Previous Posts: September 2015

€160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)

September 30 2015

Image of €160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)

Picture: via Tribune De L'Art

It's official - the Dutch and French governments have agreed to buy one each. 

Update - this goes up and down like a yo-yo. A reader writes:

The deal is not official. Our minister of finance reserved €80 mil when we would acquire both portraits. Now it's one, there is no reason to take the reservation back and give just half. In the NRC newspaper Dijsselbloem (financial minister) stated that he sees no reason to ask the Rijksmuseum to gather at least half of half price of these pictures. This means that the Rijksmuseum is possibly still looking for €40 mil! In my book this doesn't sound like a done deal at all!!

Evidently, when you get two governments involved in buying such major works of art, you also get a degree of posturing and premature announcements.

Update II - so it seems that the Dutch government, when it appeared last week that the French were not going to go 50/50 on the paintings, pledged €80 as a 50% contribution, with the other half to be found by private donors (or perhaps not at all). Some institutions had already stepped up to the plate, such as the Rembrandt Association, with €5m. But now that the French are back in, and the Dutch government's €80m only has to account for one painting, those who had pledged money are backtracking. Bit of a mess, really. But better than the original French government plan, which was to not bother to keep the paintings in France at all.

Here's the latest view from Didier Rykner, whose estimable blog Tribune de L'Art started the whole thing off.

Update III - the BBC reports that the deal was clinched at the UN with a meeting between President Hollande and the Dutch PM Mark Rutte.

Update IV - here's a thoughtful take from the eminent Dutch art historian and dealer Jan Six, who has kindly provided me with the below translation in English:

Purchase of Rembrandts is not responsible 

In 1873 Victor de Stuers wrote a passionate indictment of the way the Dutch government treated it's cultural heritage. In his article Holland op z’n smalst (A narrow (minded) country, DN) Stuer described the depressing frequency with which important art works left the country only to boost the collections of foreign museums, and how wealthy overseas collectors were dominating the art market. Not that it did any good. Some four years later Annewies Van Loon-Van Winter sold her entire collection to Gustave de Rothschild, a clear sign that De Stuer’s protestations were not taken too seriously at the time.

The transaction, which included the much-wrangled over portraits by Rembrandt, did, however, signal the start of a private initiative to protect the Dutch national heritage. The Vereniging Rembrandt is with us today. This was a time when art dealers ruled the roost. They emptied the great British stately homes of their treasures and sold them to American robber baron clients like Pierpont Morgan, Frick, Rockefeller, Huntingdon and Kress, making monstrous profits from every deal.

1 Who says they’d fetch 160 million on the open market?

In 2015 the old masters no longer dominate the art market, partly because most of them are in European museums and they never sell. But the main reason for the decline is the thriving market for impressionist and modern art. It would be great if the 19th century American art buyers of old masters were replaced by Arabic, Chinese or Russian art buyers but that is not going to happen. 31 year-old Sheika Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bint Khalifa Al-Thani is considered today’s most powerful art buyer. One of her more famous acquisitions is Cézanne’s Card Players (bought for 250 million dollars) As far as is known, she has purchased not a single old master.

There really was no reason to suppose that scores of non-European buyers were queuing up to make off with ‘our’ two Rembrandt portraits. It’s not unusual for Rembrandts to remain unsold for quite long periods of time. The respected art dealer Otto Naumann took his particular Rembrandt, a portrait of a man dating from 1658, to the TEFAF art fair, the London Frieze Masters and a private showing at Sotheby’s in London. Not a single Chinese could be bothered. It wasn’t the asking price of 48 million dollars that kept buyers away. Modern art works were being sold for similar amounts at the same time.

The only serious private collector interested in Rembrandts is the American billionaire Thomas S. Kaplan (1962). His famous Leiden Gallery is home to hundreds of old masters, seven of which are authentic works by Rembrandt. It is thought the collection cost Kaplan around 500 million dollars. None of the works came close to De Rothchild’s  asking price but then none of his Rembrandts are life-size portraits. I think Tom would have liked to have bought them for his collection but not for 160 million euros.  

We can only guess how De Rothschild arrived at his price: I would never venture to name a price if I hadn’t seen the works for myself. Incidentally, in none of the known documents De Rothchild ever felt compelled to allude to possible interest from non-European buyers. This is significant in itself as the family has an extensive network in Arab and Chinese business circles.

But suppose Chinese and Arab buyers were interested. I find it hard to believe that a person willing to spend 160 million euro on the paintings wouldn’t take great care of them. I consider China and the Arab Gulf states as relevant guardians of culture. Many privately owned masterpieces are not locked away in safes but are lent to big museums all over the world, there for all to see. 

2 A little political distance would have been in order

The way ministers and museum directors have been wrangling over the matter these last few weeks demands an explanation. I don’t understand why the culture minister didn’t confer with the finance minister. Surely the size of the amount would warrant a closer cooperation between the two. If the director of an independent museum is confident enough to take on what may be an impossible task, it would seem sensible to give him a ‘proper’ shot at it first. A little political distance would have been in order, especially after the political decision was made to set aside half the money.

How is it possible that the asking price was accepted without question? At this price level comparable cases are few and far between. Do I think the price is absurd? I’m an art dealer and I can tell you that I would have a big smile on my face if I could sell two Rembrandts for such an amount. Trade is trade, after all. But if a politician uses public money to push through a purchase saying speed is of the essence because ‘the works may disappear to a far-away country’, then I know I’m being had. Would France really have coughed up 160 million euros if we hadn’t made the decision then and there, or would it have changed its mind about the national importance of the works? There’s a good chance the deal would have fallen through, creating an opportunity for De Rothschild to approach the Rijksmuseum without making France look silly. Mind you, the French sat on their hands for 18 months, apparently unafraid of non-European buyers muscling in.

3 Restoration: the French and the Dutch are diametrically opposed about why and how

The restoration policy of the Louvre is diametrically opposed to that of the Rijkmuseum. The Louvre restores its paintings very sparingly (as the extremely mucky state of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa attests) which means there’s a very good chance we’ll be looking at a dirty and yellowing Oopjen and Maerten a few years from now. How will the two museums agree on restoration when the time comes? You can’t restore half of half a painting.

Whenever I’m in Paris I visit the Louvre. Museums are the best places for an art dealer to check whether his instincts about a possible discovery are correct. But every time I look at a Dutch master I am dismayed at the terrible state of the paintings. Unrestored paintings in damaged frames are hung willy-nilly, covered in dirty layers of varnish. If there were such a thing as a hall of fame at the Louvre it certainly wouldn’t include a Dutch master. Everything points to the fact that France’s action wasn’t inspired by art historical gain but by political gain.

4 How can this be: a contract to subject fragile paintings to a constant to-ing and fro-ing.

The deal – to exhibit the portraits as a pair ensuring a frequent exchange between Amsterdam and Paris – is sure to precipitate the deterioration of the paintings. Of all the Rembrandts only those that have always, or nearly always, remained in private hands are still in very good condition. There’s only one reason for this: they have hardly ever been moved. The comparison with the frequent travels of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Ear Ring doesn’t really hold water. Vermeer’s painting is 44.5cm by 39cm whereas Rembrandt’s portraits measure 207cm by 132cm! They will certainly be transported in a professional Turtle box but the greatest danger lies with manually taking the painting down from the wall and mounting them again.

I am an art historian first and foremost. The object comes first. That is why I’m worried. If something were to happen to damage the paintings, and it is statistically certain that something will one day, who will take the initiative to restore them? If the Louvre were to decide the paintings are too fragile to move how are the Netherlands going to recover their  ‘rightful share’? I have a feeling the Dutch – ever ready to compromise when the French are clearly not - will have to make the French a present of 80 million euros when that time comes.

It’s an irony that 132 years after the Vereniging Rembrandt came into being, it – understandably - distances itself from contributing to a possible acquisition of the paintings which formed the catalyst for its inception. Thorbecke wrote that buying art was not a matter for governments. What he meant was that governments should facilitate but not intervene. Now the Rijksmuseum’s director’s original plan of securing both paintings for the country has been torpedoed I can understand he’s not too keen to discuss finance with Dijsselbloem. It’s an attitude the outside world might find somewhat impolite considering the minister came bearing an 80 million euro ‘present’. 


I hope Eric de Rothschild hasn’t signed the contract yet. An art loving man like him should know better than to agree to irresponsible decisions. But most of all I hope that on future occasions society and politicians will be informed properly before we all succumb to a collective panic attack and forget to question what is actually happening.


New Michelangelo discovery!

September 29 2015

Image of New Michelangelo discovery!

Picture: PR Newswire

Or perhaps not. Here's a press release from a Swiss art authentication firm:

The hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti from 1494 was presented to the public at a media conference on September 8, along with an explanation of the detailed study of the sculptures by the «Art Research Foundation».

The study analyzes the plausibility of the object's time of origin using technical and scientific methods.

An analysis report on the pigments and bonding agents has been written by Professor Dr. Hermann Kühn of Munich. The examination of the surface and the sequence of layers in the cross sections and their appearance under the microscope clearly verify that the paints represent the first or original polychromy. In addition, the analyses of the pigments and bonding agents confirm the time of origin as circa 1494 and the country of origin as Italy. Prof. Dr. Kühn has also written a report on the state of preservation of the Atlantese consoles, in which the pair of sculptures is described as being in a very good state, bearing in mind that the wood sculptures are more than 500 years old and still in their unspoiled, original condition, including the painting.

The14C-dating was carried out by Dr. G. Bonani of the Institute for Particle Physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The dating of the wood, which was performed using AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry), showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.

Only when the period of creation had been proven beyond any doubt could the analysis in the context of art history be embarked upon and stylistic comparisons drawn with confirmed works. In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.

In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.

Note to scientists: proving that these curious cherubs, which might happily grace the bow of a ship, were made in the late 15th Century is not the same as proving they were made by one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived. A bit of documentation or art history would be much appreciated next time.

Update - a reader writes:

The putti are attractive but if they are fifteenth century & very early Michelangelo and in excellent condition then 1) what is the provenance which enabled them to remain intact and together, 2) who cleaned them and when.  Anything half a millennium old accumulates a coating of smoke and pollution which has apparently been cleaned.  That coating contains information regarding where they were and when. If they were cleaned regularly during the centuries it is unlikely that the paint would be intact so the cleaning was probably recent.

“Possibly by Michelangelo” is much better than some candidates that appear which are only “allegedly by Michelangelo”. 

Sotheby's take Old Masters to Hong Kong

September 29 2015

Image of Sotheby's take Old Masters to Hong Kong

Picture: Sotheby's

Interesting to see that Sotheby's are taking a selection of Old Masters to Hong Kong - and they're all for sale. The private treaty offering includes the above portrait of a Shepherdess attributed to Rubens & Studio, which was recently part of the Rubens in Private exhibition at the Rubenshuis museum in Antwerp. The display is from 2nd October to 7th.

A Polish restitution

September 29 2015

Image of A Polish restitution

Picture: Washington Post

The above portrait by Krzysztof Lubieniecki was looted during WW2 by the Nazis from the National Museum in Warsaw. It was recovered by Allied forces, but as seems to have happened quite often was quietly taken back to America by a US soldier. Recently, the picture was traced to Ohio, and the current owners have agreed to send the picture back to Poland. More here

Help clean this Rubens?

September 29 2015

Image of Help clean this Rubens?

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has launched a new online fundraising campaign (after the success of their recent first effort) to raise money to clean the above painting by Rubens, The Birth of Venus. The Gallery seeks £34,500, because:

Preliminary cleaning tests undertaken by National Gallery conservator Paul Ackroyd have revealed the shimmering white and grey tones of the original sketch, which would have vividly evoked the lustre of polished silver. By removing the top layer of discoloured varnish, Rubens’s modelling and detailing will be revealed.

£34,500 seems an awful lot of money just to remove a layer of old varnish. If my conservator quoted that price to me for such a straightforward job, I'd tell him where to go.

But still, it's a good cause, and I guess they like to take their time at the Gallery. The picture itself seems to be in excellent condition. More here.

Update - a reader writes:

[...] I guess [the appeal is] part of a new initiative to raise funds for smaller projects, following on from that for the frame for a Titian earlier.

Problem for me is that it’s for the wrong project.

It’s a primary function of the Gallery to look after their (i.e. our) paintings and they have established an extensive conservation studio to do this so, in effect, this appeal is reimbursing them for something they should be doing already. Indeed, and as the published Minutes for the Board Meeting in May note, the Gallery started the process last May. By this appeal are they indicating that it won’t go ahead if the money’s not raised?

And, as you rightly point out, It’s a lot of money.  As the work looks fairly straightforward, it would be interesting to find out what their estimated hourly rate they are using to come up with the figure.  And they do tend to take their time over things – Rembrandt’s Rihel portrait was in the studio for three and a half years. [...]

Why don’t they appeal for additions to the collection?  Edinburgh have greatly enriched their collection over recent years by purchasing significant, but relatively inexpensive, acquisitions – this sort of project would be the ideal subject for fundraising through JustGiving.

I think I agree. Relatively low-level online appeals like this, which I am entirely in favour of, are probably best used to acquire things, be they frames or pictures. There's an element of 'crying wolf' here; if the National Gallery is seen to be using such appeals to simply substitute things they should already be doing, and indeed in this case have already started doing, then people may begin to tune out, and ignore appeals they think are just yet another way of boosting the coffers. I really don't think the high price tag in this case helps either. And, while I'm at it (National Gallery development team please note) these appeals really need to be better presented - video, better photos, that sort of thing.

Hogarth shoes!

September 29 2015

Image of Hogarth shoes!

Picture: Doc Martens

Those clever fellows at Dr Martens have made a range of shoes and bags with Hogarths on them. They were unveiled in London last night at the Soane Museum.

They're a bit too Rabelaisian for me. But if Dr Marten ever turn to Van Dyck, I'm in.

Creating 'value' in the contemporary market

September 28 2015

Image of Creating 'value' in the contemporary market

Picture: Christie's

Scott Reyburn in The New York Times* looks at how values for contemporary artists might be set:

Say, for example, I discover a brilliant young artist on Facebook. After a crazy week at my house in the Hamptons, he has made 30 abstract paintings for me, which I’ve bought for a total of $90,000. Having posted examples on Instagram, I enter one of these paintings into a contemporary day sale and ask two business associates, who are cut in on the deal, to bid it up to $150,000. After the sale, a benchmark auction price posted on Artnet, and news of the artist’s inclusion in a forthcoming museum show — which happens to be curated by a friend of mine — establishes my new acquaintance as a hot young artist. Over the next six months, we discreetly sell 20 more paintings at auction and privately for an average price of $70,000 each.

This fictional scenario may or may not have parallels with last year’s mania for “flipping” young art at auction. But there’s no escaping the increasing opacity of certain moments at recent public sales. Just what exactly is going on when a dealer tops up the bidding on a young artist in whom he has taken an investment position? And are there conflicts of interest when an auction house shares a financial guarantee with a third party?

Does this sort of thing happen? Of course. Which is why the auction market is a perfect way to stoke prices for contemporary art - there are so many ways people with a vested interest can help massage the figures, and those figures are so publicly accessible. Add in a bit of glitz, fashion and prestige, and hey presto - it's boomtime.

But the practices outlined by Reyburn can only happen as long prices overall go upward. In a deflationary market, very few people are going to pile into auctions to help fix 'values', because they'll know nobody else is waiting to follow suit and pick up the baton. In other words, the contemporary market, at all levels, is mostly still driven onwards by genuine interest and competition. At least, for now.

The question on everyone's lips is - should we 'regulate' this market? I don't know if that's possible for a start. The market is too international and fluid. And in any case what is there to regulate? Authenticity? I'd like to see governments try that. More likely to be regulated is the financial element of things. Certainly, I think it's wrong, given the importance of published auction prices in this market, for false 'prices' to be published - as they sometimes are when you have guaranteed lots.

But mostly this question comes down to whether buyers are well-informed or not. All these alleged dodgy practices are in fact fairly well known. It should be fairly obvious when an artist of little track record is suddenly 'worth' lots of money, merely because a few of their works have sold well at auction. You just need to do your homework, like you would when you buy a house. In my old-fashioned view of the world, there's still something to be said for keeping responsibility in the hands of the buyer. The state can't always protect us from ourselves. Caveat emptor.

Update - Robert Millburn on notes how top heavy the modern and contemporary market is:

Art investors should also note that the market is built on an increasingly flimsy foundation. Based on 2014 total sales volumes, investors buying top-ranked artist, Andy Warhol, spent a whopping $653 million for the privilege. By comparison, the value at fine art sold at auction last year was $16.2 billion. The top ten artists in 2014 accounted for almost 20% of the art market’s entire value; back in 2005, the top ten accounted for just 13% of the total.

Of course, the work of artists like Warhol is perfectly suited to an auction market boom; auction prices make his work easy to price, with all those series and formats. So if a 'Triple Elvis' makes $Xm, then a double is worth so much, and so on. But such 'values' depend entirely on whether the price set is both a) accurately reported and b) set in a competitive manner. 

* I learn via Art Market Monitor

Italian export laws - an overhaul?

September 28 2015

Image of Italian export laws - an overhaul?

Picture: TAN

In The Art Newspaper, Ermanno Rivetti reports that the Italian government is being lobbied to change the laborious procedures for exporting works of art from Italy. At the moment, any painting of any value, even if it's just €1, must apply for an export licence. The idea is that Italy's art trade will get a much needed shot in the arm if reform of things like export laws is undertaken.

Last week, I spotted an interesting picture coming up in an Italian auction, by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. The estimate was just €800. But I gave up trying to book a phone line, for the time and expense of dealing with the auction house's bureacracy (passport, various forms to fill in, and a guarantee to be made that I was prepared to buy the picture at the reserve even before the auction had started), as well as applying for an export licence, meant it just wasn't worth it. 

Gratuitous white glove shot (ctd.)

September 28 2015

Image of Gratuitous white glove shot (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph

From the Telegraph and Sotheby's comes a new gem in the genre. To highlight the news that Sotheby's is to sell John Constable's own version of The Lock (est. £8m-£12m), we have here a photo of a Sotheby's porter (female, naturally) lifting the painting from the top and the side, all whilst up a ladder. Some feat. What did she have for breakfast?

Christie's recently sold another, better known, version of the painting for over £22m. Wonder what this one will make.

More here.

Update - I'm told it's not a porter, but a press officer.

€160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)

September 25 2015

Image of €160m Rembrandt Pair (ctd.)

Picture: via Tribune De l'Art

According to AFP, the joint acquisition of Rembrandt's Portraits of Marten and Oopjen Soolmans between France and Holland is back on the table. It seemed earlier this week that only the Rijksmuseum was going to make an attempt to buy them. According to AFP, however, the Bank of France is going to buy one picture at €80m. And with the Dutch government saying they'll already put in €80m for another, then that would appear to be job done.

The paintings will rotate between the two museums. If this comes off, it's a pretty good result. Not ideal, if you're French and want the pictures to stay in France. But given the price and lack of money, a joint purchase, spreading the Rembrandt-ian joy between two countries, is quite an attractive outcome. Didier Rykner of Tribune De L'Art, who first broke the story, is not happy at the way the whole affair has been handled.

New Director for the British Museum

September 25 2015

Image of New Director for the British Museum

Picture: Guardian

Congratulations to Hartwig Fischer, who has been appointed the new director of the British Museum. He was formerly director general of the Dresden State Art Collections. More here

Has Mona Lisa been found?!

September 25 2015

Image of Has Mona Lisa been found?!

Picture: Mail/EPA

After four years, the search for Mona Lisa's bones (led by Silvano Vincenti, above) has come to an end. All they have is a bit of leg which is being hailed in the news as 'Mona Lisa', but actually there's no proof it's her. They were hoping to do DNA testing on Lisa Gherardini's descendants, but there's not enough material to take a DNA sample from. In other words, the whole thing has been a waste of time. As some people said when it all started. 

I'd like to know who paid for all this, and why?

Update - according to Fox News, the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo di Caprio.

Everybody Out! (ctd.)

September 24 2015

Video: PCS Union

Today is a 'Day of Action' over the strikes at the National Gallery. There will be rallies and speeches at Trafalgar Square in support of the strikers. As of yesterday, the strike has now been going for 100 days.

It's worth watching the video above, by Candy Udwin, who has become the face of the strike. She's an effective campaigner, and evidently committed to her cause. I still can't decide if she was faily dismissed or not. On the evidence made available so far, probably not.

But what is 'the cause'? Watch the video, and you'll see that it is about something far wider than pay and conditions at the National Gallery. For as Udwin makes clear, the strike has now become a hard-left/union battle against the Conservative government. The strike, Udwin says, is to fight a supposed Tory agenda on 'privatisation' and 'the cuts'. It is no longer anything to do with working conditions at the National Gallery. Staff have been given a pay rise, which meets the London living wage. 

In other words, large parts of the National Gallery have been closed, countless school trips have been cancelled, millions of visitors have been disappointed, revenue has been lost, curators have been unable to do their work, and a much-loved institution has been turned into a political football, all because a hard-core group of staff members have decided that they want the Gallery to work for them, to their rules, and nobody else. For the strike agitators, the trustees of the National Gallery are not allowed to run the gallery as they see fit. Instead, the trustees have to abide by the ideology of the strikers. The strike has become an utterly selfish, destructive cause.

And surely it is a tragedy that, in order to show some sort of misguided political 'solidarity' with those most enthusiastic for a political confrontation, many workers at the National Gallery have now reluctantly had to go without pay for over 100 days.

The National Gallery is in fact mostly open for business, despite the 'all-out strike'. The Securitas contract has been signed, and soon comes into effect. The new Director would be mad to capitulate now, and won't. The strikers cannot win. Enough of this nonsense, please. 

Update - the PCS Union are handing out leaflets asking visitors to boycott the Gallery, and 'go to another London museum'.

Update II - it's interesting to see how prominently the 'Reinstate Candy' message is being pushed by the Union. It's as prominent as the 'No Privatisation' message. So, while it's odd that all this is coming down to one individual, I suspect that in a few weeks time, Candy Udwin will get her job back, the Securitas arrangement will begin, and all this will be over. A victory for both sides. And gallery visitors the losers.

Update III - a pretty thin turnout, judging from the photos.

A too brief history of British portraiture

September 23 2015

Image of A too brief history of British portraiture

Picture: Wikipedia

For my FT review of the new NPG show 'The Face of Britain', I fiddled around with the idea of a very short history of British portraiture. There wasn't enough space in the end, and it didn't fit in the piece anyway. So, with apologies for indulging myself (it seems a shame to waste the words), here it is below. It is (he says defensively) a personal and far from comprehensive interpretation.

The story of English portraiture starts with a groat. In 1504, Henry VII issued a new coin with his profile portrait on one side. Before then, the coinage had shown a generic, crowned head, unchanged for centuries. Henry’s new portrait was hardly flattering - a mean face overwhelmed by a giant crown - but it was recognisably him, and millions of his subjects, literate or not, now knew what their king looked like. This was the man in charge.

It was the first time an accurate likeness had been used as an instrument of power in England. Portraits had existed before, but they were rare, curiously painted things on parchment or panel seen only by a few. Now, portraits were a way of asserting authority. 

The Tudors embraced portraiture and its political applications. Henry VIII commissioned from Holbein a larger than life-size mural so realistic that visitors trembled before it. For Elizabeth I, portraits helped create the myth of a perpetually youthful Virgin Queen. And once the Tudors had also extinguished, via the Reformation, any British tradition of religious art, there was no turning back. Unable to paint God, we painted ourselves.

Albeit with varying success. In the 16th century, our portraiture was defined by a Holbein-ian emphasis on realism and detail. Wealth and status came first, then likeness (and character rarely at all). As portraiture became more useful, fashionable, and affordable, so the ranks of those portrayed widened; merchants, wives, even children, sprang up in stiff two-dimensional form at the hands of artists who, by international standards, were not particularly good.

Then, in the Stuart age (by which time we were ‘British’) people looked for something better. After a false start with Rubens - who came in 1629 but soon left - Britain finally attracted an artistic superstar when Anthony Van Dyck arrived in 1632 and stayed till his death in 1641. In evolutionary terms, this was the moment British art got up and walked. 

Van Dyck - a former assistant of Rubens, but most of all a devotee of Titian - added space, movement and character to British portraits. Now we were human beings, not props. So popular was Van Dyck’s approach that it was followed, with minor variations, for the next three centuries. Although later 17th Century artists such as Peter Lely came to Britain painting like the austere Dutchmen they were, they soon realised that only Van Dyck’s more vibrant formula brought paying patrons. When it came to art, we British knew what we liked.

A brief exception was William Hogarth in the early 18th Century. But his portraits, veering between caricature and realism, were too honest for the punters and he left (in terms of painting) no followers. Perhaps Hogarth’s best legacy was the energy he put into helping establish a native school of artists. Where previously our British faces were foreign-made, now we had Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence, who took British portraiture to such heights it became our number one artistic export, replicated, bought and admired across the world. Indeed, in Lawrence, Britain produced one of the most naturally gifted painters in oil the world has ever seen, able to handle a brush as easily as you and I breathe. Alas, Lawrence was no good with money, and a reliance on portrait commissions has left us with a limited view of his abilities.

Had Lawrence lived a generation of two later, his art might have been very different, for two developments began to effect the slow death of painted portraiture from the mid-19th Century onwards. The first was Victorian fashion, and the desire to cover everything up; all those frocks, long coats and beards left little of interest to paint. The second was photography, which not only encouraged us to see people caught in a single moment - as opposed to the more lengthy assessment afforded us by the painter - but attuned our eyes to seeing life through a lens (and today, a screen). 

So completely has photography subsumed figurative painting that today, if we like painted portraits at all, we prefer them to be paintings of photographs. Consequently, we have reverted to seeking in our portraiture the same elements our ancestors wanted in the 16th Century; realism, detail (and character rarely at all). The Queen still appears on our coinage.

Sleeper Alert!

September 22 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: AHN Reader

They're coming thick and fast at the moment. The above screenshot comes courtesy of a sleuthing reader, and shows the $870,000 closing bid on a '19th C Continental School, Portrait with Lady Fainting' sold today in the US. The estimate was $500-$800. Someone has taken quite a punt.

Still, $870,000 (or close to $1m with premium) is cheap for an early Rembrandt. It's a little expensive for an early Dou. 

Judging by the head of the figure in a red hat, I'd say the former is a better bet. If you bought it, good spot - and good luck!

Update - a reader writes:

Sleeper is definitely by Jan Lievens.

Update II - another reader writes:

Surely can't be any doubt [Rembrandt] - from his senses series. But not so cheap - I seem to recall that the last one sold from the series didn't make that much more than this. Given relationship to the other accepted works, it's hard to see much room for debate in the attribution. But Wetering can be unpredictable.

Update III - another sleuthing bidder writes:

Definitely an early Rembrandt, as part of the five senses: Smell

I was for 2 seconds the highest bidder at 1800 dollar...

Ach! Better luck next time.

It seems the world and its wife had spotted this one (except me, I missed this sale entirely). Is there such a thing as a cheap sleeper in this internet age?

Still, I did fare a little better the other day, and somewhat closer to home. Phew...

Update IV - Paul Jeromack in The Art Newspaper reports further on the Sense series, and tells us that the underbidder was 'a British dealer'.

Update V - here in Volume V of the Rembrandt Research Project is more information on the Senses series. This latest sleeper is beginning to look like a slam dunk. 

Update VI - a sleuthing friend writes:

Let us remember that we are only as good as the next one... we soon become Salieris to younger Mozarts unless we madly pursue what drives us...

Nice phrase that, I might have to steal it. In the meantime, I'm off to

Update VII - Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz seems pretty convinced.

£30m more needed for Tate Modern extension

September 22 2015

Image of £30m more needed for Tate Modern extension

Picture: via BBC

I'm still slightly scratching my head about Tate Modern's new £260m extension and revamp. It only opened in 2000, and it was pretty big then. But look what treats await us, says the BBC:

New acquisitions to be shown for the first time in 2016 include an installation of human hair and car bumpers by Sheela Gowda and an immersive multi-screen film by Cannes prize-winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 

Meanwhile, over at poor old Tate Britain, they only have enough space to show (according to the online collection database today) just 5 out of 34 oil paintings by Joshua Reynolds.

My first review!

September 21 2015

Image of My first review!

Picture: BG

Please allow me to plug my first exhibition review, courtesy of The Financial Times, who kindly asked me to write about Simon Schama's new 'Faces of Britain' show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. You can read the article here

The FT doesn't do star ratings, but if it had I'd have given the show 3 and a bit. When I was working in politics, if we couldn't quite determine whether something the opposition had done was good or bad, we'd say 'this is a lost opportunity', and that was slightly my impression of the NPG show. I wonder if there were budgetary or planning constraints in the way. Of course, they say that people only read reviews that are either one star stingers or five star praises. So you could say my review is neither here nor there, perhaps a bit like the show itself. But I could only say what I genuinely thought, and I hope you like it. For some reason, a sub-editor has introduced a rogue and mis-leading 'for example' in the line about Nicky Phillip's portrait of Simon Weston.

Other reviews of the show can be found here in the Telegraph and here in The Evening Standard. Schama's book seems to have fared better than the show (as here in The Guardian), though Neil Jeffares was perhaps only vaguely impressed by the book. The TV series begins on 30th September on BBC2.

€150m Rembrandt pair (ctd.)

September 20 2015

Image of €150m Rembrandt pair (ctd.)

Picture: via Tribune de l'Art

There was a hoo ha in France earlier this year when the government granted an export licence for a pair of full length Rembrandt paintings being sold by a branch of the Rothschild family - but without giving any Frence museums a chance to buy them. Many said that although the price was high, there should have been at least an attempt to 'save' the pictures. Now, it seems the Louvre is working with the Rijksmuseum in order to share the cost, and rotate the paintings. It's a big ask. More here

Update - the Louvre part of the deal is apparently not a runner. The focus now is on the Dutch government and the Rijksmuseum buying them together. Already, the Dutch government has pledged EUR80m towards the EUR160m total. In terms of acquisitions, is that a record for a (modern) European government? More here.

Presumably, though, this still means that the pictures will leave France permanently. It may be felt there that as long as the pictures are going to a museum not far away from France, that's 'ok', or at least better than the pictures going to, say, the USA or even the Middle East. All of which raises interesting questions about the concept of 'saving' art for nations, and for the public.

In this case, there was an outcry in France about two paintings by a Dutchman which had not always been in France, and which were part of a private collection. So in what sense could they be deemed to be French national treasures, viewable by the public as if by right? The only criteria here was quality - the fact that two great paintings might somehow leave the country. In one regard, therefore, the idea of 'saving' a picture for one country, so that another country cannot have it, is little more than cultural protectionism, even nationalism.

I'm just thinking out loud here, and don't have all the answers by any means. Certainly, in other cases, like the Van Dyck self-portrait acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London, the case for the picture remaining in Britain was easier to make. I did once discuss all this with one of the most senior judges in the UK, who I won't name, but who was of the opinion that one day somebody in Europe would seriously challenge controls on the movement of cultural objects imposed by individual EU states on the grounds that they ran counter to the EU-wide human right on the freedom to enjoy private property - and that they would win. Mind you, the legal bill would be enourmous, as you'd have to go all the way to the top European courts.

Update II - a reader writes:

Congratulations to the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre for their heroic attempts to acquire the Rothschild Rembrandts and keep them on public view.  A similar ‘Rembrandt crisis' will soon arise in the UK where the artist's sublime portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet is to be sold by Sotheby’s to a private owner for a reported £35m.  The portrait is widely recognised as one of Rembrandt's finest late portraits and was previously on public display at Penrhyn Castle in Wales.  The likelihood is that the portrait will be sold abroad with a short window of opportunity for a UK institution to match the agreed price.  Will our museum curators share the ambition of their European colleague and launch a bid to secure this fine portrait for the viewing public?

Update III - here's Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor with a look at the wider ramifications of the EUR160m price tag. He says it's further proof we're not in bubble territory when it comes to art prices. 

Sleeper Alert!

September 20 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Hargesheimer Auktion

The above picture was catalogued in a German auction house as a 17th or 18th century work, with an estimate of EUR500. Twelve phone lines later, the bidding stopped at EUR150,000. I thought it was certainly 16th Century, but didn't get any further than that, and didn't bid at all. The name Bonifacio Veronese has been mentioned to me by an underbidder.

Update - I'm told that actually there were 40 telephone lines.

The Great Brian 1931-2015

September 19 2015

Image of The Great Brian 1931-2015

Picture: The Times

The art critic Brian Sewell, known in these parts as The Great Brian, has died. I'll post links to obituaries and the like later, but in the meantime please do send me any thoughts you might like to share. 

I thought Sewell wasn't just a great writer on art, but a great writer on anything. He was frequently wrong, but so eloquently wrong that one felt obliged to forgive him for it, even if on the recieving end. His autobiography, Outsider, is a treat to read from start to finish, even if he's merely describing some tedious army exercise of his National Service days. The last pages of Outsider deal beautifully with death, and with apologies to him and his publishers, I thought I would type out a few passages here.

As for dying, I do not for one moment believe that death is 'the most beautiful adventure' or 'an awfully big adventure', or, indeed, an adventure of any kind; nor can I see it as an art. These are the romantic sentiments of poets and the brave. [...]

'Men must endure their going hence,' sad mad Lear in a sane moment. Endure; what a terrible prospect. Endure the crumbling memory. Endure the trembling hand of the octogenarian unsteady with the fork, unsteadier still with the lavatory paper. Endure the rheumy eyes that see hues differently, endure the creeping deafness that first denies conversation and then the music that might have made the loss of conversation tolerable. Endure the slackening sphincters and the stinks. What torment for the fastidious, lasting for years perhaps before the brain is addled, and one is numbed to it. Imagine the slow erosion of pleasures, not of the flesh, though deprivation there induces madness in some men, but of the mind - no opera, no Schubert songs, no violin concertos, no theatre, no galleries, no books. Imagine not managing an oyster, the salt sea of it dripping from one's chin, the exquisite flesh of it running down one's shirt. [...]

Death is not the great leveller - dying is. Dying reduces a man to leaking, dribbling and snivelling, to the helplessness of a baby, to impotent distress, to the long slow misery of being alive when he would rather be dead. That is levelling indeed.

I ask who of my friends will see to my physical departure? I think I know what natural death is like, having crept back from it; it too is a creeping thing, a slipping in and out of consciousness, the senses dwindling, waning, flagging and the will to resist falling away - and that is how I want to go, but swiftly.

Update - The Art Newspaper reprints Brian's summary of how, as a critic, he lost friends and made enemies. Sobering to read, after I just last week filed my first exhibition review.

A reader writes:

I think the key to Brian's success as a writer is mentioned in the Telegraph obituary where it quotes him saying he always tried to write in a way which would engage the tired commuter. He used his knowledge and wit to draw people in rather than show off or exclude like that modern art guff. 

A favourite clip of Brian is where he gets emotional talking about Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. Brian Sewell's Grand Tour of Italy: Ep3 Part 2 of 2 - Florence

Also his Desert Island Discs, as ever, is worth a listen.

Update II - The Grumpy Art Historian grieve's Brian's passing. He says that above all Brian's authority stemmed from having 'a solid grounding in art history and a great eye'. The former is certainly true, but the latter I'm not so sure. For Brian, alas in my opinion, did not have a great eye - that is, his connoisseurship was sometimes a little awry ('isn't everyone's?', you say). He thought, for example, that the Van Dyck self-portrait recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery was by two hands, the head by Van Dyck, and the rest by someone else. his campaign against the National Gallery acquiring Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks because it was, he said, a copy, is well known. And so on. It seems to me that in terms of making or accepting attributions, Brian was something of a 'Nein-sager'. For the perhaps unfortunate truth is that Brian only became an art critic after failing to make it as a dealer. Arguably, someone with his knowledge, operating as a dealer in the heady days of the 70s and 80s when miscatalogued pictures and drawings were being sold by the cartload, should have made their fortune several times over.

Update III - another reader writes:

I know that The Great Brian was source of inspiration and encouragement to you for his candor and enviable writing style. His two volume biography was engaging because of his style and the depiction of his life during a dark period in modern British society.  Class barriers, traditional prejudices, and economic stagnation along with the post war austerity, real austerity unlike the current reduced deficit spending, led him into the beauty of painting as a sort of refuge from his difficult life.  And eventually, nearly simultaneously, the sun rose again on Britain and his life improved greatly during its last third. One is reminded of Neal Cassady’s (a professional “Outsider” but more insider than outsider to many) autobiography, optimistically entitled The First Third - Cassady was gone during what he thought would be his second third. Fortunately The Great Brian made twice Cassady’s years during which his writing enriched and enraged the art world and the general population in tandem.

Update IV - with more thoughts and reminiscences on Brian's style, here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian on excellent form.

Update V - a reader who knew the Great Brian says he did have a great eye, and kindly writes:

Brian did have a great eye, but I felt he could be willfully perverse with his opinions on authenticity. We disagreed plenty, starting with Georges de la Tour “Fortune Teller” at the Met. 

The reason he failed as a dealer has to do with the fact that once he made a discovery and found something good, he never wanted to sell it. 

He frankly had an aversion to selling anything he bought. If he bought a mixed lot of under catalogued drawings at Christie’s for one sheet, he held on to all of them, not wanting to “split them up”.

Even during his many illnesses when he complained of doctors bills and financial woes, he would not budge when I suggested “Sell your drawing by X, and you won’t have to worry.”

“I couldn’t do that!” he would respond. “Where would I ever get another one?"

When his collection is dispersed in due course, people will be dumbfounded at its breadth and quality.

Perhaps, then, that was his connoisseurial weakness - an inherently good eye but a psychological tendency to wilfull obstinacy. Of course, the latter is what made his writing so refreshing.

Update VI - a reader points out that he did sell at least some things, including this Pontormo drawing to the Met.

Update VII - Conrad Jones, who, online at least, is a staunch defender of all things Sewell-ian, writes:

Your assertions about Brian Sewell's 'eye' in 'Update II' of your 'Great Brian' article are, to be frank, pathetic. If this is the standard of intellectual reasoning you plan to use in  your reviewing then all I can say is, 'Don't give up the day job.' 

You provide no explanation, rationale or evidence for your disparaging remarks other than, ludicrously, asserting that you must be right because Sewell 'failed' as an art dealer in the 70s and 80s. Have you actually read his autobiography? He wasn't an art dealer in the 80s and his autobiography states that the art market in the 70s, far from being the place of easy pickings you describe, was for much of the time in a slump due to the oil crisis, and didn't pick up until the Mentmore sale in 1977; so for the most part he was dealing in hard times, not those of plenty.  He was a dealer in drawings and prints only, by the way, not pictures.

Another reason why he found dealing hard was that he was temperamentally unsuited to conniving with precisely the kind of corrupt practices of misattribution that you mention - nothing to do with his eye, more to do with his moral standards.  

If you're going to have the temerity to make baseless, throwaway assertions of this kind about your betters in the future, I suggest you should check out your facts a bit more carefully. I think the truth is, as is so often the case in the art world, that whilst you probably admired Sewell in a semi-ironic kind of way as a 'writer' (all that overdone, tongue in cheek praise of  'the Great Brian'), as a 'specialist' art historian your vanity just couldn't help trying to even up the score for the few pricks it had taken in the past. Not very becoming when someone has just died.

Oh dear. Where to begin? I did in fact cite two well-known examples of where Brian's 'eye' was considered wayward (or, 'wilfully perverse' in the opinion of one who knew him) by most people in the art history world; the Madonna of the Pinks, and the Van Dyck self-portrait. There are plenty of other examples. I have read Brian's auto-biography. Blaming the oil crisis and morality for not making it as a dealer is pretty weak, to be honest. (And don't forget the story Brian used to tell about adding a penis to an Old Master drawing, because that's what a client wanted.) Brian may have been a dealer in drawings mainly, but he was never less than confident pronouncing on pictures too. Look at the sales catalogues of the period, and the number of bargains, and sleepers, are eye-popping by today's standards. My admiration for Brian was - is - not ironic or tongue-in-cheek, as any regular reader of AHN will know. I'm not at trying to even up any scores. I agreed with Brian on most things. I agree Brian was my 'better'.

As for the fact that I ventured to discuss any of this after Brian has just died - well, so what? I'm sure Brian wouldn't care less.

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