Previous Posts: May 2011

RMS Titanic

May 31 2011

Image of RMS Titanic

Picture: Christie's

Today is the 100th anniversary of the launch of the Titanic, and there has been great excitement in Belfast

I've always been fascinated by the story of the doomed liner, and still regret not bidding higher on the above watercolour by Charles Edward Dixon. It was auctioned at Christie's in 2007, and sold for £19,200 (against a £8-12,000 estimate). Since it was claimed to be 'the only conventional portrait painted from life' of Titanic, the price was probably a bit of a bargain. 

What are museums for?

May 31 2011

In the Art Newspaper, Maurice Davies tries to find the answer in three new books on museums and collections. They are:

  • Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the Crisis of Cultural Authority, Tiffany Jenkins, Routledge, 174 pp, $95 (hb)
  • Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson, Oxford University Press, 204 pp, £25 (hb)
  • The Best Art You’ve Never Seen: 101 Hidden Treasures from Around the World, Julian Spalding, Rough Guides, 288 pp, £14, $22.99 (pb)
To be honest, the first two sound a bit of a yawn. There's a lot of navel-gazing in the museum world when it comes to deciding 'what we're for'. Nothing beats the British Museum's founding mission statement: 'for the entertainment of the curious'.

Nevertheless, Julian Spalding's book is a timely plea to his museum colleagues to stop bein so retentive, especially over things like climactic controls. He argues that: [More below]

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Restitution? No thanks

May 31 2011

Image of Restitution? No thanks

Picture: Armin Kuhne

Here's a curious restitution case: a Jewish heir is fighting to stop the restitution of his ancestor's collections. 

In 1937 Georg Steindorff (above) sold his collection of antiquities to Leipzig University, where he worked, for 8,000 Reichsmarks. But because before the sale Steindorff valued his collection at 10,260 Reichsmarks, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has ruled that the sale was forced, and the collections be returned to Steindorff's heirs. The heir in this case, Steindorff's grandson Thomas Hemer, says the collection should stay in the collection of Leipzig University's Egyptology Institute, about which his grandfather was passionate. Full details on Bloomberg here.

The case highlights once again the varying standards across Europe when it comes to restitution. The Conference has authority in Germany and Austria, and evidently takes a very favourable line towards restitution cases (rightly, I think). But in Britain the threshold for restitution is set much higher, as shown by the recent Herbert Gutmann case.

Online Sir John Soane archive

May 31 2011

Image of Online Sir John Soane archive

Picture: Soane Museum

The Soane Museum has published online drawings from five of Soane's London projects: Pitzhanger Manor, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the Bank of England, and the Soane Monument in St Pancras Gardens.

The design for the latter inspired Gilbert Scott's prototype for the telephone box.

Straight in at No.1 - it's Van Dyck

May 30 2011

Sir Roy Strong ranks the ten greatest portraits ever painted. No.1 is Van Dyck's Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart [National Gallery, London]. 

Although I too would be tempted to put Van Dyck at No.1 in any list of great portraitists, sadly, the compromised condition of the Stuart painting rules it out for me. Over-cleaning and and a harsh re-lining has left it with a slightly hard-boiled look. See for yourself by zooming in here - and compare it with one of Van Dyck's best portraits still in good condition, here.

New date for 'Leonardo?' court case

May 30 2011

Image of New date for 'Leonardo?' court case


The case of Marchig vs. Christie's returns to court on 24th June.

The dispute involves the drawing, above, sold in 1998 by Christie's as 19thC German School for $19,000. A subsequent owner now claims it is by Leonardo, and worth $100m. Unsurprisingly, the vendor at Christie's, Jeanne Marchig, has been trying to take Christie's to court. But she has so far lost her case because the relevant statute of limitations in New York (6 years) has expired. 

Marchig has sought leave to appeal the limitations decision. If she wins, then the far more difficult case of is it or is it not a Leonardo will come before the court. And since at the last count an impressive array of scholars do not think it is by Leonardo, who knows where we'll end up. For a fuller discussion on the case's implications see here.

And if you're really keen, the case is being heard at 2pm, 500 Pearl Street, in the Ceremonial Courtroom, 9th floor.

New acquisition

May 27 2011

Image of New acquisition

Picture: The Art Fund

Congratulations to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for acquiring View of Matlock, c.1780, by William Marlow. The total cost was a bargain £20,000, towards which the Art Fund contributed £6,666.

Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

May 27 2011

Image of Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

Picture: Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian dares to ask, and makes the comparison with French art at the turn of the 19th Century:

How many great works of art can we actually count that our age will bequeath posterity? Where are our Sunflowers, our apples [Cezanne] and our dancers [Degas].

There is a pitiful gulf between noise and achievement in contemporary British art. Of course, we have some good artists, some very good artists, and maybe a couple of great ones. But the vast majority of exhibitions are slight and huge numbers of artists are "farting around", as I observed of Mark Leckey the other day. I did not mean to imply he is the only bad artist. In fact, truly honest art criticism in Britain today would mostly consist of reviews like that one.

Look – as I say – do the maths. You must know how many, or rather how few, artists it is possible to truly love, how small the selection of artworks that really make an impact is. Now pick up any art magazine and sample the latest haul of significant, new, radical, cool artists: it seems there never has been and never will be an age when artists of real value proliferate so readily. Therefore, by plain logic and common sense, a vast proportion of the art we hear so much about in Britain today must be rubbish. It's that simple.

I've never been one to deride contemporary art - I think a lot of it really is excellent. But there can be no doubt at all that the prices paid for most of it are over-inflated.

Long-term, the true value of art is best established after the hype has died down. Museum collections around the world are full of once-contemporary pieces bought at the height of the primary market - but which are now worth a fraction of what was paid.

Equally, there are just as many pictures that could have been bought for nothing when painted, but which are now worth millions. Van Gogh's Red Vineyard (above), supposedly the only painting he ever sold, was bought for just 400 francs in 1890 (about $1000-1500 today). 

The Churchill boom

May 27 2011

Image of The Churchill boom

Picture: Christie's

The Beach at Walmer, painted in 1938 by Sir Winston Churchill, has sold for £313,250.

Churchill was certainly a handy painter, and in the list of history's most important figures he ranks near the top. But I wonder if his paintings are becoming a little over-priced?

I can see why, for today's market, his paintings are attractive. But when valuing art you always have to take the long view. So, one has to ask whether the fascination for all things Churcill will be as strong in, say, 100 years, or will he have been eclipsed by a new clutch of popular heroes?

Would a painting by Oliver Cromwell, or Churchill's ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, fetch such sums today? Probably not. The best indicator of value in a painting will always be the quality of the work itself - nothing else really matters.

New Lowry record

May 27 2011

Image of New Lowry record

L S Lowry's Football Match was sold yesterday at Christie's for £5,641,250, including buyer's premium. The estimate was £3.5-4.5m. 

The previous record was set in 2007, with £3.77m paid for Good Friday, Daisy Nook.

On the joys of being an art dealer

May 27 2011

Image of On the joys of being an art dealer


The recession may continue to throw up challenges for art dealers - some say that this year’s European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht was pretty gloomy - but there is still plenty of fun to be had 'in the trade'.

For me, the most exciting part of art dealing is that you never know where the fickle of finger of fate might point you, be it the pictures you encounter, or the people you meet.

Every week I look at hundreds of paintings for sale around the world, and though much of it is little better than the stuff you find on the railings outside Hyde Park, probably at least one will be worth buying. [More below]

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Steve Bell exhibition

May 26 2011


The Cartoon Museum in London has a new exhibition devoted to Steve Bell, best known for his biting cartoons in the Guardian. The video above is well worth a click, as is this piece recording the thoughts of a few politicians who have been drawn by Bell.

Says John Prescott:

Every politician likes to think they aren't going to be dumped on, but cartoons don't play to the normal rules. And the images do influence people's attitudes. The character Steve Bell turned me into was a bulldog. I couldn't see if I had any balls or not, but the suggestion is I hadn't. And I had no teeth. That was his judgment on me politically, I assume.

Such cartoons are not always considered 'proper art', but in my view they undoubtedly are. Few mediums capture the spirit of an age better than political cartoons, and probably Steve Bell is the best practitioner of the genre of his generation. It helps that he's also a very good artist. 

Here is Bell's own take on the retrospective.

Van Gogh in bloom

May 26 2011

Image of Van Gogh in bloom

Picture: National Gallery

How about this for idea of the year - the National Gallery is planting a 'living wall' on its facade in the form of Van Gogh's A Wheatfield. 

The wall will comprise of over 8,000 living plants, and will stay in place until October:

The living painting has been constructed by specialist horticulture and design company ANS using over 8,000 plants of more than 26 different varieties. To create the artwork, each plant was selected for its unique colour to match the tones of the original painting. It was then hand-planted into its location in one of three modules according to a numbered drawing which replicated the image. The modules were then grown vertically at the nursery ready for installation.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses was painted in September 1889, when Van Gogh was in the St-Rémy mental asylum, near Arles, where he was a patient from May 1889 until May 1890. Writing to his brother Theo early in September, Van Gogh promised to send his brother ‘twelve size 30 canvases’ and it seems likely that A Wheatfield, with Cypresses was one of them.

Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

May 25 2011

Image of Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

Picture: Museo Prado

The Prado is to restore Rogier van der Weyden's c.1460 The Crucifixion. The process is expected to take two years:

The study and subsequent restoration of Van der Weyden’s Crucifixion will be undertaken by the Museo del Prado’s restoration team in collaboration with restorers from Patrimonio Nacional, to whom the Museum will be making available its technical resources and experience acquired through the restoration of other works on panel in recent decades, including The Descent from the Cross by the same artist, which was restored in 1993. The lengthy procedure envisaged will involve a detailed and complete study of the panel in order to decide on the most appropriate procedures for its conservation and restoration.

Full details here.

Romney sketchbook published

May 24 2011

Image of Romney sketchbook published


The Romney Society has published a facsimile of George Romney's Kendal Sketchbook, 1763-71. There are 104 pages of Romney drawings, and a fine catalogue written by Dr Yvonne Romney Dixon.

It's a really impressive publication, and well worth having - order a copy here.

Armageddon outta here, take 2

May 24 2011

Image of Armageddon outta here, take 2

Harold Camping says the world is still going to end on October 21st - he just got the date of Judgement Day a bit wrong (he said 21st May).

So, just for fun, here's another guide from art history of what we're all in for, this time from Hans Memling, in a detail from his Last Judgement triptych, in the Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.

Or, you could take a more optimistic line, like Thomas Gainsborough, who, on his deathbed, is reported to have said: 'We're all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company'. Now, that would be cool, not least because I have a few questions for old Anthony, like: where is the quadruple portrait of you and your wife with Charles I and Henrietta Maria, which belonged to Cesare Scaglia; and, did you really paint this?

Restoring a Van Gogh

May 24 2011


Here's an excellent idea - the Cincinnati Art Museum is to restore Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Two Figures in public. The 1890 painting was re-lined in the 1970s, and the wax applied to the back of the canvas is now affecting the paint layers. Now, the wax is being removed, and visitors to the museum can watch via a giant screen.

I regularly encounter damage caused by these wax re-linings. They were all the rage at one point, but now we look back on the process and shudder. Usually, a hot iron was used to melt the wax and so glue the new canvas onto the back of the old. Sadly, this often had the effect of flattening the paint layers - not entirely surprising if you iron a painting - and so the texture and impasto of a painting was lost forever.

I wonder what conservation treatments we use these days that will have to be undone by the next generation of restorers

Another happy ending

May 24 2011

Image of Another happy ending

A triptych stolen from Italy and bought by the Speed Museum in Kentucky in 1973, has been returned to its owners.

The picture, thought to be by Jacopo da Casentino (d.1358), was one of 14 works of art stolen in a raid on an Italian Villa, now thought to be worth $33m. The Speed Museum paid $38,000 for it, unwittingly, and has no insurance to cover the loss.

A happy ending

May 23 2011

Image of A happy ending

Picture: Antiques Trade Gazette

This bust, of Elisabeth Borrett by Sir Henry Cheere, was stolen in January from the church of St Peter & St Paul, Shoreham, West Sussex. It has now been returned, after a photograph was published in the indispensable Antiques Trade Gazette.

The bust was bought, unwittingly, by a dealer, who then consigned it to Sotheby's. He saw the picture in the ATG, and pulled it from the sale. See the pair, of John Borrett, here

Despite the happy ending, there is something profoundly sad about someone wanting to make a few quid (probably literally) by stealing a marble bust from a church.

Pablo who?

May 23 2011

Image of Pablo who?

Picture: China Guardian Auctions

Another record price in China seems to confirm the direction of the art market: a work by Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was sold in Beijing yesterday for $65m (or 425.m yuan). Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree, 1946, sets a new record for a modern Chinese painting.

According to Art Price, Qi's work raised $70m worldwide in 2009 - the only artists ranked higher were Warhol and Picasso. 

The auction house was China Guardian Auctions

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