More on the Prado's new Titian
November 13 2012
A reader has kindly alerted me to the above video, in which we can briefly see the Prado's St John the Baptist by Titian before it was restored. It looks very damaged, but much better.
I've asked the Prado for an image of the picture in its stripped down state, but answer comes there none...
National Gallery annual review
November 13 2012
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery's annual review for 2011-12 has been published, and is worth a read. It details all the latest acquisitions and loans, and surveys what must be one of the Gallery's most successful years ever, with the acquistion of Titian's Diana and Callisto, and the Leonardo exhibition (which was the Gallery's busiest yet). Regarding the latter, I see that in his introduction, Director Nicholas Penny makes a special mention of the 'loyalty of a group of Gallery Assistants' who broke the strikes at the Gallery last year, and allowed the Leonardo exhibition to remain open.
NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams
November 13 2012
Picture: Irish Times
The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams (detail, above).
When should the NPG display portraits of contemporary figures? At what point in history does it decide who deserves to have their portrait included in the national collection? Should the NPG acquire and display portraits of here today gone tomorrow types, as it sometimes does now? Or should it remember that as Shakespeare wrote, 'all that glistens is not gold', and present a more discerning array of the nation's leading figures, one advised by the passage of time and not contemporary notions of celebrity, success or sanctity. If you think the former course is the right one, then there will inevitably be times when the NPG comes to regret spending public money on portraits of people it will one day have no desire to display. Because for some contemporary figures we cannot know now, with confidence, how history will judge them.
Update - a reader tweets:
I shouldn't think Gerry Adams will be wild about being included in the British NPG either!
Update II - another reader writes:
The NPG question is interesting. How much of its mandate is DNB and how much 'Who's Who'? The 'Who's Who' part is always very busy. Gerry Adams's teflon 'statesman' persona means he fits both criteria.
What has the BBC ever done for us?
November 13 2012
Apart from make brilliant arts programmes like 'Fake or Fortune?' of course...
It's good to see how many familiar faces from the above film are still working for the BBC. It shows why one of the best things about the BBC is its continuity. Radical change isn't always a good thing. Those demanding a revolution at the BBC should remember this.
November 12 2012
Picture: Philip Mould & Company
...is always one of our busiest months of the year. I'm not entirely sure why - it may be because people are thinking acquisitionally, ahead of the December Old Master auctions. Today, for example, my colleague Emma Rutherford sold three miniatures, all to new clients, and I sold the above Romney of Mrs Raikes and her Child.
The Romney had been most curiously over-painted by a duff restorer. The detail below shows Mrs Raikes' arm, which had been entirely re-touched in a gloopy brown glaze. This glaze obscured all the form and detail in the dress, and all trace of shadowing above and below the arm. (The right-hand side of the picture below shows our cleaning test). It was as if the previous restorer only had one dark colour on their palette, and decided to restore the whole dress in that one colour. And because it didn't match all the areas he or she needed to restore, they simply re-painted the whole dress in same shade of dark brown. Now that we've taken all this gunk off, the picture has blossomed into one of Romney's more engaging maternal portraits. It's a testament to my boss's x-ray vision - he thought he detected something more promising beneath the over-paint, even from the auction house's photographs.
The picture once belonged to the great collector Henry Clay Frick - did he perhaps employ the restorer from hell? Possibly. But actually we find this sort of thing quite often - restoration standards, even until relatively recently, were far below what we expect today. If you had an area of damaged background, for example, it was easier just to re-paint the whole background one colour, rather than attempt to fill any individual holes. Romney was hotly collected in the US in the early 20th Century, and it's often the case that Romney portraits which have at some time been in America have suffered from unneccessarily extensive restoration. Here's a previous example. Perhaps it was something to do with the American market wanting their pictures to look new and shiny bright.
Death and taxes (and art) (ctd.)
November 12 2012
Further to my post below about death taxes breaking up great collections, and my post last week about the National Gallery's new online archive catalogue, a reader has been in touch with a series of documents relating to the sad dispersal of the house and contents of Mentmore Towers in 1977, when they were put up for sale by the Earl of Rosebery. The Earl had offered the house and contents to the nation for £2m in lieu of death duties, but the offer was declined by the then Labour government, so there was no option but to go to auction.
First, there was a classic sleeper in the Sotheby's sale, which was spotted by the famous dealer David Carrit:
Correspondence relating to the blocking of the exportation, which culminates in the Gallery being offered the picture at a special price of £495,000 (valuation on export application was given at £578,948) this sale is coordinated through David Carrit Ltd art dealers.
This [writes my reader] refers to Fragonard's 'Psyche showing her Sisters her gifts from Cupid' - which Carritt had picked up at the Mentmore house sale the previous year. Sotheby's had catalogued it as, I seem to remember, Carle van Loo and he got it for around £12,000.
Next, the National Gallery's acquisition of Lord Rosebery's Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Drouais came about after the Treasury's refusal to accept it (along with all the Mentmore pictures) in lieu of death taxes:
Details of pictures from the Estate of the 6th Earl of Roseberry which are suggested as potential bequests in lieu of Estate Duty. The Treasury asks Michael Levey (in his capacity as expert advisor) for his opinion on the valuation of these works and his view on whether the pictures are indeed of pre-eminent importance. Levey replies with his views on each of the pictures, stating that the National Gallery would be very interested in acquiring the Drouais. Letter from Cecil Gould to A.D. Heskett, secretary of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, explaining that the National Gallery Trustees are in agreement on the importance of acquiring the Drouais, which is the only picture from the Earl's estate that is of interest to the Gallery. Heskett replies stating that he will note the Gallery's interest in the picture.
Letter to the Earl of Roseberry from John Hale, Chairman of the Trustees, expressing disappointment at the withdrawal of the offer of the portrait of Madame de Pompadour and strongly urging Roseberry to reconsider his decision, 5 May 1977; letter from Allen and Overy (solicitors) confirming the agreement to sell the portrait to the National Gallery by private treaty, 19 May 1977; reply from Michael Levey enclosing a cheque for £385,000 dated 20 May 1977; press release announcing agreement of sale 19 May 1977. Correspondence relating to the Treasury decision not to accept Roseberry's portrait of de Pompadour when offered a second time in lieu of tax. Summary of developments surrounding the de Pompadour portrait provided in an appendix.
All this means [my reader adds] that the National Gallery alone spent nearly £900,000 acquiring two pictures from the house. Add to this £500,000 "spent" through acceptance in lieu by the Government on the Augustus Rex and Marie de Medici cabinets and a painting by Gainsborough "Greyhounds Coursing a Fox", and The National Gallery of Scotland's purchase of Moroni's "Portrait of a Scholar Seated at a Table" at £30,000, plus five additional items purchased at sale by the V&A and you get to a total of around £1.5M.
The estate, house and contents were offered to the nation by the Roseberys at £2M - the house sale alone raised £6M and that did not include everything in the offer.
Mentmore is now empty, and on English Heritage's 'At Risk' register. The park has been turned into a golf club. Still, the Treasury got its death duties...
Update: My mother says that her nice silver plate warmer came from the Mentmore sale. It's never worked. I think she should ask Sotheby's for a refund.
Update II - a reader who lives nearby Mentmore and remembers the sale, writes, wonderfully:
Sotheby’s went through the house with a toothcomb picking out and cataloguing all the times for the sale – and they dumped out the back a huge and ever growing pile of everything they considered unsaleable and ‘rubbish’ which provided rich pickings for the residents of the village who were down there with their wheelbarrows – including my husband!
We still have such delightful items as ivory handled letter openers with the R monogram, beautiful piano music books especially written for the late Hannah de Rothschild, engravings, estate account books written by hand in the most beautiful copper plate writing (with no mistakes at all) from 1898 and 1896 which show that the amount spent on the yacht and cruise in one year was £22,000 and the amount in the same year spent in feeding the staff in the servant’s hall was £2,000. We, along with many other residents, still have lots of bits and pieces in our homes that perhaps had little value then but have become more desirable in later years.
One man’s rubbish is certainly another man’s treasure.
Help the PCF - buy a painting
November 12 2012
Picture: PCF/Barbara Rae
A number of contemporary artists have donated works to the venerable Public Catalogue Foundation, to help fund the last remaining part of their mission to put all publicly owned paintings online. You can buy the pictures, including Carrowtegie Sea 2007 (above) by Barbara Rae RA, at an auction online, or in person on 19th November. From the auction website:
This Auction of new and recent paintings by leading British Artists will support the completion of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s project to put the UK’s entire collection of oil paintings on the Your Paintings website.
This website allows you to view an online catalogue of the works to be Auctioned and to leave an online absentee bid up until midday on Monday 19th November.
It also gives details of the live Auction which will be held from 6.30pm on Monday 19th November at Dartmouth House in Mayfair. To attend the live Auction please email email@example.com
The Guest Speaker will be Sue Tilley.
The Auction will be conducted by Hugh Edmeades of Christie's.
Bid, bid, bid!
Death and taxes (and art)
November 12 2012
The UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme (where estates can effectively sell an item of national heritage to the government in place of death duties) has published its annual report. This year the scheme has reached its £20m allowable maximum, meaning that a number of items have had to be deferred to next year. From the report's introduction, written by the committee's chairman Tim Knox:
There was a dramatic increase in the value of items accepted in 2011/12: £31.3 million with £20 million of tax settled, as opposed to £8.3 million with £4.9 million tax settled the previous year. Both years considered similar numbers of cases, but a number of very valuable items in 2011/12 – the Rubens grisaille sketch, three other major Old Master pictures, and the Mountbatten archive – pushed us to the £20 million threshold for the AIL scheme. A further £10 million worth of pre-eminent items considered in 2011/12 had to be deferred until the next year’s AIL budget, as we were not permitted by HM Treasury to exceed the £20 million threshold, as had been permitted in former, albeit more prosperous, years. This increase was not due to any relaxation in our strict criteria for judging and valuing offers, but rather reflects the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of death and inheritance, and the dramatic increase in value of certain types of works of art.
The nation has gained some very fine paintings through the scheme this year. They include Guercino's Samian Sibyl, from the Mahon collection (now allocated to the National Gallery), a full-length of Miss Maria Gideon and her brother, William, by Joshua Reynolds (now at Tate), and a Rubens sketch for the Triumph of Venus (now at the Fitzwilliam).
Personally, I object to paying tax in order to die. So while the AIL scheme is run very fairly and properly (even sometimes allowing objects to remain in situ, as at Houghton Hall for example), I often think it's sad when great paintings lose association with the families who have long held them, and in many cases commissioned them. I cannot be sure of the exact figures, but I would bet that over the last century more of our great art has been lost overseas to pay death duties than for any other single reason.
The recent case of the Duke of Rutland's Poussin's shows how the system works, or rather doesn't. The five Sacraments had long been on loan to the National Gallery in London. When the present Duke inherited his title and Belvoir Castle in 1999, he was faced with immediate death duties of £10m, a backlog of repairs to the castle of £6.5m, and annual running costs of £500,000. To help pay the death duties and repairs, the Duke decided to sell Poussin's Ordination, which went to the Kimbell museum in Texas for £15m.
Then, the remaining four Sacrements went on loan to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. However, the sale of Ordination in turn triggered another round of death duties, so Poussin's Extreme Unction had to be sold. It was valued at £14m, but the Fitzwilliam was able to buy it for £3.9m after the Treasury agreed to waive the remaining balance due in tax.
Now, if you're an 'art belongs to everyone' type and want all privately owned pictures to be in public museums, then death duties are the most effective way of achieving that. But the old reactionary Tory in me is uncomfortable at the state taking private possessions away from people, just because their great-great-great-grandfather happend to buy something nice. In this case, the effect was to break up a loan of all five Sacraments at the National Gallery, the loss of one picture to the US, and the acquisition, in large part funded by the state, of one picture at the Fitzwilliam. We have gone from all five paintings being on public display, side by side, to just one. That feels like a net loss to me. Poussin's second Sacrements series, which is complete and belongs to the Duke of Sutherland, is on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. If that set was broken up in a similar manner, we would all regret it.
A more effective way of getting privately owned art on public display, and prevent grubby dealers like me from selling pictures overseas, would be to have a tax concession for loaning pictures for public display. For example, if the Duke of Rutland had been told, you will have to pay death duties at 40% but can gradually reduce the bill over a number of years by lending your pictures to a public Gallery, he would doubtless have done so. And so would many others.
Bankers and art
November 12 2012
In The Believer, the latest biographer of Bernard Berenson, Rachel Cohen, has an interesting piece about the relationship between artists, the market, and collectors. She makes this perceptive point about the Metropolitan Museum in New York:
In studying the value associated with art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is, among other things, a vast compendium of the tastes of financiers. From the days when J. P. Morgan was the powerful president of its board to the period in which Robert Lehman donated nearly three thousand works to be housed in a separate wing bearing his name, the museum has been built, stocked, and guided by bankers.
Gallery visitors in, say the Wallace Collection in London or the Louvre in Paris, will notice other collecting influences on the pictures they see, such as aristocracy and royalty. But it's a testament to the Met's ambition, and that of its supporters over the years, that its collections are every bit as good as either of those great European institutions. New York was lucky that when the Met first formed its collection, the world's richest collectors liked primarily to buy Old Masters.
Could you do the same today? Not for Old Masters. In terms of scale, there isn't the supply, and nor the demand. For today's financiers, the keenly hunted multi-million dollar trophies are to be found not in the crumbling castles of Europe or the London dealing rooms of Lord Duveen, but freshly minted from the studios of the artists themselves. Will future generations of New Yorkers be as grateful to Steven Cohen for his love of Hirst, as they are today to Henry Frick for his love of Holbein?
Ouch - pictures damaged in UK museums
November 12 2012
A Freedom of Information request has revealed the number of pictures recently damaged in British museums. From The Telegraph:
In one of the more comical incidents, at the National Portrait Gallery, the ornament on a frame around a painting of John Dryden, the 17th century poet, by James Francis Mauber valued at £25,000 was detached after a visitor who was part of a large tour group was accidentally knocked off balance by a security officer and fell onto it.
At the British Museum, a 17th century Edward East night clock was broken when a visitor lost their footing and knocked it over, while a valuable Japanese clock was damaged after a cleaner accidentally stumbled into it during a power failure.
But Tate Modern is also a repeat offender.
Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Whaam!, one of the earliest works of pop art which depicts an exploding plane, was defaced when one visitor decided to dispose of what was thought to be chewing gum on the picture itself rather than in a nearby bin.
Most of the examples cited look to be the inevitable accidents. It would be a shame if stories like this led in any way to new rules that make it harder to move or look at paintings.
Treat of the week
November 9 2012
There are plenty of nice things on offer. A particular treat is the above copy of a Van Dyck by Gainsborough (lot 44) - for an 18th Century picture, what better confluence of artists could there be?
How to prepare for an Old Master sale
November 9 2012
The process of finding, researching, cataloguing, valuing, and selling the hundreds of Old Masters needed to make up an auction is a daunting and stressful challenge. I couldn't begin to do it. On the Sotheby's website, Old Master specialist Andrew Fletcher (above) has an interesting piece on how he and his colleagues go about preparing for a sale:
At this time of year, with hundreds of pictures arriving from around the world in time for inclusion in our December auction, all the senior specialists and cataloguers in the Old Master department regularly gather deep in the basement beneath New Bond Street to inspect each and every one of them, analysing both attribution and value.
This is the moment when your heart-rate increases exponentially. The picture you agreed for sale the prior month while on a lonesome trip to some far flung corner of Europe makes its way to the easel, to be minutely scrutinized by a dozen colleagues, and can be greeted with either delight or derision. Happily, instances of the latter are rather rarer than those of the former.
A Ribera for the Met
November 9 2012
Picture: New York Times/Met
Congratulations to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has acquired a full-length Penitent Saint Peter by Jusepe de Ribera. It is believed the asking price had been $1.3m. More details here.
Meanwhile, in New York...
November 9 2012
Last night the above Picasso sold at Sotheby's New York for $41.5m (inc. buyer's premium), coming in at the lower end of the estimate of $35m-$50m (which does not include premium). The picture had been guaranteed, and had sold for $28.6m in 2000 at Christie's New York. The increase in the 12 years since is not perhaps as big as you might expect.
Despite Christie's sale on Wednesday of a Monet water lillies for $43.8m, the New York Impressionist and Modern Art sales this week have been a mixed bag, as Carol Vogel in the New York Times reports:
It has been a tough week for Sotheby’s and its archrival, Christie’s. Both auction houses had padded their sales with mediocre material, and buyers knew it. On both nights, second-tier examples of artists including Cézanne, Matisse, Monet and Picasso went unsold. Christie’s auction on Wednesday night had been a struggle, but in the end it had more high-priced works and its total, $204.8 million, was higher than Sotheby’s, which brought $163 million on Thursday. Both were below their estimates.
The varying prices tell Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian, that there is evil everywhere in the art market:
Is it all teetering on the edge of apocalypse? Is the boom in art prices that has defied a wider economic stagnation about to end? If so, it would be bad for no one except a few "rich bastards" (to quote the artist Mark Rothko on the people he had no wish to paint for). A fall in art prices would be good for museums, good for public collections and good for the mental health of our culture.
At least we know now whom art collectors vote for. One reason for the flat sale at Christie's, it has been suggested, is that buyers were depressed by the re-election of Barack Obama. The art market, it seems, may be the Republican party at play, to add to its other charms.
Readers will know that this little corner of the art market, at least, was relieved at Obama's re-election. Which feelings, incidentally, drew this response from a reader in America:
Several of the people who would consider shopping in your gallery would not appreciate your political comments about Obama. Your clients, I am sure, are in another category and would find it difficult to read your comments in your blog. The American political situation is terribly complicated and very sensitive at the moment. I would stay away from it--by miles.
To which, as we say in England, bollocks.
National Gallery archive online
November 8 2012
The National Gallery has put its archive catalogue online. You can search for all sorts of things. From the NG's site:
What you might find
With records dating back to 1824, the Archive has an array of material covering everything from the travel notebooks of the Gallery’s first Director, Sir Charles Eastlake, to details about contemporary art exhibitions.
Highlights include records that relate to:
- Daily life at the Gallery in Victorian Britain (NGA2/3/2/13)
- Correspondence from Charles Dickens (NGA1/22/267)
- Vigorous debates on the Gallery opening on Sundays in 1896 (NG7/198/1)
- The arrival of technology at the Gallery when a phone line to Old Scotland Yard was installed in 1898 (NG17/6)
- Details about acquiring Degas’ paintings from Paris whilst it was under German bombardment during the First World War (NG14/25/1)
- A complete visual record of the evacuation of the paintings to Wales during the Second World War (NG30/1941/8)
- The public appeal to secure Titian’s ‘Death of Actaeon’ for the nation in 1971-2 (NG69/1)
I love the one about Sunday openings. We must be forever grateful for a:
Letter from the Sunday Society enclosing a memorial signed by 1050 persons in favour of keeping the National Gallery open all the year round on Sundays.
Does anyone want to start an Evening Openings Society? My life would be a great deal better if I could easily visit museums after work. Wouldn't yours?
Working both ends
November 8 2012
Picture: New York Times
In New York, mega-dealer Larry Gagosian is being sued by a collector for allegedly under-selling their Roy Lichtenstein painting. According to the NY Times, the vendor says it was unlawful for Gagosian to take a commission from both sides without fully disclosing the financial relationship. The picture was sold for $2m, and Mr Gagosian took a commission of $1m.
A central question in the case has been whether Mr. Gagosian in essence worked both ends of the deal — not disclosing to Mr. Cowles that his gallery had a relationship with the buyer and that it was trying to get a favorable price for that buyer. In a deposition made public on Wednesday, Mr. Gagosian said that he frequently represented both the seller and buyer in a deal without disclosing that fact to either party. “To be honest with you, the question hardly ever gets asked,” he said. “I never get asked the question, ‘Are you representing both sides.’”
The case is an interesting one, because in the art world some dealers (and worse, 'advisers') often do work both ends of the deal, as the NY Times puts it, without disclosing the fact. This obviously creates a significant conflict of interest. Happily, in the UK this practice is now illegal, due to the introduction of the new Bribery Act (and if you think about it, working for 'both ends' is a sort of bribe). All the Old Master dealers I know in London would only take a commission from a seller.
The problem with taking a commission from both buyer and seller, even with full disclosure, is which party is your primary responsibility? For example, the major auction houses take commissions from both buyer and seller quite openly - but in whose interest should they really be working? The standard seller's premium at Sotheby's and Christie's is 12%, but the buyer's starts at 25% (which with Vat adds 30% to any hammer price). Often, with really valuable paintings, the vendor will pay little or no premium, and the auction house's profit will come wholly from the buyer's premium.
However, auction houses work overwhelmingly in the interest of the seller. Rarely have I felt, as a prospective buyer, that an auctioneer is working to get me the best deal. The very process of bidding (and especially sham bidding up to the reserve) is designed to work against the interest of the buyer. The price can only ever go up. Reserves are agreed with the seller, and not disclosed to the buyer. Auctioneer's terms and conditions can give buyers little comfort in the event of a duff attribution, and then, especially in the world of Old Masters, there is the question of a picture's condition, which is rarely if ever given the full attention it deserves by auctioneers (and I've seen major auction houses provide condition reports that are little more than works of fiction).
So shouldn't auction houses only take a commission from vendors, as (Mr Gagosian excepted) most dealers do?
Update - a reader from the financial world sends this interesting insight:
Auctioneers already protect themselves by defining very limited responsibilities towards buyers, so the question of commissions is surely one of efficient pricing. If we all acted rationally, the split of commission between buyer and seller would make absolutely no difference - buyers would adjust their bids in line with the commission to be added on top. In the real world, buyers might experience more 'sticker-shock' if the full price (including commission and VAT) were bid in the room, rather than a number almost a third lower than what they will have to pay. On the other side, sellers perceive their commission to be the price they're paying, and will focus more on that than on the buyers' premium - which also reduces the portion of the price that they will receive. The classic example given in economic research in this area is printers, which are sold below cost price but with eye-wateringly expensive ink cartridges increasing lifetime cost.
I'm not sure they're doing such a great job for vendors either. Academic research suggests that it's really hard to incentivise agents to maximise prices - they are much more focused on doing the deal rather than getting the highest possible price. If a sale falls through, the vendor keeps the asset, but the agent gets nothing. If it sells below fair market value, the vendor nurses a loss, but the agent gets a commission. For the vendor, the difference between a fair price and a good price is really important. For the agent it's a matter of a few percentage points.
I agree with you about the inadequate discussion of condition, although that's not restricted to the trade. Academic art history rarely discusses condition adequately, and museums almost never mention condition in wall text - which has always struck me as one of the most useful things they could explain.
Giotto, or Grotto?
November 7 2012
Restoration work at the Chapel of St Nicholas in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, which was damaged in an earthquake in 1997, has revealed evidence to suggest the frescoes may be the work of Giotto. More here.
Update - a reader writes:
If Ghiberti thought he was at Assisi it's good enough for me. If you look at his evolution between the Arena Chapel in 1305 and the Bardi Chapel in 1325, the St Francis cycle could be the same painter in the 1290s. The secondary figures in the Arena Chapel are like figures from Assisi. Giotto is the moment painting starts walking on two legs. I don't think he ditched the icon style overnight.
November 7 2012
Picture: Huffington Post/Andy Thomas
Let's celebrate with this curious collision of Obama-ography and Socialist Realism.
Greenwich's Painted Hall to be restored
November 7 2012
The Guardian reports that Sir James Thornhill's painted hall in Greenwich is to be restored. A large part of the cost is being met by our new best friends, the Heritage Lottery Fund:
The £335,000 grant from the heritage lottery fund will pay most of the cost of the £475,000 first phase of the work, on the enormous west wall, which features giant figures of George I towered over by allegories of naval victory, surrounded by children and grandchildren including the future King George II and Prince Frederick, father of the future King George III, with the artist himself standing meekly in the shadows in the foreground.
The total cost including later work on the ceiling and remaining walls will be more than £2m. Events including scaffold tours are planned while the work is carried out.
How not to restore Titian toes
November 7 2012
Picture: Museo Prado
A reader has secretly sent me a high-resolution image of the Prado's newly restored Titian discovery. Just for now, I'll treat you to a close-up of the toes.