Previous Posts: September 2012

Caveat Emptor, again

September 28 2012

Image of Caveat Emptor, again

Picture: Mayfair Art Purveyors

They're back again - those curious 'investment level' art auctioneers I warned you about before

New updates at 'The art world in Britain, 1660 - 1735'

September 28 2012

Image of New updates at 'The art world in Britain, 1660 - 1735'


More handy additions at the University of York's art history archive project. Editor Richard Stephens tells us that the new material online includes:

Listings of over 250 late 17th century auctions and lotteries have been added, making the index of art sales complete for the period 1660 to 1699. 13 newly transcribed sale catalogues include the collections of surgeon Luke Rugeley (1697), painter Herman Verelst (1702), art collector 3rd Earl of Leicester (1703) and dealer and print maker Alexander Browne (1706). Among other additions, a group of letters from Christiaan Huygens provides a window into the studio practices of Sir Peter Lely in the early 1660s.

New Goya site

September 28 2012

Image of New Goya site

Picture: Prado

Hot on the heels of the new Rembrandt database, Tribune de l'Art alerts us to a new Goya site, from the Prado. You can have a good rummage around the world of 18th Century Spain here

That $7 Renoir

September 28 2012

Picture: Potomack Auction

Turns out it might have been half-inched.* More here.

*[that's 'pinched' in rhyming slang]

The white glove fallacy

September 28 2012

Image of The white glove fallacy

Picture: Keystone

I got a ranting letter yesterday from a viewer of 'Fake or Fortune?', berating me for not wearing white gloves when handling Turner's sketchbooks at the Tate Gallery. It's interesting how white gloves have taken hold in the public and media's imagination as an essential item of clothing when handling anything old. We can see them above in the photo of the unveiling of the Isleworth[less] Mona Lisa. The picture is in a glass encased white box and not even being handled. But still white gloves are demanded for the photo, just for pulling back a curtain.

White gloves are in fact more or less useless, and if anything more likely to cause damage, especially with old documents and works on paper. If, for example, you went to see Turner's sketchbooks at the Tate the staff there would not offer you white gloves, but ask that you wash your hands first, and then handle the material with great care. White gloves make tears and damage more likely, because you cannot handle the paper properly. Gloves make you clumsy. The real danger from handling works on paper comes from the grease on your fingers - that's why there is a sink by the door in the Tate prints and drawing room. Anxious viewers can rest assured that when I was being filmed showing Fiona Bruce the Turner material, I was doing so in front of two Tate curators, who had advised me of the best way to handle the works. 

At the National Archives staff and readers do not wear white gloves when handling material, except when on TV. They are so weary of people writing in complaining if white gloves are not used, that they make an exception when the cameras are rolling.

Update - a reader writes:

Totally agree with you about white gloves. The other point is that, when you're offered them in a print room, they are invariably several sizes too small for your hands, making delicate handling that bit more tricky, and also very often darkened with dirt.

Update II - a curator writes:

Definitely agree about cotton gloves for handling paper, but might be worth pointing out that they do prevent damage and should be worn for some items.  At both the Geffrye and Parliament we wore powder-free latex disposable ones (cotton gloves once you’ve worn them for a little while become sweat/grease permeable anyway, which is what your trying to prevent, and soon become dirty and can actually transfer dirt onto paper items) and probably would have worn them for handling paper collections – they’re smooth and tighter fitting than cotton so you don’t get loss off sensation.  It partly depends how long you’re going to be handling things for, condition and temperature of room. 

Good curatorial practice would recommend wearing gloves for some historic objects:

  • polished metal
  • gilded frames
  • coins
  • ceramics with gilding/overglaze decoration/lustre glazes or those with porous surfaces
  • marble 
  • early plastics bandalasta/Bakelite (grease can damage all of the above and even with clean hands, it would only take minutes for the natural grease in your skin to return to your fingertips)
  • delicate textiles (your fingernails/rough skin can snag on loose threads)
  • anything which might harm you (rather than the other way around) – lead objects/vintage electrical items/early plastics (contained formaldehyde)

There’s probably more, but it’s a basic principal of assessing what best protects the object – if you handle glass objects in cotton gloves they’re going to be more at risk than without and glass doesn’t have a porous surface and can be relatively easily cleaned of fingermarks.

Sleeper of the week

September 27 2012

Image of Sleeper of the week


This fine Lely surfaced in a country sale today - but unfortunately we were outbid. One of the other underbidders was (as announced on Twitter) none other than Waldemar! An impressive bit of connoisseurship - well done.

Here, we think the sitter might have been William Brouncker, the famous mathematician. 

'A' for effort

September 27 2012

Image of 'A' for effort

Picture: Mona Lisa Foundation

Sorry folks, move along, nothing to see here. It surely is, as Martin Kemp says, a copy. The Mona Lisa Foundation has done a great PR job, with judicious leaking, a nice website, a video, and all sorts of technical sounding tests. But the evidence behind the claim starts off with some interesting facts, in terms of documentary material, and then becomes more and more obscure until, by the end, we're left with nonsense about age regression.

None of this would satisfy, say, the National Gallery in London, and nor should it satisfy you. Was the simplistic face, above, painted by the greatest artist that ever lived? No. It's just an early copy. If they cleaned the picture, its deficiencies would become painfully obvious. As it is, they are hidden by a pleasingly antique-looking layer of dirt and old varnish, the sort of obfuscatory layer that allows for optimistic conjectures.

You can zoom in here on various details of the picture (or, top tip, click 'save image' on the detail and download a high-res version of the whole thing). Then compare it here with the real thing, of which below is a detail [Picture: Louvre]. 

Update - a reader writes:

For once, you got it all wrong!  Surely, it's the Mona Lisa… after a visit to Harley Street!  Every little cosmetic surgery helps…

And another:

Alas, its not just a copy: its a pretty bad copy at that.

The story has done well in the press so far. But for how much longer will the media keep reporting arts discovery stories, if the 'discoveries' are so often nonsense? Will it end up like the boy who cried wolf? Will there be a time when genuine arts discoveries are greeted with a shrug of the shoulders, and ignored?

Update II - another reader asks about the mystery early provenance:

Seeing as the Mona Lisa Foundation is now supposedly revealing all about its Mona Lisa to the world, it is surprising it does not tell us who Hugh Blaker bought the picture from in 1913 - the person who inherited it (or whatever) from the aristocratic 18th century Grand Tourist of the Somerset manor house? Why should that have to be a secret? Issues of confidentiality and delicacy perhaps? Or perhaps Hugh Blaker forgot to make a note of the name of the Somerset nobleman? Or have I missed something?

'Isleworth Mona Lisa' - the evidence

September 27 2012

Video: Mona Lisa Foundation

The 'Mona Lisa Foundation' site has just gone live. Watching it now...

Update - a reader sends in this warning:

...why did you, en effet, let me waste 25 mins out of my life watching a ridiculous ‘programme’ on a “Da Vinci”? I knew from the start that I should not have been ‘sucked in’ to this sad saga and yet...

'Early Mona Lisa' unveiled

September 27 2012

Image of 'Early Mona Lisa' unveiled

Picture: Sky News

The picture has been unveiled to the press, but so far there are few specific details revealed. The 'Mona Lisa Foundation' website is still not available, but it says it will be at 3pm. Ooh, they are a tease. The evidence so far seems a little underwhelming, at least according to the quotes on the Press Association.

Apparently the key summation is this:

"So far, not one scientific test has been able to disprove that the painting is by Leonardo," said art historian Stanley Feldman, a foundation member and principal author of a foundation book Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version.

Which is a long way from saying tests have proved that it is by Leonardo. Usually, scientific analysis can tell you what a painting is not, not what it is. As far as I know, even proponents of exclusively scientific attributions have yet to come up with an 'is it by Leonardo' test.

But there is at least a fat book you can buy! Tho' it seems you have to read it with white gloves...

Expect a big splash...

September 26 2012

Image of Expect a big splash...

Picture: TAN

Expect lots of media coverage for the unveiling of the 'earlier Mona Lisa' tomorrow. We've had two interview requests today already, including from ABC in the US. So it sounds like the mysterious 'Swiss consortium' has at least got their publicity right. 

Diligent connoisseurs amongst you will be pleased to know that I spotted the large elephant trap marked, 'Make public attribution you may regret on basis of small digital image', and avoided it.

Academic Guffwatch

September 26 2012

A reader sends in this gem, from an art history conference next year at the University of York:

Call for Papers: Visual Culture in Crisis – Britain c.1800 – Present

'European mastery is always in crisis – and it is this same crisis that defines European modernity’ – Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

The word ‘crisis’ is frequently invoked to assess Britain’s current place in the world: crises in finance, journalism, politics and geopolitics dominate the media, all of which see the term used both to reflect, and manipulate, a sense of uncertainty and confusion on personal, national, and global levels. Taking its cue from Hardt and Negri’s location of ‘crisis’ as central to European modernity, this conference seeks to explore how visual cultures in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries have simultaneously responded to – and emerged from – the successive crises that have been deemed to constitute the country’s (post)colonial modernity. Crisis might signify avant-garde break-through and embrace of modernity. It might impel artistic breakdown or flight from modernity, anarchic celebration, or resistance in the form of protest. Crisis in visual culture could above all be emblematic of the contingent nature of personal and political identities. As both a product and a precipitant of the inter-state and inter-subjective networks that have emerged in conjunction with imperialism and economic globalisation, crisis can articulate a disharmony between metropole and colony, centre and periphery, state and individual, working constantly to disrupt the geographical, cultural and class boundaries of ‘Britain’.

If you put this into Google Translate and hit 'Macedonian', it begins to make sense.

Test your connoisseurship, ctd.

September 26 2012

Image of Test your connoisseurship, ctd.

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

It's plug time again everyone - the final episode of this series of 'Fake or Fortune?' goes out this Sunday (BBC1, 7pm). The picture above is the subject of the show - and the question for all you budding connoisseurs is, is this by Van Dyck, or not? We bought it at auction as 'after Van Dyck' - so have we blown many thousands of pounds on a worthless copy, or is there more to this picture than meets the eye?

Be brave, and send me your immediate thoughts!

[Update II - I've posted some details of the head and hands below]

[Update III - before anyone gets cross about me asking you to make judgements from a digital photo, and not the real thing, remember, it's just for fun! And the auction photo online was the first image we had of the picture, so it's 'pretend you're a dealer' day.]

Update - a reader writes:

Would have said not much chance (forgive me, unless tons of overpaint) but as it is the subject of your programme I guess it will have a happy ending!!

In the last series we had two unhappy endings, and one happy one, and one indeterminate. For this series we've had two happy endings - so are we due an unhappy one?

Using the same logic, another reader writes:

The theme in FOF seems to be discovering in those I've seen so far that the works are indeed thought to be original. Having said that this doesn't seem to have the luminosity most Van Dycks have. I'm saying "after" or "school of" not orig.


Looking at the relatively high-res image on the Christie’s site, the drawing of the both arms, the bosom, the left shoulder, and the clumsy handling of the drapery is not masterly, but that is not say it is not Van Dyck. You have probably found enough comparisons to tell us that it is a late Van Dyck (+ studio?). I recall you saying that like most artists working in England, Van Dyck gradually descended in quality.

And another:

First impressions on this painting would suggest that it's a studio piece, possibly with the head by the master. The arms and hands seem weak, and the whole body seems stiff, with none of Van Dyck's ease, I hope to be proved wrong...

From Twitter, we have shorter reasoning. My favourite so far:

So not a Van Dyck.

More optimistically:

I say yes to the van Dyck. Subject matter is right, textiles look right. Hands were not what he did best. Needs cleaning.

Which reminds me of one of my favourite Van Dyck anecdotes - when asked why he took such care over painting hands, he replied, 'the hands pay the bill'.

Another 'no' comes in:

[...] my gut feeling is that it is not by Van Dyck, mostly because of the dress which I feel should be more crisp.

And from a new contributor:

First time I have ever posted anything.

I think it is a van Dyck – the lace looks right.

One reader goes for condition:

My guess - a Van Dyke that was harshly re-lined at some point, and over-cleaned.

While another sees the hand of another artist altogether:

Regarding the Van Dyck mentioned today that was recently bought at auction, is it John Michael Wright possibly emulating Van Dyck.



Behold, 'The Isleworth Mona Lisa'

September 25 2012

Image of Behold, 'The Isleworth Mona Lisa'

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper has a better photo of the 'first version of the Mona Lisa'. It will be unveiled in Geneva on 27th September. Martin Bailey has more details here

Queen buys her own picture

September 25 2012

Image of Queen buys her own picture

Picture: PA/Andrew Matthews, via Art Daily

And not just one, but four of them. More details over at Art Daily.


September 24 2012

Image of Touché

Picture: ZCZ Films

Curious about Waldemar Januszczak's seemingly incredibly ability to tell whether a work of art is fake or genuine purely from a clip on the telly, I did a little research. I thought readers might be interested to see the above moment from Waldemar's film on Gauguin, when, halfway through, he waxes lyrical about the 'first ceramic that Gauguin ever made'. It's a Faun which is signed with the monogram 'PGo'. Waldemar tells us that this monogram is, 'the first time he uses the monogram 'PGo' which he [Gauguin] later uses in a lot of his paintings...' Apparently it was a way of, 'very deliberately harking back to his own sexual problems...'

All very interesting, but here's the thing; the sculpture is a fake. It was made in the 1990s by Shaun Greenhalgh, in his garden shed.

Now regular readers will know that I am full of admiration for Waldemar's films and writings - even when he was busy criticising the first series of 'Fake or Fortune?' I described him as the best communicator on the arts of his generation. (And anyone who makes a film about William Dobson must be a Good Thing.) But when it comes to connoisseurship, I think his record suggests that he may want to exercise a little caution before criticising the conclusions, and programmes, of others. 

Apart from the minor fake faux pas, the Gauguin film is excellent. You can buy a copy here.

Update - a reader slaps me on the wrist:

By the way, on Waldemar etc, haven't we all made howlers at some point or other? For my part I bought a 'Downman' in a regional auction on the strength of the website image, only to get it home and discover that it was an old illustration, with a few washes of colour. Pretty embarrassing.

You invite people to test their connoisseurship on the strength of your website images, yet when someone like Waldemar makes a judgement from a picture on the TV, he is to be derided? You praise Philip Mould for his instinct, writing "almost the minute he saw the pictures that they were by Turner." But what if he'd been wrong? Would his rush to judgement have been praiseworthy, or rash?

But anyway, I think you should take a slightly different tack: why not come clean and have a story or two - encouraging others to confess - about your own connoisseurial mistakes? Otherwise it all sounds a little bit holier than thou.

There have of course been many times when my own initial judgment has been wrong. Just recently, I said that I didn't initially believe in the Degas in programme 1 of 'Fake or Fortune?'. My point about Waldemar is not to say that one should or shouldn't make judgements on the basis of illustrations - we all do that, often out of necessity - but that if you are a leading arts presenter, and want to invoke the weight of your reputation by repeatedly criticising your fellow arts presenters (and disregard all their research), then you should at least aim before firing.

If any readers want to fess up over howlers, please send them in! I'll try and wheel some out from my annals of shame. I often find that I'm caught out by scale. It's quite easy to assume that a painting is a certain size, when looking at a picture online, especially as British portraits are often standard sizes (like 30 x 25 inches). But then something tiny turns up at the gallery, and you realise it's a reduced copy. So these days (top tip) I always make sure to measure a painting out. 

Art v Pop

September 24 2012

Image of Art v Pop

Picture: National Gallery of Wales/Your Paintings

We had an average of 4.3m viewers last night, which beat the figures for programme 1 (3.8m). The show peaked at 4.7m, and seems to have held out well against XFactor starting halfway through over on ITV. Plus, we had lost viewers in Scotland, where the programme went out much earlier, at 5pm (not sure why). So thanks to all of you who watched, and to those of you who got in touch either on Twitter or afterwards. I'm delighted to say that we've been recommissioned for a third series. So if you think you've got a Leonardo in your loft, now is the time to say... 

In my earlier 'Test Your Connoisseurship' entry on one of the Turners from last night's programme, almost all of those who wrote in thought it was not by Turner. Interestingly, the thing which put everyone off was the composition. But as we showed in the programme, it had been cut down. Let me know if you have the other half! Only one reader thought that it was by Turner - so loud applause to reader and well-regarded art sleuth James Mulraine. And loud applause also to Philip Mould, by the way, who, in an impressive piece of connoisseurial sleuthing, decided almost the minute he saw the pictures that they were by Turner. I'm much less certain when it comes to landscapes, and it took me quite a bit longer to decide for myself that they were 'right'. Turner is, as the programme showed, a fiendishly difficult artist figure out - so for Philip to spot it straight away gives you a glimpse into how unerring his unerring eye is.

If you did enjoy last night's programme, can I also direct you to applaud the super-human efforts that the BBC puts into making these shows. One of the things I have learnt from my involvement with 'Fake or Fortune?' is just how supremely talented telly people are. To do what I do and look at three paintings in a museum, and try and figure out whether they are by Turner is one thing - but to look at them and envisage in your mind a whole one hour programme, where and how to film it, who to film, what music to use, and all the other details that viewers take for granted, is completely beyond me. 

Mona Lisa - the prequel

September 24 2012

Image of Mona Lisa - the prequel

Picture: Mail

Richard Brooks in The Sunday Times yesterday broke news of 'an earlier version of the Mona Lisa'. The Times is pay-walled, so here's the subsequent report in the Mail:

The claims of the Swiss-based consortium which owns the painting are supported by Professor Alessandro Vezzosi, who has set up his own art museum in Vinci. He will present evidence alongside Professor Carlo Pedretti of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California. The Isleworth Mona Lisa was discovered shortly before the First World War by Hugh Blaker, an English art collector, while looking through the home of a Somerset nobleman. He bought the painting and took it to his studio in Isleworth, London, from which it takes its name.

Art critics conjectured that Leonardo had in fact painted two portraits of Lisa del Giocondo, with one hanging in the Louvre and the other now with Mr Blaker. He in turn sold it to an American collector, Henry F Pulitzer, who in turn left it to his girlfriend. On her death, it was bought by a consortium of unnamed individuals who have kept it in a Swiss bank vault for 40 years.

But despite claims the Isleworth Mona Lisa is indeed the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at Oxford disputes this.

'So much is wrong,' he told The Sunday Times. 'The dress, the hair and background landscape. This one is also painted on canvas, which Leonardo rarely did.' Like the majority of his works, The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is in fact painted on wood. And while the lady in the Isleworth Mona Lisa does appear to be a younger version of the model in the more famous painting, Kemp said this did not prove the two were produced by Leonardo da Vinci. 'She might look younger but this is probably because the copyist, and I believe it is a copy done a few years after the Mona Lisa, just painted it that way,' added Mr Kemp.

A commenter in the Mail agrees with Kemp, and writes:

I think it was done by Ceilia Gimenez.

It's hard to say much from the image of course. The Mona Lisa Foundation website says it is currently 'under construction' till 27th September. But given Prof. Pedretti's recent involvement in the 'Leonardo sculpture' project, forgive me if, for now, I place more trust in Kemp's view. I've been summoned to bank vaults to look at 'consortium-owned masterpieces' before, and they're always duds.

Update - a reader writes:

You probably were not summoned to give an opinion on the Salvator Mundi - now accepted (?) as by Leonardo (certainly by Kemp) - but that is apparently owned by a US 'consortium of art dealers' - therefore a 'dud'?

I don’t think (tho' I don't know) that the Salvator Mundi was ever held in a bank vault. My point was that if things are held in bank vaults, and not a gallery or proper art store, it’s usually, in my experience, an indicator that something isn't quite right. 

Them bones

September 24 2012

Image of Them bones

Picture: Mail

Archaeologists in England may have had some luck with digging up Richard III, but in Italy they're on skeleton number 4 in a so far unsuccessful hunt for 'the real Mona Lisa'. The quest to dig up Lisa Gherardini was always a half-baked one - what could we possibly learn about the Mona Lisa and Leonardo even if they do find her remains? More here.

Should we market Old Masters like this?

September 24 2012

Video: Sotheby's

A reader writes:

Just wondering, would you advertise a $35-50 million picture in this way?

And this is the voice of their Contemporary Art front man, Tobias Meyer…. Regardless of what we think about it, I guess it speaks of the core of what Sotheby’s believe most of such millionaire Contemporary Art buyers really look for in a work of art – to enter into another dimension (of space rather than time. Meyer makes that clear – but still, the space needn’t be new). Perhaps this could be a new marketing approach for your Old Masters in order to attract those millionaire buyers? Most serious unfinished/preparatory works do this quite well. Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Ribera all have this memorising quality. Similar to Rothko, their misty brush work becomes our hallucinogen.

I might not use Tobias Meyer's choice of words. But I certainly think auctioneers and dealers should have a go at taking Old Masters out of their comfort zone.

New Rembrandt online database

September 21 2012

Image of New Rembrandt online database

Picture: Rembrandt Database

Now this is exciting - a new online database for all things Rembrandt. The new site is a collaboration between the RKD and the Mauritshuis in Holland. It says:

Mission and scope

The Rembrandt Database aims to become the first port of call for research on Rembrandt’s paintings. For this reason The Rembrandt Database collaborates with a large number of institutions in order to add more paintings and more documentation to this website. Our objective is not to present a final set of data, but to develop and grow continually, especially as more documentation becomes available through new research and collaboration with new partners. The Rembrandt Database does not intend to stand on its own but rather to interface with resources already in existence or still emerging.

The Rembrandt Database is not a research project: it does not produce documentation itself, nor does it make attributions. Instead, it presents the various – current and former – findings in this area, together with their sources, and provides a platform for the presentation of new interpretations.

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