Apologies...

March 27 2015

...sorry everyone, I've been a little tied up the last few days - I was in article-writing purdah on Wednesday, and in London for 'Fake or Fortune?' yesterday. Today I must go to Glasgow to get a passport for my daughter. Should hopefully be back to the blog later this afternoon.

In the meantime, there are many updates to the National Trust story below.

What's wrong with the National Trust?

March 24 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust?

Picture: Paul Grover/Telegraph

Has the National Trust lost interest in art? This is something I've been worried about for some time, but now it seems to have been confirmed in a statement by the Trust's chief executive, Dame Helen Ghosh. Dame Helen is worried that the Trust is seen as too 'middle-class', and not getting the right people coming to visit its sites. So one plan is take paintings out of Trust properties. She told the Telegraph:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.”

I think this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard anyone involved in British heritage say. Stuff the millions who go to National Trust properties specifically to admire 'the stuff', and instead cater to an imagined minority who are apparently 'put off' by old paintings. I suspect people - of all classes - are more likely to be put off by such a patronising attitude. [Note for overseas readers, British institutions like this are obsessed with 'class', still - can you believe it?]

And here's more silliness from Dame Helen:

She said: “It is not surprising, given where we have come from, that the kind of places that we own are places where the middle classes feel more comfortable, because it is more part of their cultural life.”

She added that it was not the entrance fee at a lot of attractions that was likely to put visitors off, but a feeling that “this place isn’t for them”.

The challenge was to persuade people that they did not need to feel awkward “if they didn’t know who George II was”.

Does anyone out there, truly, know of anyone else who 'feels awkward' when they don't know who a historical figure is? Don't most people think, 'oh, I don't know about George II, let's find out a little more'? In other words, shouldn't the National Trust respond to this particular problem by saying instead: 'some people don't know much about George II, let's tell them about him'? By the way, I don't know much about George II either.

Dame Helen denies that the Trust is becoming 'Disney-fied'. But last week I went to a National Trust property just outside London - Claydon - and in each of the main rooms the Trust had removed a painting, and replaced it instead with a TV screen, in which actors pretended to be various historical characters. The screens were noisy, and played endlessly, shattering the atmosphere of the house. The acting was hammy, and the scripts were full of faux, Downton Abbey-style nonsense. Nobody I asked seemed to like them, least of all those who worked and volunteered at the house.

At the same time, there was no list of pictures available for visitors, and much of the information about the art in the guidebook was simply incorrect. The Trust made no effort to enlighten visitors about the pictures or the stories contained within them, even though they are fascinating. So I saw no effort there of the Trust 'making visitors work exceptionally hard'. Quite the opposite. 

I used to be a member of the Trust. Over the years I've tried my best for them. Once, I received a notice about elections to the Trust's governing body, the grandly-named Council. Seeing that the 52-strong body was short of a) people below 50, and b) practising art historians on (which I thought odd, since the Trust has one of the greatest art collections in Britain) I decided to apply. 

But the interview was a bit of a disaster. I was asked a series of vapid questions like, 'what do you think of when you go for a walk on National Trust land', and 'what do you think of trees', as well as my views on  High Speed trains (HS2) and wind turbines. I like trains, and dislike wind turbines as much as I do vapid questions, so my answers didn't go down very well. Dame Helen loves wind turbines. And when I said that I was hoping to bring some art historical expertise to the Council (and quite relevant expertise, since the Trust mainly has British portraits) I recieved blank looks. The panel said they couldn't ask me about what I had to offer, because, in the interests of fairness, they had to ask all candidates the same set of questions.

Anyway, I didn't get nominated. And judging by Dame Helen's latest plans to take paintings out of Trust houses, neither did any other art historians.

Update - a reader writes:

I have always refused to join the English National Trust despite receiving a hard sell at every visit, because (a) it takes little interest in its excellent picture collections (b) it wants to tell soapy stories about the usually, though not always, rather ordinary families who owned its houses (c) I get a hard sell to join at every visit (d) it does not seem interested in architecture (e) it is not short of my money (f) it seems more patronising every year.

By comparison the Scottish National Trust is less patronising, poorer, and so far has not expressed a wish to get rid of its pictures. I joined this year.

Me too!

Update II - another reader writes:

I am glad you are shining a light on unwelcome changes at The National Trust. A few years ago the National Trust started to introduce new guidebooks which significantly reduced the sections dealing with the history of the family and the house and did away completely with detailed descriptions of key artworks in each of the rooms.  Kingston Lacy in Dorset is a good example where the Trust is custodian to one of the finest country house art collections. The latest version of the guidebook, introduced in 2012, runs to 56 pages with only a cursory overview of the pictures.  This lightweight publication replaces the previous version of the guidebook which ran to 96 pages with detailed descriptions of many of the paintings and other artworks in the collection and an informative essay as to the origins and importance of the collection.  Comparing both books side by side is a sobering experience.

Polesden Lacey in Surrey is another good example.  If you visit the house you will see that room stewards have a good quality laminated book which contains photographs of all the paintings in the house with potted histories on how they came to enter the collection.  When I first saw this book I asked to buy a copy but was told that the Trust was not intending to sell it to the public; it was simply there for the stewards to use.  I offered to make a donation to the Trust in exchange for a copy but again, there was no interest in sharing this interesting knowledge with visitors.  As the Trust is clearly focused on dumbing down its publications I enquired as to what they were planning to do for those who actually come to their houses to learn about art and history.  I am yet to receive an answer.  in the meantime I would suggest that readers with similar passions buy older versions of the guidebooks on eBay while stocks last.

Update III - it's worse than I thought folks. Here are more remarks from Dame Helen this time in the Daily Mail:

The Trust is to experiment with simplifying the exhibits at some of its properties.

Dame Helen said: ‘When it comes to our big grand houses one of the things we have to look at is the sheer number of exhibits. There is so much stuff in there.

‘Let’s not expect our visitors to look at every single picture in a room - let’s pick one lovely thing, put it in the middle of the room and light it really well.

‘Let’s just have six or seven of those things dotted around that anybody would love - it’s not difficult.

‘We make people work fantastically hard - we could make them work much less hard.’

But she denied that the Trust is ‘dumbing down’ its approach in order to boost visitor numbers.

‘In many ways it is much more intellectually rewarding,’ Dame Helen insisted.

‘People will learn much more by looking at one object in a lot of detail, than they ever would going round a room getting a vague impression.’

Christ.

Update IV:

An overseas reader writes:

Well, your blog post on the National Trust made for very depressing reading. Last August I spent a very happy few days with a National Trust touring pass, roaming around Kent and East Sussex. The properties were fabulous and the "stuff" inside was marvellous. I love the "stuff"! It doesn't "put me off". I can't quite believe the comments made by Dame Helen, how ridiculous and pretty patronising really. (And stunned to hear that one of the curators would not be interested to try and identify unattributed paintings). As an overseas visitor, every time I come to the UK I am so envious of the wonderful stately homes, palaces and castles that you have coming out of your ears - filled with amazing treasures and paintings. (I am working my way through the Ten Treasures Houses of England...five to go). The idea of deliberately reducing the number of paintings on display is ludicrous to me...and to do so in order to make non 'middle class' people feel more comfortable....huh?! Sounds a bit 'Yes, Minister' to me.

Another reader wonders where they'll put all the pictures they take down:

Absolutely bonkers isnt it!!! What are they going to do with all the 'stuff' they want to remove from the houses...where they have usually been for hundreds of years? To storage? Sell (doubt they can?).....

Then we get into storage charges....did the family want only one picture put on show instead of how the place was left to them....

If I didn't know about a pictures sitter or artist I usually ask a guide but so much better to have a little label or at least a decent guide book.....

Scottish National Trust do it well!

And another reader hopes the message will catch on:

Your alarm signals about the NT need to be expressed more widely .... could it be that there are journalists with clout who actually drop in on AHN?

We have to hope.

The sad drift evidenced with Dame Ghosh and her friends may be related to the trendification (and watering down) since the 1970’s of Art History as a subject and its infection from Messrs Marx and Durkheim.

Now left dangerously lumped with media studies .... No ?

While another reader imagines what might happen if Dame Helen was in charge elsewhere:

The National Trust is blazing the trail here.

I understand that there are advanced plans at the Royal Opera House to remove the music and boring sections from their productions. 

They will attract far more of the right people if they restrict performances to Nessum Dorma and that nice duet from the BOAC advert.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is next. That stage area would make a good heritage cafe.

Update V - another reader writes:

I noticed the following comment under the Telegraph interview with Dame Helen:

"the Trust has not produced an updated list of properties in 17 years. A strange omission for a property owning organisation"

If that's correct I think something should be done about that.

An overseas, trust-visiting reader adds:

How very sad Dame Helen feels the need to "dumb down" for visitors to National Trust sites.  As an overseas visitor, with the opportunity to travel to the UK only every few years I look forward to seeing as much as possible.   To truly be able to engage with  old paintings is one of the main reasons I go to the UK.  I'm not visiting to feel more comfortable, but explore as much as possible in a way I'm not able to by looking at picture in a book.

Many museums, fine houses etc. in my opinion do not have adequate information about the art work in their care.  As a result before I travel I look online to see what art collections are at a particular site and research the art I would like to see.

For me, the only way to truly appreciate the piece is to understand the artist who made it, why they did, what the world was like when they did and then really look. I am not looking for a "vague impressions" but to be as immersed as possible with the art around me.

An overseas curator writes:

I'm firmly against the embargo on the files for unpublished volumes but it's not my call. Also glad to read your bashing of Dame Helen, who should be fired for such stupidity. I have been a member of the trust for the past four years and have been making intensive yearly roadtrips. The idea of emptying houses because there is too much "stuff" in them is simply appalling.

And another UK family writes:

Just read your piece on the National Trust and am left feeling despondent and so very patronised by Dame Helen’s comments. We, a young family, have been members of the Trust for some years – presumably just the sort of audience Dame Helen is keen to attract. My son, now 9, has spent many hours over the years visiting NT properties with us. He absolutely loves the ‘stuff’, and is perfectly capable of selecting one or two objects to look at in more detail (as are his parents). Not surprisingly when we first started visiting NT properties with him he didn’t know much about George II, either. He does now. Wonder why?

Off to write a letter to Dame Helen.

Another reader sees a wider conspiracy:

your article, and the responses it evinced, pursuade me of what I have always suspected, that the target audience of the National Trust is the Conservative front bench.

Not sure I agree with that...

A UK curator writes:

To be fair to the NT Collections curators,  a very large proportion of their art works [and other items] are online so it is possible to ascertain a full list of all pictures in a particular property, with adequate information and [sadly inadequate but online] images whether or not the works are on view / in store/ hung high on a staircase / in a dark corner way beyond the ropes.   But this should be in addition to informative handlists etc on site, as often one doesn’t know in advance what works are to be seen.

Quite.

Another reader breaks out the caps lock, and I know how she feels:

I am APPALLED BY WHAT the new NT  chief executive said. I have been a member of the NT for many years and worked as a volunteer but if this is the new policy, I shall stop being a member.  They probably would not care if one member resigns but I sincerely hope that a lot more people will think likewise in which case the NT will loose more members than they will acquire through such crass & patronising attitude, I hope. How dreadful that somebody who thinks like Dame Helen should be at the head of the NT. Perhaps we should start a petition, to stop the NT actually introducing this crass and patronising policy.

Another reader reports this bad experience:

I recently contacted the Trust at Anglesey Abbey, following a purchase I made of a small painting attributed to Richard Parkes Bonington, it's not a great picture and small in size but as I'm a researcher and budding art history writer I thought it would interesting to reach out and make contact with the Trust, as I was aware Anglesey Abbey have a fine collection of pictures by Bonington.  

I had spoken to a volunteer on one of my previous visits about my picture and they gave me a name at the Trust to contact.  The volunteer seemed quite buoyant  about me contacting this person as they were the main contact and a good source of knowledge etc.

I sent an email explaining, where I had bought the picture, who it was attributed to and how the previous owner of the picture was connected to the owner of Anglesey Abbey.  I thought this might have been a eureka moment, but how wrong I was!

After my second email to the contact, the first email being left unanswered for a time, I sent the email again.  I know I'm just a member of the general public but I was showing my interest in the Trust and it's work, I thought it might have been reciprocal. I did receive a response and I was told that they would contact the curator as they might know some further information but the reply I received was a bit of a put-off and felt that they just don't have the time to engage with me.   

Which is a pity as the Trust do have such very fine collections, they just need to look at their engagement and outreach policy and see how they can make it inclusive for all ages and interests.

Update VI - The National Trust say the new 'less stuff' approach comes as a result of 'reviewing' their sites and what visitors want. I asked the Trust for evidence to back up the belief that people want to see 'less stuff' - as I simply don't believe it. Answer comes there none...

Update VII - In a fine and enouraging move, the National Trust's own 'National Trust Art' Twitter account has been carefully making its own views on the 'less stuff' policy known:

Whoever you are, well done!

Update VII - I think I should make it very clear that my comments above are directed at the Trust's leadership, and not the many hardworking curators and volunteers. I don't doubt for a second that they are as keen as I am on 'the stuff'. Regular readers will know that I have in the past regularly highlighted much of the Trust curator's work, be it a Rembrandt discovery, or the creation of their own excellent collections website. 

On the Trust's Treasure Hunt blog, a new entry highlights the purchase of a work of art which used to hang at a Trust property, Belton House. The picture below, an 'attributed to Berchem' scene, was bought from Tennants auction the other day. By coincidence, I saw the painting - it is not a great work by any means, and worth about the £7,000 the Trust paid. But it is nice that it should go back to where it used to hang.

In response to the NT's blog post, many readers wrote of their concern at Dame Helen's 'less stuff' comments. One reader highlighted AHN's concerns too. To which Emile de Bruijn, a Trust curator who writes the Treasure Hunt blog, replied:

I am surprised and disappointed that you are swayed by Bendor Grosvenor’s comments. I think this very blog post, and the evidence of the Treasure Hunt blog as whole (which channels the work of many colleagues) proves that he is wrong.

Emile further pointed out:

I simply don’t agree that we are dumbing down. If anything, things are going the other way, with more and more art-historical information becoming available through our online collections database and our specialist publications programme. Just think of the recent Sixtus cabinet book: a whole lavishly illustrated and deeply researched tome on just one object.

The misconception that we don’t care about serious art lovers is caused, I think, by the fact that we also have to look after and engage our other, less specialist visitors. The National Trust has never just been a museum. But it is not a question of ‘either – or': we can do both. So please don’t give up on us.

I hope my main point should nonetheless be pretty obvious - that all the hard work put in by people like Emile is pointless if the Trust leadership isn't interested in it. Dame Helen's comments sound very much like 'either or'. All of this could be resolved if the Trust put a statement making it clear that Dame Helen's remarks have been misinterpreted. But they have not. Instead, I hear worrying reports of Trust employees being warned to 'keep quiet', and not make any comment against Dame Helen's remarks.

So let us hope that the 'either or' approach doesn't mean that 'the stuff' gets shunted online or into books, and out of houses and into store. While the new NT collections website is indeed a great thing, it can never be a substitute for properly showing the actual paintings themselves, in their original historic setting, and explaining to visitors their meaning and purpose - should those visitors, of whatever class, choose to want to know. If they don't want to look at 'the stuff', then steer them towards the café.

Update VIII - another reader summarises the affair thus:

The NT is responsible — in “trust” — for historic houses: not historic architectural shells to shelter a select few pieces of approved art spotlighted as if in a museum, telling us what to look at, but houses with all their lived-in, accumulated-by-owners, even reacquired historic artistic furnishings including paintings, tapestries, woodwork, carpets, “stuff” if you will, so all visitors can see and feel the history for themselves; something we cannot do in most museums however high their levels of artistic quality may be.  Your curator friend’s defence of the NT on grounds of its online and publishing activities is deeply misguided: the houses must come first, in all their higgledy-piggledy, very human glory, vanity, and “stuffiness”.  After all, that’s who most of their owners were: that, too, is our history, whether we react in admiration, envy, fascination or dismay.

Update IX - a reader agrees with the last comment:

Further to the excellent comment at Update VIII, if I recall correctly, James Lees-Milne once wrote that a major part of the charm of English country houses was the 'palimpsest' that was created by multiple generations of ownership by the same family.

He also I believe in a different context complained that the NT sometimes destroyed its houses' charm by over-tidying them. At the same time, he also noted that he had made mistakes when preparing NT houses for opening to the public.

Perhaps there is a balance to be found for the great majority of NT houses that lies somewhere between Calke Abbey and Barrington Court (which was acquired without any historic contents), where the historical contents of the house are displayed more or less as the owners left them, with some degree of scholarship and tidying up of egregious mistakes, and with ample information about the contents readily available. 

But there is no excuse for 'dumbing down' a house whose importance and interest are a product of its history, and whose history is in no small part, its contents.

Another reader sees the NT's new position as evidence of a worrying trend:

I one hundred percent agree with your well founded criticism of the National Trust. However, this is an issue bigger than the NT and indicative of museums and galleries world wide. i.e. Have a slick digitally accessible collection and hide the real one. Didacticism is also deemed a rude and dogmatic term now, the cultural sector is abuzz with words like 'exploring' 'engaging', 'experiencing' and 'responding'. Thus the problem is, what you deem patronising they actually perceive of as removing it!? I work in a museum in Australia and am so discouraged that I have decided to get out of it and find a more fulfilling job.

Curators putting together exhibitions whose narrative they can't explain and education programs that cater for no one over the age of fifteen. I thought the cultural sector would be a more outward looking extension of academia. It's often not now. I was wrong.

Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter

March 24 2015

Image of Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter

Picture: Rubenshuis

Regular readers may remember the story of the possible Rubens 'sleeper', which the Metropolitan Museum deaccessioned as a copy in 2013. Now, the picture has once again been accepted as a Rubens - which it clearly is - and it'll soon go on display at an exhibition of Rubens's family portraits at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. The sitter is Rubens' daughter, Clara Serena. The photo above shows the picture post-conservation. Below, you can see the painting as it appeared at Sotheby's in New York.

I've written a piece for The Art Newspaper looking at the sale and reattribution of the painting. Is this the greatest deaccessioning blunder of recent times?

The exhibition opens in Antwerp on 28th March. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the show - and it's probably the best Rubens exhibition I've yet seen. Rubens' portraiture is usually at its best when he's painting friends and family, and in this show we see example after example of Rubens' finest work. There are loans from all over (the Hermitage, the Royal Collection etc.). There are seven self-portraits alone. And all, magically, on display in the house where Rubens lived, and where many of them were painted. Do exhibitions get much better than that?

Re-uniting Rubens three Magi

March 24 2015

Image of Re-uniting Rubens three Magi

Picture: NGA Washington

It's all go for Rubens at the moment. In Washington DC, the National Gallery has re-united Rubens' three c.1618 Magi paintings. There's a good online exhibition site here

'Mr Turner'

March 23 2015

Image of 'Mr Turner'

Picture: Thin Man Films

I finally got to see the film 'Mr Turner' on DVD (babies and cinemas not being a good mix). Quelle dinde! Good acting, great scenery and costumes - but sod all story. Nothing happens. Turner grunts a bit, Turner paints a bit, Turner shags a bit, Turner (spoiler alert) dies. That's it.

The film did have some good bits. I enjoyed the portrayal of Ruskin as intensely irritating. Of Ruskin, Turner provides my favourite art history quote - 'he sees far more in my paintings than I ever did'.

Brian on Money

March 23 2015

Image of Brian on Money

Picture: Times

The Telegraph has an interview with the Great Brian, in which he talks about money. We learn that he had to take a pay cut at the Evening Standard when it was sold to the Lebedevs, and he advises (wisely) against buying art purely as an investment. He tried it once, and it didn't last long:

In 1972, I set aside a sum to spend on paintings by students at the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal College of Art, the Slade School of Fine Art and other institutions, and continued these purchases for nearly 20 years before running out of enthusiasm and hope. By then, I had more paintings than I could hang, and was sick of finding stacked canvases in every room. A handful of painters survived to become professional, but the rest graduated to the security of being a handyman in a home for delinquent children, a train driver on the Underground and so on – the last straw was my being served by one behind the cheese counter in Harrods.

Well worth a read. 

"Inventing Impressionism"

March 23 2015

Video: National Gallery

Nice video here from Chris Riopelle, curator of the new National Gallery exhibition, 'Inventing Impressionism'.

Van Dyck sketches for sale

March 23 2015

Image of Van Dyck sketches for sale

Pictures: Sotheby's

Two very interesting, early Van Dyck head studies are coming up for sale at Sotheby's in New York. They're being sold from the Weldon Collection, and both were recently in the excellent 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado - a show so good I went twice.

The first study, above, is of a woman looking up, and is preparatory for Van Dyck's The Drunken Silenus (below, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden). It looks to be in superb condition.

The second work is a study of a boy praying, and he appears in Van Dyck's Suffer Children Come Unto Me (in Ottawa). There's another version of this study, without the hands. I'm not sure which came first, but they're both by Van Dyck. It seems there was a demand for studies by him, and sometimes he did replicas. 

The former is estimated at $200,00-$300,000, and the boy is estimated at $250,000-$350,000. Both estimates seem to me to be on the cheap side. I'd value the woman looking up at at least $500,000. I bet they do well on the day. But it's one of those curious mid-season sales, outside of the normal Old Master sales in the summer, so you never know.

Also in the sale is the below sketch - en grisaille - of Martin Ryckaert, which is catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck'. The estimate is $200,000-$300,000 - too high it seems to me for an attributed work. And for what it's worth - and I should stress I have only seen it via the photo - I'm not entirely sure it's by Van Dyck himself. Here's the original painting in the Prado - probably my favourite Van Dyck. The sketch was probably made for Van Dyck's series of engravings, his Iconografie. 

Update - I forgot to note Van Dyck's birthday, two days ago (22nd March). Happy Birthday, Ant!

Sotheby's new CEO

March 21 2015

Image of Sotheby's new CEO

Picture: via Art Market Monitor

Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor has written this essential, in-depth look at Sotheby's new CEO, Tad Smith. Smith (above) used to run a cable TV firm. Apparently, the buzz is all about the way Sotheby's can use 'new technology':

When the Wall Street Journal asked Smith about his plans to supercharge Sotheby’s with technology, he responded by pointing “to an earlier calling card,” reporter Kelly Crow wrote. “While at Cablevision, he said he led a team that created a system that allowed the cable company to tailor the ads it broadcast to its 2.5 million households, with dog owners getting more dog-food ads and new homeowners getting additional home-improvement store ads.”

The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

March 21 2015

Image of The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

Pierre Le Guennec, Picasso's former handyman who was on trial for possessing 271 'stolen' works by the artist, has been found guilty. For earlier AHN on this unfortunate case, see here

Le Guennec and his wife have been sentenced to two years in jail, but the term has been suspended, meaning they won't be locked up. The works must be returned to the Picasso estate.

This is an extraordinary ruling. No evidence was presented in court to show that the works were stolen, by whom and when. The Picasso estate merely said 'Picasso never gave away his art'. Of course, he did - but in any case, M. Le Guennec's case was that Picasso's wife gave him the works. 

The Wall Street Journal reports the judge's logic:

The court in Grasse found that Mr. and Ms. Le Guennec weren’t able to present any documentation from the painter or his wife that proves the works were effectively donated to them. The court found that the couple never tried to obtain any such proof and never spoke to anyone about their possession—not even to their own children—and said these facts establish that the works were “kept clandestinely.”

The court also said the couple’s testimonies during the trial diverged widely and lacked credibility.

“The violation concerns goods of an extreme value,” Judge Jean-Christophe Bruyere said in his ruling. “The Le Guennec couple didn’t make a profit but they didn’t provide any convincing explanation as to how and why they kept the art pieces for such a long time.”

If this is French justice, then I'm a banana. The judge seems not to have noticed that, at the time M. Le Guennec was given the works, they were not of 'extreme value'. Nor did the court care that M. Le Guennec voluntarily started this whole process, by taking the works to the Picasso estate - hardly the actions of a criminal. So if you happen to live in France, and have works of art that you (a) lost the receipts for (b) don't tell the world and its wife about - ie, keep them 'clandestinely', and (c) keep 'for such a long time', then watch out - you may be found guilty of possessing stolen works too. Even if there was no proof they were stolen!

Gurlitt's Liebermann to be restituted

March 20 2015

Image of Gurlitt's Liebermann to be restituted

Picture: Der Spiegel

One of the better known works from the collection of the late Cornelis Gurlitt, Two Riders on a Beach by Max Liebermann, is to be restituted. AP reports:

Germany has signed a restitution agreement for a painting by Max Liebermann in a move toward returning the work, seized under Nazi rule, to its rightful owner.

Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" was part of an art trove found in late collector Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment.

Experts last year determined the painting was seized from businessman David Friedmann and rightfully belongs to his descendants.

Culture Minister Monika Gruetters' office confirmed a report in weekly Der Spiegel Friday that she signed the agreement, the first such accord for a piece from the Gurlitt collection. The agreement reportedly must be cleared by a Munich court handling Gurlitt's inheritance.

A Swiss museum that accepted Gurlitt's bequest of his collection has promised to ensure any Nazi-looted pieces are returned to their Jewish owners' heirs.

The first of many, I hope.

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

March 20 2015

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

Picture: Der Spiegel

The convicted art forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, has claimed he 'recently' saw one of his fakes in the Albertina, in Vienna. He refused to say which work it was. And for that reason, I don't believe him. Fakers do a lot of boasting like this. They seek critical attention for their artistic skills. Ultimately, that's why they get caught.

More here

Art that wastes away

March 20 2015

Image of Art that wastes away

Picture: Guardian

Further to the news that Van Gogh's pictures are gradually changing colour, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian looks at five other works that are gradually decaying. Some waste away faster than others, such as Damien Hirst's shark, which has already had to be replaced once.

At the same time, the new Wallace Collection exhibition on Joshua Reynolds looks at that artist's notorious use of dodgy pigments - his pictures sometimes faded dramatically within his lifetime. 

All of which makes me wonder - shouldn't art be classified as a 'wasting asset'? In other words, not subject to capital gains tax, in the same way that vintage wine is not taxed, even though it might go rocketing up in value? Spot the self interest here...

Introducing the 'Gainsborough bouquet'

March 20 2015

Image of Introducing the 'Gainsborough bouquet'

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery has a new range - art history themed floral bouquets. Above is the 'Gainsborough Bouquet', which is yours for £30, and is inspired by the National Gallery's Mrs & Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough. Says the NG's website:

Depicting the couple on the English countryside estate, the accentuated colours of the blue in Mrs Andrews dress and the stormy skies contrast with the fresh green of the fields. The colours are replicated in this splendid bouquet with deep blue Agapanthus and pale blue Eryngium against a perfect backdrop of fresh yellow Roses and wispy sprays of Solidaster.

View from the Artist - no.17

March 20 2015

Image of View from the Artist - no.17

 

Apologies for the lack of posts lately - I have been away on various missions. One was filming for series 4 of 'Fake or Fortune?'. Another was dealing with a (what I thought was) particularly nasty legal letter. But fear not, AHNers, I remain undaunted.

I hope to be back to the blog later today. But in the meantime, here's another 'View from...' Can you guess the location and artist?

No Google image cheating this time!

Update - it is Wollaton Hall by Jan Siberechts (Yale Center for British Art). Well done to those who got it right.

Update II - there are two versions of the painting: one at Yale, above, and also a variant without the large sky, which you can see hanging in the house in the old photo below.

Finaldi confirmed at last

March 18 2015

Gabriele Finaldi has at last been confirmed as the new National Gallery director. I'm out and about today, so can't post pictures or links (posting this from my phone) but there's an extensive press release on the NG's website. 

It has been some months* since I first broke the news of his impending appointment. I am not sure why the confirmation has taken so long. I'd begun to wonder if I'd made a blunder...

Anyway, many congratulations to Dr. Finaldi; I wish him the best of luck in his new post.

Update - Jonathan Jones in The Guardian has some advice for Dr. Finaldi, while Polly Toynbee, in the same paper, re-offers tired old warnings against restructuring the staff. On the same theme, Richard Dorment in The Telegraph has a more upbeat assessment:

One task I don’t envy him is dealing with what many perceive to be a culture of negativity and complaint among curatorial staff in a gallery that is, after all, amply staffed and reasonably well funded – at least by comparison to other national museums. Last month, Gallery staff also went on strike, twice, in a row over the privitisation of visitor services, with a further strike expected next week.

However, I presume that someone who has just been through a trial by fire such as the Spanish economy will be well prepared for what look like very difficult years ahead for our National Museums.

*January, in fact. You read it here first!

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

March 17 2015

I saw yesterday, at a provincial auction house, a fake 18th Century drawing, purporting to be of a well-known literary figure. It had been fully catalogued as by the claimed artist (it was 'signed'), but had probably been made within the last few years or so, at the most. It had a cunningly vague label on the back, made using what appeared to be an old type writer. I think the intention was to fool the optimistic into thinking the drawing was an overlooked gem.

Normally I let these things go, but there appeared to be a number of drawings in the same sale that were labelled and framed in the same way, and made with a similarly dubious technique. So I informed the auction house staff, in the hope that anything that had come from the same source would be investigated further.

There are a growing number of fakes out there like this; trivial enough to appear to be innocuous, and not of any interest to the police - but real enough to make someone shifty some serious money. Caveat emptor...

Update - the drawing was withdrawn.

€150m Rembrandt pair

March 17 2015

Image of €150m Rembrandt pair

Picture: via Tribune de l'Art, Portrait de Marten Soolmans

Didier Rykner reports on Tribune de l'Art that a pair of full-length Rembrandts are being sold by a branch of the Rothschild family in France. The French authorities have apparently agreed to their export from France. A resumé of the story is in English on Art Market Monitor.

Update - a reader writes:

M. Rykner is absolutely right to be outraged at the granting of an export permit — not simply artistically, because these are a pair of Rembrandts, but because the French authorities are clearly violating the rule of law: their own law which, as M. Rykner says, must surely require this pair of paintings be designated a “national treasure”.  Then, and only then, the question arises of whether or not the paintings can be afforded by the state; if not, they might be exported.  But for the authorities to argue that these paintings are not a “national treasure”, motivated by financial grounds, is unlawful, untruthful, and apparently an underhanded attempt to obscure their financial cowardice —  or if it is truly financial “prudence”, if this national treasure can’t be afforded, say so, face up, honestly, don’t try to hide behind a false refusal to designate them properly.

Update II - another reader adds:

The French rules on 'national treasures' are very similar to those of the British government on the Waverley criteria, viz. a strictly impartial judgement on whether a work of art fulfils certain criteria of pre-eminence. In both cases, they should be completely irrespective of whether a national institution can afford to buy the work of art in question.  In failing to object to the export of the Rothschild Rembrandts, the Director of the Louvre has signally failed to observe the spirit (and probably the letter) of the legislation, and [is in danger of laying] himself open to charges of incompetence or corruption.

In addition, it is extremely unfortunate that the European Commission has no effective mechanism for protecting European heritage, which might enable it to supersede national governments in this, as in so many other areas of policy.

Frieze Masters - not so good for Old Masters?

March 17 2015

Image of Frieze Masters - not so good for Old Masters?

Picture: Frieze Masters

There's an interesting snippet in Colin Gleadell's Telegraph report from TEFAF in Maastricht:

[...] several Old Master dealers at Tefaf are saying they will not be returning to Frieze Masters this October.

I've heard the same from a number of dealers. But it's worth noting that, relatively, it is still a fair in its infancy. These things need time to establish themselves. I think the concept is good, but there are flaws in the way it is being implemented.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

March 17 2015

Image of Everybody out! (ctd.)

Picture: Museums Association

Yet another strike at the National Gallery, from Tuesday 24th March to Saturday 28th March. The PCS Union really seem to think that they can strike their way to victory on this one. But of course the repeated strikes only serve to persuade National Gallery trustees that they are right to press ahead with their reforms.

The latest strike is also partly in support of Socialist Workers Party member Candy Udwin (above, addressing a recent solidarity for Greece rally held in front of the Gallery), who was suspended by the Gallery a few weeks ago.

Socialist Worker reports:

Bosses suspended PCS union rep Candy Udwin on the eve of the strike in an attempt to undermine the action.

But it’s made workers more determined to fight back. 

Candy addressed a public meeting attended by some 100 supporters including PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka and left wing Labour MP John McDonnell in parliament on Tuesday of last week. [...]

Serwotka said that workers could win, and that gallery bosses’ attacks on Candy were “trumped up charges of the worst order”.

Guardian newspaper columnist Polly Toynbee said, “I think you will win. I have had a bigger response from readers to this than many other issues.”

Support is pouring in for Candy from trade unionists and campaigners—with thousands signing a petition calling for her reinstatement.

Workers at the Ritzy cinema and the Dulwich Picture Gallery were among those at the public rally in parliament, as were artists Bob and Roberta Smith.

Workers are having pictures taken with “Reinstate Candy” posters to demonstrate their support.

Members of the firefighters’ FBU union posed with the signs at their recall conference last week. 

And Candy was warmly received when she spoke at a rally in London last Sunday in solidarity with Greece. [...]

As Candy said, “The nationwide solidarity makes us believe we can win. 

“But it should also give everyone heart to see how much backing there is for anyone who stands up against privatisation, cuts and the austerity policies of this government.”

As many of us suspected all along, I don't think there can be much doubt that the National Gallery has become part of a wider Union campaign against the government.

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