Frieze week sales

October 22 2013

Interesting update on sales at this year's Freize week from the FT, the fair's sponsor:

Sales at the five-day event, which attracts the world’s top dealers, gallery owners, artists and wealthy collectors, stayed firmly within expectations, with some describing trade as “muted”.

Circling Detroit (ctd.)

October 21 2013

Image of Circling Detroit (ctd.)

Picture: BG/DIA

Back in the summer I reported on Christie's visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts to value the collection there, now that the bankrupt city is considering selling the art. Now, more information has emerged about what's going on. In the LA Times, Mark Caro tells us that Christie's staff visit the museum on Mondays, when it's shut, and that the auction house is being paid $200,000. Also, only works in the DIA specifically bought by the City are being valued for possible sale (so not gifts or other acquisitions):

Out of the DIA's 60,000 pieces, 6,000 are on view, and 3,300 are classified as city of Detroit purchases rather than those donated by patrons [...].

Christie's is appraising only the city-purchased works, so Rivera's courtyard murals, a gift from Edsel B. Ford, are not at risk, but many of the DIA's most famous paintings — such as Van Gogh's straw-hatted "Self Portrait" (1887), Rembrandt's "The Visitation" (1640) and Giovanni Bellini's "Madonna and Child" (1509) — were bought by the city before the museum's 1927 opening.

There's also some talk of art being sold, but leased back by the museum. For what it's worth, I suspect some prize works will be sold in the end, if only out of political necessity. Very few politicians like to be seen as protective of 'the arts' over pensioners. So the DIA will struggle on, just without some of its star pieces.

Have we run out of good art to sell?

October 21 2013

Video: Channel 4 News

Paul Mason of Channel 4 News wonders if the profusion of works by lesser known 20th Century artists on offer at Frieze Masters is because there isn't enough good art to go round, or rather the good stuff is just too expensive. One dealer, exhibiting the work of an entirely unknown Hungarian dentist (above), says somewhat unconvincingly, "This is not about finding something else to flog".

Update - an Old Master dealing reader writes:

Your post "Have we run of good art to sell" was a pleasure to read and see.

Indeed, even though the old masters are oft lamented as being almost depleted, it seems that modern and contemporary masters face the same problem. 

Where with the old masters it's more a problem of shrinking supply, the modern masters have had to cope with huge and growing demand, surging prices and an influx of new "collectors". Nowadays it seems easier (not to mention cheaper) to get your hands on a decent Brueghel than it is to acquire a half-decent Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso.

What Frieze says about London

October 21 2013

Image of What Frieze says about London

Picture: Guardian

Interesting piece in The Guardian by Nick Cohen on why Frieze is a perfect reflection of London's unsettling excesses at the moment:

If you doubt that London is the capital city of the global oligarchy, look around. When Russian, Kazakh or American billionaires buy mansions, the government ensures they pay minimal property and foreign earnings taxes. As a consequence, foreign buyers are taking half the houses costing £1m or more in central London. A vast service industry tends to their needs. I could point you to the luxury shops and private schools, but consider this statistic from the law courts instead. Corporate lawyers are so dependent on oligarchical wealth to keep their incomes high, foreigners now make up almost two-thirds of litigants in the commercial court.

Nothing can stop the infatuation. When George Osborne arrived in China, he assured his hosts that if its wealthy wanted to buy companies, power stations, homes, or anything else their hearts desired, he would welcome them to Britain, his party's anti-immigration platform notwithstanding.

We have a government, tax regime, property market, legal system and immigration policy designed to meet the needs of the plutocracy. And art for oligarchs too. Specifically, we have a giant, cartoonish cat in a garish sock by Jeff Koons hanging above the dealers at the Frieze art fair in Regent's Park.

"How much is it?" I asked an assistant.

"We don't give out prices," she replied, with a look that said: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

As an art dealer working in Mayfair, I obviously rely somewhat on the London's enormous influx of overseas money. But the flipside is that the city where I grew up has become too expensive to actually live in.

Whistler in Dulwich

October 21 2013

Video: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Adrian Hamilton in the Independent likes Dulwich Picture Gallery's new exhibition in Whistler, 'An American in London: Whistler and the Thames'. In the video above, Dulwich's director, Ian Dejardin, introduces the show. It runs until 12th January.

'Britain's Sistine Chapel'

October 21 2013

Image of 'Britain's Sistine Chapel'

Picture: National Trust

Regular readers will know of my anorak-like fascination with war art, so it's exciting to read that Stanley Spencer's WW1 murals, normally housed in Sandham Memorial Chapel in Berkshire, are coming to London. They will be on display from November 7th till January 26th at Somerset House. Needless to say, the PR hype that these murals are somehow 'Britain's Sistine Chapel' is a bit de trop

"Art as Therapy"

October 21 2013

Image of "Art as Therapy"

Picture: Phaidon/Amazon

The indispensable Grumpy Art Historian has taken the trouble to read Alain de Botton's new book 'Art as Therapy', so you don't have to. For it is woeful. The GAH's money quote:

This book is not just bad; it's obviously bad. Its badness isn't disguised by dense prose and it doesn't hint at hidden depths.

De Botton even has advice for art dealers like me:

The task of the private gallery is a serious one: to connect purchasers with the art they need. The chief skill required for running a gallery should therefore be not salesmanship, but the ability to diagnose what is missing from the inner life of the client. The art dealer should strive to identify what kind of art a person needs to rebalance themselves and then meet that need as efficiently as possible. 

The key activity of a dealer would be to conduct consultations sessions that would reveal the state of the client's soul. Before one can know what someone should buy, one has to know who they are, and more importantly, what areas of their psyches are vulnerable. The role of the art dealer would overlap with that of a therapist. The standard layout of a commercial gallery would evolve to include a therapy room, which one might need to pass through before getting to see any works for sale. Thus the dealer would operate as a matchmaker, bringing together an inner need of the client with a work best able to assuage it.

Update - a reader writes:

Yes, but the book is surely a satire, like Swift on Irish children to be eaten or Machiavelli satirizing the Medici in "The Prince", right?  Oh, I forgot, Swift and Machiavelli actually had a sense of humour, if somewhat dark.....

Update II - another reader writes:

I was at Alain de Botton's event at the National Gallery on Friday night. There he claimed that he has been invited to re-hang the entire Rijksmuseum according to his new curatorial for the period April - September 2014!

 One of the many things that surprise me about de Botton's mission is that he seems blissfully unaware that his big 'themed hang' idea is more or less standard pratice when curating exhibitions these days - I've lost count of the number of times I have grumbled that I "would have preferred a chronological arrangement".

3 Cranachs at Sotheby's December Old Master sale

October 18 2013

Video: Sotheby's

I've said before how impressive Sotheby's Old Master videos are. This is another good one, with George Gordon discussing three works by Cranach (Elder and Younger) coming up at Sotheby's December Old Master sale, in London.

Update - one reader isn't a fan of Herr Cranach:

Yes, very good video, very skillful painting: I just can't get over my impression that Cronach (Elder) was both deeply misogynist, even for his day, even in paintings of the Madonna, and a pedlar of creepy "keyhole views" for voyeurs.  Which may say as much about his patrons as him.  No doubt others see him differently.....

Frieze Masters (ctd.)

October 18 2013

Image of Frieze Masters (ctd.)

Pictures: BG

I enjoyed Frieze Masters, where I went yesterday evening. It's a well presented and well run fair, and has the potential to be one of the best in the world. A highlight was the above pair of Monet drawing and painting (above), on offer at Simon Dickinson for just over £8.3m.

But from an Old Master point of view, I found the offering a little underwhelming. The fair seems mainly to have stands from dealers who exhibit at TEFAF in Maastricht. And since TEFAF is still the world's pre-eminent Old Master fair, it's hard not to go around Frieze Masters thinking, 'I've seen that before'. Some of the pictures I recognised from TEFAF two and even three years ago. Major art fairs should really have a rule that prevents exhibitors wheeling out the same old pictures.

Another rule all fairs should have is one about labelling and pricing the works on offer. Fairs are retail environments, not the first floor galleries many dealers are used to. Not putting prices on the wall makes punters, especially new ones, feel uneasy.

The worst offender in this respect at Frieze Masters was the Gagosian Gallery (below), which is so lah-de-dah exclusive that it refuses to put any labels on the wall at all. So you have no idea who made what, and (I suppose this is the point) are made to feel lowly and un-cultured by daring to ask. It's an unforgiveably pompous way to treat people, don't you think? I don't understand why, in my world of selling Old Masters and British art, we bend over backwards to explain everything possible about a picture (attribution, identification, context, provenance, condition), and yet in the modern and contemporary world you can get away with saying nothing at all. Is that because there is in fact nothing to say?

Update - a reader points out that the Barber Institute has another version of the above Monet, for which they paid just £1,428 in 1938.

Update II - a dealing reader writes:

Your comments about presentation of work that’s already been seen are absolutely right.

The labelling issue vis-à-vis modern and contemporary rumbles on and is a reflection of the snootery and elitism that is rife, all to do with deep insecurity and anxiety I expect.

Update III - another reader writes:

Just a short message to let you know I completely agree with your review of Frieze Masters; I had exactly the same feeling at Gagosian - "yeah that's a Rothko (but if you have to ask you're too stupid to become a client of us" - extremely pompous indeed.

Old masters isn't my core interest but I did have some déja-vu's too - and I saw the Velazques portrait you discussed earlier on your blog.

For Modern art FM is definitely at the same level at Tefaf in my view, but there are still some holes, for example the almost total lack of anything new or old from the Asian continent.

Great location in the park too, a fine excuses for a day-trip to London - and such great weather!

Update IV - a reader alerts me to this excellent article on how to navigate the Friezes, by Peter Aspden in the FT:

1. Act rich. For all their democratic brio, people who sell art are only really interested in people who can afford to buy it. The average price of an artwork at Frieze is £20,000, which is more than an Alfa Romeo. But acting rich is not as easy as it used to be. Pressed jeans and Tod’s loafers are a uniform of the past. Assume a casual, studied air. When confronted by a work designed to make you laugh, don’t laugh. Haughty disdain goes a long way, although if you can match that of the gallerist, you are made of ice. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the price of anything but never, ever, mention any currency denomination (see point two).

2. So you quite like the look of something, and you ask how much it costs. “Two,” may be the reply. The air of vagueness is a test. You will know, from your studies of the artist in question, whether that means £2 (no), £200 (unlikely), £200,000, or £2m. But if the gallerist’s assistant is American, she (almost always a she) may be talking dollars. Don’t ask. Make a rough calculation in your head that covers all possible options. Any physical reaction is ill-advised, other than the barely perceptible raising of an eyebrow. Finally, ask if she will accept roubles. You’re on the front foot now.

3. Don’t check in your sense of humour at the VIP lounge. Take it with you, wherever you go. There is no need to LOL but a steady, wry chuckle as you wind your way round the aisles will serve you well. If asked your opinion on anything, there are some stock phrases that will come in useful: for example, “referencing Duchamp”, or “rethinking the space between the artist and the spectator”. Almost all contemporary art references or rethinks something or other. As an exercise, try and talk about art without using any word that begins with “re”. Don’t ever use the word “postmodern”, which is dated and not very funny at all.

Update V - a major contemporary artist (apparently) writing under the pseudonym Shirley House on has this interesting snippet on Pinkers Post about the datelines at Frieze Masters:

right now the mix is a total disaster. I was told by one of the organizers that they came under huge pressure from some of the very large contemporary galleries to include them, as they wanted to show off expensive minimalists. Many of the larger galleries, and even some mid-size ones are busily hoovering up the estates of dead artists (they have all learned the art of dodgy editions). The fair obviously cannot refuse them as they are too powerful, and bring too many collectors there, but it really risks the future integrity of the fair. The organizer told me confidentially that they are waiting a few years to push further back the date remit - I imagine to the start of the 1980's, but we will have to see if they do it. If there is one way of deciding how to draw a line, it may be to decide who is already in an established cannon, and who is not. The Masters fair would be a perfect vehicle to investigate these parameters.  Koons has added to the post-Warhol debate, so he is in. Damien Hirst and Takahashi Murakami are yet to be decided.

'The Future of Auctioneering' ?

October 18 2013

Video: Bonhams

Bonhams has given itself the Hollywood trailer treatment, in advance of their new showroom opening at the top of Bond St, in London.

Burning Monet

October 18 2013

Image of Burning Monet


Exactly one year after the Rotterdam Kunsthal theft, Lex Boon has written the definitive story on the disaster, for

Understanding condition (ctd.)

October 17 2013

Image of Understanding condition (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

Regular readers will know I'm always beanging on about the importance of understanding a picture's condition, when buying at auction. The above picture, by Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert, was recently sold at Christie's Amsterdam for EUR133,000, against a EUR20-30,000 estimate. As an attractive and engaging image, painted fluidly in oil on panel, it ticked a lot of boxes. Kinda cute, don't you think?

But did you spot the later over-paint around the chin? The picture had been very cunningly 'restored' by a previous owner, which had the effect of making it look a touch 19th Century. Click 'read on' to see what it looks like now, with all the over-paint removed.

Now it's still a fine and important picture, and is in fact in excellent condition. Academically, it's the sort of thing that would work well in any museum collection. But if I'd bought it, I'm not sure I'd have enjoyed the surprise.

A hint as to what the picture really looked like beneath the over-paint is provided by the painting below, attributed to Jan David de Heem.

Guffwatch - bouncer special

October 17 2013

Image of Guffwatch - bouncer special

Picture: Melanie Gerlis

The Art Newspaper's Melanie Gerlis reports on Twitter that at Gagosian's Frieze stand there are more bouncers than punters. Above, two guards look as they're really enjoying standing watch over Jeff Koons' Tweety Pie.

'The people are weirder than the art'

October 17 2013

Video: Guardian

The Guardian's Adrian Searle has a good take on Frieze.

Newly found Brueghel the Younger at Frieze

October 17 2013

Image of Newly found Brueghel the Younger at Frieze

Picture: FT

It's good to see that one of the headline pictures from this week's Frieze fairs has come from the Masters (ie, 'old') part. Congratulations to famed Old Master dealer Johnny Van Haeften for finding a lost work by Pieter Breughel the Younger in East Africa. The FT reports:

“I can tell you, it nearly blew my socks off,” Johnny Van Haeften laughed. “In my – what is it? – almost 44 years in the art world I’ve never known an experience like this.”

Van Haeften, one of London’s most respected dealers in Old Masters, sounded almost breathless as he told his story. Speaking from his Mayfair gallery, he was describing his first sight of a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger that has for the 400 years since its creation been completely unknown to the world.

It has been continuously in the possession of the same English family since a distant ancestor bought it, direct from the artist’s studio, in Antwerp in 1611.

The owners had never publicised their precious possession, although they were well aware of its pedigree. Until the 1950s they even had among the family papers the original receipt, Van Haeften tells me, made out in Antwerp in 1611 for the purchase price of 200 florints. (If that mislaid piece of paper ever comes to light, it will in itself be a fascinating object for art historians.)

London's mystery Jacobite

October 16 2013

Image of London's mystery Jacobite


A reader has alerted me to a bunch of white roses laid at the feet James II's statue outside the National Gallery. It was James' birthday on the 14th October, and a white rose was the Jacobite symbol. How splendid (and not just to Jacobites like me) that some people out there still remember these things. 

Sewell on Tate's iconoclasm show

October 16 2013

Image of Sewell on Tate's iconoclasm show

Picture: BG

I enjoyed the Tate's new 'Art Under Attack' exhibition. It's about iconoclasm, but Tate were told they couldn't call it that, because people wouldn't understand what it meant. There are some beautiful objects on display, like the above c.1500 defaced statue of Christ, which I found strangely moving. Such things make you realise how much we lost in Britain during the Reformation. So thanks for that, Henry. We so rarely think of an English tradition in religious art, but it must have been a deeply embedded one, with practically every painted surface in a church decorated with something. As my boss, Philip Mould, always reminds me, the history of art is the history of what survives.

Still, iconoclasm is a difficult theme for an exhibition to pull off, as the Great Brian points out in the Standard:

The problem for this exhibition, until it reaches the end of the 17th century (when the Puritans too behaved as perversely as Henry’s men), is that the iconoclasts destroyed almost everything that was once worth exhibiting and it exists — if it exists at all — only in fragments and in such records as paintings and prints. Two rouge marble fragments from the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury — one of a thousand pilgrimage shrines destroyed — are of no interest in themselves but only provide evidence that some structural part of it was in this rich material; without the legend these could as easily be fragments of a Georgian fireplace. Fragments of lead and carved stone from Rievaulx are exactly that too — fragments of architectural evidence. Larger sculptures, headless and handless, are evidence of the physical effort involved in destruction. Fragments of small alabaster sculptures even have something of the fetish souvenir about them.

We then move on to the tumbling of statues — away with William the Turd and George I, Nelson and the Duke of Cumberland — and to defaced coins, among them one with a noose about the neck of George III and another of Victoria scarred with the legend “I love shag”. Such trivia from the local junk shop make for a very thin exhibition, and it is hardly thickened by its treatment of the suffragettes from Manchester — a couple of the 13 paintings the glass of which they smashed, and from the National Gallery a photograph of Velázquez’s Venus, hacked by stupid Mary Richardson with a butcher’s cleaver, and one of the five Bellinis attacked with her cane by the equally stupid Freda Graham. These are not to be recognised as examples of iconoclasm, for any painting of anything would have served as well, or badly, to draw attention to their cause; had they attacked the paintings in Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912, they would have attracted just as much attention and won the public to their side.

'Elizabeth I and her People'

October 16 2013

Video: National Portrait Gallery

I haven't yet been to see the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition, 'Elizabeth I and her People', but the only review I've seen so far is a bit mixed. Alastair Smart in the Telegraph gives it two stars out of five, and seems not to be impressed by the social history element (that is, the 'people' element of the show):

Call me old-fashioned, but generally I find that good art makes for good exhibitions. Which is why, alas, this show was always destined for failure.

It tells the ostensibly stirring tale of Elizabethan England through portraits of the queen, her courtiers and subjects. But the trouble is – though the era was one of great advances in science, finance, architecture, poetry, drama, and exploration – art remained stuck in the Middle Ages.

Take the portraits of Elizabeth herself: stiff, flat, linear, and with neck ruffs so tight they might choke her. Nicholas Hilliard’s "Ermine Portrait" from 1585 is typical. Far more attention is lavished on the queen’s ruby pendant and voluminous, black dress with gold beads than on probing her psyche through a meaningful look on her face. Elizabeth is rendered as an over-decorated Christmas tree.

The great Picasso raffle

October 16 2013

Image of The great Picasso raffle

Photo: Picasso Estate/FT

EUR100 will get you a 1 in 50,000 chance of winning the above Picasso. The FT reports:

It sounds too good to be true – a Picasso worth an estimated $1m (£670,500) for €100. But “L’homme au Gibus”, or “Man with Opera Hat”, a gouache on paper dating from 1914, could be yours for the price of a Eurostar ticket.

For the first time, a work by Picasso is to be raffled. A total of 50,000 tickets will be issued, each costing €100. The work will be displayed at the Pavilion of Art and Design (PAD) in London from October 16 to 20; tickets will be on sale at PAD and are also available on the raffle website. The lottery draw will take place in Paris on December 18 and will be broadcast live on the website.

Frieze Masters

October 16 2013

Video: Blouin

Here's a flavour of Frieze Masters, the 'old art' offshoot of Frieze. I'm going to have a look on Thursday. Much of last year's offer was underwhelming, but there's a new intake of dealers this time, so things may be better.

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