Category: Auctions

AI art (ctd.)

October 29 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's/Obvious

After the sale of the 'artificial intelligence' Portrait of Edmond Bellamy at Christie's in New York for $432k, many people were asking; 'but is it art'? In fact, the question we should have been asking was; 'is it AI?' To which the answer, according to this interview in Artnome by Jason Bailey with one the artwork's creators, Hugo Caselles-Dupré, appears to be 'no':

JB: Why did you say, “Creativity is not only for humans,” implying that AI was autonomously making the work, even when you knew that was a false statement?

What about your narrative that “creativity isn’t only for humans”? Were you playing up the machines and now saying that is not what you meant?

HC: Yeah. Exactly. I think that's what happens when you're doing something and nobody cares, then you’re just goofing around and doing really clumsy stuff. And then when everybody has this view, then they go back to what you did before and then you have to justify it. We kept justifying, because we still think that this part of the GAN operator that creates the images is really interesting and there is some form of creativity there … and we just thought it was cool to just do it like this. For us, it was just a funny way to talk about it. 

JB: You didn't know you were going to be under the microscope.

HC: If we knew we were going to have to 400 press articles on what we do, we most definitely would have done that. But at [that] moment we were like, 'Yeah, it’s silly, okay, whatever, let's put this.' But retrospectively, when we see that, we are like, 'That's a big mistake.'

JB: All you can do is admit the mistake. What creative behavior do GANs exhibit? Many feel they don’t exhibit creative behavior.

HC: For me, the fact that you give it a certain number of examples and then you can continue to see results in the latent space, for me, the gap has to be [bridged]. So necessarily, there's some kind of, like, inventing something. So I guess there is some kind of creativity for me… because creativity is a really broad term, so it can be misunderstood, because creativity is something really related to humans. But at the basic, low level, it was given a set of images, it can create images that does not belong to the training set. So that's something that is transformed by the model, and there's some kind of creativity. So it's just a way you interpret the word "creativity." Maybe from certain perspectives you can say it's creativity. 

JB: So it sounds like you believe it is dependent upon your personal definition of creativity? Some people say GANs are just are approximate distributions and that is not really creative - but it sounds like you think it is creative?

HC: Yeah. It's like, whatever you think creativity is, if we fit on the same definition, we are obliged to agree on something. So if we go to the same definition that creativity is something like, let's say, this ‘Concept A,’ then GANs will fit this concept. Or not? It's just a point of view thing, I guess -- and I understand that people can argue that [it’s] not great, we understand that, but it's just a point of view.

Update - David Knowles on Twitter sums it up perfectly:

If it was AI then the IQ was very low.

AI art (ctd.)

October 26 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My prediction that the 'first AI work to be sold at auction' would fly above its estimate of £5k-£7k has come to pass; it made £337k at Christie's yesterday. Truly, there is no shame in the contemporary art market; what a woeful blancmange of a painting.

Now, I don't deny at all that their is a genuine and laudable creative process behind the concept of art-producing AI. To that extent, what we're really being asked to appreciate is the human creativity behind it. But the much vaunted 'AI' artwork at Christie's, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It's you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is 'my child could have done that'. But now we can replace that with; 'my laptop could have done that'. 

In none of the breathless reporting of the auction result will you find any analysis of how easy it is to game the contemporary art market at auction.  Let us suppose you have a direct financial interest in an artist. You may be that artist. You may be their agent. You may own a number of their works. If you want to set a new, higher value for that artist, then the combined opacity and visibility of the auction market is perfect for you. The contemporary art market is driven by auction values; they take the place of stock indices, and are widely seen to be 'authentic'. But everything else is done in secret. You can consign anonymously, buy anonymously, and bid anonymously. You, and others, can bid on artworks without any disclosure, driving up value. If by some misfortune you end up being the last bidder, then no matter; a new high 'value' has been established, often with global press coverage, and all it has cost you is the price of the auction house's commission. 

Update - here's an article on The Verge showing how the 'collective' behind the picture sold at Christie's seems actually to have borrowed the code from, er, someone else:

[...] for members of the burgeoning AI art community, there’s another attribute that sets the Portrait of Edmond Belamy apart: it’s a knock-off.

The print was created by Obvious, a trio of 25-year-old French students whose goal is to “explain and democratize” AI through art. Over the past year, they’ve made a series of portraits depicting members of the fictional Belamy family, amplifying their work through attention-grabbing press releases. But insiders say the code used to generate these prints is mostly the work of another artist and programmer: 19-year-old Robbie Barrat, a recent high school graduate who shared his algorithms online via an open-source license.

Update II - there's an interesting article from Jerry Saltz in Vulture. He makes the important point that although Christie's promoted this as 'a first', really it's anything but:

I’ve seen the process done with landscapes, flowers, dogs, movie stars, clouds, buildings, and food. This poster is an individual image, but it’s not unusual to see it done in grids or series of images printed out. People have done it with Hollywood blockbusters arranged by superhero, color, setting, and even credits. It’s been done with porn films that render one Ur-orgy, superstar, or set of sexual fetishes. I’ve seen every abstract painting reduced to one meta-abstraction and seen it done with these same abstract paintings morphing endlessly one into the next like a hypnotic screensaver. Benjamin Edwards has been doing it in paintings since the late 1990s — compiling all the Starbucks in Seattle, for example, into one wild structure. Artists Jason Salavon and the late Jeremy Blake were doing this sort of thing in video and painting back then too. Julie Mehretu’s paintings are said to be handmade versions of the same visual overlay strategies. Really, this generic tic has never not been around since these sorts of digital files, compiled pictures, found footage, and captured images became a genre. World famous photographer Thomas Ruff has made, shown, and sold pictures like this for almost 20 years. In other words, it is a flat-out lie that this is the “first portrait generated by an algorithm to come up for auction.” The question is, why did so many collectors go crazy for it?

As to his last question, I think it's an assumption that 'collectors' did go crazy for the picture. I think it's more likely to have been speculators and vested interests.

That said, there was of course 'a first' in action at Christie's; the first time such a work had made a ton of money. And what made it 'valuable' in the first place was the fact that Christie's chose it for inclusion in an auction. That act was part of the art itself, if you like, just as Sotheby's auction in London was an integral part of Banksy's new work, Love is in the Bin.  

But let's think about what that artistic 'moment' actually said about the market and indeed the art world. Earlier this week I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to give the 49th Pilkington Lecture (and I only found out afterwards that the first lecture had been given by none other than Kenneth Clarke - which pleased me no end). The topic of my talk was 'Why connoisseurship matters', and as part of my explanation of the history of connoisseurship I touched on the controversy of 'the canon' in art historical academia; the idea that the canon as promoted to us by art history in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was almost exclusively one shaped by white, privileged men, from Western Europe with Christian beliefs. In other words, deeply conservative.

And what was 'the first' AI artwork to make a ton of money? Why, a portrait of a white, privileged man from Western Europe. He was actually given the title 'Count'. Isn't it a bizarre contradiction that the painting hailed as revolutionary leap in art should be something so backward looking? 

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 11 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

Further to my post below, the cataloguing for Girl with Balloon read:

"Signed and dedicated on the reverse."

I can report that the dedication was, ‘Thanks Jo’, with a heart and a CND symbol.

It may be a coincidence, but Banksy's publicist is Jo Brooks

Shredding Banksy

October 8 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

I enjoyed Banksy's shredding stunt at Sotheby’s Contemporary art Evening sale in London last week. It was clever and amusing. These days we want even our art history to be instant, and there it was; an unprecedented masterpiece of performance art, perfectly packaged to go around the world in moments. Bravo, Banksy. 

But let’s subject this to a bit of instant art historical analysis. What did it mean? What was it really all about? Art? Protest? 

Nope. It's about money.

And not in the way you might think. This wasn’t a wry comment from an artist questioning why people would pay over £1m for a painting made with a stencil. It was about making sure people would go on paying £1m - more, even - for such works. This was a perfect reflection of the hubris and hypocrisy that has infected the upper reaches of the contemporary art market. There’s a lot of money involved. Everyone wants some. Everyone’s in on it. But nobody wants to be the sucker left holding the baby when the party’s over. Behind the smiles, that’s what they’re all frightened about. The show must go on. Banksy made the show go on. That’s why they love him.

Sotheby’s say emphatically that they “had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved”. I know a lot of people at Sotheby’s, and they’re straightforward, and I believe them. But there are too many questions to not wonder if an over-enthusiastic specialist got carried away. I don’t blame them. Points for initiative.

That said, from an institutional point of view, I can see why Sotheby’s wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Had they been complicit, then straight away you’re looking at fraud; inducing people to bid on an object without telling them what it really was, who really owned it, and who else might therefore be bidding on it. The contemporary auction market relies on a lot of smoke and mirrors, but even that would have been a step too far. There’d have been calls for regulation quicker than you can say shredder. 

Let’s look then at the facts we know so far. The picture shows one of Banksy’s most famous images - in fact probably his most famous. Its fortunes have been helped by the fact that (as the auction house catalogues never tire of saying) “in a poll commissioned last year it was voted Britain's favourite artwork beating such historical heavyweights as John Constable's The Hay Wain and JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.”  Regular readers know that was a phoney poll - organised to sell TVs - and isn’t to be taken seriously. 

The original graffiti was painted on a wall in London but has since been lost. A series of 25 replicas on canvas were made in 2003, and can make big money; one made £344,750 at Bonhams in London earlier this year. More usually they have made in the fifty and sixty thousand pound range, including this example sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for £51k. Much more numerous are the prints, of which there may be some 600. Until Girl and Balloon made £1.042m at Sotheby’s, the Bonhams price was by some distance the record for that compositioin.

There are some odd things about the picture sold at Sotheby’s though. It was made in 2006, and not part of the original series. As far as I can see, ‘Girl and Balloon’ has usually been a ‘Day Sale’ picture. Maybe Sotheby’s looked at the Bonhams price earlier this year and thought it was worth a shot at the estimate of £200,000-£300,000. As they said in the catalogue, it was ‘unique’ in not being part of the original series, and in their eyes this made it more desirable. Although generally it’s the earlier iterations that tend to command higher prices. Another apparently unique and later (2005) version of the work made only £169k at Sotheby's in 2012. 

The picture was, said the Sotheby’s catalogue note, housed in an ‘artist’s frame’. As the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz said on the BBC this morning, that’s an unusual statement to have in a catalogue. And the frame, irrespective of what ultimately proved to be inside it, must have been in one other respect unusual too; a clunking, heavy thing with a slit in it. Will Gompertz also said that Sotheby’s twice asked the artist - through his market friendly authentication service Pest Control - whether they could open the frame, and were told no. I wonder why they didn’t just ask the owner. The provenance given by Sotheby’s was clear; the picture was acquired by the vendor directly from the artist in 2006, and therefore according to Sotheby’s was not owned by Banksy himself.

The picture was the last lot of the Evening Sale, and thus perfectly timed for Banksy to perform his trick. It was also hanging in the auction room during the sale. Most pictures get taken down from the view when Sotheby’s rearrange their salesroom for evening sales, and only a few get left on the wall. It’s possible Sotheby’s chose to leave the picture on display because it is one of those ‘iconic’ images. But such coincidences must make us wonder whether someone at Sotheby’s knew. 

Until the sale, the Banksy market was, as Naomi Rea and Javier Pes say in ArtNet, ‘down from its high in 2008. The elusive street artist’s auction record was set a decade ago, when his riff on Damien Hirst, ‘Keep It Spotless’ (2007), sold for $1.87 million at Sotheby’s New York.’ By coincidence, the final bid for Girl and Balloon equalled Banksy’s previous auction record. 

After the sale Banksy released a video, above. He said that he installed the shredder ‘a few years ago’, ‘in case it ever came to auction’. A few years ago suggests that the shredder was installed after the picture was acquired in 2006. Batteries are unlikely to last twelve years. As you can see from the screen grab below, the mechanism looks quite complex. 

That said, I don’t know how much we can rely on the video. Although the cross-section of the frame matches that seen on the painting at Sotheby’s, the shredding mechanism itself appears to be phoney; the razor blades are facing the wrong way. Maybe this was later rectified, and the painting was indeed shredded at Sotheby’s. Or somehow a pre-shredded picture was fed out of the bottom of the picture when the mechanism was triggered by remote. (Look at the video a few times, and see for yourself if the shredded part of the picture matches the unshredded part above it.)

Nevertheless, if we take Banksy at his word, that the shredder was installed ‘a few years ago’, and just assumed to be still working by the time of the auction, we can still deduce that the vendor was almost certainly aware of what was going to happen at the Sotheby’s sale. 

The next question, therefore, is what sort of vendor does that? Sotheby’s have, rightly, said that the successful bidder can walk away from their obligation to buy the work. If so, whoever consigned the work took a significant risk, and must have known that they’d potentially lose a significant amount of money. This (combined with the likelihood that the mechanism was installed after the date of acquisition in 2006) implies either that a) the vendor was already rich enough, or b) they’re close to Banksy himself, and were happy to let him do his trick. 

There is another possibility of course; that the vendor was someone with a close interest in sustaining wider Banksy prices. Here’s how it works; the contemporary art market, with its fondness for editions that are easily commodified, loves a good benchmark price. That Banksy/Warhol/Koons made £xm? This one must also be worth £xm! A cleverly consigned work here, a few bids or bidding partners there, and hey presto; you’ve got a new asset value. Even the risk of paying out some auction house commission - if you end up with your picture back - would be worth it for the new price level (and in this case the worldwide PR bonanza.) AHN’s legal adviser would like to make clear I’m not suggesting any of the above happened on this occasion. I’m just speculating.

So where does all this leave us? Immediately after the sale, I said (on Twitter) that I thought Sotheby’s were likely ‘in on it’, not least for the rapid way their specialist came out celebrating the event, and talking up the shredded picture's new, supposedly higher value. But having thought about it further, and assessed the corporate stakes involved for a publicly listed company, I can now believe they weren’t. 

More interesting is what it tells us about Banksy. Is he the anti-market hero the press have made him out to be? Jonathan Jones in The Guardian buys that theory completely. But I doubt it. Banksy depends on the market. If he didn't care about the market, he wouldn't offer the Pest Control authentication service. The only way artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst can get away with churning out the same old compositions is because they're worth something. I don't blame them for doing so - well done them; take the money and run. Artists have always done this. I would.

But let's not pretend this is about anything other than money. Banksy’s line in the video above, ‘in case it ever came to auction’, makes us want to believe that installing the shredder was a protest at the picture's possible sale. But in that case, why did he chose to shred the painting only after the hammer had fallen, and a price record reached? And why only shred half the picture, leaving it intact as an artwork?

A far better protest would have been to press the button during the auction itself. I'd like to have seen Sotheby's explain that one; an artwork self-destructing while people were actually bidding on it. That would have been much more impressive. But it would also have required a little more authenticity, and balls. Whatever you think of his art, Banksy seems as keen to trouser the cash as anyone. And so the show goes on. Bravo, Banksy.

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps I'm giving Banksy too much credit, but I thought the whole point was to show that, no matter what an artist does, the market will simply absorb it?

Artists love to play the 'bite the hand that feeds' card, earning street cred in arty circles, while their work is simultaneously fed into the junk bond mod/con art market.  That's not new, the 'new' element was the live demonstration of how the market simply absorbed the stunt (plus the demonstration of just how shallow the definition of 'art history' has become).  The artist is no longer important to the art world.

Like you, I doubt if it was meant as a serious protest.  I think it more likely that it was merely a stunt aimed at highlighting a serious problem - the market makes the art and all 'serious' art now is made with the market in mind (even if the route to market is devious and contorted).

Update II - Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph has published an excellent take on the affair. First, he tells us he was tipped off that the lot would 'fly'. Which is interesting since it's been a long time since a Banksy flew at auction. He also noticed that the picture was so heavy it was hung on a special load-bearing baton in the auction room. 

Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

September 22 2018

Image of Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

Picture: de Volksrant

Remember this 'Sleeper Alert' from 2014? It's now been announced as an early Rembrandt - it turns out that the picture had been comprehensively overpainted, and if you compare with the photo below from when it was at auction at Lempertz in Cologne you can see just how many figures had been painted out. The photo above shows the painting mid-restoration.

The Rembrandt scholar Ernst van der Wetering calls the picture 'a great find'. And, would you Adam & Eve it, the picture was found by Jan Six, who of course recently made another Rembrandt discovery - a portrait sold at Christie's in London last year

Meanwhile, there have been some ructions over the purchase of the Christie's portrait, revolving around who was bidding with whom on the painting. The story sheds light on the practice of dealers bidding with other dealers on 'sleepers'. It goes on a lot, and sometimes it can get quite unpleasant. I've always tried to avoid it. Anyway, the story has resulted in some unfortunate remarks from van der Wetering about the picture. He says the portrait gives 'little reason for joy. Because it is a fragment of a much larger canvas, it is a strange thing - something between a Rembrandt and a non-Rembrandt.' Which I think is more than a little unfair, not least because the idea that it was once part of a double portrait is just a guess. 

'Old Masters, New Perspectives'

September 6 2018

Video: Sotheby's

A nice video from Sotheby's highlighting their recent attempts to take Old Masters to new audiences. Where the art market leads, will museums follow?

London Old Master sales

June 11 2018

Image of London Old Master sales

Picture: Sotheby's

The catalogues for the London July Old Master sales are now online. Christie's Evening sale here, Day here; Sotheby's Evening here, Day here; and Bonhams here. Sotheby's drawing sale is here, and Christie's here.

I'll write more about some of the highlights in due course. My choice above is Turner's Lake Lucerne from Brunnen, at Sotheby's for £1.2m-£1.8m.

incidentally, the most recent Old Master sale at Sotheby's in New York was quite the success, bringing in $9.8m against an estimate of $5.4m-$7.9m. As The Art Market Monitor asked, 'what happened?' More here

Update - and of course not forgetting sculpture. Here at Christie's, and here at Sotheby's.

'New Rembrandt discovery in Holland' (ctd.)

May 22 2018

Video: Reuters

Above is a short video by Reuters on Jan Six's Rembrandt discovery, including an interview with Jan himself. And here, on a Dutch TV chat show, you can see Jan unveiling the picture in front of a studio audience, and he gives a much longer and very revealing interview (with English subtitles). The host brandishes a copy of the Christie's catalogue in which the picture was described as 'Circle of Rembrandt' as Jan tells us how he went about researching the picture before the sale. He says two particularly interesting things: first, that he showed a photo to the leading Rembrandt scholar Ernst van der Wetering before the sale (I've always though that's cheating!); that van der Wetering had himself not been asked for an opinion by anyone else before the sale. Which is surprising.

Update - you can buy Jan's book on the discovery here. It sets out all the evidence behind the attribution. A wise move, for in this game there's no end of people determined to say you're wrong, merely on the basis of looking at a few photos on the internet. When it's a big discovery, the blinkers go on, and the knives come out.

New Rembrandt discovery in Holland

May 15 2018

Image of New Rembrandt discovery in Holland

Picture: NRC

Exciting news from Amsterdam; a newly attributed portrait by Rembrandt has been unveiled at the Hermitage museum. The painting was discovered by the art dealer, Jan Six, at auction in London in 2016. His hunch that it was by Rembrandt has been endorsed by subsequent research and conservation, and by a number of Rembrandt scholars, including Prof. Ernst van der Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project.

More here at NRC (in Dutch), and there's also an interview with Jan Six. Jan is, incidentally, a descendant of the Jan Six painted so memorably by Rembrandt. How wonderful that four centuries later, the name Jan Six can still be associated with heralding new paintings by Rembrandt.

The painting was offered in London as 'Circle of Rembrandt', with an estimate of £15,000-£20,000, and ultimately made £137,000. For what it's worth, I was one of the underbidders. Although I'm absolutely not a Rembrandt specialist, I thought on seeing the picture that it had an excellent chance of being by Rembrandt himself, painted in the early 1630s. The brilliantly painted collar in particular I thought was almost as good as a signature, and entirely consistent with the collar on the painting by Rembrandt of Philip Lucasz in the National Gallery, which was painted in 1635. What was interesting is that from the photos, the painting did not look that impressive. But in person, it was almost as one was looking at a different painting. That's a common connoisseurial challenge these days of course; photos so rarely do justice to good paintings.

As you can imagine, the days before the sale were rather tense ones in AHN towers. But when the sale came, we soon ran up against our limit. There's always a feeling in situations like this that if only you'd gone for one more bid, you might have got it. But in the NRC interview, Jan Six tells us he was able to bid significantly higher, so we'd never have got it. I am so pleased that the painting has now found its rightful status. Many congratulations on the excellent sleuthing Jan!

Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter (ctd.)

May 1 2018

Image of Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

Rubens' portrait sketch of his daughter, Clara Serena, is to be offered by Christie's in London this July, with an estimate of £3m-£5m. Regular readers will remember that the painting was deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2013 as a copy, with an estimate of $20k-$30k (it eventually sold for $626k). James Pickford in the FT has the story, but what struck me most was the rather silly response from the Met, who said:

“The attribution of the picture has been debated in the past and we believe it will continue to be debated. Given the strength of our holdings in this area, we stand by the decision to deaccession the work.”

This is a classic example of how politics and egos get in the way in art history. The grown up thing to do would be to admit that the Met made a mistake, and that the picture was now recognised - after cleaning and further research - as a Rubens. But instead, in an attempt to justify their mistake, they attempt to cast doubt on the attribution, and suggest bizarrely that they would have been happy to let a Rubens go for just $20k (the lower estimate). Have a look at their collections site yourself, and judge if the Met is bursting with Rubens head studies (it isn't).

Update - a number of people have wondered if I am the owner of this picture; alas not! Nor am I connected to it or the owners in any way. I hope readers will know that if it were mine, I wouldn't comment on it publicly without saying so. I have championed the picture only because I think it deserved to be championed. For what it's worth, it belongs to private collectors, whom I only met once by chance, long after the picture was authenticated as a Rubens. They just liked the painting, and took a punt on it. 

Crowdfunding Picasso

April 28 2018

Image of Crowdfunding Picasso

Picture: RTS.ch

Fancy owning 1/25,000 of a Picasso? Me neither, but apparently 25,000 people have joined forces on the Swiss auction site QoQa to buy a Picasso for CHF2m. It's now on display in the Museum of Modern Art in Geneva. More here

New Artemisia self-portrait (ctd).

April 9 2018

Video: Drouot

Remember that previously unknown Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait which surfaced at auction in Paris last year, for €2.3m? On Twitter, one French art historians suggests that it was bought by the National Gallery in London. Bravo the National Gallery, if so.

Old Master sales

April 9 2018

Video: Christie's

There's a spate of Old Master sales at the moment. Christie's New York Classic Week begins on 19th April, with Part one here, and Part two here. There's a full-length Titian at a bargain $700k-$1m, if you fancy it. In the video above, Christie's Jonquil O'Reilly (formerly of Sotheby's New York) talks about the fashion in some of the pictures on offer. On 25th April Bonhams in London has a mid-season sale, here. On May 2nd, Sotheby's in London has its mid-season sale, catalogue here. There will also be an online only Old Master sale at Sotheby's, which will be available here

Constable discovery at London auction

March 30 2018

Image of Constable discovery at London auction

Picture: Rosebery's

A delightful and unknown oil sketch by Constable has ben sold at a minor auction in London. The picture wasn't a sleeper, and was fully researched and catalogued by Roseberys in London - but it made a hefty price of £305k against an estimate of £20k-£30k. More here

'art world ambulance chasing'

February 5 2018

Image of 'art world ambulance chasing'

Picture: via TAN, La Salle University's 'The Tomb of Virgil' by Hubert Robert

The news that La Salle University is to sell 46 works of art from its museum - about a third of the art on display - has prompted an excoriating article in The Art Newspaper from Brian Allen, a former US museum director. He lays some of the blame on the auction houses willing to help museums deaccession works:

It seems to me that the auction houses are equally culpable. They are training their sights on financially pressed colleges and museums as part of their business development strategies. This is art-world ambulance chasing.

Christie's top ten Old Master sales

February 5 2018

Image of Christie's top ten Old Master sales

Picture: Norton Simon Museum

There's a great 'top ten' piece on Christie's site - even auction houses go in for clickbait - listing their most significant Old Master sales over the last 251 years. Naturally, the sale of the Salvator Mundi is top of the list. But two other tales stand out. First, the day Norton Simon tried to bid on Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist's Son, Titus (above):

Prior to the introduction of the paddle system, buyers were allowed to choose their own bidding signals. The American industrialist and collector Norton Simon sent a letter to Christie’s before the sale of the Rembrandt, explaining, ‘If he is sitting he is bidding; if he stands he has stopped bidding. If he sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is bidding again until he stands up again.’ Unfortunately, Chance misinterpreted Simon’s sitting and finger-raising, and sold the work to Marlborough Fine Art in London for 700,000 guineas. 

When the hammer came down, the enraged collector approached Chance’s rostrum and demanded that bidding be reopened. Simon went on to win the auction, spending an additional 60,000 guineas to secure the work. But if the industrialist’s obscure bidding tactics were intended to help him hide from press attention, he now became the focus of the sale. When the painting made the front cover of Time  magazine that year, Simon became an unlikely star. Today the portrait hangs in Simon’s museum in Pasadena, California.

And then a postscript to the sale of the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare from Stowe in 1848:

In another twist of fate, Thomas Woods, the son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, was so inspired by the sale that he decided to become an auctioneer. In 1859 Woods joined George Christie and William Manson as a partner in their firm, creating Christie, Manson & Woods — still the official name for Christie’s.

Guercino discovery in the UK

January 31 2018

Image of Guercino discovery in the UK

Picture: Cheffins

A previously unknown depiction of an Italian Mastiff has been attributed to Guercino, after it was discovered by a regional UK auction house. Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph reports:

The owners, whose forbears made the Grand Tour of Italy in 1850, were completely unaware who the painting was by until a routine valuation visit by Cheffins auctioneers from Cambridge started an investigative ball rolling.

Cheffins called in their Old Master paintings consultant, John Somerville, a former specialist at Sotheby’s, who recognised the painting as ‘Bolognese School’ Baroque, but needed corroboration for an attribution to Guercino as only one dog portrait by the artist is known.

That painting, a brindle mastiff with the Aldrovandi family coat of arms on its collar, was sold in 1972 for the then princely sum of £110,000  to the Norton Simon Museum in America where it hangs today. The Cheffins painting is of a bull mastiff, or, more correctly in Italian, a Cane Corso.

The picture will be offered on 7th March, with an estimate of £80k-£120k.

Christie's NY Old Master drawings

January 31 2018

Image of Christie's NY Old Master drawings

Picture: Christie's

The top lot in Christie's New York Old Master drawings sale was a watercolour by Turner, Lake Lucerne from Brennan, which made $.109m (inc premium). A lot which exceeded its estimate dramatically was Jupiter handing a newborn boy to Diana by Perino del Vaga, a pupil of Raphael; this made $708,000 against an estimate of $150k-$200k. The sale totaled $3.9m.

Charles I's Titian in New York

January 22 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Another picture at Sotheby's in New York is this 6ft tall religious picture by Titian and his workshop, of St Margaret. It once belonged to Charles I, and when valued after his death was deemed to be worth more (at £100) than Leonardo's Salvator Mundi (at £30). Today the estimate is (by comparison with the Leonardo) a modest $2m-$3m.

As The Guardian reports, it was offered to a plumber, in part exchange for repairs carried out at the royal palaces during the Cromwellian regime. 

It's one of two versions, the other is in the Prado.

How not to pack a drawing

January 15 2018

Image of How not to pack a drawing

Picture: Crispian Riley-Smith

The drawings dealer Crispian Riley-Smith has shown on Twitter what happens when an auction house doesn't pack artworks properly. Happily, after a little conservation, the damage is less obvious. 

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