Watch the £29m Raphael sell

December 13 2012

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's comprehensively whipped Christie's this Old Master season, so we'll forgive them this shameful piece of corporate triumphalism. 

The scrap value of fine art

December 12 2012

Image of The scrap value of fine art

Picture: ATG/ Henry Moore Foundation

The recent jailing (for just 12 months) of two thieves who stole a Henry Moore sundial from the Henry Moore Foundation has revealed the amazingly low stakes involved. After it was stolen, the thieves sold the piece, valued at £500,000, to a scrap metal dealer for just £46. More details in the Antiques Trade Gazette.

Fresco Jesus - the revenge

December 12 2012

Image of Fresco Jesus - the revenge

Picture: Ebay

Here's a weird one - a picture by the restorer of 'Fresco Jesus', Cecilia Gimenez, has reached EUR610,000 on ebay. Next bid is EUR620,000 if you fancy it. I somehow doubt the winning bidder will pay up. But you never know. Maybe Alberto Mugrabi thinks she's the next big thing.

Update - a reader writes:

I think you have misinterpreted the eBay price for this picture. The comma is the European equivalent of our decimal point, so the price is only 620 euros.

Oops. Sorry about that. Lucky I'm not a journalist.

Yesterday...

December 12 2012

Image of Yesterday...

Picture: BG

...I was at a conference on archives, so apologies for the lack of AHN. The conference was organised by the National Archives (TNA), which I advise, with the aim of helping private archive owners make their collections more accessible to researchers.

It's a subject close to my heart as both a historian and art historian. Some years ago, when researching for my PhD, I tried without success to get into the archives of Belvoir Castle, in which lie the highly important and unpublished diaries of a member of Disraeli's government. Many owners are (naturally) wary of strangers coming to rummage around their private, and often very valuable papers, but one of the messages we were trying get across yesterday is that TNA and local records offices around the country are on hand to offer all sorts of advice to owners, even down to helping screen researchers. So if you're ever stuck for access, remember that TNA is there to help.

In some cases, however, owners want to keep stuff secret. I was astonished when, again during my PhD, one old peer said he wouldn't let me look at a particular stash of papers, because it contained details of a sordid scandal from the 1850s!

The book above was brought along by one of the speakers. It may look like any damaged old tome - but only because it took a direct hit from a cannon ball at the Battle of Trafalgar.

El Greco soars above estimate (ctd.)

December 10 2012

Image of El Greco soars above estimate (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

Hot on the heels of an 'attributed to El Greco' which went way over estimate at Bonhams last week, the above 'Workshop of El Greco' made £163,250 at Sotheby's, against a £10-£15,000 estimate. The picture, a Saint Francis in Ecstasy was in reasonably good state, and signed. There was quite a lot of overpaint in the background. It had been called 'El Greco' until it was rejected in Harold Wethey's 1962 catalogue raisonne. Apparently it was also questioned by someone senior at the Prado recently.

Here at Philip Mould & Co., we thought the picture had presence, and potential to be the real thing. The signature looked damaged, but original. It seemed, on looking into the literature, that Wethey had slightly got his St Francis's in a muddle, and that the above picture could in fact be a lost original. We had a generous go at the auction, but were alas unsuccesful. El Greco is a little outside our usual area of expertise, so we weren't confident enough to go all the way, so to speak. 

I look forward to seeing it again soon.

Update - a reader writes:

As an aficionado of Art History News, I enjoy the gossip but worry that you reveal too much of Philip Mould Ltd's methodology. 

The clue with the Sotheby El Greco is its lack of provenance. His work wasn't of enormous monetary value at the end of the 19th century, which explains how Ignacio Zuloaga was able to acquire an El Greco painting in Paris when he was still an impoverished artist. Who the heck was María del Carmen Mendiéta?  Methinks that someone has misidentified her.

How not to run a museum

December 10 2012

Image of How not to run a museum

Picture: Guardian/Christie's

The failure of the British Empire Museum in Bristol is a textbook example in how not to go about running a museum. It closed, having run out of money, in 2008, but I went shortly after it opened in 2002. I don't remember much about it, except that it was empty. It seemed clear to me then that it would never be able to survive in Bristol - museums that tell a national story need to be in London.

Now, however, the museum's history has taken a farcical twist with the news that many items lent to the museum have gone missing. Most oddly of all, one of them was sold at Christie's, despite the lender having asked for it back. From The Guardian:

Almost 150 artefacts lent to a museum set up to tell the story of Britain's colonial past may be missing, it has emerged, with some of them having been sold without their owners' permission.

Trustees of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which has now closed, are in talks with about six of the owners about compensation.

Among them is Lord Caldecote, who said he was shocked to find that a 19th-century maritime painting his family had lent to the museum had been sold at auction. [...]

An investigation by BBC's Inside Out West programme, scheduled to be broadcast on Monday, claims that 144 objects belonging to eight lenders remain missing. They include the oil painting of an East India Company ship, Dunira, by the sailor-turned-artist Thomas Buttersworth.

Caldecote told the Guardian that his late father, an engineer and industrialist, had lent the painting to the museum. After his father's death, he asked for the painting to be returned.

"I decided I would like the picture back. It turned out the museum had sold the picture through Christie's. I don't suppose we'll be able to get it back again."

Caldecote said the picture had sentimental value because an ancestor had captained the ship, part of the East India Company's fleet, and it had been a gift to him. "It was a shock when I found out the painting had gone," he said.

The painting was sold by Christie's to the government of Madeira for £61,250 in 2008. The island can be seen in the background of the picture. Neither Christie's nor the Madeirans realised that there was any issue with the ownership of the painting.

There is an ongoing dispute between the board of trustees of the museum and its former director, Gareth Griffiths, over missing artefacts. There is no suggestion that anyone has made personal profit from any sales.

The board has criticised Griffiths but he insists the care and security of the collection was the trustees' responsibility. He said: "I never benefited from any sales of material and will regard any such inference as actionable."

(Is it actionable to suggest incompetence though? Just askin'...) The story of missing items from the museum has been running for some time now, and I find it hard to believe that nobody has been held responsible. According to the Museums Journal, other things have been sold too, and Mr Griffiths was dismissed for this very reason:

The director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM), which closed its Bristol base in 2008 pending a relocation to London, has been dismissed from his post following allegations of the unauthorised disposal of objects from the collection. 

 Neil Cossons, chairman of the BECM board of trustees, said: “Gareth Griffiths has been dismissed as director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum for abuse of his position as director and the unauthorised disposal of museum objects. We're not in a position to make further comment because of impending police enquiries.” 

Museums Journal understands that at least two items from the Commonwealth Institute collection, which was gifted to BECM early 2003, have been disposed of including a 19th-century Maori wooden panel, which was consigned to auction last September at the Dunbar Sloane auction house in New Zealand. 

A spokesman for the auction house said: “[The panel] came to us from an overseas museum, who were the vendors. They believe they have correct title to the Maori panel.”

Another item believed to have gone on the open market is a bronze casting of an 1860s plaster maquette by pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, which depicts John Robert Godley, the founder of Canterbury in New Zealand. 

Interestingly, when Christie's sold Lord Caldecote's marine picture in 2008 there was no provenance listed, and no mention of the recent museum loan. The picture was listed with a special vat consideration attached to it, which often suggests it has been consigned by a company or a dealer. It would be interesting to know how thoroughly Christie's checked the picture's history. I can't quite understand why the police are not more involved in all this. Lord Caldecote's picture has effectively been stolen from him.

'Constable, Gainsborough, Turner' at the RA

December 10 2012

Image of 'Constable, Gainsborough, Turner' at the RA

Picture: RA, Thomas Gainsborough, 'Romantic Landscape' c.1783.

I'm looking forward to seeing 'Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and the Making of Landscape', which is open till the 17th February. I thought of going this weekend, but these days I'm trying a new exhibition-visiting practice of reading the catalogue before seeing a show.

In The Guardian, Michael Prodger makes an interesting point about how ubiquitous 'Turner and...' exhibitions seem to be these days:

There is nothing particularly new about either the theme or the participants. The birth of the Georgian landscape in art, literature and gardening has been minutely examined down the years. This exhibition's three big names are all familiar; indeed, after Turner and Claude at the National Gallery and Turner, Monet and Twombly at Tate Liverpool, this is the third show this year to present Turner in company with other artists – it's as if he is no longer safe to be let out on his own. Nor was the Royal Academy always so keen on its headline acts. While Turner, from child prodigy until his death, was an academician through and through, both Gainsborough and Constable had fractious relationships with the institution. The latter once had to sit silently as a member of the RA rejected one of his paintings because it was "a nasty green thing". He was elected a full academician only aged 53 and even then by just one vote.

I see that the exhibition is being sponsored by (gasp) - a dealer! Large round of applause please for Lowell Libson.

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

December 8 2012

In the New York Times Philip Mould (my boss), has an interesting piece on not only how to find lost Old Masters, but how to avoid fake new ones. As regards the latter:

It is with heavy heart that I report that a good 20 percent to 30 percent of 20th-century paintings up for sale these days online and at certain provincial auction houses are “trappers” (shorthand for cheese in the trap). This is a term I have coined by necessity for works that cleverly “suggest” themselves as the work of recognized artists but not cataloged as such — paintings purportedly by people like Jack Vettriano, Augustus John or Francis Bacon, placed in oldish frames, and often with fake exhibitions labels on the back. They are sold as by “unknown artists” and priced with tantalizingly low estimates in the hope of getting two rival bidders, thinking they are onto a winner, to fight it out. The vendors normally disappear into dust when you try to track them down, but could be anybody from the faker himself, an intermediary or even the auctioneer.

I bought one of these, a putative Picasso representing four abstract reclining nudes, for £120 at auction earlier this year (for research purposes only I might add) and had it resting on the floor of my West End gallery in London for a couple of weeks before I took it home. How depressing is this? One of my better clients spied it on the ground among the Van Dycks, Gainsboroughs and Sir Thomas Lawrences and drawn by the zeitgeist ruggedness of the forms, turned to me and said, “God I love this stuff. So pleased you are getting in to it.”

Day off!

December 7 2012

First in a while. Tragically, even my day off involves Van Dyck. See you Monday - bon weekend.

Louvre Lens opens (ctd.)

December 6 2012

Image of Louvre Lens opens (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Following my post on the opening of the Louvre's satellite museum in Lens, and the raiding of the Louvre's collection to fill the new site, a reader writes:

One consequence of the opening of the Louvre Lens, is that the Raphael Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, which was for a time part of the Raphael "Les denieres annees" exhibition at the Louvre, is no longer on show in the exhibition (it's been sent to Lens).

Yet the exhibition catalogue makes the point (on page 296) that comparing the Castiglione portrait with the Raphael/?Giulio Romano double portrait supports the attribution of the double portrait to Raphael, rather than to Sebastiano del Piombo or some other venetian painter.

Perhaps the hope is that people will come back to the Louvre sometime next year to confirm this statement in the catalogue.

I find this astonishing. The photo above is from the Prado's version of the catalogue, where the picture was an exhibit, on loan from the Louvre. So how can it not be on display in the Louvre's own exhibition? Couldn't they wait till January 14th, when the Late Raphael show closes, before sending the picture to Lens?

AHN awards?

December 6 2012

Image of AHN awards?

Picture: English School, 'Prize Bull and Prize Cabbage', Compton Verney/Your Paintings

Most industries seem to be awash with annual awards and ceremonies these days, but strangely the art world isn't. So I've been wondering if AHN should heroically step in to fill the gap. Severe budget limitations mean that the prizes won't be anything more than a round of applause from AHN and its readers. But imagine the prestige!

So can readers suggest categories and worthy winners? I'm thinking of things like:

  • Best Exhibition
  • Best Catalogue
  • Best Discovery
  • Best Acquisition
  • Best Book
  • Best Website
  • Best Contemporary Art Guff
Bit of a daunting task. Help!

Not sure if this is a joke or not

December 6 2012

Video: justoneye.com

But it's worth laughing at all the same.* The Damien Hirst handbag. Each one costs $55,000:

Just One Eye is pleased to announce an exciting new project with renowned artist Damien Hirst and 2012 CFDA award winners The Row - the first in a series of curated artistic partnerships.

"We are longtime admirers of both Damien and The Row’s work,” explains Just One Eye co-founder Paola Russo, "and our main focus here is to nurture work between artists working in different mediums. We couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to debut this series of partnerships."

The resulting project is a fascinating study in contrasts; the classic elegance of The Row’s black patent, Nile crocodile leather backpack, adorned by the rebellious hand of Hirst.

Created in a limited edition of 12 and with a portion of each sale to benefit UNICEF, these works blur the line between high art and high fashion. Signed by the artist, each backpack features uniquely individual embellishments, from an assortment of prescription pills, to Hirst’s signature spots. "We are thrilled to be part of this project with Just One Eye”, add Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, “their unique approach on artistic collaborations is always inspirational".

Offering a wide array of fashion, art, and objects, Just One Eye is a new retail and e-commerce experience, striving to promote established designers alongside groundbreaking young creatives.

*Via Dr. Matt Loder.

Normal service resumed at Sotheby's

December 6 2012

Image of Normal service resumed at Sotheby's

Rubbish Picture: BG

After the desultory sale at Christie's on Tuesday, last night's £59m bonanza at Sotheby's brought a sigh of relief from the Old Master world. The headlines will of course focus on the £29.7m raised by the Chatsworth Raphael drawing. But even without that the Sotheby's total was a heartening result, with strong prices throughout the sale. A Jan Steen made £5.6m early on, and helped Sotheby's eclipse Christie's entire total of £11.5m after just 16 lots. Ouch. 13 lots out of 52 failed to sell, against 25 of 54 at Christie's. Ouch again.

One astute reader yesterday blamed the Christie's near 50% buy-in rate with a surfeit of recently sold works, including pictures flipped from one auction to another. There were none of these at Sotheby's, with almost all the lots, as far as I could discern, being relatively fresh to the market and from private sources. It was a well put together sale.

The 17 minute battle for the Raphael drawing was Old Master entertainment at its best, with Henry Wyndham (for me, the finest auctioneer in the business) deftly eliciting bids from four bidders to way past the £15m upper estimate. One bidder dropped out early, shortly after £10m, while another (whom I couldn't see, and was sat at the front) then bid against the drawings specialist Luca Bironi to about £20m (which sum drew gasps from the audience). Just when we thought it was all over, another phone bidder came in to take it up to £26.5m. The bidding had appeared to be stalling at £24.5m, but Wyndham charmed several more bids from the client at the front, as only an Old Etonian could. With premium, the price eclipsed Christie's 2009 sale of another Raphael head study, at £29.2m, and is not only a new Raphael record, but also one for any work of art on paper.

There was applause at the end - a rarity from the hard-bitten Old Master crowd. We normally leave clapping to the modern and contemporary buyers. But yesterday we showed them how to buy art in style.

El Greco soars above estimate

December 5 2012

Image of El Greco soars above estimate

Picture: Bonhams

The soaraway price of the week so far is the £790k (with premium) realised by the above Saint Peter catalogued as 'Attributed to El Greco' at Bonhams. The picture was estimated at £40-£60,000. I'm no El Greco expert, but even to me it looked to be so well painted that it surely must be 'right', as we say in the trade. 

The picture had recently been surface-cleaned, but was consigned in a generally unrestored state. In other words, it was a perfect trade picture, which could be taken onto the next level if the attribution is firmed up, and the picture restores well. The price is a reminder to the auction houses, in this week of (so far) high unsold levels, of how much the trade underpins Old Master auctions. 

On UK museum acquisitions

December 5 2012

Image of On UK museum acquisitions

Picture: Natalie Rigby/Falmouth Art Gallery

Interesting statistic in the most recent Burlington Magazine editorial on regional museums, viz 70% of ArtFund grants go to regional museums:

Acquisitions are the life-blood of museums and galleries, whether through purchase, gift or bequest. But studying recent acquisition lists is a doleful experience; gifts and bequests are few and far between (in contrast to museums in, say, America or Germany); acquisitions spearheaded by the institutions themselves are often of a timid or only local appeal (important though this can be) and the accession of objects of wider significance has certainly diminished. Acquisition budgets are minimal or non-existent but there are now several very active grant-giving bodies. The Director of the Art Fund, Stephen Deuchar, commented at the Barber that 70 per cent of Art Fund disbursements go to the regions but commented on the sliding standard of written applications and the often unambitious level of the objects under consideration. But it is worth stressing that there are many curators in place who would be more motivated, their sights set higher, if administration was less onerous, resources greater and their pay more inducive.

I've illustrated this post with a lovely photo sent to me by the Director of Falmouth Art Gallery, Louise Connell, which shows a picture by Anne Killigrew being admired by a young visitor. The picture, Venus Attired by the Three Graces, was recently bought from us with help from (amongst others) the ArtFund. It was long thought to be a lost painting, but was found  looking rather unloved in a minor country auction. The Venus had been 'clothed' in the 19th Century by a prudish restorer with a yellow drape. You can read more about the picture here. Research established that the painting had once been admired by the poet John Dryden (whose portrait incidentally - and sorry to go on making plugs - we sold to the National Portrait Gallery in 2008).

Note to HM Treasury

December 5 2012

Image of Note to HM Treasury

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

More gloomy economic news in the UK means that it's time for one of my periodic reminders (for AHN's readers in government) of what John Maynard Keynes looked like. Here he is depicted by the great cartoonist Sir David Low, in a drawing first published in 1932. 

Plug alert

December 5 2012

Image of Plug alert

Picture: BG

Forget Old Master sales and £10m Raphael drawings - the week's most exciting event has happened. My new book has arrived, just in time for your Christmas stocking. If you wanted to give your money to tax avoiders, buy it on Amazon for £42.75. Or help out HM Treasury by buying it directly from Cambridge University Press for £45.

On offer at Sotheby's

December 4 2012

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have pushed the boat out with their Old Master videos this time round. Here, George Gordon talks engagingly about highlights from tomorrow's Sotheby's Old Master sale.

Louvre-Lens opens

December 4 2012

Video: AFP

The Louvre has opened its satellite museum in Lens, a former mining town in Northern France. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones questions the move:

The great Paris art museum is getting international praise for opening a new Louvre in Lens, a former mining town in northern France. But the Louvre is taking a huge risk by sending masterpieces such as Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People to the new Louvre-Lens. It is breaking up a collection that is one of the wonders of the world. For every visitor who makes the trip to Lens, there will be people frantically scouring the Louvre in Paris looking for the vanished Delacroix that is usually one of its highlights.

I think it's political correctness gone mad. There's no reason to undermine the strength of a great museum such as the Louvre in the name of regional equality. There are only a few museums like the Louvre in the world, and they have their own egalitarianism in the universal overview of human culture that they provide. It would be better for the Louvre to find ways to bring diverse communities into its Paris home using the multicultural approach pioneered by the British Museum in London.

Hard to disagree. But this is what happens when you have too much political control over the arts. The closest analogies we have here in the UK (where ministers are kept well away from museums) are Tate's branches in Liverpool and St Ives, and the NPG's in Bodelwyddan Castle and Benningborough Hall. In both cases the institutions have enough surplus works to create strong galleries with a local emphasis and good quality works, but without raiding the core displays in London. However, as Didier Rykner has shown with his series of distressing photos of empty plinths and gallery spaces, that doesn't seem to be the case with the Louvre.

Update - a reader writes:

Was interested to read your piece on the new Louvre Lens. I happened to be in Arras a few months ago, where there they have just installed the best bits of the Versailles carriage collection in an old nunnery (I have always been obsessed with 18th century coaches). I thought it was great. Let's not worry about whether the French misuse their cultural patrimony, let's just celebrate the fact that it's now even more accessible to us Brits. Arras and Lens are just a short drive from the chunnel exit, which is itself a very reasonable drive from London / the SE. It makes for a great weekend away.

More of a Eurostar-straight-to-Paris kind of person meself.

Christie's Old Master evening sale

December 4 2012

Image of Christie's Old Master evening sale

Picture: BG

Bit of a flat one this. Christie's most recent Old Master auctions in London totalled £95m, but tonight's sale limped home at just £11.5m. December sales usually play second fiddle to the July auctions, but there's no denying that this evening's was rather weak.

I'm not entirely sure why. The quality of the pictures on offer wasn't bad, the estimates weren't crazy, and the cataloguing was the usual high standard for a Christie's evening sale. There were no knockout lots though. The top lot by value was a £2m Jordaens (inc. premium).

However, by my counting some 25 of the 54 lots failed to sell, and nothing kills the atmosphere in an auction room quicker than a run of bought in pictures. At one point there were 8 consecutive failures. The buy-ins included what we thought was a rather fine Italian-period Van Dyck, which we had been tempted to bid on [below].

Happily, the British pictures on offer performed well. A not stellar Reynolds made £211k, three head studies by Lawrence made £121k, while a fine Gainsborough copy after Van Dyck made £265k. And the second highest price of the evening was for a rare night scene by Wright of Derby, which made £914,850 [above]. This delightful picture had recently been discovered in a US auction (I'm told) for peanuts. It was an epic find by probably the greatest sleeper-hunter of our time (who is very discrete, so I can't name him).

Tomorrow evening's Sotheby's sale will most likely beat the Christie's total, especially if they sell their £10m-£15m Raphael drawing, and the £5m-£7m Jan Steen.

Update - a reader writes:

I can tell you part of the reason the sale fell flat tonight - picture flipping.  At least 16 paintings had been on the market in the last 15 years, and only 5 of them sold.  The market is smart enough to figure out that the Flinck sold 7 months ago at Dobiaschofsky, even if it wasn't spelled out in the catalogue, and wasn't going to pay a premium to a sleeper hunter who overpaid for a work in mediocre condition.  Almost without exception, the Dutch pictures were recycled, mediocre examples of the artists' work.  As something of a sleeper hunter myself, my rules are a) if it can be found, properly attributed, on Artnet, it will make a fair price the first time around regardless of where the auction is or what the estimate is, and b) even if it's not on Artnet, if you can tell during the bidding that at least two dealers are involved as well, it will make a fair price, and it's best to sit back and let it go.  That leads to a pretty low success rate in bidding, but a low failure rate in reselling as well.

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