Previous Posts: June 2011

A cherubic Rubens sleeper?

June 23 2011

Image of A cherubic Rubens sleeper?

Picture: Sotheby's 

This curious picture just made a lot of money at Sotheby's in Paris. Catalogued as Studio of Rubens, and with an estimate of EUR 40-60,000, it sold for EUR156,750. I wonder if someone thought it might be better than 'studio'.

Although I didn't see it in the flesh, I thought the face was quite good. The blue background and grey clouds had the distinct feel of being added later, and may be removeable. Perhaps we'll see it again, looking rather different...

Sotheby's Carmelite Monk

June 23 2011


Sotheby's have a good video on their Portrait of a Carmelite Monk, by Van Dyck. Normally, auction house videos can be a bit stilted, but in this one George Gordon and Astrid Centner engage in lively banter over how they encountered the picture. Like me, their initial reaction was 'this is by Rubens'. I'm looking forward to seeing the picture next weekend.

Worth a click.

New PCF website goes live

June 23 2011

Image of New PCF website goes live

Picture: BBC

A new website created in partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, has gone online. There's even a guided tour with Frank Skinner. The aim is for you to be able to look up every publicly owned painting in the UK - 80% of which are not usually on display.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Fred Hohler, the tireless founder of the PCF. All together now - thanks Fred!

Sotheby's Old Master sales

June 22 2011

Image of Sotheby's Old Master sales

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's Old Master sales catalogues have gone online. There are some nice things, including the whopping £15-25m Guardi. However, it looks like Christie's have trumped them this time round thanks to the Cowdray collection

Perhaps the most interesting picture at Sotheby's is Lely's full-length portrait of Nell Gwyn. It is catalogued as 'Portrait of a Young Woman and Child... Almost certainly Nell Gwyn.'

I'm convinced it is her. It seems always to have been called Nell, right back to the Royal Collection in Charles II's day - but was doubted when the late Sir Oliver Millar suggested (I don't know why) that it might instead be Barbara Villiers.

The picture was offered at Christie's in 2007 (as 'almost certainly either Barbara Villiers... or Nell Gwyn') with an over-enthusiastic estimate of £1.5-2m. It failed to sell, but found a buyer after the sale for £1,588,000 including premium. The estimate now is £600-800,000. Ouch.

I'll post a review of the sales next week.

Vincent or Theo?

June 22 2011

Image of Vincent or Theo?

Picture: Telegraph

The Van Gogh Museum has decided that the above painting by Van Gogh thought to be a self-portrait instead depicts his brother, Theo. From the Telegraph:

"People have often thought it was funny that there were no portraits of Theo, given that they were so close," said museum spokeswoman Linda Snoek.

She said the portrait was made in 1887 while the pair lived together in Paris – a lesser-known period of Van Gogh's life, since the bulk of information about Vincent is derived from letters he sent to Theo.

The painting has long been in storage, but went on display at the museum in Amsterdam on Tuesday as part of an exhibition on new findings about the painter's time spent in Antwerp and Paris in 1885-1888.

The museum has also discovered that the bird in Van Gogh's 1887 painting Wheatfield with a Lark is in fact a partridge.  

Forests, Rocks, Torrents

June 21 2011

Image of Forests, Rocks, Torrents

Picture: National Gallery

What a strange thrill one gets from seeing an exhibition before anyone else. Thanks to this blog, I blagged my way into the 'press preview' today for the National Gallery's new show, 'Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes from the Lunde Collection' (22nd June - 18th September). It features 45 rarely seen works by artists such as the Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) and the Swiss Alexandre Calame (1810-1864). 

The show's curators gave the press a guided tour of the exhibits. Everyone paid attention, save Brian Sewell, who wandered off on his own. As I'm slightly in awe of Sewell, I tried to imagine his august thoughts as he scampered from picture to picture. 

Forests, Rocks, Torrents is certainly worth going to see. The prevailing view is that 19th century landscapes are deeply unfashionable. And since this show is filled predominantly with views of rocks, then you might think it's about as dull as you can get.

But far from it. The artists' quest for realism draws you into each picture, marvelling at the depiction of frothing water, distant glaciers and the odd cow.

By the end of the exhibition, however, you get a sense of how exhausting it must have been - both physically and intellectually - to painstakingly portray an exact representation of, say, a cascade of rocks, and why the next generation of artists, seeing that the faithful depiction of nature could not be bettered, decided that there was no point, and sought instead to paint mere 'impressions'. And, well, thank goodness they did...

Catalogue for sale here

German fraudsters to stand trial

June 21 2011

Image of German fraudsters to stand trial

Picture: Der Spiegel

The trial of four German fraudsters who sold more than 50 fake paintings will begin this summer in Cologne. Among their victims was the Hollywood star Steve Martin, who sold the above painting, a 'Campendonk', through Christie's for EUR500,000. 

There's a full update on the case here, including news that one of the experts used to authenticate the fakes is now being sued. It also discusses the ramifications for the auctioneers who sold the fakes:

The scandal has shaken faith in the auction houses that bring works onto the market, and the experts who deem them authentic. It has exposed how some auctioneers evidently refrain from full checks because they are in a hurry to conduct the sales, or because they have placed too much faith in the sellers.

Auctioneers and galleries now face a number of compensation lawsuits, but it is unclear whether buyers will be able to get all their money back - many auction houses have small print in their sales contracts that limits their liability.

On the 'Monet' - Waldemar speaks

June 21 2011

Image of On the 'Monet' - Waldemar speaks

Or rather, Tweets.

I'm a great fan of Waldemar Januszczak, probably the best communicator on art and art history of his generation. So I was amused to see his tweeted verdict on the Monet painting featured in our programme 'Fake or Fortune?' - 'That is not a Monet', he said.

I don't know if Waldemar is a good connoisseur. I suspect he's an excellent one. So his view on whether David Joel's painting is a Monet is worth taking seriously.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Waldemar's pronouncement is how very ArtHistory 2.0 it all is. Here's a painting he has only seen on the telly, and then he dials in his attribution via Twitter, in no more than 140 characters. If this is the future of art history, do we need real art anymore?

A later tweet gives his view in a little more detail:

'The painting looks wrong. Wrong angles, wrong perspective, wrong spatial awareness. It's not a Monet.'

I'm not a Monet expert, but for what it is worth I do believe in the picture. I also take very seriously the opinion of Professor John House of the Courtauld Institute (PhD on Monet, books on Monet etc.), who also believes in the picture. And I find John's latest evidence, found since we filmed the programme, extremely compelling: an obituary of Monet in Le Figaro (16th December 1926), in which David Joel's painting is illustrated, as supplied by 'Georges Petit', one of Monet's main dealers. 

If Monet had painted Darth Vader...

June 21 2011

Image of If Monet had painted Darth Vader...


New Caravaggio discovery

June 20 2011

Image of New Caravaggio discovery

Picture: Telegraph

A previously unknown painting by Caravaggio has been found in a private collection by art dealer Clovis Whitfield. The composition of Saint Augustine, dated to around 1600, has never before been linked to Caravaggio, but will be published in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome next month by Yale. More details here

The dark depths of the auction world

June 20 2011

In my day job, I spend a lot of time scouring auction catalogues. In practically every other general sale these days (in regional auction houses) there are pieces of what is called 'Nazi memorabilia'. American auctions particularly are full of the stuff. And it isn't cheap either. There's a whole underworld of collectors, some of them very rich, who are obsessed with anything Nazi-related. 

What really baffles me, however, is the relish with which some auctioneers sell Nazi items. Take J P Humbert, for example, who tomorrow will sell a set of four drinking glasses engraved with swastikas and Hitler's initials. Mr Humbert is 'excited' to be selling Hitler's glasses. He tells The Telegraph:

"There is every chance that Adolf Hitler himself sipped from these very glasses.

"It was well known that Hitler had a personal valet in his bunker, and that he dined alone most evenings, using only the finest silver and glassware.

"Certainly the quality is there - the etching is superlative and the mouth and foot of each glass is superbly gilded.

"Whilst there is no written provenance, the fact that the same vendor owned Hitler's sword means that there is every chance that Adolf Hitler himself sipped from these very vessels.

"This really could be a little piece of history in our sale rooms. The glassware is estimated at £5,000-£8,000 but prospective buyers will have to make of it what they will."

As with all Nazi memorabilia, Mr Humbert added they were always mindful of people's feelings. "We have to be tasteful in all we do and would not wish to upset anyone with the item."

I wonder if the tasteful thing would have been to politely decline the lot.

Every now and then someone rings the gallery and mutters something like; 'Can you get me a portrait of Hitler?' With Gestapo-like efficiency, I tell them where to go.*

*ie, sod off.

The BBC guide to spotting a fake painting

June 20 2011

A well-meaning but slightly muddled article has appeared on the BBC news website following the first episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'

It gives three top tips on how to tell if your painting is fake:

  • Shine a halogen torch at the painting to check the brush strokes - the unique handwriting of the artist.
  • Date the wood used in the frame. Dendrochronology - the date analysis of tree rings can be used for this.
  • Smell it. Oil paintings will have an oily smell for many years until the oil fully dries. An old painting shouldn't have that smell.

Of course, a torch is always handy when examining pictures. But the frame rarely tells you much, not least because it isn't hard to put an antique frame on a new painting. And as for smelling a picture to see if it's real, well, you'd be better off licking it. Yum.

'Fake or Fortune?'

June 20 2011

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?'

Picture: BBC

Many thanks to those of you who have written to say that you enjoyed the programme last night. If you missed it, it's on iPlayer here.

The reaction so far has been very encouraging. I'm told we averaged 3.9m viewers, which is quite good for a 7pm Sunday slot in the summer. The Times gave us 5/5 stars ('This Gripping programme took us to a very dark place: the art world'); The Guardian liked 'this fascinating new series'; The Telegraph called it 'aesthetically pleasing, quietly enjoyable'; and Metro 'fascinating'. Sorry if this all sounds a bit self-congratulatory...

Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent seemed to like the programme, but thought one scene 'didn't feel right': 

It was implied, for example, that Bruce and Mould had to wait on tenterhooks for their emissary to return to London from Paris before finding out the final verdict, though it seems frankly inconceivable that he wouldn't have called them on the phone the moment he got the news.

Well I can assure Tom that Philip and Fiona (and nor I) had any idea of the final verdict before John House delivered it. 

New exhibition at the Liechtenstein museum

June 20 2011

Image of New exhibition at the Liechtenstein museum

Picture: Liechtenstein Museum

The Hohenbuchau Collection of Dutch and Flemish old masters has gone on display in its entirety for the first time at the Liechtenstein Museum. Amongst the Baroque gems is this portrait of a monk by Rubens, which is interesting to compare with the Portrait of a Carmelite Monk of a similar period about to be sold by Sotheby's.

The latter picture, long attributed to Rubens, is now being sold as a Van Dyck. As you can see from the catalogue note here, the picture was traditionally called 'Rubens' Confessor', and has a plausible provenance going back to Rubens himself. I'm looking forward to seeing it in the flesh - and if I'm feeling brave and am prepared to back up my earlier hunch that it might in fact be by Rubens, I'll let you know here...

By the way, in case you didn't know, the Liechtenstein Museum is not in Liechtenstein, but in Vienna. A long time ago, I was skiing in Switzerland, not far from Liechenstein. Feeling cultural, I thought I would drive down to the small principality to look at their fine collection. A couple of hours later a friendly tourist official in Vaduz (the capital of Liechtenstein) told me that no, the Liechtenstein Museum is in Austria. But the curious thing was the shock on his face, as if anybody could be so stupid to think it wouldn't be... 

New price record for Stanley Spencer

June 17 2011

Image of New price record for Stanley Spencer

Picture: Sotheby's

Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Stanley Spencer, sold for a new record price of £5.4m at Sotheby's this week. 

John Martin exhibition

June 17 2011

Image of John Martin exhibition

Picture: Tate Britain

The first exhibition devoted to the audacious artist John Martin (1789-1854) will open at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield on June 22nd. Closes September 4th. More here

Tune in...

June 16 2011

Image of Tune in...

Picture: BBC BBC1 this Sunday at 7pm to see Fiona Bruce, Philip Mould and I (the bloke on the left) in a new series tracking down lost and mysterious paintings.

The series is called 'Fake or Fortune', which I'm told is a good BBC1 title. I just hope nobody thinks it's a game show...

It was quite an experience filming the series, and somewhat nerve-wracking. Fortunately, we had a brilliant production team from BBC Bristol. As a viewer, one doesn't really appreciate just how talented people who work in TV are, until you see how it's all done. Anyway, it's well worth watching. And don't just take my word for it; an advanced review from Time Out gave us 4/5 stars: 'it's captivating viewing', The Times calls it 'gripping' and 'fascinating', and the FT also gives it 4/5 stars.

More here

The Empire Strikes Back

June 16 2011

Image of The Empire Strikes Back

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

In The Times and on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning was news of one of the recent Van Dyck discoveries included in our exhibition ‘Finding Van Dyck’. The story was later picked up in a rather muddled piece by Channel 4 news.

The picture, Study of the Head of a Woman (above), was bought at the Chatsworth ‘Attic Sale’ handled by Sotheby’s. It was catalogued as ‘Circle of Rubens’. Briefly, here’s just three reasons why I think the study is by Van Dyck.

  1. The same head appears in two larger compositions by Van Dyck, both painted in about 1630; Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Schonborn Collection), and Adoration of the Shepherds (Church of Our Lady, Dendermonde). 
  2. In the Achilles painting, the woman’s head is used in the lower centre, and has been rotated slightly for the figure looking up at Achilles. In the Adoration picture, the study has been inverted, and used for the shepherdess looking down at Christ. (I would illustrate both, but don't yet have permission to reproduce them online).
  3. In both of the above pictures, the heads follow the study closely, even down to details such as the highlight on the top lip, and the shadows in the cheek. 

We are left, therefore, with two plausible options – either it is a copy after the Achilles or Adoration pictures. Or it was made by Van Dyck in preparation for those pictures.

We can immediately rule out option 1, that it is a copy. Not only is it too impulsive, animated and well painted to be by a copyist (or even a studio assistant), it is also at a different angle and with different hair, thus ruling out the possibility that it was painted after either of the larger works.

In response to inquiries from the BBC and Channel 4, Sotheby’s issued the following statement:

Sotheby’s carefully considered the painting when cataloguing it for sale, and reject the recent attribution to Van Dyck. Six out of seven of the world’s leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby’s has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted).  The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion – consistent with Sotheby’s original cataloguing – is that the painting is by an anonymous Flemish artist working in the 17th century, ultimately inspired by Peter Paul Rubens. 

But here’s three curious things: [more below]

Read More

BP Portrait Award

June 15 2011

Wim Heldens has won this year's BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Here's an interview with the artist by Channel 4's Matthew Cain. 

'What is Vorticism?'

June 15 2011

Image of 'What is Vorticism?'

Picture: Tate Britain/EPA. Detail of Wyndham Lewis' 'Workshop'.

A new exhibition of Vorticist paintings has gone on display at Tate Britain. More details here.

The show was featured on the Today programme by the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz. Evan Davis began by asking Gompertz, 'what is Vorticism?', and got this fantastically baffling (to the average listener) response:

Vorticism was a London-based modern art movement started in 1914 and it was in effect a British version of Italian Futurism with a splash of Parisian Cubism added to bring out a distinctive flavour. [cue guffaw from John Humphrys] 

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