Previous Posts: July 2014

Managing museum crowds

July 30 2014

Image of Managing museum crowds

Picture: NYT

There's an interesting article by Rachel Donadio in The New York Times on how some of the world's leading museums are coping with the rapid and seemingly unstoppable rise in museum attendance:

It is the height of summer, and millions of visitors are flocking to the Louvre — the busiest art museum in the world, with 9.3 million visitors last year — and to other great museums across Europe. Every year the numbers grow as new middle classes emerge, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe. Last summer the British Museum had record attendance, and for 2013 as a whole it had 6.7 million visitors, making it the world’s second-most-visited art museum, according to The Art Newspaper. Attendance at the Uffizi in Florence for the first half of the year is up almost 5 percent over last year.

Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

In recent years, museums have started doing more to manage the crowds. Most offer timed tickets. Others are extending their hours. To protect the art, some are putting in new air-conditioning systems. Still, some critics say that they’re not doing enough.

Visitors to the National Gallery in London will know that weekdays resemble out-of-control school creches, as teachers and tour guides dump their charges unsupervised for a few hours respite. This is of course a side effect of unrestricted free access; there's little incentive to employ the time wisely.

Meanwhile, the Louvre (says The Art Newspaper) is forecasting an increase in visitor numbers of up to 30% by 2025, to 12 million a year, and the French government, in response, is advocating 7 day opening. About time too. (Seperately, the Louvre seems to be blighted by an increase in rats, at least in the gardens.)

Another institution trying to do something about overcrowding is the Frick, which recently announced what I thought were commendable plans to construct an extension to the site, providing more library space and, crucially, a seperate exhibition space. For major exhibitions, the Frick currently has to un-hang large parts of the permanent collection. But, perhaps predictably, the scheme was met with cries of 'Save the Frick!' from those who would rather make the place a time capsule rather than a functioning museum.

Personally, I'd like to see museums open later in the evenings as a matter of course. Otherwise, for those who work, there's hardly ever any time to visit, and anyway I'm not sure why the visual arts have to be an exclusively daytime activity. Happily, the National Portrait Gallery in London helpfully stays open till 9pm on both Thursdays and Fridays. The National Gallery is open till pm on Fridays, but I suspect that's when many people are going out or away, and I preferred it when it was open late on Wednesdays. Tate has 'Late at Tate' once a month, but insists on making the evenings 'events', with the next one promising:

A programme of live art, performance, installations and workshops [to] explore the youth experience and the space it occupies between social structures and cultural boundaries.

Whatever that means.

Update - a reader writes:

Yes Bendor  Friday is the day when many  of us are going out or away - we are going to London.

Friday evening is a good time for opening if you live in the north of England - Wednesday is about the worst.

I would have to take 2 days holiday allocation for a midweek evening visit to the london galleries.

Perhaps one long term answer to overcrowding would be to disperse the national collections around the country.

They are after all national not london ones.

A somewhat daft proposition, and I say that as a resident of Edinburgh.

Emin's bed (ctd.)

July 30 2014

Image of Emin's bed (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Is going back on loan to Tate Modern (having been sold the other day for £2.5m), and has been officially blessed by Sir Nicholas Serota as 'iconic'. More here.

Buying influence at Tate?

July 29 2014

Image of Buying influence at Tate?

Picture: Amazon

The Grumpy Art Historian has reviewed Georgina Adam's new book 'Big Bucks' (which I mentioned earlier), and highlights the practice of buying access to Tate's collection committee (which I didn't know about):

[...] members of Tate's collection committee each donate at least £10,000 a year - or, to put it less politely, buy their way on. Though she doesn't draw it out in this particular case, that gives opportunity to promote purchase of artists that the committee members collect, boosting their value. And it skews the Tate's collection towards art cherished by rich collectors who are not necessarily the sharpest connoisseurs (though some of course are the sharpest connoisseurs; my point is simply that connoisseurship is not proven by a donation of ten grand).

The GAH then cites Adam's quote from an anonymous US museum director:

"The problem of collectors sitting on museum boards and trying to use their position to validate their own holdings is ubiquitous, and is being exacerbated by the new class of trustees, who today are investor-collectors ... They will try to use their position to either influence the purchases of the institution, in line with their own collection, or have their own works included in museum exhibitions. You cannot imagine how cajoled and caressed I have sometimes been to take a painting into a show!" (p. 172)

I've never been convinced that it's the role of public institutions to spend public money on contemporary art. Taste in the contemporary world is so led by hype and fashion, and determing now what posterity will see as important is a bit like picking lottery numbers. Sometimes this is taken to extremes, like the Arts Council's scheme to provide 0% loans for buyers of contemporary art (sub-prime art anyone?). Is it better to wait for a period of time, and then be sure that we're spending public money wisely, in the same way that there is a period of 50 years before export controls kick in to protect items of national heritage? This is not to say that museums shouldn't accept gifts of works; as the GAH says, the cachet of having a work of art in, say, Tate is such that the donations would doubtless flood in anyway, from artists and agents.

Job Opportunity

July 29 2014

Image of Job Opportunity

Picture: PMC London

There are two interesting job vacancies at the Paul Mellon Centre in London, which tell us something about the direction of travel in art history academe these days: one is for a 'Digital Manager' (£30k-£35k), and the other is for an 'editorial assistant' to help run a 'new online publications project'. The blurb for the former says:

The Centre is currently developing a digital strategy and expanding its range of online resources. The successful candidate will help us implement and run an exciting range of digital and online projects that will complement the physical expansion of the Centre in Bedford Square, London.

In other words, standby for more online publications of lovely things like catalogues raisonnes (which frankly wouldn't exist without places like the PMC). There's even hope for previously published catalogues to go online too, with room for better photos and updated text. Splendid

One of the major changes I've noticed since I started in the art world, nearly ten years ago, is the frequency of my trips to the library. Even in 2005 it was easier and better to go look things up either in the London Library or the Courtauld Library. Nowadays, it's sedentary searches of Jstor and Google books all the way to an early heart attack. 

'Bakersfield Mist' (ctd.)

July 29 2014

Image of 'Bakersfield Mist' (ctd.)

Picture: Bakersfield Mist

I wrote recently about going to rehearsals for the West End play, Bakersfield Mist, which is all about connoisseurship, fakes and attribution (over a possible Jackson Pollock). I'd been asked to talk art history with the play's cast, Kathleen Turner (of Hollywood fame) and Ian McDiarmid (the Emperor in Star Wars). Last night I finally got to see it, and I couldn't recommend it more highly: the acting is compelling and superb; the art historical themes are well explained; the humour is sharp; and the directing is pacey and entertaining. It runs until August 9th, so if you're in London, do go along (tickets here). It's relatively short - 80 mins with no interval - so there's plenty of time for a good meal afterwards, where you can read and discuss my essay on connoisseurship (yes, another one!) in the programme.

The Great Brian

July 25 2014

Image of The Great Brian

Picture: Sunday Times

It's been a while since we've heard from Brian Sewell (of whom, as regular readers will know, I'm a fan). In fact, there's been no exhibition review in the Evening Standard since this in April on Matisse at Tate Modern. I do hope he's alright, or that the Standard hasn't made him one their economies.

Update - a number of readers have pointed me to this piece in the Mail, which reveals that he's recuperating after an operation. 

Hermitage - The Movie

July 24 2014

Video: Electric Sky Distribution

The Hermitage has been given the Hollywood effect for a new movie on its history. It's in cinemas (probably not everywhere) from September 9th.

Can you believe I've never been?

Koons goes to the Louvre

July 24 2014

Image of Koons goes to the Louvre

Picture: Christie's

Gareth Harris in The Art Newspaper reports that Jeff Koons is to have a show at the Louvre in 2015. There's probably no greater endorsement for a contemporary artist, but it probably tells us more about the museum than Koons. Anyway, standby for extensive Guffwatch in French.

Chasing Van Dyck

July 23 2014

Image of Chasing Van Dyck

Pictures: Sotheby's

Which might you expect to fetch more at a London Old Master sale - an excellently preserved portrait catalogued as 'Van Dyck' in full, of an interesting female, English sitter (left), or a dirty, hard-to-read portrait catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck' of a bearded Flemish civil servant (right)?

Yes, it's the bearded civil servant - as I'm sure you all guessed. The fact that a picture of uncertain status and condition can make more (£722,500) than a fully accepted, cleaned work (£662,500, both prices incl. buyer's premium) highlights one of the more puzzling vagaries of today's Old Master market, and why, when selling at auction, maximising the price is all about maximising the number of bidders, and not necessarily the amount of information you reveal.

On the left we have Van Dyck's Portrait of Frances Devereux, which was estimated at £400,000-£600,000 in the evening sale, and sold not only with impeccable provenance going back to the sitter, but also with a firm entry in the 2004 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's works. That portrait made £662,500 (which, as I mentioned below, I thought was cheap for a picture in such good condition). The picture on the right, of Baron Zaventem, only had certain provenance going back to the 2nd Earl of Warwick in the early 19th Century, and was excluded from the catalogue raisonne as a copy of a lost original. It was being sold as 'attributed to Van Dyck' by Sotheby's in their day sale. 

Those two magic words - 'lost original' - however, were enough to get the art trade excited about the picture's potential. Maybe (thought the numerous bidders who were either in the room or on the phones) this picture was in fact Van Dyck's lost original, and cleaning off the old varnish might reveal a work of autograph quality beneath. Encouraging for those dealers was the catalogue entry, which despite citing the opinion of the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes (who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonne) that it was 'a repetition', placed more weight on the view of Prof. Christopher Brown (who has also published widely on Van Dyck) that 'the quality of the face and certain other passages argue for an attribution to Van Dyck himself'.

Nothing fuels the art trade like optimism, and as a result, the picture made more than ten times its upper £70,000 estimate. However, you can be sure that had it been sold cleaned and fully catalogued as 'a Van Dyck', the portrait might only have fetched between two and three hundred thousand pounds.

Why’s that then? The key factor here was that the art trade saw an opportunity to 'add value'. They could (if all went well with their cleaning and re-presentation) point to the price paid and say, 'aha, but this was only sold as 'attributed to', but now look, we have cleaned it, and it is in fact all by Van Dyck'. And it's not hard to argue that they would be entitled to their profit, having taken a risk on the painting. With the Frances Devereux portrait, however, there was no value to add. Most dealers would only be able to ask a relatively low margin on the painting, as they'd effectively just be retailing the work. So in this case, it was only likely to be bid on by those private collectors who happened be interested in a Van Dyck on the night, and with the ability to pay the £622,500 in full within 30 days.

Because that's not many people (I recall seeing just two bidders for the Frances Devereux) the picture struggled to break its estimate. But equally, had it been consigned to the sale as the Baron Zaventem had, that is, dirty and with uncertain cataloguing, I’ve no doubt it would have fetched far more. All this is worth considering if you ever want to sell a painting.

Curiously enough, there were two other ‘maybe Van Dyck’ lots in the same Sotheby’s sale, both also from the collection of the Earls of Warwick. The lot immediately after the Baron Zaventem was a portrait dating from Van Dyck’s Italian period (1622-7), of an unknown sitter. It was being sold as ‘studio of Van Dyck’, and estimated at £40,000-£60,000, despite the enthusiastic views of the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, who was quoted in the catalogue as saying ‘she would not rule out its being partly or all by Van Dyck himself’. An old varnish and numerous re-touchings made it hard to be sure of the quality, but it sold for £410,500.

Personally, I thought it was indeed by Van Dyck himself, and a much finer portrait than the Baron Zaventem, which I thought was a brave purchase. Fans of the BBC series ‘Yes, Minister’ will know what I mean by a ‘brave’ purchase. Perhaps the most intriguing ‘Van Dyck’ lot, however, was the small sketch relating to the artist’s two versions of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Estimated at £12,000-£18,000 and catalogued as ‘Studio of Van Dyck’ as the lot immediately before the Baron Zaventem, it made £86,500 (inc. premium). The buyer (a friend of mine) is convinced it’s ‘right’ as we say in the trade, and so am I. I'll tell you why another day.

The unusally well attended saleroom (for a day sale) thinned dramatically after the trio of 'Van Dyck's' sold.

Update - a sharp-eyed reader writes:

By extraordinary coincidence, just days after looking at the day sale catalogue,  I came across this copy of the Baron [on Your Paintings in the collection of Sheffield Museums, where it was listed as 'Portrait of a Gentleman, Dutch School', image below].


Hands in the Courtauld till

July 23 2014

Image of Hands in the Courtauld till

Picture: Telegraph

Here's a sad tale - a gambling addict who worked at the Courtauld has been jailed for three years for stealing £150,000 from the museum. Daniel Edgley (above) worked on the front till between 2010 and 2013 and pocketed cash from admission sales. He was only caught after a temporary member of staff noticed suspicious behaviour. More here in the Telegraph.

Saving Wolsey's Angels

July 23 2014

Video: V&A

The V&A are hoping to raise £5m to acquire four angels originally designed for Cardinal Wolsey's tomb. More here

Cleaning Rubens

July 22 2014

Image of Cleaning Rubens

Picture: Royal Collection

The latest Royal Collection annual report is out, and tells us that Rubens' Portrait of Don Rodrigo Calderon has been cleaned. Very fine it looks too. You can read more about the picture here.

Mauritshuis re-opens (ctd.)

July 22 2014

Image of Mauritshuis re-opens (ctd.)

Picture: AP

There's a good article by Laura Gascoigne in The Spectator about the history of the newly re-opened Mauritshuis, and how much of its collection is made up of works originally in the British Royal Collection. About 30 paintings were taken over to Holland by William III, who:

[...] sneakily transferred 30 paintings from Hampton Court to his new hunting lodge at Het Loo, including Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Robert Cheseman’ and Gerrit Dou’s ‘Young Mother’. Queen Anne later sued for the Dou’s return and lost, but Willem III got his posthumous comeuppance when the widow of his short-lived appointed heir, Johan Willem Friso, auctioned off 60 paintings from the royal collection, including masterpieces by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Willem IV tried to repair the damage by buying back Rembrandt’s ‘Simeon’s Song of Praise’ and acquiring the Mauritshuis’s biggest painting, Paulus Potter’s ‘The Bull’, and Willem V carried on the good work by spending 50,000 guilders on a major collection of 40 old masters including Rembrandt’s ‘Susanna and the Elders’ — only to have his gallery later denuded by the French, who swept off its treasures, ‘The Bull’ included, to the Louvre.

Boom (ctd.)

July 22 2014

Image of Boom (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

If you haven't already seen it, Godfrey Barker's Financial Times article on the craziness of contemporary art prices is well worth a click:

According to Art Market Research, prices are up by 121 per cent in four years and by 634 per cent since 2000. This market shows enduring powers; it has survived plunges such as a 49 per cent crash in the year from May 2009, and leaps such as its 94 per cent recovery in 2010-12.

This is not the first time the market for living artists has seen such inflation. It happened in Amsterdam from 1620 to 1650, during the Napoleonic Wars, and most of all in Victorian England, when a 32-year boom saw prices for 13 homegrown painters pass that of Michelangelo in 1868. To assume that contemporary art is a 21st-century bubble that must collapse is an error.

The art market has long served the private purposes of the wealthy, from helping them park large sums of money to achieving quick resales of leading pictures, often at twice the original price. Art also offers secrecy and tax rebates when it is displayed to the public. It can be carried in yachts and private jets from one jurisdiction to another. And it is an alternative to cash when settling debts. Interest is strongest in China, Japan, Russia and the Middle East.

But funny numbers imply, at some level, false prices. If Alice in Wonderland were involved she might say: “When I go down to the car saleroom I hope my BMW will be as cheap as possible. When I buy a Warhol, I hope it will be as dear as possible.”

Contemporary art is, beyond doubt, an irrational market and its prices, both top and middle, are not always the result of unfettered competition.

The game played by sellers, buyers, auctioneers, dealers and, increasingly, artists is to start with sky-high values and lift them gradually until “the greater fool” joins in, upon which everyone collects their profits. To attract new buyers, publicity is essential, so Christie’s and Sotheby’s bombard the world with news of the record prices their auctions set, and details of private sales also leak out – $137.5m for Willem de Kooning’s “Woman V”, $140m for Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948”. All sides aspire to lift prices – most notably, auction houses that consult with sellers and guarantee them a tempting outcome.

This financial sport purports to have no victims; even today’s fool, it is supposed, will be tomorrow’s winner.

Yet we should be uneasy. Something about contemporary art echoes pyramid schemes – clubs that make money by recruiting evermore members. The members believe that the artwork they buy is a solid investment, but it is essentially worthless; art is an empty vessel, its value, like that of a $70m shark, solely the confidence that buyers repose in it.

London Old Master sales

July 21 2014

Video: Sotheby's

The main auction houses' post-sale videos are sometimes a little like estate agent pitches; everything is 'quite simply stunning', and the market is only ever going up and up. But on this occasion Sotheby's celebratory tone in the fabove ilm is entirely justified, for their £68.3m total for the 9th July evening sale (while still chicken feed compared to modern and contemporary) was their highest ever for an Old Master sale in London. Auctioneer Henry Wyndham was in superlative form, as ever.

It's an old cliche of the Old Master market that 'there's always a lack of great works' available to buy. That it's largely phooey is demonstrated by Sotheby's superlative gathering of works from a number of eminent collections, including from the Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick. From the former we had the left wing of a diptych by Giovanni da Rimini, which made an energetic £5.7m (all prices include buyer's premium) against an estimate of £2m-£3m. I'm not (I'm ashamed to say) much of a fan of gold ground paintings, but even I could see the appeal of this one. Equally energetic was the bidding for the Duke's Garden of Eden by the Jan Brueghel the Elder, which was in excellent condition, and made £6.8m against an estimate of £2m-£3m. These days, if it's a work by any Brueghel in semi-decent condition, you can expect fireworks; apparently they are much admired by Russian buyers.

The Northumberland collection has a number of fine Van Dycks, and I was interested to see their 'Frances Devereux, Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset' up for sale with an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000, which I thought was a little on the cheap side. I'd seen the picture a couple of times at Syon House, in London, but it was always hung high above a door in a roped-off room and difficult to see, even with my usual limbo-like, binocular-holding contortions. Up close, Frances Devereux revealed herself to be in the most immaculate condition, with all the original glazes intact in the face and hands. In terms of condition, it was one of the best English-period Van Dycks I've seen. When you see pictures in such good state, it makes you weep for what we've lost over the years. In this case, it seems that the superb condition in the face, which helped convey powerfully Frances' somewhat stern characterisation, put some people off the picture, and it made a relatively low £662,500. There were also mutterings about the drapery, 'studio' said some. Perhaps it was, but it was par for the course with Van Dyck's later English portraiture. 

Another fine picture sold from above a Syon House door was Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of the Mohawk Chieftain Thayandanegea, known as Joseph Brant, which made £4.1m (est. £1m-£1.5m). The Stuart price, against the more finely painted Frances Devereux, highlights the subjectivity of portrait valuations.

Other highlights from Sotheby's evening sale included George Stubbs' 'Tygers at Play', which made £7.7m (est. £4m-£6m, Stubbs is hot at the moment); a Benedetto Gennari formerly in the Royal Collection (£506k); Joshua Reynolds' Boy with a Portfolio (£506k, another picture in great condition); Jacob Huysman's Portrait of the salacious Restoration poet, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (£602k); and George Romney's flamboyant Portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu, which set a new record for Romney at £4m (est. £2m-£3m). These last two pictures came from the collection of the Earls of Warwick, and were bought by the same buyer. As important British historical portraits, we may hopefully see them in a public gallery soon.

Sotheby's sold 80% of their lots, which was something of a contrast to Christie's, who only managed to get 35 of their 70 lot sale away. The Christie's total was a respectable enough £44.2m, and I believe they still hold the record for a London Old Master sale at £85m in 2012. Their headline lot was of course the Vermeer copy of a work by Ficherelli, Saint Praxedis, which made £6.2m. It seemed to me in the room that there was only a single bidder at around the £5.5m reserve. The buyer was seated in the far right hand corner of the room, and was attended to by one of Christie's Chinese-speaking staff. He was whisked out of the room by a side door as soon as the hammer came down. The top grossing lot at Christie's was a Guardi view of the Doge's palace, which made £9.8m. A Brueghel the younger Road to Calvary in almost mint condition made £5.5m. As a purveyor of English portraits I was very pleasantly surprised to see Joshua Reynolds' full-length Portrait of Lady Francis Marsham made £4.8m, having thought that the estimate of £3m-£5m was already too high. It shows how estimates are so often just best guesses.  

It's interesting to see how the sale totals fluctuate for both auction houses. Here are the totals for all July evening sales (the summer sales are usually seen as the more important ones) in London since 2006 (the furthest back I can easily get comparative results for):


2014 £44.2m
2013 £23.8m
2012 £85m
2011 £49.9m
2010 £42.3m
2009 £20.5m
2008 £24m
2007 £40m
2006 £27.4m

2014 £68.3m
2013 £35m
2012 £32m
2011 £48.3m
2010 £53.5m
2009 £32.6m (incl. approx. £6.5m Pisasecka Johnson pictures)
2008 £51.5m
2007 £25.5m
2006 £22.8m
I make that 4-5 in Sotheby's favour. The overall total since 2006 is pretty even, but again Sotheby's just nicks it with £369.5m, while Christie's have £357.1m.

The Kardashians play 'Fake or Fortune?'

July 21 2014

Image of The Kardashians play 'Fake or Fortune?'

Picture: E!, via Artnet News

More here. Sadly, their 'Modigliani' was a fake. Quelle surprise... 


July 18 2014

Sorry for the lack of posts lately - I've been installing new IT up here. Windows 8 (which is the Devil's work) has finally driven me to Apple, and I am now the proud owner of a glistening iMac.

Happy Birthday Sir Joshua!

July 16 2014

Image of Happy Birthday Sir Joshua!

Picture: Yale

I try to avoid 'on this day' things, but today being Sir Joshua Reynolds' birthday gives me a chance to recommend a new book on Reynolds by Professor Mark Hallett, formerly of York University and now Director of the invaluable Paul Mellon Centre in London. The book is, says the Yale site:

A deeply researched and elegantly written study on Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)—Georgian England’s most celebrated portraitist and the first president of the British Royal Academy of Arts—this lavishly illustrated volume explores all aspects of Reynolds’s portraiture. Mark Hallett provides detailed, compelling readings of Reynolds’s most celebrated and striking works, investigating the ways in which they were appreciated and understood in his own lifetime. Recovering the artist’s dynamic interaction with his sitters and patrons, and revealing the dramatic impact of his portraits within the burgeoning exhibition culture of late-18th-century London, Hallett also unearths the intimate relationship between Reynolds’s paintings and graphic art.  Reynolds: Portraiture in Action offers a new understanding of the artist’s career within the extremely competitive London art world and takes readers into the engrossing debates and controversies that captivated the city and its artists.

Update - it's also Andrea Del Sarto's birthday apparently.

Update II - and Corot's.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian has read the book, and loved it.

Update IV - Neil Jeffares loves it too. 

Where are the women in art history? (ctd.)

July 16 2014

Image of Where are the women in art history? (ctd.)

Picture: via

They're mostly listening to men, according to this list compiled by Mallory Ortberg.

The value of the 'certificate'

July 14 2014

Image of The value of the 'certificate'

Picture: Telegraph

Here's a more than usually bonkers story from the world of contemporary art: the owner of a genuine Damien Hirst spot painting cannot sell it because it is 'worthless' without a certificate of authenticity, which Hirst is refusing to issue, even though there is no dispute that he made it. In other words, all the value is in the certificate, not the work itself. Which pretty much sums up the contemporary art market. 

The Telegraph has the story:

Hirst [...] painted the artwork [called 'Bombay Mix'] directly on to the wallpaper in a house in Fulham in London, which was then lived in by Jamie Ritblat. [...]

When the four-bedroom house was subsequently sold, the painting remained in situ. The property changed hands again, in 2005, when Jess and Roger Simpson bought it for £471,000.

In 2007, they employed specialists to take Bombay Mix off the wall, and have had it mounted on an aluminium backing board. The couple now want to sell the painting.

But when they came to cash in on it – “as it is not really to our taste” – they hit a major sticking point.

The painting is valuable only if it is sold with an accompanying certificate of authentication issued by Hirst’s company, Science Ltd.

Science Ltd, however, insists Bombay Mix should have been painted over years ago, when Mr Ritblat moved out of the house. The company insists that Mr Ritblat was given an alternative version of the painting on canvas in exchange for its taking back ownership of the original.

Science Ltd retains ownership of the original and the corresponding authentication certificate.

Without the certificate, the Simpsons’ painting is effectively worthless. In an email sent from Science Ltd to lawyers acting for the Simpsons as long ago as 2012, an employee of Hirst’s company wrote: “The owner of this artwork at the time your client purchased the property, I understand, was James Ritblat. However, the owner of the certificate is now Science Ltd (Damien’s company), and therefore your client has no right of ownership of the artwork.

“Damien has requested that this particular artwork is returned to Science Ltd in order that it may be destroyed.” [...]

A spokesman for Mr Hirst said: “The ownership of a wall painting in the series titled 'Wall Spots’ always resides with the owner of the 'Wall Spots’ signed certificate which accompanies the art work.

“The certificate certifies ownership. Someone being in possession of the painted wall surface without the certificate does not have any entitlement to the work.

I think someone needs to tell Damien, and his spokesman, the difference between a work of art and a 'certificate of authenticity'. What is particularly odd is that in this case we are dealing with that rare thing, an undisputed early work by Damien Hirst which he actually made himself. So it should really be far more important, and valuable, than all the later spot paintings, which are made by Hirst's assistants. But here we're getting into the topsy-turvy world of art attribution: if a c.1630 religious picture made in Rubens' workshop, under Rubens' supervision, following his design, and with his own intervention in parts, appeared in an Old Master auction, the specialists would have to catalogue it as 'Studio of Rubens'; but if one of a thousand Hirst spot paintings, which Hirst might never have seen or thought about until he signed it, appeared in the same auction house's contemporary evening sale, they'd unhesitatingly catalogue it as 'Hirst' in full.

Update - a reader writes:

I have had modest experience of contract law and I was struck by the wording in the “certificate”.  I would have thought that, at best, this creates a contract between Hirst and Jamie Ritblat but cannot bind any future owner of the house.  Possibly Hirst might want to sue Ritblat for breach of contract but I fail to see what right he has against the Simpsons.  Nor do I see how he can assert that an original painting which is acknowledged to be by him is not by him unless accompanied by the certificate.

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