Previous Posts: November 2012

National Trust picks up a bargain

November 16 2012

Image of National Trust picks up a bargain

Picture: Christie's

Good to see that the National Trust is not averse to a spot bargain hunting. Curators at Dunham Massey will soon be receiving the above portrait of George Booth, 1st Lord Delamer, bought at Christie's in New York for just $2,125. In their Arts Bulletin, the Trust reveals that it found some extra provenance linking the picture to the house. But despite their purchase, the Trust seem cautious about firmly identifying the sitter, although it's a dead ringer for their other portrait of Delamer, attributed to Lely.

Does this cabbage turn you on?

November 16 2012

Image of Does this cabbage turn you on?

Picture: Schwerin, Staatliches Museum/Erich Lessing, Art Resource New York

To the authors of a new study in Volume 35 of Art History,* the above cabbage is 'startlingly erotic'. In The Erotics of Looking: Materiality, Solicitation and Netherlandish Visual Culture, Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson have written an engaging piece exploring supposed sexual themes in pictures like Woman Peeling a Carrot by Gerrit Dou (below, Schwerin, Staatliches Museum), which they call 'sexually charged'.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by their argument, which I enjoyed reading. But read the article yourself and let me know what you think. The authors rightly establish at the outset of their piece that there is a problem with interpreting pictures like Dou's in an overly sexual way:

Early modern Netherlandish artists did not write all that much about their practice and what little they did write has long frustrated art historians with its seeming refusal to divulge information about what the pictures actually mean. While art treatises devote much attention to the mechanics of art making, they contain no instructions about how to interpret the enigmatic visual motifs that recur especially in the ostensibly descriptive genres such as still life, landscape and genre scenes. Instead, the treatises repeatedly describe both the making and viewing of art in explicitly erotic language.

I'm not so sure. One of the treatises they refer to is Karel van Mander's 1603/4 Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, which is hardly Forum. Florid certainly, but probably not that erotic. Unfortunately, none of van Mander's text is cited by Vanhaelen and Wilson for the general reader to make their own judgement.

Anyway, the article reminds me of a Dutch-inspired late 17th Century picture we have in stock here at the gallery. It shows Charles II's famous mistress Nell Gwyn (below, the head is based on Samuel Cooper's lost miniature) washing sausages, with a breast exposed, and satirically dressed in virginal white. In this case, we don't really need to find any texts by the likes of van Mander to know that its meaning is sexual. The sausage washing theme goes back to Brueghel the Elder, and is a fairly common one when suggesting an erotic subject matter.

That said, I have always felt that pictures like Nell Gwyn's are not only taking their satirical aim at the sitters, but also at the Dutch genre pictures they're ripping off. Dou's woman may be peeling a large, firm carrot of the sort treasured by Uncle Monty in Withnail & I, but regular readers will know that I'm not one for seeing willies everywhere in paintings. And if we're not supposed to see 'startlingly erotic' cabbages in works just decades earlier by those fathers of still-life, Joachim Beuckelaer and Pieter Aertsen, then I'm not sure we are in Gerrit Dou's work either. At least, not until someone finds some convincing contemporary evidence that we are.

*kindly flagged up to me by Dr Matt Loder from the Association of Art Historians.

Fresco Jesus - the restorer's story

November 15 2012


As told to Saturday Night Live.

New director at the Barber Institute

November 15 2012

Image of New director at the Barber Institute

Picture: Barber Institute

Congratulations (a little belated I'm afraid) to Nicola Kalinsky, who has become the new director of the Barber Institute in Birmingham. More details here.

How do you sell a £10m Raphael (ctd.)

November 15 2012

Video: Sotheby's

It's interesting to see that Sotheby's have toned down the hyperbole in their video for Raphael's drawing Head of an Apostle, which is being offered for sale in London next month at £10m-£15m. In the 'trailer' for the above film, we previously had Sotheby's head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, saying:

This drawing is the complete pivotal centrepoint of art history. It opens up everything toward the future.

Now that has become a more honest:

Everything that ultimately becomes relevant for the future of art history is right in this drawing.

But in a sign that Sotheby's are still hoping to lure contemporary bidders towards the drawing, we get Meyer summarising it thus: has the intensity of a great Warhol, or a great Bacon. The fact that it is over 500 years old is completely irrelevant.

You and I might disagree about that. But what is incontrovertibly (and to me mind-bogglingly) true is that compared to a 'great Warhol', this undeniably great Raphael is cheap.

Also worth a watch is Sotheby's video on two important Burgundian manuscripts being sold by the Duke of Devonshire in December. It's notably free of guff, and much the better for it. Somebody should give Sotheby's manuscript specialist Dr Timothy Bolton his own TV show - he's brilliant.

Update - a reader writes, naughtily:

I think the real star of that Sotheby's video is Tobias Meyer's hairdo.

Boom (ctd.)

November 15 2012

Video: Christie's

Alas, Sotheby's excitement at their highest auction total ever ($375m) was short-lived. Last night Christie's New York contemporary art sale fetched a record total of $412.2m. The top lot was, inevitably, a Warhol, the Statue of Liberty silkscreen featured in the video above. Another Warhol, of Marlon Brando, made $23.7m. The fact that it last sold in 2003 for $5m gives you an idea of how crazy the art world is.

Carol Vogel in the New York Times says Christie's knew they were in for a big night, because: addition to a great deal of interest in the sale from collectors around the world, Brett Gorvy, chairman of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department worldwide, said there had been a record number of requests for sky boxes — those invitation-only spaces secreted a floor above the salesroom, where the superrich can watch and bid without being seen.



November 14 2012

Image of Boom

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's have brought out the bunting to celebrate their highest ever auction total at last night's contemporary art sale in New York. Aided by a $75m Mark Rothko (above), the sale took in $375m (inc. premiums). Full details here

Tut tut

November 14 2012

Image of Tut tut

Picture: Bonhams

In just over two weeks time, Bonhams Old Master sale will go on view at Bond Street. But their catalogue is still not online.

Update - now it is! This means I can stop pressing refresh every hour... It's good to see that Bonhams has resolved its zoom image issues - now they're excellent. Sotheby's have got much better too. 

More on the Prado's new Titian

November 13 2012


A reader has kindly alerted me to the above video, in which we can briefly see the Prado's St John the Baptist by Titian before it was restored. It looks very damaged, but much better.

I've asked the Prado for an image of the picture in its stripped down state, but answer comes there none...

National Gallery annual review

November 13 2012

Image of National Gallery annual review

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery's annual review for 2011-12 has been published, and is worth a read. It details all the latest acquisitions and loans, and surveys what must be one of the Gallery's most successful years ever, with the acquistion of Titian's Diana and Callisto, and the Leonardo exhibition (which was the Gallery's busiest yet). Regarding the latter, I see that in his introduction, Director Nicholas Penny makes a special mention of the 'loyalty of a group of Gallery Assistants' who broke the strikes at the Gallery last year, and allowed the Leonardo exhibition to remain open.

NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams

November 13 2012

Image of NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams

Picture: Irish Times

The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams (detail, above).

When should the NPG display portraits of contemporary figures? At what point in history does it decide who deserves to have their portrait included in the national collection? Should the NPG acquire and display portraits of here today gone tomorrow types, as it sometimes does now? Or should it remember that as Shakespeare wrote, 'all that glistens is not gold', and present a more discerning array of the nation's leading figures, one advised by the passage of time and not contemporary notions of celebrity, success or sanctity. If you think the former course is the right one, then there will inevitably be times when the NPG comes to regret spending public money on portraits of people it will one day have no desire to display. Because for some contemporary figures we cannot know now, with confidence, how history will judge them.

Update - a reader tweets:

I shouldn't think Gerry Adams will be wild about being included in the British NPG either!

Update II - another reader writes:

The NPG question is interesting. How much of its mandate is DNB and how much 'Who's Who'? The 'Who's Who' part is always very busy. Gerry Adams's teflon 'statesman' persona means he fits both criteria.

What has the BBC ever done for us?

November 13 2012

Video: BBC

Apart from make brilliant arts programmes like 'Fake or Fortune?' of course...

It's good to see how many familiar faces from the above film are still working for the BBC. It shows why one of the best things about the BBC is its continuity. Radical change isn't always a good thing. Those demanding a revolution at the BBC should remember this.


November 12 2012

Image of November...

Picture: Philip Mould & Company always one of our busiest months of the year. I'm not entirely sure why - it may be because people are thinking acquisitionally, ahead of the December Old Master auctions. Today, for example, my colleague Emma Rutherford sold three miniatures, all to new clients, and I sold the above Romney of Mrs Raikes and her Child.

The Romney had been most curiously over-painted by a duff restorer. The detail below shows Mrs Raikes' arm, which had been entirely re-touched in a gloopy brown glaze. This glaze obscured all the form and detail in the dress, and all trace of shadowing above and below the arm. (The right-hand side of the picture below shows our cleaning test). It was as if the previous restorer only had one dark colour on their palette, and decided to restore the whole dress in that one colour. And because it didn't match all the areas he or she needed to restore, they simply re-painted the whole dress in same shade of dark brown. Now that we've taken all this gunk off, the picture has blossomed into one of Romney's more engaging maternal portraits. It's a testament to my boss's x-ray vision - he thought he detected something more promising beneath the over-paint, even from the auction house's photographs.

The picture once belonged to the great collector Henry Clay Frick - did he perhaps employ the restorer from hell? Possibly. But actually we find this sort of thing quite often - restoration standards, even until relatively recently, were far below what we expect today. If you had an area of damaged background, for example, it was easier just to re-paint the whole background one colour, rather than attempt to fill any individual holes. Romney was hotly collected in the US in the early 20th Century, and it's often the case that Romney portraits which have at some time been in America have suffered from unneccessarily extensive restoration. Here's a previous example. Perhaps it was something to do with the American market wanting their pictures to look new and shiny bright. 

Death and taxes (and art) (ctd.)

November 12 2012

Image of Death and taxes (and art) (ctd.)

Picture: Wikipedia

Further to my post below about death taxes breaking up great collections, and my post last week about the National Gallery's new online archive catalogue, a reader has been in touch with a series of documents relating to the sad dispersal of the house and contents of Mentmore Towers in 1977, when they were put up for sale by the Earl of Rosebery. The Earl had offered the house and contents to the nation for £2m in lieu of death duties, but the offer was declined by the then Labour government, so there was no option but to go to auction.

First, there was a classic sleeper in the Sotheby's sale, which was spotted by the famous dealer David Carrit:


Acquisition file

Correspondence relating to the blocking of the exportation, which culminates in the Gallery being offered the picture at a special price of £495,000 (valuation on export application was given at £578,948) this sale is coordinated through David Carrit Ltd art dealers. 

This [writes my reader] refers to Fragonard's 'Psyche showing her Sisters her gifts from Cupid' - which Carritt had picked up at the Mentmore house sale the previous year. Sotheby's had catalogued it as, I seem to remember, Carle van Loo and he got it for around £12,000.

Next, the National Gallery's acquisition of Lord Rosebery's Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Drouais came about after the Treasury's refusal to accept it (along with all the Mentmore pictures) in lieu of death taxes:


Acquisition file

Details of pictures from the Estate of the 6th Earl of Roseberry which are suggested as potential bequests in lieu of Estate Duty. The Treasury asks Michael Levey (in his capacity as expert advisor) for his opinion on the valuation of these works and his view on whether the pictures are indeed of pre-eminent importance. Levey replies with his views on each of the pictures, stating that the National Gallery would be very interested in acquiring the Drouais. Letter from Cecil Gould to A.D. Heskett, secretary of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, explaining that the National Gallery Trustees are in agreement on the importance of acquiring the Drouais, which is the only picture from the Earl's estate that is of interest to the Gallery. Heskett replies stating that he will note the Gallery's interest in the picture.

 Letter to the Earl of Roseberry from John Hale, Chairman of the Trustees, expressing disappointment at the withdrawal of the offer of the portrait of Madame de Pompadour and strongly urging Roseberry to reconsider his decision, 5 May 1977; letter from Allen and Overy (solicitors) confirming the agreement to sell the portrait to the National Gallery by private treaty, 19 May 1977; reply from Michael Levey enclosing a cheque for £385,000 dated 20 May 1977; press release announcing agreement of sale 19 May 1977. Correspondence relating to the Treasury decision not to accept Roseberry's portrait of de Pompadour when offered a second time in lieu of tax. Summary of developments surrounding the de Pompadour portrait provided in an appendix.

All this means [my reader adds] that the National Gallery alone spent nearly £900,000 acquiring two pictures from the house.  Add to this £500,000 "spent" through acceptance in lieu by the Government on the Augustus Rex and Marie de Medici cabinets and a painting by Gainsborough "Greyhounds Coursing a Fox", and The National Gallery of Scotland's purchase of Moroni's "Portrait of a Scholar Seated at a Table" at £30,000, plus five additional items purchased at sale by the V&A and you get to a total of around £1.5M.

The estate, house and contents were offered to the nation by the Roseberys at £2M - the house sale alone raised £6M and that did not include everything in the offer.

Mentmore is now empty, and on English Heritage's 'At Risk' register. The park has been turned into a golf club. Still, the Treasury got its death duties...

Update: My mother says that her nice silver plate warmer came from the Mentmore sale. It's never worked. I think she should ask Sotheby's for a refund.

Update II - a reader who lives nearby Mentmore and remembers the sale, writes, wonderfully:

Sotheby’s went through the house with a toothcomb picking out and cataloguing all the times for the sale – and they dumped out the back a huge and ever growing pile of everything they considered unsaleable and ‘rubbish’ which provided rich pickings for the residents of the village who were down there with their wheelbarrows – including my husband!

We still have such delightful items as ivory handled letter openers with the R monogram, beautiful piano music books especially written for the late Hannah de Rothschild, engravings, estate account books written by hand in the most beautiful copper plate writing (with no mistakes at all) from 1898 and 1896 which show that the amount spent on the yacht and cruise in one year was £22,000 and the amount in the same year spent in feeding the staff in the servant’s hall was £2,000.  We, along with many other residents, still have lots of bits and pieces in our homes that perhaps had little value then but have become more desirable in later years.

One man’s rubbish is certainly another man’s treasure.

Help the PCF - buy a painting

November 12 2012

Image of Help the PCF - buy a painting

Picture: PCF/Barbara Rae

A number of contemporary artists have donated works to the venerable Public Catalogue Foundation, to help fund the last remaining part of their mission to put all publicly owned paintings online. You can buy the pictures, including Carrowtegie Sea 2007 (above) by Barbara Rae RA, at an auction online, or in person on 19th November. From the auction website:

This Auction of new and recent paintings by leading British Artists will support the completion of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s project to put the UK’s entire collection of oil paintings on the Your Paintings website.

This website allows you to view an online catalogue of the works to be Auctioned and to leave an online absentee bid up until midday on Monday 19th November.

It also gives details of the live Auction which will be held from 6.30pm on Monday 19th November at Dartmouth House in Mayfair. To attend the live Auction please email

The Guest Speaker will be Sue Tilley.

The Auction will be conducted by Hugh Edmeades of Christie's.

Bid, bid, bid!

Death and taxes (and art)

November 12 2012

Image of Death and taxes (and art)

Picture: Tate/AIL

The UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme (where estates can effectively sell an item of national heritage to the government in place of death duties) has published its annual report. This year the scheme has reached its £20m allowable maximum, meaning that a number of items have had to be deferred to next year. From the report's introduction, written by the committee's chairman Tim Knox:

There was a dramatic increase in the value of items accepted in 2011/12: £31.3 million with £20 million of tax settled, as opposed to £8.3 million with £4.9 million tax settled the previous year. Both years considered similar numbers of cases, but a number of very valuable items in 2011/12 – the Rubens grisaille sketch, three other major Old Master pictures, and the Mountbatten archive – pushed us to the £20 million threshold for the AIL scheme. A further £10 million worth of pre-eminent items considered in 2011/12 had to be deferred until the next year’s AIL budget, as we were not permitted by HM Treasury to exceed the £20 million threshold, as had been permitted in former, albeit more prosperous, years. This increase was not due to any relaxation  in our strict criteria for judging and valuing offers, but rather reflects the  arbitrary and unpredictable nature of death and inheritance, and the  dramatic increase in value of certain types of works of art.

The nation has gained some very fine paintings through the scheme this year. They include Guercino's Samian Sibyl, from the Mahon collection (now allocated to the National Gallery), a full-length of Miss Maria Gideon and her brother, William, by Joshua Reynolds (now at Tate), and a Rubens sketch for the Triumph of Venus (now at the Fitzwilliam).

Personally, I object to paying tax in order to die. So while the AIL scheme is run very fairly and properly (even sometimes allowing objects to remain in situ, as at Houghton Hall for example), I often think it's sad when great paintings lose association with the families who have long held them, and in many cases commissioned them. I cannot be sure of the exact figures, but I would bet that over the last century more of our great art has been lost overseas to pay death duties than for any other single reason.

The recent case of the Duke of Rutland's Poussin's shows how the system works, or rather doesn't. The five Sacraments had long been on loan to the National Gallery in London. When the present Duke inherited his title and Belvoir Castle in 1999, he was faced with immediate death duties of £10m, a backlog of repairs to the castle of £6.5m, and annual running costs of £500,000. To help pay the death duties and repairs, the Duke decided to sell Poussin's Ordination, which went to the Kimbell museum in Texas for £15m.

Then, the remaining four Sacrements went on loan to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. However, the sale of Ordination in turn triggered another round of death duties, so Poussin's Extreme Unction had to be sold. It was valued at £14m, but the Fitzwilliam was able to buy it for £3.9m after the Treasury agreed to waive the remaining balance due in tax.

Now, if you're an 'art belongs to everyone' type and want all privately owned pictures to be in public museums, then death duties are the most effective way of achieving that. But the old reactionary Tory in me is uncomfortable at the state taking private possessions away from people, just because their great-great-great-grandfather happend to buy something nice. In this case, the effect was to break up a loan of all five Sacraments at the National Gallery, the loss of one picture to the US, and the acquisition, in large part funded by the state, of one picture at the Fitzwilliam. We have gone from all five paintings being on public display, side by side, to just one. That feels like a net loss to me. Poussin's second Sacrements series, which is complete and belongs to the Duke of Sutherland, is on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. If that set was broken up in a similar manner, we would all regret it. 

A more effective way of getting privately owned art on public display, and prevent grubby dealers like me from selling pictures overseas, would be to have a tax concession for loaning pictures for public display. For example, if the Duke of Rutland had been told, you will have to pay death duties at 40% but can gradually reduce the bill over a number of years by lending your pictures to a public Gallery, he would doubtless have done so. And so would many others.

Bankers and art

November 12 2012

Image of Bankers and art

Picture: BG

In The Believer, the latest biographer of Bernard Berenson, Rachel Cohen, has an interesting piece about the relationship between artists, the market, and collectors. She makes this perceptive point about the Metropolitan Museum in New York:

In studying the value associated with art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is, among other things, a vast compendium of the tastes of financiers. From the days when J. P. Morgan was the powerful president of its board to the period in which Robert Lehman donated nearly three thousand works to be housed in a separate wing bearing his name, the museum has been built, stocked, and guided by bankers.

Gallery visitors in, say the Wallace Collection in London or the Louvre in Paris, will notice other collecting influences on the pictures they see, such as aristocracy and royalty. But it's a testament to the Met's ambition, and that of its supporters over the years, that its collections are every bit as good as either of those great European institutions. New York was lucky that when the Met first formed its collection, the world's richest collectors liked primarily to buy Old Masters.

Could you do the same today? Not for Old Masters. In terms of scale, there isn't the supply, and nor the demand. For today's financiers, the keenly hunted multi-million dollar trophies are to be found not in the crumbling castles of Europe or the London dealing rooms of Lord Duveen, but freshly minted from the studios of the artists themselves. Will future generations of New Yorkers be as grateful to Steven Cohen for his love of Hirst, as they are today to Henry Frick for his love of Holbein?

Ouch - pictures damaged in UK museums

November 12 2012

Image of Ouch - pictures damaged in UK museums

Picture: Tate/Telegraph

A Freedom of Information request has revealed the number of pictures recently damaged in British museums. From The Telegraph:


In one of the more comical incidents, at the National Portrait Gallery, the ornament on a frame around a painting of John Dryden, the 17th century poet, by James Francis Mauber valued at £25,000 was detached after a visitor who was part of a large tour group was accidentally knocked off balance by a security officer and fell onto it.

At the British Museum, a 17th century Edward East night clock was broken when a visitor lost their footing and knocked it over, while a valuable Japanese clock was damaged after a cleaner accidentally stumbled into it during a power failure.

But Tate Modern is also a repeat offender.

Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Whaam!, one of the earliest works of pop art which depicts an exploding plane, was defaced when one visitor decided to dispose of what was thought to be chewing gum on the picture itself rather than in a nearby bin.

Most of the examples cited look to be the inevitable accidents. It would be a shame if stories like this led in any way to new rules that make it harder to move or look at paintings.


Treat of the week

November 9 2012

Image of Treat of the week

Picture: Christie's

The December Old Master sale catalogues have gone up; Christie's here, and Sotheby's here. It seems to me that, Sotheby's Raphael drawing notwithstanding, Christie's have the better sale.

There are plenty of nice things on offer. A particular treat is the above copy of a Van Dyck by Gainsborough (lot 44) - for an 18th Century picture, what better confluence of artists could there be?

How to prepare for an Old Master sale

November 9 2012

Image of How to prepare for an Old Master sale

Picture: Sotheby's

The process of finding, researching, cataloguing, valuing, and selling the hundreds of Old Masters needed to make up an auction is a daunting and stressful challenge. I couldn't begin to do it. On the Sotheby's website, Old Master specialist Andrew Fletcher (above) has an interesting piece on how he and his colleagues go about preparing for a sale:

At this time of year, with hundreds of pictures arriving from around the world in time for inclusion in our December auction, all the senior specialists and cataloguers in the Old Master department regularly gather deep in the basement beneath New Bond Street to inspect each and every one of them, analysing both attribution and value.

This is the moment when your heart-rate increases exponentially. The picture you agreed for sale the prior month while on a lonesome trip to some far flung corner of Europe makes its way to the easel, to be minutely scrutinized by a dozen colleagues, and can be greeted with either delight or derision. Happily, instances of the latter are rather rarer than those of the former.

More here.

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