Plug alert

December 5 2012

Image of Plug alert

Picture: BG

Forget Old Master sales and £10m Raphael drawings - the week's most exciting event has happened. My new book has arrived, just in time for your Christmas stocking. If you wanted to give your money to tax avoiders, buy it on Amazon for £42.75. Or help out HM Treasury by buying it directly from Cambridge University Press for £45.

On offer at Sotheby's

December 4 2012

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have pushed the boat out with their Old Master videos this time round. Here, George Gordon talks engagingly about highlights from tomorrow's Sotheby's Old Master sale.

Louvre-Lens opens

December 4 2012

Video: AFP

The Louvre has opened its satellite museum in Lens, a former mining town in Northern France. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones questions the move:

The great Paris art museum is getting international praise for opening a new Louvre in Lens, a former mining town in northern France. But the Louvre is taking a huge risk by sending masterpieces such as Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People to the new Louvre-Lens. It is breaking up a collection that is one of the wonders of the world. For every visitor who makes the trip to Lens, there will be people frantically scouring the Louvre in Paris looking for the vanished Delacroix that is usually one of its highlights.

I think it's political correctness gone mad. There's no reason to undermine the strength of a great museum such as the Louvre in the name of regional equality. There are only a few museums like the Louvre in the world, and they have their own egalitarianism in the universal overview of human culture that they provide. It would be better for the Louvre to find ways to bring diverse communities into its Paris home using the multicultural approach pioneered by the British Museum in London.

Hard to disagree. But this is what happens when you have too much political control over the arts. The closest analogies we have here in the UK (where ministers are kept well away from museums) are Tate's branches in Liverpool and St Ives, and the NPG's in Bodelwyddan Castle and Benningborough Hall. In both cases the institutions have enough surplus works to create strong galleries with a local emphasis and good quality works, but without raiding the core displays in London. However, as Didier Rykner has shown with his series of distressing photos of empty plinths and gallery spaces, that doesn't seem to be the case with the Louvre.

Update - a reader writes:

Was interested to read your piece on the new Louvre Lens. I happened to be in Arras a few months ago, where there they have just installed the best bits of the Versailles carriage collection in an old nunnery (I have always been obsessed with 18th century coaches). I thought it was great. Let's not worry about whether the French misuse their cultural patrimony, let's just celebrate the fact that it's now even more accessible to us Brits. Arras and Lens are just a short drive from the chunnel exit, which is itself a very reasonable drive from London / the SE. It makes for a great weekend away.

More of a Eurostar-straight-to-Paris kind of person meself.

Christie's Old Master evening sale

December 4 2012

Image of Christie's Old Master evening sale

Picture: BG

Bit of a flat one this. Christie's most recent Old Master auctions in London totalled £95m, but tonight's sale limped home at just £11.5m. December sales usually play second fiddle to the July auctions, but there's no denying that this evening's was rather weak.

I'm not entirely sure why. The quality of the pictures on offer wasn't bad, the estimates weren't crazy, and the cataloguing was the usual high standard for a Christie's evening sale. There were no knockout lots though. The top lot by value was a £2m Jordaens (inc. premium).

However, by my counting some 25 of the 54 lots failed to sell, and nothing kills the atmosphere in an auction room quicker than a run of bought in pictures. At one point there were 8 consecutive failures. The buy-ins included what we thought was a rather fine Italian-period Van Dyck, which we had been tempted to bid on [below].

Happily, the British pictures on offer performed well. A not stellar Reynolds made £211k, three head studies by Lawrence made £121k, while a fine Gainsborough copy after Van Dyck made £265k. And the second highest price of the evening was for a rare night scene by Wright of Derby, which made £914,850 [above]. This delightful picture had recently been discovered in a US auction (I'm told) for peanuts. It was an epic find by probably the greatest sleeper-hunter of our time (who is very discrete, so I can't name him).

Tomorrow evening's Sotheby's sale will most likely beat the Christie's total, especially if they sell their £10m-£15m Raphael drawing, and the £5m-£7m Jan Steen.

Update - a reader writes:

I can tell you part of the reason the sale fell flat tonight - picture flipping.  At least 16 paintings had been on the market in the last 15 years, and only 5 of them sold.  The market is smart enough to figure out that the Flinck sold 7 months ago at Dobiaschofsky, even if it wasn't spelled out in the catalogue, and wasn't going to pay a premium to a sleeper hunter who overpaid for a work in mediocre condition.  Almost without exception, the Dutch pictures were recycled, mediocre examples of the artists' work.  As something of a sleeper hunter myself, my rules are a) if it can be found, properly attributed, on Artnet, it will make a fair price the first time around regardless of where the auction is or what the estimate is, and b) even if it's not on Artnet, if you can tell during the bidding that at least two dealers are involved as well, it will make a fair price, and it's best to sit back and let it go.  That leads to a pretty low success rate in bidding, but a low failure rate in reselling as well.

Things you don't expect to see in the Courtauld

December 4 2012

Image of Things you don't expect to see in the Courtauld

Picture: BG


Art discovery, Uzbek style

December 4 2012


What's the best way to announce an art discovery to the rest of the world? If you're in Uzbekistan, it involves candles, serving girls in period dress, live music, plenty of booze, endless speeches, a pair of nuns, and a bishop. As reports, a lost painting attributed to Veronese has been found in the stores of the Tashkent Museum of Arts:

Specialists of Tashkent's Museum of Arts yesterday presented the proof of authenticity of Paolo Veronese's The Lamentation of Christ which was discovered in its repositories.

On 27 November, Uzbek arts specialists told a news conference about their work to establish the authorship of the painting.

Initially, the painting was believed to have been of unknown origin. Later, specialists arrived at the conclusion and it was proven that the discovered painting was 16th century Italian painter Paolo Veronese's The Lamentation of Christ.

However, according to AFP:

[...] the Italian embassy in Tashkent has urged caution, saying while the show is a remarkable event, further work will be needed to confirm that the picture is a genuine Veronese.

The State Arts Museum unveiled the painting in an exhibition called the "Revival of a Masterpiece", presenting it to the public at a ceremony with Uzbek officials, the Italian ambassador and Russian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church leaders.

The Arts Museum said the "Lamentation of Christ" was brought to Uzbekistan in the 19th century when the territory was part of the Russian Empire.

The picture was part of the collection which belonged to the Romanov dynasty of Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II.

You can read more about the picture's history here. Scroll through to about 10mins 30s to see the painting being unveiled. Western galleries have a lot to learn from this, don't you think? Especially the booze and period dress.

Anghiari copy returned to Italy

December 4 2012

Image of Anghiari copy returned to Italy

Picture: New York Times

Elisabetta Povoledo in the New York Times reports that a missing copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari has been returned to Italy:

More than 70 years after an oil painting depicting a panel of Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated “Battle of Anghiari” was spirited away from Italy to enter into a succession of private collections, the work – tantalizingly attributed by some to the master himself – is going on display at Italy’s presidential palace until mid-January.

The Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, the most recent owner of the so-called Doria Panel, returned the painting to Italy this summer after officials here demanded its restitution, claiming that it had been illegally exported at the start of World War II. The Japanese museum had bought the work – which depicts “The Fight for the Standard” from Leonardo’s famous Battle of Anghiari mural – in good faith on the Japanese antiquarian market in 1992.


Nicked - one solid gold hand

December 4 2012

Image of Nicked - one solid gold hand

Picture: Guardian

The Guardian reports that a solid gold sculpture has gone missing from Christie's King Street premises:

It is a work of art by one of the world's most feted artists, the Turner prize-winning Douglas Gordon. It is also made from solid gold, with an insurance value of around £500,000 and, the Guardian has learned, the work has been stolen while in the care of Christie's, one of the most respected auction houses in the world.

The artist fears it may have been taken for the scrap value of its metal, which he estimates to be around £250,000. "I don't think this is an art theft," Gordon said. "I'm pretty sure it has been melted down." [...]

After the exhibition closed on 28 October, the sculpture was returned to the Christie's storage facility in London for safekeeping. According to Gordon, documentation was signed showing the sculpture had been safely received; and, following standard practice in the artworld, a condition report was completed.

But earlier this month, according to Gordon, "apparently an employee randomly picked up the box it was in – yes, the phrase 'randomly picked up' is the phrase I have heard – and discovered it was a bit light". The crate was opened and the artwork discovered to be missing.

When the dendrochronologist comes (ctd.)

December 3 2012

Image of When the dendrochronologist comes (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

Last week I mentioned that we had a visit from the dendrochronologist Peter Klein. We had four panels dated, and happily the results were good for all four. For example, it seems that our recently acquired portrait of Mary I is contemporaneous, while the above portrait by the Master of the Countess of Warwick, which is dated 1565, came back with a 'most plausible creation date' of 1564 (phew). 

A fellow dealer who also used Peter's services found that his panel (a sleeper) came from the same tree as a number of other panels used to support known works by a Very Famous Artist. Result! If I ask him nicely, he might let me tell you about it. It's a nice example of how science can help prove a connoisseurial hunch.

Getting up close and personal with art

December 3 2012

Image of Getting up close and personal with art

Picture: BG

I'm afraid service might be a little slow at the moment, as we're in the thick of Old Master Week here in London. Things are pleasingly busy in the art world, and the salerooms are buzzing. I still can't work out why the art market seems to be defying the general economic gravity, but it is. This weekend we experimented with weekend opening times, and even sold a painting (a Kneller), on Saturday.

Above is a snap from Sotheby's, where they are showing Raphael's drawing of an apostle, consigned by Chatsworth at £10-£15m. If you have the time, and even if you have no intention of buying, I strongly recommend checking out the Sotheby's and Christie's Old Master viewings. It's one of the best ways to become intimate with great art, and allows an experience quite unlike that you get in any museum. Not only can you get up close and personal to the paint surface, you can also take photos, look at the backs, and generally do things (within reason) that would normally see you escorted from most art galleries by a pair of heavies. This week you can not only see the above Raphael drawing, but fine works by Batoni and Jan Steen at Sotheby's, while Christie's have a newly re-discovered Wright of Derby (below), and a good pair of Van Dycks.

New Murillo show at Dulwich

November 30 2012

Image of New Murillo show at Dulwich

Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Dulwich Picture Gallery has announced details of a new exhibition on Murillo, to open on 6th February. From The Guardian:

Britain's oldest purpose built art gallery is to be turned into something approaching a Sevillian church when it stages an exhibition of works by the 17th-century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Dulwich Picture Gallery in London has announced details of a show that will also include a work thought lost; and a re-attribution to Murillo of a work that has been rescued from the gallery's stores.

The show examines Murillo in his later years and specifically his relationship with his patron and friend Don Justino de Neve, the canon of Seville Cathedral – "the Saatchi and Damien Hirst of their time", said the gallery's chief curator, Xavier Bray.

Anyway, the show will have a few recent discoveries, including the above newly-restored sketch of The Adoration of Magi, which was previously languishing unloved in the Gallery's store.

All hail 'The Young Van Dyck'

November 30 2012

I'm afraid I haven't got time to write a full review of 'The Young Van Dyck' right now, as Old Master week is upon us, and today is the first day of viewing.

The good news is, if you were pushed for time and could only take a day off to see this fabulous show (which you should), it's just about possible. I landed in Madrid at about 10.30, and, thanks to Fernando Alonso's taxi-driving dad (it seemed), was at the Prado by 11am (where, wonderfully, I was promptly presented with a complimentary exhibition catalogue - thanks!). I took the 8.45pm flight back, which gave ample time for the exhibition, the main Prado collection, a quick visit to the Thyssen collection, and a fine lunch in the Prado's amiable cafe. Of course, if you want to stay the night in Madrid, then the Ritz is just opposite the Prado...

Regular readers will know how much of a Van Dyck anorak I am, but even if I wasn't, I'd still rate 'The Young Van Dyck' as one of the best exhibitions I've ever been to. Perhaps it's because in the UK we're increasingly fed a diet of low-brow blockbusters (you know, the ones that pointlessly lump together two or three Big Name artists), and so my expectations were low. 'The Young Van Dyck', however, was a masterclass in what museum exhibitions should be - an opportunity to bring together exquisite works to make a thorough examination of an aspect of an artist's oeuvre. Here, the visitor is treated to just the right number of drawings and studies alongside the main works so that we can fully chart the evolution of Van Dyck's genius, but there are no distractions with engravings, works by Van Dyck's followers, or, worst of all, explorations of 'contemporary resonance'. Clearly, they don't have 'outreach curators' at the Prado. The show just tells you everything you can hope to know about Van Dyck's first years in Antwerp.

And the catalogue - well, it's epic. You rarely get catalogues like this anymore. It is almost entirely free from new art historical guff - there are no essays about social context or convoluted theories on, say, stylistic discourse. There is even a great deal of connoisseurial discussion. It makes the Tate's effort on Van Dyck in Britain look very weak by comparison (which, as Brian Sewell said, read as if 'written by a student with access to Wikipedia'). Instead, we have an old-fasioned, fact-filled investigation of what Van Dyck painted, whether he painted it, and when, and for 'the how' there's even a thorough section on technical analysis. If you can't get to the Prado, it's well worth ordering.

I'll write more on the exhibition next week.

Where have all the blokes gone?

November 30 2012

Interested to see this piece* by University of Nottingham art history PhD candidate Helen Wainwright, written after she had attended a conference:

The one thing that struck me, however, and this comment was also made by Laura Gray from Cardiff School of Art, was the distinct lack of males in the room. Out of a 30-strong audience, only three men were in attendance; all of whom had specific roles to play during the event. Why had this happened? Are the new breeds of Art Historians mostly female and if so, is this going to cause an oestrogen fuelled riot or an all-out party, at some point in the not-too-distant future?! Or, do the male Art Historians like to keep themselves to themselves in fear of their safety?

It's definitely the former. And when the day comes, AHN looks forward to the all-out party.

*via Association of Art Historians Chief Executive Pontus Rosen.

A lost Van Dyck head study at the Prado?

November 28 2012

Image of A lost Van Dyck head study at the Prado?

Picture: Museo Prado

I'm hoping to wangle a chance to see this picture at the Prado tomorrow. It isn't usually on display, and I've not it published before. Although the Prado catalogue the picture in full as 'Van Dyck', it isn't in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne. However, the 2004 catalogue was very conservative when it came to including head studies by Van Dyck - just 25 are listed, out of 744 works. 

Thanks to the Prado's excellent high-res images online, it's possible to get a good idea of the picture's quality. It's hard to be 100% sure from the photo, but I think this may well be by Van Dyck. The original oil on paper study has been extended on all sides, and laid onto another surface. The somewhat clumsy red/brown cloak is a later addition, as, probably, is the overly dark background.

The Prado website dates the study to 1618-20, but this feels too early to me. Interestingly, it is not included in 'The Young Van Dyck' exhibition, which may suggest that the Prado aren't sure how to place it. In my view, the handling is more redolent of studies I know from Van Dyck's second Antwerp period (1627-1632), with its subtle use of glazes, such that in the eye, even though it is only painted with barely a smudge of brown glaze, we can still see the sitter's expressive, upward glance. It reminds me of a similar profile head study we discovered here a few years ago (below, recently sold from the collection at Longleat), for the figure of St Joseph in Van Dyck's Holy Family of c.1630.

In fact, we are probably dealing here with an Italian period study, made between 1627-32. The head is almost certainly a study for the central Pharisee in The Tribute Money [Galleria di Palazzo Bianco, Genoa] (a picture for which we have no firm date).* As with most of Van Dyck's studies for religious pictures like this, the study above shows a less emphatically characterised head which, in the finished picture, eventually becomes more reflective of the composition's narrative. It allows us to see how Van Dyck took life studies of models in his studio, and turned them into the characters he needed for his finished pictures. 

* I am grateful to reader (and accomplished artist) Simon Watkins for pointing out the link to 'The Tribute Money'. I had initially flipped through the 2004 catalogue too quickly, and missed it - a lesson learnt!


When the dendrochronologist comes

November 28 2012

Image of When the dendrochronologist comes

Picture: BG

Today we had a visit from Prof. Dr. Peter Klein, the famous dendrochronologist. He will help us date the panels on which the above pictures are painted. If your painting is on an oak panel, and with more than at least 25 tree rings, you can usually get a pretty accurate date. It's always fascinating watching Peter measure the widths of the tree rings, which is a slow a painstaking task. I wouldn't have the patience myself.

Guess which one of the above panels is a Rubens.

Update - top right.

Loans for cash - a good idea? (ctd.)

November 28 2012

We've had some good contributions on this subject - thanks to those who have written in. Keep 'em coming...

A reader rants

November 28 2012

Image of A reader rants

Picture: NPG

A reader writes:

Can´t believe AHN will not rant about NPG new acquisition [a portrait of Amy Winehouse]! Even I am bothered and I am not even English! It is just a bad, bad, bad picture! Painful! Really bad!

Yes, it is pretty bad. Here's the guff to go with it:

Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: "Dumas’s liquid handling of paint carries tremendous emotive power.

"Detail bleeds into and out of her work, directing and dispersing the gaze of the viewer. The rich, translucent blues of this portrait allude to Amy Winehouse’s musical influences as much as to the melancholy details of her career."

If I was in charge of the National Portrait Gallery, I'd have a rule against commissioning posthumous portraits. They always disappoint, usually because, as here, their purpose is overwhelmed by the circumstances of the subject's death. A portrait should be from life. The Amy Winehouse image above is just a memorial.

I'm childishly excited...

November 28 2012

Image of I'm childishly excited...

Picture: Prado/Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenen Künste, Vienna

...about my trip tomorrow to see 'The Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado. So expect to read about little else for the next few days. Readers who follow AHN on Twitter can also expect many excitable Van Dyck related tweets. 

A time limit to restitution?

November 28 2012

I'm intrigued to see a report in The Art Newspaper about a conference on Nazi looted art, one which discusses whether there should be a time limit on claims:

A one-day symposium focusing on new developments in Nazi-looted art disputes takes place today 27 November at the Peace Palace in the Hague (“Fair and just solutions? Alternatives to litigation in Nazi looted art disputes: status quo and new developments”).

Issues to be discussed include whether a “fair and just” solution depends on acquiring disputed works in good faith and if a time limit should apply to ownership claims. “Another, rather basic, question is in what sense Nazi-looted art claims differ from other claims regarding spoliated art. If there is a fundamental difference, what is its essence?” says a press statement. 

The debate will include an interview session with the chairs of five European advisory committees (Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK).

Regular readers will know that I am very much in favour of restituting looted art from World War Two, and have criticised decisions which seem to me to be unfair to the heirs of Nazi victims. But I have wondered for some time whether we need to impose a time limit on restitution, even if it is some way in the distance. There are signs that the restitution business is getting out of control: we've recently had a case of looted art from World War One, while last year a London dealer exhibiting in Paris had a work confiscated because it had allegedly been missing from a French museum since 1818!

Obviously, it is way too soon to set limits for WW2 - in many cases victims are still alive, and it would be entirely wrong to discuss any limit that impacted on them or indeed their immediate heirs. Perhaps we need a solution that doesn't necessarily set just a time limit, but a generational one. For example, should we say that spoliated art can only be re-claimed by two, three or four generations of heirs? That is, would it be reasonable to ask how long, even if no spoliation had taken place, a family is likely to have kept its paintings in the first place?

Loans for cash - a good idea?

November 27 2012

Image of Loans for cash - a good idea?

Picture: MFA Boston

Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe highlights how US museums raise funds by renting out their masterpieces:

[...] the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston], eager to raise revenues, is also renting out many of its most prized works of European and American art to for-profit enterprises. A total of 26 paintings, including the marquee “Dance at Bougival” and “Madame Roulin,” have been sent to exhibitions in Italy organized by a private company called Linea d’Ombra, for a large, undisclosed fee.

The combined loans and rentals have resulted in what Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, readily admits is a “traffic jam” of missing masterpieces.

“We admit there is some crowding [on the list of masterpieces sent away],” Rogers said in an interview with the Globe. “Everything has come together at once.”

‘As an art history professor, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that certain canonical masterpieces are on display in the museum,’ said Jonathan Unglaub of Brandeis University.

The practice of charging fees for lending works is not new, but it remains controversial. The Italian shows currently showing works from the MFA, in the cities of Vicenza and Verona, are titled “Raphael to Picasso” and “From Botticelli to Matisse.”

I'm not aware of any UK museums doing this (at least not on a large scale). But I'm interested to hear what readers make of the practice. If a hefty fee is raised, should pictures be loaned for cash to not for profit organisations? Should, say, Unilever be able to rent a Gainsborough from the National Gallery, if it is ordinarily in storage? Gaps on walls are a Bad Thing - but if sensitively done, I can see the practice having merits.

Update - a reader writes:

British galleries have started to do this on some scale.  16thc Venetian paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland, including the Dianas, went to America to Atlanta, Minneapolis and Houston from October 2010 to August 2011.  That was for a fee. 

And further back, all the Courtauld Impressionists and Post-Impressionists toured for fees. This was at least from the late 1980s to raise funds for their move to Somerset House.

I would have thought English Heritage are getting fees for the collection from Kenwood currently touring America,

On the other side it’s difficult to tell if and how much British galleries pay to borrow material.  One of the few cases that have come to light is that of the National Gallery paying a fee to a local church in Spain to borrow its El Greco.

Another reader summarises the case thus:

Honestly, I do not see any problem in museums loaning works of art.

In fact, the idea of the museum as something "beyond" and "above" mundane matters as "money" is as démodé as the French Revolution!

Another reader adds:

[...] the Reina Sofia paid 3.5 million euros to the Picasso Museum from Paris for exposing its works in Madrid for three months while the [Picasso] Museum was closed for renovation (later, the same paintings grossed a significant amount of money on their journey through United Arab Emirates, Canada, United States, Finland, Russia and Australia).

Update II - another reader writes:

In principle I don't have a problem with this. Although having said that, and I'm surprised no one has already mentioned it; isn't there the issue of the fragility of works of art and the unnecessary stress that constant loaning and lending can place on an artwork (especially if lent to corporate companies who probably wouldn't treat them as carefully)?

While another is not so sure:

I feel more strongly than other contributors.  What does it mean to say that museums aren't 'above money'?  Of course they don't exist in a different plane where budgets are irrelevant, but that doesn't make them commercial enterprises driven to make a quick buck wherever they can.  They exist to preserve art and to display it to the public.  Rentals militate against both of these purposes.  Paintings shipped around the world are inevitably at risk of damage.  Brian Sewell's autobiography has some tragic anecdotes about paintings ruined in transit.  The NG even managed to break its own paintings when taking down an exhibition.  

 Dumbed down commercial blockbusters try to cram through as many people as possible, making it hard for anyone properly to see anything.  There are always major lacuna at major galleries, which have become more like lending libraries (as noted by Haskell & Penny).  Visits to more out-of-the-way collections are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and to miss half of their best paintings does a great disservice to people who have travelled to see them.  

There are more doleful examples of paid loans recently - including the NG paying to hire Leonardo's Cecilia Gallerani.  The Art Tribune has a good post on the impact at the Louvre, with pictures of many empty spaces.  The paymasters will see this as an opportunity to cut budgets, forcing perpetual prostitution of the collection to pay running costs.  It is most certainly a Bad Thing.

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