17th Century

Decoding a still life

November 17 2015

Image of Decoding a still life

Picture: Christie's

Christie's have a good website feature on the above still life by Edwaert Collier, looking at all the things we see in still lifes, and what they mean. The picture is coming up for sale in December at £80k-£120k. Clever marketing.

Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?

October 23 2015

Image of Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?

Picture: Sotheby's

News that Sotheby's will sell a $25m-$35m Orazio Gentileschi of Danaë recently on display at the Met in New York has raised the eyebrow with eminent US arts writer Lee Rosenbaum, who, on her blog, says:

[...] It now appears that Danaë’s golden sojourn at the Met was an extended presale exhibition. [...]

Veteran dealer Richard Feigen‘s family trust was outed yesterday by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Smith as the owner cryptically identified on the Met’s “Danaë” label as “private collection.” The trust stands to reap rich rewards from gilt-by-association: Sotheby’s has announced that “Danaë” will be the star lot of its evening sale on Jan. 28, bearing a presale estimate of $25-35 million. [...]

Does a dealer/collector have a right to show works in a nonprofit museum’s galleries before dispatching them to auction? Of course.

Should museums allow themselves to be commercially exploited in his manner? Of course not.

Loan agreements should contain a clause imposing a several-year moratorium on selling a work after its museum exhibition. Otherwise, museums may appear to be complicit in market maneuvers and curators may see their scholarly prose instantly recycled as sales pitches.

So, does museum exposure add value to an Old Master painting? In my opinion (as a valuer of and dealer in Old Masters), not really. What we're dealing with in this case is essentially a chicken and egg situation: does the Met's decision to hang a Gentileschi on its walls make it a great (and thus valuable) painting, or does the fact that Danaë is a great painting make the Met want to hang it on their walls?

It seems to me that the latter is the case here - and in fact it is almost all the time. In my experience curators like those at the Met and other leading institutions are no pushover, and are hardly likely to take up valuable hanging space at their museums by installing a second rate work just to do a favour to - gasp - a dealer, or even a private owner. Curators curate based on a painting's individual merits. Indeed, look at an auction catalogue and you'll often see pictures that have been recently on long-term loan to museums, even major ones, sell for not much money at all. After all, museums and curators are often interested in pictures for their academic and art historical value, and this is frequently different from their commercial value.

The situation I think is different when it comes to contemporary art, where, because we have generally lost our collective ability to objectively assess art made from old spoons (and the like) we look for institutional and curatorial approval as a means of telling us what is good or not. Hence all those contemporary art catalogue entries which list reams of exhibitions, even really minor ones, as a means of saying 'this work is Good', and thus valuable.

But in the Old Master market the dynamic is very different. Lee Rosenbaum may think that the sort of person to drop $25m on a Gentileschi is encouraged to do so because it was recently on display at the Met. But I'm not so sure. In my experience, Old Master buyers are perfectly capable of assessing a work of art objectively. The Danaë is without doubt a great painting - you can tell that just by looking at it, whether it's on the Met's walls or Sotheby's. And like most great paintings it has at some point in its life been exhibited at a museum. Big deal.

There are so many other factors to take account of in the Old Master market. Sometimes, an Old Master painting can generate the most excitement, and bids, if it is seen to be 'new' and previously unseen. Hence all those auction house press releases that say 'not seen for X years', or 'never before publicly exhibited'. The Old Masters that really get the market going are often those which have come out of an eminent collection, have not been seen widely before, are a bit dirty, and so on, or are important new discoveries. In those circumstances you are likely get both trade and private buyers bidding. But when a picture like the Danaë comes along, and everyone knows it well from being at the Met, and also that it belongs to a dealer, then arguably it's a harder proposition to sell because you're chasing just the handful of private buyers able to spend that kind of money. And they tend to buy what they like, not what a museum curator likes.

But let us for the sake of argument assume that a spell on loan does indeed add significant value to a painting. Should, then, museums be careful not to display such works? Should we take seriously Lee's suggestion of a 'several year' moratorium on selling works that have been on loan?

Well, why? I certainly agree that it is unseemly to swiftly sell something which has been on public display. But should we say to the public, you can't see this great painting, because it belongs to someone who might one day sell it, and make money because you liked it? I suspect most museum visitors wouldn't give two hoots. People want to see great art because it's great art, and would rather it was on public display not in a private house. Most of them know that such art is expensive, whether it's sold today, tomorrow or in seven years time. (And don't forget that once upon a time Gentileschi himself was likely paid a fair sum for his Danaë.)

I certainly agree with Lee that care must be taken when considering the relationship between private lending and institutional probity. But I also think we should be grateful to Richard Feigen for putting his pictures on display, and applaud those curators and institutions prepared to run the risk of criticism by accepting (with care) such loans.

Update - a dealer writes:

It is an interesting discussion wheather museums are providing a seal of approval to works of art that come to the market. As you know, a similar discussion takes place when a painting, sculpture or drawing is being published in a first rate journal or exhibition catalogue.

 At the request of the editor of The Burlington I have signed twice a statement that a work that was illustrated in one of my contributions was not due to appear on the market for at least five years. But when you think of it is a silly thing to do because, not being the owner it is not in ones hands wheather a work is going to be on offer for sale or not in the nearby future.

The Burlington is notorious for being windy about anything privately owned, or which might have anything to do with a dealer. Which is daft because a) dealers often make important discoveries, and The Burlington is merely recusing itself from the wider art historical debate and b) I fear, alas, that The Burlington is no longer important enough to really make a difference to the value of a painting.

Another reader writes:

And if having “displayed at the Met” does add value, the Met and the public have enjoyed the free display of a valuable work. The Met didn't rent the painting, as with some exhibitions, or have to invest in acquiring it so there was a quid pro quo if the display of the painting added any value.    Lending to an exhibition might add some value and curators still seek and occasionally pay for exhibitions loans of important works.

It is all right if a private party benefits from public display so long as the public gets an adequate benefit as well. Lending doesn't come with [tax] eductions that donations create.

Another reader adds:

Yes, to an established old master, I agree the pull-up is minimal, but public benefit museums should be just that - pro bono. Time on the Met's walls undoubtedly has a commercial value - and sticking pictures on their wall prior to an auction or indeed any commercial sale is not what they're supposed to be for. It just wouldn't wash in other commercial areas - it would be seen as a conflict of interests.

 And that grey area is being exploited - wthout anybdy questioning it - so supine is arts journalism. Dealers are using museums to lend credence and substance to private offerings in the most blatant way. The quid pro quo is obviously that the museum gets interesting exhibitions but the prime purpose of a museum should be objective presentation of material - not to tease the public into buying stuff.

The above reader then mentions a regional UK museum which recently staged two exhibitions on 20th Century artists which were sponsored by a commercial gallery. The commercial gallery, he says, had listed the works for sale on their website while the exhibition was on.

Help clean this Rubens?

September 29 2015

Image of Help clean this Rubens?

Picture: National Gallery

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

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

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

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

Update - a reader writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleeper Alert!

September 22 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: AHN Reader

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

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

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

Update - a reader writes:

Sleeper is definitely by Jan Lievens.

Update II - another reader writes:

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

Update III - another sleuthing bidder writes:

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

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

Ach! Better luck next time.

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

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

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

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

Update VI - a sleuthing friend writes:

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

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

Update VII - Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz seems pretty convinced.

A trip to Antwerp

June 26 2015

Image of A trip to Antwerp

Picture: BG

I was in Antwerp last week, and took the time to hunt out Van Dyck's birthplace, which is thought to be no. 4 on the Grotemarkt. In Van Dyck's day it was called 'Den Berendans', or 'the Bear Dance'. Today, the house is rather a sad sight - there's a rusting plaque declaring that Van Dyck was indeed born there, but the place itself is empty, having been a tea room by the look of it. Next door is the 'Pizzeria Antonio', which must be where the great man went for his Friday night takeaway.

In fact, no. 4 Grotemarkt is available to rent, if anyone fancies turning the place into a 'Van Dyck-huis', rather like the excellent Rubenshuis museum just down the road. If I was a billionaire, that's what I'd do.

Talking of the Rubenshuis, I went to have another look at the really excellent Rubens in Private exhibition. It closes on 28th June, so you have two days left to go and see it. I particularly enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of Van Dyck's portrait of Rubens' first wife, Isabella Brant, and Rubens' own portrait of her. In the below snap, you can see Van Dyck's portrait on the left, and just in the distance in the next room, Rubens' portrait.

For me, Van Dyck will always be the better portraitist, for when you encounter a Van Dyck portrait you get the sense of truly individual human character. He (usually) resists the temptation to stick to a formulaic way of constructing heads, as so many portraitists do - in England, the likes of Lely and Kneller are obvious examples of artists who, it can feel, barely bothered to look at the person they were tasked with painting. Sometimes, it must be said, one does sense this towards the end of Van Dyck's career in England, when he was beginning to churn portraits out with the help of assistants - but it's rare.

Rubens, who was not fond of painting portraits, doesn't fall into this trap either, but can sometimes seem to produce works that border on the caricature - are they real people, we wonder? But the flipside of Rubens' approach is that his portraits are often full of character, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of verisimilitude, an age old problem for the portraitist. And in Rubens' portrait of Isabella Brant (below)* we see an example of a great artist painting a portrait that conveys both character and likeness to an almost perfect degree. In Van Dyck's portrait we feel confident to say 'this is what Isabella Brant looked like'. But in Rubens' portrait we can just as confidently say, 'this is what Isabella Brant was like'.

*I'm not entirely sure that hand is by Rubens by the way, could be an addition.

Getty buys lost Bernini sculpture

June 22 2015

Image of Getty buys lost Bernini sculpture

Picture: NYT

The New York Times reports that the Getty has bought the above bust by Bernini of Pope Paul V. The 1621 bust was long thought lost. More here

New Samuel Pepys exhibition

June 15 2015

Image of New Samuel Pepys exhibition

Picture: NPG

I think Samuel Pepys' diary would be the one book I'd take to the desert island - perfect for dipping in and out of, and always amusing. So I'm glad to see there's a new Samuel Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, opening on 20th November 2015, until 28th March 2016. Here's the bumf:

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opening at the National Maritime Museum on 20 November 2015 will be the largest ever exhibition about the famous diarist with 200 objects from national and international museums, galleries and private collections.

Pepys, one of the most colourful and appealing characters of the 17th-century, witnessed many of the great events that shaped Stuart Britain, bringing them brilliantly to life in his famous and candid diary. He lived through a time of turmoil which saw kings fighting for their crowns, and medieval London transformed into a world city following the devastation of the plague and the destruction of the Great Fire. He was a naval mastermind, a gossip and socialite, a lover of music, theatre, fine living and women. He fought for survival on the operating table and in the cut-throat world of public life and politics, successfully navigating his way to wealth and status until his luck, intimately entwined with the King’s fortunes, finally ran out.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution places this fascinating and multifaceted figure within a broader historical context, beginning at the moment a schoolboy Pepys played truant to witness the execution of King Charles I in 1649.  It explores the turbulent times which followed, including the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 in a year of personal crisis for Pepys as he underwent a life-threatening operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a snooker ball without anaesthetic or antiseptic. He was fortunate to survive the ordeal; his recovery perhaps, in part, due to being the first on the operating table that day, reducing the risk of infection.  The grisly and extremely painful procedure is graphically brought to life by 17th-century medical instruments (Royal College of Physicians).

Pepys began his now-famous diary on 1 January 1660 and was on board the ship that carried Charles II out of exile at the restoration of the monarchy later that year.  He met and conversed with the King and his brother, James, Duke of York (later James II), who promised Pepys ‘his future favour’.  In the diary he records his disapproval of the debauchery at court during Charles II’s reign, including the King’s many mistresses. But Pepys himself was frequently unfaithful to his wife.  The exhibition will display the famous Portrait of Charles II in Coronation Robes (Royal Collection), as well as objects connected to his mistresses including one of his love letters to Louise de Kéroualle which uses her nickname ‘Fubbs’, meaning chubby (Goodwood Collection).

During his lifetime Pepys was best known for his important work in running the naval affairs of England, a career that propelled him towards wealth and power and the creation of a truly ‘professional’ navy. His work also took him to the English colony of Tangier, a place notorious for drunkenness and immorality, all of which he observed and noted in his writings.

The penultimate section of Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution looks at the dawn of the scientific revolution.  Pepys was president of the Royal Society when Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Royal Society) was published, placing him at the centre of scientific debate.  Publications like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (British Library), which Pepys thought ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’, made unseen worlds of lice and fleas visible.  While the matters discussed at the Society interested him, he confessed not always to understand what he heard.

The exhibition ends with extraordinary events of the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Pepys’s great patron, James II.  It shows how intimately Pepys’s own career was intertwined with larger national events outside his control.  With the accession of William and Mary in 1689, Pepys stepped down from office and began an active retirement, indulging his many passions.

Using the voice and personality of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution explores and interprets a remarkable time of great accomplishment, upheavals and excess.  It was a formative era in British history that saw the repositioning of the monarchy and the development of Britain’s place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage. 

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

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!

Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?

March 9 2015

Image of Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?

Picture: Berlin Gemäldegalerie

The Berliner Morgenpost reports that conservators at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie have found evidence - in X-rays - of substantial over-painting on Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders (above). The lead culprit is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned the work in the 18th Century. 

Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered

March 5 2015

Image of Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I've been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London. Martin Bailey writes:

A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting, which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February, having been lent by a US collector based on the West Coast.

An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that the attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown, the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé, a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis museum.

The work is particularly important because it is the self-portrait by which Van Dyck wanted to be remembered. The artist produced an etching of the image in 1630 for the frontispiece of his book Iconography.

The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as “possibly a very early copy”. He assumed that the original painting was missing.

When the self-portrait was put up for sale at Lempertz in Cologne on 12 May 2012, it was described as a “copy after Van Dyck”. The auction house estimated its value at €30,000 to €40,000. The painting fetched €512,000, showing that at least two bidders were reasonably confident that it was by Van Dyck.

For a Van Dyck anorak like me, finding this picture was as good as it gets. Working on it was like being in art historical heaven.

The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I'll share further details with you soon. There's a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points:

The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar 'dismissed the work' - but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continously published as 'a Van Dyck' right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted.

I'm not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 - when Van Dyck's technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte portrait to a a gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter. This was Van Dyck's first such official position, and in the picture he is proudly removing his cloak to show off the gold chain. Before the picture was cleaned, it was hard to discern the implicit downward movement in the hand and the drapery.

Other interesting things to note include a prominent pentiment around the hand, which showed that Van Dyck had originally gripped the cloak in a very different manner, and a distinctive application of two layers of ground for the head, which helps give the picture part of its force. It's an incredible portrait to look at in the flesh, and has great presence. What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it - sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year). 

In fact, although the NPG's picture has now become rather famous, it was this earlier self-portrait that was until relatively recently perhaps the defining image of Van Dyck. It was the portrait he chose to be printed for his series of engraved portraits, which he called the Iconografie. It is best known in the famous unfinished etching below. 

The painting was also engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens. You can see an image of that engraving here.

The photo below shows me with the painting and the Rev. Dr Susan Barnes, who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonneé in 2004. I went to show her the painting in New York a couple of years ago - for me, that was a very special moment.

Finally, the provenance is fascinating; I was able to establish that the picture was almost certainly in the collection of a prominent Flemish collector, Jan-Baptiste Anthoine (d.1691) - it is listed in his 1691 inventory; 'Een contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt' ['a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand']. We know Anthoine marked his pictures with a wax seal - and although the picture has long since been re-lined, we did find the remains of a red wax seal on the back of the original canvas. 

During the research into the provenance, I found that the above painting in the Royal Collection by Jacob Formentrou (fl.1640-59) called simply 'A Cabinet of Pictures', which was thought to be a random assortment of paintings, in fact shows a large number of works from Anthoine's collection. (All of this requires much more time to set out, so I'll have to revisit it for you. I'm afraid this is a rather rushed post.) And if you look closely at the little portrait under the Crucifixion by the doorway, you'll see the Van Dyck self-portrait. You can zoom into the painting on the Royal Collection website here. Anthoine was very interested in Van Dyck it seems, and owned a number of works by him. He also had his family portrait (below) painted by the 'little Van Dyck', Gonzales Coques, [which portrait is also in the Royal Collection] in which he and his family are seen recreating various Van Dyck-ian poses. 

The really odd thing is that the Formentrou cabinet painting hangs at Hampton Court Palace, where I used to live (well, I lived in the park at Hampton Court, not the palace itself). And whenever I went round Hampton Court, which was often, I would look at the tiny depiction of the 'missing' Van Dyck self-portrait, and say to myself, 'one day, I'd like to find that picture'. And then one day I saw it in an online auction catalogue, described as 'after Van Dyck'. The chase was afoot. The gods of art history move in mysterious ways...

Update - a reader alerts me to the blog of Darren R. Rousar, a sharp-eyed visitor to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who wrote about seeing the picture back on 10th February. He took some good-ish snaps of the painting if you want to see some details. I'm afraid I don't have a good photo that I can publish.

Update II - Iconografie, by the way, is the name of my new company. I'll tell you more about it soon.

Vermeer on loan to Minneapolis

January 16 2015

Image of Vermeer on loan to Minneapolis

Picture: Rijksmuseum

Here's a nice story - to celebrate their centennial, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is planning a series of high-profile loans, and the first is Vermeer's Woman Reading a Letter (on loan from the Rijksmuseum). But to liven things up, the MIA isn't making any early announcement of the loans, just on the morning that the pictures are hanging. I think I prefer things that way - museum PR campaigns can sometimes happen so far ahead of time, that you forget about the event or exhibition by the time it comes around. More here in The Art Newspaper

One of the MIA loans is a major discovery I was involved with last year. But I have to keep shtum till it's announced. 

Update - the Vermeer and the National Gallery's Raphael Madonna of the Pinks are also being lent to the Timken Museum in San Diego. The loans are quid pro quos for Rembrandt loans to the National Gallery's current Late Rembrandt.  

'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

December 16 2014

Image of 'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

Picture: Mauritshuis

A professor of Theoretical Astronomy, Vincent Icke, says the earring on Vermeer's famous subject is from Poundland, or whatever the 17th Century Dutch equivalent was. Guilderland I suppose. Says the Mauritshuis website:

In the December issue of popular science magazine New Scientist, Icke, a professor of Theoretical Astronomy at the University of Leiden, states that the pearl on the ear of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, could not have been a real pearl. The way in which a pearl would reflect the light does not match the reflection of the light in the painting, says Icke.

The article by Vincent Icke confirms what we at the Mauritshuis have been thinking and writing about Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring for some time now. In fact, it's one of the most fun facts about this painting. Just like the fact that it was purchased in 1881 by the previous owner at an auction for 2.30 guilders. At the museum, the caption for the painting also mentions the unrealistic size of the pearl. Vincent Icke reaches the same conclusion, but through a very different understanding and research. The Mauritshuis has taken note of his findings with great interest. This illustrates what makes seventeenth-century paintings so interesting to look at: nothing is what it seems.

The Mauritshuis has written previously about the jewel in the ear of Vermeer's girl, saying it was not a true pearl. Indeed, just like the turban, the "pearl" was no daily outfit for Dutch girls in the seventeenth century. Quentin Buvelot (Mauritshuis chief curator) described the painting together with fellow curator Ariane van Suchtelen in the catalogue for an exhibition on highlights of the Mauritshuis in Bologna earlier this year. They then wrote: "Some of the most salient features of Vermeer's painting include the girl's headpiece and the pearl in her ear. The headpiece consists of yellow fabric, with blue fabric on top of it, knotted around her forehead. The yellow-green jacket is painted in such a loose style that it isn't clear which material it's made from. It is probably wool fabric. This garment is often seen as part of the girl's exotic costume, but it is indeed a contemporary jacket. The low-set sleeve and small pleats are typical of the fashion in the 1660s, when this painting was made. The pearl on the girl's ear is remarkably large. Whereas most pearls nowadays come from farms, in the seventeenth century, they were natural ones. Pearls were formed in oyster-like sea mussels. Large pearls were rare and ended up in the hands of the richest people on the planet. In the seventeenth century, cheaper glass pearls, usually from Venice, were also quite common. They were made from glass, which was lacquered to give it a matt finish. Maybe the girl is wearing such a handcrafted 'pearl'."

I think we can generally assume that most of those whopping pearls we see in 17th Century portraits - at least the English ones with which I'm familiar - were 'fake' (sometimes made out of compressed fish scales), or indeed simply artistic creations.

Sleeper alert?

December 4 2014

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Sotheby's

This curious picture, of Icarus and Daedalus, made £332,500 at Sotheby's day sale, against an estimate of just £8,000-£12,000. Catalogued as '18th Century follower of Van Dyck' the picture was in fact a 17th Century work, and also the original of that composition, which is known in a number of copies. The subject was a very popular one in the 17th Century. The picture was engraved in the late 18th Century as by Van Dyck. The condition was disarmingly good, which may have led some to think it was a later copy. I had a good look at the picture on Monday. But I didn't bid on it. I'm not sure who it's by, but I don't think it's Van Dyck. It's someone good though, like a Willeboirts Bosschaert type figure, or one of the many talented figures just downstream of Van Dyck.

Van Dyck discovery at Christie's

November 12 2014

Image of Van Dyck discovery at Christie's

Picture: Christie's

Christie's have unearthed the above, previously unknown head study by Van Dyck, and will offer it for sale in December with an estimate of £200,000-£300,000. It relates to the series of head studies for Van Dyck's now lost portraits of the magistrates of Brussels, which were probably painted in the early 1630s. The study is similar in handling to the two studies in the Ashmolean (here and here), one in a private collection (and formerly with the London dealer Fergus Hall, who discovered it in New York), and the study found recently through the BBC television programme, the Antiques Roadshow, with which I was involved. This last study was offered at Christie's in the summer, but failed to sell with an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000.

Christie's sent me an image of the picture some time ago, and I had little hesitation in agreeing with the attribution. But like the four studies listed above, I suspect we can be fairly sure that the Christie's picture is somewhat unfinished, as there seems to be later overpaint in the drapery and background. The concept of the unfinished picture wasn't nearly as appealing in centuries gone by as it is today, and almost all Van Dyck's head studies (as with many other artists) were finished up by later artists to make them more saleable.

The Christie's catalogue speculates that the newly found study relates to Van Dyck's grisaille in the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (above), which is all that survives of the artist's commission to paint the Brussels magistracy. In the grisaille, 7 sitters are seen. But we are fast running out of candidates for the head studies to relate to, for the new Christie's study and the Ashmolean heads could be said to candidates for the figures with their heads turned to the right.

However, most people forget that there was another, far larger Brussels magistrates group portrait painted by Van Dyck, for which we have not even a grisaille or drawing to give us an idea what it looked like. Both the large magistrates group and the smaller group related to the grisaille were destroyed in 1695 when French forces bombarded Brussels. The larger portrait had about two dozen sitters. So in fact the surviving studies could relate to either picture.

I'm fairly sure we can add to the five studies above heads such as this example in the Royal Collection. A series of similarly composed heads were worked up into more finished pictures with the addition of painted ovals, probably some time after Van Dyck's death. Some of them feature known magistrates such as Antonio de Tassis, but the majority are of unknown sitters. 

Important Van Dyck in Christie's December Old Master sale

November 4 2014

Image of Important Van Dyck in Christie's December Old Master sale

Picture: Christie's

It's now getting to that time of year when people like me begin to obsessively check the websites of Christie's and Sotheby's, to see if their London Old Master sale catalogues are online. Refresh, refresh, refresh...

They're not yet online, but I can tell you that Christie's have secured the above impressive portrait by Van Dyck of the musician Hendrick Liberti, which will carry an estimate of £2.5m to £3.5m. Painted in Antwerp in about 1628, it used to form part of the collection of Charles I, where it was described as 'ye singing man', and hung in the Bear Gallery at Whitehall Palace alongside Van Dyck's similarly dated portrait of Nicholas Lanier, the musician and courtier. It was Lanier's portrait which, in its brilliance, helped make Charles I so determined to secure Van Dyck's services as court painter from 1632 onwards.

Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' - opening arguments

October 28 2014

Image of Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' - opening arguments

Picture: TAN

Today's Telegraph reports some of the opening arguments from the Caravaggio/Not Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' case I mentioned yesterday. It reveals two things: first that the vendor's case is that Sotheby's didn't do all the tests he says he asked them to; and secondly, that Sotheby's PR people have come up with the daftest line of defence.

First, here's the outline of the vendor's (Lancelot Thwaytes) case:

In documents now submitted to the High Court hearing, Mr Thwaytes' lawyers criticised the auction house for negligence and claimed they failed to carry out proper tests and consult experts. [...]

Henry Legge QC, representing Mr Thwaytes, told the court the case was a “very simple story”, alleging Sotheby’s did not do the tests the owner had requested.

"They came back to him and said they had done the X-rays on the painting and said it wasn't Caravaggio, but they didn't do infrared imaging,” he said.

"When it was sold the new owner had it cleaned and submitted it to the tests, including infrared and it was subsequently attributed to Caravaggio.

"At the core this is a negligence case, it is about Sotheby's actions and not attribution."

Mr Legge said: "Believing that the painting had been thoroughly and exhaustively researched and was definitely not by Caravaggio, Mr Thwaytes decided to sell it through Sotheby's." [...]

In the written argument Mr Thwaytes' lawyers said: "Mr Thwaytes maintains that Sotheby's failed in its duty to research and advise upon the painting.

"Proper research would have resulted in Sotheby's consulting with experienced conservators and soliciting the opinions of Caravaggio scholars... which would thereby have established... the painting as being by the hand of Caravaggio."

Here we see one of the main weaknesses in Mr. Thwaytes' case. It is not enough for him to prove that Sotheby's were wrong on the attribution, and that the picture is indeed by Caravaggio. The standard auctioneer's terms and conditions agreed to by Mr Thwaytes when he consigned the picture for sale gives Sotheby's considerable scope to get things like attribution wrong, and not be liable for any damages. Instead, he has to show that Sotheby's were negligent - that they screwed up in a spectacular way by not doing even the basics properly. This negligence test has been well established through previous case law, and the bar is quite high.

I have to say it seems to me, at this stage, that Sotheby's were not negligent, especially if they did an X-ray, which is not at all standard procedure when cataloguing Old Master paintings for auction. An x-ray suggests to me that they in fact took the picture more seriously than other comparable cases. Frankly, it's pretty irrelevant whether an infra-red was done too. For many people outside the art world, things like 'Infra-Red' seem far more important and useful than they really are. But it very often doesn't tell you much at all, and I strongly doubt (though we'll have to see) that in this case IR alone proves that the picture is by Caravaggio. I think it almost certain that Sir Denis Mahon made his attribution on the basis of his connoisseurial view; after all, he didn't do IR before the sale.

We also see mention of Sir Denis having the picture cleaned. Well, most people will know that cleaning a picture can reveal a great deal about a work. But it is far from standard practice that a picture is cleaned before being put into a sale. It's a task that can cost many thousands of pounds, and costs pretty much the same whether the picture is a masterpiece or a dud. So it's often a waste of money. One might ask why Mr Thwaytes, if he was so keen to find out whether the picture was by Caravaggio or not, didn't get the picture cleaned himself. Or perhaps at least conduct some cleaning tests.

All this would be much more straightforward if we could be certain that the picture was by Caravaggio. But that is far from the case, given the experts Sotheby's can produce to say it is not by him. I can't see, at this stage, how Sotheby's can reasonably lose the case. 

And now for Sotheby's daft defence. From The Telegraph again:

Sotheby’s denies any accusation of “negligence, causation and loss”, insisting its experts assessed the painting correctly and that “all due skill and diligence” had been applied.

It will argue the painting is “clearly” a replica, citing a range of Caravaggio scholars who support its view.

A spokesman for Sotheby's said: “The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers – had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”

Phooey. There's a number of points to make here. The picture was in a minor, Sotheby's 'Olympia' sale. These were mid-season sales, so not held during the main Old Master sales in July and December, when many people in the trade and museum world come to London to see what's being sold. The Olympia catalogues were also cursory affairs, with sometimes thumbnail sized images, and hardly any explanatory text. Also, in those days, the online images weren't always that good. Sotheby's don't have their Olympia saleroom any more, mainly because it was a pain in the arse to get to, and few bothered to make the trek out to Hammersmith. In other words, while it's possible that some of the world's 'leading dealers' may have gone there to sniff out a bargain, it's not true to say that 'the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' were all poised to spot the mis-attribution in the catalogue. 

And in any case, what sort of a defence is that? Are Sotheby's really saying, well, it's all right if we mess up; your picture will always fetch its true value, because 'the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' all pore over every painting they sell? Clearly not. And regular readers will know that sometimes even the most spectacular discoveries can be found hiding in plain sight, and bought for comparatively little. Even at Sotheby's.

Update - a reader rightly notes:

One would think that Sotheby's defense would include the fact that they didn't benefit from the attribution as a copy, and would have benefited from an attribution as an original, but that they have a greater duty to avoid false positives which would mislead a potential buyer than a false negative. Their investment in the painting shouldn't exceed their anticipated revenue from its sale. 

If they catalogued the painting as a Caravaggio they are certifying it to some extent which even the current attribution debate won't support according to the news reports.

Update II - another reader writes:

I fail to see the logic of the plaintiff's argument that the case is not about attribution. The plaintiff can only succeed in a negligence action if he proves he has suffered loss. Mere negligence without loss would not give rise to damages. The loss in this case would presumably be the difference in price between the actual sale price and the price if it were a genuine Caravaggio. Proof that the painting is on a balance of probabilities by Caravaggio would therefore be essential.

New Spanish Old Master gallery in County Durham

October 27 2014

Image of New Spanish Old Master gallery in County Durham

Picture: BBC

That's a headline you might not expect to see in these days of cut backs and austerity... 

The financier and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who recently acquired the set of Zurbaran's Apostle paintings in Auckland Castle in County Durham (and Auckland Castle too), is to partly fund the creation of a new gallery in Bishop Auckland specialising in 17th Century Spanish art. The gallery will open in an old Barclay's Bank, above.

The idea is to build on the happy accident that County Durham has a wealth of Spanish 17th Century art, with institutions such as the Bowes Museum, Rokeby Hall, and Raby Castle all having strong collections from that period. Ruffer also wants overseas institutions like the Prado to lend works from their reserve collections too. It seems, wonderfully, that the Prado is keen to do so. So well done Mr Ruffer (and somebody give that man a knighthood). More details here

A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery

October 23 2014

Image of A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery

Picture: Scottish National Gallery

I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the above picture has recently gone on display at the Scottish National Gallery here in Edinburgh as a work by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. It had previously been regarded as a studio work. The portrait shows Ambrogio Spinola (1569-1630), the great Italian-born general who commanded the Spanish Habsburg armies in the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt.

There has long been a ‘Spinola’ gap in Van Dyck’s iconography. We know from an engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (above, example from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) that Van Dyck did once paint Spinola at some point, and there is also a quick drawing by Van Dyck (below, Musée Atger, Montpellier). However, the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's works only lists portraits of Spinola in the 'A' section of catalogue, denoting that the original picture was presumed lost. 

The 2004 catalogue mentions many Van Dyck-like portraits of Spinola (as we might expect for such a famous sitter, Van Dyck’s original portrait was much copied). The most important of these include; a full-length studio variant in the Hebsacker Collection in Germany (above, apologies for the image quality) and a three-quarter length version formerly at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire (below). The latter was sold at Christie’s in 2001 as 'Van Dyck and Studio’. But personally, I suspect it is more ‘studio' than ‘Van Dyck' - it looks a little hard in the handling.*

I would also place in the same 'studio' category another full-length variant in a private collection in Madrid (below, and discussed here by Matias Diaz Padron of the Prado in 2008, who labels it ‘Van Dyck’ in full.) 

But I think we can be sure that the Edinburgh picture is in fact the missing original by Van Dyck. In the 2004 catalogue raisonné (see entry no.III.A.25), the picture was described as what 'would seem to be a studio variant' of the full-length in the Hebsacker Collection. The wording might suggest that the author of that section of the catalogue, Horst Vey, didn't actually see the Edinburgh painting in the flesh. But crucially, as Vey notes, the Edinburgh picture is the only version which accords with the drawing by Van Dyck; the sitter's left hand rests on a helmet placed on a table beside him. In the Hebsacker picture, the ex-Cornbury picture and the Madrid picture, Spinola rests his arm on his sword (and, one might say, a little awkwardly too).  

I went to see the picture in the Scottish National Gallery stores earlier this year, after I was kindly invited to do so by Dr Tico Seifert, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Northern European Art. We’d been discussing the picture after I saw an image of it on the ever-valuable Your Paintings website (the picture is not listed on the Scottish National Gallery's own site), and wondered if this was a picture that had been unjustly downgraded at some point. A number of areas in the picture struck me as having great quality, in particular the head, the sitter’s left hand, and much of the armour. The head conveys all the human authority one would expect from a great portraitist - perhaps you can see from the images here how much more impressive the head is than the apparently studio versions. The armour is painted with great dextrousness, conveying an impression of finely wrought, hand-beaten metal. The hand is finely weighted, and painted with assured, wet-in-wet strokes. The technique is free and spirited, betraying all the confidence of an artist painting something for the first time, rather than a studio assistant making a copy or a variant. Under bright lights, we noticed a number of small changes, or pentimenti, which also argued for the picture being the first of its type (though these are not in themselves always evidence of autograph status – sometimes it’s just copyists making a bish). After further analysis, Dr Seifert (who has a track record of making discoveries in the Scottish National Gallery, see here) and the Scottish National Gallery became more and more confident that the picture is indeed by Van Dyck.

I suspect the reason the picture became doubted is because of its condition. It is a little abraded in places, especially the main body of the armour (which would have been painted with darker, softer pigments more vulnerable to ‘cleaning’). And the picture is also rendered slightly unreadable by a rather opaque old varnish. I can’t be sure at this stage, but it seems to me, even viewing the picture inside its frame, that it might well have been cut down from a full-length. Three things make me think this; the first is the abrupt ending of the sitter’s right hand; the second is evidence of significant disruption to the canvas along the bottom edge, as if that area was once either damaged and repaired, or resting on the cross-beam of an old, larger stretcher; the third reason is what appears at first to be the awkward rendering of the sitter’s armour at the bottom of the picture, over his thighs – the gap in the armour between the legs is facing too far around towards the left-hand side of the picture to properly match up with the torso. But this mis-alignment (which we wouldn’t expect to see in portrait Van Dyck began as a half-length) is understandable if we know that the picture would have originally been a full-length, according to the drawing, in which the sitter’s legs and feet are pointing more towards the viewer, while his body, head and arm are turned more towards the table. Any future conservation work carried out by the SNG would help determine this further.  

The picture must have been executed very soon after Van Dyck returned to the Netherlands from Italy, in late 1627, for on 3rd January 1628 Spinola left the Netherlands. As we might expect, the picture betrays elements of Van Dyck’s Italian-period style (with quite high-pitch, almost pastel-like colouring in the face) with the slightly glazier aspect of what we call his ‘second Antwerp’ period (the years 1627-1632, or thereabouts, being his second professional period in Antwerp before he left for London). The picture’s provenance is from the Palazzo Gentile in Genoa (which I think has Spinola connections), where Spinola headed to when he left the Netherlands. Previously, Van Dyck had painted both his son and daughter in Genoa.

* Probably Christie's were influenced by the then most recent catalogue raisonneé of Van Dyck's works, by Erik Larsen (pub.1988), but which was, er, somewhat inaccurate. 

Rembrandt: 3 re-attributions in Berlin

October 16 2014

Image of Rembrandt: 3 re-attributions in Berlin

Pictures: Berlin Gemaldegalerie

I'm not finding it easy to track down a comprehensive list of the 70 pictures that Dr Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project has re-attributed to Rembrandt - but here's an article in the Berliner Zeitung about three pictures Ernst has endorsed in the Gemaldegalerie.

First, and most excitingly, the 'Man with a Red Hat', above, is now back in the oeuvre. I'm surprised it was ever out. What a picture.

Secondly, a Self-portrait (above, no details available on the Gemaldegalerie website), previously thought to perhaps be by Govaert Flinck, is also now recognised as being by Rembrandt. 

Thirdly, we have the above Portrait of a Woman, Probably Saskia van Ullenburg, back in the fold. 

However, it seems that 'Man with a Golden Helmet' (above, again, not on the Gemaldegalerie website), which was once thought to be one of Rembrandt's finest works, is still not seen as a work by him. Personally, I like it. I prefer it to the Self-portrait and Portrait of a Woman here.

More Rembrandt re-attributions as I get them.

Update - the more I think about this, the more curious I think it is that the National Gallery, for their new exhibition, didn't choose to work more closely with Ernst van de Wetering. What an opportunity it was to really shake up what we know about Rembrandt's later works, and to look afresh at some of his unjustly ignored pictures. I can't help thinking (but I may be totally wrong) that this is why the great Ernst has chosen this moment to unveil his own work on Rembrandt's later career; to remind us of his own dedication to Rembrandt. 

I thought (but again may be totally wrong) that it was similarly curious that the National Gallery, when it had its Leonardo show in 2012, didn't make more use of the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp. Are such cases evidence of the sometimes strained relationship between those working within museums, and the wider academic community? And is this because it tends to be the latter, the dedicated specialists, who more frequently put their heads above the parapet when it comes to making attributions?

Update II - Walter Straten writes from Berlin to correct my reading of the Zeitung's article (my German's a bit flimsy these days); the Portrait of a Woman was apparently flagged as a likely Rembrandt some years ago, and the news from Berlin is that the Gemaldegalerie's Portrait of an Old Man (also not on the museum's website) is now attributed to Rembrandt by Ernst van de Wetering. Walter kindly sends the below photo. Walter is, incidentally, the sports editor of Bild, and also has a keen interest in the Old Masters. So he writes on both sport and art history for Bild. Are there many better jobs in journalism?

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