Vermeer cheated

December 10 2013


A new documentary is coming out soon called 'Tim's Vermeer', in which some fellow named Tim says artists like Vermeer relied on camera obscuras.

David Hockney made the same argument some years ago. Personally, I'm not persuaded that Vermeer, Canaleto, Van Eyck et al relied as heavily on camera obscuras as some like to believe. It's just a fact that some people are able to perfectly render a 3D world onto paper and canvas. They're called great artists.

The auction world in cartoons

December 9 2013

Image of The auction world in cartoons

Picture: Christie's

Interesting set of cartoons coming up at Christie's tomorrow on the auction world, by Michael Ffolkes. Above is a pertinent one for the current Van Dyck self-portrait campaign.

Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

December 9 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

There were two Van Dyck self-portrait stories in the papers over the weekend: first, the Daily Mail reported that businessman and collector James Stunt is the overseas buyer of the picture; and secondly, the Sunday Times claimed that the National Portrait Gallery had made a '£3m bungle' by not buying the picture years earlier.

The Mail article included some quotes from Brian Sewell, which were probably among the silliest things he's ever said. That is, of course, saying something. Regular readers will know that AHN has been a Sewell fan, not for what he says but how he says it (at least on paper), for there's no denying he's a gifted writer on art. But in insulting the NPG director Sandy Nairne, the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, and Mr Stunt, Sewell revealed himself as needlessly bitter. His remarks are a good example of that unattractive British habit of demeaning anyone who happens to be successful. Sewell sniffed at something Mr Stunt may or may not have said about his collection (which is already one of the best for 17th C English portraits), when as a lover of art he should applaud the fact that a successful British businessman under the age of 30 not only cares about 'old' British art, but also supports, very strongly, exhibitions, publications, loans and research. Mr Stunt has a particular interest in Sir Peter Lely, and it's probably no exageration to say that he has done more to advance our understanding of Lely than any other collector ever has. (Lely, by the way, owned the Van Dyck self-portrait, and made a copy of it.)

Sewell's other complaint was that the NPG should have bought the picture at auction in 2009, and thus somehow have 'saved' the nation £4m. But as I mentioned earlier, this is an implausible claim, not least because no UK museum can raise that sort of money to buy at auction, and in any case I know the buyer (for whom we act) would have bid far more than £8.4m - we all believed that the picture was worth more.*

The Times story also questioned why the NPG had not bought the picture years earlier. I can tell you that they tried, and nearly succeeded, but the economic climate in 2009/10 was very different to what it is now. The grant-giving bodies also then operated in a different way - acquisitions were much more difficult than they are now. It simply wasn't possible for them to raise all the money then. But the fact that they tried demonstrates their determination to try to buy the picture, and invalidates the Sunday Times' allegation. It wasn't the fault of the NPG that the picture wasn't bought earlier, but the system for acquiring pictures. Happily, the system is now working better, tho' personally I'm not entirely sure that the Van Dyck will remain in the UK.

Today is the 372nd anniversary of Van Dyck's death.

*The picture is still, incidentally, cheaper than the Fragonard portrait sold last week, and the Rembrandt self-portrait sold to the Getty earlier this year.

£17m Fragonard sold at Bonhams

December 9 2013

Image of £17m Fragonard sold at Bonhams

Picture: Bonhams

Congratulations to Bonhams for selling the above fantasy portrait of the 5th Duc d'Harcourt by Fragonard for an impressive £17.1m ($27.9m). The picture was being sold by the estate of Gustav Rau, in aid of Unicef. I know I would say this, as an Old Master dealer, but there's definitely something shifting in the prices of top-end Old Masters at the moment. More here.

Detroit sell off (ctd.)

December 9 2013

Image of Detroit sell off (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Christie's has submitted its initial valuation of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to the city's emregency managers. More details here. The good news is that the number of works the city could possibly sell (that is, those bought by the city directly, not gifts or DIA acquired objects) is only 5% of the museum's total collection. Still, that means some 2,781 works. And of course, some of the pictures that could be sold are big name items like the Van Gogh self-portrait. Just 11 sellable works comprise 75% of the total value of that 5%. The overall valuation is much lower than I'd expected, at $452m-$866m. In other words, creditors of Detroit, why bother?

In the meantime, a former Detroit university professor, Paul Schaap, has pledged $5m towards a recovery fund for the DIA. 

Last chance to see Samuel Cooper

December 5 2013

Image of Last chance to see Samuel Cooper

Picture: BG

The Samuel Cooper exhibition here at Philip Mould ends this Saturday at 4pm. You'll probably never see such a good collection of his work together for a few decades. Unmissable!

Sotheby's Old Master evening sale

December 5 2013

Image of Sotheby's Old Master evening sale

Picture: BG

Sotheby's evening Old Master sale netted a healthy £33.5m last night, coming in some way above Christie's £21.8m. Auctioneer Henry Wyndham was in his usual good form. The top lot was a pair of Canalettos, at £9.6m (inc. premium). The evening's bargain was a powerful, unfinished portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence (above), which made £962k with premium, selling at the low estimate. I thought this picture would fly, and would make more than the less alluring Lawrence of Wellington sold at Christie's in 2006 for £2m.

Selling well above the expectations, and justly, was a compelling Spanish-period Rubens portrait, which sold for £3.2m, beating its £400k-£600k estimate. Strangely, an x-ray revealed that it was painted on top of a portrait by Velazquez. The sitter of the Rubens portrait is unknown, but could it in fact be a portrait of Velazquez himself? There has long been uncertainty over some of Velazquez's putative self-portraits. But if, like me, you think there is mileage in the old theory that the sitter in both the Met's unfinished portrait and the fellow in the background of the Surender of Breda are Velazquez, then could the Rubens show the same sitter?

Who gets what if the Scots leave?

December 4 2013

Image of Who gets what if the Scots leave?

Picture: Daily Record*

Here's an interesting cultural conundrum: if the Scots (or rather, people who happen to be living in Scotland on the day of the referendum) decide to leave the UK next year, then what will happen to objects of cultural importance, in relation to things like export licences? 

Let's take a current case; the Van Dyck self-portrait (which, to recap, has been sold to an overseas buyer, and which the National Portrait Gallery is currently trying to buy). Let's say that the picture wasn't yet sold, and that the Philip Mould gallery (for which I work) had a shop in Edinburgh, where we kept the portrait. Now, if the Scots went for independence, the picture would overnight be lost to what remained of the UK. Would the Mould gallery then have to apply for an export licence? Or would it be too late? If we sold the picture to an overseas buyer post-independence, would the Scottish government be as bothered about Van Dyck leaving as the UK government is? And if an export ban was placed on the picture by the Scottish government, then would a Scottish museum even be able to raise the money to stop the picture leaving Scotland (answer, probably not)? It will undeniably be easier to export cultural treasures from an independent Scotland than from the UK, because the Scots (with their much smaller philanthropic and lottery pot) won't be able to match UK firepower when it comes to 'saving' cultural objects. 

There's a risible little section on cultural items in the SNP's 'White Paper' on Scottish independence, which reads thus:

Question: What will happen to cultural items related to Scotland and held in UK national collections in an independent Scotland?

Answer: Scotland currently owns a share of all UK national collections.

The national museums and galleries in both London and Scotland all hold items from different parts of the UK and collections assembled from across the world. They have long-established arrangements for loans, exchanges and partnerships, which will be able to continue when Scotland becomes independent.

Clearly, nobody in the SNP has thought of this. The SNP answer to every question these days - that "Scotland owns a share of the UK's currency, air, cows, etc. (but not oil of course, because that's all Scotland's)" - won't really work with cultural assets. Does the SNP want the UK to buy Scotland out of their share of every Titian and Gainsborough in the land? Or should we chop them into bits? Or does the 'loan' answer given above mean that there will be mandatory lending of works, on some sort of rotational basis? The SNP question above asks, perhaps selfishly, only about items related to Scotland currently in the rest of the UK. But what about English-related items in Scotland? 

Too many questions. Just vote no.

*By the way Alex, you can keep all the Vettrianos.

Christie's evening Old Master sale

December 4 2013

Image of Christie's evening Old Master sale

Picture: BG

Last night's evening sale at Christie's was a fairly average affair I felt. Nothing took off in a stellar way, but there were also no major casualties. The total was £21.8m. The 'Rembrandt & Studio' (above) sold for £2.5m (inc. premium), The large Claude made the top price of the evening, at just over £5m. What a bargain this would have been had it not been withdrawn at the last minute from Christie's South Kensington as 'follower of...'. Talking of bargains, the steal of the day was surely the large 'Studio of Rubens' of Hercules, at £385k. More 'Rubens and Studio', unquestionably. As a purveyor of British portraits, I was heartened to see a relatively standard corridor portrait of Elizabeth I not only be included in a Christie's evening sale (it used to be a day sale kind of picture), but also make £135k. These things are going up in value. Also, the Reynolds portrait of a boy made a strong price, at £600k (against an estimate of £100k-£150k).

Update - it has been pointed out to me that for half the price of Jeff Koons' recently sold Orange Dog, you could have bought the whole of last night's sale. Think about that for a moment. For half a Koons, you could have a Rembrandt, a Claude, a mostly-Rubens, a Brueghel, a Steen, etc. etc.

Detroit sell-off likely?

December 4 2013

Video: WXYZ

It's not looking good for Detroit. Yesterday a US judge ruled that the city is eligible for bankruptcy, which means that asset sales can go ahead. One of the city's most valluable assets is its art collection in the DIA. Until now, there hasn't been a blatant pitch to sell the works, only a 'discrete' valuation by Christie's (at a cost of $200,000). The judge made it clear that in his opinion it wouldn't be wise to sell the art, but that was just his philosophical view, not a ruling. In fact, the man in charge of the city's bankruptcy proceedings, Kevin Orr, made it clear yesterday that the art collection is very much 'on the table'. The total value of the saleable works so far is thought to be about $2 billion, which is less than some believed.

Many of the city's creditors have filed motions to allow them to 'monetise' the DIA collection, and also get a second opinion on the valuation, which Orr has ruled out (oddly). There will be much discussion ahead of whether the DIA should sell its art, and obviously one hopes that they don't. But this will come down to a matter of law, and the fact is that the city, which owes money and will have to sell assets to pay it back, owns much of the DIA's easily disposable art collection. Roll up folks...

More here and here.

Update - a reader writes:

Clearly the need in Detroit is to pay unfunded pensions which involve a stream of payments over decades rather than an immediate capital payment.

Therefore it makes more sense to rent the art on long leases to museums particularly in newly funded ones rather than sell the stuff.  Think of London ground leases which include an initial capital payment and an annual rental. 


Qatar, the Getty, and Crystal Bridges could all help and simultaneously fill their museums without inflating the art market at auction.


It's London Old Master week!

November 29 2013

Image of It's London Old Master week!

Picture: BG

Great excitement - the Old Master sales are on in London next week, and Christie's viewing has already begun. On offer at King St are a Rembrandt, and a fine Stubbs (above centre), among other things. Sotheby's and Bonhams start tomorrow. It's one of the busiest weeks of the year for me, so things might be a bit quiet on AHN for a few days.

Croydon sell off underwhelms

November 28 2013

Image of Croydon sell off underwhelms

Picture: TAN

The sale of china from Croydon council's Riesco Collection (covered in AHN earlier here) didn't go so well: in The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey reports that:

Of the 24 lots offered at Christie’s, only 17 sold. The star piece, a blue-and-white moonflask (1426-35), did well, going for £2.3m to an Asian dealer. Some of the seven pieces that failed to sell may now be sold privately. The total pre-sale estimate was £9m to £14m and the £8.2m sale total includes buyer’s premiums. Croydon will also have to pay seller’s premiums, but private sales could bring in more. A Croydon spokesman says the council is “reasonably happy” with the prices achieved.

Croydon council are idiots to be in any way pleased with this result. The end of their Accredited Museum status means they'll lose far more than this in future museum funding. Meanwhile, on the 'every cloud' principle, Croydon has been 'expelled' from the Museums Association, and in most portentous terms by the MA President in his 'Presidential Address'. A commendable saving for Croydon ratepayers. 

Mike Leigh on his new Turner film

November 28 2013

Video: Tate

Two convicted in Kunsthal case

November 28 2013

Two of the six Romanian suspects have been found guilty of taking part in the Kunsthal theft in Rotterdam. They were sentenced to six years and eight months. The trial continues for the other suspects. More here.

Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

November 28 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

An artist reader writes:

Could you please show all Van Dyck fans a photograph of his superb self portrait without the frame? 

I imagine that having bought it, you must have taken it out of its frame and had it photographed at the same time. Though it is a superb example of early framing in its own right, its brightness distracts one from seeing this dark painting properly.

Is there any evidence that the frame was made for the painting or  that it was framed like this during Van Dycks's lifetime?

As you can see above, a reader's wish is AHN's command. Don't tell anyone, but I think I prefer the picture out of its frame. The portrait seems more direct and unassuming, and it could be that the elaborate frame makes one interpret Van Dyck's characterisation as more self-confident than he intended. If the portrait was painted as late in his career as art historians suspect, then it was at a time of great uncertainty in his life. Obviously, this is all speculation, and nor do we know to what extent Van Dyck conceived the picture as always being presented in its current frame. Interestingly, the unframed image shows (in the way the drapery is painted at the bottom) that Van Dyck always intended the picture to be an oval.

Update - excellent piece by historian Andrew Roberts in the Spectator on the NPG's campaign:

Why should a portrait of a Flemish painter by a Flemish painter be considered so important to Britain that the culture minister Ed Vaizey has slapped a three-month export delay on it, and the National Portrait Gallery has announced a £12.5 million campaign to keep it in the country? Moreover, why is it so important that after reading this article you should immediately go to and make a generous contribution to save it from going abroad? The answer lies in four words: Sir Anthony Van Dyck.

No other single artist has had such an impact on British art as Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) not only in his own lifetime but also — as the 2009 Tate Britain’s exhibition demonstrated — right up to the 20th century. He was by far the most influential painter to have worked in Britain during the 17th century and must be seen as the launching point for so much of what happened artistically in subsequent generations. Van Dyck decisively turned British portraiture away from the stiff, formal, ‘iconic’ approach of Tudor and Jacobean painting, replacing it with that distinctive, fluid, shimmering, painterly style which was to dominate portraiture for nearly three centuries after his death. Making Britain his home from the beginning of his second visit in 1632 until his tragically early death in 1641, he painted the royal family and scores of other notable contemporaries. Flemish by birth, he was British by conviction; royalist by politics and patronage (he was knighted by Charles I), he was nonetheless utterly revolutionary as a painter. After him portraits weren’t just of people, they were about people.

Roberts concludes:

Of all the great British portrait painters, Van Dyck is by far the most important not to be represented by his own portrait in one of the great British public collections, considering how central he is to the history of the British school of painting and how his influence has grown over the centuries. ‘We are all going to Heaven,’ Gainsborough said on his deathbed, ‘and Van Dyck is of the company.’ For the National Portrait Gallery, the story of Britain that it attempts to tell through portraiture is simply incomplete without a portrait of Van Dyck, which has long been identified as one of the major lacunae in its otherwise superb collection.

This is the only chance a museum or a gallery in the United Kingdom has of acquiring the masterpiece, and it’s the only portrait of the artist ever likely to be made available for acquisition by a British public collection. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, has described it as ‘undoubtedly one of the finest and most important self-portraits in the history of British art’.

What kind of a people are we if we allow this picture to be lost to Britain? Hit that website!

Update II - an artist replies:

A painter replies:

Thank you so much for showing us Van Dyck's self portrait without its  frame.

How much better it looks and how much more one can see!

I hope the NPG will exhibit it in a plain dark frame with maybe the gold frame hung alongside at a safe distance.

I speculate that the oval shape was chosen partly  to avoid distracting from the face by showing too much of his painting arm going out of  the bottom  of the painting on the right, as would occur with a rectangular frame. (in mirror image of course)

We now see him as his sitters would have seen him. To the women, a romantic face with a soulful, intense gaze;

to the men a graceful, flamboyant and fashionable figure whose attributes they or their parents desired to be transferred, to their own likenesses by his peculiar magic and genius.

This painting is an object lesson in the extreme economy of means exhibited by the greatest portrait painters (Velasquez, Vermeer, Hals, Sargent) which nevertheless fool the eye into believing there is far more detail than that actually painted. The colours used are very few: Lead white, crimson, blue, black, ochre, umber, and perhaps a colour equivalent to 'indian red'.

The whole canvas is underpainted in a medium 'ocherish' brown This is allowed to show through, untouched, in the hair on the left, the eyebrow, and the whole, moustache area. The details of the hair framing the face  and the moustache are then 'drawn' in over the underpaint  with a darker umber painted with a long sable brush. The whole backround on the left is then overpainted in a darker brown to make the adjacent hair look lighter. By contrast the hair on the right appears darker agaist the original underpaint.

The rest of the face is painted with an opaque impasto. The shaved areas of the jaw are given a bluish tinge and the bridge of the nose, the corner of the eye and  the cheekbone a hint of crimson. Masterly highlights which throw the face into relief, run from the brow through the eyelid to the  tip of the nose. The iris and the edge of the lower eyelid below have restrained but perfectly placed  dots of paint adding a liquid quality to his gaze.To the right of the iris, the eyeball  is given its roundness by the contrast between the warm reflected light on its upper surface and the cooler area below.

Above the nostril, ( outlined in umber)  a cool shadowy plane terminates at the tip of the nose in a pink rectangular highlight, visually linked to the highlight in the hollow next to the corner of the eye. The overall effect is to produce an illusion of three dimensionality from which Bernini could have made a marble bust.

The rapidly dashed in light areas of collar and slashing were probably painted in after an initial drying of the painting, certainly not 'wet on wet'. Maybe on a different day, with different clothes whose startling and effective contrast  was suddenly noticed in the studio mirror.

Update III - in the Evening Standard, the Great Brian Sewell has blessed us with his view on the appeal, and recoils at the picture being sold to a collector for more than it was bought at auction - in other words (gasp) 'a profit'. In the meantime he also sticks the boot into 'Fake or Fortune?', which he calls 'dire'. So suddenly this blog's admiration for Brian has taken a dive. Anyway...

Brian's ultimate point is that the the National Portrait Gallery should have been in the auction room in 2009 (not 2010, as Brian claims) when the portrait was sold for £8.4m. Thus the NPG could have 'saved' the nation a few million, now that the price is £12.5m. But Brian makes the mistake of assuming that had the NPG bid in 2009, the final price would have been just a little bit more than £8.4m. Which is not true. How does Brian know where we, as the ultimate buyers (in partnership with Alfred Bader fine arts) would have stopped bidding? I can tell you now that the NPG would not have got it at auction for less than the asking price today.

It may rankle Brian that galleries like the one I work for, Philip Mould & Company, have, as specialist dealers in the market, a sharper view of what a certain variety of pictures are worth. But I'm afraid we do. The fact that we have since sold the picture to a private collector for £12.5m should be proof enough of that. There is also then the fact that no museum can gather together within just a month or so (the time between a catalogue appearing and an auction) the sort of funding necessary to buy the Van Dyck self-portrait (which was estimated at just £2m-£3m). In such a scenario, it may well fall to dealers like us to buy a picture and allow the fundraising effort to take place with appropriate time. I'm pretty sure that if a private buyer had outbid us at the 2009 auction, and then applied for an export licence, the picture would have left the country. In those days the Heritage Lottery Fund rarely considered picture acquisitions, and the government of the day had just axed by 50% the National Heritage Memorial Fund, so no museum would have been able to stop the picture going overseas. You could argue, therefore, that if we hadn't stepped in to buy it, the picture would almost certainly have been lost by now.

But that's enough about capitalism, let's get back to the art history.

Update IV: a reader writes:

I think you have misrepresented the Great Brian’s point.

He was not saying that the NPG should have been in the auction room – in fact, he explicitly says: “The auction sets a price over which a national gallery or museum has had no influence; if at that figure a gallery decides that the picture (or any other treasure) should be in its collection, then we should have a system that allows it to match the final bid.”

In essence the tweak he is arguing for is that private dealers in the UK are treated the same as foreign buyers.

Obviously dealers have an advantage when it comes to the agility required to raise substantial funding for a painting within a month – isn’t Sewell’s precise complaint that he doesn’t think that this difference in agility should produce the potential for a large profit that comes out of public money?

The case argued for above is similar to that in France, where museums can arbitrarily declare a work 'bought' after an auction, and stop cultural objects leaving the country that way. However, it is a grossly unfair system to the vendor, and is designed simply to allow the state to buy works on the cheap. French museums don't bid on the work at auction, and so the price reached doesn't properly reflect the demand for it. Furthermore, for most important works, everyone knows it'll be declared bought by the state, so very few people bother to bid. This is not good news for the poor seller. The system we have in the UK is a very fair one, and allows an important work of art like the Van Dyck to be sold for its full value.

UK acquires another Van Dyck

November 28 2013

Image of UK acquires another Van Dyck

Picture: National Trust/PCF

It's all go for Van Dyck at the moment (hurrah). On his National Trust Treasure Hunt blog, Emile de Bruijn tells us that Van Dyck's touching portrait of Sophonisba Anguissola (painted in Sicily in about 1624) has been allocated to the National Trust as part of the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu tax scheme. The picture will remain at Knole house.

You can see the other AIL treasures from 2012-13 here

New Constable discovered verso

November 28 2013

Image of New Constable discovered verso

Picture: V&A 

The V&A has discovered a sketch (above) by John Constable on the reverse of their Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead. The picture was found when a later re-lining canvas was removed. More here.


November 28 2013

...for the poor service yesterday - I was away (birthday!). I'm now 36. Which means that I can use that great (and humbling) Tom Lehrer line, 'when Mozart was my age, he'd been dead for a year'.

Save Van Dyck!

November 25 2013

Video: Artfund

I went to the launch this morning (below) of the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to save Van Dyck's last self-portrait for the nation. The picture has been sold to an overseas buyer, and the NPG has 8 months to try and raise £12.5m to keep the painting in the UK. 

It's the largest such campaign ever mounted by the NPG, and so far their determination to succeed is both admirable and encouraging. Regular readers will know (as I posted last week) that I work for the company which has sold the picture, so I'm in something of a predicament. But of course, the Van Dyck fan in me (he's my favourite artist) wants to see the picture remain on public display in the UK.

A large part of whether the campaign to save the picture succeeds will come down to how the public reacts. Funding bodies like the lottery will want to know whether the picture is not just an important work of art, but also whether it's something the public really relates to. That's why the NPG are taking the picture on tour round the country, and cleverly pitching it as one of the greatest 'selfies' ever painted (which it is).

So if you'd like to see the picture stay here, spread the word as far and wide as possible. Take your kids to see it. Tweet #savevandyck endlessly. Watch the video above and share it. And most importantly of all, donate!* Which you can do here, on the Art Fund's 'Save Van Dyck' website.

Update - the BBC already has the story here (with a portrait of Charles I not by Van Dyck), and the Telegraph here.

Update II - excellent reaction on Twitter already, including this helpful Tweet from Derren Brown, just sent to his 1.7m followers:

Update III - a fine piece from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, who asks, is the picture worth it?

Absolutely. I think this is one of the most worthwhile campaigns in years to "save" a work of art for the nation. Van Dyck's Self-Portrait would make a spectacular addition to the National Portrait Gallery. Quite frankly, it could make the place. It would give a gallery stuffed with pictures of primarily historical interest a true artistic masterpiece, by the man from Antwerp who gave birth to British art.

Van Dyck was fascinated by the English face. His paintings are full of pale faces, with quirky physiognomies and flaccid skin – the faces of the English upper class in the reign of Charles I. You can see how intrigued he was by this northern island just by looking at his portrait of the art collector George Gage doing business in Italy. Van Dyck shows this elegant art lover as a quintessential Englishman abroad, his long white hands and face looking raw and even sickly in the light of Rome.

Charles I ruled over an art-loving court and Van Dyck, a painter who could and did work all over Europe, came to Britain to get paid for portraits. His images of Stuart ladies and gentlemen have immense panache and cavalier style. They are at once real and down to earth – those pasty faces – yet magnificent in their silken garments and rich settings.

When British art took off in the 18th century, it was Van Dyck that artists like Gainsborough looked back to as the father of British painting – Gainsborough's painting The Blue Boy is his tribute to his art hero.

The painting the National Portrait Gallery wants to buy is the last known self-portrait by Van Dyck. He was very conscious of his talent – this portrait shows it. He stands sideways to the mirror he is looking at while he paints, and turns his head lightly towards it in a nonchalant, aristocratic pose.

Yet his world was falling apart. This was painted in 1640 to 1641 as Britain descended into a civil war that would leave many of Van Dyck's subjects and patrons, including Charles I, dead.

Meanwhile, Van Dyck himself had died by December 1641. The king said – as praise – that he spent all his money living "more like a prince than a painter".**

Van Dyck was Britain's first art star. For once, a campaign to save a painting is not just hype. This gifted Flemish student of the English face belongs in this country, at the National Portrait Gallery, among all those people whose bad skin and bad teeth and cockeyed smiles he had such a good eye for.

Update IV - more news coverage in The Guardian, The Independent, the Evening Standard, and The Art Newspaper

Update V - an overseas reader writes:

Not my business (as a Canadian, although we did recently nick your General Wolfe letters...), but I couldn't agree more with you and J.Jones et al: it is a superb portrait, with a great historical meaning, in a marvellously "right" frame too.  So  best wishes for successfully keeping it in Britain!

Update VI - More Twitter action. Celeb endorsement from Mary McCartney. And this great Tweet from Deborah Larbi:

 If #Movember was a competition, Van Dyck would win. Let's win this for him.

Meanwhile, Waldemar is mounting a one-man campaign to have my employer donate the picture to the NPG...

Update VII - on the last point, a reader writes (helpfully!):

In defense of capitalism and the art market, Mould & Co are entitled to profit from 1) saving the Van Dyke four years ago by taking the risk of purchasing it at auction during a very difficult economic period 2) holding the painting for four years with a lot of someone's capital in it 3) researching the picture to add to its value all that is now known about it.

I haven't seen Waldemar suggest that Sotheby's or Christie's or Bonham's (they will appreciate inclusion here) return or contribute their buyer's premium and commissions in similar circumstances.  I know that his tweets are good natured pricing to help raise some funding.  Aren't they.

Having said all that,  some contribution from Mould's profit to the NPG would be nice, however that is in fundamental conflict with Mould & Co.'s duty to its client who is trying to purchase the picture and carry it to foreign shores.

*yes, I'm doing my bit.

** I'm not sure Charles I did say that, I think it was said of Van Dyck when he was in Rome.

Meyer leaves Sotheby's

November 25 2013

Image of Meyer leaves Sotheby's

Picture: Newsweek

I don't think many people saw this coming - Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's talented modern and contemporary art auctioneer, is to leave Sotheby's. Oliver Barker (congrats) is to take his place. The Washington Post reports:

Sotheby's is parting ways with its head of contemporary art, an area where the auction house's performance has been criticized by activist hedge fund manager Dan Loeb.

The company said Tobias Meyer, its world-wide head of contemporary art, will leave after more than 20 years with the global art auction house. Sotheby's characterized the decision as mutual and coinciding with the coming expiration of Mr. Meyer's contract.

Contract negotiations with Mr. Meyer began before Mr. Loeb aired his criticism, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Meyer didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Mr. Meyer became the world-wide head of contemporary art in 1997 and principal auctioneer in July 2003, according to the company. For years, shareholders at Sotheby's annual meetings could count on seeing him in the crowd.

The decision follows last week's high-profile New York contemporary art auctions in which rival Christie's pulled in $782.4 million over two days of sales anchored by a Francis Bacon triptych that went for $142.4 million, the highest price for a piece of art sold at auction.

Sotheby's, with Mr. Meyer presiding at the evening sale, brought in $474.2 million over two days, including a $105.4 million price for a work by Andy Warhol, a record for the artist.

Oliver Barker, deputy chairman for Sotheby's in Europe, will pick up responsibility for the auction house's marquee evening sales of contemporary art in New York and London, the person familiar with the matter said.

The recent article on Meyer in Newsweek, which I posted below, gives you an idea of how important people like him are to the auciton houses when it comes to sourcing works for sale - and how stressful it can be if you don't nail the crucial consignments.

Update - ooh, a reader alerts me, in of course an entirely unconnected way, to the end paragraph in Daniel Loeb's recent broadside against the current Sotheby's management, in which he (as Sotheby's largest shareholder) mentions certain 'internal candidates' as replacement CEO's, were he to have his way in restructuring the company. Is there something afoot?

Sotheby’s is like an old master painting in desperate need of restoration. Auctions, private and internet sales all need to be reinvigorated or revamped. Sotheby’s global footprint must expand, and opportunities to exploit the Sotheby’s brand through adjacent businesses should be considered. Sotheby’s can also use its unique position and potential excess capital to judiciously take principal positions in works of art when doing so would not conflict with its clients’ interests.

As with any important restoration, Sotheby’s must first bring in the right technicians. Third Point is not only Sotheby’s largest shareholder but also has significant experience and a successful track record of serving on public company boards. I am willing to join the board immediately and help recruit several new directors who have experience increasing shareholder value, share a passion for art, understand technology and luxury brands, or have operated top-performing sales organizations. Importantly, our candidates would also better represent Sotheby’s expanding geographic footprint. We support the Company placing a designee from another large shareholder on the Board as well. Once installed, these new directors would determine what other steps are necessary to ensure that the Company benefits from the rigor and direction that comes with having an “owners’ perspective” in the boardroom.

It is also time, Mr. Ruprecht, for you to step down from your positions as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer and for the role of Chairman to be separated for your successor. While you were an able caretaker of Sotheby’s during times of crisis, you have not shown the innovation or inspiration the Company sorely needs to play offense today. Sotheby’s requires a CEO with sufficient knowledge of the global art markets to make critical decisions, who can move seamlessly around the globe building the business and strengthening client relationships. Respectfully, we do not see evidence that you are the right person to repair the Company and drive its growth in today’s dynamic global art market.

Therefore, once on the Board, it will be our top priority to commence a search for a new Chief Executive Officer from either within or outside the Company. Based on our due diligence and discussions with participants in the art market, there are at least two internal candidates for the CEO position who warrant serious consideration. We have already begun informal discussions with outside candidates and would welcome the opportunity to bring the internal candidates into a formal process.

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