Previous Posts: January 2015

Sotheby's wins, $63.5m vs $25m

January 31 2015

Image of Sotheby's wins, $63.5m vs $25m

Picture: Sotheby's

It was a pretty impressive trouncing by Sotheby's in the New York Old Master sales this year. The headline totals of $63.5m & $25m include both auction houses' seperate 'Renaissance' sales. Take those out and just stick to the 'Part 1' sales, and the totals are Sotheby's $57m vs Christie's $9.2m. That's not even a contest. 

The 'Part 2' sales were also a bit of mismatch: Sotheby's $10.2m vs Christie's $2.9m.

For comparison, below are the totals for the 'Part 1' sales going back over the last seven years, together which whatever major seperate sales the auction houses have also held (be it a 'Renaissance' sale or, for one year only at Christie's, 'The Art of France'). I've included only the January sales, as these are the larger of the two annual sales in New York (similarly, in London, the July sales are traditionally seen as the more important of London's two annual sales):


  • Jan 15 $25m (Part 1 $9.2m & Renaissance $15.7m)
  • Jan 14 $60.7m (Part 1 $15.8m & Renaissance $44.9m)
  • Jan 13 $62.5m (Part 1 $19.9m & Renaissance $42.6m)
  • Jan 12 $44.3m (Part 1 $34.3m & 'Art of France' $10m)
  • Jan 11 $28.1m
  • Jan 10 $39.5m
  • Jan 09 $15.1m


  • Jan 15 $63.5m (Part 1 $57m & Renaissance $6.5m)
  • Jan 14 $67.7m (Part 1 £51.3 & 'Courts of Europe' $16.4m)
  • Jan 13 $72.1m (Part 1 $58.2 & 'Baroni Estate' $13.8m)
  • Jan 12 $62m
  • Jan 11 $102.5m (Part 1 $90.6m & Safra Collection $11.9m)
  • Jan 10 $61.6m
  • Jan 09 $63.9m


  • Christie's $275.2m (average $39.3m) 
  • Sotheby's $493.3m (average $70.5m)

I hope I haven't missed anything out. But it seems that Sotheby's have consistently had the better results. I know the headline totals are chicken feed compared to contemporary, but this is the sort of performance Sotheby's activist shareholder Dan Loeb should think about next time he slags the company off.

How, then, do Sotheby's New York do it? My impression over the years is that they usually manage to capture the better pictures, which of course is essential. Maybe it helps too that they have the better premises (by some distance). A key ingredient of their success (but an underrated one perhaps) is that they have Henry Wyndham (above) at the rostrum - for me, the best auctioneer in the business; cajoling bids out of the punters is a real art, and harder than it looks. But also, as one leading New York Old Master dealer writes:

Somehow George and Christopher can really sell their pictures. I am always in admiration of how they do it.

Me too. The George and Christopher referred to are George Wachter and Christopher Apostle, the two long-standing heads of Sotheby's Old Master department in New York. Wachter is above closest to Henry Wyndham, and Apostle is far left. I know the latter better - and can attest that he's one of the good guys in the art trade - but both have always struck me as formidable operators, as well as having an excellent 'eye'. Whatever it is, they're unbeatable at the moment. 

What a difference a sale makes...

January 29 2015

Image of What a difference a sale makes...

Picture: Sotheby's

...and a good eye, of course. Sotheby's New York today sold two 'sleepers' that had recently been spotted by sharp-eyed dealers in London. The first was the Constable sketch I wrote about here earlier; bought for just £3.5k at Christie's in South Kensington in 2013, it soared triumphantly to $5.25m (inc. premium) earlier today. What a great vindication for close-looking and dedication; a good profit richly deserved.

The other case wasn't quite as well hidden as the Constable, but required calm nerves nonetheless; this El Greco, a very fine picture, sold at Bonhams in 2012 as 'attributed to El Greco' for £790,000. Today it made $2.74m (inc. premium).

Update - sour grapes from Christie's - Bloomberg reports their statement post-sale:

“We are aware that Sotheby’s have sold this work as by Constable,” Christie’s said in an e-mailed statement. “We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a ‘‘follower of.’’ We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.” 

From what I understand, that's flat out wrong. Unless I suppose you define 'expertise' so loosely as to include, I dunno, Christie's legal department.

Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard found in Italy (ctd.)

January 29 2015

Image of Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard found in Italy (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

I mentioned back in December the case of two paintings stolen in London in 1970, a Gauguin and a Bonnard, which surfaced in Italy. Italian police said could that although there was no doubt the paintings were stolen, they could be kept by a fellow named only as 'Nicolo', who had innocently bought them from a lost property auction in Turin for about twenty quid in 1975. Apparently, Italian law says that if you own something which is nicked, but you don't know it's nicked, you can keep it after ten years have elapsed. Bizarrely, if you do know it's nicked, then you just have wait a bit longer until it's legtimately yours - 20 years.

Anyway, when the case first came to light, it was announced that the original owner, or nobody from their estate, was around to lay claim to the paintings. So 'Nicolo' was free to sell the paintings, and pocket his windfall.

But not so veloce Nicolo! Now, Ivan Macquisten in the Antiques Trade Gazette, says that a claim has been made at the last minute by the heir of the original owners, Mathilda Marks and Terence Kennedy. It looks entirely plausible. Full details here.  

Dutch museum buys picture twice.

January 29 2015

Image of Dutch museum buys picture twice.

Picture: Codart

In 2002, the Dordrechts museum bought the above painting by Jacob Cuyp for €76,000 - but they've just announced that they bought it again, after discovering it was in fact a painting looted in WW2. From the Codart site:

The Dordrechts Museum announced today it bought a painting by Jacob Cuyp (1594-1652) which was already in its collection. Research showed the work of art once belonged to textile producer and art collector Jacques Hedeman. He stored his collection in an Amsterdam bank vault before it was confiscated and sold off by the Nazi’s. The scene with a shepherdess in a landscape, acquired by the museum in 2002 from a German art dealer, will now stay in Dordrecht. Heirs of Hedeman, who passed away in 1948, have sold the painting to the museum.

The transaction is a result of the provenance research presented by the Netherlands Museums Association in October 2013. In 41 of the participating museums, 139 objects were found that have presumably been stolen, confiscated or forcibly sold as a consequence of the Nazi regime. Since then the commission received six claims by heirs and a further seven have been announced.

Bronzino gets away at $9.12m

January 29 2015

Image of Bronzino gets away at $9.12m

Picture: Christie's

Christie's managed to spare some blushes yesterday by selling the above Bronzino for $9.12m (inc. premium) against an $8m-$12m estimate. The picture had failed to sell a couple of years ago at $12m-$18m. 

I noted earlier the curious slant in the catalogue note for the picture, which tried to claim the picture as an inspiration for many contemporary artists, including Warhol. On ArtNet, eminent Old Master dealer Robert Simon (he who worked on and sold the newly found Leonardo 'Salvator Mundi') takes apart Christie's rather desperate contemporary packaging:

Perhaps most blatant and irrelevant (and offensive) are the analogies carted out to supplement the impressive Portrait of a Young Man with a Book by Agnolo Bronzino. As a preface to the erudite entry on the painting by scholar Carlo Falciani, we are treated to a bizarre mash-up of the history of portraiture starring Cindy Sherman, Joseph Cornell, Lucian Freud, and Andy Warhol. Somehow they are all being presented as coequals of Bronzino, if not tacitly superior to him due to their contemporaneity. Warhol's Mao (illustrated) is presented as a counterpart to the Bronzino portrait, echoing “Bronzino's fascination with power and fashion"— neither quality, it might be noted, being especially evident in the painting being auctioned. The catalogue dutifully informs us that “Although there is no evidence of any knowledge of his work, there is a parallel between the portraiture of Bronzino and that of Andy Warhol, the most celebrated purveyor of ‘iconic' images of the 20th century."

Yes, there are of course parallels, just as we might all look identical to a Martian first visiting Earth. But attempting to validate established Old Master painters through specious associations with the darlings of the contemporary market lowers the credibility of the auction house and weakens the authority they have successfully promoted for themselves over the past few decades. And for many who love the art of the period, it lessens the significance of the works being offered, reducing these often complex paintings to simple cognates of their more celebrated contemporary descendants.

The Bronzino total helped push up the total for Christie's seperate 'Renaissance' sale to $15.8m. 29 lots sold, and 25 bought in. 

So Christie's combined 'day 1' Old Master total was a more respectable $25.3m. 

31 out of 55 lots 'BI' at Christie's

January 28 2015

Image of 31 out of 55 lots 'BI' at Christie's

Picture: Christie's

So there's me merrily chirping away about the Old Master market, and how it doesn't all need to be doom and gloom, and then there's a car wreck of a sale at Christie's New York 'part 1' auction. The one which is supposed to have all the good stuff in. 31 out of 55* lots failed to sell, or 'BI'd' as we say in the trade (that is, 'Bought In'). See the results here

Except, there wasn't really a lot of good stuff, and much was over-priced. For example, $2m-$3m was always going to be a big ask for this unexciting painting by Theodoor Rombouts, who has never previously made anything like that level (as far as I can make out, the record for Rombouts is $270k). Probably the less said about the $3m-$5m 'Caravaggio' (above), which also failed to sell, the better. And I wasn't suprised to see this painting by Philippe Mercier fail to sell either, at $70k-$100. I really like Mercier's work, but he's never going to be a 'Part 1' kind of artist, especially not in New York. As I said back in January, Sotheby's (who go tomorrow) has the better sale. 

On the other hand, this sensibly priced Reynolds got away at $233k, and I wasn't surprised to see more 'contemporary' pictures do well, such as this Fuseli (at $377k), whose style and story are easily translatable in the modern world. 

Of course, there's Christie's seperate 'Renaissance' sale to come this afternoon. I'm still not sure of the wisdom of seperating the Renaissance works out from the main Old Master sale. 

So, despite the poor sale rate at Christie's, I don't see much to change my optimistic view of the Old Master market - the right pictures, properly priced, will continue to do well, and at all levels. Can you tell I'm an optimist by nature?

Update - at Sotheby's drawing sale this morning we had an example of the kind of Old Master image that is just right for today's market; the below head by Federico Barocci made $221k against an estimate of $50k-$70k.


Update II - Brian Boucher on ArtNet tells us the sale was Christie's worst since 2002:

The sale tallied just $9.3 million, a quarter of the pre-sale high estimate of $39 million. It was the worst result of a January old master sale since 2002. [...] “The estimates were just too high," Amsterdam dealer Salomon Lilian told artnet News. “Many of these works were known to the market, having been shown previously at TEFAF."

This is an unfair comparison though, for we need to add in the $15m plus total from Christie's seperate 'Renaissance' sale. The trouble with hiving off the Renaissance works into a seperate sale, though, is that it can make the 'Part 1' total look too low.

I should note another casualty of the Part 1 sale - a small copper by Guido Reni, which failed to sell at $1.2m-$1.8m, despite having been bought by Richard Feigen at Sotheby's in London in July 2008 (just pre-crash) for $3.6m. Those were the days...

* My first headline said 32 out of 55 lots BI's, but in fact one picture was withdrawn.

Wanted: new 'Monuments Men'

January 28 2015

Image of Wanted: new 'Monuments Men'

Picture: NYTimes

The Art Newspaper reports that the US Army is to recruit a new batch of 'Monuments Men' (and women, of course), to:

[...] help preserve sites and cultural property in combat zones and to advise troops on heritage. After years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a new conflict in Syria, including the large-scale looting of ancient objects and the intentional destruction of heritage sites, the army recognises the need for experts in the field to advise commanders and work with civilian authorities after battles to help restore order. It is turning to museum directors, archaeologists and preservationists to fill these posts.

Make me a Colonel, and I'm in.

It's always worth looking at the back...

January 28 2015

Image of It's always worth looking at the back...

Picture: BBC/Scottish Gallery

Here's nice discovery story from my neck of the woods; the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh has discovered a lost work (above) by the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell, which had been painted over by the son of another colourist, Samuel Peploe. Says the BBC:

The lost Cadell work was painted around 1909 from his studio at 112 George Street, Edinburgh, and looks across the street to Charlotte Square. When the artist died in 1937, his sister Jean Percival Clark, well-known as the actress Jean Cadell, came up to Edinburgh to sort out his affairs.

She was helped by Denis Peploe, son of Samuel, who was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. She gifted him some of her brother's art material and included among the canvases, probably including "George Street and Charlotte Square", taken off its stretcher, turned and re-stretched ready to be used again.

It is not known why Cadell abandoned the painting, which is finished and bears a strong signature.

Years later, Denis Peploe painted his own picture, Begonias, a still life on a trestle table and whitewashed over the Cadell exposed on the other side.

The Scottish Gallery acquired the Denis Peploe and in the process of conservation discovered the Cadell on the reverse.

And in a final twist, the director of the Scottish Gallery is Guy Peploe, Denis Peploe's son. 

The history of the ruff

January 27 2015

Image of The history of the ruff


Sotheby's Old Master specialist Jonquil O'Reilly has a new column in Harper's Bazaar* on ruffs, and their importance in pictures:

Popular in the mid-17th century were the larger cartwheel ruffs, which were worn tilted forward to better show off the visage and to prevent you from inhaling a face full of lace. One of fairly impressive circumference is sported by the lady in Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck’s portrait from the 1640s (pictured top), which will be offered in the Sotheby’s Master Paintings sale on 29 January. The angle was achieved with the help of a supportasse or “underpropper,” made of stiffened, fabric-covered cardboard. Resting on the shoulders behind the head, it served to slant the ruff upward at the back and downward at the front.

Achieving the more diaphanous ruff styles required the very finest linen. A close look at the ruff in the Portrait of a Young Lady by Anthonie Blocklandt van Montfoort (pictured above left) reveals how the flat linen has been looped into figure eights. For her cap, the same linen is shown in a single layer and you can see just how delicate and gauzy it is; it’s so transparent you can almost make out the lines of her ear beneath. But wafer-thin linen came with its own draw-backs. The more delicate the fabric, the more likely it was to droop when it came in contact with the elements. A wilted ruff was bad for anyone’s look.

*NB, Mr Feigen et al, this is one of the ways you can engage new audiences with Old Masters.

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

January 27 2015

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

Picture: James Mulraine

Fellow art sleuth, and blogger, James Mulraine took this photo of the Mahon/Thwaytes 'Cardsharps' when he went to see the painting in its distant and impossible-to-see loan location at the Museum of the Order of St John in London. There, the painting is labelled as 'Caravaggio'. But if ever a hang told a story...

Portraits of Auschwitz

January 27 2015

Image of Portraits of Auschwitz

Picture: CNN

It's Holocaust Memorial Day. On CNN there's a piece on some of the 100 plus illicit portraits drawn at Auschwitz by Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner there. They're now in the camp museum, along with many other haunting art works, such as:

[...] a sketchbook containing 22 pictures most likely drawn in 1943 by an unknown prisoner at Auschwitz. The sketchbook is the only artwork documenting extermination at Birkenau. The sketches were found in 1947, two years after liberation, near Birkenau's crematoriums. They had been stuffed into a bottle and hidden in the foundations of one of the buildings.

Guaranteeing Giacometti

January 27 2015

Image of Guaranteeing Giacometti

Picture: CNBC

In her valedictory piece on leaving the New York Times, the eminent Carol Vogel tells us that - amazingly - Sotheby's are believed to have lost 'several million dollars' when they sold Giacometti's Chariot, above, for $101 million last year. Apparently, they'd guaranteed the vendor more. Crazy. But their financial interest probably explains the hyperbolic catalogue entry.

Vogel also looks at that ever-present question, will the contemporary and modern bubble burst?

The auction houses are currently in a state of upheaval, having lost their chief executives. Faced with sagging profits and rising costs, both houses are struggling to figure out how to be competitive without giving away revenue streams like the fees they charge buyers. The big sales in London next month will signal whether buyers are feeling flush. Those sales precede May sales in New York, where experts are said to be scaling back on the amount of money each company will invest in guarantees — the undisclosed sums promised to sellers regardless of the outcome of a sale — without the safety net of an outside party putting up the cash and assuming the risk.

Guarantees have helped make the market what it is. I'm not sure it can survive without them.

Clothing in Tudor portraits

January 27 2015

Video: BBC

I greatly enjoyed Waldemar's film about Holbein - catch it here on iPlayer if you missed it. It was entertaining and informative stuff, which you're guaranteed to get with Waldemar. Some people don't like his rather direct presenting style, but I do, and the great thing about Waldemar's programmes is that you come away not only learning new things, but remembering them too.

Also, he gave us, with his theory on the meaning of Holbein's Ambassadors [National Gallery, London] a proper, ten minute long art history lecture, of the kind you hardly ever get on telly these days. I suspect he gets away with this because he writes and directs everything himself.

Anyway, the film-ette above is an 'extra' he made for the BBC Arts website about clothing in Tudor portraits. Basically, the bigger your codpiece the better.

Doing down Old Masters

January 27 2015

Image of Doing down Old Masters

Picture: Sotheby's, Warhol after Lucas Cranach

The indispensable Marion Maneker, on his ever-essential blog Art Market Monitor, alerts me to this piece in Bloomberg, about whether anyone 'new' is buying Old Masters. The auction houses say they're managing to get contemporary collectors, hedge fund managers, and 'new market' collectors (China, Russia etc.) to buy Old Masters. And I believe them; last year at Christie's in London, for example, a Chinese collector bought a Vermeer for over £6m.

But, some long-standing dealers like to pour scorn on this kind of story, including the New York-based Richard Feigen:

“The disparity between Andy Warhol and the Old Masters is just too wide to bridge [...] These hedge fund guys are not going to buy Old Master paintings, even if they hear prices are a fraction of contemporary art. How will it hang in some loft in lower Manhattan?”

Well, it'll hang very nicely - if only you'll try it. I find this sort of pooh-poohing of the Old Master market, by its own participants, completely infuriating. At a time when many of us are trying hard to help make Old Master art relevant and interesting in the modern age, whether it be to school kids or hedge fund managers, why do people like Feigen have to make such self-defeating comments?

Aside from anything else, Feigen is flat out wrong; I've personally sold many pictures to hedge fund managers, and I know of other dealers who have too, both here and in the US. Equally, it's more than possible to hang Old Master works in contemporary settings, even next to contemporary paintings - that's one reason why there's been a mini boom in Renaissance and 16th Century works, because their bright colours and occasionally somewhat naive style works well in a modern setting (much better than, say, a an overly sentimental early 19th Century work). The point is, the market is out there, you just have to work hard for it. Selling the same stuff to the same people is never going to last. 

Maneker also points us to this quote from Sotheby's George Wachter - the Cardinal Richelieu of the Old Master auction world - on Artnet:

“It’s become a very international market place over the last five to six years. We definitely feel it very strongly on the high end with a whole new group of buyers from China and Russia. They seem to appeal to a lot of people since the pricing is far more reasonable than in other areas.”

Again, I believe him.

I also often see this kind of talk from dealers about a decline in 'the middle market', that is, pictures up to around the £40,000 or £50,000 level. (I know that doesn't sound very 'middle' for many people). Again, in my experience, the middle market is alive and well - you just have to know how to reach them, and with what. 

Update - a senior auction house Old Master-ist writes:

I'm very glad you picked up on the Artnet/Art Market Monitor article quoting Feigen and others. I choked on my waffles when I read it yesterday morning. Never have I read anything so far from the truth - hedge fund managers have been rampant at the OMP auctions for ten years, and contemporary buyers are prevalent too. We nearly have as much global bidding as the modern depts.


And another reader, an Old Master dealer in the UK, writes:

I'm still perplexed as to people putting down the Old Master Market... I'm 30 years old and have a huge number of friends my age and younger who are actively looking for old masters to have in their collection, they have contemporary pieces already but are looking for something thats special, a one off. Granted their budgets can be modest but you can get some great pieces for low amounts. 

I also see the estimates put on by auction houses like Christies are so low they just add to the myth that Old Masters are "not doing so well". We need to remember that Christies get an extra 2% 'bonus' if items sell above high estimate... something I think is bonkers...

Update II - this was a Sotheby's statement in response to the Bloomberg piece:

Our July 2014 sales of Old Masters in London saw record participation from 32 countries with buyers from Asia, Russia, the Middle East, India and Latin America.  The top lot, George Stubbs’ Tygers at Play sold to an Asian collector for £7.7 million ($13.2 million), a new record for a non-equestrian scene by the artist at auction.  Similarly, the second highest selling work, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, also set a new record with a price of £6.8 million ($11.7 million) and was purchased by an Asian Private Collector. That same sale saw 20% of the lots attract bids from Russian clients.

Looking at 2014 as a whole, there was increased demand from new entrants to the category - over 40%of those bidding in our Old Master sales were new to the field, and almost 20% of buyers were completely new to Sotheby's. 

Interest from new markets (Russia and Asia) was very much alive in 2014, mixed with competition from the established markets (Europe and America).

Update III - and with excellent timing, here's a more upbeat piece in The Art Newspaper on how other Old Master dealers are trying to change with the times. Those cited are based mainly in London.

Liberate Tate? (ctd.)

January 26 2015

Image of Liberate Tate? (ctd.)

Picture: Immo Klink

After all that, the amount BP pays Tate seems to be pretty tiny (reveals The Guardian). Between 1990 and 2006, the annual sponsorship was between £150,000 and £330,000. So can we suspect that Tate's real reluctance to release the figures was that they charge so little for such high profile corporate sponsorship? They need to look at their rate card again...

Now, in Tate's defence, these figures are from before the recent renovations at Tate Britain, where even the standard display is liberally plastered with BP logos. So I'd expect BP to paying substantially more than that now. And if they aren't, then something has gone really wrong. Speculation from BP/Tate critics suggest it's about £500,000 a year; not much at all. Tate must release up to date figures immediately. 

Update - a reader points out that the current Chairman of Tate's trustees, Lord Browne, was Chief Executive of BP from 1995-2007.

More strikes at the National Gallery? (ctd.)

January 26 2015

Image of More strikes at the National Gallery? (ctd.)

Picture: Museums Journal

Further to my recent post on the security guards at the National Gallery, comes news (via the Museums Journal) that staff have voted in favour of strike action:

National Gallery staff have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over the possible transfer of employment contracts to a private firm.

About half the gallery’s 600 staff were eligible to take part in the ballot by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), with a 62% turnout of members voting 94% in favour.

“It’s a pretty clear message they are sending to managers – they’re saying they want to work for the National Gallery and not a private security firm,” said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.

Last week, Polly Toynbee said in The Guardian that the National Gallery was the only 'national museum in London not to pay the living wage'. She did not specify whether this was the 'London living wage' of £9.15 an hour, or the national 'living wage' of £7.85 an hour. The 'minimum wage' is £6.15 an hour.

But in their response to the strike vote, the National Gallery tells us that they will now be paying staff at least the London living wage from 1st April this year. Moreover, staff working for CIS, the dreaded private contractor who successfully kept watch over the recent blockbuster (ie, crowded) 'Late Rembrandt', were paying staff £10 an hour. Any staff transfered from the National Gallery to a future contractor must, by law, enjoy the same pay and conditions that they currently enjoy. 

So I'm not sure I entirely understand the PCS union's beef with the proposals. If the National Gallery want to manage their workforce more effectively - and to remove the constant threat of strike action by a publicity hungry union - then personally I cannot see any great problems with that.

According to the Museums Journal) one of the PCS' claims against CIS is that:

“CIS staff have been told it is not their job to answer questions about the paintings,” he claimed.

Well, I'd have thought security staff are their to keep watch over the paintings, not give lectures about them. 

Update - a reader writes:

I noticed your comment that the security [guards] at the National Gallery are there to keep watch over the paintings, not lecture on them.  But can you imagine how dull that must be and that some of them might actually want to engage with both the public and the paintings.  It would be nice to ask a guard where a particular picture is and for the guard to know what you are talking about.

I suppose it would be somewhat heartless to point out that if engaging with the public and paintings is what you want to do in life, then applying to be a security guard is not the best way to go about it. That said, I'm sure gallery attendants should be able to, and can, point people in the general direction of, say, the Van Dyck room, or Van Gogh's Sunflowers. That's quite different though to answering questions about the paintings themselves.

Update II - another reader writes:

Engaging a security guard in a discussion regarding art could provide an excellent diversion by an accomplice of an evil doer.  Perhaps one taking a flash photo.

Guards should be paid properly and government grants should reflect that priority.

'Bendor the Just'

January 26 2015

Now, I've been summoned for jury service here in Edinburgh, so no blogging today alas - and if I get a three year fraud case, not for a wee while, either. 

In the meantime, feast your eyes on a piece I wrote for the weekend Financial Times on museum leadership in light of the new National Gallery appointment. Still not many women directors, and no Americans either...

Update - my name was not drawn in the ballot, and, luckily (as it was slated to be a two week case), I was allowed to go. 

Update II - a reader writes:

Are you sure you haven't been caught with a Van Dyck or two under the bed!

Never a good place to keep pictures, under the bed.

Quick - to Margate!

January 23 2015

Image of Quick - to Margate!

Picture: ArtFund

The first leg of Sir Anthony Van Dyck's nationwide, 3 year tour begins tomorrow in... Margate. The National Portrait Gallery's newly acquired self-portrait is part of what looks to be a very impressive exhibition at Turner Contemporary on artist's self-portraits. The shop (above) is already bursting with Van Dyck goodies. I want one of those T-shirts!

On the new exhibition, Turner Contemporary's website says:

We reflect on artists' self-portraits from Sir Anthony van Dyck's last Self-portrait of 1640-1, recently saved for the nation, to Louise Bourgeois. Over 100 works, most of which are from the National Portrait Gallery London, are brought together for an expansive look at the artists’ self. 

Historical and contemporary artists sit side by side, including Sir Anthony van Dyck, Mary Beale, Louise Bourgeois, John Constable, Tracey Emin, Jason Evans, Lucian Freud, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Angelica Kauffmann, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Yinka Shonibare MBE, JMW Turner and Andy Warhol.

I'm definitely going to try and see this. Long way from Edinburgh though... The show is on until 10th May.

On the Turner Contemporary website (and here on You Tube) there's a most curious video of 'visitors' to the gallery discussion Van Dyck's self portrait, and what it 'means'. The discussion was apparently 'led by philosopher Ayisha de Larerolle', and the results 'inspired the script for the Comedy Art Audio Guide, narrated by Comedian Hugh Dennis.' Well, having watched the video, I'll be impressed if Dennis if can salvage anything remotely amusing from the discussion; much nonsense was talked. It might have been better with an art historian in charge. But these days I suppose everyone's view is valid, no matter how wrong it is.

Update - here are the dates for the rest of the Van Dyck tour:


  • Turner Contemporary, Margate: 24 January – 10 May 2015
  • Manchester Art Gallery: 21 May – 31 August 2015
  • National Portrait Gallery, London: 4 September 2015 – 3 January 2016
  • Dulwich Picture Gallery, London: 12 January – 24 April 2016
  • Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: May – August 2016
  • National Portrait Gallery, London: September – December 2016/January 2017
  • Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle: January – May 2017
  • Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh: June – August 2017
  • National Portrait Gallery, London: September – December 2017/January 2018


Liberate Tate?

January 23 2015

Image of Liberate Tate?

Picture: Immo Klink

Regular readers will know that Liberate Tate, the anti-oil movement that seeks to stop Tate accepting money from BP, was one of AHN's least favourite campaign groups, thanks to stunts like this (and above). Happily, their more recent protests have been less silly.

Liberate Tate has been in the news again with a victory over Tate in the question of freedom of information. LT argued that Tate was wrong to refuse to reveal the actual amounts BP give to the museum, and the Freedom of Information Commissioner agreed. You can read more about the ruling here

In an article in The Art Newspaper, Tiffany Jenkins looks at why Tate might have wanted to keep the information secret:

There are good reasons why the Tate and others should not have to reveal every penny of financial arrangements: sponsorship deals are commercial. As all fundraisers know, you ask for more than you get and this requires a certain degree of smoke and mirrors. It is conceivable, for example, that the Tate does not want to reveal how much it receives because it is not quite as much as other sponsors—and future ones—think. This is what campaigners believe. Liberate Tate used available information to estimate that the Tate receives from BP about £500,000 a year—only 0.3% of Tate’s overall operating budget. They argue that this shows oil money is not as essential as is suggested. But does it? After all, every penny counts. The museum should take the money and ask for more. 

I too have no problem with Tate taking money from BP. Every nanopenny counts these days. Jenkins then sympathises with Tate's need to keep some information secret:

The broader obsession with transparency fails to recognise that withholding information can be beneficial, especially in relation to the request that the Tate publish minutes from meetings. Internal discussion, where people can speak their minds freely without fearing everyone will find out what they said, is vital to coming to informed decisions. Those with a zeal for openness need to recognise that demands to show everything can undercut essential deliberation.

In my spare time, I sit on a government advisory body which looks at freedom of information requests, and decides whether previously classified documents should be released to the public. It's interesting work, but it reinforces my belief that no government can operate without keeping some things secret. Practically, there are times, especially in military matters and foreign affairs, when one has to do things without wider public knowledge. The Assange-ist belief that we must know everything all the time is pure fantasy. And in any case, if we did insist on publishing every government, or in this case, museum, decision, financial account or minute, the reality is that people would soon stop writing things down, so we'd never know what really happened. The recent reduction in the time to keep government documents classified, from 30 years to 20 years, was in my view a mistake - already government departments and ministers are refraining from writing things down as they used to, for fear of hostile public reaction within their careers. Unofficial email systems and texts are preferred. Information and evidence eventually vanishes. History loses out.

So you'd expect me to agree with Tate and Jenkins that they should keep the amount of money BP pays to Tate secret. Except, I can't quite bring myself to see it in the same light. Either BP's sponsorship is a generous amount, in which case they come out smelling of roses, or it's less than we might expect, in which case we could ask why BP gets so much logo space in Tate (even the main hang is called the 'BP Display') when in reality it's we humble taxpayers who should get the credit. In other words, Tate's sponsorship deals are hardly nuclear secrets. Tate (to the tune of nearly £22m last year) is a public institution, and its accounts, which will never be great matters of state, should be publicly available. As Tate's own website states:

Tate is accountable to the public via Parliament for the services it provides. As such, it is required to demonstrate that it is conducting its operations as economically and effectively as possible.

But Tate too often has a kneejerk reaction to keep things secret. When I recently asked Tate for information on how much they spend on storage costs (for this article in The Financial Times), I was given mis-information, and led a merry dance on entirely spurious grounds. Other institutions, such as the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery - which actually shares the same storage facility as Tate - happily told me all I wanted to know. Why could not Tate?

So, in this instance, I'm with Liberate Tate. Release the figures - all of them. 

Update - a reader writes:

As a retired “senior executive” in the Government of Canada, and a former and current historian of sorts, I endorse your concerns with the potential for knee-jerk "transparency” to undermine honest policy discussion within government bodies, and the historical record, but I also endorse your view that “the facts” should be public, such as the Tate’s financing. Not “deliberation”, for the most part, but definitely all “the facts”.  I add that the quid pro quo for necessary protection of “deliberation” should be solid, even generous, financial support both for public reporting of “the facts”, including maximum data, and for independent capacity to assess and analyze facts, data, evidence.  This quid pro quo is too often forgotten, or actively suppressed by governments such as, unfortunately, my own.  Obviously this goes well beyond museums and arts bodies….

Update II - another reader writes:

The BP contributions should be public because they get a deduction from income and the shareholder is entitled to know the amount of a discretionary non operating expense.

While another reader with FoI experience writes:

I work in FOI too in Australia. For what it is worth, in my view a factual figure is different to deliberations on issues and decisions to be made - and in the circumstances described regarding the Tate, should be released under FOI.

Update III - Dr Matt Loder says, via Twitter, that I am:

[...] in favour of corporate criminals, environmental vandals, using our national heritage to whitewash their reputations.

And worse. 

Waldemar on Holbein

January 23 2015

Image of Waldemar on Holbein

Picture: BBC

Hot on the heels of his excellent programme on Rubens, we have more Waldemar on the telly in the UK this Saturday (BBC2 9pm); this time on Holbein. Will we get to see Waldemar dresses as Henry VIII? Here's hoping...

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