November 17 2015

Image of 'Artnapping'

Picture: Artnet News

Artnet News reports that a 'retired art thief' is demanding a EUR150,000 ransom for the return of a painting by Klimt (above) stolen from a museum in Piacenza in 1997. That's some way to cash in your pension. 

Regular readers will know I take a dim view of the paying of ransoms for stolen art. It only encourages more theft, and indeed 'artnapping' has now become an industry in itself. But a group of Piacenza art institutions has apparently agreed to pay the money. And, says ArtNet:

"Artnapping"—the stealing of art for ransom—has gained popularity in the criminal world. This past March, the Vatican announced that it received a ransom request of €100,000 for the return of two stolen documents by the Renaissance master Michelangelo 20 years after the documents had disappeared.

In April, the van Buuren Museum in Belgium negotiated a ransom with thieves for the return of a group of ten stolen paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, James Ensor, and others.

“It happens more and more," Belgian art expert Jacques Lust told TV Brussels at the time. “Not all details make it to the media, of course. If a case is solved there's no mention of the amounts paid, nor of the works having been stolen. But there's an increase in such cases," he said.

Tintoretto in a new light

November 17 2015

Image of Tintoretto in a new light

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that they're installing new LED lights in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, to better show the wonderful pictures by Tintoretto - including his masterpiece, The Crucifixion. More here.

By the way - I once made a short BBC documentary about art in Venice, with Alastair Sooke, and we did a bit on the Tintorettos in the Scuola. Part 1 here, and 2 here.

Decoding a still life

November 17 2015

Image of Decoding a still life

Picture: Christie's

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

How governments waste your money (ctd.)

November 16 2015

Image of How governments waste your money (ctd.)

Picture: Sanrio

The debate about why governments (at least, European ones) should fund the arts goes on and on - and still they have no answer. A new survey by the UK's Department for Culture asked if people who attend 'the arts' were happier than those who did not - presumably in the hope of persuading the Treasury not to cut the budget too much. The answer? Arts participants were 0.8% happier than non participants. DCMS describes this as a 'non-trivial' difference, but really it's margin of error stuff. 

And for museum visitors, there was no change at all:

Whilst arts attendance was found to be linked to happiness, no link is found with visiting a museum or gallery, or participating in arts activities. Visiting a library within the past 12 months was found to have a statistically significant association with lower happiness scores, even after other factors, including income, had been taken into account. Researchers commented: “The reasons underlying this finding are not clear. Further work will be needed to understand whether the nature of library use and/or the happiness levels of those groups using libraries are key factors.”

The survey was part of David Cameron's agenda to measure the effectiveness of government spending in terms of 'wellbeing'. I'd love to know how it cost.

Still, there's good news if you like visiting old places:

Visits to heritage sites is a predictor of higher life satisfaction and happiness and lower anxiety. Visiting museums is a predictor of lower life satisfaction and lower anxiety.

More here.

Sotheby's staff face cuts

November 16 2015

Image of Sotheby's staff face cuts

Picture: Google Finance

Sotheby's new CEO Tad Smith has emailed employees offering voluntary redundancy packages, in a bid to cut costs. If not enough people go voluntarily, redundancies may have to follow. Smith says Sotheby's is 'not as efficient a company as it could be'.

Here, however, are some wise words of caution from Wendy Goldsmith, of Goldsmith Art Advisory, who told Bloomberg:

“It seems short sighted to make it a blanket letter including the specialists who are the essential money makers [...] There’s a risk losing the wrong people.”

Quite. The right kind expertise is so vital in the art world. Cutting experienced staff for cheaper ones might help the balance sheet in the short-term, but it will cost money in the long run.

Sotheby's share price has gone down a bit lately - $29 today against more than $46 in the summer. In early 2014 it was over $53. Still, it was around $29 in late 2012, so the decline is nothing too dramatic. And it's not as cheap as the $6.47 it fell to in 2009 - when, daftly, I thought about buying some shares, but didn't.

Charlotte Burns in The Art Newspaper has a more in depth report on the figures here, and notes that auction margins are becoming slimmer. But I was intrigued by this paragraph:

A $6m “indirect expense” logged in the general and administrative expenses for the nine month period “is almost entirely due to higher costs in the second quarter associated with a client authenticity claim”, according to the accounting notes.

I wonder what work this refers to?

Update - a reader writes, sagely:

In the Art Business it isn't simply “what you know” but “who(m) you know” and how much those whom you know trust you.  You can't grow talented connected people quickly and when they go some business will follow them to their next gig. That said, I know that the Sotheby's organization is vast and deep and that it might manage a few early retirements without harm to the brand.   The difficulty for Sotheby's is that in the current world retirees become consultants to growing competitors rather than playing golf and living in Italy or wherever.   

It has been shown that the newbie driven volume in contemporary art has lower margins than the old boring stuff. The sellers of too lots are sophisticated and have choices that reduce or eliminate the profit and leave only the bragging rights for he auction firm. It’s the boring midrange lots that yield premiums and fees and don't risk the firm’s capital with guarantees. These lots are often consigned based on long standing personal relationships.

Update II - here's Colin Gleadell's take, in the Telegraph, on Sotheby's performance, and a wider look at the contemporary sales. He thinks we're in 'bubble burst' territory.

White glove shot (ctd.)

November 16 2015

Image of White glove shot (ctd.)

Picture: FT

Here's a rare thing - actual art handlers actually hanging a painting. Not a press officer or intern in sight.

The picture is John Michael Wright's portrait of Charles II, and it's being installed for a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Samuel Pepys (20th Nov 2015 - 28th March 2016). More here.

Hot Modigliani porn (ctd.)

November 13 2015

Video: CBS, via Art Market Monitor

It's not just the FT censoring Modigliani's $170m 'Nu Couché' - American TV stations are refusing to show the naughty bits too. In the above video, comedian Steven Colbert highlights the ridiculousness of censoring art.


Carson does Constable

November 13 2015

Video: Sotheby's

Though I might have wondered recently why auction houses don't do enough to market 'lesser' Old Masters, there's no doubting their ability to advertise the expensive stuff. In the above video, actor Jim Carter (most recently, Carson in Downton Abbey) narrates a celeverly put together selection of Constable's writings. The video gently makes the point that The Lock coming up at Sotheby's in December (£8m-£12m) was one of the artist's best and favourite paintings.

In my experience, selling Old Masters is about telling the right story in the right way, and here Sotheby's have done it exceptionally well.

New Van Dyck for the Bowes Museum

November 11 2015

Image of New Van Dyck for the Bowes Museum

Pictures: Bowes Museum

I'm very pleased to report that the Bowes Museum in County Durham has acquired an important portrait by Van Dyck of Olivia Porter, the wife of Van Dyck's friend, Endymion Porter. The picture has been allocated through the government's Acceptance in Lieu programme, and comes from the Duke of Northumberland's collection. It hung most recently at the Duke's house just outside London, Syon House. The tax settled was £2.8m, though I believe the picture was valued at a higher figure.

The portrait will join another of Olivia by Van Dyck at the Bowes Museum (below), which (regular readers may recall) was discovered by me some years ago. Sorry to brag; but I'm glad that both pictures will now be shown together in such a wonderful museum. The pictures are obviously related, for though the direction of the gaze and the costume are different, the basic drawing of the head is the same.

More here.

Warwick Castle pictures at Sotheby's

November 11 2015

Image of Warwick Castle pictures at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's

It is with some sadness that I see number of important paintings are being sold from Warwick Castle in Sotheby's London Old Master evening sale. There's a Studio of Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (above) estimated at £800k-£1.2m (lot 9), and a Van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria at £1.5m-£2.5m (lot 28). The pictures were bought with the castle when acquired by the Tussauds Group in the 1970s. You can see the pictures in the print catalogue here (the online version is not yet up).

Warwick Castle is a great place, but over the years little effort has been made to make their great art collection a part of the castle's story. For a while recently, it looked as if they were going to make more of their pictures, and I was asked to advise on one or two works, even making a little discovery (a picture partly by Van Dyck). But now a different approach has evidently been taken. The Castle is part of the Merlin group, who also own Alton Towers, where a roller coaster disaster recently left scores of people with serious injuries. Perhaps - and I'm guessing - the decision to sell is related to the financial losses that followed.

Anyway, the two pictures are important things. The Henry VIII I examined closely in situ some years ago. It's of extremely good quality, and in my view better than a very similar version sold just recently by Sotheby's from Castle Howard (for £965k). The Henrietta Maria would seem cheap at £1.5m-£2.5m, but perhaps the cautious estimate is due to the fact that a) it's a second version (the original is in a private collection in New York) and b) it was extended at some point in the 18th Century into a full-length (by, it is said, Sir Joshua Reynolds). 

In New York

November 11 2015

Image of In New York

Picture: Christie's

Greetings from Newark airport, where I'm awaiting a flight back to London. So, sorry for the lack of posts yesterday, and I won't be back in action till Friday. [Update - I'm blogging from 30,000 feet - THEY PUT WIFI IN THE SKY??]

The modern and contemporary sales have been on in New York (though fear not, AHN-ers, that's not why I am here). Lots of art has sold for lots of money, including a Modigliani nude for an eye-popping $170m (to a Chinese buyer it's said), and a Liechtenstein for $95m. The above Fontana (Lucio, not Lavinia) made $29m, despite having been bought for just $16m just three years ago. 

In other words, this crazy market is still going strong, even if last night's Christie's sale, with a total of 'only' $331m can be described (in the New York Times) as 'mixed'.

It seems some of the heat is coming out of the Warhol market, with some works going unsold, and one even going for a lot less than it made before - which is most unusual, given the number and financial of those with a vested interest in keeping Warhol values high. Here's Judd Tully from Blouin Artinfo:

Warhol’s turquoise eye shadowed portrait, “Four Marilyns” from 1962, capturing a  movie still image of the screen goddess, sold to a telephone bidder for the evening’s top lot price of $36,005,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $40 million).

The 28 ¾ by 22 ¾ inch painting, with a glowing, cadmium orange background, was completed shortly after Monroe’s death in August 1962 from a barbiturate overdose at the age of 36. It had last sold at Phillips New York in May 2013 for $38.2 million. Christie’s evidently believed that price was too low, and guaranteed the seller an undisclosed amount in excess of what it made tonight for the chance to reoffer it. [...]

“It didn’t perform as well as we anticipated,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of Post-War and Contemporary Art during, the post-sale press conference.

Which is Christie's-speak for 'we lost money on it'.

More from me when I get back. In other news, I can report that the choice of movies on United Airlines is woeful. 

Update - for an indispensable and perceptive analysis of the Christie's sale, head over to Marion Maneker's Art Market Monitor. He tells us the Warhol Marilyn's were guaranteed at $44m! And also raises an eyebrow at Christie's overall strategy:

[...] last night’s sale brings up more questions about Christie’s, its strategic aims and ambitions in the art market, than it does about the state of the overall market itself. For the last several years, Christie’s has embarked upon an aggressive campaign to transform the art market through the Contemporary art category. Using a phalanx of business-getting talent, seemingly unrivaled access to the best property and an industry-dominating guarantee book to inspire shock and awe among collectors and its rivals.

Christie’s dominance in Contemporary art toppled the management of its main rival and emboldened the firm to reject its internal “change agent.” At the time, too many commentators insisted the change in leadership at Christie’s would bring an aggressive drive toward profit. But so far this week, the evidence points in the other direction.

Maybe it's because I'm old-fashioned, but it seems to me Christie's is behaving slightly like a headless chicken at the moment. Their strategy seems to be based on eye-catching boldness, which in one respect is admirable, but, financially, can quickly lead to recklessness. Not doing well in Old Master sales in New York, because Sotheby's are doing a better job? Well, let's try moving the sale to April, and call it 'classic art' (even though there's little evidence consignors - without whom you cannot stage an art auction, classic or otherwise - are prepared to take the gamble with you). I'm told that Christie's attempt to secure what we'll just call for the moment An Extremely Important Old Master painting involved the suggestion that they would include it in a modern sale this week, principally on the basis that it was expensive and had breasts. Classy.

Guffwatch - the 'curated auction'

November 9 2015

Video: Christie's

Contemporary art evening auctions are not just auctions these days, in the sense that they're made up of things people want to sell. Oh no - they are 'curated auctions'. In case you're wondering what a curated auction is, here's Christie's to tell us:

The Artist’s Muse is a curated auction and exhibition that celebrates the subjects and sitters who inspired the greatest artists to produce some of their finest works. From Modigliani’s Nu Couché to Roy Lichtenstein’s 'Nurse', with Giacometti’s definitive late 'Portrait of James Lord' and Gustave Courbet’s radical 'Femme nue couchée,' the inspiration that is at the heart of these works makes for art that is intimate, passionate and enticing. They are works that inspire and breathe life, that exceed mere portraiture.

So now you know.

By a strange coincidence, I shall be in New York this week while all the contemporary sales are on. Into the belly of the beast.

Guffwatch - Twombly edition

November 9 2015

Video: Sotheby's

Last year, Guffwatch spotted Christie's recycling catalogue text from one Twombly blackboard painting to another. It was the usual guffy nonsense.

But Sotheby's (who have another Twombly blackboard picture to sell next week in New York) has managed to write a catalogue entry that actually makes sense, and is well written. And their video, above, narrated by Sotheby's vice-chairman Anthony Grant, is good too. What's going on? 

How to get loans for an exhibition (ctd.)

November 8 2015

Image of How to get loans for an exhibition (ctd.)

Picture: Tico Seifert

Further to my post about the painful negotiations sometimes required to secure museum loans, here's an interesting account from Dr Tico Seifert (above) of the Scottish National Gallery about his new show of landscapes lent by a single private collection. The exhibition came about first through a chance encounter, and involved a snowy off-road drive to the collector's home.

Update - the Scottish National Gallery has announced that five more works are being lent to this show. More here.

More fun and games at the National Trust

November 8 2015

Image of More fun and games at the National Trust

Picture: Lynn Roberts

The Grumpy Art Historian went to the National Trust's Kedleston Hall the other day, and was not impressed:

It was seven hours of driving, and one of our party had traveled from the US, but worth it to see one of Adam's masterpieces, stuffed with fabulous furniture and baroque pictures. But the drawing room - one of the highlights - was in darkness. We couldn't see any of the pictures. The room has been set up to recreate the sense of an eighteenth century party. It fails on so many levels. It stops us seeing the things we had made great effort to visit. It patronises us by asking us to imagine a party at Kedleston, then assuming we're incapable of imagining and have to have the whole thing set up for us. And it fails because the execution is so feeble: a few wine glasses, electric lighting, and added spotlights on the gilt furniture for effect.

Update - The GAH is more impressed by a trip to the National Trust's Basildon Park.

Lost Society of Artists charter found

November 8 2015

Image of Lost Society of Artists charter found

Picture: Burlington

Staff at the Royal Academy have discovered, whilst clearing out some vaults, the long lost charter for the Society of Artists (the first such society in London, which preceded the Royal Academy). Charles Saumarez Smith, in Apollo, reveals that the names of those who left the Society to establish the grander Royal Academy in 1768, such as Reynolds and Gainsborough, were pointedly crossed out. 

Update - more photos here on Charles' excellent blog.

Bonhams goes 'aspirational'

November 8 2015

Image of Bonhams goes 'aspirational'

Picture: Gulf News

There's an interview with Bonhams CEO Matthew Girling (above) in The Art Newspaper, which tells me something I didn't know: that Bonhams have stopped all their regional sales, with the exception of Edinburgh. Apparently, says Girling:

The problem was that people were willing to consign lesser items to us, but not their prized works. That wasn't good for the brand, which needs to be more aspirational.

Bit of a shame if you ask me. One of Bonhams' most prized Old Masters in recent years, a newly discovered portrait by Velasquez, was found in one of their Oxford sales. 


November 8 2015

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: A reader

A reader sends in this gem, from Manchester City Art Gallery.

Hot Modigliani porn

November 8 2015

Image of Hot Modigliani porn

Picture: Ashleigh Wilson via Twitter.

In its printed edition, the Financial Times apparently felt the need to censor Modigliani this weekend. The picture is coming up for sale next week at Christie's*, and was discussed in this profile of Christie's head honcho, Jussi Pylkannen.

The profile also looks at why the auction houses have come to so dominate the art world, and (as the Art Market Monitor agrees) it has to do with the particular pressures the auction process puts on buyers: the feeling of competition and the sense of excitement that generates; the public statement of prices,** and the apparent reassurance that gives; the fact that a deadline encourages people to make their mind up, which is always a problem for dealers. By the way, I suspect these pressures affect men more than women.

Update - a reader writes:

I am probably not the first to notice this but my copy of Saturday's FT, bought in London, has an uncensored version of the painting. Does the FT have different print runs for different markets?

* The catalogue says 'estimate on request', which means 'don't even think of asking, poor people'.

** which for the most part are correct. 

Taubman sales at Sotheby's

November 6 2015

Image of Taubman sales at Sotheby's

Picture: NYT

It's been interesting to see the various takes on Sotheby's handling of the Taubman collection so far. To recap, the late Alfred Taubman was a former owner of Sotheby's, but later went to jail as a result of price-fixing with Christie's (Christie's 'co-operated' with the authorities and nobody from there was jailed). Despite the family connection, Taubman's heirs courted both Christie's and Sotheby's for the chance to sell the collection, eventually ending up with a $500m guarantee from Sotheby's.

This week, the more valuable works from Taubman's collection have been sold, with Modigliani, Picasso et al taking their turns on the rostrum. The headline sale has been felt to be disappointing, taking in $377m with premium, against a $375m lower estimate (which doesn't include premium). And consequently, some are interpreting this as a sign of market 'concerns', or, as the New York Times put it, a 'market chill'.

So, is the music stopping at the top end of the art market? I doubt it. The Taubman sale estimates were already punchy - as you would expect with a collection secured by guarantee. It was always unlikely things would fly away - and market watchers seem obsessed by the idea that art values have to go up; stability is never good enough. 90% of the works sold, which normally is a good result.

Certain circumstances were against Sotheby's. First, it can hardly be said that the Taubman provenance was a plus (whether that's right or wrong is another matter), and nor did the pre-sale chat about various Taubman family spats help matters (the traditional step-mom/widow vs children kind of thing). There's also been a typical New York art world bitch-fest over whether Taubman's 'taste' was any good, as amusingly surveyed here by Marion Maneker. I thought the pictures were perfectly good.

The most interesting question for me, however, is whether Sotheby's were right to place a half billion dollar bet on the collection of the their former owner. Will Sotheby's make money on the deal? It's hard to see at this stage, at least not mega money worthy of a $500m punt. It was perhaps always going to be difficult to do so, and maybe the auction house felt little choice but to stump up - to prevent the PR faux-pas of rival Christie's getting the collection. Here's Sotheby's new (and refreshingly honest) CEO Tad Smith on how they're doing so far on the numbers:

 “With more than 400 works still to be sold over the next several months, we are on track to cover most of the total guarantee[...]"


Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps art market watchers are obsessed with the idea that art prices have to go up, because they know that current prices (and prices paid in the recent past) are entirely predicated on a fallacy of ever-increasing returns.  When it comes to twentieth century masters in particular, the market has been locked in a self-reinforcing inflationary spiral in which almost no amount of money was too much to pay for say a Warhol, because it would surely be worth 2x five years in the future.  If the market really has plateaued, the implication is: the greatest fool has been found.  And that would be a terrible thing for what is, at its heart, a speculation-driven asset bubble.

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