April 14 2014
Just back, but will need a day or two to catch up on work business first.
April 3 2014
Right, it's holiday time. Back in ten days or so. Random thoughts from me may continue over on Twitter, if I see a nice painting on my travels. See you all soon.
Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard found in Italy
April 2 2014
A nice good news tale in The Guardian:
In 1975 a worker at the car firm Fiat went along to an auction of lost property organised by the Italian national railway in Turin.
He paid 45,000 lira (£32 – equivalent to about £300 today) for two paintings that caught his eye – one a still life and one an image of a woman relaxing in her garden.
For almost 40 years, the man – whose name has not been made public – kept the pictures hanging in his kitchen. They accompanied him on his move, post-retirement, to Sicily. At no point until last year, believe Italian police, did he realise quite what a bargain his purchase had been.
Now it has emerged that the paintings are stolen works by French artists Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard, and the first – a still life dating from 1869 – has an estimated value of between €10m and €30m (£8.3m to £24.8m). The second, entitled La femme aux Deux Fauteuils (woman with two armchairs) is believed to be worth around €600,000 (£497,000).
Stolen in London in 1970, reportedly from the widower of a daughter of one of the Marks & Spencer co-founders, they were unveiled on Wednesday to applause at the Italian culture ministry in Rome.
Note a lack of white gloves and the flamboyant red silk drape. They do things in style in Italy...
Mon Dieu - le feu! (ctd.)
April 2 2014
Sad news that Martin Lang, the owner of the fake Chagall we featured on our BBC1 programme, 'Fake or Fortune?', has given up his legal battle to prevent the Chagall Committee from burning his picture (for which he paid £100,000 many years ago). The BBC reports:
Mr Lang paid £100,000 for the work in 1992. He originally wanted it back but has now said he will "walk away totally disillusioned with the French".
Can't say I blame him.
The Committee, run the artist's two granddaughters, is determined to destroy the work as a fake. This is despite the fact that such a course of action is a) monumentally ignorant, b) wilfully iconoclastic, and c) they have in the past cheerfully returned fake works to their owners, albeit with the offending 'Chagall' signature removed.
Ai Wei Wei RA
April 2 2014
Did you know that Ai Wei Wei, of whom AHN is a big fan, had been elected a Royal Academician? I didn't. And nor did I know that the Chief Executive of the RA, Charles Saumarez Smith, has a blog. Excellent it is too, and here he is telling us about his recent presentation to Ai Wei Wei of his RA diploma:
We took Ai Weiwei’s diploma to his studio in a house somewhere in the deep outskirts of Beijing. He was elected an RA a couple of years ago, just after he came out of prison, but we don’t like to consign the diploma to the vagaries of the international post. It was unexpectedly moving handing it over to him. He asked how many there are. The answer is not many, about 25, because we are only allowed to elect two a year, and we don’t always remember those two. He is the first Asian artist. I read out the Obligation, which I luckily remembered was printed in the copy of my book which I had brought to give him, although I’m not convinced it was strictly necessary.
Germany returns Guardi
April 1 2014
The Germany government has returned a painting by Guardi, looted in 1939, to Poland. The case highlights the continuing tensions over the question of looted art between Germany and Poland, which I wasn't aware of. As the BBC explains:
After World War Two, the painting went to the University of Heidelberg and then to the State Gallery of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
It was recognised as belonging to Poland in the late 1990s. But political differences between Warsaw and Berlin over the broader issue of art lost during the war prevented a deal from being reached sooner.
"This painting has been on a long odyssey," Mr Steinmeier said. "[It represents] the difficult history that connects our two countries."
Poland is still searching for thousands of artefacts looted from its museums and private collections during the war, although many items are believed to have been destroyed during the war. Mr Steinmeier said he hoped the move would "be a signal to restart the stalled German-Polish dialogue on cultural artefacts".
Germany has long sought the return of some 300,000 books, drawings and manuscripts - known as the Berlinka collection - from Poland. The collection includes handwritten musical scores by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach that the Nazis moved to Poland to keep them safe from bombing during the war. Abandoned by retreating German troops in what is now Poland, many of the items are now held by the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
So it has taken Germany since the 1990s to return this one Guardi? Forgive me, but I think this is absurd. Surely the German government should put the return of its musical mansucripts to one side, and treat that as a seperate question. There is no excuse for not promptly acting on Germany's obligation to Poland to return all art looted by its forces during the Nazi occupation.
PS - at least they're not wearing white gloves.
Exclusive - 'Mona Lisa' being cleaned
April 1 2014
It's the big one, folks: the Louvre has finally decided to take the plunge and clean the Mona Lisa. Pleased with their success in cleaning Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne, curators decided that they had now perfected the art of restoring Leonardos, and felt that it was at last time to remove the many layers of varnish and over-paint that have been obscuring the Mona Lisa's true qualities for the last few centuries.
In fact, it seems that the restoration of Virgin and Child with St Anne was always considered a dry run for cleaning the Mona Lisa. However, the news of Mona Lisa's restoration wasn't supposed to be made public until it had finished. Given the inevitable protests, staff at the Louvre had planned to do the cleaning in the utmost secrecy.
The plan had been working well till now. The 'Mona Lisa' that's been on display for the last few months is in fact a photographic copy - the barriers and thick glass where the portrait hangs of course meant that nobody has noticed. However, a concerned curator at the Louvre, who is an AHN reader, has been in touch to relay some disturbing news. He has sent me the above secretly taken photo, showing some cleaning tests in the background. These had been very encouraging, and everyone at the Louvre was very pleased. But what appears to be a potential disaster is the area around the mouth. Look closely - the smile has disappeared, for it turns out to have been an early 17th Century addition.
Said my curatorial source:
We were shocked: one whiff of acetone, and pouf, the famous smile was gone. Now, she looks utterly miserable. Nobody knows what to do. This is going right to the top. President Hollande has even been consulted. But he said he prefers her this way. It reflects the national mood.
More on this as I get it.
Update - thanks for all your comments. Here's some of them:
The reports of riots in Paris have been exaggerated I'm sure.
Thank you for reminding me that it's April Fool's day.
Quite shocking news, and what amazing contacts you must have in the museum world ! As I read on I got more and more upset and was just about to rush downstairs and tell the rest of the house about it, when, wait a minute.........
Brilliant, Quite the best April the 1st joke in years! So well done that I actually doesn't feel embarrased about having been totally fooled.......
I’m hoping that this is another April fool’s joke, and that the smile has been digitally edited… I’ve already been the subject of a prank today, so I’m a little more prepared than most of your readers. Despite this I must admit that upon seeing the image, my heart still skipped a beat, so congrats I guess…
Yeah nice April's fools joke. I didnt buy it for a second. They will never clean it (at least not in my lifetime), much like the Fete Champetre on the other side of the wall
No, no, your secret source has it all wrong, she is laughing out loud -- the photo was taken from a fun-house mirror image of the real restoration!
Thank you, Bendor, and a happy April Fool's Day to you and all AHN readers.
Were all today's blogs satire, or just the one about the Guardi?
Finally, a reader sends me this classic cartoon by Tony Reeve:
The white glove fallacy (ctd.)
April 1 2014
Picture: via ArtDaily
Regular readers will know that one of my favourite ranting topics is the needless use of white gloves (see here, for example), especially when photographers or TV crews are around. The above photo, in which someone uses white gloves to open a facsimile of the Brevarium Grimani, to publicise an exhibition in Mainz, Germany, is a classic of the genre.
National Gallery membership scheme?
April 1 2014
The National Gallery in London doesn't have a membership scheme, giving free entry to exhibitions and events, which I've always thought odd. I'd certainly sign up. Now, however, it seems they may at last be thinking about it. A reader has been asked to go to a focus group run by company looking into such schemes on the Gallery's behalf. The company's email says:
The research is taking place to help the National Gallery understand perceptions and appeal of art gallery membership schemes.
The research will comprise an informal group discussion with 5 National Gallery visitors and will last about 1 hour 30 minutes. During the session we will talk to you about various elements of art gallery membership benefits. We will give you £40 to say thank you for your time and contribution.
Sooke on Matisse
April 1 2014
Allow me to plug Alastair Sooke's new book on Henri Matisse, available here on Amazon. Well worth getting for your shelves.
New clues in hunt for missing Ghent Altarpiece panel
March 31 2014
Every now and then someone says they know the whereabouts of the missing panel, Just Judges, from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, stolen in 1934. In January this year, for example, a retired police commissioner said he thought it was buried in a cemetery outside Brussels. And in 2008, an anonymous tip off led Ghent police to dig up part of a house, but to no avail. Now, however, a Belgian politician and historian, Paul De Ridder, says he knows that the picture belongs to a prominent Ghent family. He says he is respecting their anonymity for now, but hopes to bring public pressure on them to return the work. More here at Flanders News.
Wadsworth acquires Gentileschi self-portrait
March 28 2014
Picture: Wadsworth Atheneum
Regular readers may recall that I was surprised the above Self-Portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi failed to sell at Christie's most recent Old Master sale in New York. It's a fine picture, and I thought Christie's estimate of $3-$5m was very fair. So I'm pleased to see that the Wadsworth Atheneum bought the picture in an after-sale deal. Well done them and well done Christie's. More here.
Incidentally, did you know that the Atheneum was the first public art institution in the United States?
March 28 2014
The pictures in question were painted for the dining room of the Holyoke Centre, a modernist lump built by Harvard University in 1966. They did not hang there long, though. Rothko liked to mix his own paints, said Dr Stenger, and had no idea how his concoctions would react to the abundant sunlight the Holyoke was designed to admit.
The answer, it turned out, was not well. After just 15 years they had faded so badly that they were consigned to a darkened basement for their own protection. Worse, when Dr Stenger and his colleagues dug out photographs taken of them when they were new, the researchers were dismayed to find that the photographs were not light-fast either, and that they too had faded over the years.
Fortunately the emulsion used standard pigments. This meant a chemist could work out how it would have reacted to sunlight. That let the researchers work backwards to make a computer-generated image of the original photos, and thus of the original paintings. But what to do with this information?
Any restoration would have involved extensive repainting. A materially minded scientist might wonder why that should be a problem, as long as the result was faithful to the original. But the finer sensibilities of art historians are, apparently, offended by this approach. Such people regard simply slapping on a new coat of paint as unethical.
If you cannot change the paint, though, you can change the lighting instead. In 1986 Raymond Lafontaine, a Canadian art conserver, outlined how shining coloured light at a painting could counteract the effects of yellowish varnish overlying the image. Craft this optical illusion carefully and you can change the colours of a picture in a natural looking way.
In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos this was not easy. Each had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.
Rothko should have followed the young Thomas Lawrence's practice of writing, on the back of his pastel portraits, 'be pleased to keep from the sun and the light'.
Richard III? (ctd.)
March 28 2014
There was great excitement last year when the University of Leicester claimed it had found Richard III's body in a Leicester car park. There were immediate calls to re-bury the body in either York or Leicester cathedrals. At the time, I posted this sceptical view, and argued that:
If we want to be able to say, 'This is Richard III', with such conviction that we are able then to bury him with all the dignity the Church can muster, in a shrine in some exalted cathedral,* then we must be absolutely sure, beyond not just reasonable doubt but any doubt, that it is him. And we are not yet there.
We're still not there, not least because the University of Leicester has yet release of all the archaeological and DNA evidence. So I was interested to read today that two emminent experts, Martin Biddle, emeritus professor of medieval archaeology at Oxford, and Michael Hicks, head of history at Winchester University, have gone public with their doubts, in an interview with BBC History Magazine:
Speaking exclusively to BBC History Magazine, Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit, raised concerns about the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton. Biddle also notes that the team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester is yet to make excavation field records publicly available.
Hicks (pictured below) said he is not convinced that the remains are those of the king. Instead, he argues, they could belong to a victim of any of the battles fought during the Wars of the Roses, of which the 1485 battle of Bosworth – at which Richard was killed – was the last significant example.
While the location of the grave in the former site of the Grey Friars priory matches information provided by John Rous, an associate of Richard’s, Hicks notes that “lots of other people who suffered similar wounds could have been buried in the choir of the church where the bones were found”.
He also queried the project’s use of radiocarbon dating, which dates the bones to the period of Richard’s death. “Such a technique is imprecise,” he said. “It will give you an era, but nothing more. In this case, it covers a period of 80 years.”
You may be wondering what the art historical point of all this is, and it's due to the claim, also made by the UoL, that Richard III's skull could be used to recreate 'what he really looked like'. And of this I'm sceptical too!
Brian asks 'Who was William Kent?'
March 28 2014
Picture: Standard, interior of Chiswick House, designed by Kent
Brian Sewell, on good form as ever, reviews the V&A's new exhibition on William Kent, architect and artist, and is not overly impressed. Concluding paragraph:
In this exhibition we see proof of Hogarth’s judgment that Kent was a “contemptible dauber”, and his draughtsmanship too is exposed as that of a hapless amateur; but to be fair to him, Kent should be judged only in his houses and palaces, not in the mean circumstances of a meagre exhibition in the V&A. Five minutes in one room of Houghton proves him to have been capable of the most accomplished “fusions of architectural convention, decoration and embellishment”.
The Grumpy Art Historian has been too, and is even less impressed:
[...] the exhibition is overall a failure. Partly that's because it's hard to curate an exhibition about architecture, and partly it's because the curation is just bad.
Handel is played in the background, the ultimate cliché of Georgian England. It might be merely thoughtless and unimaginative, but I suspect it's trying to engage an audience with something familiar. That's even worse, because it shies away from anything challenging in favour of a tedious Merchant Ivory country house ethos. I hate music in exhibitions because it imposes a mood, forcing us to experience it exactly as the curatorial apparatchiks want to make us experience it. It imposes emotion and closes down meaning.
Cheap looking backdrops hang behind the exhibits, and looped films of country house interiors play alongside original works of art. Lest you're tempted to dally, some of the more intricate drawings are hung behind four foot deep stands. The wall text is minimalist and you have to snake along a narrow corridor, making it difficult to linger or to go back for a second look. It's more like watching television rather than reading a book. A book might make an argument, but you can choose how you engage with it, reading at your own pace and pausing to consider. A documentary imposes a pace. It is totalising; sound and vision are used to tell a story, which we must passively consume.
Was Veronese the Ai Wei Wei of his day?
March 28 2014
Yes, says Jonathan Jones in this interesting piece on Veronese's greatest commission, the Feast in the House of Levi (above).
March 27 2014
There's a good video on the BBC News site here from correspondent Stephen Evans as he takes a look at some of Cornelius Gurlitt's allegedly Nazi-tainted collection.
Update - The Guardian reports that Gurlitt has changed his legal team, and seems to be adopting a new, more conciliatory stance over returning potentially looted works.
Tate must return looted Constable
March 26 2014
This is big news: the UK's Spoliation Advisory Panel has today ruled that Tate Britain must return a painting by Constable to the heirs of a Hungarian art collector, named by Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper as Baron Ferenc Hatvany. The picture, 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton', was deposited in a Budapest bank vault by Hatvany under a different name, and under a different title, when he was fleeing both the Nazi's (he was of Jewish descent) and then later the Soviets. Hatvany eventually died in Switzerland in 1958, but the picture, and the rest of his collection, was looted from the Budapest bank by German or Russian forces.
The Tate opposed the claim, and said, among other arguments, that the picture held no 'personal and emotional significance for the Claimants.' But the Spoliation panel has found against them, and appears to be critical of Tate's lack of research into the picture's provenance, which could have thrown up the looted art link earlier. This excerpt comes from page 12 of the ruling:
The Panel concludes, in the light of the evidence, that the Tate was under a moral obligation to pursue the possibility, that the Painting had been the object of spoliation during the war but notes the Tate’s submissions that its connection with the Collector was overlooked by two selling galleries, the Yale University Press catalogue raisonné of 1984 and by four institutions to which it was later lent.
The Panel also concludes that the Tate could have researched the Painting’s provenance on subsequent occasions as the opportunity arose, particularly after its mention in Mravik’s monograph in the English-language in 1998 (referred to in paragraph 29 above). Even if it is not reasonable of the Claimants to demand that the Tate’s experts should have consulted the catalogues of the Witt Library, there were other sources available that could have established the likelihood that the Painting had been spoliated during the war. It would not have been difficult to have made enquiries of the Hungarian Government, who had included the Painting on its official list of looted art from the late 1940s.
The panel then criticises Tate for seeming to withold evidence from the heirs which might have advanced their claim:
The Tate is equivocal in its response to the charge that it has withheld information from the Claimants. It argues that full legal disclosure of the kind customary in litigation is “not appropriate in the context of an application to the Panel”. It asserts that it had “provided the Claimants with all the material relating to the specific issues they had raised” but this makes it clear that there is material with which it has not provided them. If the Claimants wished to see it, they should surely have been able to do so. However, in the end, this issue is not of major importance. The documentation available to the Panel is sufficient for it to reach an informed conclusion and make the appropriate recommendation.
The panel then concludes that the painting must be returned:
Taking into account all the above circumstances, the Panel concludes that the moral strength of the Claimants’ case, and the moral obligation on the Tate, warrant a recommendation that Beaching a Boat, Brighton, by John Constable, should be returned by the Tate to the Claimants as they desire, in accordance with the provisions of The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 and subject to the conditions outlined in paragraphs 54 and 55 above. The Panel recommends accordingly. In accordance with its earlier decisions the Panel considers that no reimbursement is due from the Claimants to the Tate for its expenditure as that is broadly balanced by income received and by the benefit that Tate and the public have derived from the work over the last four decades.
I haven't seen the painting in person, but I'd have thought it's worth at least £500,000, and probably much more. You can read the full ruling here.
Update: I wrote this story yesterday in a bit of a rush, and so missed this astonishing claim by Tate defending their failure to investigate the provenance earlier:
37.The Witt Library is an image resource and the Tate argues that it would not have occurred to anybody to use it as a research tool for provenance unless, like the Claimants’ representatives, they had already been alerted to the possible Holocaust connection of a particular item.
I can't quite believe anyone at Tate genuinely thinks this. Everybody knows the Witt is the place to go for initial provenance clues. It's usually the first place I look. The photos there invariably have information on previous owners.
Update II: further evidence of how rushed my original report was - I missed this equally astonishing aspect of the case, noticed by the Standard, that Tate tried to claim for years worth of insurance, storage and preservation fees!
More records added to 'Art World in Britain'
March 26 2014
11,000 auction records have been published, bringing the total now online to 87,000 lots. Here are the main additions:
Three great collections
The library of Edward, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741) was 'the most choice and magnificent that were ever collected in this Kingdom'. His bound prints and illustrated books were sold by his widow in 1746 over 22 nights. The sale catalogue is the longest & most detailed of its kind from this period, by some way.
The South Sea Bubble triggered one of the greatest picture sales of the early 18th century, when the heavily-indebted Henry, 1st Duke of Portland (1682-1726) sold his paintings in 1722. One copy of the catalogue survives, in the Frick library. Its manuscript annotations, which list every buyer and price fetched, provide an invaluable snapshot of the major collectors and dealers of that moment.
The collection of old master drawings belonging to the Roman connoisseur Padre Resta was "the finest without doubt in Europe" according to John Talman. Resta sold almost 4000 sheets to the Whig Lord Chancellor, Baron Somers (1651-1716), which were auctioned in London in 1717.
Sales of artists, architects & a composer
Auction catalogues offer a window onto the careers, households and intellectual worlds of the vendors. In this update are the posthumous catalogues of architects Nicholas Hawksmoor (1740), William Kent (1749), Sir Christopher Wren (1749), and Leonard Wooddeson (1733); the painters John Robinson (1746), Louis Goupy (1748), Thomas Morland (1748), Joseph Vanhaecken (1751) and John Ellys (1760); the engraver John Dunstall (1693); and the composer George Frederick Handel (1760).
The Frick's Portland annotations are probably based on information from the auctioneer's office, given their completeness & the fact that the prices include the post-sale fee (by contrast, the Houlditch transcript of the Portland sale gives the hammer price only). Another catalogue published now - the heavily-annotated catalogue of the 1719 sale of the contents of the Duke of Ormonde's London house - appears to be the only auctioneer's working copy surviving from any sale before the foundation of Christie's.
The update has been added by the site's creator, Richard Stephens, and generously funded by the London-based dealer Lowell Libson. So hurrah to them.
Van Dyck update (ctd.)
March 26 2014
Picture: Philip Mould Ltd
So, with belated apologies for the rather sparse blogging recently, let me be the first to tell you about what I've been working on over the last week or so: a new deal to help the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to acquire Van Dyck's final Self-Portrait (above). The target price has now been reduced from £12.5m to £10m. Here's a statement from the NPG:
The Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery are pleased to announce that the campaign to save Van Dyck’s self-portrait for the nation has received a significant boost. Following discussions between the owner of the painting, Alfred Bader, the art dealer Philip Mould, and the collector, James Stunt, the National Portrait Gallery now has the opportunity to purchase the work for £10 million.
This new offer gives the Save Van Dyck campaign, which has four months remaining and originally needed to raise £12.5 million, an improved chance of ensuring that the portrait remains on public display forever. The application process for an export licence has also now been halted.
To date the campaign has raised £3.6 million, with contributions already made by more than 8,000 members of the public. The campaign has until 20 July 2014 to raise the remaining funds.
Some explanatory quotes - here's one from Mr Stunt:
‘When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn't expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate. In light of the people's passion to purchase the Van Dyck for the nation I have carefully reconsidered my position and have decided, with Dr Bader and Mr Mould's agreement, to withdraw from the process. I trust that my withdrawal, together with the reduced price at which the painting is now being offered, will see the appeal succeed and that Van Dyck's final self portrait will permanently hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’
Here's what my employer, Philip Mould, had to say:
‘Watching the public reaction to Van Dyck’s Self-portrait develop in this unprecedented way has been amazing, and, for this lover of British historical portraiture, reassuring. The picture has become an iconic focal point, and for many the thought of it going to the United States would be like losing a chunk of Stonehenge. I am delighted to be able to help the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign in this way.’
And here's what the Bader family had to say:
‘Alfred Bader CBE, an established philanthropist on both sides of the Atlantic, has been impressed by the public’s response to the painting, and the efforts that both the Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery have made to keep the picture on public display. He very much hopes that the National Portrait Gallery is able to complete the rest of its fundraising challenge.’
And, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say. Regular readers will know that previously I've had to tread carefully (here and here, for example) when it came to the NPG's campaign. Van Dyck is my favourite artist, and I'd naturally like to see his final Self-Portrait stay in the UK and on public display. But my responsibilities towards our clients meant that I couldn't be as much of a cheerleader for the campaign as I'd liked. Now that Mr Stunt is no longer buying the picture, and Dr Baders and Philip Mould have agreed this new plan in favour of the NPG, however, all efforts can be focused on the Gallery's fundraising. I'm pleased with the outcome.
Update - here's The Guardian's take.
Update II - a reader writes:
Good luck!! I can understand why it might be less (or less widely) appealing than, say, the big Titians, but it really is a lovely painting, not to mention a jewel for the Portrait Gallery historically.