Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)
August 9 2013
More details of the Kunsthal theft case have emerged. Yesterday, experts from Romania's National History Museum (above) gave a presentation on the old nails, pigments and other details found in the ashes of Olga Dogaru's stove. Olga is the mother of one of the accused thieves, who admitted to police that she burnt at least two of the works, though she has since changed her story, and we don't know which ones were really destroyed.
There were also further details of the theft in Rotterdam, where it seems the security response to the alarm going off was pretty woeful (according to Dutch News:
Police [...] alerted by the alarm, carried out an inspection but failed to realise the museum had actually been broken into because the thieves had closed the door behind them.
In addition, security staff wondered if the gaps on the walls of the exhibition were due to paintings being moved. It was only 75 minutes after the alarm went off that officials realised paintings had been stolen, the AD said.
Lawyer Maria Vasii even claims police saw the suspects shortly after the robbery. ‘One officer waved, as if to say "all’s fine boys",’ the lawyer is quoted as saying.
The paper says the thieves were so shocked by their narrow escape they left the paintings in their getaway car on the nearby Coolsingel canal and did not pick them up until the next morning.
The works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse with a value of some €17m, were not smuggled out of the country for several days.
She did burn them
July 23 2013
Or at least, three of them. Yesterday, the mother of one of the thiefs accused of stealing seven works of art from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, who had told police she burned the paintings, retracted her claim. This may, as the New York Times reports, have something to do with the fact that:
Under Romanian law, the crime of “destruction with very serious consequences,” one of three charges against Mrs. Dogaru, carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years — far longer than the punishment for her two other alleged crimes, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”
Oops. Undermining her new found innocence, however, is a report from Reuters that the charred remains of three paintings have been found in her stove:
"We gathered overwhelming evidence that three paintings were destroyed by fire," said Gheorghe Niculescu, head of the team examining ashes that police found in a stove at her house in Carcaliu, a village in southeastern Romania.
Crucial pieces of evidence examined with high-tech equipment were the nails used to fasten the canvases to their wooden frames, and a particular blue paint, Niculescu, of the National Research Investigation Center in Physics and Chemistry, told Reuters.
But he could not say which paintings were destroyed, nor say whether the burned remains could have come from other paintings.
Really keen AHNers can hear me discuss the theft on the BBC World Service, here at 48:20 in.
City in debt? Flog the museum! (ctd.)
July 19 2013
In May, I reported on the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Art's collection could be sold off to pay the city's debts. News today that the city has now filed for bankruptcy has raised the threat, although the state of Michigan has been taking steps to prevent such a calamity, as the Washington Post outlines:
In May, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, requested an inventory of the DIA’s collection, causing concern among arts leaders that the works could be sold if the city filed for bankruptcy. In June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the city’s art could not be sold to pay off its estimated $19 billion in debt, citing the state’s charitable trust law.
The state Senate recently passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of the city’s art unless sold to a comparable institution to further the museum’s core mission. But the bill has yet to become law, and the museum has hired attorneys to advise it on protecting the art.
“I’m obviously concerned,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “We thought that this was behind us in terms of the collection at the DIA, but I’m not an attorney so I don’t know what could happen. This has never happened before.”
The collection is undoubtedly valuable. Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, has called it one of the most valuable in the Western Hemisphere. An independent assessment by the Detroit Free Press estimated that the bulk of the collection could be worth $2.5 billion, although the exact value is impossible to determine because it is rare for so many valuable works to hit the auction block. The DIA has more than 60,000 works spanning centuries, with nearly 90 percent of the pieces in storage.
I bet someone involved in the city's administration will wonder if the 90% in storage can be sold...
Update: Wowee - fast work; The New York Times reports that Christie's is already in on the action:
About a month ago, the institute’s officials were contacted by Christie’s auction house, which asked for an inventory of works and asked if appraisers could visit to assess the collection. It is unclear whether such a visit took place and whether it was creditors or someone else who enlisted Christie’s to begin an appraisal. (Mr. Nowling said that the emergency manager’s office did not do so, and Christie’s declined to comment.)
Update II - Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, says (in Forbes), sell the lot, and quickly!
Leave aside the precise legalities of this for a moment. The City’s in the hole for something like $10 billion and one quarter of that amount could be raised by moving around some paint daubed pieces of canvas. That looks pretty much like a no brainer to me as a start. What is it that we’re supposed to care about? A few pieces of canvas or real lives as they are actually lived? Pensioners moving down from known meat from an animal whose species can be assured to the cat food aisle? Retired city workers getting the medical treatment they were promised for 40 years or keep a few paintings that the well to do like to oooh and aaah at? Get the ambulances back on the road, get cop cars to a 911 in under and hour or please the arts establishment?
It’s a toughie really, isn’t it?
Imagine that the paintings are sold: we’re moving two sets of assets from where they have a lower value to a higher. Firstly, we’re moving money into Detroit. Given that whoever buys the paintings will clearly, by the purchase itself, value the painting more than the money being paid for it we therefore know that the money is worth more in Detroit. Similarly, that the painting is leaving the city means that we also know that the money is worth more to Detroit than the painting. So we have moved two assets from places where they are lowly valued to places where they are more highly valued. The money’s worth more in Detroit and the paintings worth more out of it.
And this is the thing: moving an asset from one use to one where that asset is more highly valued is the very definition of wealth creation. So, selling the paintings would indeed be wealth creation.
Kunsthal theft trial
July 16 2013
Picture: AFP via Art Daily
Last year in Rotterdam thieves stole seven important pictures by the likes of Picasso and Monet from the Kunsthal. Now, even though no pictures have been recovered, six Romanians are to stand trial for the theft in Bucharest. More on Art Daily here.
Update - the mother of one of the alleged thieves claims she burnt the paintings. From AP:
A Romanian museum is analyzing ashes found in a stove to see if they are the remains of seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and others that were stolen last year from the Netherlands, an official said Tuesday.
Prosecutor spokeswoman Gabriela Chiru told The Associated Press that Romania's National History Museum is examining the ashes found in the stove of Olga Dogaru. She is the mother of Radu Dogaru, one of three Romanian suspects charged with stealing the paintings from Rotterdam's Kunsthal gallery in a brazen daytime heist.
It was the biggest art theft in more than a decade in the Netherlands. The stolen works have an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars if they were sold at auction.
Dogaru told investigators she was scared for her son after he was arrested in January and buried the art in an abandoned house and then in a cemetery in the village of Caracliu. She said she later dug them up and burned them in February after police began searching the village for the stolen works.
Update - Mrs Dogaru is not the first art thief mum to do this. In 2002 a German woman chopped up her son's stolen art, and dumped it into the Rhine.
More cuts at English Heritage (ctd.)
July 16 2013
I recently mentioned the latest round of cuts to English Heritage's budget, which has taken repeated hits now for almost a decade. A reader has kindly had a go at doing the maths on what those cuts amount to over time, and it's not good:
Based on Bank of England CPI data, the English Heritage budget of £127,901,000 in 2004 is equivalent to £160,556,000 in 2013 British pounds. That means the English Heritage budget of £83,056,000 in 2013 represents a 52 percent decline in real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation) from its level in 2004.
Update - a reader writes:
Concerning those English Heritage budget cuts, I cannot help thinking what a terrible reflection this is on the effectiveness of that organisation's leadership. As EH itself stated in evidence to Parliament in September 2010, although EH's budget had been falling since 1997, DCMS's as a whole had risen, as had many other arms-length organistions funded by DCMS. What does that say about EH's ability to get its point across to government?
Grim news from Paris
July 10 2013
Picture: Bridgeman Art Library
Paris' famous Hotel Lambert, home to art treasures such as Charles Le Brun's Hercules frescos, above, has been badly damaged by fire. As is so often the case, the building was being renovated at the time.
Update - the latest here in The Art Newspaper.
Prado goes LED, and unveils a new Ribera
July 9 2013
Picture: Museo Prado
The Prado Museum has announced that it is to convert its galleries to LED lighting. These give a much more natural sense of light, and as I've noted here before, it's probably as close to daylight as you can get. Mind you, there was that slightly alarming study into how LED lights cause some yellow pigments to go brown...
Still, basking happily for now in the Prado's new LEDs is a recently cleaned and newly attributed work by Jose de Ribera, Saint Jerome Writing. The picture was long thought to be by Esteban March, but recent restoration by the Prado has prompted a rethink. From the Prado's press release:
Formerly in the collection of Isabella Farnese, this work has been on deposit since 1940 at the Casa-Museo Colón in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. That loan agreement was cancelled last year in order for the work to be studied and restored.
Saint Jerome writing was in the Casa-Museo Colón in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with an attribution to the Valencian painter Esteban March. The expert on Caravaggism, Gianni Papi, has, however, recently identified and published it as an early work by José de Ribera, basing his attribution on the work’s close stylistic and compositional similarities with various works painted by Ribera around 1615, including some of the paintings in his series on “The Senses”. The present painting shares their descriptive preciseness and markedly tenebrist use of light, the origins of which lie in Ribera’s highly personal interpretation of Caravaggio’s models. In the light of the painting’s importance, it has been brought to the Prado for restoration and display in the galleries devoted to naturalism and Ribera. To replace the painting, the Casa-Museo Colón has received the long-term deposit of Saint Andrew, also by Ribera. From the viewpoint of the Prado’s collections, this is an important addition, given that together with his painting of The Raising of Lazarus, it will allow the public to gain an idea of the originality and high quality of Ribera’s work during his early years, which is a unique period in his career and one not represented in the Prado’s collection until around twelve years ago.
The painting arrived at the Museum with problems around its edges due to damp and an old attack of woodworm. The pictorial surface was generally well preserved but had an abnormal appearance due to the oxidization of the varnishes, surface irregularities caused by an old lining and an earlier selective cleaning that had concentrated on some zones to the detriment of others. During the restoration process the edges have been consolidated and straightened, dirt and oxidized varnishes have been removed, some small losses have been replaced and the painting has been cleaned. The result is the recovery of numerous spatial planes and as a consequence, a sense of volume in the saint’s figure.
More pictures under attack?
July 1 2013
It seems that Fathers4Justice protesters are now deliberately targeting works of art. Last week we had an attack on Constable's Haywain, and before that a portrait of the Queen was spray painted in Westminster Abbey. Now, the Abbey has been targeted again, this time with a statue being defaced. And worryingly, The Guardian reports a F4J source as saying that similar protests are on the way:
Obviously that is the way we are heading at the moment after the two protests on paintings.
What to do? Glaze everything? At the moment, people who damage works of art in this way can only be charged with causing criminal damage. Do we need a new offence that makes the targeting of heritage assets a more serious offence?
Update - a reader writes, correcting me:
It is possible to prosecute someone for a ‘heritage crime’, which can be interpreted as any offence which harms the value of heritage assets and their settings.
The idea was pioneered by English Heritage who set up “The Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage” (ARCH) in response to the metal theft crisis.
Essentially it allows the crime to be properly recorded, and for sentencing to be more severe. More info here.
Another reader writes:
I think you must recognise a great difference between suffragettes slashing the Rokeby Venus [Fathers4Justice claim, strangely, that their protests are akin to the suffragettes attacks on art in the early 20thC], and a disposessed father sticking a photograph to a Constable, an act which apparently resulted in no lasting damage, criminal or otherwise. The great worry is that the warders at the National Gallery are not sufficiently numerous or alert to prevent an attack on a painting in their care. If they were, it would be impossible to touch the pictures, even to write in the dust.
Constable's 'Haywain' removed from view
June 28 2013
Picture: National Gallery
A reader alerts me to the removal of Constable's Haywain from public display, this lunchtime, at the National Gallery. It appears there was an incident involving a sticker of some kind. Let's hope it's nothing too serious. More as I get it.
Update - our witness tells us:
Was looking at the National's newly purchased Maulbertsch (not great) at around 1.00 when the (rarely seen) art handling team rushed passed with an empty trolley heading for the blocked off English room. Minutes later they returned by the same route with The Haywain loaded up - I couldn't see clearly but there appeared to be a sticker showing the head of a child roughly where a load on the fording cart in the foreground would be.
Update II - the damage isn't serious. A photo was stuck to the picture by a Fathers for Justice protester. This is the second FforJ protest recently that has involved defacing paintings. Protesting dads everywhere, stop being so bloody daft.
June 23 2013
Video: Monuments Men Foundation
Robert Edsel, the author of Monuments Men (now being made into a film by George Clooney), has a new book out, Saving Italy. Looks like fun, and another useful reminder of just how close we came to losing vast chunks of western art history during the war.
Why are so many paintings being attacked...?
June 19 2013
...asks Jonathan Jones, following the spray painting of a portrait of the Queen (above) here in London:
This is an age of protest. If you have a cause you can share with lots of other people, you take to the streets. But what if your cause is too strange or overlooked for mass protest? Attacking an authority figure is one way to get it in the headlines, and as authority figures go, paintings are vulnerable. A portrait of the Queen has a lot less security around it than the woman herself. A museum is a tranquil place where a moment of destruction can catch guards unaware. The results can be gratifying, if you are desperate to get your voice heard.
Sad but true.
Conservation conference, 12th July, London
June 17 2013
This looks like fun, a one day conference in London on '50 years of painting conservation':
The Picture So Far...50 Years in Painting Conservation is a landmark retrospective of the painting conservation profession and practice. Such a comprehensive review has not been presented in this country before and the event has broad appeal, not only to conservators but to curators, art historians, dealers, and collectors. The conference will also address the present challenges facing painting conservation and will conclude with a chaired panel discussion on our future directions. We are very pleased to have attracted pre-eminent international speakers (Nicholas Penny, David Bomford, Richard Wolbers, Joyce Hill Stoner among others) who will offer an extremely valuable insight into this, one of the key professions within the ’fine art family’.
More details here. You'll need £120 to attend though...
2 years for Picasso vandal
May 29 2013
The plonker who did this has been jailed for two years. More here in The Art Newspaper.
How not to hang a painting
May 29 2013
Picture: NY Times
Reader Adam Busiakiewicz from Warwick Castle sends this clipping from The New York Times in 1890. Happily, the picture, which is a studio piece, is now hung much more securely, and in a frame.
Cleaning Sir Joshua
May 21 2013
Picture: Kathleen Soriano
Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, has tweeted this picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds' statue getting a spring clean.
Update: Dr Ben Thomas alerts me to his excellent blog entry on the statue, which is by Alfred Drury.
Thornhill's Greenwich painted hall restored
May 2 2013
Picture: Country Life
Read all about it here.
The Raising of the Van Dyck?
April 25 2013
Video: De Standaard
The above video is in Dutch, but the jist of it is that a recently restored Raising of the Cross (in a church in Tienen, Belgium), has been suggested to be a work from the studio of Van Dyck. It was previously thought to be a later copy. It's impossible to say much from the video, but it does look like it has a chance of being a studio replica of the undoubted original in the Church of our Lady, Kortrijk. The original is exceptionally well documeted. The Canon who commissioned the Kortrijk picture was so pleased with it that he sent Van Dyck 12 waffles in gratitude. Yum.
Cleaning test fun (ctd.)
April 16 2013
Picture: Philip Mould & Co.
Here's the cleaned early Lely portrait I showed you a cleaning test of recently. I've never handled a Lely portrait in such good condition. The sitter's identity eludes us for now, but at least not the attribution - Erik 'Larceny' Larsen once included it in his deeply flawed catalogue raisonne on Van Dyck!
Lend, lend, lend!
April 11 2013
Are oil paintings put at unnecessary risk by lending to exhibitions, and moving them about it? Short answer, no. But lots of people think they are. So I was surprised to read, following my rather unkind appraisal of the Museums Association 'vision' document, Museums 2020, that the MA agrees with me. Page 19 of Museums 2020 says:
Museums can take greater risks in the way they use and share collections. Handling and lending rarely cause significant harm.
This is true, and worth emphasising in light of a recent article in The Art Newspaper suggesting that, because of the risk of damage, museums should lend less often. Blake Gopnik says we need far fewer exhibitions, and cites:
[...] the physical risks run by works of art every time they are moved; as recently as 2008, at the National Gallery in London, a panel painting was dropped and broken as workers took down the great “Renaissance Siena” show. We also have to worry about the wear and tear that will diminish every well-travelled picture or sculpture. (Conservators wouldn’t fill in condition reports on every loan if there had never been a thing to note on their forms.)
Well, it's now 2013, so the National Gallery's dropped picture debacle was five years ago. Of all the major exhibitions in the world, one damage every five years is, I would say, not enough to argue for fewer exhibitions, the activity around which is the life-blood of any museum. In my experience of moving (lots and lots of) pictures, there is very little risk of damage or ‘wear and tear’, because - and here's the great secret everyone - these things are pretty damn tough. Much tougher than us, in fact.
The fuss made over loans and handling by conservators has reached levels of new silliness. Did you know, for example, that curators at one of London's major museums aren't actually allowed to pick up and move paintings? To move a picture, a curator has to book a team of art handlers. I once watched another London museum use 12 people to hang a single painting. All this costs money, of course, and leads to unnecessary strictures on the handling and lending of objects.
What is especially curious about the increasing nervousness over art handling is the varying approach taken by museums. Some museums are still happy with a relaxed and common sense approach to loans. For a recent loan exhibition here at Philip Mould & Company the most valuable item arrived, via the Underground, in a curator's handbag. In the same exhibition, however, another object cost more to transport than every other exhibit combined. It had to be flown first class, in a large crate, and accompanied by a specialist courier who was put up in an expensive hotel for three days each side of the journey. It was a miniature. And then there's the inconsistency of museums keeping objects in a cold basement, but demanding that they be housed in a permanently stable environment with the temperature at 21 degrees and the humidity at 50%, were it ever to be put on public display.
Now it is hard to disagree with the idea that we must be as cautious as possible with the handling of museum objects. And yet if preservation was our sole aim, we would never display anything. Some museum conservators would undoubtedly prefer it this way. But we must strike a balance between care and display, and I would argue that we have lately gone too far in the wrong direction. The result is that exhibitions have become harder, and more expensive, to mount. At some institutions there is now almost a presumption not to lend objects. The procedures to approve a loan are so tedious and time consuming that for many curators it's not worth the effort. The captive grip of the museum basement is getting stronger and stronger.
Update - Michael Savage, aka The Grumpy Art Historian, disagrees, and wonders why we need exhibitions at all.
This Easter, I am wearing...
March 30 2013
Happy Easter everyone!
Update - a reader writes:
hahahahah omg that shirt is great!!