For sale - 'the earliest Vermeer' (ctd.)

July 9 2014

Image of For sale - 'the earliest Vermeer' (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

The 'earliest Vermeer' I reported on last month sold last night at Christie's for £6.2m (incl. premium). Congrats to them, and the new owner. A fuller update on the sales follows when the week is over. 

The vicar's Van Dyck (ctd.)

July 8 2014

Image of The vicar's Van Dyck (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

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. 

It's London Art Week!

July 4 2014

Image of It's London Art Week!

Picture: LAW

Today we start London Art Week, where all the major auctioneers and galleries open up for you to sample our delights. There are sales to view at Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams, and dozens of galleries in the St James' and Mayfair areas specialising on Old Master paintings, drawings and sculpture are putting on exhibitions with extended opening hours. More information here. Hope to see you around. 

Update - quite busy at the moment; two talks yesterday (Sunday) and viewings galore to follow this week. So there may be slow service on her for a couple of days - apologies!

Society of Antiquaries exhibition

July 3 2014

Image of Society of Antiquaries exhibition

Picture: SoA

The Society of Antiquaries of London has a little-known but excellent collection of portraits. This month, they're having a free exhibition in their plush Burlington House premises. Well worth a visit (Monday-Friday 10am-4pm). More information here, and there's also a programme of lectures, here.

Guffwatch - live

July 3 2014

Artbollocks Theatre (Sitcom Version) from Alistair Gentry on Vimeo.

Video: Alastair Gentry

A reader alerts me to Alastair Gentry's 'Artbollocks Theatre', where he gives:

Dramatic readings of the worst artist statements, gallery press releases and art criticism. Their writing is a tragedy, so I repeat them as comedy. All real, all bad, all by supposedly professional artists, gallerists and curators. (Series 2 compilation, with laugh track!)

More here

Poussin rescue plan fails to fly

July 3 2014

Image of Poussin rescue plan fails to fly

Picture: ACE

Sad news that a last-minute attempt by 'a consortium of regional museums' (according to the Arts Council) has failed to raise the £14m required to keep Poussin's 'Moses trampling the Pharoah's Crown' in the UK. The picture had been sold by the Duke of Beford to an overseas buyer, and now the export will go ahead. The good news is that the UK is still flush when it comes to great Poussins. And with three more of the Duke of Rutland's remaining Sacraments potentially available (he's sold two in the last two years), there will still be plenty of opportunities for UK museums to acquire more Poussins.

Emin's bed

July 2 2014

Image of Emin's bed

Picture: Guardian

Tracey Emin's unmade bed sold for £2.5m last night at Christie's. To Jay Jopling, her dealer (funny, that). More in The Guardian here. Catalogue note (with added YBA guff) here. Here's a snippet:

A profound exploration of the condition of the female artist, My Bed forms part of Emin’s continued dialogue championing the relevance of art and its ability to addressing questions of gender, sexuality, malady, fertility, loss, and inequality. ‘To map the movement of My Bed is to interrogate its débordement, its potential for meanings to overspill into the disjunctive yet overlapping contexts of sexual politics, homelessness and displacement at the end of the twentieth century. With their cartographies of diaspora and address the unresolved longings of identity, the installations of My Bed touch on and point to some of the key concerns of a contemporary moment’ (D. Cherry, ‘On the Move: My Bed, 1998 to 1999’, in M. Merck & C. Townsend (eds.), The Art of Tracey Emin, London 2002, p. 135).

I would have paid to see the Christie's art handlers (poor souls) pack and unpack this from the auction view. Did they wear white gloves? Did they measure every fold of the sheets and the placement of every tampon, to replicate exactly the artist's original intention? Did they do a condition report before and after the sale? Or did they just gather it all up and shove it in a box? 

Update - a reader alerts me to this article in The Guardian, which sets out just how the bed has to be handled:

When My Bed went on loan to Edinburgh's Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2008, senior curator Patrick Elliott was the man in charge. He and his team of conservators and art handlers received the work in boxes, with every item carefully stowed inside. Putting the piece together took about two days. "It was forensic," he says. "Every object was wrapped in tissue paper inside a freezer bag. As we took each item out, we sat round a table, noting its condition. We do that for every artwork, from a Rembrandt to a piece like this. So there we were, looking at a Durex, noting whether it had any marks that shouldn't have been there. It was quite bizarre."

Emin herself was on hand to make sure the installation looked right. "I remember her saying," Elliott adds, "that the sheets weren't nearly as stained and smelly as she remembered them." And when it came to packing the installation away, there were some surprises in store: a number of extraneous objects had found their way onto the bed. "We found a good few extra things," he says, "from a pair of slippers to a note to Tracey telling her how much this person had been moved by the work."

Update II - a reader asks:

Re the white gloves: Don't you think rubber gloves would be more appropriate in the context? 


Another reader wonders:

I have a feeling that if Emin was a man that bed would not be sold. 

Guffwatch - pop special

July 2 2014

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have tried a new tack for promoting contemporary art - music videos. The above is for Peter Doig's Country-rock (wing-mirror), which shows a tunnel by the side of a Canadian motorway, and sold this week for £8.5m (inc. premium). Here's a snippet of catalogue guff:

Country-rock (wing-mirror) is a prime example of the mood which Doig has forged in his painting: an ethereal but tense otherworldliness that suffuses his subjects with a muted numbness. In the planar composition, in the thin texture of the paintwork, and in the suggestion that their scenes may continue beyond the limitations of the canvas, Doig’s works are overtly dreamlike. They are surreal, if not in the semiotic psychoanalytical sense, then in that sense of a blanketed half-remembered detail. So often, when we experience a sense of misplaced familiarity, we attribute it to a dream. With this mundane and universally recognised highway setting, Doig imparts that same sense of familiarity into his work, and from it we make the same attribution: that this is not a work of memory, but rather a dream transposed.

We have all the usual thesaurus-raiding guff tricks here; impenetrable pyscho-babble built around sentences with needlessly contradictory sub-clauses ('black, but at the same time white'). For a reminder in how they do it, see here

Re-founding the Foundling Museum

July 2 2014

Image of Re-founding the Foundling Museum

Picture: Foundling Museum

In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey has a detailed report of the latest developments at London's Foundling Museum, which has an impressive collection of English 18th Century pictures, including Hogarth's portrait of Thomas Coram, above. Here's the story in a nutshell.

Coram was the founder of the Foundling hospital orphanage, and the charity which is now the successor to the hospital, 'Coram' (re-branded from 'The Thomas Coram Foundation') attempted last year to wrestle control of the museum and its contents by sacking both the director and its board. There were fears that the charity wanted to gain control of the assets, and potentially sell them. After intervention by the Attorney General and the Charity Commission, 'Coram' has now had to back down, and the original trustees have been re-appointed. However, this still leaves the Museum with a formidably difficult task, for they have only until 2027 to buy all the pictures from 'Coram'. The collection is thought to value up to £30m, and so far the only major picture the trustees have managed to acquire is Hogarth's March of The Guards to Finchley for £4m. 

Computer says 'no'

July 2 2014

Image of Computer says 'no'

Picture: Telegraph

On the basis that this-is-my-blog-and-I'll-rant-if-I-want-to, pray allow me to give you some random consumer advice: never, ever, ever, ever, ever fly British Airways. 

Here's why. Last Friday I got to the security gate at Heathrow's Terminal 5 for a flight to Edinburgh (where I now live) one minute the wrong side of their 35 minute cut-off time. Despite the fact that every member of BA staff I pleaded with admitted that I would easily make the flight (the domestic gates are just the other side of security, and in any case, they never leave on time) a 'computer says no' attitude meant that I was automatically removed from the boarding list, and was prohibited from going through security. Instead, I had to endure smug lectures about how it was my responsibility to get to the airport in time, all delievered beneath an information display which signalled that the flight wasn't even boarding yet.

Then I was told that I could change my ticket or get a refund at the ticket desk. But there again it was 'computer says no'; because I had booked my ticket online (on the BA app) it wasn't possible for the human ticket person to help me. And because I had 'missed the flight' (because, remember, BA wouldn't physically let me on it) I was not allowed to make any changes, and could only 'apply' for a refund. This morning I got the happy news that I had been refunded £26.30 from a £188.80 ticket. The news was delivered after listening to an automated voice saying that it was BA's intention with all customer services to 'ensure you look forward to flying with us again'. Oddly enough, it said nothing about them being thieving b**stards.

My final piece of consumer advice is that Easyjet is the best way to fly from London to Edinburgh (a journey I do at least twice a week).

Update - a reader writes:

It happened to me (with my wife and then two-year old) when BA sent us to the wrong terminal at Gatwick and then wouldn't do anything to help when we realised we were in the wrong place.  When we did get to the departure gate they said we were too late, in spite of the fact that it was clearly going to take longer for them to locate and unload our luggage (which they had to do) than it was for us to board the plane.  I assumed the flight was overbooked, so they were presumably delighted to have an excuse to get passengers off it.  But they did give us vouchers against future flights, which we forgot to use...

Another BA wary reader writes:

Much prefer Easyjet and at least flying Ryanair there is no pretence that they are doing anything other than trying to extract as much cash as possible.

Restoring Monet

July 2 2014

Image of Restoring Monet


A picture by Monet that was punched by a visitor to the National Gallery of Ireland (above) has been restored, and is now back on display. More on the conservation work here.

How long can the Boom last?

June 29 2014

Image of How long can the Boom last?

Picture: Sotheby's

Georgina Adam has been covering the art market for publications such as the Financial Times and The Art Newspaper for decades. So her new book on the extraordinary heights of the modern and contemporary art market, and how it relates to previous art market booms is well worth a read. You can order a copy of Big Bucks – The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Centuryhere. Here in the FT she summarizes her conclusions:

Everyone wants to know whether this market is a bubble and, if so, when it will burst? This seems unlikely to happen any time soon: the sheer amount of global wealth; the massive museum-building programmes; the positioning of art as an element of the celebrity and fashion worlds, and the seductive lifestyle the art world offers are all very attractive to the super-rich.

But I like to keep in mind what the Chinese say: “Trees can’t grow as high as the sky.” All markets are cyclical; the art market has had booms and busts before, for example, during the armed conflicts of the 20th century, in the 1970s and in 1990: each time mirroring the global economy.

There are parallels between this situation and the art market in England between 1860 and 1914, “the golden age of the living painter”, according to art historian Gerald Reitlinger. It was a time of rapid economic growth thanks to the technological revolution, and new patrons of art came from these manufacturing and trading fortunes.

The sometimes scandalous lives of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their circle were well publicised; advances in printing meant that 600,000 impressions were sold of Millais’ winsome child, “Cherry Ripe”. Contemporary artists were stars: Edwin Long’s florid “The Babylonian Marriage Market” (1875) sold in 1882 for £6,615 (almost £700,000 today) – then a record for a living English painter. It was bought by Thomas Holloway, a multimillionaire from sales of ointment and medicines. The art establishment was outraged, and in Holloway’s obituary the Art Journal sniffed: “Those whose productions he acquired may possibly have to regret the inflated prices which . . . their works assumed.”

Long’s prices did collapse, along with those of many Victorian artists. The first world war and the Great Depression would end that boom.

How will today’s art stars fare in the future? Major political upheavals or financial problems inevitably have an impact on investment and the art market cannot be immune. Almost all the huge prices are, however, being made as a growing pool of ultra-rich buyers battles for a small number of brand-name works. There is a vast hinterland of good art by creators whose names will never be widely known and whose works will never achieve such heights. The overall trend of the market is upwards, historically, but not for everyone, and not always.

A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?

June 29 2014

Image of A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?

Picture: CMOA

They've broken out the acetone at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for a new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found. A previously 'tarted up' portrait of Isabella de Cosimo de Medici (below) has been making the headlines (e.g., in the Daily Mail here), but more interesting I think is the above portrait of Lord Bergavenny (1469-1535). Long thought to be a fake 'Holbein', due to rancid-looking later overpaint in the background, new analysis has revealed under-drawing and a much earlier background (left hand top corner) perhaps painted with smalt. I'm going to ask the CMOA for an image of this under-drawing (often crucial in Holbein attributions, as we're looking for signs of originality), and will report back if I get one. In the meantime, you can see a high-res image of the partially cleaned picture here. No panel painting by Holbein of Bergavenny is known. There is a drawing of the same sitter by Holbein at Wilton house, image here, and a miniature is also known.

Update - the CMOA have very kindly sent me this IR photo. 

Update II - a painter writes:

The partially cleaned ' School of Holbein' portrait of Lord Bergavenny is definitely based on the Wilton drawing or an exact copy of it, because it reproduces a slight error of draughtsmanship in the original drawing. There is also a miniature based on the same drawing, claimed to be by Holbein.

One of the characteristics of Holbein's (alleged) use of a form of Camera lucida (like Ingres) is the occasional misplacement of  one of the eyes, usually the one furthest from the picture plane. This can be caused by the sitter slightly changing the angle of his/her head, during the creation of the drawing.

This phenomenom can seen very clearly in the painting of Jane Seymour where her right eye (further from the picture plane) appears larger than the nearer, left eye. Surprisingly this has been transferred, apparently unnoticed by Holbein, from drawing to painting.

In the case of Bergavenny, the sitter's left eye in the Wilton drawing is very slightly too high up, in relation to the nearer eye, which Holbein will have drawn first and this has been reproduced in the painting, now being cleaned.. 

In other drawings, the sitter has turned slightly towards Holbein so one sees more of the eye than the strict rules of perspective  allow-( I believe this is what happened with Jane Seymour). 

The drawing looks immensely more powerful than the painting in its present state and I much look forward to seeing if it improves with cleaning.

I don't buy the camera lucida theory myself.


June 29 2014

Image of 7,564

Picture: TNA

That's the number of oil paintings in the Royal Collection, which we only now know for the first time, reports Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper:

Britain’s Royal Collection is to undergo the most ambitious condition survey ever carried out on a major group of paintings. On the eve of the conservation project, The Art Newspaper can give the precise number of paintings for which the collection is responsible: 7,564 works in oil. This is the first time that the number has been confirmed in the past 500 years. The works will all be condition-checked and properly photographed, and images of most of the paintings will be published online, revealing for the first time the extent of the world’s greatest private collection.

The Painting Condition Survey is due to begin this summer with the “lesser” palaces—Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Sandringham in Norfolk and Balmoral in Scotland. A team of four conservators and frame technicians will move systematically through each of the royal residences, room by room. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, says that the paintings will be taken off the wall, one by one, and removed from their frames. This will be a complex logistical exercise, since the pictures hang in 13 royal residences throughout the UK.

Faking Van Gogh

June 29 2014

Image of Faking Van Gogh

Picture: Boston Globe

The Boston Globe reports from Dafen, the village in China where they knock out thousands of Van Goghs and Monets a year, on a 20 step guide to painting Sunflowers:

Step 18: sign 'Vincent'.

'Masterpiece', and apologies

June 26 2014

Image of 'Masterpiece', and apologies

Picture: Lawrence Hendra

Further apologies for the patchy service lately. As I mentioned below, it's that time of year when all the fairs and Old Master auctions happen at the same time. So things have been a little busy.

We set up our stand at the Masterpiece fair over the weekend (see above, can you spot the Titian?). Then Monday was vetting day. Happily, we had no casualties. Tuesday saw the fair open with a 'Patrons evening', and yesterday we had the 'preview' day, from 10am to 10pm. The setting up days were fuelled by cheeseburgers from the builders tent. From now on it's over-priced sandwiches from the Mount Street Deli in the fair. The free champagne, which flowed endlessly yesterday and on Tuesday night, also ceases today. Boo.

Vetting is a curious business. Each category (paintings pre-1900, sculpture, etc.) has its own sub-committee, and is taken very seriously. At some fairs it isn't (and it shows). The picture committee is made up of a collection of museum curators and former directors, and also some fellow dealers. I've never understood why the latter are there, to be honest - if it were up to me, I'd make it exclusively curators and scholars. But the system seems to work well enough anyway.

Exhibitors are not allowed into the fair when vetting takes place in the morning, but must return to their stands by 2pm to look for the dreaded blue stickers, which are stuck to anything that doesn't pass muster. Last year one dealer returned to find an infestation of the things; it was a vetting bloodbath. He's not come back this year.

Our preview day was reasonably successful. Our consultant for portrait miniatures, Emma Rutherford, sold six works, and had another four reserved by clients. We've also sold three paintings, with another reserved. The atmosphere is quite upbeat; the fair, in its fifth year now, has hits its stride, and I'm pleased to see a few more picture dealers have come on board too (like Lowell Libson and John Mitchell). I think Masterpiece's position as the pre-eminent London fine art fair is pretty secure. Frieze Masters, from what most dealers tell me, hasn't quite worked out (at least for Old Masters). It's at the wrong time of year, and the centre of gravity is inevitably weighted towards modern and contemporary.

This year Masterpiece is a week earlier than previously, so fortunately it's not at the same time as Master Paintings Week (which is when all the central London galleries open their doors during the Old Master sales). This means I won't spend half the day in taxis, shuttling back and forth from fair to gallery, and auction room.

Master Paintings Week is lucky to have the support of the National Gallery, and its director Nicholas Penny, who writes on the MPW website:

We do not know who invented the term ‘Old Master Painting’.  It seems to have emerged in the London art trade two hundred years ago. ‘Master Paintings’ is the not very felicitous but very useful new term which combines Old Masters with art that cannot yet be called modern.  Etymological enquiries of this kind draw our attention to the shifting definitions essential to the history of taste as it evolves not only in the art market, but in museums and galleries.

If the National Gallery’s collection is in some respects canonical it should be noted that since 2000 it has acquired by gift and purchase works by Maulbertsch, Calame, Balke, Menzel and Gallen Kallela – Austrian, Swiss, Norwegian, German and Finnish artists.  And by the time this is published will have acquired a major North American painting by George Bellows, whose work has perhaps never previously been shown in the context of European art.

How are such changes made?  What are the preconditions for an institution redefining itself in this way?  These are not easy questions to answer.  The personal interest of a Director or the enthusiasm of a Curator, the support of Trustees (or their indulgence) are all significant forces, and so too is the work of academic art historians and critics.  But perhaps the most important factor is the eye for new opportunities, the sense of discovery, generated by dealers and collectors.  It is in the art market that new reputations are most commonly made, at least at first.

This is a fairly random post before I head off to the fair for the day. Can I say thank you to the readers who said very kind things to me at the fair yesterday. And I look forward to seeing more of you both there and at the gallery in the coming days.

Cleaning Caillebotte

June 26 2014

Video: Art Institute of Chicago

Check out those big swabs.

BP Portrait Award - winner announced

June 26 2014

Image of BP Portrait Award - winner announced

Picture: NPG

I am a fan of the BP Portrait Award. And though I haven't yet seen it in the flesh, I like the look of this year's winner: 'Man with a Plaid Blanket', by Thomas Ganter. More here in the BBC, and here in the New York Times.

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' goes home

June 23 2014

Image of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' goes home

Picture: AP/Via MailOnline

The Mauritshuis has re-opened. More here in The Art Newspaper, and photos of the newly refurbished interiors here. The famous Vermeer gets her own Mona Lisa-style barrier.

Update - just a random speculation: but might her triumphant renovation of the Mauritshuis provide a good platform for Emilie Gordenker to come to London? Regular readers will know my views on the sad dearth of female museum directors here in the UK... 

Nicholas Penny to leave the National Gallery

June 23 2014

Image of Nicholas Penny to leave the National Gallery

Picture: NG

Nicholas Penny is leaving the National Gallery after six years as director. Says the NG's press release:

His decision comes as he approaches his 65th birthday this December. The exact date of his retirement will depend on the appointment of his successor. 

Under Dr Nicholas Penny’s Directorship, the National Gallery staged the most successful exhibition in its history, Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, as well as major exhibitions on painters including Barocci, Veronese and, this autumn, Rembrandt. In 2013, for the first time ever, annual visitors to the Gallery exceeded 6 million.

Reflecting on his six years as Director, Nicholas said “I have enjoyed my years as Director and am grateful to the Trustees, staff and to the Gallery’s supporters for helping to ensure that the Gallery has continued to prosper despite a steadily declining grant – to flourish both as a great and popular resource and as a home for scholarship, a national gallery admired internationally."

He added “Following my retirement I have many plans, but chiefly look forward to spending more time with my family, friends and books.”

Mark Getty, Chairman of the National Gallery Trustees, expressed the Board’s gratitude to the Director for all he has done for the Gallery, saying “Nick has been an extraordinarily successful Director of the National Gallery, steering the nation’s acquisition of the two great Titian paintings, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (pictured) and ‘Diana and Callisto’ jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland, and this year securing the acquisition of the Gallery’s first major American painting, ‘Men of the Docks’ by George Bellows. The Board are hugely grateful to him for his energy, vision and commitment to the Gallery’s work. We will miss him greatly.”  

The Board of Trustees will shortly begin its search for a new Director. Under the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992, the Director of the National Gallery is appointed by the Trustees with the approval of the Prime Minister.

Nicholas Penny has agreed to stay in office for the entirety of that recruitment process, in order to affect a smooth handover to his successor.

This sad and very unwelcome news comes hot on the heels of Sandy Nairne's announcement of his departure from the National Portrait Gallery. Who will succeed them? It's all getting a bit Game of Thrones.

Update - in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones writes:

It is very worrying that two such talented museum directors have apparently had enough. What have they had enough of?

Ultimately their dignified departures are personal matters and their own business. But it must be getting harder to run a big London museum. The capital is famous for art in a way it has never been before, and tourists flow ceaselessly through its galleries. There's a media assumption that every exhibition should be a hit, a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections, but entertainment and education for everyone. Publicity and accessibility are everything.

Nicholas Penny and Sandy Nairne are characterful people with ideas about art. Is that kind of originality being driven out of a museum world driven by increasingly populist expectations and, at the same time, shrinking budgets? Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press?

This year has seen a taboo broken when a critic actually called for a museum director to be sacked because of (supposed) poor attendances. That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment. Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny.

This looks depressingly like the end of individuality in the museum world.

Update - Richard Dorment in the Telegraph thinks Nicholas might have had an offer from elsewhere:

But though he’ll be missed, he’s doing the right thing at the right time, when he can still do the shows and write the books that no one else alive could have done or written. But of that’s only if you believe he is really retiring – and if I were a betting man I’d wager that he’s had a call from a large American museum.

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