Artemesia heads for the National Gallery

July 9 2018

Video: Drouot

Remember the newly discovered Artemesia Gentileschi self-portrait that surfaced at auction in Paris last year? It has been acquired by the National Gallery in London (as first reported by one French art historian back in April). It's an excellent purchase by the National Gallery, and a coup to get such an important painting out of France, given their rather draconian export laws. 

But I'm puzzled by the reported price. The picture was sold at auction for €2.3m (including fees) in December. But the National Gallery announced last week that they have paid £3.6m. That's quite a steep mark up. 

Normally, the argument in such circumstances goes like this; museums don't have access to the sort of ready cash needed to buy something at short notice at auction. But is that the case with the National Gallery? The French auctioneers did a good job in publicising the picture, so the National Gallery would certainly have been aware of it at the time of the sale.

As I reported first in my diary piece in The Art Newspaper, the National Gallery has reserves of well over £200m. They could quite easily have bid for the painting at auction themselves, should they have wished to. The main donor towards the £3.6m cost in this case is the American Friends of the National Gallery (for whom the latest accounts showed a balance of $180m), which contributed $3.7m - more than the cost of the painting at auction. Therefore, a quick phone call to the US could have amassed the necessary funds to bid for the picture at auction.

So what justification is there for the £1.6m mark up? Very often, dealers buy a dirty looking picture like this, and then re-present it post-restoration. They take the risk that beneath all the dirt and old varnish, there's a picture in fine condition. But in this case that doesn't apply, as the National Gallery have bought the picture un-cleaned. The only other justification I can think of is the strict French export laws I referred to earlier. Perhaps the National Gallery didn't want to be faced with buying a painting which might then never be allowed to leave France, and so was happy to leave bidding on the painting to someone else who was prepared to carry the risk of being left with it in France. 

But £1.6m might be seen by some as rather a lot to pay a dealer for taking that risk. I think the National Gallery needs to explain their reasoning here. On the one hand they tell us that they need to raise every penny then can via things like image fees. But on the other, they're prepared to spray the cash about when securing acquisitions in this less than efficient way.

Update - I asked the National Gallery for a statement, and they have sent me the below:

 “The National Gallery was not given notice of the painting's appearance at auction in Paris, so we were only able to consider its acquisition once it had been purchased there by dealers. Though the price paid by the Gallery is considerably higher than that for which it sold in Paris, we sought independent views on what a fair market price would be prior to making its purchase (as is normal practice).

 “The painting did not feature in a major London or New York sale with one of the main auction houses, where the National Gallery might have been made aware of the painting prior to the sale. Unlike these auction houses, who publish catalogues weeks if not months in advance of their major sales, auctions through Drouot in Paris are made up of lots of different dealers/consignors, and it is typical to only have a few days’ notice of what is going into a sale (the commissaire priseur’s video on the painting was only put online on 7th December 2017 – just a fortnight before the actual sale). Therefore the National Gallery only became aware of the painting just 2-3 days before the auction, but did not see it at first hand. After the sale we discovered the identity of the buyer and arranged to see the painting as soon as possible thereafter, shortly after the picture's arrival in London.”  

I'm afraid this statement is rather unsatisfactory. The National Gallery, as a centre of international scholarship on Old Master paintings, should not take the view that it is up to auction houses to 'give them notice' of major pictures coming up for sale. The National Gallery should make it their business to become aware of major re-discoveries like an Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait, especially when she is an artist who is high up on their acquisition wish-list. 

Furthermore, this was a picture whose emergence was in fact widely publicised. As the National Gallery statement says, the video above may have been put online two weeks before the sale on 7th December. But a catalogue entry was online on 23rd November, and a press release was sent out on 22nd November, long before the sale on 19th December. That's a month's notice, which is entirely standard practive for an Old Master sale. The French art historian Didier Rykner wrote about the painting on La Tribune de l'Art on 6th December.   

Furthermore, I'm also told that at the time of the sale in Paris, the picture already had an export licence. So there was no danger in the painting not being able to leave France, as I had suggested above. 

Now, why does this matter? The National Gallery has acquired an excellent painting. It means that two previously unknown Artemisia self-portraits are now on public display, one at the Wadsworth Atheneum in the US, and the other in London. (The painting at the Wadsworth Atheneum was acquired after it failed to sell at Christie's in New York at an estimate of $3m-$5m in 2014.) Of course, there's no guarantee that had the National Gallery bid directly for the picture in Paris that they would have been successful. I'm also not for one moment criticising the dealers involved. They did what dealers do - and they ultimately helped the UK acquire this important work.

But I think it's important that the National Gallery is able to demonstrate that it is a proper steward of public - and donor's - money. Justifying paying £1.6m more for a painting just because they didn't see it in time is not impressive. The National Gallery may say that it don't have the staff or resources to monitor every auction around the world. But even a fraction of that £1.6m would pay for a member of staff to properly scan auction catalogues, and make sure the Gallery is aware of what's coming up for sale. Cheaper still would be an auction email alert service for the words 'Artemisia Gentileschi'. Or ask me to be their auction searcher; I'd be delighted do it gratis.

The National Gallery is probably the only major gallery in the UK which has the means to go out and buy major pictures these days. But they need to be much better at it. Because if they get better at it, they'll be able to buy more pictures. 

Update II - for an example of a British museum able to buy works at auction at short notice, see here for Derby Museum's bold buy of two Wright of Derby's in New York, at only ten days notice, for $293,000.

Update III - the estimate at the time of the Drouot sale was €300,000-€400,000. Potential bargain territory.

Update IV - a reader writes:

I think that you are absolutely right about the necessity of the National Gallery's keeping tabs on the movement of important paintings on the art market, and I would also think that it is imperative that the respective curators keep up, via social media (often where knowledge of these things first surfaces), with what is happening.

In respect of this, I am continually aghast that the IT dept of the NG is in charge of Twitter; it seems to me that each curator should have a shift doing the official tweets from the Gallery. The Getty, for instance, and the Liverpool Museums, to mention two at random, will engage in conversations with one on Twitter, go away and look things up if asked, and generally have an interesting and fruitful dialogue.  The NG, on the other hand, has a Twitter account (and Facebook) which is run by people who know nothing about art; so they just tweet/ post what they're given, and don't engage.

The point about social media is a good one, not least because it makes it so easy to find out about things like the impending Gentileschi sale. The news of the upcoming Gentileschi auction in Paris was widely shared on social media, including a post by the account @RembrandtsRoom (7,700 followers) on 13th November, which in turn was re-Tweeted by me. The original post was 'liked' by National Gallery staff members. So although the NG statement says the Gallery only became aware of the sale 2-3 days prior to the auction, some Gallery staff members knew of it long before. 

Update V - another reader writes:

Indeed, the NG goofed.  How much was the goof is uncertain, but the amount was material.    Given that another bidder paid 2.3 million Euros for the picture, the NG would have had to bid up somewhat to get it, perhaps another 200 K or so.   That still leaves a large hole for the NG to explain.    Their error isn't the price that they paid, which is a respectable price for a rare picture by AG who is now increasingly important, it is that they overlooked the sale. 

But on Twitter, the former National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith says:

I think this is a bit unfair: it's not always possible to know what is going through a French saleroom, see and study the painting, and get approval for a high bid at short notice. It's a great acquisition using private funds, not public.

I don't necessarily disagree with Charles; all I'm suggesting here is that the National Gallery should aspire to be more alert to what is coming up at auction, so that it can acquire good pictures at good prices. It's just good practice to monitor what's coming up for sale, not least because it's in sale catalogues that so many new discoveries and evidence is unearthed.

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