Previous Posts: June 2022

NFTs, meet cliff

June 30 2022

Image of NFTs, meet cliff

Picture: Non-Fungible, chart showing overall NFT sales in USD

If NFT mania isn't quite entirely dead, it's at least sitting anxiously on a trolley in A&E. Yesterday, Bloomberg declared NFT sales to be 'tanking', having 'fallen off a cliff'. The backdrop is the crash in cryptocurrencies. At the time of writing, Bitcoin is down 2/3 from its peak, and Ethereum (used to trade NFTs) is down more, 77%.

In the Wall Street Journal, Kelly Crow looks at a recent sale of NFTs at Christie's, which totalled $1.6m, noting that:

... the house has only sold $4.6 million in NFT art so far this year including Tuesday’s sale. Last year, it sold nearly $150 million worth of NFTs.

Nicole Sales, Christie’s business director of digital art sales, said collectors are sifting the best digital artists from the rest, consolidating around a canon more likely to survive the tumult of the broader cryptocurrency markets. “It’s about the art now, not the speculators,” she said.

That last quote is reflected across the NFT industry as it tries to put a brave face on everything falling apart; the crash is good, they say, because nobody liked making all that money, and now we can focus on shitty pixelated cats instead.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has made a late entry into the NFT game, with the website La Collection, who, regular readers will know, also sell the British Museums NFTs. But while the BM is still trying to offload Jpegs of their Hokusai prints for $150,000, the MFA Boston is starting at a more cautious $314, with sales explicitly linked to fundraising to conserve works of art by Monet at Degas. Which feels a more sensible way of doing it than the BM's naked cash grab. Gradually, I feel we're working our way to a place where NFTs might make some sense.

One of La Collection's pitches is that “NFT ownership allows for your assets to exist in perpetuity.” But on, Jason Bailey explains that for many, the idea of NFT security is an illusion:

Many NFT collectors are living under a potentially devastating misapprehension — that their NFTs exist fully on the blockchain and are therefore safe. The reality is that the artwork and metadata for roughly 90% of NFTs are not stored on the blockchain. Typically the token itself lives “on chain” and links out to the art, metadata, and other assets “off chain.”[...]

There is no way to sugarcoat this: NFTs on private servers (~40% of all NFTs) are doomed and there is nothing one can do, as a collector, to save them. When a marketplace mints a new NFT and creates a permanent link from the token on the blockchain to an image stored on their private server, the collector has zero control over what happens to the image.

It gets worse. Because NFT marketplaces are essentially tech startups and, statistically speaking, 90% of tech startups fail, 50% in the first five years, when these marketplaces do fail, they also shut down their private servers, at which point your images disappear and your NFT permanently points to nothing.

Jason is offering a new service to help people back up their NFTs, which sounds like a sensible thing to do. But probably the most sensible thing is to not to buy one right now, until at least the dust settles.

London Art Week

June 29 2022

Video: LAW

I'm heading to London this weekend to see the Old Master sales, and will also look in on some of the dealers exhibiting as part of London Art Week. It's a good event, most of the galleries have special exhibitions on, and if you're lucky, there might be a free canapé or two. You can see who's exhibiting here.

Things that have caught my eye include, the above portrait of Mrs Margaret Smith by George Romney, at Libson & Yarker, which is about as good as Romney half-length portraits get, the sort of thing you might expect to see in the Frick Collection. And my friend Miles Wynn Cato has a number of new discoveries, including works by Thomas Gainsborough, and the below fascinating life portrait of John Locke, done in pastel in 1696 by his friend Dr Alexander Geekie, and unrecorded since 1727.

Save Omai!

June 29 2022

Picture: NPG

A group of historians and art world luminaries have called on the government to do more to prevent Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai from being exported from the UK. The list includes David Olusaga and the former arts minister Lord Vaizey. The picture was export stopped three months ago, with a figure of £50m required as a matching offer. The question now is whether there is any sign of a bid being made, which would justify a further three month stop.

I don't know, but I would assume the call for government help is being made because no institution has felt able to fundraise such an enormous sum. The picture was sold at Sotheby's in 2001 from Castle Howard for £10m. So it is now valued at five times as much, which doubtless reflects both the evolution of the art market, and rising interest in depictions of non-white subjects in western art. It may sound like a steep rise, but I think it's probably a fair valuation. Reading between the lines of the original DCMS press notice on the painting, it has not been sold, rather the owner - said to the Irish billionaire, John Magnier - has applied to export it.

Of course it would be wonderful if the painting could be bought by a UK public institution. But £50m is surely out of reach of UK museums, especially at times like this. More here from James Pickford and George Parker in the FT, and read the text of the letter here.

Tefaf robbery

June 28 2022

Video: via YouTube

Robbers have targeted a jewellery stand at Tefaf in Maastricht. Two of the gang, of four, have been apprehended. The fair was closed for a while, but reopened. More here in the Antiques Trade Gazette.

When I used to man stands at fairs like Tefaf, one of the ways we'd pass the time was to plan the perfect heist in the jewellery section. But I don't remember ever planning it like these guys did, just smashing cases with a hammer, and walking out. What morons.

By the way, anyone who's been to Tefaf will recognise the behaviour of the calm gentleman sitting on the bench throughout the raid - the type of collector who will under no circumstances be dissuaded from enjoying their complimentary glass of champagne.

Derby Museums' £1m endowment

June 28 2022

Image of Derby Museums' £1m endowment

Picture: ArtFund

One of my favourite museums, Derby Museums, has raised a £1m endowment to help support its operations in the long term. The fundraising operation, in times like this, was a very impressive feat for a UK regional museum - AHN says many congratulations! More here.

Bonhams' buying spree (ctd.)

June 28 2022

Image of Bonhams' buying spree (ctd.)

Picture: Bonhams

The UK auction house Bonhams has been buying up regional international auction houses, and the latest acquisition is Cornette de Saint Cyr in Paris. It will now be known as Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr. This is in addition to Bonhams buying Skinner in Boston, Bukowskis in Stockholm, and Bruun Rasmussen in Copenhagen. Bonhams was bought by a UK private equity firm in 2018. It's interesting to see how they're expanding internationally, but not necessarily in the UK. More here.

Dictator Museums

June 28 2022

The director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has given an extraordinary interview to the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta in which he declares himself unashamedly on the side of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The sadest part is that he also makes it clear he is directing the Hermitage to become a tool of Putin's new militarist nationalism. There's a summary of the interview in English here in The Art Newspaper.

Piotrovsky inherited the position of director in 1990 from his father, Boris, who had been director since 1964. Which is all a bit North Korean, if you think about it, but perhaps when people owe their jobs to politics, rather than competence, it's not surprising they leap to defend their political masters.

Four down, three to go

June 28 2022

Image of Four down, three to go

Picture: UK Government

The Duke of Rutland has sold another of his Poussin Sacraments, with Confirmation being subject to a temporary export bar from the UK government. The price a UK museum (or collector) must raise to keep the picture in the UK is £19m. Until 2010, the Duke had five of his seven sacraments on loan at the National Gallery in London, from the seven originally acquired by his family in 1784 (one - Penance - had been destroyed by fire in the 19th Century, and another - Baptism - sold to the US National Gallery in 1939). Since then, Ordination was bought by the Kimbell Art Gallery for £15.5m in 2010, while Extreme Unction was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012 after it was accepted by the UK government in lieu of tax for a sum of £14m. The Fitzwilliam had to raise 'only' £3.9m of that itself, and sadly we should probably expect that £19m is too much for a UK museum these days. At least the National Gallery of Scotland has a complete set of seven on long term loan from the Duke of Sutherland.

In other export news, the UK government has also placed a temporary bar on this £2.4m portrait of Algernon Marsden by Tissot.

New William and Kate portrait

June 24 2022

Image of New William and Kate portrait

Picture: via Twitter

A new portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has been unveiled at the Fitzwilliam Museum. It's by Jamie Coreth, and is perfectly respectable, even if the subjects appear to be waiting for their scores on Strictly. At the same time, it betrays immediately that the artist studied at the Charles Cecil Studio in Florence, and shows how the options for formal portraiture are these days quite limited. Still, it's infinitely better than the portrait of the Queen made by an AI robot. Small mercies, and all that.

NG200 (ctd.)

June 24 2022

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery have put footage of their press briefing for their 200th anniversary plans online. In the presentation above you can see more details of the Sainsbury Wing plans I mentioned yesterday. There's also something about boosting digital outreach, but no mention of whether the NG will go for Open Access for their images. Which, if they're serious about reaching out to new audiences digitally, they would do in a heartbeat.

The element of the NG200 plans which has caught the news today is the proposal to rehang the gallery, with a more thematic hang. So Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, for example, will hang next to Wright of Derby's Experiment with an Airpump. There's coverage of the plan here in The Times. On Twitter, the Great Waldemar has voiced his opposition. I think it could be fun, as long it's not forever, which in the video above Gabriele Finaldi makes clear it isn't.

The price for all this, incidentally, is £95 million. Most of that will go on the Sainsbury Wing changes. But museum rehangs, once you get the registrars, and the conservators, and the art handlers, and the curators, and the interpretation teams involved, are also not cheap.

New Sainsbury Wing designs

June 23 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs

Picture: Selldorf Architects

I'm prompted by this piece on Charles Saumarez Smith's blog about the architect of the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing, Bob Venturi, to seek out images of the proposed redesign of the Wing, above. The project has been given to the New York based architect Annabelle Selldorf, and I'm relieved to see that the ground floor at least is not too different. Part of the ceiling of the entrance hall is to be removed, to let more light in from the stairwell, which looks nice. Although it makes me appreciate again how impressive the current design is (below).

It also looks from the photos as if the intention is to leave the entrance space as just, well, space, with no shop or cloakroom. But then I daresay Bob Venturi's original Sainsbury Wing looked clear and spacious on paper  too. It's when the architects handover to museum management that the clutter, desks, shops, bad lighting and signage starts to come in. And before long, the museum says, we need to get an architect in to fix this.

The key thing, as Charles points in this quote from Bob Venturi, is not to inflict sensory overload on the visitor before they get to the art:

When you enter the museum you might wonder, are you in a museum or an airport? And by the time you reach the art, you are either worn down by the banality of the maze you have traversed, or jaded by the drama of the spatial, symbolic or chromatic fantasies the architect has ejaculated you through.  The art, when you reach it, has become a kind of anti-climax — in fact, dull as you perceive it with your, by then, constricted pupils, jaded sensibilities, and loss of orientation.

Whether leaving the visitor de-sensitized on entry is possible in these days of gift shops and constant marketing, I'm not sure. Perhaps Annabelle Selldorf can insist on some sort of covenant, that the space must stay as she designs it.

Update - In an interesting article in The Guardian, Rowan Moore has a more representative photograph of the proposed entrance space. Is it a bit... shopping mall?

Museums are good for your health (ctd.)

June 23 2022

An article by Elaine Velie in Hyperallergic alerts me to a new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology setting out how visiting a museum is good for your mental health. The paper is a reviewing paper, that is, it surveys existing studies, and has not made any new findings itself. But overall the picture is pretty clear that museums are good for us. But you and I knew this already.

One interesting snippet was the effect museums had on stress:

Several studies have examined the effects of visiting the art museum on clinical and self-report indices of mental and physical health. A common focus has been on the ability of art museum visits to reduce stress. Cortisol, a hormone associated with stress responses, is commonly used as a biological marker of people’s stress levels (Clow, 2004). Several studies have observed changes in cortisol after visiting an art museum (Clow & Fredhoi, 2006; D’Cunha et al., 2019; Grossi et al., 2019). In nonclinical samples, cortisol reductions were observed after a single art museum visit (Clow & Fredhoi, 2006; Grossi et al., 2019); Clow and Fredhoi (2006) also observed reductions in self- reported stress levels. Researchers have also examined stress responses to art museum visits in people living with dementia and found that repeated art museum engagement, involving both weekly art viewing and art making for 6 weeks, resulted in more dynamic cortisol responses (D’Cunha et al., 2019). Further, engaging in art museum activities has been associated with feeling restored in an elementary school student sample (Annechini et al., 2020) and in decreased emotional exhaustion and depersonalization in medical residents (Orr et al., 2019).

You can read the full paper here.

New art store in Edinburgh

June 23 2022

Image of New art store in Edinburgh

Picture: NGS

The National Galleries of Scotland have launched a consultation on the development of a new art facility in Edinburgh. The plan is to develop a site they currently use for storage into a conservation and research centre. From the photos, though it is not explicitly stated, it looks as if the plan is to make the storage an accessible site, so the public can visit any time. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre would presumably be the model, where anyone can go and see works in storage. It used to be that you didn't need an appointment, but I see now you need to book at least four weeks in advance. Still, it's better than institutions like Tate in London, who won't let most people in at all.

Canova virtual tour

June 23 2022

Image of Canova virtual tour

Picture: Christie's

Christie's have made a virtual tour of one of their star lots in the forthcoming Old Master sales, a lost Recumbant Magdalene by Antonia Canova. You can zoom around it here. The statue will be auctioned on 7th July, estimated at £5m-£7m. It was discovered in 2002 in a garden statuary sale, for about £5,000. Literally, a sleeping sleeper!

New Moretti gallery

June 23 2022

The Financial Times reports on the opening of Fabrizio Moretti's new gallery in St James' in London. He's joined two buildings together in Duke Street. As he says, it's quite a bet on the future of London as the centre of Europe's art market:

Moretti is not impressed by Brexit, which he describes as “an own goal”, but, he says, “England will make it. I don’t see a city that can replace London as the marketplace for Europe. Right now, the customs situation is bad — what used to take three hours now takes three weeks — but hopefully there will be changes that make it easier.”

The FT also reports that Moretti will be joined by Letizia Treves, currently head of the curatorial department at the National Gallery in London. AHN wishes them all good luck!

'NG 200'

June 23 2022

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London are making plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their opening in 1824. On the Today programme this morning there was an interview with director Gabriele Finaldi, on plans to loan 12 of the Gallery's most important paintings to regional galleries over 2024. Which is a nice way of stressing the National element of the institution. One of them will be the Wilton Diptych, which has never left Trafalgar Square before. More here.

€1m Solimena in Paris

June 23 2022

Video: Tajan

A modello by Solimena went some way above its €500k-€70ok estimate in Paris yesterday to make €1m hammer. That's an impressive price for a picture the Old Master naysayers might have said was yesterday's taste. Nice video from Tajan to promote it too. Catalogue entry here.


June 22 2022

Sorry for the lack of posts. I'm writing my monthly Art Newspaper column. The previous one has just gone online, here, in case you're interested.

Sotheby's Evening Old Master sale

June 20 2022

Image of Sotheby's Evening Old Master sale

Picture: Sotheby's

The catalogues for Sotheby's London Old Master sales are online. Their evening sale is led by a Willem van de Velde the Younger, of The surrender of the Royal Prince during The Four Days' Battle, 11–14 June 1666. The estimate is £4m-£6m, and the cataloguing states that it's being sold by a Dutch cultural institution 'to fund the acquisition of the 1718 Stradivarius violin'. If you have to sell a picture as fine as the van de Velde, then I guess buying a Stradivarius is a good enough reason. The picture was at Sotheby's a decade ago, where it made £5.3m all in, against an estimate of £1.5m-£2.5m. It looks like it has been cleaned since then.

The evening sale has 22 lots, which might speak to issues of supply in the Old Master world at the moment, though Sotheby's also has a British art 'Jubilee' sale, which contains works by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, and a major £2m-£3m Richard Parkes Bonnington. These works would normally go into an Old Masters sale. The Jubilee sale is on 29th June.

The Sotheby's Day Sale has some very interesting lots, including a long lost self-portrait by David Martin (which I'd expect to go some way above its £20k-£30k estimate) and a rare still life by the deaf British artist Benjamin Ferrers.

A bit of Tefaf magic

June 20 2022

Video: Tefaf

Here's a lovely video from Tefaf, from 2020 in fact, but which I hadn't seen before: it tells the story of how the director of the Chateau de Versailles museum bought a bust at the fair which had once been at Versailles, of Louis XIV's surgeon Georges Mareschal. The museum didn't know of the bust's whereabouts until they saw it on Stuart Lochhead's stand, where a quick deal had to be sealed with a handshake. The acquisition is all the more impressive when we consider it was about the time Covid began.

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