It's always worth looking at the back...
January 28 2015
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
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
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
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
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'.
Duke's Titian declared genuine
December 4 2014
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.
November 28 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'
October 24 2014
In Italy, La Repubblica reports that noted Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has identified the above picture as Caravaggio's lost Penitent Magdalene, previously only known through copies. He is thought to have painted it shortly before he died. It's now in an Italian private collection. More details here (in Italian).
Update - the story has now made it into the English language press. Here's the Guardian.
A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery
October 23 2014
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
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?
Newly discovered Wtewael on show in London
September 22 2014
Picture: National Gallery
A newly discovered painting by Joachim Wtewael has gone on display at the National Gallery in London. The picture, a Raising of Lazarus painted c.1605-10, had lain unnoticed and without attribution at Wycombe Museum in Buckinghamshire, until it was suggested by a specialist at Bonhams that Wtewael might be the artist. The picture was then sent to the National Gallery for cleaning, and it will now be on show there for ten years. You can see a pre-restoration image here, on Your Paintings.
The picture is 'Painting of the Month' for October, and you can read more about the picture here.
I don't know who the Bonhams specialist was - well done whoever you are!
WW1 officer identified on Art Detective
August 4 2014
Picture: PCF/Carmarthenshire Museums Service
Today is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, so here's a fitting story; a user of the new Art Detective site has identified the above portrait of an 'unknown officer' belonging to the Carmarthenshire Museums Collections. The soldier is Second Lieutenant Paul Chancourt Giradot (1895-1914), who was killed by a shell during the Battle of the Aisne on 16th September 1914. Martin Gillott recognised the unknown sitter from the below newspaper photograph. Well done him, and the wisdom of the art historical crowd. We don't know the artist. The portrait was made up some time after Giradot's death from the photograph. I see lots of these, evidently commissioned by grieving families. More details here.
Constable's 'Sea Beach, Brighton' fails to sell
July 9 2014
It seems not be a good week for pictures that have been on the telly; at Bonhams today, John Constable's 'Sea Beach, Brighton', which was featured on 'Fake or Fortune?', failed to find a buyer. Still, worth watching the Bonhams video above, to see Constable expert Annie Lyles talk about the painting.
The vicar's Van Dyck (ctd.)
July 8 2014
The Van Dyck found on the Antiques Roadshow will be up for sale tonight at Christie's. What will it make? Send me your best guess. The estimate is £300,000-£500,000. I reckon it'll make between £400k-£450k hammer. I have no inside information.
Update - a reader writes:
I think it will top £500,000 since this is a rare opportunity to buy a Van Dyck at what many will view as a great discount over the normal offerings. Besides it’s a wonderful piece of art with a great story.
Update II - another reader punts:
I think the head will sell for £350-385,000,beautifully painted,but due to it's state,it's appeal to buyers will be limited...
Update III - it didn't sell! I'm surprised. Maybe an after sale offer will be made.
IR photo reveals mystery Picasso portrait
June 17 2014
Infra-red analysis of Picasso's 'Blue Room' [Phillips Collection, Washington] has revealed a 'mystery portrait' beneath the paint layers. More here.