Previous Posts: December 2012

El Greco soars above estimate

December 5 2012

Image of El Greco soars above estimate

Picture: Bonhams

The soaraway price of the week so far is the £790k (with premium) realised by the above Saint Peter catalogued as 'Attributed to El Greco' at Bonhams. The picture was estimated at £40-£60,000. I'm no El Greco expert, but even to me it looked to be so well painted that it surely must be 'right', as we say in the trade. 

The picture had recently been surface-cleaned, but was consigned in a generally unrestored state. In other words, it was a perfect trade picture, which could be taken onto the next level if the attribution is firmed up, and the picture restores well. The price is a reminder to the auction houses, in this week of (so far) high unsold levels, of how much the trade underpins Old Master auctions. 

On UK museum acquisitions

December 5 2012

Image of On UK museum acquisitions

Picture: Natalie Rigby/Falmouth Art Gallery

Interesting statistic in the most recent Burlington Magazine editorial on regional museums, viz 70% of ArtFund grants go to regional museums:

Acquisitions are the life-blood of museums and galleries, whether through purchase, gift or bequest. But studying recent acquisition lists is a doleful experience; gifts and bequests are few and far between (in contrast to museums in, say, America or Germany); acquisitions spearheaded by the institutions themselves are often of a timid or only local appeal (important though this can be) and the accession of objects of wider significance has certainly diminished. Acquisition budgets are minimal or non-existent but there are now several very active grant-giving bodies. The Director of the Art Fund, Stephen Deuchar, commented at the Barber that 70 per cent of Art Fund disbursements go to the regions but commented on the sliding standard of written applications and the often unambitious level of the objects under consideration. But it is worth stressing that there are many curators in place who would be more motivated, their sights set higher, if administration was less onerous, resources greater and their pay more inducive.

I've illustrated this post with a lovely photo sent to me by the Director of Falmouth Art Gallery, Louise Connell, which shows a picture by Anne Killigrew being admired by a young visitor. The picture, Venus Attired by the Three Graces, was recently bought from us with help from (amongst others) the ArtFund. It was long thought to be a lost painting, but was found  looking rather unloved in a minor country auction. The Venus had been 'clothed' in the 19th Century by a prudish restorer with a yellow drape. You can read more about the picture here. Research established that the painting had once been admired by the poet John Dryden (whose portrait incidentally - and sorry to go on making plugs - we sold to the National Portrait Gallery in 2008).

Note to HM Treasury

December 5 2012

Image of Note to HM Treasury

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

More gloomy economic news in the UK means that it's time for one of my periodic reminders (for AHN's readers in government) of what John Maynard Keynes looked like. Here he is depicted by the great cartoonist Sir David Low, in a drawing first published in 1932. 

Plug alert

December 5 2012

Image of Plug alert

Picture: BG

Forget Old Master sales and £10m Raphael drawings - the week's most exciting event has happened. My new book has arrived, just in time for your Christmas stocking. If you wanted to give your money to tax avoiders, buy it on Amazon for £42.75. Or help out HM Treasury by buying it directly from Cambridge University Press for £45.

On offer at Sotheby's

December 4 2012

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have pushed the boat out with their Old Master videos this time round. Here, George Gordon talks engagingly about highlights from tomorrow's Sotheby's Old Master sale.

Louvre-Lens opens

December 4 2012

Video: AFP

The Louvre has opened its satellite museum in Lens, a former mining town in Northern France. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones questions the move:

The great Paris art museum is getting international praise for opening a new Louvre in Lens, a former mining town in northern France. But the Louvre is taking a huge risk by sending masterpieces such as Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People to the new Louvre-Lens. It is breaking up a collection that is one of the wonders of the world. For every visitor who makes the trip to Lens, there will be people frantically scouring the Louvre in Paris looking for the vanished Delacroix that is usually one of its highlights.

I think it's political correctness gone mad. There's no reason to undermine the strength of a great museum such as the Louvre in the name of regional equality. There are only a few museums like the Louvre in the world, and they have their own egalitarianism in the universal overview of human culture that they provide. It would be better for the Louvre to find ways to bring diverse communities into its Paris home using the multicultural approach pioneered by the British Museum in London.

Hard to disagree. But this is what happens when you have too much political control over the arts. The closest analogies we have here in the UK (where ministers are kept well away from museums) are Tate's branches in Liverpool and St Ives, and the NPG's in Bodelwyddan Castle and Benningborough Hall. In both cases the institutions have enough surplus works to create strong galleries with a local emphasis and good quality works, but without raiding the core displays in London. However, as Didier Rykner has shown with his series of distressing photos of empty plinths and gallery spaces, that doesn't seem to be the case with the Louvre.

Update - a reader writes:

Was interested to read your piece on the new Louvre Lens. I happened to be in Arras a few months ago, where there they have just installed the best bits of the Versailles carriage collection in an old nunnery (I have always been obsessed with 18th century coaches). I thought it was great. Let's not worry about whether the French misuse their cultural patrimony, let's just celebrate the fact that it's now even more accessible to us Brits. Arras and Lens are just a short drive from the chunnel exit, which is itself a very reasonable drive from London / the SE. It makes for a great weekend away.

More of a Eurostar-straight-to-Paris kind of person meself.

Christie's Old Master evening sale

December 4 2012

Image of Christie's Old Master evening sale

Picture: BG

Bit of a flat one this. Christie's most recent Old Master auctions in London totalled £95m, but tonight's sale limped home at just £11.5m. December sales usually play second fiddle to the July auctions, but there's no denying that this evening's was rather weak.

I'm not entirely sure why. The quality of the pictures on offer wasn't bad, the estimates weren't crazy, and the cataloguing was the usual high standard for a Christie's evening sale. There were no knockout lots though. The top lot by value was a £2m Jordaens (inc. premium).

However, by my counting some 25 of the 54 lots failed to sell, and nothing kills the atmosphere in an auction room quicker than a run of bought in pictures. At one point there were 8 consecutive failures. The buy-ins included what we thought was a rather fine Italian-period Van Dyck, which we had been tempted to bid on [below].

Happily, the British pictures on offer performed well. A not stellar Reynolds made £211k, three head studies by Lawrence made £121k, while a fine Gainsborough copy after Van Dyck made £265k. And the second highest price of the evening was for a rare night scene by Wright of Derby, which made £914,850 [above]. This delightful picture had recently been discovered in a US auction (I'm told) for peanuts. It was an epic find by probably the greatest sleeper-hunter of our time (who is very discrete, so I can't name him).

Tomorrow evening's Sotheby's sale will most likely beat the Christie's total, especially if they sell their £10m-£15m Raphael drawing, and the £5m-£7m Jan Steen.

Update - a reader writes:

I can tell you part of the reason the sale fell flat tonight - picture flipping.  At least 16 paintings had been on the market in the last 15 years, and only 5 of them sold.  The market is smart enough to figure out that the Flinck sold 7 months ago at Dobiaschofsky, even if it wasn't spelled out in the catalogue, and wasn't going to pay a premium to a sleeper hunter who overpaid for a work in mediocre condition.  Almost without exception, the Dutch pictures were recycled, mediocre examples of the artists' work.  As something of a sleeper hunter myself, my rules are a) if it can be found, properly attributed, on Artnet, it will make a fair price the first time around regardless of where the auction is or what the estimate is, and b) even if it's not on Artnet, if you can tell during the bidding that at least two dealers are involved as well, it will make a fair price, and it's best to sit back and let it go.  That leads to a pretty low success rate in bidding, but a low failure rate in reselling as well.

Things you don't expect to see in the Courtauld

December 4 2012

Image of Things you don't expect to see in the Courtauld

Picture: BG


Art discovery, Uzbek style

December 4 2012


What's the best way to announce an art discovery to the rest of the world? If you're in Uzbekistan, it involves candles, serving girls in period dress, live music, plenty of booze, endless speeches, a pair of nuns, and a bishop. As reports, a lost painting attributed to Veronese has been found in the stores of the Tashkent Museum of Arts:

Specialists of Tashkent's Museum of Arts yesterday presented the proof of authenticity of Paolo Veronese's The Lamentation of Christ which was discovered in its repositories.

On 27 November, Uzbek arts specialists told a news conference about their work to establish the authorship of the painting.

Initially, the painting was believed to have been of unknown origin. Later, specialists arrived at the conclusion and it was proven that the discovered painting was 16th century Italian painter Paolo Veronese's The Lamentation of Christ.

However, according to AFP:

[...] the Italian embassy in Tashkent has urged caution, saying while the show is a remarkable event, further work will be needed to confirm that the picture is a genuine Veronese.

The State Arts Museum unveiled the painting in an exhibition called the "Revival of a Masterpiece", presenting it to the public at a ceremony with Uzbek officials, the Italian ambassador and Russian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church leaders.

The Arts Museum said the "Lamentation of Christ" was brought to Uzbekistan in the 19th century when the territory was part of the Russian Empire.

The picture was part of the collection which belonged to the Romanov dynasty of Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II.

You can read more about the picture's history here. Scroll through to about 10mins 30s to see the painting being unveiled. Western galleries have a lot to learn from this, don't you think? Especially the booze and period dress.

Anghiari copy returned to Italy

December 4 2012

Image of Anghiari copy returned to Italy

Picture: New York Times

Elisabetta Povoledo in the New York Times reports that a missing copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari has been returned to Italy:

More than 70 years after an oil painting depicting a panel of Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated “Battle of Anghiari” was spirited away from Italy to enter into a succession of private collections, the work – tantalizingly attributed by some to the master himself – is going on display at Italy’s presidential palace until mid-January.

The Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, the most recent owner of the so-called Doria Panel, returned the painting to Italy this summer after officials here demanded its restitution, claiming that it had been illegally exported at the start of World War II. The Japanese museum had bought the work – which depicts “The Fight for the Standard” from Leonardo’s famous Battle of Anghiari mural – in good faith on the Japanese antiquarian market in 1992.


Nicked - one solid gold hand

December 4 2012

Image of Nicked - one solid gold hand

Picture: Guardian

The Guardian reports that a solid gold sculpture has gone missing from Christie's King Street premises:

It is a work of art by one of the world's most feted artists, the Turner prize-winning Douglas Gordon. It is also made from solid gold, with an insurance value of around £500,000 and, the Guardian has learned, the work has been stolen while in the care of Christie's, one of the most respected auction houses in the world.

The artist fears it may have been taken for the scrap value of its metal, which he estimates to be around £250,000. "I don't think this is an art theft," Gordon said. "I'm pretty sure it has been melted down." [...]

After the exhibition closed on 28 October, the sculpture was returned to the Christie's storage facility in London for safekeeping. According to Gordon, documentation was signed showing the sculpture had been safely received; and, following standard practice in the artworld, a condition report was completed.

But earlier this month, according to Gordon, "apparently an employee randomly picked up the box it was in – yes, the phrase 'randomly picked up' is the phrase I have heard – and discovered it was a bit light". The crate was opened and the artwork discovered to be missing.

When the dendrochronologist comes (ctd.)

December 3 2012

Image of When the dendrochronologist comes (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

Last week I mentioned that we had a visit from the dendrochronologist Peter Klein. We had four panels dated, and happily the results were good for all four. For example, it seems that our recently acquired portrait of Mary I is contemporaneous, while the above portrait by the Master of the Countess of Warwick, which is dated 1565, came back with a 'most plausible creation date' of 1564 (phew). 

A fellow dealer who also used Peter's services found that his panel (a sleeper) came from the same tree as a number of other panels used to support known works by a Very Famous Artist. Result! If I ask him nicely, he might let me tell you about it. It's a nice example of how science can help prove a connoisseurial hunch.

Getting up close and personal with art

December 3 2012

Image of Getting up close and personal with art

Picture: BG

I'm afraid service might be a little slow at the moment, as we're in the thick of Old Master Week here in London. Things are pleasingly busy in the art world, and the salerooms are buzzing. I still can't work out why the art market seems to be defying the general economic gravity, but it is. This weekend we experimented with weekend opening times, and even sold a painting (a Kneller), on Saturday.

Above is a snap from Sotheby's, where they are showing Raphael's drawing of an apostle, consigned by Chatsworth at £10-£15m. If you have the time, and even if you have no intention of buying, I strongly recommend checking out the Sotheby's and Christie's Old Master viewings. It's one of the best ways to become intimate with great art, and allows an experience quite unlike that you get in any museum. Not only can you get up close and personal to the paint surface, you can also take photos, look at the backs, and generally do things (within reason) that would normally see you escorted from most art galleries by a pair of heavies. This week you can not only see the above Raphael drawing, but fine works by Batoni and Jan Steen at Sotheby's, while Christie's have a newly re-discovered Wright of Derby (below), and a good pair of Van Dycks.

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