'Clear win' for Loeb in Sotheby's battle

May 5 2014

Image of 'Clear win' for Loeb in Sotheby's battle

Picture: NYPost

That's what the New York Times calls Sotheby's latest deal with activist investor Daniel Loeb, and rightly, for it looks as if the current board has caved in:

Sotheby’s said on Monday that it had ended its fight with the hedge fund mogul Daniel S. Loeb, agreeing to add his three director nominees to its board.

The last-minute settlement – reached a day before investors were scheduled to vote on the board – represents a clear win for Mr. Loeb, the veteran activist investor who has waged a monthslong fight against Sotheby’s in a bid to shake up the 270-year-old auction house.

The fight had become one of the biggest and most intense battles between a company and an activist this year, with each side hurling insults at the other.

Under the terms of their agreement, Sotheby’s will expand its board by three, to 15, to take on the activist’s full slate of nominees: Mr. Loeb himself, the restructuring expert Harry Wilson and the former investment banker Olivier Reza.

And Mr. Loeb’s firm, Third Point, will be allowed to raise its stake to 15 percent from its current level of 10 percent. The hedge fund had sued Sotheby’s in Delaware’s Court of Chancery, arguing that a “poison pill” defense plan that limited him to a 10 percent stake while letting mutual funds acquire up to a 20 percent stake was unfair.

Art Detective is go!

May 5 2014

Image of Art Detective is go!

Picture: Art Detective

I'm very pleased to be able to tell you about Art Detective, a new website created by the Public Catalogue Foundation to help discover more about the UK's collection of publicly owned oil paintings. The site, which is refreshingly easy to use, allows curators, for example, to upload an image of a painting they have a query on, and ask not only a panel of experts for information about it, but everyone in the world.

Of the over 200,000 pictures in the UK's collection, some one in five has either no attribution or an uncertain attribution. For thousands more we have other questions, such as where is the landscape, who is the sitter, and so on. Art Detective is designed to help solve some of these mysteries, and will prove a valuable support for institutions struggling to open up their collections to expertise in these days of increasing funding constraints. You can read more about the initiative in today's Guardian which, very nicely, gives me a little plug:

The effort to identify the paintings is being thrown open because many of the owners, including small museums and institutions such as the Scottish Police College – which wants to know more about a fireman struggling through the snow carrying a child – have no resident curators, access to specialist knowledge or funds for research. The project has the backing of Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery. "Art Detective should provide a central exchange and a podium where expertise can be shared, problems can be aired and discoveries can be publicised," he said.

Interested members of the public already contribute along with distinguished historians including Bendor Grosvenor, himself renowned as an art detective – he recently found a portrait of Bonny Prince Charlie that had been lost for centuries – and Professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University, a world expert on the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Any mystery painting with a splash of salt water is a magnet to Pieter van der Merwe, from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, who recently suggested, just from looking at hazily depicted flags, that a fleet of tall ships – artist, date and location unknown to the Russell-Cotes gallery in Bournemouth – might represent the fourth battle of Cape St Vincent on 5 July 1833.

The discussions are drawing out some arcane information. Argument is rumbling about the date of a portrait of a soppy looking boy standing at a piano – the child prodigy Frederick Jewson, owned by the Royal Academy of Music – and whether the flamboyant carpet suggests an interior in Edinburgh, London, Paris or Russia.

Now, more plugging - I confess to feeling a little pride in seeing Art Detective finally go live. I was kindly asked to be on the steering panel for the project, and will also be the group leader for British 16th and 17th Century portraiture. Regular readers may also remember that I've been suggesting something like Art Detective for some years now, first at a conference on deaccessioning in 2011, and also in, amongst other places, this Museums Etc. book

Most of all though, I'm proud that it's the UK which is leading the way in projects like this. Art Detective is the world's first professionaly created art historical crowd-sourcing project. How cool is that? The PCF and the site's designers have done a terrific job, as has the Arts Council, which as paid for it (and how good to see the state at last recognising the amazing work the PCF has done so far in photographing the UK's collection, all of which was privately funded). So what lost treasures will you be able to help find? 

Update - a reader writes:

Brilliant!!!  Even for those of us who cannot contribute special expertise, what fun....

Mona Lisa theories new & old

May 5 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theories new & old

Picture: fanpage.it

The Mona Lisa's in the news again. First up comes the unsurprising story that they have not, after three years of extensive digging (above), found Lisa Gheradini's body in the Sant 'Orsola convent in Florence. I say unsurprising, because the man leading the dig, Silvano Vinceti (who is apparently President of Italy's Committee for National Heritage) has form when it comes to crazy Mona Lisa theories: he's the fellow who claimed to find 'letters' hidden in her eyeballs a few years ago. Quite why this fellow was allowed to spend public money digging up an ancient church is beyond me. Still, at least they found a nice poster.

Another Mona Lisa theory reported this weekend, and similarly far out, is the news that scientists have deduced it may even have been intended to be a 3D stereoscopic image. Live Science reports new proof that the Mona Lisa in Paris and the recently 'discovered' copy in the Prado (which is now being heavily marketed as 'The Prado Mona Lisa') were painted at exactly the time in Leonardo's studio:

When I first perceived the two paintings side by side, it was very obvious for me that there is a very small but evident difference in perspectives," study researcher Claus-Christian Carbon of the University of Bamberg in Germany wrote in an email to Live Science. "Maybe the view of a perceptual psychologist is highly sensitive for such tiny differences, but it is very clear that also persons who are not so strongly involved in perceptual sciences can see it easily after having received information on the change in perspective." [See Images of "Mona Lisa" Paintings in 3D]

Turns out, the real "Mona Lisa," or "La Gioconda," and the Prado cousin were painted from slightly different perspectives. Carbon and Vera Hesslinger of Germany's University of Mainz figured out this perspective shift by looking at so-called trajectories, or the paths from a distinctive point on the source, such as the tip of Mona Lisa's nose, to a target, or the observer's (or painter's) eyes. The scientists also asked people to estimate the perspective of the "Mona Lisa" sitter, something Carbon called a psychological assessment of the perspective.

"This is particularly clear if you observe the chair on which La Gioconda sits: In the Prado version, you can still see the end of the end corner of the chair at the background of the painting, which you cannot see in the Louvre version, because the painter of the Prado version looked at the' Mona Lisa' more from the left than the painter of the Louvre version," Carbon said.

The researchers then could recalculate the position the painters took relative to each other and to the "Mona Lisa" sitter in Da Vinci's studio. They found that the horizontal difference between the two paintings was about 2.7 inches (69 millimeters), which is close to the average distance between a person's two eyes. (When a person observes an object, each eye sees a slightly different perspective of the object, both of which are sent to the brain and transformed into the three-dimensional representation of the object that we "see.")

The scientist's report is helpfully illustrated, above, with lego figures! And immediately you can see the problem with the theory that the two artists, Leonardo and A N Other, were observing the sitter from just 2 inches apart. They'd have to have painted so closely together as to make mutual observation of the subject almost impossible, with one artist looking to the right of the easel, immediately in the way of the other looking left. The report doesn't explain why, in the above Lego-illustrated scenario, one Mona Lisa isn't bigger than the other, since one canvas had to be behind the other.

But as regular readers will know, the theory that the 'Prado Mona Lisa' is an exact studio contemporary of the Mona Lisa is already deeply suspect. And sadly this latest theory is what happens when we let scientists loose on art history. Their limited understanding of visual culture means they come up with whacky theories like this. But the press tends to believe them, because scientists must be right, right?

Goliath's Revenge (ctd.)

May 4 2014

Image of Goliath's Revenge (ctd.)


Michelangelo's 'David' apparently has weak ankles, and may fall over at any time (report various media outlets). This story isn't exactly new, however, and seems to come around once every couple of years - here's a similar one from 2011.

Update - Florence's museum authority says the statue is tickety-boo, and that the cracks, as I suspected, are no cause for alarm. The Guardian reports:

"Even if there is an earthquake of 5.0 or 5.5 on the Richter scale, Florence will stay in one piece. And David would be the last to fall," Marco Ferri, a spokesman for the authority, told Agence France-Presse.

Durer at the Albertina

May 1 2014

Video: ZCZ Films

The Albertina in Vienna has put Durer's Hare on display, as it does once every ten years. I was lucky enough to see it the other day. The great Waldemar, in the short film above, urges you to go too. You have until 29th June.

NPG buys Van Dyck's Self-Portrait

May 1 2014

Image of NPG buys Van Dyck's Self-Portrait

Picture: NPG/Philip Mould

Well, hurrah - the National Portrait Gallery in London has successfully raised £10m to buy Van Dyck's late 'Self-Portrait'. The Heritage Lottery Fund has generously contributed over £6m to add to the amount the NPG had already raised, which included £700,000 from its own funds, £500,000 from the Art Fund, £1m from the Monument Trust (the Sainsbury family) and over £1m in individual donations from some 10,000 members of the public. It's a terrific achievement, and well done to all of those involved. Special pat on the back to AHN readers who contributed.

So now he'll be in public display for everyone to see, forever. It's been quite a journey for the picture, from relative obscurity just over two decades ago (having hung since the war in a private house in Jersey) to now one of the most famous self-portraits in the world. It's incredible to think that in at least two old catalogue raisonnes of Van Dyck's work, the portrait was mistaken as a copy, and even in the definitive 2004 catalogue raisonne the late Sir Oliver Millar described it rather meekly as 'the best version', and included only a rather hazy black and white photo. The picture's first significant exposure came about when Karen Hearn at Tate Britain persuaded the Earl of Jersey to lend it to the 'Van Dyck in Britain' exhibition in early 2009.

Not long afterwards, as is sometimes the way, the picture was offered at Sotheby's, in December 2009. The estimate of £2m-£3m reflected the picture's slightly uncertain status, not in terms of its attribution, but in terms of, for want of a better word, its fame. It was clear to most observers even then, however, that the picture would dramatically exceed that unduly cautious estimate, and we were delighted to acquire it in partnership with Alfred Bader for £8.3m. In fact, we had been prepared to bid much higher, and were slightly surprised when the hammer came down. Underbidders included at least two overseas museums. I remember how the picture shone out in the auction room, its quality overwhelming everything else on offer.

I may write more about the acquisition process later, but I'm quite proud to have been involved in both that and the process of research and advocacy that has resulted in the portrait becoming what it is today. It's certainly been a privilege to have handled the picture here at the Philip Mould Gallery. Seeing Sir Anthony in our offices every day made it feel as if he was part of the family. I don't mind admitting that most days I would greet him with a quiet 'Morning Ant', and if I was the first in I'd positively shout it, and even give him a wave. He never waved back of course, but that vivid, knowing expression made it seem as if he was reciprocating in some way. And then there was the strange feeling of having Van Dyck look over us as we made the occasional discovery of a new work by him. These have included - if you'll forgive the boast -the Portrait of Olivia Porter in the Bowes Museum, the Portrait of a Young Girl now hanging at the Ashmolean, two male full-length portraits painted by Van Dyck while he was in Italy, a Holy Family painted in Sicily, three important head studies, and his last Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria as St Catherine. There are others which unfortunately I can't tell you about - at least, not yet. I hope, now that he's left us, the discoveries don't dry up.

Update - a reader writes:

Hurrah, indeed -- or in Canadian, hurray !!!!  Seriously, congratulations -- and envy greens me for your being able to live with that portrait and the others.

Another writes:

For a long time to come ……..on a rainy day in London like today…….one can lift the spirits by going to NPG to see Van Dyck's self portrait! Actions like this keep London on top of the world. Happy for the children of this great city. Rule Britannia!!!

Hear hear...

Another writes:

All us readers are doubtless patting ourselves on our collective back, although the Heritage Lottery Fund was of course the sine qua non - not even mentioned by Will Gompertz [on the BBC] (come on Will be fair) and well done Bendor. Do show the fabulous frame as well.....

And another adds:

Sir Ant is now your guardian saint (if only one believed in such things).

Here's hoping...

The value of dirt

April 30 2014

Image of The value of dirt

Picture: Christie's (left), Sotheby's (right)

We've just had a round of rather uninspiring Old Master sales here in London. I haven't noticed any special prices to report, on the sleeper front. However, I was interested to see that the above portrait in oil on copper by Gonzales Coques sold at Sotheby's for £16,250. This was some seven years after it sold at Christie's in Paris for a whopping EUR78,000. So someone has presumably taken quite a hit...

Why the dramatic price difference? Well, first, as we say in the trade, 'cleaning is the friend of a good picture, and the enemy of a bad one'. The cleaned picture, as seen this week at Sotheby's, isn't an especially bad one. But it's fair to say that it's not as enticing as the pre-cleaning, Christie's image might have led one to believe.

Then there's the question of whether it's better to enter a picture into a sale cleaned or 'dirty'. I'm often asked by consignors whether they should restore a picture before sending it to auction, and the answer is - rarely. Despite the auction houses' best efforts to work against art dealers, it is still the case that dealers underpin most prices at auction, particularly for the middle market. So when the Coques was at Christie's in 2007 its dirty and alluring state would have appealed to the trade, who, in taking a risk on the painting in its unclear condition and then restoring it, could be seen to have added value to the sale price which, in this era of online prices, anyone could easily look up. The dirty picture, therefore, would have been a good piece of stock for dealers to buy, and consequntly the number of potential bidders went up, and the price was high. I know it was bought by a major European dealer, whom I shan't name. 

This time round, alas, there would have been no trade buyers for such a shiny bright work, and so the price achieved was much less. It's still the same picture of course. Which value was more appropriate? I don't know. But the moral of the story is, keep your picture's dirty (most of the time).

Sic transit gloria mundi

April 30 2014

Image of Sic transit gloria mundi

Picture: Sotheby's

A number of items from the estate of the late Michael Winner, the acerbic film director and critic, were offered at Sotheby's this week. A portrait of Winner, above, was offered for just £600-£800, but it failed to sell. Rather tragic really.

This is still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

April 30 2014

Image of This is still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: Discovery News

And still they come... From Germany now, via the Shakespeare scholar Prof. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, we have another version of the Cobbe/Janssen portrait, above left, and now a wholly new 'life portrait', above right, supposedly painted just a couple of years before Shakespeare died. This new portrait, termed the Boaden portrait, is claimed by the Professor to be the only portrait to show Shakespeare's whole body, but also tells us that he liked lurchers, that he was short, and that he suffered from Mikulicz's syndrome. 

Let's look at the evidence presented by Prof. Hammerschmidt-Hummel (of the University of Mainz) for the Boaden portrait (quoted on Discovery News):

"I am calling it the Boaden Portrait because I found it in a rare, richly illustrated edition of James Boaden's work of 1824," Hammerschmidt-Hummel said.

Called "An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which ...have been offered to the Public as Portraits of Shakespeare," the book displays the portrait as an engraving -- with no caption.

"Nevertheless, my research in close interdisciplinary collaboration with experts from other disciplines shows we are dealing here with an authentic portrait," Hammerschmidt-Hummel said.

"The portrait could only have come about by direct contact of the artist with his model, that is Shakespeare," said Jost Metz, a dermatologist who examined the portraits. Metz specializes in diagnosing signs of disease in Renaissance portraits.

In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that the print is based on an original portrait painted in Shakespeare's lifetime. This is a perfectly harmless 19th Century engraving, an imaginary portrait of the sort regularly made for 18th and 19th Century publications. Saying it is a life portrait of Shakespeare on the basis of a dermatologists's view just won't do.  

But it gets worse!

The tests for authenticity on the new portraits brought to light a series of facial marks and idiosyncrasies that correspond to those found on all the other Shakespeare likenesses. In particular, the two newly found pictures show a growth on the upper left eyelid and swellings in the nasal corner of the left eye, which seem to represent different stages of a disease.

"Renaissance painters faithfully reproduced not only the features of their subjects, but also any signs of disease," Hammerschmidt-Hummel said.

A team of doctors analyzed both paintings and concluded that, in the Boaden portrait, the Mikulicz's syndrome and the additional swelling on the upper left eyelid, interpreted as lymphoma by the ophthalmologist Walter Lerche in 1995, had grown considerably.

The doctors say that the swelling on the left upper eyelid of the Wörlitz picture is just appearing and less noticeable.

With reference to the nasal corner of the left eye of both new portraits, Metz, the dermatologist, stressed that this was a pathological symptom all the authentic images had in common.

The evidence presented for the copy of the Cobbe/Janssen portrait is a little more interesting, tho' one wonders how reliable it is. The copy is apparently lost and only known through a 1936 black and white photo. But this hasn't stopped the Professor confidently claiming it have been painted from life (tho' it looks to me clearly to be a much later work, probably late 17th or early 18th Century):

According to the German academic, one portrait, possibly painted around 1594, when the poet was about 30 years old, depicts Shakespeare as a young London playwright and author of sonnets who has reached the first height of his unparalleled literary career.

"Showing amazing self-confidence, the man appears to cast his spell over the viewer with a touch of a triumphant smile," Hammerschmidt-Hummel said.

Hung in the bedchamber of Prince Franz (1740-1817), in the Gothic House of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, the 2.4- by 2-foot portrait was seized in 1945 by the Soviet army.

"It has been lost ever since. Today there is only a high-quality, monochrome photograph from 1936, now in the Photo Marburg Picture Archive," Hammerschmidt-Hummel said.

Archival research shows Prince Franz brought the picture from his trip to England from 1763 to 1764. Records show it was given to him as a gift by Thomas Hart, a distant relative of Shakespeare.

The presence of the bald head shows that this portrait is a copy after the Janssen portrait, which belongs to the Folger Library in Washington, was over-painted with its bald head. Quite when it was over-painted nobody knows for sure. But it must have been done prior to an engraving of the 'bald' type in 1770.

Sleeper alert

April 29 2014

Image of Sleeper alert

Picture: Pook & Pook

This drawing came up in the USA last week, catalogued as 'School of Bronzino, and with a reserve of just $1,000. It sold for $228,000!

Update - see above for more on this one.

'Building the Picture' online catalogue

April 27 2014

Image of 'Building the Picture' online catalogue

Picture: NG

Now this is impressive - the National Gallery's new exhibition, Building the Picture, has a comprehensive online catalogue. Well worth checking out here.

Building the Picture is all about the place of architecture in Renaissance paintings. Says the NG site:

This spring, the National Gallery presents the first exhibition in Britain to explore the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' aims to increase visitors' appreciation and understanding of some of the most beautiful and architectonic paintings by Italian masters such as Duccio, Botticelli, Crivelli and their contemporaries. Visitors will be encouraged to look in new ways at buildings depicted in paintings, and to investigate how artists invented imagined spaces that transcended the reality of bricks, mortar and marble.

The exhibition is the result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, and offers a fresh interpretation of some of the National Gallery’s own Italian Renaissance collection. In addition, other masterpieces are featured – such as the Venetian master Sebastiano del Piombo's 'The Judgement of Solomon' (Kingston Lacy, The Bankes Collection, National Trust), on display in London for the first time in 30 years, and 'The Ruskin Madonna' by Andrea del Verrocchio (National Gallery of Scotland).

Cracking down on 'the ring'

April 27 2014

Image of Cracking down on 'the ring'


The Art Newspaper reports on a new EU law designed to 'crack down on auction rings':

The new regulations, part of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, state that dealers who enter into a legitimate agreement must provide details of the contract to the auction house, including the names of the parties involved, the lots being bid on and a description of the arrangement. This could include a percentage breakdown of the financial stakes. Previously, dealers only had to notify the auction house that an agreement was in place, or submit a copy of the contract. New provisions also mean that prosecutors no longer have to prove that members of an auction ring have acted “dishonestly”.

Some in the trade say that dealers may be reluctant to disclose details of such contracts, particularly in the light of the encroachment of auction houses in the private sale market. “Dealers may only agree to act in conjunction with one another immediately before the sale, and possibly only by oral agreement, so for practical reasons it may be difficult to disclose the agreement in time,” [art lawyer Pierre] Valentin says. He says that larger dealers may be at greater risk of prosecution, because it would be more difficult for them to prove that they could not afford a work outright and so any joint agreement might be seen as anti-competitive.

The major auction houses would not be drawn on the number of joint acquisition agreements they receive, but a spokesman for Bonhams said that the practice is “far from unusual”. Dealers contacted by The Art Newspaper would not comment on the matter.

There's a difference between an 'auction ring' and dealers buying a part share of a picture. In the former, dealers agree not to bid against each other, and then have an informal auction afterwards amongst themselves. Buying a picture in part shares is quite common amongst art dealers, and perfectly legal - but it does leave the 'trade' open to accusations of murkiness and anti-competitiveness. We don't do it at Philip Mould Ltd, because it's usually more trouble than it's worth - some dealers end up trading eights of a picture, and then the only person to benefit is your accountant. Also, if like us you like to hunt out auction 'sleepers', then having a fellow dealer ring up and say 'are you bidding on...' before a sale obliges you either to tell porkies, or give the game away. So it's better to have a reputation for flying solo, so to speak. Such approach sometimes has its drawbacks; it leaves you outside the fold of a tight-knit world of dealers, and exacerbates a feeling of 'them and us'. 

Update - a reader writes:

The anti-competitive behaviour which is being opposed with new rules only served to lower auction prices, benefitting all buyers at the expense of the sellers and the auction firms’ commissions and premia.  It might have helped the auction firms convince some sellers that private sales would yield higher prices because of this “market imperfection.”

The result of the new rules, if any result, will be to increase auction prices.  Also, apparently dealers, one step ahead, can still form rings for private sales.

Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy' (ctd.)

April 25 2014

Image of Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy' (ctd.)

Picture: Rijksmuseum

Time for another of Alain de Botton's label gems, folks. This one's from 'River View by Moonlight' by Aert van der Neer, 1645:

We've all known nights a bit like this. The ordinary preoccupations of the day recede and, away from the familiarity of home, one accesses unfamiliar, yet important, parts of oneself. The artist is trying to hold on to a mood of heightened consciousness at being alone in a strange, beautiful world. It is a mood that we all know but generally neglect.

Since Alain doesn't really think it's important to know who painted what, how can he claim to know what Aert van der Neer was thinking when he painted this? And judging by the number of figures in the scene, he can hardly be called 'alone'. The Irish have a good word for this sort of thing: gobshite

It seems, by the way, that I'm not alone in thinking Alain's labels are a bit far out. Here's Adrian Searle's review of the Rijksmuseum's new venture in The Guardian:

De Botton is like one of those "Jesus is your best mate" Christians, giving us not one but 150 thoughts for the day, on the ubiquitous labels, audioguide and downloadable app. He wants museums to become temples of virtue, places of instruction that go far beyond their usual remit of caring for and displaying centuries of culture. He'd probably also like to replace burgeoning museum education departments with outposts of his School of Life, a sort of drop-in self-help centre which, just this week, opened a branch in Amsterdam.

De Botton thinks we've got art all wrong. He doesn't like the way museums are organised and finds the usual little wall labels, with their dates and movements and snippets of art history, unhelpful. Ideally, he envisages museums reorganised according to therapeutic functions – with a basement of suffering, leading upwards to a gallery of self-knowledge on the top floor. It's like Dante's circles of hell.

De Botton's evangelising and his huckster's sincerity make him the least congenial gallery guide imaginable. He has no eye, and no ear for language. With their smarmy sermons and symptomology of human failings, their aphorisms about art leading us to better parts of ourselves, De Botton's texts feel like being doorstepped. But art contains concentrated doses of the virtues! You could coerce any art at all into his cause of mental hygiene and spiritual wellbeing. De Botton reduces art to its discernible content. He doesn't make us want to look at all.

Update - a reader writes:

That picture by the rather boring Aert v/d Neer is  about Moonshine, the stuff we brew here in the South. One's got to see  the symbolism...!

Another writes:

The label I have put next to de Botton’s work is “observe the petit philosopher still seeking an idea that will gain acceptance for emotion over knowledge.”. He should seek it by writing little descriptions for conceptual art, where it wouldn't matter and be indistinguishable from the drivel already there.

Royal baby discovered!

April 25 2014

Image of Royal baby discovered!

Picture: Philip Mould and Co/Historic Royal Palaces

Forgive the plug, but here's an interesting discovery I'm rather pleased with. The above portrait shows Princess Augusta (1737-1813) when a baby. Augusta was the eldest daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta, Princess of Wales, and also the elder sister of King George III. The picture came up for auction in the United States as 'a portrait of an unknown baby' by an unknown artist. Following research and conservation by is, it is now on display at Hampton Court Palace, as part of their new 'Glorious George's' exhibition (which is well worth seeing).

Despite being an unknown (and one must say, not especially cute) baby, the picture piqued my interest when it came up for sale because of the blue velvet and ermine cushion. Blue velvet and ermine usually denotes royal status, and as the armoured figure resembled Britannia, I reckoned the baby must be a British royal baby.

From the pre-cleaning photo, I thought the child might be James III, being heralded as the new heir of James II. But there was no proof of this, and for a while I was stumped. Then, cleaning revealed a picture painted in a later style, and also (excitingly) the signature of Charles Philips (1708-1747), which pushed the timeframe forward into the 18th Century. Now Philips was quite an obscure figure, but he was patronised by Frederick, Prince of Wales, and so for a while my favoured candidate was a baby George III.

But it was only when I saw a full length portrait of the Princess of Wales holding the same baby, but inverted, (below) by Philips at Warwick Castle that I finally got the right kid. In the background of the large picture we see Britannia with her shield, confirming the shield-less figure in the smaller painting to be Britannia too (as opposed to, say, Minerva). The newly discovered painting is evidently unfinished, and a number of pentimenti visible in the background show that it was probably an abandoned composition in favour of the larger full-length. Interestingly, it turns out that our newly discovered picture was engraved, with the strapline that the young princess was 'painted from ye life' by Philips. 

The presence of Britannia makes the picture an interesting piece of royal propoganda. Since the young Augusta was the first Hanoverian heiress to be born in Britain, she was proudly heralded by her parents as an emphatically 'British' royal baby. Frederick, Prince of Wales was estranged politically from his father, George II, and actively tried to present himself as a British prince, in opposition to his German-speaking dad. 'Rule Britannia', for example, was first sung in Frederick's presence. Indeed, such was the tension between Prince of Wales and his father that when his wife went into labour, Frederick insisted they flee Hampton Court, so that the baby could be born in London, as a Londoner, away from the King and Queen. Poor mother and baby were raced over rough roads, and just got to St James' Palace in time for a healthy birth.

Now, the newly discovered portrait of the Princess hangs just opposite the very stairs that her pregnant mother raced down, as she and Frederick prepared to leave Hampton Court. I'm dead chuffed, and, if you'll further indulge my boasting, I'm also pleased to have balanced my recent Jacobite portrait discovery (of Bonnie Prince Charlie) with this Hanoverian one. 

Rijksmuseum: all photos free for use, and free of copyright

April 25 2014

There's a good interview in The Art Newspaper (the latest print edition, but not online)* with Wim Pijbes, director of the Rijksmuseum. He says -I'm summarising - that in his view all images held in public museums should be free for use, free of copyright, and that museums who charge for image rights only ever just about break even, once the cost of issuing those charges is taken into account. He also adds that within five years all major museums will have abolished image charges. To which, AHN says a loud hurrah, and well done Wim.

I often wonder if the expensive restrictions on reproducing images has led in part to the rise of guff in art history books. Because publishers cannot use images, and because art historians know this, we end up with books full of words instead of images. Is this too conspiratorial of me?

Update - a reader writes:

I am pleased to read that the Rijksmuseum allows free use of online images from its collection and that other museums will eventually follow suit. I hope that this will lead to a reinstatement of their ban on public photography, now that there is no need to take a lesser quality photo with shadows, glass and other visitors in the way. On my recent visit to the Rijksmuseum I was harangued by a woman repeatedly calling out 'Meneer!' (Sir) at me, to get me to move out of the way of her photo. Finally unable to ignore her loud cries any longer I turned round and replied, 'I don't understand you, I'm English!' and was pleased to see that her photo was just a white blur of reflections.

* The print edition of TAN is well worth subscribing to by the way -always packed full of goodies.

Another noble disposal

April 25 2014

Image of Another noble disposal

Picture: Arts Council

I see with sadness that the Duke of Northumberland (or more accurately, his trustees) are selling a number of fine works in the forthcoming summer Old Master sales. Inlcuded on the Arts Council's Notice of Intention to Sell lists are the above portrait of Frances Devereux by Van Dyck, and also Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait (below) of Joseph Brant, the mohawk leader Thayendenegea who was the best known American Indian of his age.

The Van Dyck is 'priced' at £600,000, which probably suggests a likely estimate of £400,000-£600,000 (on the cheap side I'd say, it's a fine picture, which I've seen up close at Syon House). The Stuart portrait is listed at £1.5m, and I can also see that making more, with US interest. That said, it would probably be export-stopped if bought by an overseas buyer.

As I've said here before, increasing prices for Old Masters mean we are likely to see more sales from country houses, and consequently sales outside the UK. Happily, however, bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund are now able to help keep some of these treasures in the country.

The greatest forger of all time? (ctd.)

April 23 2014

Image of The greatest forger of all time? (ctd.)

Picture: NY Times

US prosecutors have now decided to charge the artist who made a string of fakes sold by the now-closed Knoedler gallery in New York. Pei-Shen Qian (above) made over 60 paintings and drawings to order for Gloria Rosales, the dealer who claimed to have 'discovered' previously lost works by the likes of Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and Diebenkorn, but who has since pleaded guilty to operating a fake scam.

However, it seems Mr. Qian is now safely holed up in China, which has no extradition treaty with the US. 

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Qian’s home in Queens, which was searched by the F.B.I., yielded an intriguing collection of materials, the indictment says, including “books on Abstract Expressionist artists and their techniques; auction catalogs containing works by famous American Abstract Expressionist artists; paints, brushes, canvases and other materials, including an envelope of old nails marked ‘Mark Rothko.’ ” [...]

Efforts to reach Mr. Qian [...] were unsuccessful on Monday. Mr. Qian, in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in December, said he had no idea his work was being sold as the real thing, calling the case “a very big misunderstanding.” He said he had been told his paintings were being sold to art lovers who could not afford works by the masters.

Mr. Qian was [also] charged with lying to F.B.I. agents during an interview last June, when he said he did not recognize Ms. Rosales’s name, had never painted in the style of Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman, and did not recognize the names Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko or Sam Francis.

Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy'

April 23 2014

Image of Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy'

Picture: Rijksmuseum

At last, the British philosopher Alain de Botton has completed his re-labelling of the Rijksmuseum's collection. This is billed as 'Art as Therapy', and seems to be a giant plug for his latest book. And, dear readers, prepare yourselves for an orgy of unparalleled Guff. I'll treat you to Alain's efforts sporadically over the next few days.

First, here's what Alain has to say about Adriaen Van Utrecht's 1644 'Banquet Still Life', above.:

It's easy to feel that consumerism is a bit evil. Yet it doesn't have to be stupid. A good response to anxiety about consumerism isn't to live without lobster and lemons, but to appreciate what goes into providing these at a just price. If the route to your table were truly honourable, a lemon would cost more, but our appreciation of its zest would be all the keener.

Priceless. The Rijksmuseum's website tells us why de Botton (and his co-author John Armstrong) think informative and factual labels are just so pointless:

De Botton and Armstrong feel that by providing the name of the artist, the material used, the period in which the object was made/created, etc., traditional museum text boards already suggest what the visitor should think about a certain object. The exhibition Art is Therapy, however, wants to question what the purpose of art is and highlight the therapeutic effect that art has on visitors who simply look at art and enjoy it. As far as the British philosophers are concerned, the focus should be less on where an art object comes from and who made it, and more on what it can do for the museum visitor in terms of issues that concern us all: love & relationships, work, status, memory and mortality.

Update - a reader writes:


They all miss the point.  Art Museums may provide therapy to visitors.  They certainly provide it to this writer.  Art, however, wasn't produced principally for display in museums until quite recently.  This point is made clearly by Andre Malraux in the opening chapters of “Voices of Silence.”. Perhaps the need for therapy has increased or art museums should become licensed to provide medical services.

How much of de Botton’s writing and philosophy would be published and read if the publisher or reader received it without an indication of authorship.  What would readers think of the work if it were published anonymously and without context (probably online).  It seems that the main therapeutic benefit of this philosophy is to its authors.

Another reader adds:

I think it's dumb to see art as a theraphy as well, because I don't want to be a patient !

Rare UK de-accession

April 23 2014

Image of Rare UK de-accession

Picture: TAN/Compton Verney

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that Compton Verney, the new (opened in 2004) art gallery in Warwickshire founded by the philanthropist Sir Peter Moores, is to sell the above work by Bernardo Strozzi. Sir Peter bought the work in 1998 for £1.3m before the gallery's collection strategy became more focused. Now that it's the only Genoese Old Master in the collection, the picture, The Incredulity of St Thomas, is being sold for a figure of around £2.5m. The sale will go towards new acquisitions.  

This is still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

April 23 2014

Image of This is still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: BG

It's Shakespeare's 450th birthday!* So cue national newspapers running photos of the wrong man. This time, however, the 'Cobbe portrait' is making fewer appearances than usual (though it creeps in here at The Guardian as 'believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life'). Instead we have both the Telegraph and the Independent, above, publishing a portrait, via Alamy images, from the Versailles Museum. The Versailles portrait shows a man aged 34 in a portrait of the early 1620s. Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of 52. 

The continued use of incorrect but more flamboyant images is due, I presume, to our collective reluctanct to accept that the plain, humdrum man in the Chandos portrait shows the greatest writer of the English language. Even the Chandos portrait was fiddled with in later times to make it look more bohemian (such as the long hair).

PS - The last time I mentioned 'not Shakespeare' portraits, certain people got very cross with me. But fear not, AHN-ers I am undaunted. 

Update - the Cobbe portrait features in The Sun.

Update II - a reader writes:

Interesting you said there's been less of the Cobbe portrait this year. I wonder if it's because, unlikeness aside, it has no personality. Portrait of a hipster, as someone made it.

He makes me think of Osric:

'Thus has he - and many more of the same bevy that I 

know the dressy age dotes on - only got the tune of

the time and outward habit of encounter.'

The Chandos has beauty and real power. You can imagine him writing: 

'graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, ope'd, and let em forth

By my so potent art.'

* Sort of. We don't know exactly when he was born. He was baptized on 26th April 1564.

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