In the basement

May 9 2011

Image of In the basement

Picture: Victoria & Albert Museum

I said recently that I would post the occasional ‘in the basement’ story, to highlight the risks of deaccessioning. Tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be a panelist at a conference on deaccessioning at the National Gallery, London. Speakers include Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP, Chairman of the National Trust Sir Simon Jenkins, and the director of the National Gallery Dr. Nicholas Penny. My panel is at the end of the day, in the dying-for-a-drink slot.

I suspect most of the day will be spent debating whether deaccessioning is a good or a bad thing – but the fact is that the process has begun. A large number of regional and local authority controlled museums in Britain are already selling off works.

Above is a painting in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is catalogued on their website as ‘attributed to Joseph Highmore’, but is undoubtedly by Andrea Soldi. (See J. Ingamells: ‘Andrea Soldi—a Check List of his Work’, Walpole Soc., xlvii (1980), pp. 1–20 for other comparable examples.)

Who's Soldi, you might ask? True, he’s not a well-known artist, and it’s a not a particularly exciting painting  (and nor am I suggesting that the V&A would ever sell it). But the point is that you can’t decide to sell something until you know what you have to sell. There are many similar mis-catalogued paintings in museum basements across the country. And we need to have a structure in place to make sure no unfortunate mistakes are made. [More below]

Let’s look at what happens in America, where deaccessioning happens all the time. The great majority of disposals are handled well, and the funds used go towards buying more interesting pictures. But, in my day job as an art dealer, I quite often come across paintings that are mistakenly deaccessioned as copies or with the wrong attribution.

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

Here's an example. The above illustration shows a painting by George Romney that was sold by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, at auction as ‘after George Romney’. The subject was identified as a copy after one of Romney’s most important full-lengths in the Frick Collection, Henrietta, Countess of Warwick and her Children (below). The estimate was £4-6,000. 

Picture: Frick Collection

We (Philip Mould Ltd) thought the Virginia Museum's picture was a bit better than a copy, and bought it. Cleaning and conservation revealed that it had been substantially over-painted, probably in the early twentieth century, and beneath lay Romney's first study or compositional arrangement for the Frick painting.

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

As you can see in the cleaned picture above there is an extra male hand in the bottom right hand corner, and a tiny sketch of a man in a brown coat. It appears that the original picture was to have included Lord Warwick, but this was then changed by Romney, and the young boy was moved further apart from his sister. The later restorer, when confronted by so many hands, had decided to turn Romney’s study into a less visually confusing ‘finished’ picture, and so added in the column and shrubbery, and made it appear as if the boy was holding his sister’s hand. There aren't many Romney studies like this that survive, and it's quite an important picture.

That is why at tomorrow's conference I shall suggest again that we need to have some sort of central panel of experts to help manage deaccessioning in the UK. The sad fact is that in some regional museums there is a dearth of specialist knowledge – the job of a curator is nowadays more about administration than scholarship. 

The panel could be formed along the lines of the government’s reviewing committee on the export of works of art and the acceptance in lieu panel. These are made up of a range experts and call in others with specialist knowledge depending on the nature of the case they are looking at. The panel would help prevent items being mistakenly sold off, and ensure that the full value of a work was realised. The committee can also help manage the disposal process nationally, for, thanks to Fred Hohler and the invaluable Public Catalogue Foundation, we now have the ability to consider individual museum collections as part of our national collection of art. 

The committee need not require legislation. It could operate rather like the Spoliation Advisory Panel, who’s decisions are not legally binding, but are by convention adhered to. Or, you could even go down a 'Big Society' route, and form a less formal, more voluntary body. 

'Pricey Warhols make lousy investments'

May 9 2011

Image of 'Pricey Warhols make lousy investments'

Picture: Christie's, 'Diamond Dust Shoes' by Andy Warhol (1980-81), est. $1-1.5m, 11th May 2011.

So says Bloomberg, in a story which nonetheless contains this piece of financial advice:

“If you can buy a 90-by-70 Warhol shoe painting for $1 million, it’s better than owning Google, Microsoft and Facebook together,” said Alberto Mugrabi, New York-based collector and dealer in Warhol. 

So don't buy just 'cos you like it.

In love with a Monet

May 9 2011

Image of In love with a Monet

Picture: 'Bathers at La Grenouillere' by Monet, National Gallery, London, one of the pictures used by researchers to study the effect of art on the brain.

At last, a link between the study of art history and sex (sort of). From the Daily Telegraph:

The same part of the brain that is excited when you fall for someone romantically is stimulated when you stare at great works of beauty, researchers have discovered.

Viewing art triggers a surge of the feel-good chemical, dopamine, into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain, resulting in feelings of intense pleasure.

Dopamine and the orbito-frontal cortex are both known to be involved in desire and affection and in invoking pleasurable feelings in the brain.

It is a powerful affect often associated with romantic love and illicit drug taking.

Top tip...

May 6 2011

Google translate have now added Latin to their list of languages. It isn't very good, but handy for a getting the gist of old inscriptions etc. 

Royal Collection Diamond Jubilee exhibitions

May 6 2011

Image of Royal Collection Diamond Jubilee exhibitions

Picture: The Royal Collection

The Royal Collection has announced a series of exhibitions for 2012 to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. They've put on a fantastically ambitious programme, and it looks like we're in for some real treats, including:

  • the largest ever exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's studies of the human body (Queen's Gallery, 4th May - 7th October);
  • a 'highlights' exhibition at Holyroodhouse (16th March - 16th September), with Rapahels Rembrandts, Holbeins etc.;
  • an exhibition of diamonds at Buckingham Palace (August & September)
  • and a touring exhibition of ten of Leonardo's finest drawings, which will go to Birmingham, Bristol, Belfast, Dundee and Hull.

The director of the Royal Collection, Jonathan Marsden, said:

‘Our exhibitions celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee through many of the finest works of art in the Royal Collection, and we are particularly delighted to be sharing, on behalf of The Queen, some of these great treasures with museums and galleries across the UK. This is a fitting tribute to Her Majesty’s commitment over the past 60 years to the care and conservation of the Collection and to increasing public access.’

'The Old Masters' at The Met

May 6 2011

Image of 'The Old Masters' at The Met

This looks like fun; a staged reading at The Metropolitan Museum in New York of Simon's Gray's play 'The Old Masters', on 20th and 27th June. Sam Waterston and Brian Murray star.

The play examines the controversial relationship between the art dealer Joseph Duveen (above left), and the art historian Bernard Berenson (right). The two fell out over The Adoration of the Shepherds, which Duveen wanted Berenson to authenticate as a Giorgione for his client Samuel H. Kress. Berenson, however, insisted the work was by the young Titian. Today, the picture hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington - as a Giorgione

The Met has 124 european paintings which at some point passed through Duveen's gallery. 

Yikes - an 'art market slowdown'?

May 5 2011

Image of Yikes - an 'art market slowdown'?

Picture: Guardian/Martin Godwin

A work by Egon Schiele will be offered at Sotheby's next month in London with an estimate of £22-30m. More interesting, perhaps, is the headline The Guardian has given the story:

'Rare Egon Schiele painting could buck art market slowdown'.

The auction houses will be hoping for better results than have been seen in the equivalent big sales in New York over the past week. At Christie's on 4 May, $156m of impressionist and modern art was sold, below the total pre-sale estimate of $162m-$232m, with 10 lots failing to sell, including Monet's Iris Mauves.

It was a similar situation at Sotheby's on 3 May, which sold lots for $170m, above the low estimate of $159, but with some notable disappointments. There were 15 unsold lots and the top lot, Picasso's Femmes Lisant (Deux Personnages), sold for below its estimate price.

It seems to only take a few high-profile failures, and suddenly everyone is rushing for the exit. If only the auction houses would learn - if you live by the hyped estimate, then so, according to the inexorable rule of fate, you must die thereby. 

Henry Moore goes to Russia

May 5 2011

Image of Henry Moore goes to Russia

Picture: Henry Moore Foundation

As part of the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Siege of Leningrad, the Hermitage Museum is putting on an exhibition of Henry Moore's 'shelter drawings', done in London during the Blitz. It will run from May 7th to August 28th. From the Henry Moore Foundation's press release:

The use of the Hermitage basements as shelters during the Siege adds an unusual poignancy to the display.  As well as five galleries of Moore drawings, one room will be dedicated to the drawings of Soviet architect Alexander Nikolsky. They record images of people sheltering in the basement during the bombardment.

During the Blitz, Henry Moore made numerous sketches and a series of worked-up drawings of people sheltering from the German bombing in the London Underground.  As evocations of suffering and endurance, these have atteined an almost mythic status in the artist's work, and were widely exhibited during and after World War Two.

Royal Society of Portrait Painters

May 5 2011

Image of Royal Society of Portrait Painters

Picture: RSPP

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition opens tomorrow. Famous faces include the Queen (above, by James Lloyd), Boris Johnson, and David Starkey. See highlights here

"I'll pay for that"

May 5 2011

Image of "I'll pay for that"

The Guardian has a good interview with the artist Michael Craig-Martin, the 'godfather of the YBAs'. As a tutor at Goldsmith's College, he had a significant influence on Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst. The Guardian asks him:

Didn't you feel jealous of their success? "Of course! I remember Damien showing Charles Saatchi his idea for a shark in his notebook, and Saatchi saying, 'I'll pay for that.' 

Craig-Martin also (gasp) says that artists should actually make their art:

"People call me a conceptual artist, as if the idea was all, but actually what interests me is what happens when the idea becomes a thing. Ideas are by their nature generalisations, something that can be applied to lots of things. But making art is about making particulars, and that particular something can be the generator of a generalisation."

A new exhibition of Craig-Martin's drawings is at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London.

Weiwei's New York sculpture finally unveiled

May 5 2011

Image of Weiwei's New York sculpture finally unveiled

Picture: Ben Davis

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads were unveiled yesterday by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The artist was of course absent. The delay, it seems, was due to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

'Far from stellar'

May 5 2011

Image of 'Far from stellar'

Picture: Reuters

That's the New York Times' verdict on Christie's Impressionist and Modern sale held last night in New York. The sale totaled $156m, including buyer's premium, which is some way under the combined low hammer price estimate of $162m, which did not include premium. Sotheby's sale the day earlier totalled more, $170m. Apparently, the day's delay suited Christie's:

Christie’s had a big advantage in its timing. By evaluating the results of the auction season opener, experts there were able to persuade sellers to adjust their expectations accordingly. “They lowered the reserves and got their energy back,” said Abigail Asher, a private Manhattan dealer, referring to the secret minimum price agreed upon by the seller and the auction house.

They say Leonardo di Caprio was spotted in the room. 

Turner Prize shortlist

May 5 2011

The Turner Prize 2011 shortlist has been announced. The four artists are Karla Black, Martin Boyce, George Shaw, and Hilary Lloyd (above).

The latter, according Tate's notice:

'combines still and moving images, sound and the three dimensional forms of AV playback equipment [translation: a telly] to portray the urban environment.'

More images on the BBC here, and The Sun's take here.

Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern $170m sale

May 4 2011

Image of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern $170m sale

Picture: Sotheby's

The headline figures may look spectacular, but there were some interesting prices. The front cover lot, Picasso's Femme Lisant (above), was estimated at $25-35m, but sold for $21.3m including buyer's premium. That means the hammer price was significantly lower than expected (pre-sale estimates do not include premiums), and that the reserve must have been dramatically lowered just before the sale.

Does this mean that a) Sotheby's over-estimated the picture in the first place? or b) the Picasso market has peaked? I think the answer is a). Increasingly, auctioneers are having to place punchy estimates just to get pictures consigned in the first place, and then hope for a single bidder who'll buy at the reserve. 

Watch a sleeper sell

May 4 2011


Here's a fascinating video of a potential sleeper being sold at auction in Paris. The painting, titled Cinq Personnages de la Comedie Italienne, was catalogued as 'circle of Watteau', with an estimate of EUR 40-60,000. It sold for EUR 1m, excluding buyer's premium. 

Here is the original cataloguing. The central figure related to a drawing by Antoine Watteau, but there was also speculation it could be by Jean-Baptiste Pater. Doubtless it'll surface again, and I'll put news of it here if it does. 

Osama in art

May 4 2011

Image of Osama in art

Picture: Jesse Lenze, 'Marilyn and Monsters'

Is it too early to look at Osama bin Laden's role in art? They've already started over at GlobalGrind:

Osama bin Laden is dead. Yet he will live in art, history and on the Internet forever as a celebrity subject of Photoshop wizards, stencil graffiti artists, sculptors, graphic designers, armchair and profession historians, T-shirt hawkers and painters with something to sell or say about war, terror and the cult of worship.  

That's not a bad thing, it  just might get annoying after a while.

Fantin-Latour and the Impressionists

May 4 2011

Image of Fantin-Latour and the Impressionists

Picture: Bowes Museum

Richard Dorment gives a thumbs up to the Bowes Museum's new exhibition. Closes 9th October.

Zoom in on Claude

May 3 2011

Image of Zoom in on Claude

The new Claude Lorrain exhibition at the Louvre (closes July 18th) has a very good website, where you can zoom in on some of Claude's best works in great detail. Well worth a click.

Pasta la vista

May 3 2011

Image of Pasta la vista

Picture: EPA

Here's one for those of you who read this blog on your lunch break... Arnold Schwarzenegger is by Shu Yong, and has gone on display at Art Beijing 2011 this week. I suppose I should write something witty about his lack of genitalia, but I can't see the point. 

Dictator art - Syria edition

May 3 2011

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