'Rubens and his Legacy' at the Royal Academy

January 21 2015

Image of 'Rubens and his Legacy' at the Royal Academy

Picture: Standard

I'm hearing mixed things about the RA's new Rubens show. Surprisingly, it seems that some exhibits - from the Hermitage - have not yet arrived, so there are gaps on the walls. Apparently they are expected next week. I've never seen that before.

The Telegraph gives the show four stars, calling it 'fascinating', as does the Evening Standard (alas, it's not the Great Brian). But Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gives it a real stinker of a review:

Rubens and His Legacy applies a simplistic theory and smashes as much evidence as it can into its rigid, short-sighted argument that Rubens is the fons et origo of almost everything painters have ever done. And not just painters: in an incredibly desperate extra room of the exhibition, curated by mediocre Royal Academician Jenny Saville, there are sculptures by Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, whose carnality is roped in as “Rubens-like”. Come on. Two fried eggs and a baroque kebab?

Jones tells us that there are just six major Rubens paintings in the whole exhibition.

We must look forward to Waldemar's review in the Sunday Times. 

Update - there's lots of talk of Van Dyck being Rubens' 'pupil' - he wasn't, he was employed as an assistant, and had his own, independent practice beforehand.

Update II - a reader writes:

I'm just back from the RA Rubens exhibition. I'm with the 'stinker' reviewer. I found the quality very varied, mostly poor, the hanging very strange, and the headings of the various sections, not nessesarily ageeing with the paintings shown. I think the main problem being that the great paintings that inspired other artists weren't available for loan.

Re-framing Mantegna

January 21 2015

Image of Re-framing Mantegna

Pictures: National Gallery/The Frame Blog

There's a fascinating tale over on The Frame Blog on how the National Gallery's head of framing, Peter Schade, has re-framed the NG's above c.1505-6 painting by Mantegna. The painting, 'The Introduction of the Cult of the Cybele in Rome', used to be in a modern, reproduction cassetta frame (below), but is now in a more visually suitable frame (above), which was made from an antique walnut cassapanca (bottom) bought specially by the Gallery to be cut down into a new frame. 

It's museum selfie day

January 21 2015

Image of It's museum selfie day

Picture: V&A

It's museum selfie day apparently, when us new trendies get to horrify the hell out of the anti-photo brigade. Happy snapping!

PS - Ach, this reminds me; to my great shame I forgot to send the prize for the best museum selfie from last year. If you were the winner, please forgive me, and let me have your address again... 

Christie's: 'We are not an auction house any more'

January 20 2015

Image of Christie's: 'We are not an auction house any more'

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper has the latest annual sales figures from Sotheby's and Christie's. The latter edges Sotheby's by some $800m, with total sales of $6.8bn vs $6bn.

Given Christie's... shall we say 'looser' manner of reporting the sale totals of high-profile guarantor lots, I guess we can't be absolutely sure that their total figure really is $6.8bn.* But it won't be far off.

Christie's new Global President, Jussi Pylkkänen, says that such are Christie's sales in every market and in every corner of the globe that they're "not an auction house anymore". Hmm.

* On this point, I was interested to read a remark from the eminent art market lawyer Pierre Valentin of Constantine Cannon, who told the Art Media Agency:

“we could see certain auction practices drawing the attention of regulatory authorities in the US or the UK.  This could result in a public investigation which may derail the current trend of high auction prices in the contemporary art market, and renewed calls for greater regulation of the art market.”

Whatever can he be referring to?

Update - there's an interesting article in the invaluable Antiques Trade Gazette by the editor Ivan Macquisten on the guarantee business:

[...] the third-party guarantee, also known as the irrevocable bid, could prove to be one of the biggest threats to a market attempting to stave off direct regulation.

The chief motivation for introducing it - to offset risk onto a third party - is clear enough and understandable. However, this esoteric arrangement raises too many questions and much suspicion among outsiders. The agreed purchase level must at least meet the reserve and, one assumes, cannot rise above the low estimate if bidders are not to be misled. But, this all has to be taken on trust as the auction houses guard the details jealously.

It's one thing asking wealthy top-tier collectors to take a punt on works they may or may not want in return for a share of the profits should the guarantee level be met by another buyer.

However, as far back as 2011 The Economist reported a list of leading dealers as guaranteeing works at auction. It remains unclear whether the trade are guaranteeing works by artists they represent directly or have a clear financial interest in propping up, but if so, then this is surely a step too far along the road of market manipulation.

It might be clever; it might even be legal, but as far as I (and I suspect the man in the street) am concerned, one thing is certain: it isn't right.

My guess is that it won't be long before other people of influence outside the art market take the same view and if this is the sort of thing going on when that happens then there will be trouble.

The public spotlight will turn its full glare on the way the whole industry does business. Are we ready for that?

Nope.

More strikes at the National Gallery?

January 20 2015

Image of More strikes at the National Gallery?

Picture: Museums Journal

Polly Toynbee has written about low pay in The Guardian today, and features the ongoing dispute about the National Gallery's room wardens as an example. Regular readers may remember that there are plans by the National Gallery to outsource, or privatise, some services such as the gallery wardens. Here are some of Toynbee's more interesting claims:

- Wardens are paid on average about £17,400 per annum. There are varying rates of pay for longer-serving members of staff. There are 400 'gallery assistants'.

- The National Gallery "is the only national museum in London not paying the living wage." If true, this is to be deprecated. The 'living wage' is different from the government mandated minimum wage, and is calculated independently by charities. In the UK it is currently calculated at £7.85 an hour, and in London at £9.15. Toynbee does not specify which figure she is using. The minimum wage is currently £6.15 an hour. There are 12 'national museums' in London.

- According to Toynbee 'all gallery services go out to tender in April, something no other national gallery or museum has done. That includes visitor services, school bookings, public information and even complaints.'

- By law, current warden pay rates would have to be maintained by the new contractor. Toynbee claims that the wardens might though be transferred to another duty within the provatised company, such as guarding a car park. But this is evidently nonsense, for it wouldn't ever be cost effective for a contractor to take a trained gallery warden and waste them on another duty like a car park.

- Most trustees want to keep the wardens in house, and it is suggested that the recent move to guard the Rembrandt exhibition with a private contractor CIS, was done to 'scare' the PCS union, who represent the wardens, into making concessions. 

Poynbee doesn't mention the more reasonable reasons the National Gallery want to change the wardens' working conditions - such as having one guard for two of some of the smaller rooms - and nor does she say anything about the wardens' alarming propensity (encouraged by their publicity-seeking union) to go on strike, especially during crucial exhibitions.

- PCS has called for a five day strike over the latest proposals.

It's also worth noting that the privately guarded Rembrandt show closed yesterday, and as far as I'm aware, there were no security dramas at all (despite dire warnings in this anti-National Gallery briefing). So, whether we like it or not, CIS showed that they can manage the job.

An interesting problem for the new director...

Update - a reader alerts me to this page on the NG website, detailing their payscales. "Gallery Assistants and Security Staff" are in Band 10 and start at £15,468-£17,648. Not enough. And let's not forget that pay in museums is pretty crummy full stop. That Tate curatorship I mentioned last year was for £23,360. 

Re-hanging the Louvre's 'Grande Galerie'

January 20 2015

Image of Re-hanging the Louvre's 'Grande Galerie'

Picture: Figaro

The early Italian pictures are on the move in the Louvre, reports Le Figaro.

The new National Gallery director is...

January 19 2015

Image of The new National Gallery director is...

Picture: elcultural.es

... (my highly placed source tells me) Gabriele Finaldi, currently deputy director of the Prado. He used to be at the National Gallery before, when curator of later Italian and Spanish paintings. Congratulations!

Update - my scoop has been picked up by most papers, even in Spain. Remember, you read it here first!

Mona Lisa in high-res

January 19 2015

Image of Mona Lisa in high-res

Picture: Louvre

Whilst looking into the below 'Mona Lisa' story I came across this zippy new site at the Louvre, where you can not only look into the real Mona Lisa in high definition, but also (as above) in X-ray and Infra-red, and compare the various parts.

The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

January 19 2015

Image of The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

The owners of the so-called 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' are still plugging away with their contention that the painting is by Leonardo da Vinci - even, that it might be 'the first version'. The painting is currently on display at The Arts House in Singapore, where visitors are treated, reports the Wall Street Journal, to a blizzard of 'scientific' proofs.

Now, it seems, the story has become one of 'new science' against traditional methods of attribution:

David Feldman, a leading stamp dealer who is vice president of the foundation [...] says art experts like Mr. Kemp, who has played a part in attributing other works to Leonardo, fear technological advances will erode their power to assess paintings.

“There is no easy way to get recognition and acceptance from the art world, particularly when connoisseurship in the traditional way is being challenged,” Mr. Feldman said.

Mr. Kemp responds that science is useful to highlight a forgery, by discovering pigments or other materials that weren’t available during an artist’s lifetime, but not to prove authenticity, which requires expertise and visual interpretation. He believes the painting’s style is too heavy-handed to be by Leonardo.

Although there has been no evidence to prove the picture isn’t by Leonardo, the foundation’s efforts to use science for a positive attribution have faced a series of obstacles.

Carbon dating only has been able to show the canvas of the portrait was produced between 1492 and 1652, a wide date range that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it is a later copy by somebody else.

The foundation also asked Pascal Cotte of Paris-based Lumiere Technology to investigate the painting. Mr. Cotte’s firm has pioneered a process called multispectral digitization, which reveals original colors of a painting and can pick out preparatory drawings beneath the painted surface.

The foundation, in a 320-page book on the work published in 2012, said Mr. Cotte, who also has done studies on the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, “confirms that the artist was likely the same for both paintings.”

Now, on its website, the foundation makes a more modest claim: Mr. Cotte’s analysis fails to show any reason why the painting “was not by Leonardo.”

Mr. Feldman said Mr. Cotte signed off on the content in the book but later changed his mind. The foundation believes Mr. Kemp, the Oxford scholar, put pressure on Mr. Cotte to do so, he said. Mr. Kemp denied any involvement in the matter.

Mr. Cotte didn’t respond to requests for comment. A statement posted on Lumiere Technology’s website warns of “flashy” and “ambiguous” use of its work to “back up risky conclusions,” although it didn’t give details.

Hmmm...

For earlier AHN on this picture see here, here and here

Are you hot on Irish art, c.1600-c.1815?

January 19 2015

 

Then you may want to submit a paper for a forthcoming book on the subject, to be published by Irish Academic Press. More details here on Caroline Pegum's blog. The deadline for papers is 30th Jan. 

Bad taste Mona Lisa no.62

January 19 2015

Image of Bad taste Mona Lisa no.62

Picture: Twitter

This was a hastily deleted Tweet from the Israeli Embassy in Dublin. More here

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

January 19 2015

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

The full judgement for the case has now been posted online, and it makes fascinating reading. I'll be writing a longer piece on the case, but in the meantime, here are a few highlights and thoughts from me:

- Mr Thwaytes was always likely to lose this case; the claim against Sotheby's was weak, and there was little hard evidence in his favour.

- This was an extremely expensive case; there were 17 days in the High Court alone. The Daily Mail reports that the whole case cost £6m, of which Mr Thwaytes, or his lawyers (I presume there must have been some sort of conditional fee arrangement) will have to pay most. The Mail says:

Mrs Justice Rose ordered Mr Thwaytes to pay £1.8m of Sotheby's £3.75m bill within 14 days.

Although he has insurance worth £2.4m he must also pay his own legal costs put at over £2m.

- The judge, Mrs Justice Rose, really enjoyed the case. She got stuck into every aspect of it, and even had a go at a spot of judicial connoisseurship, concluding (rightly I think) that the 'Thwaytes' 'Cardsharps' was likely not to be by Caravaggio. Usually, judicial enquiries and art history don't go well together - but in this case, Mrs Justic Rose nailed it.

- The judge was impressed by Sotheby's four main employee witnesses, who were: Alexander Bell, head of the OMP dept in London; Matthew Barton, Sotheby's local 'rep' who first made contact with Mr Thwaytes' Ms Letizia Treves, who used to work at Sotheby's in London, but is now a senior curator at the National Gallery in London; Thomas Baring, who also used to work at Sotheby's, running the Olympia saleroom at the time the 'Cardsharps' was sold, but who now runs his own business. Referring to Sotheby's witnesses, the judge said:

I found all five witnesses who gave oral evidence to be honest and straightforward and doing their best to assist the court.

- Mr Thwaytes' expert witness on auction house practice was the London-based dealer, Guy Sainty. His evidence was 'strongly criticised' as having no value at all by Sotheby's legal team, on the basis that he had never worked in an auction house. But the judge, rightly in my view, dismissed such criticism:

There are very close links between art dealers and the auction houses since dealers are the main customers of the auction houses both as consignors of art works and as purchasers of paintings at auction.

- With regard to the painting, Mr Thwaytes relied mainly on the expertise of Professor Mina Gregori, who endorsed the attribution to Caravaggio. Sotheby's called Professor Richard Spear, now of the University of Maryland. He did not believe the picture was by Caravaggio.

- Both sides had their own 'technical' evidence in support of the attribution/non-attribution. It appears that Mr Thwaytes' witnesses, when attesting to the evidential worth of such technical analysis, did not bear up well to cross-examiniation. All of which seems to me more evidence that sometimes 'technical analysis' can be misinterpreted in favour of an attribution.

- A central point in Mr Thwaytes' case was that he 'instructed' Sotheby's to take infra-red photos of the painting, to try and see if it was an original by Caravaggio. Sotheby's denied this, and said only an X-ray - which did not show anything positive with regards to the attribution - was agreed. There seems to have been some confusion on Mr Thwaytes' part between looking at the painting under 'ultra violet' light and 'infra-red' light, the former of course being standard auction house practice when first assessing a painting's condition. On the whole, the judge believed Sotheby's version of events with regard to the question of infra-red.

- The picture was first examined by the whole OMP picture team at Sotheby's Bond Street, where it was decided it must be a copy. It was then decided that the picture should be sold in Sotheby's lesser (but now closed) Olympia saleroom. 

- The specialists were not swayed by the results of the X-rays. The judge rejected the suggestion from Mr Thwaytes' legal team that Sotheby's staff were 'not competent' to look at the X-rays themselves - rightly, it isn't rocket science.

- The key Sotheby's specialists had another meeting to examine the picture at Olympia just before the sale, after Mr Baring reported greater than usual interest in the picture. There was understandably some concern that they had made a mistake. But again they decided the picture 'wasn't right'. Sotheby's did not tell Mr Thwaytes about this meeting, and the 'extra interest', which, he said, might have prompted him to withdraw the painting. But the judge rejected that suggestion.

- In relation to the above meeting, Alex Bell gave this interesting summary of how auciton house specialists think in such situations:

"I don't think that is a fair way of putting it. I think the answer -the evidence to us was clear, but we kept on pushing ourselves: can we be making a mistake, and it's the question that we always ask at picture meetings: could this be better than we think it is? Could this be - it's almost like someone asking the question so that you don't ever slip into a frame of mind that something isn't right. From our point of view, obviously, if something is right, it is much more beneficial because we make our money when we sell things and we earn our commission and our revenue is greater the higher of the price. So the possibility of discovering a Caravaggio, which would have been potentially worth much more money, would have been an extremely attractive prospect for us. … I think that looking at the picture very carefully, wiping it over with white spirit which, as you have witnessed today, especially on a picture with a coarse new canvas, evaporates very quickly, you need to keep on doing, to examine all areas of it, to look at the painting in great detail and to have a discussion amongst ourselves, testing each other: what about this area, what about that area, it doesn't surprise me the length of time it took place."

- The painting eventually sold for £42,000 hammer, and after costs, Mr Thwaytes' received £34,468.24.

- The painting was bought by Sir Denis Mahon's 'close friend', Ms Orietta Benocci Adam.

- The painting was underbid by a 'consortium' of art dealers, but we are not told who was in this consortium. They evidently didn't believe that the picture was worth much more than a speculative bid.

- After the sale the picture was cleaned by Sir Denis Mahon. It was then taken to the Ashmolean, but not put on display there. We are not told why, but I wonder if it was because nobody there agreed that it was by Caravaggio. In the end, the painting ended up on display at the little known Museum of the Order of St John in North London. 

- The key allegations that Sotheby's were negligent in all this were summarised by the judge as follows:

The allegations that  Sotheby's  acted negligently can be summarised as follows. First it is alleged that  Sotheby's  was wrong in its general approach to the Painting, namely to assess it solely in terms of its artistic quality. Secondly it is alleged that  Sotheby's  failed to notice certain features of the Painting which should have alerted them to its Caravaggio potential. These features should have prompted them to undertake further technical analysis and to seek the views of external scholars. Thirdly it is alleged that  Sotheby's  was negligent in failing to notify Mr Thwaytes of the Olympia Meeting (and of whatever it was that prompted the Olympia Meeting).

- There were two good summaries of how connoisseurship works. First from Sotheby's Alex Bell:

"Our main consideration in assessing a painting is quality. In the case of a painting suggested to be a copy of a work by a known artist, we will consider whether the painting being viewed is of the quality expected of a painting by that artist. The ability to determine quality is gained by experience in the profession, from looking at all sorts of pictures from the low quality end of the spectrum right up to works by the greatest artists. From that, one develops an 'eye' for quality. It is not something that I can reduce to words easily and, if I were to do so, it would be misleading as it would then appear to be a mechanical exercise of looking at various aspects of a painting, which is definitely not the case. On the contrary, it is necessary to take into account all aspects of a painting together to determine whether overall it is painted with the skill, finesse and energy that might be expected of the particular artist under consideration. In the case of an artist like Caravaggio, this will involve consideration of, for instance, the anatomy of the figures and whether this is convincingly rendered or looks awkward in any way, how the figures relate to each other spatially and how convincing the artist's use of light and shade is in creating a powerful image."

- Next from Rachel Kaminsky, formerly of Christie's in New York, who mentions the famous 'blink':

"The intuitive component is what happens during the first few seconds that an expert stands in front of a painting. Almost instantaneously — in the blink of an eye — the brain processes an enormous amount of information, expertise, knowledge and years of experience to arrive at a hypothesis or series of hypotheses about a painting. These may relate to the attribution, subject, value or other aspects of the painting. It is difficult to explain how this process happens but, astonishingly, these split-second reactions are very often accurate."

- On the subject of 'quality' there was an interesting moment where Mr Thwaytes' legal team tried to probe exactly how this could be assessed, given that such judgements were subjective. As the judge noted:

Both Mr Bell and Professor Spear accepted that assessment of quality is subjective and that scholars of Caravaggio differed in their views of the quality of some works. But they did not accept that this devalued the usefulness of quality as a means of assessing the Caravaggio potential of a work. Mr Bell's evidence, with which I agree, is that any technical shortcomings in Caravaggio's work in no way diminish the overwhelming impression that one is looking at a masterpiece of composition and craftsmanship when one looks at Caravaggio's paintings of this period. A good example is one that was put to Mr Bell, namely the fact that the hands of the figure with outstretched arms on the right side of the Supper At Emmaus in the National Gallery are out of perspective and that the foreshortening is not correctly done. Mr Bell's response was that that did not affect the visual impact of the painting which he described as 'absolutely stunning' and 'extraordinary'. He said that a passage in a painting, such as a hand, can be very convincing and powerful even if it is not anatomically correct or in perfect perspective.

- Mr Thwaytes' legal team tried to suggest that because Caravaggio could be such a variable artist, Sotheby's should not have relied on their own expertise, but should instead have sought outside assistance. The judge rejected this claim.

- In light of the varying assessments of the quality of the painting, the judge was keen to have a go at a bit of connoisseurship herself. As she explained:

There were many passages of the Painting that were praised by Professor Gregori and Dr Lapucci but criticised as of inferior quality by the  Sotheby's  witnesses. Here I discuss those which appeared to me the clearest. I bear in mind Buckley J's warning in Drake v Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd [2002] EWHC 294 (QB) about substituting my own assessment of quality for that of the experts. However, it seems to me that the task is inescapable here, given the issues in this case. Further, since the quality of Caravaggio's work lies in its ability to convey to the viewer a naturalistic and convincing depiction of items or people, a lay person may be more justified in forming a view as to quality than he or she can of an artist who paints in a more abstract or impressionistic style. 

- You can read her persuasive and thorough analysis on the painting in the judgement from point 99 to 130. But in essence, she didn't like it:

In my judgment there is nothing disclosed on visual examination which should have counteracted  Sotheby's  view that the Painting was of poorer quality than the Kimbell [Kimbell art gallery in Texas, where Caravaggio's original is held] Cardsharps and did not therefore have Caravaggio potential.

- When asked whether he would have consulted Sir Denis Mahon's view on the painting, Sotheby's Alex Bell was 'very firm' that he would not, and gave this interesting tale of one of his earlier dealings with Sir Denis:

Mr Bell – and all the other witnesses in the case – expressed the highest regard and respect for Sir Denis's lifelong devotion to studying and promoting the arts. But Mr Bell said that in 2006 Sir Denis was already 96 years old and in his opinion and in the opinion of many in the art world, Sir Denis's 'eye' was no longer reliable so far as attribution of Caravaggio was concerned. Mr Bell referred in particular to what had happened in 1998 with a painting called Saint John at the Well. The painting came to  Sotheby's  with the potential to be a late Caravaggio. The question was whether it was a hitherto 'lost' full-length picture of which there were copies around but also a possible autograph smaller painting just of the head and shoulders of the figure.  Sotheby's  sent transparencies of the painting to Professor Gregori because she had published an article stating that the smaller head and shoulders painting was an autograph work. Photographs were also shown to Sir Denis. Both Professor Gregori and Sir Denis were emphatic in their view that the painting was not by Caravaggio. Other scholars also expressed the same view. The painting was then cleaned and sold to a third party as 'circle of Caravaggio'. Subsequently Professor Gregori and Sir Denis saw the painting in its cleaned state and changed their minds. They both stated emphatically that they now did believe that the painting was the lost work by Caravaggio. There is a contemporary file note for  Sotheby's  prepared by Mr Bell recording this incident, from which his irritation at the turn of events is clear. He notes that Sir Denis did not seem to recall that he had previously given a negative opinion or to know that Professor Gregori had also previously given a detailed negative assessment of the painting. As I understand it, the painting of St John at the Well has not been sold since so it is not known whether anyone would be prepared to pay for it the price that a Caravaggio would command on the strength of Sir Denis' and Professor Gregori's changed view. Mr Bell's evidence was that the attribution to Caravaggio is not widely accepted by scholars, though it appears it may be supported by Nicola Spinosa as well as by Professor Gregori and Sir Denis.

- That said, the judge found that had Sotheby's thought more positively about the painting, they would in fact have asked Sir Denis for his opinion, which, as an 'honest man' he would have given, and that therefore Mr Thwaytes would have had at least one positive opinion before the sale. Part of the reason for this was evidence from Sotheby's catalogues that they cited his opinion despite having doubts as to his reliability. It was suggested by George Gordon of Sotheby's that they consulted him later on in his life in this manner 'just to cover our backs'. 

- Despite the above finding, the judge concludes that Sotheby's would still have failed to garner enough positive views to call the painting 'Caravaggio' in full, and to sell it as such. She seems not to have placed much emphasis on Professor Gregori's attribution of the picture to Caravaggio.

- One of the views they would have had to have sought was that of Dr. Keith Christiansen athe Metropolitan Museum in New York, who was convinced the picture was a copy. He later wrote, after seeing it post-clean:

As much as I admire the scholarship and connoisseurship of Sir Denis and his enormous contribution to Caravaggio studies, I very regretfully cannot agree with his idea that this is a work by the artist. It seemed to me an obvious later copy -- and not of particularly outstanding quality (to be truthful). Currently, a number of scholars have embraced the view that Caravaggio made "trial versions" for his paintings as well as replicas. So far as I am aware, there is no documentary evidence for this and no reason to believe it part of his practice. I have yet to be shown a single case that convinced me .. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that Caravaggio's paintings were copied - and copied very well - at an early date and that these copies were later inventoried as originals, which creates a sometimes baffling situation for the sorting out process. Personally, I believe that the over-riding criterion must be quality, and I just don't find the requisite quality in the work in question. 

- It's worth noting these comments above in relation to Christie's citing Dr Christiansen's view in their forthcoming sale of a 'Caravaggio' in New York. Personally, I'd like to get Mrs Justice Rose's forensic views on that painting too...

As I say, more on all this later.

Update - a reader writes:

Just a few points to add to your v thorough post–

–This would have been a far more interesting case if the picture had turned out to be “right”. But Sotheby's might still have won.

–The IR point seems silly, as there’s nothing to suggest that S would have changed their mind if they had carried it out. So why was so much time spent on it? Of course I express no view on the judge’s case management or why the costs got to this level.

–Had Sotheby’s gone to Sir Denis for an opinion, would he have felt able then to bid for it (directly or indirectly)? If not, perhaps the picture would have fetched rather less…

Good points. 

It does seem extraordinary that it should cost so many millions to decide a case like this. Perhaps AHN should start up an art history attribution service. Art History Views. I'm joking. But I think most of us could have told Mr Thwaytes and his lawyers to save their money in five minutes. 

The other Gurlitt

January 19 2015

Image of The other Gurlitt

Picture: TAN

There's an excellent article by Flavia Foradini in The Art Newspaper on the 'other' Gurlitt, Wolfgang, who was Hildebrand Gurlitt's cousin. Wolfgang's dealing activities were similarly muddled up with the Nazis and looted art, but after the war he used much of his 'collection' to found a museum in Linz, now called the Lentos Kunstmuseum, which until recently bore the Gurlitt name. The above portrait of him is by Munch. More here

Vermeer on loan to Minneapolis

January 16 2015

Image of Vermeer on loan to Minneapolis

Picture: Rijksmuseum

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

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

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

Je Suis... Voltaire

January 16 2015

Image of Je Suis... Voltaire

Picture: Palais de Versailles

The New York Times reports that, in response to the Charlie Hebdo murders last week, the palace of Versailles will re-hang 'a rarely seen' portrait of Voltaire by de Largillière (above) in a more prominent place. The picture will form part of a display of French enlightenment thinkers. 

Says the NYT:

The installation was conceived by Catherine Pégard, the palace’s president. Ms. Pégard explained in a telephone conversation in French that the project was a way to honor the victims, “because at Versailles we’re in a certain sense an emblem of ‘l’esprit français,” she said, referring to the enlightenment thinkers on view in the museum’s collection and on its website. “It’s also the liberty to say things, the liberty to think, the liberty to express oneself. And all these authors express this humanity.”  She added: “The homage that Versailles is showing is a ‘just’ homage. Just in the exact sense. Just in the sense of the continuity of French history.’’

More here on the Versailles website. 

Update - a reader writes:

M Voltaire was known to express anti-semitic opinions, and in Frederick the Great's Prussia even started a vexatious court case against a Jewish money broker; there are loads of quotes, eg

" C’est à regret que je parle des Juifs: cette nation est, à bien des égards, la plus détestable qui ait jamais souillé la terre."

( Voltaire dans son Article du « Dictionnaire philosophique », 1765 « Tolérance », section I).

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

January 16 2015

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'? (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

The man suing Sotheby's over the apparent mis-attribution of a 'Caravaggio' has lost his case. Lancelot Thwaytes consigned his 'Cardsharps', above, to Sotheby's in 2006, where it was sold as a copy for £46,000. The picture was bought by the late Sir Denis Mahon - a Caravaggio collector and scholar - who announced to the world that it was by Caravaggio. It is now hanging in a small museum in London, as a 'Caravaggio', and insured for about £10m.

Sotheby's stuck to their guns - rightly, I think - and said the picture was indeed a copy; they had therefore not been negligent in selling it as 'follower of Caravaggio'. For more background on why Mr Thwaytes could only sue Sotheby's on grounds of negligence, and not simply because they might have got the attribution wrong, see my earlier post here (where I also forecast that Mr Thwaytes would likely lose).

Today, The Telegraph reports that Sotheby's arguments won the day:

Mrs Justice Rose, sitting in London, ruled there had been no negligence by Sotheby's, which disputed the claim that the work was by Caravaggio.

The judge ruled Sotheby's experts had reasonably come to the view that the quality of the painting "was not sufficiently high to indicate that it might be by Caravaggio". [...]

A judge found that the auction house was "entitled to rely on the connoisseurship and expertise of their specialists", who were " highly qualified and examined the painting thoroughly".

"They reasonably came to the view on the basis of what they saw that the quality of the painting was not sufficiently high to indicate that it might be by Caravaggio," she added.

After the ruling, a Sotheby's spokesman said: "Sotheby's is delighted that today's ruling dismisses all claims brought against the company and confirms that Sotheby's expertise is of the highest standards.

"After a four-week trial in which five witnesses for Sotheby's and three independent experts gave testimony, the judge concluded that Sotheby's was not negligent and that the Sotheby's Old Master Painting specialists who assessed the work were 'highly qualified,' examined the painting 'thoroughly,' and reasonably came to the view that the quality of the painting was 'not sufficiently high' to merit further investigation."

Where this leaves the picture I'm not sure, and I will get hold of a copy of the judgment as soon as I can. I'll be interested to hear whether the judge came to any opinion on the attribution.

Update - there's an interesting 'PS' in this article in The Art Newspaper, which quotes Mr. Thwaytes' lawyer as saying:

Thwaytes's lawyers at Boodle Hatfield released a statement saying he "is extremely disappointed with the decision delivered this morning and maintains that Sotheby’s failed to spot the painting’s potential". The legal team added that they "have concerns regarding the approach taken by the Judge in relation to the duties of Sotheby’s to their consignors, not least in view of the upcoming auction of an early Caravaggio by Christie’s at the end of January".

The 'early Caravaggio' they mention is this curious picture I discussed on the blog a couple of weeks ago. I've no idea how Christie's practices can be considered at all relevant to this case. But maybe the lawyers are saying, 'if Christie's can call that painting a Caravaggio, when only a few people say it is, why could not Sotheby's have accepted that 'The Cardsharps' is a Caravaggio, which was similarly 'endorsed'?' To which the answer is [answer deleted pending legal advice].

Update - a reader writes:

[...] barmy is the word; a 97 year old millionaire art collector was able to afford £50,000 simply to annoy Sotheby. Does Mr Thwaytes not understand that dealers & collectors view auctions every day of the week in the vanishingly-small hope of acquiring a life-changing bargain?

Actually, towards the end Sir Denis somewhat ran out of money (as I suppose any centenarian is entitled to do), and to avoid having to sell the paintings he had promised to bequeath to the National Gallery, the Gallery agreed to pay his rent. 

Who should write catalogues raisonné?

January 15 2015

Image of Who should write catalogues raisonné?

Picture: Christie's

I've been asked to write an article for The Art Newspaper on who should write catalogues raisonné. What are the possible conflicts of interest? Must it be a purely academic domain? How do we decide who is qualified? Or, who authenticates the authenticators? I'm interested to hear what readers have to say about this. Especially those of you who have written one. If you have a minute, email me your views.

Thanks

To enjoy art, see it on your own?

January 15 2015

Image of To enjoy art, see it on your own?

Picture: NY Times

How do you 'consume' your art? Do you prefer to go to galleries with a friend or partner? Or do you prefer to go on your own? A new report commissioned by Arts Council England seems to suggest that we prefer going to galleries tout seul

The ACE report isn't able to tell us why that is. And indeed if you look at their methodology (the findings are generated by users pressing buttons on an app - and are you more likely to do such a thing, and concentrate on the questions, if you're on your own?) you might think the whole thing is a waste of time and money; the point of the report was to show that culture in general 'makes us happy', and surely we know that already.

But anyway, how does it work for you? Let me know if you prefer to look at pictures on your own or with others. I personally find them very different experiences. If you were to ask me, do you prefer to examine pictures on your own or with others, I'd certainly say on my own; after all, not everyone wants to spend half an hour or more looking at a painting with binoculars, as I do. And I'd say that if I came out of a gallery after a few hours immersed in close-looking I'd probably be more 'relaxed' than if I'd been with someone else. But I'd have more fun - I'd enjoy myself more - if I was with, say, my partner or friends. 

Update - a reader writes:

I think this voxpop Arts Council statistic gathering is nonsense, a bit like the politicians wanting to create a ‘happiness’ index.

Any visit to an exhibition or collection made by anyone remotely informed will be an entirely different experience or initiative depending on whether it is to be alone / carried out with similarly-interested colleagues / personal friends or ‘loved ones’.

ANY broad-brush conclusion is going to be meaningless. It is simply pandering to their ticking-boxes agenda.

Hard to disagree with really.

Another reader writes:

I like to go with someone then we split up and meet after a couple of hours and compare notes over lunch.

Whilst another is adamant:

Definitely go alone if possible.

Update II - a reader adds:

I attended a drinks party at Highclere Castle before Christmas, which as you will know is bursting with wonderful art.  My friend and I delighted in wandering around the castle chatting about the works, debating which particularly excited us and those that we didn't like much at all. 

A lovely time was had, but I did come away with a longing to go back there on my own.  I want to look at the paintings that really interest me and to linger for as long as I want to with no other opinion than mine to consider. So I would say, go to a gallery with a friend if you want a fun day, with a bit of art thrown in, but to experience the art properly and really enjoy it, for me it has to be solo.

And here's another:

I like to have my cake and eat it too: go with my wife, then we each wander back and forth, looking as long as we want at particular works alone and then together, comparing reactions.  But we are not professionals…

Fashion in Old Masters

January 14 2015

Video: Sotheby's

This is a great video from Sotheby's, on fashion in Old Master pictures. The standard of these little films is getting better and better. In the past they've tended to be a bit estate-agenty - and too male - but now they're getting more inventive. And here we have a star in the making with Sotheby's specialist Jonquil O'Reilly, who tells us about fashion and haircuts in renaissance paintings in an informative, even humorous way.

Auction houses and Old Master dealers often wonder how to attract new audiences to look at, let alone buy, Old Master paintings. This video from Sotheby's also asks the same question, but provides less convincing answers. One of the best ways to do it is in the straightforward, engaging manner we see in O'Reilly's film; take a matter people think about in their daily lives - like haircuts and what clothes to wear - and show how the same concerns were addressed in, say, the 16th Century. 

The same solution is advocated by the National Gallery's 17th Century curator Betsy Wiesman who says (in this story on the BBC):

"The way you make Old Master paintings relevant is to find a good hook in terms of explaining the social and historical context, which is fascinating when told in the right way."

'Told in the right way' is important, of course, and the main thing to avoid is any suggestion of dumbing down.

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. 

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