Category: Discoveries

'A really crass, inept painting'

March 9 2015

Image of 'A really crass, inept painting'

Picture: Sotheby's

Remember the case of the newly discovered Constable sketch (above), which made $5m at Sotheby's New York after being sold as a copy by Christie's in London for £3,500?

Well the Christie's fightback has begun. At the time of the Sotheby's sale, Christie's put out a statement casting doubt on the attribution, saying:

 “We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”

And now they have provided, to the New York Times, the name of a Constable scholar who doubts the attribution. And he doesn't just doubt it, he says the picture is not even close. 

The scholar is called Conal Shields, and his Constable resumé is impressive enough - in a letter published online (in relation to another matter) he says:

I was formerly Head of Art History and Conservation at the London Institute and am now co-curator of the Thomson Collection and the Thomson Archive of Art, and fine art advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet, whose collection of paintings, drawings and prints by John Constable is the largest in private hands.

I have been co-organiser of two Tate Britain exhibitions devoted to John Constable, one of these the official bicentennial celebration, and am presently preparing a Constable exhibition for the Royal Academy, London, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Clark Institute in the U.S.A. I am co-editor of the final volume in the Suffolk Record Society's series of Constable documents and was keynote speaker at the National Gallery of Australia's Constable Symposium. I act as a consultant to both Christies and Sothebys.

But does he have a good Constable 'eye'? I don't know, as I've never met him, and have no means to immediately judge his track record. What is curious, though, is that his reaction to the picture is so viscerally different to that of say, Anne Lyles, the former Tate curator who is recognised as the current pre-eminent Constable scholar. Where Lyles saw a fine sketch by Constable, Shields:

“could see no sign of Constable’s hand in the work [...] It’s a really crass, inept painting.”

So this is not a case of Shields saying 'I'm not sure'. He's saying that Lyles, Sotheby's, and the market in general (I heard of not a single dissenting voice when the picture came up for sale as 'Constable' at Sotheby's) is wrong, massively wrong. For what it's worth (though I claim no Constable expertise at all) I saw the picture twice before it was sold in New York, and I had no doubt it was indeed by Constable. 

All this, it would seem, comes in the context of whether Christie's are in danger of being sued by the consignors of the picture when it was sold for £3,500 in London. In the New York Times piece, Lady Hambleden, the named vendor in the Christie's catalogue, says that:

[...] when she first learned the painting was by Constable, “I felt like a fool! I know it’s not my fault, but that was my first feeling.”

But she said she has no intention of suing over a work for which she had little affection and that her mother-in-law had stuffed in a cupboard for 60 years.

“It was sold under my name,” she said, “but on behalf of my children. So it would be their decision whether or not to bring legal action.”

Her sons did not respond to a number of messages seeking comment.

I don't know, but I suspect they're looking into it quite carefully. Remember, the key thing here is negligence, not whether Christie's made a simple mistake; did Christie's make all reasonable efforts to ensure that they looked into the possible Constable attribution? If they showed it to Conal Shields before the sale, and he said 'nah', then they might be in the clear, even if Shields turns out to be wrong. The recent Sotheby's 'Caravaggio' case gives us a good template of how such cases will work, and how hard it is to prove negligence against a major auction house. But it still seems to me that the special weakness in Christie's case is the presence of the £5m Claude in the same minor sale as the Constable, which was only withdrawn at the very last minute.

Incidentally, a reader kindly sent me an interesting quote from an earlier case on attribution heard in a British court, over a putative Van Dyck in 2002. Then, Mr Justice Buckley, in relation to who was qualified to make an attribution, said:

From listening to them both I understood that [the expert ‘eye’] to mean rather more than just observation. Whilst it is vital to have keen observation it is also necessary to have knowledge of an artist’s methods and style and to be sufficiently familiar with his work to be able to recognise his artistic ‘handwriting’. Even that is not all. It involves also a sensitivity to such concepts as quality, emotion, mood and atmosphere. To an extent ‘eye’ can be developed but, like many other human attributes it is partly born in a man or a woman. Were it otherwise there would be many more true experts.

Very true, m'lud.

Update - a reader writes:

It may be the inherent nature of the blog that it is quickly written but  assuming that you want your opinion to be taken seriously I would query your claim of 'no Constable expertise at all'  and yet have 'no doubt that it is by Constable', whatever Shields says!

Nobody should take me seriously.

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.

Stolen Tiepolo returned

March 2 2015

Image of Stolen Tiepolo returned

Picture: New York Times

An important picture by Giabattista Tiepolo (or, 'Mr. Tiepolo' as the New York Times calls him) has been returned to its owners in Italy, having been stolen in 1982. The picture, The Holy Trinity Appearing to Saint Clement, had been consigned to Christie's last year, and was due to be sold with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000 before it was spotted. 

According to the FBI website:

After being provided with evidence that the painting was the same piece previously reported stolen in 1982, the Tiepolo’s consignor agreed to its seizure by the FBI and its return to Italy. The United States Attorney’s Office submitted a proposed stipulation and order providing for the Tiepolo’s seizure and return, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered that order on January 23, 2015. Italian authorities continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the theft of the painting, including the circumstances of its importation into the United States.

Nothing here, pace the curious case of the two stolen Wolsey angels (below), about anyone buying the picture 'in good faith', and therefore being due a cut.

The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits

February 23 2015

Image of The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits

Pictures: Musée Goya and Musée Bonnat-Helleu.

On Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton has a neat summary in English of the story of a newly authenticated Goya self-portrait in France, above. The picture belongs to the Musée Bonnat-Helleu in Bayonne, and was authenticated by the central French government service for museum art restoration 'using scientific imaging and analysis'. Yikes.

The trouble is, those who authenticated the above picture have decided that another version (below) which belongs to another French museum in Castres, the Musée Goya, must be a copy. Nonsense, says the rather splendid chief curator of the Musée Goya, Jean-Louis Augé; the Bayonne painting is a study for the Castres picture, which is also genuine. You can see Augé's response in the video here.

It's hard to judge on the images of course, but I'm with Augé. It's perfectly possible for both pictures to be 'right'. The Castres picture is more worked up than the Bayonne one, so the Bayonne picture could be a preparatory study, and the Castres picture a more finished second version. 

Beware restorers making attributions. 

On a wider point, it's been the case for some time now that Goya connoisseurship is in some disarray.

Lost Gauguin sculpture found

February 9 2015

Image of Lost Gauguin sculpture found

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that a lost sculpture by Gauguin (above) has been discovered. It will feature in a Gauguin retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler. More here

New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

February 3 2015

Image of New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

Picture: The Saleroom

A quick update on a 'sleeper' story I featured last year. The above drawing came up for sale in the shires here in the UK catalogued as 'attributed to Veronese', and made £15,500. 

At the time, a sharp-eyed reader (who underbid it) wrote in to say he thought it was by Jan van der Straet, and related to an engraving in the British Museum. Well, he was right, for now the picture has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as by van der Straet. The provenance on the Met site reveals that it was acquired through the Old Master drawings dealer Katrin Bellinger.

Export block for newly discovered Claude

February 2 2015

Image of Export block for newly discovered Claude

Picture: Guardian/DCMS

The UK government has placed a temporary export block on Claude's Embarkation of St Paula, which was recently discovered by Christie's, and sold by them in 2013 for £5m. A UK museum has until May 1st to express any interest. 

The picture was scheduled to be sold in a minor Christie's South Kensington sale as 'After Claude', but was pulled out at the last minute. 

More here

It's always worth looking at the back...

January 28 2015

Image of It's always worth looking at the back...

Picture: BBC/Scottish Gallery

Here's nice discovery story from my neck of the woods; the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh has discovered a lost work (above) by the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell, which had been painted over by the son of another colourist, Samuel Peploe. Says the BBC:

The lost Cadell work was painted around 1909 from his studio at 112 George Street, Edinburgh, and looks across the street to Charlotte Square. When the artist died in 1937, his sister Jean Percival Clark, well-known as the actress Jean Cadell, came up to Edinburgh to sort out his affairs.

She was helped by Denis Peploe, son of Samuel, who was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. She gifted him some of her brother's art material and included among the canvases, probably including "George Street and Charlotte Square", taken off its stretcher, turned and re-stretched ready to be used again.

It is not known why Cadell abandoned the painting, which is finished and bears a strong signature.

Years later, Denis Peploe painted his own picture, Begonias, a still life on a trestle table and whitewashed over the Cadell exposed on the other side.

The Scottish Gallery acquired the Denis Peploe and in the process of conservation discovered the Cadell on the reverse.

And in a final twist, the director of the Scottish Gallery is Guy Peploe, Denis Peploe's son. 

A lost Wright of Derby?

January 14 2015

Image of A lost Wright of Derby?

Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum

The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum. 

£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can. 

Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.

But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.

Lucy Bamford tells me, however:

Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.

Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.

The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.

But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer. 

New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

January 12 2015

Image of New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

Picture: BBC

Here's another nice discovery story from Your Paintings: a job applicant for the post of Director of the Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, UK, discovered a lost work by CRW Nevinson in the Atkinson's collection when he did some pre-interview swotting up about the Centre on Your Paintings. And he got the job. Says the BBC:

An art expert who identified a mystery painting at a job interview has been made manager of the gallery storing it.

Stephen Whittle revealed his "strong hunch" about a painting that has been stored at the Atkinson arts centre in Southport since the 1920s.

He told the panel he thought it was Limehouse, a work by CRW Nevinson, a futurist painter.

"When I saw this unattributed image on the BBC Your Paintings website, it was very reminiscent of Nevinson," he said.

Mr Whittle, who came across the painting as part of his interview research, added: "I mentioned my supposition at interview, but I don't know if it led to me finally getting the job."

See the new picture and other Nevinsons here on Your Paintings.

New Constable discovery at Sotheby's

January 9 2015

Image of New Constable discovery at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's

One of the star pictures at Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sale in New York is, reports Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper, a sleeper from a minor Christie's sale in London. Constable's study for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is for sale at Sotheby's with an estimate of $2m-$3m, but was sold by Christie's at South Kensington for just £3500 in 2013. There, it was catalogued as by a 'follower' of Constable, in a sale of the contents of Hambleden Hall, the home of the Viscounts Hambleden. It had been in their collection since the late 19th Century. Says The Art Newspaper:

When the oil sketch came up for sale at South Kensington in July 2013, Christie’s catalogued it as by a “follower of John Constable” and estimated it at £500-£800. The unnamed buyer later confirmed that the work had been heavily retouched in the late 19th or early 20th century, depriving it of its lively, sketchy quality, but it has now been cleaned.

The painting was examined by Anne Lyles, a specialist on Constable, who dated it to 1829-30. She determined that the oil sketch is by the artist’s hand and was among the preparatory works for the final painting, which Tate bought in 2013 for £23m. Lyles describes the study as “one of the most exciting and important additions to the master’s oeuvre to have emerged in recent decades”.

I saw the picture at Sotheby's preview last year in London, and had no doubt whatsoever that it's 'right'. And that was before I read Anne Lyles' persuasive essay in Sotheby's catalogue, which places the picture in its context, and analyses all the key evidence. One of her conclusions is that Constable - who was in the habit of making numerous preparatory sketches and studies for his large scale landscapes - relied on the Hambleden picture most when making the final painting, which (having been recently bought) is now in Tate Britain.

One of the clinchers in the Hambleden picture's favour is that the dramatic, horn-shaped cloud formation it shows looming over the cathedral was copied by Constable for a larger sketch in the Guildhall art collection in London. But, crucially, Constable then painted over that horn-shaped cloud, to make the sky slightly less stormy in that area. Over time, that original cloud structure has become visible through the paint layers; if you look at the image of the Guildhall picture above you can just make out the 'horn shape' to the right of the spire, underneath Constable's later cloud formation. The point is - and apologies for my rather unscientific cloud descriptions - the Hambleden painting cannot be the work of a copyist, because only Constable himself developed that structure of the sky. As Anne Lyles says in her note:

[...] all the other preparatory sketches show the cathedral building more or less in shadow [...]. Moreover, the dramatic stormy sky in the full-scale sketch in the Guildhall (fig. 4) also derives more closely from the Hambleden study than the other sketches. Indeed the cluster of black storm clouds in the full-scale sketch to the right of the cathedral spire was once closer in appearance to the formation seen in the Hambleden picture until Constable decided to knock them back in the former by overpainting parts of them in white.

Anyway, the other clincher for me was the sheer quality of the painting. It's too good to be a copy. Yes, some elements, such as the structure of the cathedral are a little simplistic, but that's to be expected in a study like this, for the emphasis, the compositional development, is all about areas like the sky and stream, and they're pure Constable. For what it's worth, I also know that Anne Lyles - who used to be the Constable scholar at Tate Britain* - is no pushover when it comes to endorsing Constable attributions. So if it's good enough for her, that means it's really good. 

Now, here's the humbling bit - I missed the picture entirely when it came up at Christie's South Kensington, in July 2013. Indeed, I also missed the other 'sleeper' in that sale, The Embarkation of St Paula, which (regular readers will remember) was catalogued as a copy after Claude, but which was withdrawn at the very last moment and sold for £5m at Christie's main salerooms in London in December 2013. In my defence, the South Kensington sale was in the week immediately after all the main Old Master sales, and after South Kensington's own Old Master sale, when you'd normally expect things like the Constable to be sold. Also, the sale was branded as 'Colefax and Fowler [famous English interior decorators], Then and Now', so it sounded like the sort of sale you'd only find chintzy sofas in. Anyway, the fact is, I had my eye off the ball, and can only congratulate the sharp-eyed buyer.

But, AHNers, we must also sympathise with the buyer as well as congratulate them. For when the main press picked up The Art Newspaper's story today (e.g. here in The Mail), Christie's gave this rather unhelpful comment:

'We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a 'follower of'. We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.'

Which I think is a little mean, to be honest. Who are the dissenters? Christie's should say so, rather than just casting unspecified doubts like that. I suspect the truth is that no serious Constable scholars doubt it. The Mail's coverage also looks into whether Christie's might be vulnerable to legal action from the Hambleden vendors, and the paper quotes the editor of the Antiques Trade Gazzette, Ivan Macquisten:

'There was a legal case in 1990 that set a precedent for this when provincial auctioneers Messenger May Baverstock of Surrey failed to recognise something that ended up selling for a lot more and was sued by the vendor.

'In the High Court, a judge established a degree of responsibility that auctioneers have.

'If you are a small auction house holding your sales in a village hall it is reasonable that you may not identify such a painting.

'But if you are a Sotheby's or a Christie's with specialists departments with some of the leading specialists in the world, then you probably are. The burden on these bigger auction houses to get it right is far higher.

'That is not to say they are negligent or liable, that depends on how easily the work would be to identify and what due diligence was carried out to identify it.

'Have they been negligent by not carrying out checks on things like the composition of the painting and, in the case of Constable who was known for his cloudscapes, the quality of the clouds?

'I would be surprised if the previous vendor was not considering taking the matter further.'

Factors in Christie's defence include: the fact that the general subject matter - Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral' - is one of the more copied compositions in British art, and Christie's were thus not negligent in assuming the Hambleden picture was another; the fact that the picture was quite heavily overpainted, thus making certain elements hard to read; the fact that the sale price of £3,500 meant that only one other person thought it worth taking a closer look at.

In favour of the Hambledens, should they wish to pursue the matter: the fact that Christie's evidently did not show it to Anne Lyles, the leading Constable authority, before the sale; the fact that Christie's only recognised at the last minute that there was a £5m Claude in the same sale, which suggests that, when preparing the sale, not as great care was taken with the pictures as one might expect; the fact that Christie's did not put in the catalogue entry the fact that the painting might have had a 19th Century Christie's provenance.

But it's a very difficult area, and I wouldn't want to place too much blame on Christie's specialists. They work to extremely tight deadlines, and, especially in house sale situations, they only get a short period of time to look at each picture. Inevitably, things will slip through the net. Probably the culprit here, if there is one, is the system in which auction house specialists have to operate - if the bean counters further up the food chain gave them more time and staff, fewer mistakes might be made. But then what would we all do without the occasional discovery story?

* It's a matter of great regret that they don't have one any more, of course. 

Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

January 7 2015

Image of Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

Picture: Glasgow Herald

Here's a nice story from my new locale, up here in Scotland; the Kelvingrove art gallery has acquired, for £220,000, a lost landscape by the Scottish artist John Knox (1778-1845), which shows the 'Glasgow Fair' around 1820. The picture had been discovered in 2013 by Edinburgh-based dealer Patrick Bourne, who spotted it at Sotheby's described as showing a scene in Aberdeen, and attributed to William Turner De Lond. It was bought for £76,900.

I heartily approve of the Scottish version of the 'White Glove Photo-op'.

More here.

Duke's Titian declared genuine

December 4 2014

Image of Duke's Titian declared genuine

Pictures: Museo Prado

The Times alerts me to the conservation and re-attribution of a picture by Titian, which belongs to the Duke of Wellington. The picture, a Danaë, was cleaned by the Prado, and proved to be the original painting that once belonged to Philip II of Spain. Painted in about 1551-3, it entered the Wellington collection when it was given to the 1st Duke, following his victories over the French in Spain. It was recently thought to be a copy, but it is in fact an autograph repetition of Titian's first Danaë, which was painted in 1544/5, but with the addition of the old woman on the right. The photo below shows the picture in its stripped down state.

More here on the Prado's website, including videos.  

Sleeper Alert!

November 28 2014

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: The Saleroom

Just a tiddler this one, and one that, annoyingly, I missed by a mere half an hour (that is, the lot had passed by the time I'd seen it and logged in to bid), but nonetheless a sensitively rendered portrait of an unknown old woman by Joseph Wright of Derby, and a bargain at £750. Now, I know you're all thinking the sitter isn't exactly a beaut - but I think it's a great picture nonetheless. Sometimes, the older and craggier the sitter, the better.

Ouch! The 'sleeper' bites back (ctd.)

November 28 2014

Image of Ouch! The 'sleeper' bites back (ctd.)

Picture: Lyon & Turnbull

I mentioned earlier this month the curious story of the quarter of a million pound 'sleeper' being consigned back into auction at just £2,000-£3,000. The painting, an oil on copper depiction of Hercules, was being offered at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh as 'Manner of Francesco Albani' (above), despite having beeing bought at Bonhams last year for £254,000 where it was suspected by some of being by one of the Carraccis. Yesterday, the picture sold for £25,000 inc. premium, so that's pretty much a £225,000 hit. Ouch indeed...

I've never seen anyone cut their losses and run like that before. Normally, even if you couldn't get the experts to endorse with your 'sleeper' attribution, you'd hang on in there, in the hope that somebody somewhere might agree with you. The only possible explanation, I thought, was that the picture was an out and out fake, and had been consigned to Bonhams in a 'dirty' state, and cunningly devised to relate to a known drawing attributed to Annibale Carracci in which the hand is in a different position. In other words, the buyer at Bonhams felt there was no chance of the picture being worth anything, and wanted out.

But I went to see the picture, which has since been cleaned, and (although I couldn't spend too long looking at it - you try viewing an auction with an 11 week old) I thought that it probably was period. Admittedly, it wasn't a great painting, but I wouldn't rule out that it was painted by the same hand, or at least in the studio of the same hand, as made the drawing. From what I could gather, at least one prominent specialist on the Carraccis had not been shown the painting at all.

So it's all most curious. It seems thatsomeone bought it, but was unhappy with the cleaned picture, and simply decided not to bother pursuing the attribution any more. As a paid up member of Sleeper Hunters Anonymous, I can understand the attraction of taking a punt on things like this. But I can only dream of having such deep pockets. 

By the way, if the pockets were yours, and you need a little guidance in the auction field, you know who to call...

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. 

New Moroni discovery at the RA

November 4 2014

Image of New Moroni discovery at the RA

Picture: Camilla McCulloch

The new Moroni exhibition at the Royal Academy in London is winning praise from the critics: here's Richard Dorment in The Telegraph giving it 4 stars out of 5; and here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian doing likewise. 

Meanwhile, sleuthing art dealer Rohan McCulloch alerts me to the fact that the above exhibit is a new Moroni discovery, having surfaced in a regional English auction last year as 'Italian School'. Rohan underbid it. I missed it completely. So congratulations to the buyer; going from sleeper to major museum exhibition in one year is an impressive feat.

Update - another sleuthing reader also spotted the picture, and sends this photo of it at the sale:

I seem to be the only person who didn't see it!

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.

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

October 27 2014

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

Picture: The Art Newspaper

As the old saying goes, Caravaggio attribution stories are like London buses...

Hot on the heels of last week's news that Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has, she claims, found Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene', we have today another Caravaggio attribution case, this time in the High Court in London.

Regular readers will probably be familiar with the tale of a disputed version of Caravaggio's 'Card Sharps', (above) which sold at Sotheby's in London for £42,000 in 2006 as 'Follower of Caravaggio'. It was bought by the renowned collector and Caravaggio scholar, the late Sir Denis Mahon, who promptly declared that it was in fact by Caravaggio himself, being an autograph replica of a picture in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. As such, it would be worth in the region of £10m. Mahon's opinion was endorsed by Mina Gregori.

Sotheby's, however, stuck to their guns, and said that the picture absolutely wasn't by Caravaggio, and cited their own experts. Vested interests all round, I hear you say...

Today, a long-threatened court case about the picture begins in the High Court. The vendor in 2006, Lancelot Thwaytes, is suing Sotheby's, claiming that they should have spotted the fact that it was by Caravaggio. He wants compensation to reflect the fact that he did in fact own a Caravaggio.

The case promises to be a battle of the experts, reports the Independent:

Sotheby’s has robustly countered the claims and said that the version it sold was “clearly inferior” in quality to the original painting in the Texas gallery. In the 2006 sale catalogue, Sotheby’s listed it as being by a “follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio”.

“The Kimbell Cardsharps was painted by Caravaggio with the striking virtuosity and realism for which his early works are famous,” according to papers filed by the auction house. “The quality of execution on display in the painting falls far short of the Kimbell original.”


It said that it would not have consulted any of the experts cited by Mr Thwaytes as leading Caravaggio scholars and said that its own team was competent to judge that it was a copy.

The experts cited by Mr Thwaytes included Mina Gregori, an author of several books on Caravaggio, who claimed last week to have solved a centuries-old mystery by identifying a previously unknown work in a private collection as a Caravaggio. Other experts Mr Thwaytes claims have backed the painting as a genuine Caravaggio include the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.

So who is right? If the court decides against the attribution, should we view this as context for Mina Gregori's recent Magdalene discovery? If Sotheby's loses, what does it mean for their reputation?

Either way, I feel rather sorry for the judges. Attribution is a notoriously difficult thing to prove in a court of law, for judges and juries are of often wholly unfamiliar with the rubric of art history, to say nothing of connoisseurship.* Other factors can come to the fore. For example, some readers may be familiar with the story of Joseph Duveen losing a libel case in the United States, when he said that a copy of Leonardo's 'La Belle Ferroniere' was not by Leonardo, despite the fact that he was absolutely right. It seems the jury's decision was influenced by a stuffy English art dealer criticising the plucky US owner. 

Anyway, this particular case throws up all sorts of related questions. For example, when Sir Denis Mahon died, his Card Sharps must have posed all difficulties for his heir, since for inheritance tax purposes it was 'worth' millions. And yet, having potentially paid millions in tax, it is likely that the heir might have found the picture impossible to sell, for it may be that 'the market's' view would be that the picture is not by Caravaggio. Indeed, is it possible that fellow scholars endorsed Mahon's attribution largely out of feelings of friendship? Mahon was a giant of the art world, but also at that time an aged collector who, it turns out, was asset rich (in terms of the pictures he had very generously promised to bequeath to the National Gallery and other institutions) but cash poor. And so on and so forth. 

By the way, if readers detect an unusual reticence in any of the above, it's mainly because I don't want to be called as a witness...

*At this point, of course, critics of connoisseurship say - 'Aha! Attribution by connoisseurship is always impossible to prove'. To which the answer is... well, I haven't got time.

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