How to be a Connoisseur

September 22 2013

Image of How to be a Connoisseur


Reader Leonor Leite kindly alerts me to this indispensable guide in how to tell who painted what. Above is a handy way to spot a Bosch.

Questions for the Art Loss Register

September 22 2013

Image of Questions for the Art Loss Register

Picture: ALR

There's an interesting article in the New York Times on the Art Loss Register, which I hope makes people ask some questions about that organisation. In a fairly devastating run through some of the ALR's more unusual actions, the article highlights what to me is the ALR's fundamental flaw - that despite sounding like a pure and benign 'register' of stolen art, which anyone can check before deciding to buy something, it aspires to make its real money by taking a cut out of any art it returns. This can lead to some significant conflicts of interest. For example:

Among the incidents that have drawn criticism, the Register misled a client who wanted to check the provenance of a painting before he purchased it, telling him it was not stolen, when in fact it was, so that he would buy it and unwittingly help the company collect a fee for its retrieval.

It has been known to pay middlemen and informers for leads on stolen works, a practice that troubles some in law enforcement, who say that it can incite thefts. And the company often behaves like a bounty hunter, charging fees of as much as 20 percent of a work’s value for its return.

These fees do not bother the insurance companies and other clients that hire the Register to find a work. But the company has approached people and museums with whom it has no relationship. In several cases, people say the Register contacted them, told them of a lead on a stolen work, then refused to divulge any information until the subject agreed to pay a fee.

Officials at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orleans, France, for example, said that the Register approached the museum in 2003, asserting that it had information about an Alfred Sisley painting that had been stolen from the museum. The company said it could retrieve the work if the museum agreed to its fee. Unable to afford the payment, the museum called the police instead. The work was never recovered.

For me, the most worrying aspect of the ALR's position is its global, quasi-judicial ability to arbitrarily declare a work of art 'stolen', sometimes without there being an actual police or court judgement that a work is in fact stolen. So a perfectly straightforward ownership dispute can see the ALR working on behalf of one party, from whom it will get a fee if it helps return that work, and then prevent the other party doing anything with the work by declaring it 'stolen', and thus effectively worthless.  

It is clear that the art world needs an art loss register of sorts. But this should be a simple database searching company (using information from courts and police forces), and not get involved in returning works for a fee. I don't see why it shouldn't be possible for the art trade and law enforcement agencies, collectively, to fund such a body on a not-for-profit basis.

Rosales pleads guilty

September 22 2013

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Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that Glafira Rosales, the dealer behind the recent $80m Knoedler fakes scam, has pleaded guilty. The artist who painted the works, believed to be Pei-Shen Qian, has not been charged. Meanwhile, US art critic Jerry Saltz has expressed his wonderment at how Knoedler were taken in by Rosales, and (marvellously) likened the whole business to:

[...] an email you get from Nigeria twice a day.

Damn right.

Meltdown at the Museums Association?

September 22 2013

Image of Meltdown at the Museums Association?

Picture: Museums Association (detail from the MA's '2020' vision document)

The Grumpy Art Historian, who is no fan of the Museums Association, highlights yet another disastrous blog post by the MA's Head of Policy and Communications, Maurice Davies. Following his post on 'Stupid Curators', discussed here on AHN, Davies sought to extricate himself from allegations that he was yet again dissing the profession he is paid to represent. But it seems, from the comments (most of which are from MA members) that he has only made matters worse. Here's the choicest of them:

It seems you are becoming the Quentin Letts of the museum world. You seem to take glee in writing comment that you know will explode the sector. And then you relish your second helping of glee as the negative responses come in. And you can do that as you have power in the organisation that pays you. You are safe. Most of those responding are not and are scared of losing jobs, status or both. Until you come out from your protected place please stop looking down on everyone else as little stupid people (or curators). [...] I am only sorry that the MA thinks it suitable to have someone as influential and senior in the organisation kicking others in the sector on a regular basis, instead of supporting or helping them. 

Another zinger;

This same rubbish is also reflected in how the MA has behaved recently. For example, purposely writing out curatorial and preservation impacts from “Museums 2020” (as stated by Mark Taylor) and airbrushing the benefits of curators out of “Collections for the Future” and only valuing collections that are used (to only mention a couple of examples)! This is where the problems are. Great museums need good curators and it is about time the MA realised this and did something to reverse the damaging trend of decreasing curator numbers rather than “cheap sensationalism”. Best practice models, advocacy and the accreditation scheme should all include and make clear the vital need museums have for curatorial skills. However we have nothing on this from the MA. Why? 

The MA really needs to get back to being a body which sticks up for the museum sector in its relations with central and local government. At a time of cuts, this is more important than ever. All this daft agitating for change within museums, be it exhibition policy or the need for curators to think about integrating human rights in their displays, needs to stop. If people in government know the MA has a fractious membership, and doesn't command the respect of the whole sector, then they won't listen to it as much as they should. Possibly there is a conflict here between some of those who work part-time for the MA and also for their own Museum Consultancy, which offers, for example:

Organisational development and change. Our focus is on achieving organisational change through helping you rethink what you do and why, staff development and nurturing better working relationships.

Policy development. We have been at the forefront of shaping policy in the museum sector over the last decade and can offer insight into sector developments, advice on influencing funders and decision-makers and help your museum think creatively about its future role.

Rethinking collections. We have developed some of the most influential recent initiatives relating to museum collections and can help you to use your collections in new ways, as well as helping with practical tasks such as collections reviews.

See earlier AHN for more MA daftness here and here

Go to Yeo (ctd.)

September 22 2013

Image of Go to Yeo (ctd.)

Picture: Jonathan Yeo/NPG

Further to my mention of the new Jonny Yeo portrait, below, there was a good programme on the artist on BBC2 recently, available on iPlayer here.

Met Director - how to curate

September 22 2013

Video: TED

Definitely worth a watch this. Met director Thomas Campbell makes (it seems to me) a plea for old fashioned, object-based displays. Money quote:

Nothing replaces the authenticity of the object presented with passionate scholarship.

Suck on that, label-free galleries.

In the edit suite

September 22 2013

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Picture: BG

On Thursday I visited the editing suite at the BBC where they're cutting the Culture Show Special I'm making. Big mistake. You know that feeling you get, when you hear your own voice on, say, an answerphone, and think 'Christ, that's not really me, is it?' Well, magnify that by a million for the telly. Horrid. Then think of the poor editor and director who have to spend six weeks watching me on the big screen, as they stitch the programme together.

Sorry folks...

September 16 2013

...more filming today, and I'll be away all day tomorrow. 

Update - still away - sorry! Back, I hope, on Friday...

Even more Van Gogh news (ctd.)

September 13 2013

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Picture: Guardian

It never ends! The latest is a new book on Van Gogh's time in London, called 'How I love London' (as the artist once said). More details here. The photo above is Van Gogh's London home, in Brixton. 


September 13 2013

Image of Apologies...

Image, detail, courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, KBE

...for the bad service lately - I'm thick in the editing of Samuel Cooper catalogue. Above is our design for the exhibition flyer, which is a detail of Cooper's c.1653 portrait of Oliver Cromwell. The Protector famously instructed Cooper to paint him 'warts and all', and you can see the best painted wart in the whole of art history above Cromwell's eyebrow.

For your diaries, everyone, the exhibition opens 13th November till 7th December, Monday-Friday 10-5, Saturdays 12-4. We're going to have a lot of new things to say about Cooper and portraiture in England in the mid 17th Century...

Update - a reader writes:

I spotted in a recent update you attributed the Cromwell 'Warts an All' quote to a work by Samuel Cooper. I always understood this to be an instruction he'd given to Peter Lely - and in fact have set this as a question in a recent quiz I wrote...

Do you believe it to have been Cooper instead? Or was it just a mistype?

Good question! It is commonly believed to have been said to Lely, as shown in this Horrible Histories clip, but, as we shall show in our exhibition and catalogue, must in fact have been said to Cooper.

Go to Yeo

September 11 2013

Image of Go to Yeo

Picture: Johnathan Yeo/NPG

I saw the new exhibition of Johnathan Yeo's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday evening. You should go too. It's a small show, but left me with little doubt as to Yeo's talent, for many of the portraits on display are excellent. His portrait of Damien Hirst in a diving suit was given centre stage, and looked impressive, but I suspect in the long term it will suffer by association with a here-today-gone-tomorrow artist. On the other hand, his portraits of Grayson Perry in drag (who was there last night, looking bloody ridiculous in orange and yellow) and Kevin Spacey as Richard III deserve to become two of the great British portraits of the early 21st Century.

The Perry is superbly painted, and benefits from Yeo's greater than usual use of colour (hard to avoid, I guess, when your subject is in drag), while the Spacey is not only well executed, but demonstrates how a good portraitist needs more than just good technical skills - more than anything else, they have to get the overall approach to their subject right. The composition and characterisation of the Spacey portrait, for example, succesfully presents him in a suitably thespian light, but stays on the right side of being a portrayal of an actor, rather than a role. It's a portrait of Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard III, not Shakespeare's Richard III, which sounds simple enough to achieve, but you only need to look at all those hammy 18th and 19th Century portraits of actors, many by good artists such as Zoffany, to see that it isn't. 

I wonder if the exhibition will help propel Yeo onto the next level of recognition and critical acclaim (which I think he deserves). Can he step from being a society portraitist to an artist on the same level as his subjects, Hirst and Perry? That's hard for 'a painter' to achieve these days, and it's even harder for a portraitist. Freud, of course, managed it, but only relatively late on, and as I wrote some time ago, Freud, despite mainly painting people, eventually ceased being a portraitist in the conventional sense. He was a painter of flesh, one of the best ever, but not of character, and in Freud's portraits it is tempting to believe the argument that, beyond mere likeness, a portrait can only ever tell us something about the artist, not the sitter. I don't believe that this is always the case, not with artists like Thomas Gainsborough and, as I'm increasingly finding (in preparation for our exhibition here at Philip Mould & Co in November), the 17th Century miniaturist Samuel Cooper (who painted the famous 'warts and all' image of Cromwell).

Is it the case with Yeo? I think not - one can begin to feel real people in his sitters (easier, of course, when you've met some of them). The question is, how much can we know? One thing you notice about Yeo's subjects in the current exhibition is that (Grayson Perry aside) many of them are visibly enjoying themselves. And why not, you might say, for Yeo is famously good company, but one wonders whether Yeo's approach could benefit from a bit of Freudian dispassion, a sense that the artist has stepped outside his celebrity sitters' fame and studied them with a wider observation. Perhaps that's why Yeo's Grayson Perry and Kevin Spacey are so succesful. Because both subjects are adopting a role of sorts, Yeo has been able to focus on an extra dimension, the kind which, after getting the likeness, the drawing and the painting right, makes a good portrait a brilliant one. 

Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

September 11 2013

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Picture: AFP

The trial of the Romanian gang accused of stealing the Kunsthal pictures has been halted again. It turns out that the original owners of the works, the 'Triton Foundation' has already taken $24m in insurance money, and so the title to the works has passed to the insurers. According to the Romanian court documents, however, Triton are the injured party. All very odd. More here in the New York Times

Still more Van Gogh news

September 10 2013

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Picture: TAN

We've probably learnt more new things about Van Gogh in the last week than in a whole decade. Amazing. Following on from his Sunflower revelations, and the epic unveiling yesterday in Amsterdam of an entirely unknown painting by the artist, Martin Bailey reports in The Art Newspaper on a previously unknown drawing by Van Gogh (above).


September 10 2013

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The Independent reports on an art world opening night disaster:

Quite a few hacks were probably thinking “there but for the Grace of God…” when on Saturday evening in Lugano’s swanky Meno Uno gallery, one of their number, tanked up on free cocktails, made a lunge for a passing nibble but instead knocked over and destroyed a priceless work of art.

With the famous Swiss sense of decorum notably absent, “one guest at the preview," intoned Radio Switzerland (RSI),  "caught between a canapé and a chat with someone, unfortunately knocked over a work by Luciano Fabro and smashed it to pieces. It is, or rather, it was, the famous Impronta (Imprint) dated 1962-1964". [...]

The sculpture, an opaque glass disk with a central impression of Planet Earth at its centre, was left in a thousand pieces, while the other 30 guests picked their jaws up of the floor. Ironically, the work was said by its creator to represent the longevity of the world.

Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

September 9 2013

Image of Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

Picture: New York Times

It's all go for Van Gogh at the moment. The Van Gogh museum has unveiled a previously unknown painting by Van Gogh. The New York Times reports:

The painting has been in the private collection of a family for several years, but the museum would not release any more information about the owners because of privacy concerns, Mr. Rüger said. Two years ago, they brought it to the Van Gogh Museum to seek authentication, and researchers from the museum have been examining it ever since, said Mr. Rüger. The museum recently concluded that the work was a van Gogh because the painting’s pigments correspond with those of van Gogh’s palette from Arles.

It was also painted on the same type of canvas, with the same type of underpainting he used for at least one other painting, “The Rocks” (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston) of the same area at the same time. The work was also listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890, and was sold in 1901.

“Sunset at Montmajour” is comparable in size to van Gogh’s “Sunflower” painting of the same year. The owners brought it to the museum once before in 1991, said Mr. Rüger, but at the time no one recognized it as a van Gogh. “This time, we have topographical information plus a number of other factors that have helped us to establish authenticity. Research is so much more advanced now, so we could come to a very different conclusion.”

Update - read more on the Van Gogh museum website here. the full analysis will be in October's The Burlington Magazine

Turner's villa 'at risk'

September 9 2013

Image of Turner's villa 'at risk'

Picture: Tate

Did you know that Turner was a frustrated architect? And that his only surviving building (for which the above drawing is a design by him) is in Twickenham, and is suffering from severe damp? I had no idea, and for some years I used to live near Twickenham. Behold my ignorance.

Anyway, news that the house - Sandycombe Lodge - has passed the first hurdle in its pursuit of a Heritage Lottery Grant (they need £2m to fix the place) leads me to this interesting website. I hope you'll visit it too. Looks like a good cause. 

Update - Thomas Ward from the Soane Museum sends this fascinating note:

Interesting footnote about the villa. It was long speculated that John Soane had a hand in the design of the house

- some elements are unmistakeably Soanean. A sketch recently came to light at Sir John Soanes museum (where I work) which more or less confirms his involvement. Makes for a very interesting collaboration. It's a very odd building indeed.

Turner and Soane were close friends, they spent weekends at that house fishing and entertaining.

Not art history...

September 5 2013

Image of Not art history...

Picture: AFP

I don't know why this picture of Francois Hollande in a classroom is so funny, but it's made my day. The AFP agency in France tried to withdraw the photo, after it was accused of making the President look like 'a village idiot'. It tells us, I suppose, something about the sensitivity to power of portraiture and image.

Yet more Van Gogh news

September 5 2013

Video: Al Jazeera

If you're as fascinated as I am by Martin Bailey's revelations on Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but can't quite afford the real thing, then why not buy a $30,000 3D printed copy?

More Van Gogh news

September 5 2013

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Picture: Savills

A brief update on the sale of Van Gogh's London home in Stockwell, which, as I reported here last year, was sold at auction for £565,000. Following the interest in the sale and the building, the council has now renamed the street Van Gogh Walk. 

'The Sunflowers are Mine'

September 5 2013

Image of 'The Sunflowers are Mine'

Pictures: Aurum Publishing, and TAN

You might think that of perhaps the two most famous images in art history, Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Sunflowers series, we know all there is to know. For the Mona Lisa that is, I would say, true, though that doesn't stop the fantasists coming up with new theories on who she is and what she's doing. It seems, however, that we knew comparatively little about Van Gogh's series of sunflower paintings, given how much extraordinary new information has been uncovered by Martin Bailey in his new book, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece.

Perhaps the most eye catching revelation is the discovery that Van Gogh designed his own frame for at least one sunflower painting, which was destroyed in World War 2 (above):

A rare early colour image of Vincent van Gogh’s Six Sunflowers has been tracked down in Japan. It reveals that Van Gogh designed a bold orange frame for his still life. The framed painting, once in a private Japanese collection, was destroyed in an American bombing raid during the Second World War.

This newly discovered image is from a very scarce portfolio produced in Tokyo in 1921, which has escaped the attention of art historians. It is reproduced in The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, by Martin Bailey, to be published by Frances Lincoln on 5 September.

Van Gogh’s narrow wooden frame was painted in orange, producing a dramatic effect when set against the blue background of the still life. This reflects Van Gogh’s love of complementary colours (such as orange and blue), which have a vibrant effect when placed next to each other. Van Gogh has also varied the orange, so that it is a deep orange where it is next to the blue background and a lighter orange next to the lilac table.

We can now see how Van Gogh wanted to present his Six Sunflowers: the yellow-ochre sunflowers were set against a rich royal blue background and then framed in orange. This framing would have been revolutionary in 1888, when pictures were traditionally hung in gilt frames or, for very modern works, in white frames.

Astonishingly, Martin also managed to find new information about one of the most celebrated stories not only in Van Gogh's life, but in the whole of art history - the artist's mutilation of his ear. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Martin says:

While researching my book on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers I was astonished to find that the artist’s self-mutilation had been reported soon after it happened in a Parisian newspaper. It appeared in Le Petit Journal on 26 December 1888, three days after Van Gogh slashed off the lower part of his left ear, following a row with Gauguin. Until recently, only one short newspaper report of the mutilation was known, which was published a few days later in an Arles weekly, Le Forum Républicain.

The newly discovered article in a Parisian daily records important details. Le Petit Journal reported that Van Gogh used a razor. He then went to a “house of ill repute”, where he “gave his ear in a folded piece of paper” to the doorkeeper. Van Gogh told the recipient: “Take it, it will be useful”. These baffling words suggest that Van Gogh must have been suffering from an acute mental problem throughout the night, and did not just slice off part of his ear in a passing moment of madness.

The Parisian report is also important in another sense. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was the first item of provincial news in Le Petit Journal, so the article must have attracted considerable attention in the capital. It would have been seen by many of his friends and much discussed in the Paris bars that Van Gogh frequented. This must have only added to the distress of his brother Theo, who was a respectable figure running an art gallery.

It seems astonishing that a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper (taking a quarter of the space devoted to provincial news that day). But even then, there was something sensationalist about the ear incident which grabbed public attention.

Other discoveries include news that:

  • Van Gogh completed his original four paintings of Sunflowers in less than a week, twice as fast as has been assumed. He chose to depict sunflowers because the weather was bad and his models failed to show up. 
  • There is also a second “unknown” Sunflowers painting which has always been hidden away in private collections. This is Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers, with a bright turquoise background. It has never been exhibited in living memory and its whereabouts have been a mystery. Bailey reveals that Three Sunflowers was acquired by the Swiss-based Greek shipping tycoon George Embiricos, who sold it in the late 1990s. It was then bought by the present owner, a very discreet collector with a taste for Van Gogh.

Martin has written other books on Van Gogh; Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors, Van Gogh and Sir Richard Wallace's Pictures, and Letters from Provence (the Illustrated Letters).

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