December 4 2014
This curious picture, of Icarus and Daedalus, made £332,500 at Sotheby's day sale, against an estimate of just £8,000-£12,000. Catalogued as '18th Century follower of Van Dyck' the picture was in fact a 17th Century work, and also the original of that composition, which is known in a number of copies. The subject was a very popular one in the 17th Century. The picture was engraved in the late 18th Century as by Van Dyck. The condition was disarmingly good, which may have led some to think it was a later copy. I had a good look at the picture on Monday. But I didn't bid on it. I'm not sure who it's by, but I don't think it's Van Dyck. It's someone good though, like a Willeboirts Bosschaert type figure, or one of the many talented figures just downstream of Van Dyck.
Why Penny will be missed
December 4 2014
Picture: Timothy Foster/Apollo
There's a good interview by Thomas Marks in The Apollo with National Gallery director Nicholas Penny, who has been named the magazine's 'Personality of the Year'. The article neatly distills his directorial philosophy, which I hope will in some way live on after his departure.
Do read the whole thing, but here are two key points. First, on the importance of thinking in a scholarly, even connoisseurial way, for the long term:
For Penny, the mandate of a public museum has meant working to a far longer time frame than a more impresario-minded director might allow for: ‘Museums and art galleries’, he says, ‘weren’t really established for “the public”, in the sense of today’s living people, they were always intended to be regarded from a far higher altitude in terms of time – they were for posterity.’ He continues: ‘People talk all the time about how it’s really important to get more young people in, which is perfectly good, but I really think it’s more important that people in my position should be thinking about what’s going to happen in 30 years’ time. If you do that, you’re keener to look after – and I don’t just mean protect, but actually research and think about – all the most unpopular art that happens to be in the National Gallery today.’
That means heeding less fashionable Old Masters, as well as the ‘tickety-boo’ paintings that bring so many tourists to the gallery each year. Penny points out the correlation between a moribund market for Old Masters and an alarming diminution in experts in the field: ‘When you look at old auction catalogues from 20 or 30 years ago, it’s quite dramatic. There were 10 times more museum-quality works. If museums aren’t buying in these areas, they won’t value having curators in them, and the auction houses will have fewer experts. You can actually see that some areas of connoisseurship are shrinking.’ It is a disquieting situation, but one that might be said to have spurred Penny on at the National Gallery: ‘A place like this has to make itself a centre for expert knowledge about the pictures we have. We can’t rely on university art history departments producing people who’ll help us decide whether a Gaudenzio Ferrari really is by Gaudenzio Ferrari. We have to be a centre for study and scholarship – I think I’ve done quite a lot for that at the National Gallery.
’Penny has not pushed building projects at the National Gallery; his interventions in this respect have been more delicate than grand. ‘The most important thing about the permanent collection in my time as director,’ he says, ‘is that by the time I leave, every single Victorian or Edwardian ceiling – with the original day-lit arrangements and plasterwork – will have been exposed and restored.’ Here, as elsewhere, Penny has looked to the past for examples. But this year has also seen a cluster of developments that will modernise visitor experience, including the introduction of Wi-Fi in the galleries; reversing the ban on photography; and the launch of the museum’s first membership scheme. ‘The gallery’s got to respond to what you might call the common expectation of a visitor. It will always change in that way.’ Even here, however, in thinking about what these policies might entail, the importance of precedent is palpable: ‘New forms of antisocial activity arise at different times. In the Ashmolean Museum in the 1920s, all the undergraduates started whistling and the curatorial staff were driven absolutely crazy. They thought there was nothing more important in the world than stopping whistling.’
Art History sexism (ctd.)
December 4 2014
Further to my post below, a reader has discovered a treasure trove of images from Sotheby's recent Turner press call. They're all here, the Useless White Glove shots, the Girl Looking Admiringly shots, and even my favourite, the Girl Walking Blurrily Past shots.
Turner hits £30m
December 4 2014
Picture: Art Daily
Congratulations to Sotheby's for achieving a record price for Turner last night; £30.3m for 'Rome, from Mount Aventine'.
Regular readers will know why I've used the above photo.
Sotheby's sale total last night was £53.9m. So even without the Turner they'd have comfortably beaten Christie's total of £13.9m, by some £10m. Other strong results included: a Canaletto of St Mark's square, at £5.48m; a Pieter Brueghel the Younger village scene at £2.6m; and a still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder at £1.02m. This last picture has a relatively new attribution, having been previously attributed to Ludger tom Ring II. A large and interesting English landscape of c.1665 failed to sell at £400,000-£600,000.
Update - in The New York Times, Scott Reyburn has a good piece on the Turner price and the rest of the week's sales.
Mona Lisa theory no. 742
December 3 2014
She was a chinese slave who was Leonardo's mother. Or something like that. More here.
Update - a reader writes:
Ah, but the individual numerals of 742 add to 13, which is the unlucky number of Christ and the apostles, including Judas, at the last Supper, and Leonardo's is the most famous painting of the Last Supper, so Mona Lisa theory number 742 must be true!!
New Raeburns & Van Dyck for the Scottish Portrait Gallery
December 3 2014
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has acquired the above handsome portraits by Raeburn, of Lady Helen Montgomery (d.1828) and her father-in-law, Sir James Montgomery. The acquisition came through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme, and settled £210,000 worth of death duties. We are not told where the portraits came from; ie, what a nice irony it would be if, after the referendum, they were allocated to a Scottish gallery from an estate in England...
The Raeburns are not the SNPG's only AIL acquisition of late - the below portrait by Van Dyck, of the 2nd Earl of Haddington, was acquired in place of £400,000 of tax (cheap, in my view). This picture, however, remains 'in situ' at Mellerstain House in Berwickshire. Sometimes this 'in situ' arrangement works well, if, for example, a work of art hangs in an interior that was built around it. But in the present case I'm not so sure it does. The picture currently hangs in the small, side wing public entrance to Mellerstain, just opposite the cash till. There seems to me to be no compelling reason for the picture not to be on display in a more publicly accessible place, such as the SNPG itself. But it's not even on their website (hence the rubbish photo).
6,000 new 'Late Rembrandt' tickets
December 3 2014
Pictures: National Gallery / BG
6,000 new tickets have been released for Late Rembrandt at the National Gallery, and you can even go to the exhibition till 9pm on Sundays. More here.
I was amused to see how heavily they're pushing Rembrandt-esque gifts at the National Gallery's shop. There's a Rembrant plate (with his self-portrait on) for £40, a faux gold painted handbag, various furry things like cushions and scarves, a not very enticing small framed reproduction of a self-portrait, and...
... a Rembrandt brolly!
National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie (ctd.)
December 3 2014
I dashed into the National Gallery on Monday to take a look at their new Wilkie acquisition, which was debated with some passion amongst AHN readers last week.
As you can see above, it's a little overwhelmed in its current place. The room it's in is dripping with sizeable masterpieces by Turner, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Hogarth. And then there's the Wilkie, which I can see is a fine picture, and an interesting acquisition in itself. But I must confess to being a little disappointed.
And yesterday I recieved the below comment from a reader who I shan't name, but whose opinion I respect utterly, and who speaks from a position of great authority in the UK's museum sector:
The concern of many commentators about the quality of the National Gallery's acquisitions in recent years is entirely justified. Many of us vividly remember, just over ten years ago, that Brian Sewell was outraged that they should spend half a million pounds on a remarkably ugly sketch by Polidoro da Caravaggio from the collection of Philip Pouncey, at one time a curator in the Gallery. Since then, a succession of generally small paintings has arrived in Trafalgar Square, by gift, bequest, and purchase, which have served no purpose but to dilute the quality of the Gallery's supremely rich holdings and hardly deserve display space. The Lawrence of Lady Emily Lamb is charming, but not important; nor is the new Wilkie, happy though it may be as a rediscovery. The responsibility must lie with curators, directors, and above all the trustees, who, in contrast to many museums, make decisions over every single acquisition. It comes as no surprise to find that, among current trustees, tha great majority have a financial background, that only one is an artist, and that not there is not a single art historian among them! One Trustee (currently Hannah Rothschild) acts as a Trustee for both the Tate and the National Gallery. Such a position, which some might consider unenviable, suggests that far greater co-operation between these two institutions is not only highly desirable, but possible. If the National Gallery wishes for greater representation of the British School, in particular, it would surely be sensible to arrange a long-term deposit of some of the pictures currently in the Tate's vast store in South London. Of course, there have also been triumphs in recent years, in particular in [...] the acquisition of the Duke of Sutherland's Titians; but far too many mistakes, the most expensive being the ridiculous Bellows, 'de-accessioned' by a U.S. museum (contrary to all N.G. principles) and snapped up at an enormous (some would say unjustifiable) price.
In order to restore faith in the Trustees and staff of the National Gallery, the Government must immediately appoint Trustees who are both distinguished art historians and connoisseurs. Without them, this great institution will continue to blunder into mistake after mistake.
On Monday, I congratulated the dealer who discovered and bought the Wilkie, and commiserated with the dealer who discovered and underbid it. You win some, you lose some...
I also bumped into a strong contender for director of the National Gallery. I wonder if a wee re-hang might be amongst the first things they do...
Update - a US based reader wrties:
I know the Wilkie well and think it is a brilliant acquisition of an artist who is very much unfashionable. I wish an American museum had been prescient enough to buy it instead of the 19th century Scandinavian & German oil-sketch daubs they are all wild about these days.
The problem with its current hang is that out belongs amongst early 19th century French pictures -Like Bonington and Delacroix’s ‘historical ‘ genre subjects it is very much a ‘troubadour’ picture.
While another disagrees about the trustees:
I think the answer is not to appoint art historians and connoisseurs as NG trustees, but to devolve decisions on acquisitions to a separate committee, comprised of them.
Years ago the NACF suffered from the opposite problem. The trustees were retired museum people, experts in their fields but unworldly. Their meetings were dominated by consideration of grant applications - museums that wanted the NACF's help to buy something would bring the object to the trustee meeting, where it would be debated. That was all well and good, for producing robust grant decisions. But they had no interest in the operation of the organisation itself - and why would they? For them, the glory was all in their power over major museum acquisitions, not in dull stuff like strategy, budgets, headcount, marketing, contracts, and so on.
Personally, I would like to see more art historian-like figures as trustees of the National. And that's not just because I want to be one. Honest.
All change for the CEOs...
December 3 2014
Christie's CEO, Steven Murphy, is leaving, the company has announced. This just days after Sotheby's CEO also announced his departure. Melanie Girlis in The Art Newspaper says it's 'extraordinary'.
Update - a well connected reader tells me all sorts of interesting things about the departure, most of which are alas unprintable. The main question to ask is, why, if everything is so rosy at Christie's after their most successful sale ever (the recent $852m 'mega sale' of contemporary art), is the CEO is suddenly going? Did Christie's actually make much in the way of profit from the sale? And did the deployment of so much in the way of guarantees represent an acceptable level of risk? Of course, as a private company, the figures will never be known. But as Shakespeare said, 'all that glisters is not gold'.
Update II - The new CEO has been announced, Patricia Barbizet, who is CEO of Artemis SA, the holding company owned by Christie's owner, Francois Pinault. More here.
Bargain of the week?
December 3 2014
Here's a picture I loved at Christie's this week - a portrait of Rodin by Eugène Carrière. The two were good friends. It was estimated at £6,000-£8,000, which I thought was cheap. It was also not in the main Old Master sales, but in a seperate French decorative sale. I sensed a possible bargain... but it sold today for £68,500.
December 3 2014
The total for last night's Old Master sale at Christie's was £13.9m, which is about 2.5% of the total for their most recent evening Modern & Contemporary sale. For the small change found down the back of a Koons sofa, you could have bought, amongst other things, a portrait by Van Dyck which formerly belonged to King Charles I (above, £2.8m, all prices inc. premium), a Willem van de Velde seascape (£2.2m), and a Venetian view by Canaletto (£1.3m). All good musum level stuff. But who am I kidding in even making such a comparison...
The above mentioned Van Dyck was a portrait of the musician, Hendrick Liberti. One of two known versions (the other is in Munich), I suspect it must be the first. The condition was a little problematic in parts, especially the background and some of the dark glazes in areas such as the hair and hands. Much of the drapery was covered by layers of uncleaned, older varnish. In conservation lingo, this is known as a 'porthole clean', when someone just cleans the obvious bits like the head and hands. In this case, we must be thankful that whoever did that didn't go further.
The newly discovered Van Dyck head study (which I mentioned here last month) made £494,500, which figure puts into perspective the £300,000-£500,000 estimate at which a similar Van Dyck head study (from the same series of Brussels Magistrates portraits of the early 1630s) failed to sell earlier this year (the one that was discovered on the Antiques Roadshow, illustrated here).
Personally, I preferred the modeling of the head and the characterisation of the 'Roadshow' picture. But the picture sold yesterday had the advantage of being in much better condition, and consequently appeared much better painted, full of virtuoso strokes. It was also 'fresh' to the market - in the sense that it hadn't been turned into too much of a news story. Sometimes this can damage a picture's prospects at auction, at least in the Old Master world.
Why? Because the Old Master market is, like many markets, underpinned by dealers (despite, some might say, the best efforts of the auction houses to kill off independent dealers). If a picture is presented at auction with great fanfare, and freshly cleaned, then there's little prospect of a dealer bidding on it for stock and prepared to hold it for a number of years, because there's no way they can add value. So at the time of the auction, the only people who might have bid on the 'Roadshow' picture were private collectors who were looking for a Van Dyck head study at that particular moment, and with the ready cash to pay for it within 30 days. And you can take it from me that there's not many people like that around.
Therefore - and slightly paradoxically perhaps - the picture that sold yesterday benefited from having a great deal of later over-paint still on it (such as in the background and the clothing, which was added at a later date, the concept of the 'unfinished' being a relatively new aesthetic trend). As a commercial prospect it's much more enticing to the trade, because they can buy it, take off the over-paint, and restore it to how Van Dyck left it (which will be something like the similar study in the Ashmolean museum). Obviously, there's a risk in doing this, as the picture might in fact be knackered beneath (though I doubt it). They might even have this done in time for the great art fair at Maastricht. Now, I don't know for sure that it was bought by the trade, but I can guarantee you some in the trade would have bid on it. And at auction, maximising the price is (usually) all about maximising the number of bidders.
Finally, you might ask, why was the 'Roadshow' discovery not put into the auction with all its overpaint left on? And the answer to that is quite simple; in that case, the overpaint - and dirt and old varnish - were so completely disfiguring that it wasn't actually possible to see (at least not to non-Van Dyck nerds like me) that the picture was by Van Dyck at all. So it had to be cleaned. You can see what it used to look like here. It'll sell, one day...
Anyway, this review of yesterday's sale prices has turned into an impromptu guide to how the market in newly discovered Van Dyck paintings works. Other notable sales last night included a fine portrait by Batoni which made £344k, and a portrait of a young boy by Joos van Cleve. Sotheby's has the weightier sale this time round - their Turner notwithstanding - and I expect well see a higher overall total at their sale tonight. It might even reach a full five percent of that Christie's contemporary sale.
December 1 2014
...I'm off to London to see the Old Master sales. Back tomorrow...
November 28 2014
Picture: The Saleroom
Just a tiddler this one, and one that, annoyingly, I missed by a mere half an hour (that is, the lot had passed by the time I'd seen it and logged in to bid), but nonetheless a sensitively rendered portrait of an unknown old woman by Joseph Wright of Derby, and a bargain at £750. Now, I know you're all thinking the sitter isn't exactly a beaut - but I think it's a great picture nonetheless. Sometimes, the older and craggier the sitter, the better.
Ouch! The 'sleeper' bites back (ctd.)
November 28 2014
Picture: Lyon & Turnbull
I mentioned earlier this month the curious story of the quarter of a million pound 'sleeper' being consigned back into auction at just £2,000-£3,000. The painting, an oil on copper depiction of Hercules, was being offered at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh as 'Manner of Francesco Albani' (above), despite having beeing bought at Bonhams last year for £254,000 where it was suspected by some of being by one of the Carraccis. Yesterday, the picture sold for £25,000 inc. premium, so that's pretty much a £225,000 hit. Ouch indeed...
I've never seen anyone cut their losses and run like that before. Normally, even if you couldn't get the experts to endorse with your 'sleeper' attribution, you'd hang on in there, in the hope that somebody somewhere might agree with you. The only possible explanation, I thought, was that the picture was an out and out fake, and had been consigned to Bonhams in a 'dirty' state, and cunningly devised to relate to a known drawing attributed to Annibale Carracci in which the hand is in a different position. In other words, the buyer at Bonhams felt there was no chance of the picture being worth anything, and wanted out.
But I went to see the picture, which has since been cleaned, and (although I couldn't spend too long looking at it - you try viewing an auction with an 11 week old) I thought that it probably was period. Admittedly, it wasn't a great painting, but I wouldn't rule out that it was painted by the same hand, or at least in the studio of the same hand, as made the drawing. From what I could gather, at least one prominent specialist on the Carraccis had not been shown the painting at all.
So it's all most curious. It seems thatsomeone bought it, but was unhappy with the cleaned picture, and simply decided not to bother pursuing the attribution any more. As a paid up member of Sleeper Hunters Anonymous, I can understand the attraction of taking a punt on things like this. But I can only dream of having such deep pockets.
By the way, if the pockets were yours, and you need a little guidance in the auction field, you know who to call...
Gurlitt horde (ctd.)
November 28 2014
The Kunstmuseum in Berne has now formally accepted the bequest of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art collection. (Regular readers will remember that this was reported here as far back as October). The Kunstmuseum says they will return any legitimately claimed works, and keep the rest. More here.
In The Guardian, Nigel Warburton looks at the legal and moral implications of Berne accepting the bequest.
November 28 2014
These 'Circle of John Constable' clouds made £32,000 against a £300-£500 estimate at a regional UK auction yesterday. More images here.
Perronneau catalogue raisonné
November 28 2014
Picture: National Gallery
Neil Jeffares informs us that a new catalogue raisonné of Jean- Baptiste Perronneau's work will be published in January. He's one of my favourite French artists, and I particularly like the way his pastel technique (he was primarily a pastelist) translates into oil, as seen in the above portrait of Jacques Cazotte in the National Gallery. I've not come across a firm link, but I've often wondered if he had an impact on Gainsborough's later work.
I look forward to seeing the book, which is published by Arthena, and written by Dominique d'Arnoult. As is often the case with these things, there's no easily findable website to send you to (not even on Amazon). So I'm not sure how you'd buy it.
Update - a reader sends in this astonishing fact:
Thrilled to hear about the catalogue: if anyone decided to put on a show of 18thc French portraits, he would emerge as a real star. Come to think of it, why hasn't there been one; I think people would be surprised how consistently good the works would be from the epochs of Rigaud to David. And, as your other recent post shows, the portrait sculpture was exceptional.
One other thought per the recent dicsussions around the National's new Wilkie. The Perronneau of Cazotte, which is a masterpiece, was bought by the Gallery at public auction in 1976 - for £88,000 I recall - and is only one example of the practice of the then Director, Michael Levey, to bring in to the collection, and thereby for the public in this country overall, works by unfamiliar but important artists.
It remains the only Perronneau painting in UK collections: PCF list 132 works by Wilkie.
And yes, in terms of price, French 18th portraits are cheap. I'm not sure why. I think the overall aesthetic is too 'peaches and cream' for today's modern taste. We could never shift them when I was flogging portraits in London. But doubtless this'll change.
Update II - Neil Jeffares has the order form here. It seems the publishers don't have a website. So much for digital art history...
All hail 'Your Sculptures'
November 28 2014
Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum
Splendid news from the Public Catalogue Foundation; they have been awarded £2.84m by the Heritage Lottery Fund to begin digitising the UK's collection of sculptures. The project follows on from the PCF's ground breaking Your Paintings project, where over 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership were photographed and put online.
The PCF estimates that there are 85,000 objects to photograph, and 15,000 outdoor works. More details here.
The image above is one of my favourite sculptures in the UK, which I used to gaze at when I was at Cambridge; the Fitzwilliam's Philippe-Laurent Roland self-portrait. Personally, I think terracotta makes for the best portrait busts, and here we have further evidence that when artists portray themselves, they really push the boat out. I look forward to seeing how the Your Sculpture project presents such works. My hope is that the resolution of their photos is better than those available on Your Paintings.
'Hockney', The Movie
November 28 2014
Video: 'Hockney, Live from LA'
I'd like to see this, a feature film looking at Hockney's life. I can't find a website for the film, but it's in cinemas from today. Iain Miller in The Art Newspaper reports on Hockney's interview in a 'live screening' from earlier this week.
Art History sexism (ctd.)
November 28 2014
Picture: BBC/ Christie's sale image, painting by Irma Stern
Regular readers will know of my little campaigns against 'The Girl Walking Blurrily in Front of a Painting' photo, and also 'The Useless White Glove' photo. Here, in The Telegraph, Claire Cohen, rails against the practice:
Just why is it that the moment it’s time to flog antiques or artworks, auction houses grab the nearest “young filly” (likely an employee who has better things to do). Are we really happy to patronise buyers by suggesting their wallets will magically open at the sight of a pretty girl? The poor women in these prehistoric auction house pictures look out of place – and I bet they feel it.
How do I know? I used to be one of them.
Before becoming a journalist, I worked in the press office of a leading London auction house. It was a desk job – my first. Yet, time and again I was dragged off to pose alongside various artefacts. Who’s that grinning inanely at a Francis Bacon triptych? Me. Pretending to drive Hitler’s 1939 Auto Union D-Type car, worth upwards of £6 million? Guilty. That figure wearing a Stormtrooper helmet from the first Star Wars film looks familiar. Me again. […]
Posing in front of the camera like a mannequin, it was hard not to feel like the blue-blooded equivalent of the bikini-clad lovelies who parade the ring between rounds at a big fight.
Now, I look at the young women in such sales pictures and cringe. They represent an outdated, old boys’ club – the very image that many of our most prestigious auction houses have gone to great lengths to ditch.
Actually, I'm not sure the most prestigious auction houses have gone to any lengths to ditch such practices. But actually, who is to blame here? Isn't it 'us', that is, the readers of newspapers and websites whom, picture editors and auction house PRs assume, need to have our visual radar piqued by something else going on in the photo, other than the art? And do we demand, albeit subconsciously, that that 'something else' is eye-catching, attractive, even female? Isn't that the same reason that two identically painted portraits of the same size by Gainsborough can so wildly differ in value, if one is of an old man two weeks away from his first heart attack (£10k) and the other a pretty young woman in a dashing dress (say, £5m)?
I'm not sure what the answer is, let me know what you think...
Update - a reader writes:
This is the most shameless example I've seen:
Also this recent one amused as the girl's reflection in the glass means she appears in the picture twice as often as Rembrandt does"
That might be a perfectly innocent one where they wanted someone looking at the picture but it's never usually an old lady and I suppose in that respect it's no different from most other PR managed images we see. Images of young women are used to promote most things because it sells but perhaps it just looks more ridiculous with art because the artwork itself is supposed to be the visually stimulating image.
The top one is fantastic, a real genre-leading example; white gloves, a young lovely, a Rembrandt, the classic 'I'm not actually lifting the picture' position, and... cleavage! Anyone got any better examples?
Update II - a reader with experience of these things writes:
Not that important but I thought an insider view point might be an interesting Friday distraction and you do always bang on about "the girl in the press photo"!
In my experience the decision to use a young girl is usually never anything to do with the ‘auction house’ or the specialist department of the item in question. Unfortunately most auction house specialists don’t have enough time to dedicate a whole morning to taking copious amounts of press shots from slightly different angles with overly enthusiastic photographers. Nor is there some sort of misogynistic board of chairmen with nothing more pressing to do than demand a young girl is used for the shoot.
Usually the press office is responsible for the model and usually it will be the youngest employee or intern in the department willing to do what the elders don't have time for. Invariably they are not only young but female as the pr industry seems to female heavy...or at least It is at our auction house as I have never met a bloke working in our pr team in my years!
If anyone does demand anything at all its usually the photographer. Usually free-lance/external anyway, they are often more used to shooting z-list celebrities and therefore think a young lady or a pair of white gloves will make a painting as ‘cool’ to the tabloid readership.