the fascination with all things sleeper-y these days that the auction house were keenly spreading the news themselves (here on Twitter, and here in the Irish Times). 


April 7 2017

Forgive the lack of posts; I'm on holiday in wonderful Madrid. The Prado is open till 8pm! Back soon.

Brexit threat to UK museums (ctd.)

April 4 2017

Image of Brexit threat to UK museums (ctd.)

Picture: UKRG

I've been sent a report by the UK Registrar's Group, giving their view of what Brexit means to the nuts and bolts of organising things like museum exhibitions, and facilitating acquisitions. Registrars are the unsung heroes of the museum world, and toil away with the paperwork and logistics needed to bring a Caravaggio from one side of the world to the other. 

Here is the summary of their report:

The key questions and concerns outlined within this document highlight that there are some very real risks for UK museums and galleries that an EU exit could severely restrict our ability to maintain the level of lending, borrowing and acquiring of artefacts previously enjoyed by the UK public. Many of these factors outlined as they relate to laws and standards, systems and people, are interrelated. Costs, funding and planning resources are all likely to be negatively affected by each of the areas of impact outlined unless these are addressed and action is taken. The major concern of UKRG members with regard to resources is that the likely scenario is that costs will go up and funding will go down. If systems are not introduced (or maintained) for aspects of regulation and licensing currently based in EU law, then this could have a severe and limiting impact on the movement of cultural property. The result will have a detrimental effect on the UK public (reduced exhibitions), as well as the public purse (many institutions may struggle to absorb costs and resource requirements).

We hope that UK government will consider the movement of cultural property (and the corresponding movement of collections specialists concerned with its care) when assessing the EU exit and take appropriate action to lessen the impact on UK museums and galleries, for the benefit of the UK public, by addressing the areas of concern raised here. 

The matters that the Registrars raise are somewhat technical and complicated, but I'll focus on a couple of examples here. None of the concerns they raise are insurmountable; but they will take a great deal of time and government energy to resolve, and the fear is that ministers will have their mind on matters other than museum exhibitions over the next two years. 

The first example relates to import Vat, which I have mentioned on AHN a few times in relation to Brexit and the art market. A brief recap: currently, if you buy a picture within the EU, there is no duty payable. If you buy one from outside the EU, 5% Vat is payable when you bring it into the UK. The registrars are concerned about what will happen if this 5% is extended to pictures acquired across Europe. And they also note that the mechanism by which UK museums can avoid paying 5% Vat on pictures acquired from outside the EU is itself underpinned in EU law:

Currently VAT is not paid for exhibition goods but 5% is paid on acquisitions for non-EU works of art. If in the future this applies to all works from the EU, VAT would need to be paid for them to be in free circulation/home use resulting in a severe impact on budgets and an increased administrative burden. The Museums and Galleries Relief administered by the National Import Reliefs Unit (NIRU), which allows museums to import goods from outside the EU without paying duty and VAT, is provided for by European Union legislation, so under the proposed "repeal act" could cease to operate upon exiting the EU. 

Therefore, both UK museums and the UK art market will be pressing the government to abolish the 5% import Vat on all works of art brought into the EU. If this is not done, there will be significant extra costs for museums, and a significantly detrimental impact on the art market. I can't myself see the government, cash-strapped as it will be, prioritising a tax break for the art market. But we'll have to wait and see. The fix for the National Import Reliefs Unit should presumably be an easy one - Parliament can simply import the relevant EU law into UK law. But again, it's a question of whether this issue will be enough of a priority for ministers to act on.

The second area of concern I'd like to highlight for now is that of export licensing. At the moment, museums can apply for general licences to move a number of artefacts in to countries in Europe. Will this continue to be the case after Brexit? The Registrars note:

If there is an increase in licensing requirements as a result of the EU exit, this is likely to have a wide-reaching negative impact on resources. For example if there is a requirement for submission of import and export declarations for every shipment in and out of the UK, this will have a severe impact on our ability to lend and borrow (one National institution reported that 70% of the gallery's shipments are EU based). 

Since it has been clear for a while that the UK"s export licensing system will be reviewed, I'd imagine these matters are already under active consideration. But again, we must hope that the government is prepared to put all the necessary resources into devising and planning the new systems required. Otherwise it will be some years before everything is working smoothly.

'Corporations and the Arts'

April 4 2017

Image of 'Corporations and the Arts'

Picture: BBC

Should it particularly bother us if oil companies sponsor arts institutions? BBC Radio 4's 'In Business' looks at the issues affecting corporate sponsorship of the arts. Listen here.

Major Turner at Sotheby's

April 4 2017

Image of Major Turner at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have secured for their next London Old Master sale in July in London. Ehrenbreitstein was exhibited at the RA in 1835, and was considered one of Turner's finest works. The estimate is £15m-£25, which I think is cautiously conservative; the last major Turners on the auction market have performed strongly, with Rome from Mount Aventine making £30.3m in 2014. More here.

Brexit threat to UK museums (ctd.)

April 4 2017

Image of Brexit threat to UK museums (ctd.)

Picture: Time

My April Fools suggestion that the UK's best artowrks could be used in the government's Brexit negotiations was not, alas, entirely a joke. In The Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson argues that we should give back the Elgin/Parthenon marbles to Greece, in return for 'discounts' on our EU divorce bill. 

The art of close-looking

April 2 2017

Image of The art of close-looking

Picture: New Yorker

Good cartoon in the New Yorker.

Or you can do what I do, and take binoculars.

Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

April 2 2017

Image of Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

A picture: of despair

There's a good piece by Scott Reyburn in The New York Times about the view of the UK art market on Brexit. It's fair to say I think that most people in the market are probably in favour of Brexit ('Droit de Suite' being partly to blame I think). Here's the view of Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation:

“This is an opportunity we have to grasp to improve our global competitiveness,” said Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation, an organization that lobbies the government on behalf of auction houses and dealers. “We are in a very strong global position already,” Mr. Browne said, adding that the world’s second-largest national art market last year was in Britain.

According to the estimates of the Art Basel-UBS art market report, published last week, Britain’s dealers and auction houses captured 21 percent of the $56.6 billion of global art sales in 2016. Those in the United States led with 40 percent, and those in China came third with 20 percent, according to the report.

Mr. Browne sees Brexit as an opportunity for the British art trade to free itself from the encumbrances of Europe-imposed tariffs and regulations, such as the value-added tax (5 percent in Britain) on artworks imported from outside the bloc. He said his organization would lobby for streamlining cross-border tax arrangements with Europe and for amending or abolishing a regulation that grants artists a royalty payment each time their work is resold.

I applaud Anthony's ambitions here, and wish him well. But I find it difficult to see how, from outside the EU, we can negotiate an arrangement that lets British dealers sell art to Germans (import Vat on art, 19%) at the same tax rates as to the French (Vat, 5.5%). At the moment we can sell art across the EU with zero additional Vat.

And here's my friend, the London-based dealer Offer Waterman:

“A cheaper pound helps us to sell more art, and all sales to the E.U. will become export, so VAT will be eliminated,” said Offer Waterman, a London dealer specializing in 20th-century British art. At present, “secondary market” dealers in Britain must pay a domestic 20 percent tax on their profit margin on sales to clients from the European Union.

“But this isn’t going to be an easy divorce,” Mr. Waterman added. “Ultimately it’s about the deals we get from the E.U.”

Offer primarily sells British art, sourced I presume in the UK, so a cheap pound is good for him. He is also right about margin Vat (20% on the profit art dealers make on a painting) being abolished if all art sales to the EU become eligible to be 'export sales', as is the case with sales to the US. In the same way, US tourists to the UK can get back the Vat they have paid when they get to Heathrow. But any saving of Vat in this way is usually, in practice, offered at least in part to buyers (at least, canny ones) as part of their negotiation. And in many cases (e.g. Germany) the saving on margin Vat sill won't cover the price hike dictated by the new tax for selling into the EU.

Anyway, theses are merely the objections of a defeated remainer.

Top ten Old Master shows in 2016

April 2 2017

Image of Top ten Old Master shows in 2016

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper has published its annual visitor survey. Full details are in the printed paper. Online, you can read here about 2016's top ten Old Master shows. Basically, everybody went crazy for Bosch: 582k visitors at the Prado, and 421k at the Noordbrabants Museum. 

Still, sadly, not Jane Austen (ctd.)

April 2 2017

Image of Still, sadly, not Jane Austen (ctd.)

Picture: via

Regular readers will know the case of the 'Rice Portrait', which claims to show Jane Austen. The painting has its defenders, including the family who own it, and who have their own website putting the case for the identity of the sitter here. Many others are unconvinced, including the former Chief Curator of the NPG in London, Jacob Simon.

Jacob's view of the picture has always been especially important, since he has been compiling an extremely useful and exhaustive online database of artist's suppliers in Britain - and a key piece of evidence in the case of the Rice portrait is a canvas maker's stamp on the back. The stamp is that of William Legg, who sold canvasses in High Holborn in London between abou 1801 and 1806. This is important because for the Rice Portrait to show Jane Austen it would need to have been painted in about the late 1780s.

Until now, only one example of a William Legg canvas stamp has been known. But in an article in the FT, writer Anjana Ahuja writes about a portrait she recently bought of a 'Mrs Smith' by the artist James Northcote (above). This painting is signed and dated 1803 - and it too has a William Legg canvas stamp on the back (below).

In other words, it's clear evidence that the stamp on the back of the Rice portrait must date the painting to the early 1800s. Therefore, it cannot show Jane Austen (born in 1775), for the sitter is clearly too young.

There have always been significant gaps in the case for the Rice portrait being Jane - not least its early provenance - and this latest evidence can only set the case back further still.

A new cache of artist's suppliers information has lately been uploaded to Jacob Simon's database; all available for free at the click of a mouse. Amazing.

Restitution news (ctd.)

April 2 2017

Image of Restitution news (ctd.)

Picture: via Wikimedia Commons

A painting by the German expressionist painter, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, will remain on public display after the heirs of its pre-war owner were compensated. The Judgment of Paris (above) was seized from the Jewish collector Hans Hess by the Nazis. It went on display at the Wilhem-Hack museum in Ludwigshafen in 1976, but Hess' heirs have now been compensated €1.2m, negating any need for the painting to be sold. More here.

FBI recovers Rockwell painting stolen in 1976

April 2 2017


Video: NBC

More here

Brexit: UK museums to lose European pictures?

April 1 2017

Image of Brexit: UK museums to lose European pictures?

Picture: National Gallery

UK museums have been threatened with the loss of some of their best works under the government's Brexit negotiation strategy. Ministers have conceded that the EU's demands for a €60bn 'divorce bill' will somehow have to be met, but instead of a cash settlement they have suggested using some of the UK's most valuable works of art as collateral. This will mean the National Gallery losing iconic works such as Leonardo's 'Burlington House Cartoon' (above right). 

A source familiar with the plans told AHN:

This is not as bad as it sounds, because the pictures will only be permanently loaned; we won't be surrendering full title. And in return institutions like the Louvre have said they'll give us some of their best British pictures. So this is very much 'British pictures for British museums', and that in turn fits in with the government's 'Empire 2.0' strategy. If we end up with too many Constables, we'll send them to Africa.

It is understood the Prime Minister has personally pledged the Leonardo cartoon to Germany, after confessing that she never got the joke anyway.

Update - a reader has learnt of this similarly devastating bit of EU news:

After years of indecision, the European Commission decided today that all works of art within the European Union, irrespective of their value, are part of the common European heritage, and therefore inalienable, in other words, that they cannot be exported outside the European Union. In a complete reversal of previous policy, which delegated the definition of 'national heritage' and how to deal with it, to national governments, the Commission has promised to pledge 'as much as is necessary' to acquire any work of art that has been bought by a non-EU citizen or institution, to prevent its export beyond E.U. boundaries. Many protestors, mostly dealers, have complained that this move would effectively kill the art market in the E.U.; but the Commission is implacable, and refuses to countenance any change of policy.

Update II - bless you for putting up with my April Fools posts. I'm still quite pleased with this old favourite from 2014.

Update III - someone has actually taken the idea and run with it!

On Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of Charles I

March 31 2017

Image of On Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of Charles I

Picture: National Gallery

I recently recorded a podcast with Dr Janina Ramirez at the National Gallery; a very enjoyable half hour standing in front of Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of King Charles I. You can listen to it here

Waldemar on 'Art's Scarlet Woman'

March 30 2017

Image of Waldemar on 'Art's Scarlet Woman'

Picture: BBC

This'll be good; the Great Waldemar has a new show on BBC4 next week on how Mary Magdelene is depicted in art. Thursday, 6th April, 9pm.

Here's the blurb:

Waldemar Januszczak explores the impact of Mary Magdalene's myth on art and artists. All saints in art are inventions, but no saint in art has been invented quite as furiously as Mary Magdalene. For a thousand years, artists have been throwing themselves at the task of describing her and telling her story, from Caravaggio to Cezanne, Rubens to Rembrandt, Titian to van Gogh.

Her identity has evolved from being the close follower of Jesus who was the first witness to his resurrection, to one of a prostitute and sinner who escaped from persecution in the Holy Land by fleeing across the Mediterranean to wind up living in a cave as a hermit in the south of France, enjoying ecstatic experiences with Christ.

More here.

Gainsborough's 'Music Party' in focus

March 30 2017

Image of Gainsborough's 'Music Party' in focus

Picture: Tate

Tate Britain has put on an 'in focus' exhibition around one of my favourite early Gainsboroughs, his Portrait of Peter Darnell Muilman, Charles Crokatt and William Keable in a Landscape, c.1750. One of the surprises discovered by Dr John Chu and Dr Hannah French during their discussions about the picture was that the type of flute seen in the picture was often also fashioned for use as a walking stick:

I think one of my favourite discoveries was when Hannah and I were remarking on the similarity in the picture between the walking canes and the flute. It’s the kind of thing you often only notice through prolonged careful looking in front of a work of art, which is what we were doing at the time. Hannah observed that, of course, flutes and other musical instruments were often hidden in walking sticks in the period. This was such a lovely revelation. We realised then and there that the survival of so many of these flute-walking sticks meant that the kind of musical walking party that Gainsborough depicts must have been a reality, not just a pictorial fancy, and that his picture captured the close relationship between the two recreations in a kind of visual rhyme.

More here

There's something very 18thC about the idea of people suddenly picking up their walking sticks to indulge in a spot of Bach. I suppose our use of mobile phones as music playing devices today is somewhat similar, if far less sophisticated.

Rembrandt goes to Hull

March 30 2017

Image of Rembrandt goes to Hull

Picture: Royal Collection

Rembrandt's famous Shipbuilder and his Wife is to go on loan from the Royal Collection to the Ferens Museum, where you can see it from 1st April. More here.

Did you know that Rembrandt is supposed to have lived in Hull for a few months in the 1660s?

A day of disappointment!

March 30 2017

Image of A day of disappointment!

Picture: Sotheby's

I think there should be a medical term to describe the frustration of underbidding something at auction. Has anyone got any ideas? 'I'm suffering from gavel grief'? 

I suppose feelings of excitement and hope are a key part of the auction process - from the time you see something in the catalogue, determine that you want it, think about whether you can afford it, dare to dream you might get it - but still the sense of disappointment when someone beats you to it can be more than annoying. I'm aware there are more important things to worry about in the world...

On Tuesday Sotheby's held that rare thing these days; a proper, quality house sale, packed full of items that had never before been on the market. One of them wasa small inch-high gold jewel of the Order of the Thistle (above), the pre-eminent Scottish chivalric order. It showed St Andrew on his cross. The family legend (from the Forbes's of Pitsligo) was that this had belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had been given to the 4th Baron Forbes after the Battle of Culloden. The estimate was £400-£600! 

So you can imagine the excitement this caused a Jacobite anorak like me, not least because Bonnie Prince Charlie has actually (though of course indirectly) changed my life*. I also thought the family legend behind the jewel was quite convincing; the story had been first recorded in 1804, and the figure of St Andrew was evidently made in a southern European fashion. James III & VIII also created very few 'Jacobite' knights of the Thistle, so there few other contenders to have owned such a thing. And we know also that Charles owned a gold jewel like this, for we see it in his portrait by Antonio David (below, and zoom in here).

Alas, it was not to be. The jewel made £6,875. In the same sale was a portrait by Ramsay of Clementina Walkinshaw, Charles' mistress and the mother of his daughter, the Duchess of Albany. That made £37,500. 

And talking of mistresses, my hopes were also dashed on a portrait of Van Dyck's mistress, Margaret Lemon (above). Regular readers will know that Van Dyck is another of my slight obsessions. Lemon was supposedly so jealous of his female sitters that she once tried to bite his thumb off, so he could no longer paint. The portrait was a good early copy of Van Dyck's original in the Royal Collection, and made £11,875.

* I live in Edinburgh, after finding this.

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