Previous Posts: November 2011

Friday Amusement

November 25 2011

Image of Friday Amusement

Picture: Cartoonstock

What might have been...

November 25 2011

Image of What might have been...

Picture: Forte di Bard

An exhibition of 80 works from the Prince of Liechtenstein's art collection will open on December 9th at the Forte di Bard near Turin. There's a little video of some of the highlights here: Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Cranach, Canaletto, Brueghel etc. etc. Looks pretty amazing. This is presumably the show that we were due to get at the Royal Academy at the end of 2010 - but which the Prince cancelled after HM Customs seized a Sanchez Coello he had bought. Swizz... 

Newly restored something at Dulwich Picture Gallery

November 25 2011

Image of Newly restored something at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery

A curious example of poor websitery over at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Announcing the 'stunning restoration' of a 17th Century work Saint Cecilia, they've illustrated it with the most tiny of images (above). The picture was previously thought to have been by Annibale Carracci, but has now been 'de-attributed' (tho' we are not told why). Don't you find it odd when museums assume visitors to their site only want the most trivial of details, or the smallest of images? If Dulwich put a better image up, they might find someone to help them with the attribution...

What those Leonardo queues mean

November 24 2011

Image of What those Leonardo queues mean

Picture: BG

A reader writes:

The National Gallery could insist you bring the credit card you paid for the tickets with, like music venues are supposed to (but never do). Has there ever been art ticket-touting like this? You could see it as a culturally healthy sign. People being mugged for tickets would be even better. 

I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

If you like Artemisia Gentileschi, and speak Italian...

November 24 2011


Then you'll love this video from the new Artemisia exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Read a review of the exhibition here

Optimism-watch: Raphael special

November 24 2011

Image of Optimism-watch: Raphael special

Picture: Art History Today / Graeme Cameron

You may remember a while ago that some startling 'discoveries' were announced in a new self-published book by Australian art historian Graeme Cameron, The Secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci, and on Art History Today. They included a 'Holbein' and a 'Leonardo Self-Portrait'. Aside from some trenchant wonderment expressed by me here, the discoveries have sunk without trace because they are, alas, fantastical.

Now Mr Cameron is back, this time with a newly discovered 'Raphael' (above). Cameron (who despite my horridness was kind enough to send me a copy of his book) claims that the picture dates to 1512, and shows not only a self-portrait of Raphael, but his lover, Margerita Luti. He also uses a technique he calls 'Vegascanning' to find clues in the 'subsurface' of the picture, including another Raphael design. The only problem is there is not one jot of reliable evidence that this picture is by Raphael. The likenesses of the figures are generic (and thus not to be relied on as portraits of anyone). And the 'Vegascans', whatever they are, are taken from digital photographs, and not to be relied on. I noticed the story of the latest discovery on Art History Today a while ago, but have been waiting for Three Pipe Problem to sink his razor-sharp analytical teeth into the theory first.

Read 3PP's views for yourself, but it's fair to say he is sceptical of Cameron's conclusions. For what it's worth, so am I. And if you look closely enough at the available images, you will be too. Go on, try a spot of connoisseurship. Here are some genuine Raphaels. Marvel at their brilliance, their sophistication, and intricate detail. And then see the plodding brushwork in The Judgement of Paris. See the solid drapery evident throughout the picture, from the bulky red of Paris' jacket through to the stiffly blowing orange drape far right. This is not the drapery of Raphael. In fact, it is not the drapery of any reasonably competent artist of the 16th Century - but almost certainly a 17th Century copy of an earlier work. Look also at the badly drawn profile faces of two of the female figures, the solid and unconvincing flesh of the naked bodies, the curious cartoon-like dog, not to mention the inept transition from foreground to background. All of these point to a work of poor quality of execution, and thus a poor artist. Agree? Then count yourself a connoisseur. 

Recovering the 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder'

November 24 2011

Two men cleared of attempted extortion and handling Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder have given their story to the Daily Mail. It's worth a read, but here's the story in a nutshell.

'Private detectives' and liverpool pub owners Robbie Graham (above) and John Doyle were charged with conspiring to extort £4.25m for the safe return of the Madonna, which was stolen from the Duke of Buccleuch's Drumlanrig Castle in 2003. But Graham and Doyle claimed they were acting as middle men who recovered the picture from a shady 'Liverpool businessman', in return for £700,000 in cash - money which had been given to them by a local solicitor, Marshall Ronald. Ronald was in turn negotiating with solicitors acting for the Duke's insurers, Hiscox. On 3rd October 2007 Graham and Doyle handed over the cash in the car park of a Merseyside pub, and walked away with the picture. The cash had been taken by Ronald from his firm's client account. Ronald believed he had negotiated a multi-million pound reward from Hiscox's solicitors. But it turned out that the contact at the Duke's insurers with whom Ronald had been negotiating to return the painting, and secure the reward, was an undercover policeman. All three were arrested, along with two others. Meanwhile, the unnamed 'Liverpool villains' got away with their £700,000...

All five men were cleared when the jury delivered a verdict of 'not proven'. The Scottish legal system allows for three verdicts, guilty, not guilty, and not proven.

Read the story for yourself, but I find the whole thing a little curious. Graham and Doyle say they were initially contacted by the Liverpool villains because of a website they ran, Stolen Stuff Reunited, a company which Ronald help them set up. Here's the website. It looks a little unsophisticated. It says Graham and Doyle's private investigations company is called Crown Private Investigations. According to Companies House, Crown Private Investigations Ltd has been dissolved. Stolen Stuff Reunited has also been dissolved. I'd be interested to know when the 'Stolen Stuff Reunited website was first set up. According to the Whois information for the domain, it was created on 10th June 2010, and registered in the name of Chaz Brooks Communications Ltd. It's curious that a specific Google search for 'Stolen Stuff Reunited' confined to the time the said 'Liverpool villains' might have been googling it doesn't reveal very much. I wonder how these villains came across the site? What do you think?

Still, at least the picture was safely returned...

National Gallery - ban resale of Leonardo tickets

November 23 2011

Image of National Gallery - ban resale of Leonardo tickets

Picture: BG

Following reports that tickets for the Leonardo exhibition are trading on Ebay for hundreds of pounds, the National Gallery has announced that resold tickets will be cancelled, and entry refused. From BBC News:

"We are obviously very disappointed at the resale of these tickets for profit," a spokeswoman said. "The resale of tickets for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition is against the terms and conditions of their sale and this information is printed on the tickets.

"Our website clearly states: 'Tickets that have been resold will be cancelled without refund and admission will be refused to the bearer.'"

The spokeswoman said the gallery is contacting companies and websites that are accommodating ticket resales, requesting that they "stop immediately".

But she declined to comment on which methods are being used to identify resold tickets.

The last paragraph here is obviously rather important: the sad fact is, there is no conclusive way of detecting who has bought a resold ticket. So there's very little the Gallery can do...

Guffwatch: video special, 'Captain Ballsack'

November 23 2011


Captain Ballsack is a sculpture by Paul McCarthy. It consists of a giant penis and, er, ballsack, with an armchair placed on top. It took about two years to make. McCarthy's works sell for up to $4.5m at auction.

Things you can't quite believe they meant

November 23 2011

You will be able to see the skull in a completely different context, without the hype and speculation. We all think we know this work through the media. But if you are actually with the work, and can experience it, smell it, and I shouldn’t say this, but touch it – it will be very different.

Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, speaking as part of the hype and speculation over the forthcoming Hirst retrospective.

New acquisition in Stockholm

November 23 2011

Image of New acquisition in Stockholm

Picture: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Congratualtions to the National Museum of Sweden in Stockholm for acquiring The Fortune Teller, above, by Nicolas Regnier (d.1667), for about $1.5 million. Half this sum was raised by the museum's Friends group, an impressive feat these days. More here (in Swedish).

Art History and drugs don't mix...

November 23 2011

Image of Art History and drugs don't mix...


In case you were wondering why we don't have comments here on AHN, this is the sort of thing that often lands in my inbox:

Hello. I discoved all about Mona Lisa,work of Leonardo da Vinci...

On details of the hand, Leonardo draw the left hand hidden a marijuana cigarette while the right hand is with fingers opened for hold a cigarette and smoking.

And when i smoke marijuana I awaken  the transcendental cosmic energy of kundalini is the magic revelation of the veil. The Hemp can save the planet. Mona Lisa is the symbol

How i can publish this???

In praise of...

November 22 2011

Image of In praise of...

Picture: Christie's

Christie's! I'm very impressed by Christie's catalogue for their December Old Master Evening sale. With well-written, lengthy entries full of pertinent facts and technical information, it sets a new standard for Old Master auction catalogues. 

Get ready for Hirst-mania (again)

November 22 2011

Image of Get ready for Hirst-mania (again)

Picture: Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Like the famous shark, I can't help meeting news of a Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate next year with a giant yawn. Predictably, there is already enough flam to fill a whole volume of 'Guffwatch', such as this from Tate Modern director, Chris Dercon:

They are super-familiar on one level but in a new context the work will be interesting on another level [...] There is a kinaesthetic aspect when you are in a room with these works, seeing your own reflection in the vitrines. It is as if you are stepping into a laboratory of ideas.

Expect plenty more of this. 

Star of the show will be Hirst's For the Love of God, the platinum skull encrusted with diamonds and human teeth. The Tate calls this Hirst's 'key work'. But by displaying this sculpture, are the Tate breaking some of their own rules on commenting on works that may be for sale?

It's a little known fact that Tate has a (frankly absurd) rule which strictly forbids members of its staff from commenting on works of art that are in any way on the market. So, for example, if you find a Turner under your bed, and want to sell it but need the Tate's view on whether it is in fact a Turner (the Tate being the world's centre of expertise on Turner), then you're a bit stuck. This has always struck me as odd, because almost every other gallery I know will happily share their expertise with anyone who asks, irrespective of whether you happen to be (gasp) a dealer.

But since some sources (such as The Art Newspaper) allege that the multi-million pound For the Love of God was never actually sold, and still belongs to Hirst, his agent and his dealer (and others), then aren't the Tate in danger of being seen to promote the work?

As Brian Sewell points out in The Independent:

What always happens after this kind of thing is an artist's prices jump by five or more per cent. A huge exhibition at Tate Modern is a mark of importance if not of quality. Those many museums which haven't got a representative sample of one of his many genres will have to investigate the possibility of buying. This show is an advert and he pays nothing.

Leonardo didn't paint 'Lady With an Ermine'!

November 22 2011

Image of Leonardo didn't paint 'Lady With an Ermine'!

Picture: Princess Czartoryski Foundation

I'm indebted to a reader for alerting me to another piece of incisive art history in the letters pages of our national press. This is from Pauline Wood, of Ibstone, Buckinghamshire, in today's Daily Telegraph:


In the painting Lady with an Ermine, currently on display at the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition, the lady’s right hand is out of proportion with the rest of her body (detail, below). If you measure from her wrist to the tip of her longest finger and transfer that measurement to her face, it reaches from her chin almost to the top of her head. My hand only reaches from my chin to the middle of my forehead.

Given Leonardo’s knowledge of anatomy, I find it difficult to believe that he would have made this error. I am not an expert or even an artist, but dare I suggest that this painting may be by one of his students?

In case you too are doubting the picture, go see the Leonardo exhibition, where you will not only understand all about foreshortening, but also see countless preparatory drawings. In fact, Leonardo liked the hand so much he used it twice; it appears in The Last Supper. And before you try putting your hand on your face to see if the Telegraph writer's theory is correct, and that a human hand cannot be larger than a human head, remember that her measurement has been taken from the back of Leonardo's sitter's hand, at the base of the bent wrist. This gives a measurement of at least an inch longer than if you measure from the base of your palm to your fingertip.

Anyway, I feel an Art History News prize coming on - for the most bonkers art historical theory of the year. Any suggestions for the title, or indeed the prize?

Complaint of the day

November 22 2011

A reader has tipped me off about a letter in yesterday's Daily Mail. A Mr Powell, of Frimley, Surrey, was complaining about the cost of entry to the Uffizi gallery, and the queues. He then added:

"We thought the Uffizi gallery overrated. More than half the paintings were of the Crucifixion or the Adoration of the Magi. It was like reading the same story in several different newspapers. We won't be returning."

I think this must be the best art historical whinge I've ever read. And exactly what you might expect to find in the Wail...

Test your connoisseurship - answer

November 22 2011

Image of Test your connoisseurship - answer

Picture: Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Well done to those of you who got the answer to this one; Thomas Lawrence's Portrait of William Lock of Norbury, 1790, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Although unfinished, the legend is that Lawrence painted the portrait in a single sitting, pleasing Lock so much that he paid the artist a special bonus. Lawrence was then only 21 - it's no wonder Joshua Reynolds called him a genius...

'Sold for $43m!' Or perhaps not...?

November 21 2011

Image of 'Sold for $43m!' Or perhaps not...?

Picture: Christie's

There's an excellent article in The Economist* on the practice of guaranteeing pictures at auction. This is the process whereby an auction house finds a third party, perhaps a wealthy collector, to give a guarantee on a picture, thus helping secure its consignment by the vendor. If the picture does not sell on the big night, the guarantor gets to keep the picture (usually at a price below the lower estimate) and the vendor gets the moolah.

So far so clear. Things get murky, though, when the guarantor then starts bidding on the picture - if he buys it, he will almost certainly then get a discount (or a 'financing fee') in return for having guaranteed it. The question then is - if a guaranteed picture 'sells' at auction for, say, $10 million, and the buyer actually pays just $9 million (the remainder being his discount in the form of a financing fee), then has the picture really 'sold' for $10m? Most people would say not. And in a business where everything revolves around percieved value, then isn't that a distortion of the market?

The recent sale at Christie's of Roy Lichtenstein's 'I can see the whole room... and there's nobody in it!', above, may be, according The Economist, a case in point:

It is strongly believed, for example, that Guy Bennett, an art advisor acting on behalf of the Qataris, negotiated third-party guarantees on the top lots at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s recent contemporary auctions in New York. During the prestigious evening sale at Christie’s on November 8th, Mr Bennett was seen to make the winning bid of $38.5m for Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting, “I can see the whole room!... and There’s Nobody in it!”. Christie’s normal buyer’s premium (or commission) on this would bring the final price up to $43.2m, which was the price reported by Christie’s. However, high-powered guarantors often negotiate a 50-50 split with the auction house of as much as 30% of the overage (the amount generated above the guaranteed price) and an additional 50% of the buyer’s premium. The market believes the Lichtenstein was guaranteed at $35m. If Mr Bennett, who bought the picture, had negotiated such a deal, the real price he paid would have been $40.3m.

So if the above scenario actually happened, then the Christie's press release saying that 'I can see the whole room...' 'sold' for $43.2m is flat out wrong. Things get even murkier when the only bidder on the night is the guarantor. Because then you can't really be sure that the picture has sold for any value at all. It could be an exercise in setting 'value', perhaps to keep prices up for a certain artist. The Economist concludes that the guarantee system is too murky for its own good:

Good auctions are theatrical spectacles that create the illusion of deep markets. Historically a successful sale needs at least two bidders. But sometimes a guarantee leads to a “private sale in public” in which the guarantor is the only bidder. When the top prices for a particular artist are only reached via these kinds of behind-the-scenes, one-to-one transactions, it is reasonable to ask whether it is indicative of a market at all.

No one wants to ruin the entertainment value of a night out at the auctions, but contemporary art has enough credibility problems without unnecessary murkiness. “Industry practices need to catch up with the value of art today”, argue Michael Plummer and Jeff Rabin of Artvest Partners, a firm of art-investment advisors. “We need to require a higher standard of transparency and ethical behaviour because so much money is at stake.” Regardless of the money involved, the market would be considerably fairer and more open if the auction houses reported real prices, disclosed the reserve prices—and named the third-party guarantors as well.

*Thanks to Neil Bird for bringing it to my attention. 

Test your connoisseurship

November 21 2011

Image of Test your connoisseurship

Picture: BG

Can you tell who painted this? Hint, it's unfinished.

'Salvator Mundi' - it's all balls

November 21 2011

Image of 'Salvator Mundi' - it's all balls

Picture: Salvator Mundi LLC

There's an interesting interview with Leonardo Scholar Martin Kemp over on Artinfo, in which he discusses his role in attributing the Salvator Mundi. He reveals that one of the things which convinced him about the picture is the orb in Christ's hand. After he first saw the painting he went down to the Ashmolean Museum to look at one of their rock crystal orbs:

What was striking for me was the orb, and I've subsequently researched it quite heavily. The "Salvator Mundi" obviously holds the mundus, the world which he's saving, and it was absolutely unlike anything I've seen before. The orbs in other Salvator Mundis, often they're of a kind of brass or solid. Sometimes they're terrestrial globes, sometimes they're translucent glass, and one or two even have little landscapes in them. What this one had was an amazing series of glistening little apertures — they're like bubbles, but they're not round — painted very delicately, with just a touch of impasto, a touch of dark, and these little sort of glistening things, particularly around the part where you get the back reflections. And that said to me: rock crystal. Because rock crystal gets what are called inclusions, and to get clear rock crystal is very difficult, particularly big bits. So there are these little gaps, which are slightly irregular in shape, and I thought, well, that's pretty fancy. And Leonardo was a bit of an expert on rock crystal. He was asked to judge vases that Isabella d'Este was thinking of buying, and he loved those materials. 

So when I was back in Oxford, I went to the geology department, and I said, "Let's have a look at some rock crystal." And in the Ashmolean Museum, in a wunderkammer of curiosities, there is a big rock crystal ball, and that has inclusions, so we photographed it under comparable lighting conditions I also began to look at the heel of the hand underneath the globe in the "Salvator Mundi"; there are two heels. The restorer thought it was a pentimento, but I wondered if he was recording a double refraction of the kind you get with a calcite sphere. If this proves to be right, it would be absolutely Leonardesque. I like these things when they're not just connoisseurship. None of the copyists knew that. They just transcribed it. Some of them do better than others, but none of them got this crystal with its possible double refraction. And one of the points of the crystal sphere is that it relates iconographically to the crystalline sphere of the heavens, because in Ptolemaic cosmology the stars were in the fixed crystalline sphere, and so they were embedded. So what you've got in the "Salvator Mundi" is really a "a savior of the cosmos", and this is a very Leonardesque transformation.

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