Previous Posts: July 2012

Stolen Henry Moore sundial found

July 23 2012

Image of Stolen Henry Moore sundial found

Picture: Guardian

A rare success against the sculpture thieving scrap metal melting pillocks. Details here in The Guardian.

Boom - Christie's post record results

July 23 2012

Image of Boom - Christie's post record results

Picture: Christie's

Apart from a dip in Chinese sales, Christie's have seen big rises in all sectors. From Reuters:

Christie's announced record first-half art sales of 2.2 billion pounds on Tuesday, a rise of 13 percent over the same period of 2011 and further evidence of the strength of the high end of the market.

The world's largest auctioneer reported auction sales of 1.8 billion in the first six months of 2012, seven percent up on a year ago, while private art sales soared 53 percent to 413 million pounds. All figures include buyer's premium.

However, there was a steep drop in Asian and Middle Eastern auction revenues to 234 million pounds, 23 percent down on the first half of 2011 as rampant Chinese buying cooled.

In terms of auction categories, the post-war and contemporary sector rose by 34 percent to 576 million pounds, jewellery jumped 28 percent to 190 million and old masters and 19th century art was up 50 percent to 72 million.

Encouraging news too from the lower end of the market:

Several experts have warned that the disparity between art values and the broader economy cannot continue forever and that while the most coveted works are rising in value, other sectors of the art market are less healthy.

Christie's noted, however, that sales at its South Kensington showrooms in London, where lesser works are typically sold, had risen 23 percent to 73 million pounds in the first six months.

How clever Christie's have been to keep hold of their South Kensington saleroom, and to run it with such panache. A few years ago there was talk of closure, especially after Sotheby's ditched their Olympia saleroom. Having a seperate premises for lower value items allows greater flexibility, and builds loyalty among the next generation of collectors. It also means that the main salerooms aren't cluttered with mediocre lots during the more important sales, which is often the case at Sotheby's. A good example of the versatility that South Kensington offers is the forthcoming 'London Sale' (3rd September), which includes the above famous photo by Norman Parkinson, 'New Look at the National Gallery' (est. £4-£4,500). You can even buy an old Routemaster London bus (est. £20-£30,000).

In LA, a bout of contemporary navel-gazing

July 23 2012

Image of In LA, a bout of contemporary navel-gazing

Picture: New York Times

Great angst and hand-wringing at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, as artist trustees (generally a bad idea) resign in protest at the directorship of Jeffrey Deitch. Deitch has been much criticised for following (gasp) a 'populist agenda'. You and I might think that getting more people to visit a museum is a Good Thing. Roberta Smith in The New York Times has the story.

Signs that your gallery needs renovating

July 23 2012

Image of Signs that your gallery needs renovating

Picture: BG

In this case, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I was on Saturday. The above image was taken before I was told off (with exceptional politeness) for taking photos.

Is this Mona Lisa's Skeleton?!

July 23 2012

Image of Is this Mona Lisa's Skeleton?!

Picture: Mail

From Discovery News:

Known for controversial claims, like that letters and numbers are hidden inside the Mona Lisa painting, Vinceti has based his search in the convent on documents found by historian Giuseppe Pallanti some years ago. "Lisa Gheradini did exist and lived a rather ordinary life," Pallanti, who is not involved in the project, told Discovery News.

The historian traced back Lisa's life from her birth on June 15, 1479, to her death at the age of 63. In his research, Pallanti found several important documents, such as Francesco del Giocondo's will. There, the merchant asked his younger daughter, Marietta, to take care of his "beloved wife," Lisa. At that time, Marietta, one of Lisa and Francesco's five children, had become a nun, thus she brought her mother to the nearby convent of Sant'Orsola.

Lisa remained there until her death, according to a document known as a "Book of the Dead," found by Pallanti in a church archive. "Lisa di Francesco Del Giocondo died on July 15, 1542 and was buried in Sant'Orsola," the document stated.

The record noted that the whole parish turned out for her funeral, showing that Lisa was rather famous among Florentine society. Vinceti said that the newly discovered bones will undergo radiocarbon dating, hystological analysis and DNA testing.

"If the bones turn to be those of a female skeleton there will be two possibilities: Either they belong to the noblewoman Maria del Riccio or they belong to Lisa Gherardini. According to historic records, only these two women, who were not nuns, were given special burials in the convent," Vinceti told the local daily La Nazione.

Eventually, comparisons will be made with the DNA of Bartolomeo and Piero, Lisa's children who are buried in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence.

More photos here.

A reader writes:

Many years ago, my Grandfather claimed to have been shown 'the skull of Shakespeare as a child'...

Stolen Matisse recovered in US

July 23 2012

Image of Stolen Matisse recovered in US

Picture: Mail

The FBI has recovered a stolen Matisse in Florida. The picture belongs to the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum, and had been missing for ten years after someone swapped it for a very dodgy-looking fake. From The Daily Mail:

'Odalisque in Red Pants’ had been on tour to other museums several years previously and at some point been switched with a forgery [above right, by the way].

The Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum had bought the original painting in 1981, but how and when the painting was replaced with a replica, and by whom are questions still unanswered. 

The director of Caracas Museum, Rita Salvestrini, suggested that the switch many years ago had been done by an insider. She said in 2003, when the forgery was first discovered, ‘There had to be inside complicity. You can't just make the switch freely inside the museum.’

I'm not so sure about that last point. Stranger things have happened...

'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado

July 23 2012

Image of 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado

Picture: Museo Prado

Here's a fascinating glimpse of all the effort that goes into a museum exhibition - the Prado have put online the hanging plans for their new 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition. On page four (which you can zoom into) you can see all the exhibits. The show opens in November - and I am counting down the days. 

Art history - Italian style

July 23 2012


A reader alerts me to the above video, in which the Caravaggio 'discovery' story takes a sinister turn. Check out the table banging at the end too.  The reader writes:

On July 12 2012 you described the debate over the "new" Caravaggio discoveries as "an academic bitch fight of epic proportions..."  Some of your readers may have imagined you guilty of hyperbole, but in Italy unfortunately, there is an alarming tendency toward behaviour among some scholars that can only be described as unprofessional. Things took a turn for the worse when the researchers behind the new discovery - Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli - presented their findings at a press conference in Leno, near Brescia earlier this week. 

As the  video highlights, a member of the audience was singled out by Ms. Conconi Fedigrolli  for his smile of disbelief, and then directly confronted by Mr. Bernardelli Curuz, with members of the audience having to intervene. 

In the several videos posted so far, the full presentation is not shown. Subsequently we only see the most contentious parts of the discussion, and we are left to wonder at the context of some of the statements and behaviour which resulted in the altercation. The crux of the matter seems to be that audience member Professor Marco Vallora expressed that the findings of the the pair were an expression of opinion rather than a standard of proof. 

This incident causes us to reflect on how art historical research in Italy is portrayed to the world at large. There are many serious, hard-working scholars and technicians whose work barely rates a mention in local or international press - yet when the likes of Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz, or Maurizio Seracini (searching for Leonardo's "Anghiari") are embroiled in squabbles around major artists such as Caravaggio and Leonardo (respectively), such news travels fast. At some point, when the clamour subsides, we may hope that substantive evidence becomes the focus of such announcements.

Moral of the story? Never trust an art historian with no cufflinks. Also, beware scholars presenting drawings as 'studies' which bear no relation to the finished painting. 

A Caillebotte at the National Gallery

July 18 2012

Image of A Caillebotte at the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

A reader has alerted me to an exciting new loan at the National Gallery in London - Gustave Caillebotte's Bridge at Argenteuil and the Seine. It was bought at auction last year for $18m, having sold previously in 2008 for just $8m. The picture fills a gap in the national collection, after the last Caillebotte on loan to the NG was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

How not to respond to a blogger

July 17 2012

Ping! In comes an email from the Heritage Lottery Fund, following my recent (I thought rather supportive) post:

I work at the Heritage Lottery Fund’s press office and would like to have a chat with you about the HLF’s very broad funding remit. Whilst our annual budget is currently at an increased level from previous years we are certainly not ‘awash’ with money (as you put it) as there is huge demand for our support and we are currently nearly three times over-subscribed for all our programmes.  I am not sure if you realise how broad the UK’s heritage is ranging from museums and galleries to landscapes, endangered species, public parks, industrial heritage etc.

Even if I had not, for some years, worked as a political adviser on arts and heritage policy, including detailed Heritage Lottery Fund policy, I think I would realise 'how broad the UK's heritage is'. Probably most schoolchildren would too. And I'll leave it to you to decide whether an annual budget of £300m qualifies as 'awash' with money.

Early Lely exhibition at the Courtauld

July 17 2012

Image of Early Lely exhibition at the Courtauld

Picture: Courtauld

I'm delighted to mention a forthcoming exhibition at the Courtauld on the early works of Sir Peter Lely, such as The Concert, above. From the press release

This exhibition is the first to examine the remarkable but forgotten group of large-scale narrative paintings produced in the 1640s and 1650s by Peter Lely (1618-80), England's leading painter after the death of Anthony van Dyck. Often depicting a sensuous pastoral world of shepherds, nymphs and musicians in idyllic landscapes, these ambitious pictures are all the more extraordinary for having been painted during the turmoil of the English Civil War and its aftermath. Organised around The Courtauld's enigmatic The Concert, the exhibition includes an important group of little-known paintings loaned from historic private collections. 

Sir Peter Lely was Charles II's Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. Since the 17th century, he has been celebrated for his flattering pictures of the great and the beautiful of Charles II's court. However, Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck, Lely had high ambitions and devoted  himself to paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible or contemporary literature. His pastoral subjects resonated with a lyrical dream of England, an Arcadia far removed from the political upheaval of the age.

Much to Lely’s disappointment, his narrative paintings did not find favour with many English patrons, and he produced no more than thirty. As the artist’s friend, the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace explained, all Lely’s English supporters wanted was ‘their own dull counterfeits’ or portraits of their mistresses.  Lely was obliged to turn to portraiture, and he employed a large and productive studio to keep up with the high demand for his work.  His paintings of figures in idyllic landscapes remained relatively unknown and yet they are among the most beautiful and seductive made in 17th century England.

I have to say I think the spin put on Lely's early career here is incorrect. I don't doubt that, early in his career, Lely might have preferred painting subject pictures. Most artists do - even Gainsborough tired of 'face painting'. But I don't think you can say that it was 'much to [Lely's] disappointment' that he was forced to turn to portraits. There is relatively little evidence on Lely's early career, and I don't think it allows us to make such an interpretation. How any artist can have come to England in the 1640s and not have known that portraiture was what the English wanted is difficult to accept - especially one who (as is almost certainly the case with Lely) had come hoping to succeed in Van Dyck's place.

It is therefore an art historical non-sequitur to say, as the press release says, '...Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van [sic] Dyck...' While in England, Van Dyck was known to all the world as a portraitist. Of the 264 works attributed to Van Dyck's English period (1632-41) in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne, only 3 are not portraits. So it can never have been the case that somehow word filtered back to Lely in Holland to the effect that in England, land of the Reformation and Civil War, lay a ready clientele clamouring for religious and allegorical pictures.

This is the second major institution to have got its 17th Century English art history wrong in as many weeks. What's going on?

Update - a reader writes:

Well, possibly the loss of specialist curators from major institutions may be a problem. The average curator in a small to medium institution has to cover a great deal of territory. For the non-specialist, such as me, 17th century art history is not an easy area to get into.

More bad economic news for the UK.

July 16 2012

Image of More bad economic news for the UK.

Picture: ArtFund

So let's have another of my periodic John Maynard Keynes posts, for the benefit of those readers in government. This portrait of Keynes, he of sound economic sense, is by Duncan Grant, and is at Charleston. Says the ArtFund website of the portrait:

...painted at Charleston during the First World War where Keynes is reputed to be drafting a crucial telegram negotiating an American loan to secure Britain's wartime survival.

Nearly time for another one John!

Update - a reader writes:

Re your Keynes posting: right on....until you exhort him as 'John': he hated to be called John, always was called Maynard!

Good news from the Heritage Lottery Fund?

July 16 2012

Image of Good news from the Heritage Lottery Fund?

Picture: WalesOnline

Regular readers will know that AHN has often ranted about the Heritage Lottery Fund's unwillingness to fund acquisitions. In an age of austerity, museums and galleries find it increasingly hard to raise funds to add to their collections - and the one body that was awash with cash, the HLF, had traditionally shunned large-scale support for buying objects.

However, there have been recent signs that things are changing, such as the HLF's generous support to the Ashmolean's Manet campaign. And now there seems to be more encouraging news, for the HLF's new strategic framework seems to recognise that their acquisitions policy needed to change. The report states clearly that many other people had called for a change in the HLF's approach to 'portable heritage':

On acquisitions of portable heritage, over 50% favoured a change of policy in HLF’s approach to urgent acquisitions, and there was support from museums, libraries and archives for the principle of HLF funding strategic collecting. [p.38]

Let's hope that the HLF heeds those calls. The HLF has already dropped its requirement [p.28] that acquisitions could only be funded if the museum in question ran a series of educational programmes alongside the object. (In practice this was not only onerous expensive, but of limited value - Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks is not really an appropriate way to engage single mothers in Manchester). And it seems that a new approach to funding urgent acquisitions is paying off, which the acquisition at auction of a historic Welsh manuscript The Book of Hywel Dda, to which the HLF contributed £467,000 of the £541,250 total. It goes some way to making up for the shambles of the Macclesfield Psalter

Happy Birthday Sir Joshua

July 16 2012

Image of Happy Birthday Sir Joshua

Picture: Christie's

I generally try to avoid 'on this day' items, but today is Sir Joshua Reynolds' birthday. He would be 288 years old (I think). It gives me an excuse to illustrate a previously unrecorded self-portrait by Reynolds, which was sold at Christie's in the recent auctions for £325,250, a sum way over the strangely low estimate of £60-£100,000. To be honest, I thought it would make much more. Dated to the 1760s, this unfinished self-portrait is, to me, one of the best he ever painted, and in its daring appearance seems a rare combination of modernity and 18th Century genius.

However, I may be biased because 1) I love unfinished pictures and 2) we bought it. But I hope you agree with me. There is quite a lot of over-paint in the background, perhaps an attempt in the past to make the picture look less sketchy. We are doing tests now to see what lies beneath.

No! Not... the Haunted Painting!

July 16 2012


Amazing what you can do with photoshop these days.

Henry VIII in the mix

July 16 2012


Random post alert. Following on the discussion below about kings and art, the same reader writes to remind me of Henry VIII's undoubted musical ear, and to warn that:

You might get strict musos complaining that Henry VIII didn't write Greensleeves. The only evidence is the folk attribution and the belief it refers to Anne Boleyn. I tend to prefer traditional attributions where they make sense. But in any case here's Pastime With Good Company, 1519, which Henry definitely wrote, played with proper vigour by the Swiss Army.

Me too on the traditional attributions - tho' I've always wondered whether Henry VIII actually composed the music attributed to him, or hummed something, perhaps on his close stool, which was then embellished by a court musician. The video above is unintentionally hilarious - I yield to no man in my love of all things Swiss, for I am half-Swiss - but 16th Century music and army bands don't mix, especially not Swiss ones. It sounds like a bubbling Tudor fondue. Here's a better choral version.

Update: my mother writes to say that tho' I have a Swiss passport, I am in fact only a quarter Swiss.

Another Van Dyck copy by Jervas

July 16 2012

Image of Another Van Dyck copy by Jervas

Picture: National Trust

A while ago I published what I believe is a copy by Charles Jervas of Van Dyck's famous portrait of the Stuart brothers. Yesterday I was at Petworth, and had a brief eureka moment as I spotted what I thought was another Jervas copy of a Van Dyck, the above portrait of Henrietta Maria with her dwarf, Jeffery Hudson.

The picture leaflet at the house said simply that the picture was 'After Van Dyck', but the colouring and brushwork were undoubtedly those of Jervas. Also, Jervas always seems to make his sitters more cheery than the original - I think he was quite a cheery man himself - and in the copy at Petworth Henrietta Maria seems markedly happier than in Van Dyck's original. (I'm aware this last observation is not exactly connoisseurial). But my attributional excitement was short-lived, for I see that the late Oliver Millar [in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne] also thought the picture was by Jervas, and that it is catalogued in full as Jervas on the National Trust's own website. Still, great minds...

Also worth checking out is this other Jervas copy of Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I in the Hunting Field

Thomas Cromwell loses his head (again) at Petworth

July 16 2012

Image of Thomas Cromwell loses his head (again) at Petworth

Pictures: BG, and below, National Trust

Yesterday I went to Petworth House. What a collection - 10 Van Dycks and a Titian. Not to mention countless Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, and of course Turners. Wonderfully, the paintings are very accesible; there are no barrier ropes in the rooms, you can take photos, and the room wardens are as helpful as can be. Top marks to the National Trust. (Tho' that said, the picture lights are woeful, such that in the portraits all the faces are obscured by glare).

I was surprised to spot, 'skied' and seemingly unloved, a rare contemporary portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, called in the guide simply 'Unknown Man - German School'. The sitter is clearly, undeniably, indisputably Thomas Cromwell. Indeed, I see it has long been called that, and even features in Roy Strong's Tudor & Stuart Portraits catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery [p.114]. I'm not sure why it has been downgraded to 'unknown man'. The picture is of good quality, and by a recognisable hand who was working at the Tudor court - I think the same anonymous artist painted, amongst others, the portraits of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour at the Society of Antiquaries of London. The likeness appears to derive from Holbein's c.1533/4 portrait of Cromwell at the Frick.

The National Trust now has a new Curator of Paintings [AHN's dream job], David Taylor. He was formerly Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and so knows his portrait onions. I think AHN will lobby him to change the identification...

Update - a reader in Whitehall very helpfully writes:

...your article... has made me go back to the file on the acceptance in lieu of these paintings and chattels from Petworth, way back in 1954.  Much of the contents was offered to the Nation to pay Death Duties and having been accepted were given to the National Trust, with the exception of the Turners which remain in the ownership of Tate but on permanent loan to the Trust. In fact it was the very first time that such material was accepted in lieu without the house in which they located also being accepted in lieu. Up to then house and contents came as a unit.   

The portrait you rightly identify as Thomas Cromwell was catalogued in the offer documents as follows:


Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex; head and shoulders, with black cap, tunic and surcoat, green background, 19¼ by 14 in. 

It seems odd therefore that the identity of the sitter has been lost in the last 57 years.

Tate Tanks

July 16 2012

Image of Tate Tanks

Picture: Metro

Much excitement in the press about the new 'Tank' galleries (or rather, as we must call such things these days, 'spaces') at Tate Modern. Worth a read also is Bryan Appleyard's interview in The Sunday Times with Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate's director. It contains two interesting nuggets - first, in a discussion on the supremacy of modern art over Old Masters we learn that Serota would have a Titian above all else;

Warhol has become an old master: you can pick up a good Titian for about a fifth of the price of a decent Warhol. “I know which you’d have,” he [Serota] says. “The Titian. So would I. I’d take The Flaying of Marsyas ahead of almost anything; whether I could live with it would be another question.”

And second, Brian Sewell delivers a dose of sound sense on the hang at Tate Britain (for which Serota is ultimately responsible for):

“I don’t object to him having all that power,” says the art critic Brian Sewell. “Well, of course, I do, but I’m not going to make a big thing out of that. The real source of my anger is that he has, in my view, destroyed Tate Britain, which has ceased to be a museum of ancestral British art. It is impossible now to take students there and demonstrate the history of British art.”

A new Van Dyck grisaille

July 13 2012

Image of A new Van Dyck grisaille

Picture: Sotheby's

I've been meaning to mention a newly discovered Van Dyck grisaille that surfaced at Sotheby's in the recent Old Master day sale. It is a sketch for his 1639 double portrait of Mountjoy, Earl of Newport, and George, Lord Goring, which is now at Petworth. There are a few differences in the composition of the final picture, so this is handy evidence of Van Dyck's working practice. The page, of course, is a frequently used Van Dyck motif, and originates with Rubens. It was later re-used by Robert Walker in his portraits of Cromwell.

The grisaille was estimated at £30-£50,000, but didn't sell.

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