Mona Lisa theory no. 768
February 8 2017
The Guardian's Jonathan Jones wonders if syphilis explains 'that famous smile'.
I think a sharp attack of clickbait is more likely.
Money laundering and the art market
February 8 2017
The allegation that the art market is a magnet for money laundering is often made - but with precious little hard evidence. Marion Maneker looks at the latest allegations, and why they're wrong, over on Art Market Monitor.
This is not to say, of course, that the art market is whiter than white in all other areas; far from it.
Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)
February 8 2017
The Wall Street Journal kindly asked me to write an op-ed on Brexit and the UK art market. More here.
Met images go free
February 7 2017
The Metropolitan Museum has made its iamges free to use under a wikimedia commons licence. Bravo. More here.
Jordaens and Van Dyck panel paintings project
February 7 2017
Here's something I've been excited about for a while; a new research project on the panel paintings of both Jordaens and Van Dyck. As is so often the case, there is so much we can learn about the materials on which artists like Van Dyck and Jordaens painted, especially when in Antwerp, where we often find detailed panel marks that can further help us with dating.
The project will now begin:
systematically studying the oil paintings on oak panels by Jacques Jordaens (1593-1678) and Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). A comprehensive dendrochronological survey and the recording and collating of the Antwerp panel makers’ and Guild brand marks on the reverse of the panels, combined with new archival research and traditional art historical scholarship, will throw new light on these artists, their oeuvres and painting on wood panels in the 17th century.
Its results and findings will be made accessible for the widest possible audience through the JVDPPP website and the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History databases. Its archival research will be translated into English, as will out of copyright articles on Van Dyck and Jordaens originally published in German, French and Dutch. The project includes the creation of a unique database of the 1,000 Flemish panel makers’ marks collected by Prof. em. Dr. Jørgen Wadum over the course of his career.
The team behind the project are:
Dr. Joost Vander Auwera, Co-Founder & Project Leader
Drs. Justin Davies, Co-Founder & Research Fellow
Dr. Johannes Edvardsson, Dendrochronologist
Prof. em. Dr. Jørgen Wadum, Panel marks consultant
Sotheby's sues vendor of fake Hals
February 7 2017
Sotheby's has filed a lawsuit against Mark Weiss, the london-based dealer, seeking the return of monies paid after the sale of a painting by Frans Hals, which was subsequently declared a fake. The painting was sold by Sotheby's in 2011 on behalf of Weiss in a private treaty sale for a reported $10m. But after doubts grew over the painting's former owner, Giulano Ruffini, Sotheby's commissioned a full technical analysis of the painting, and this found that the painting was a modern forgery. More background here.
As is the case in any consignment with a major auction house, the sale contract states that should a sale collapse (over something like authenticity) then the consignor must return the funds. Sotheby's has already refunded the buyer of the painting, Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen. The case against Weiss is in the English High Court, and follows a similar case filed in a US court against the consignor of a St Jerome, attributed to the Circle of Parmigianino, which was sold by Sotheby's in 2012. That painting had also, like the Hals, once been owned by Ruffini.
Sotheby's put out a statement about the new legal action:
Today, Sotheby's issued proceedings against Mark Weiss, Mark Weiss Limited and Fairlight Art Ventures LLP (an investment vehicle of David Kowitz), for the recovery of sums paid following the sale of the counterfeit Frans Hals painting "Portrait of a Gentleman" in 2011.
When we learned last year that the painting originated from Giuliano Ruffini, we commissioned an in-depth technical analysis which established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery and we rescinded the sale and reimbursed the buyer in full.
The technical analysis was conducted by Orion Analytical, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, and was peer reviewed by John Twilley, another leading conservation scientist. In light of Sotheby’s recent acquisition of Orion Analytical, Sotheby’s has now engaged Dr. Ashok Roy, former Director of Collections and Director of Science, National Gallery in London.
While we always prefer to settle matters without legal action, the sellers have refused to make good on their contractual obligations and we have been left with no other option than to take appropriate action to enforce our rights.
As the matter is now before the English High Court, Sotheby's has no further comment.
The decision to hire Ashok Roy as an independent specialist to study the Hals is presumably in response to some criticism that has been made by Ruffini's lawyer, in the New York Times, that Orion Analytical's findings are somehow tainted by the fact that Sotheby's bought the company after the Hals tests were announced. I must say I find this logic extremely hard to follow, since you'd imagine that if there were to be any conflict of interest it would be the other way around; pressure to declare the painting genuine. And that presumes that any of the parties involved would be prepared to make such decisions or exert such pressue anyway.
It's interesting to see that Sotheby's are also suing David Kowitz. Kowitz has been a longstanding client of Weiss, as set out in this article in the FT from 2010. Presumably in this case Kowitz has also been acting as Weiss' business partner.
A statement from Weiss said that when the sale of the painting was made in 2011 it was "widely believed by all the leading connoisseurs to be a work by Frans Hals". Weiss and his advisors argue further testing should be carried out "before the assertion that this work is a modern fake can be definitively made".
The statement said Sotheby’s has "repeatedly refused to allow Weiss’s experts access to the painting to carry out the further tests."
However Sotheby's said the painting was with the "experts Mr. Weiss had instructed for a four month period and was subject to extensive testing by them. Mr. Weiss later suggested that additional tests be conducted by a new group of conservators, but Sotheby’s concluded that none of these further tests would change its conclusion”.
The Weiss statement said he "intends to contest the claim vigorously".
Presumably this means we can look forward to another High Court trial about the authenticity of an Old Master painting. The most recent one, about the supposed Caravaggio Card Sharps, was fascinating, but eye-wateringly expensive for both sides.
As ever, the usual caveats apply here; there is no evidence that anyone involved in selling or handling these paintings knew at the time that they were or might be fake, and no suggestion that anyone acted anything other than diligently and honestly.
All change at the Vatican Museum
February 7 2017
Picture: Washington Post
There's a good piece in the Wall Street Journal on the plans of Barbara Jatta (above), the new director of the Vatican Museums. First we learn that the museum makes a profit of some €40m a year, but that thankfully Jatta has plans to do something about the vast crowds that line the visitor route:
At the height of the summer tourist season, as many as 28,000 people walk through the Sistine Chapel and the rooms in the Apostolic Palace decorated with frescoes by Raphael in the course of a day. In the Sistine Chapel alone, dust left by visitors over the course of a year—much of it the accumulation of microscopic bits of human hair and skin—takes weeks to remove in an annual cleaning, Ms. Jatta said.
To minimize the damage such crowds inflict on the works of art and improve the visitors’ experience, the museums have installed new energy-saving LED lighting in the Raphael rooms and will soon install new air conditioning systems there, following a similar light-and-air project undertaken in 2014 in the Sistine Chapel.
Working with tour guides and the companies responsible for a large proportion of the visitors, Ms. Jatta hopes to spread out the flow to make the experience in those areas less stressful for people and the artworks themselves.
That means getting people to spend more time in lesser-known parts of the museum complex, including the Etruscan Museum, one of the most valuable collections of artifacts from that ancient Italian civilization. A large elevator will be installed to facilitate access to that museum, which in addition to the glories of its collection, boasts a 360-degree panorama of Rome.
Who'll buy £30m Pontormo portrait? (ctd.)
February 6 2017
The saga of the Pontormo portrait continues. The US owner of the painting, financier Tom Hill, has rejected a 'matching offer' from the National Gallery to buy the painting for £30.7m (reports Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper). He bought the painting for that amount two years ago. But Hill's argument is that because of the fall in the value of the pound since, he would be nursing a $10m loss if he were to accept the offer.
Therefore, two things will happen next. First, the painting will stay in the UK. The rules state that if a matching offer is declined, no new export licence can be applied for within ten years. Second, there will be more calls to amend the export licence system.
On the first; it's clear that the export licence system has done its work. It is not designed primarily to make it easier for UK museums to buy things. It is designed to make sure important works of art cannot go overseas without a UK buyer first having an opportunity to stop that happening.
On the second; evidently some changes need to be made, but there is no case for drastic changes. The system broadly works (see above). What does need to be looked at is the effective 'penalty' for overseas owners who subsequently renege on their commitment to accept a matching offer. (As the system works at the moment, in order to apply for an export licence you have to commit to accepting a matching offer, otherwise a licence is refused, and the painting must stay in the UK for at least ten years.) I expect very shortly that the ten year period will be extended. Clearly, we cannot have a situation where museums and bodies like the Art Fund spend months heroically raising money, for it to all be in vain.
And what of Mr Hill now? Personally, I can understand his dilemma. Why should he be compelled to accept a $10m loss? He saw a painting, loved it and bought it. We cannot criticise him for doing what he can to keep it. And according to The Art Newspaper he has said that it is available for public display in the UK.
That said, I don't think Mr Hill has necessarily been well advised in this case. It was unusual to pay the £30.7m up front, before an export licence was actually completed. Usually, buyers make an offer subject to an export licence being granted. Which means that the question of currency fluctations would never come into it. Furthermore, the decision to pay up front meant that a UK institution could not enjoy the tax breaks usually provided in such situations; the seller, the Earl of Caledon, had a number of tax liabilities on the painting, and in normal circumstances the Treasury is able to write these off if the painting is bought by a public institution. (Subsequently, in a special deal, the Treasury did grant the National Gallery the equivalent amount, some £19m. It was one of the last actions of George Osborne).
The suspicion must be that the sale of the Pontormo to Mr Hill was structured in such a way as to make it more difficult that a matching offer would be made by a UK institution. And if that is the case, then nobody can blame the government for wanting to look at the export licensing system again.
Update - a reader writes:
Is it not indeed good news that the primary purpose of the UK’s art export licensing system has been achieved - retaining the Pontormo in this country? And at no cost to the taxpayer too!
But how odd, if the Art Newspaper has quoted accurately, that the NG has no plans at this time to request a loan of it. For free.
Update II - another reader, a financier himself, writes:
After all the hard work form HM Treasury, the HLF and the Art Fund the outcome of this case is deeply frustrating although I am not sure we should feel too sorry for Mr Hill.
As a hedge fund manager I think we can assume he would have been cognisant of the exchange rate risk. Indeed, when he agreed to accept a matching offer for the painting it must have been tempting to think of it as a one way bet with two highly attractive outcomes. Outcome 1 - no matching offer is forthcoming and Mr Hill keeps the painting. Option 2 - a matching offer is made and stronger Sterling (following a probable Yes vote in the referendum) leads to an exchange gain. In such circumstances It would be interesting to know if Mr Hill would have accepted a lower sterling price if he was now $10m better off.
Sadly the unexpected referendum result wrong footed many people, Mr Hill included, and for now the Pontormo sits in storage, a hapless victim of Brexit.
Update III - the Financial Times has more on the story here.
Update IV - another reader writes:
You continue to argue that we have the best heritage protection system in the world. If a key objective of the system is the long-term preservation of the UK's heritage I just don't think this is supported by the evidence.
I calculated the outcomes for all of last year's deferrals. We should remember that most object are exported without ever being considered by the Committee. They recommend a deferral only where in their expert view pretty tough criteria one what is important enough to save are met.
In 9 cases objects were purchased through matching offers with a total value of about £6.5 million. In 6 cases, with combined values of about £37 million, no effort was made to raise matching funds and items were exported. The fairly shocking figure is that in four cases, with a combined value of around £71 million, efforts to raise matching funds looked like being successful and the owners either rejected the offer or withdrew their application when it became clear that one would be made.
Each year is different, but it has consistently been the case that the system is quite good at saving items of local interest and modest value, but does not prevent the export of items of international significance and consequent higher values in more than 90% of cases . A very small proportion of objects valued at £10 million or more are saved. This is because UK institutions have very modest funding and major UK philanthropists are largely a figment of the government's imagination. It therefore takes an extraordinary effort - most often led by the Art Fund - to raise the amount needed to save something of international significance. They know that if they launched a campaign for everything important most campaigns would end in failure, making it harder to get people to buy into the next campaign. When it comes to expensive works, they therefore only launch a campaign in rare cases for very special things.
Last year for the three most expensive export barred items they launched a campaign for, the exporter waited until it was clear they would succeed and then withdrew or just dishonoured their commitment to accept an offer. This happened in relation to more than 90% by value of what they raised money for - the Pontormo case is not unique - it is becoming the norm. The system was already failing to a very large extent in relation to major, and therefore expensive, items. The increasing tendency for exporters to game the system - let people try to raise money and then pull out if they succeed - means the system should now be assessed as being altogether broken. Reform is needed - at the very least to make the commitment to accept a matching offer legally binding and irrevocable once a hearing has taken place.
One last though. It seems to me quite important the V&A and/ or National Trust do make the effort to but the two Clive of India items bought by Qatar 10 years ago, which started the trend for buyers to renege on their promise to accept a matching offer. They have now been barred again - but if no matching offer is made this time it will send a further message to exporters that they might as well dishonour their commitments and have another go after 10 years.
First, I don't argue that the UK has the best heritage protection system in the world. I argue that it has the best export licence system in the world. The best heritage protection system would be one that refuses point blank to let any heritage item ever leave the country. They probably have something similar in North Korea. But there the rights of private owners do not count for much either.
Second, the 'truly shocking' case of the four works worth £71m having their export licences withdrawn is, I would suggest, not shocking at all. Yes, it's a shame that some organisations had their fundraising work dashed. But the point is that those four paintings have stayed in the UK, and for free.
'Swindlers all around'
February 6 2017
News that the FSB in Russia (today's KGB) has raided the Hermitage's storage building highlights just how difficult it is to work in Russia's museum sector. The Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, says there are 'swindler's all around'. More here.
UK museum visitors decline
February 6 2017
There's some anxiety in the press about the 'first decline in museum visitor attendance in almost a decade. More here in The Guardian and here on the BBC. There has been some wild speculation about terrorism.
AHN says; chill out. The overall decline is of 1.4m visitors compared to last year, and reflects only the 15 museums funded directly by the government. The 1.4m number is mostly accounted for by a decline in visitors to Tate, as the above graph shows. Having checked figures from previous years, the Tate's visitor numbers do fluctuate more than most museums, and this I think we can put down to the success and frequency of their blockbuster shows like Matisse. There's been a small decline in National Gallery visitors, but this cancels out a comparable rise from the year before.
Update - a reader points out that much of the NG's decline must be due to the strike action that led to so many room closures.
The decline in attendance was about sixty percent at Tate, especially the Tate Modern which was coming off a record year fueled by the Matisse Cutouts exhibition, and about forty percent at The National Gallery which was affected by many weeks of strikes affecting both adult visitors and possibly causing the cancellation of many school groups.
Unions should realize that strikes can affect revenues and thereby their members’ future employment and thefunds available for salaries and benefits.
Lutes & Old Masters
February 6 2017
If you like lutes and Old Masters, and who wouldn't, then in April my friend Adam Busiakiewicz is doing a talk at the National Gallery on why the instrument features in so many great paintings. It's free and on 26th April. More here.
'Old Masters are back in Fashion'
February 6 2017
Picture: Irish Times
So says the Irish Times!
Ok, it's not Vogue. But small mercies, and all that.
Copying Old Masters
February 6 2017
I'm often asked if I know any artists who are good at copying Old Masters. My advice is always to not commission a painted copy, but, if you must, get a good photograph printed onto canvas. In a decent frame and from a few feet away you can't immediately tell the difference. Prudence Cuming in London do good ones.
I have noticed a trend, however, for hotels displaying painted copies. Alas, they're generally pretty poor, as I noticed this weekend (above). I wonder if they come from China, where there is a whole village dedicated to making copies. The cheap repro frames don't help. It's an odd decision, as a hotel chain could easily afford to buy the real thing, which would add gravits, as well as looking infinitely better.
Update - by coincidence, the copy above is of a Raeburn that we sold when I used to work for Philip Mould in London. The sitter is Elizabeth Campbell.
Update II - a reader from Chrisite's points out, quite rightly, that even good, older copies of masterpieces can be had quite reasonably:
Update III - artist John Parker writes:
I enjoy copying old masters for the immense challenges posed by the activity. Before the 20th century and the ascent of the cult of the trivial novelty masquerading as art, it was always among the recommended ways to learn how to paint. I also enjoy paying my way through life by selling my copies to grateful customers.
As long as they don't then attempt to manufacture a fake provenance and pass them off as originals (highly unlikely) I see nothing wrong with that?
In future, I should be more than grateful if you would pass such enquiries my way! But yes, do advise people to steer clear of the Chinese copies. They are getting better all the time, but at present, disappointment is guaranteed in my humble opinion.
Terrorist incident at the Louvre
February 3 2017
Update IV - a reader writes, regarding the location:
Regarding the exact place of the Louvre terrorist incident this morning, the photograph is taken at one of the commercial mall entrance, exactly the one near the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (stairs), with the stairs at right leading to a big corridor itself leading to the subterranean entrance of the Museum (again a big corridor leading to the zone under Pei's Pyramid. So we are in the non commercial zone of the mall, itself connected to one of the entrance of the museum.The statues on the left are, if I do remember well, rests of a pediment of the long ago burnt Tuileries Palace I do not know when the accident exactly took place, but if it is around 9-10, the are only people going to the museum in the mall, so not too many as it could be later in the day or in the week-end.
Antwerp - 'Year of Baroque' in 2018
February 3 2017
Regular readers will know that Antwerp is one of my favourite cities; we even managed to get it into two out of three programmes for our BBC series, 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (for films on Jordaens and Brueghel the Younger). I was glad to hear, therefore, that 2018 was to be a special 'Year of the Baroque'. And particularly that one of the projects planned to celebrate this was an extraordinary recreation of three altarpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck (above) and Jordaens painted in 1628 for the masterpiece of baroque architecture, the Church of St Augustin. The three altarpieces are currently in storage at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (which is closed and undergoing restoration). The church is no longer used for religious practices, and is instead a music venue.
But now it seems that this laudable project is to be axed, according to the boss of Flanders' tourist office Peter de Wilde (more here, in French). And to make matters worse, it seems (according to Tweets by the Great Waldemar) that instead of the 1628 altarpieces, the church will be turned into a contemporary installation by the artist Jan Fabre. Waldemar has a particular dislike of Fabre's work, having had a trip to the Hermitage spoiled by Fabre's 'interventions' amongst the various baroque pictures there (see one of Waldemar's photos below, and for more on the 'dead animals' concept behind that exhibition, here).
Let us hope that this rumour is not true, and that the original plan to celebrate Antwerp's baroque heritage goes ahead. As anyone who has seen the magnificent Titians and Bellinis in the Frari church in Venice can tell you, there's something magical and powerful about seeing paintings like this in situ. You can read more about the history of the altarpiece here.
Update - a reader connected to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts writes:
I understand that the reason for reconsidering this project is not budgetary, but due to legitimate concerns of safety for the art works.
At the moment they are stored in the underground storage facility of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum is a huge and complex construction site at the moment, so the works are not readily accessible. They are also of an enormous size (especially the Rubens), so transporting them is a very difficult operation in itself.
In the St-Augustin church, the original altarpieces are currently replaced by rather excellent copies. So it would just be a matter of replacing the copies with the originals. Although I greatly prefer looking at originals compared to copies, the question can be asked if this risky operation would really significantly enhance the visual experience in the church. Especially when some of the copies are in a better condition than the originals, and the originals will be back on view in the museum in 2019, hardly a year after the event.
I do hope the St. Augustin church will play a significant role in the Year of the Baroque event, it is a baroque gem in itself and not enough known. The detailed program will be published at the end of this month.
One would hope that with a little imagination and ambition the museum could do better than just display copies. There is always a reason for not doing something...
Anyway, what this situation would appear to reflect is the fact that the museum has been shut since 2011 for a renovation, and won't re-open again until 2019. It's always a mistake when museums close entirely for renovations, rather than do it stage by stage. Inevitably the closure period grows and grows, as has happened in Antwerp, and pictures that are for whatever reason too complicated or expensive to take out of storage ust stay there.
Update II - another reader from Belgium tells me the following: the distance from the museum storage depot, where the paintings are, to the church is about 800 metres; opinion within the museum is divided on whether the planned display should go ahead; and that the paintings belong to the City of Antwerp, and not the museum.
All of which suggests again that what we're dealing with here is a lack of imagination and ambition.
New Sotheby's UK chairman
February 2 2017
Congratulations to Lord Dalmeny (Harry), who has been made Sotheby's UK chairman. The Sotheby's press release sets out his top 5 auction moments:
· The sale of Ava Gardner’s personal collection (November 1990): “My first project was handling the legendary actress's collection, which taught me about the enduring power of celebrity.”
· The Stansted Park Country House sale (October 1999): “My very first performance on the rostrum, selling Lady Charlotte Schreiber's ceramics collection in a marquee; I was whiter than the porcelain, and yet gripped by this newfound power.”
· The Grimani Tables (December 2015), a stand-alone sale of two of the grandest pietre dure table tops ever made. A white-glove, two-lot sale: “Small is sweet!”
· The Chatsworth Attic Sale (October 2010): “Pumping out the River Derwent, which threatened to flood our marquee, I felt like Noah the Auctioneer.”
· The game-changing Damien Hirst sale, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” (September 2008): “While Lehman Bros and the banking system seemed to be collapsing, I was selling a zebra in a tank of formaldehyde. It was an epic contrast.”
Can craquelure determine attribution?
February 2 2017
Picture: Chemistry World
Not really, but someone has designed a computer programme to let us try, reports Chemistry World:
Understanding how cracking patterns develop in desiccated surfaces like old oil paintings or dried mud is surprisingly difficult. Now a Chilean scientist has established the first mathematical model of cracked surfaces that could help conservators preserve old paintings or give geologists information about the thickness of cracked clay or salt layers, and the stress they’ve been subjected to.
In oil paintings, the varnish becomes less flexible with age and when the canvas shrinks and expands in response to humidity and temperature changes, the paint starts to crack. As the cracks are hard to forge, art experts often use them, among other factors, to determine a painting’s authenticity. ‘Crack networks are like fingerprints,’ says JC Flores from the University of Tarapacá, who has developed a series of equations that give a theoretical insight into cracking patterns.
I think 'fingerprints' is overstating it, and suggests that craquelure can determine attribution. But it should certainly be able to help determine age.
A free Hockney for everyone!
February 2 2017
Picture: The Sun
Tomorrow's Sun newspaper will contain a 'free Hockney' for everyone. The great man has doodled on the masthead. And that's it.
Update - a reader writes:
At last, a reason to buy The Sun.
Update II - here's some wonderful Guff from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:
Hockney has let the light in on the Sun. He has transformed the bold, brassy title that glares from newsagents into an optimistic vision of the world’s beauty. His drawing reminds us of the joy of living on a planet warmed by that yellow star. As he prepares for the opening of his retrospective at Tate Britain, he must be reflecting warmly on the achievements of his life, for this perky drawing manages to distill the utopian essence of his greatest works.
February 2 2017
When an antiques dealer from Crewe became 'besotted' with a 19th Century religious icon in Chester cathedral he stole it. Police found it in his house with a hoarde of other religious imagery, above.
Some of us will know the feeling.
How do we combat fakes?
February 2 2017
There's an interesting piece in The Art Newspaper about a prolonged discussion on fakes, mainly centred around the Knoedler scandal, at New York University symposium. The various speakers suggested all manner of ways to clamp down on the problem, mainly involving legal contracts and government regulation.
The solution to rooting out fakes, however, is really quite simple; we just need to focus on the basics. The first of these is provenance, which the art trade is collectively too relaxed about. All the Knoedler fakes came from a 'Mr X', whom even Knoedler did not know the identity of. They should have refused to sell them without being told, privately, who Mr X was. The fact is, he didn't exist. For older works, we must collectively no longer accept mysterious provenances such as 'European Private Collection' when there is no proveable, prior history. Provenance will always be the most vulnerable point in any forgery. If a painting's history doesn't stack up, walk away.
The next step is science. We know from the various lawsuits so far that the Knoedler fakes were not at all sophisticated. Basic scientific testing would have identified them. The Old Master fakes that have recently been unmasked are certainly much more sophisticated. But again, close scrutiny by analysts has raised concerns about them for some years now.
The greatest thing we need to guard against is wishful thinking. If something is too good to be true...