Previous Posts: August 2013

Van Dyck studies in Canada

August 29 2013

Image of Van Dyck studies in Canada

Picture: National Gallery of Canada

The interesting exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 'Masterpiece in Focus: Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens', has been extended till 5th January. The show examines key works from the Gallery's collection, and the creative forces behind them.

One of Canada's most important Old Masters is Van Dyck's Suffer Little Children Come Unto Me, which was painted in the artist's first Antwerp period (that is, before he left for Italy in 1622). The picture was recently in the Prado's Young Van Dyck exhibition, but was only exhibited alongside one of the studies seen above, the boy with praying hands, which (as previously mentioned) was discovered by Philip Mould in 1993. In the Canadian show two additional studies have been brought together - the small head of a child (seen above, bottom right) is yet another of Philip's discoveries (this time from 2002), while the head of a man I've not seen before is on loan from a private collection. From the image I've no doubt it is entirely right (though probably the background is a later addition), and is an important addition to Van Dyck's oeuvre - well done to the NGofC for tracking it down. As I write in our recent 'Finding Van Dyck' exhibition catalogue, Van Dyck's use of head studies has been consistently underplayed in the literature.

What is a 'museo-phobe'?

August 29 2013

Image of What is a 'museo-phobe'?

Picture: V&A

Someone you and I would be bored to tears by, I suspect. The 'Senior Producer' for CNN's travel website, James Durston, tells us why he hates museums:

I've always hated museums.

Yet twice or three times a year, I somehow find myself within one, shuffling from glass case to glass case, reading the little inscriptions, peering closely at the details, doing what any "good traveler" does.

Two hours later I walk out bored, hungry and far less glad to be on vacation than when I went in.

The main thing you learn in museums, it seems, is how not to run a museum.

"Vase: Iran; circa 15th century," I'm told, time after time, as if this is all I need to know.

As if what isn't said I should know already.

As if I'm not going to forget every dusty nugget of non-information the moment I walk away.

"The Age of Algae: September 1-December 15; $15 only," they offer, as if charging me for something I don't care about is a privilege.

Worst of all, there's a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry.

Confess that rather than stare glumly at an old beer chalice on a plinth you'd prefer to drink happily from a shiny new one in a pub, and you risk being outed as an ignoramus.

Well, I'm outing myself. I'm a museo-phobe.

Well do us all a favour James and leave the museums to those of us who like them. However, here's Maurice Davies of the Museums Association approving when Durston writes:

It feels to me like someone created a rule back in the first days of museums - ‘stick it in a case and let people look at it’ - and that no one has had the courage or the imagination to take things on a step since.

To which Davies responds:

Here he hits the nail on the head; in the 21st century, museums are still dominated by an essentially 19th century technology - putting things in glass cases or on the wall with little labels. Of course there are other approaches but this is the main technique used by most. [...]

If preservation trumps fun then museums are really in trouble.

The thing is though, nine times out of ten, there is no other way. We're about to put on an exhibition of Samuel Cooper's portrait miniatures here at Philip Mould & Co., an exhibition which would be impossible if it weren't for museum quality, secure glass cases. We'll have over 50 works by Cooper on display, including his most famous portraits. Of course, it would be great fun to let visitors handle all the miniatures, and perhaps even wear them or play miniature frisbee with them. But fortunately all those who are lending Cooper's works are able to do so because, over the centuries, they and other owners have astutely ignored Maurice's advice, and allowed preservation to trump pretty much everything. 

Update - a reader writes:

Bingo! That helps explain why CNN is so boring and superficial....

Update II - another reader writes:

Museums enjoy nearly sacred status in today's world for many reasons. In the greatest of them, one finds works of mythological reputation, the sort people make pilgrimages to, and having seen them, check them off a "bucket list" which leave their lives more enriched. For some, museums are their only opportunity to see great works of art, and many an art lover has had their "road to Damascus" moment there, an epiphany which unlocks for them what great art can be about. For others, the contemplative atmosphere alone may be the closest thing to a spiritual calling they experience, and the mere act of being within those walls may provide a comfort, a belonging they find nowhere else.

But for each of those, how many have had similar experiences to James Durston's? Ricochetting off label to label, occasionally stopped by a name we think we recognize to look up briefly?  Vast rooms crammed too tightly with objects or paintings, rock hard floors which quickly make their presence felt, plenty of ropes and glowering guards to let us know what's not allowed. Throw in groups of school children, an impromptu tour, an "important" exhibition where only those in front get to truly see the works, hoards wandering not quite knowing what to do with themselves before the gift shop is found? And oh, yes, all that glass. Hardly the stuff of optimal viewing. Durston speaks of continuously returning, trying to find whatever it is museums hold for him. How many more simply give up?

You point out you will not allow visitors to play frisbee with your Samuel Cooper's on display at Philip Mould. Wise move; preservation, especially for antique art is paramount. But there will be the occasional client, I wager, who will ask to see one in private, hold it in his hand, and contemplate it in much the same fashion as when it was originally created. And for most, even the act of seeing only 50 in the intimate surrounding of your gallery is a far more "honest" (I'm not sure that's the right word) experience than the attempts made at some of these overblown public institutions. Auction houses regularly let their visitors handle the works they are considering purchasing. And London, and a good many other cities, are filled with galleries which would gladly allow people into a more intimate setting to consider, even without buying, the works they have on display.

To use an awkward analogy, zoos in the 19th century were the rage, bringing rare species never before seen to the masses, and no one's education was complete without regular visits. Today, we see them largely for what they were; animal prisons, horribly artificial, which put on display more our cruelty than any particular animal. I'm not suggesting art is a living thing. But we continue to shift away from that sterile display of animals to one more in keeping with their "original" context. And all are better for it.  

This note will not derail the (largely financial) momentum toward bigger museums, a greater centralization of the art market, more "blockbuster" shows hustling thousands before works for moments at best. But at some point, cannot someone ask is it the best we can possibly do to show off the best of what humans are capable of?

Update III - another reader adds:

I don't think that museums are what Mr Durston hates, but merely boredom. His pint-pot might help greatly with this..

 Glass is always problematic for viewing things through.. I have a terrible time when I want to see through it whilst standing at my windows.

 'If preservation trumps fun, then museums are really in trouble..'  I think that should be the other way around if you are sane..

 I always go to museums to see great antique art, and ordinary modern people - both are very revealing if you look at them the right way.

Still, sadly, not Jane Austen

August 29 2013

Image of Still, sadly, not Jane Austen

Picture: TLS

Regular readers may remember a story from last year about the 'Rice Portrait' of a girl once thought to be Jane Austen. There was a flurry of excitement when it was announced that a high resolution scan of a photograph made in 1910 revealed some hitherto unseen 'writing' in the top right hand corner of the painting. This writing was thought to state the name of the artist, Ozias Humpry and the name of the sitter, Jane Austen. Now, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Jane Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson of Princeton University has accepted the evidence, and the thus the identification of the Rice portrait as Jane.

I'm surprised that Professor Johnson has done so. You can see the 1910 photograph in greater detail here, and sadly it doesn't in fact say what has been suggested. It's worth repeating here the view of Jacob Simon, former chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, who rightly doubts the identity:

The [Rice Portrait] website claims that the portrait is signed several times in monogram, inscribed JANE and dated 1788 but, from my lengthy experience of examining British portraits, these apppear to be purely incidental and meaningless markings. They were not noted by Thomas Harding Newman, owner of the portrait in 1880, who attributed it to Zoffany. They do not appear in photographs taken by Emery Walker in about 1910, despite claims to the contrary on the website. They were not apparent to the professional painting conservator who examined the portrait with others at Henry Rice's request before cleaning it in 1985. They were not apparent to Christie's experienced cataloguing staff in 2007 when the portrait was put up for sale in New York, despite an earlier report of initials on the portrait.

The greatest forger of all time?

August 28 2013

Image of The greatest forger of all time?

Picture: NY Times

This is Pei-Shen Qian, who is suspected of being the artist behind a string of 40 fakes sold by the long-established but now closed Knoedler gallery in New York. The Knoedler gallery bought the works, including 'Jackson Pollocks' sold for tens of millions of dollars, from a 'dealer' named Gloria Rosales, who is now on trial for fraud. The New York Times reports:

According to the indictment and other court papers, Mr. Qian was discovered selling his art on the streets of Lower Manhattan in the early 1990s by Ms. Rosales’s boyfriend and business partner, an art dealer named Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, who recruited him to make paintings in the style of celebrated Abstract Expressionists. The indictment does not name Mr. Bergantiños Diaz, but his identity is confirmed by other court records.

Over a period of 15 years, court papers claim, the painter, working out of his home studio and garage, churned out at least 63 drawings and paintings that carried the signatures of artistic giants like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn, and that Mr. Bergantiños Diaz and Ms. Rosales boasted were authentic. They were not copies of paintings, but were sold as newly “discovered” works by those artists.

Ms. Rosales sold or consigned the art to two elite Manhattan dealers, Knoedler & Company — New York City’s oldest gallery until it closed in 2011 — and a former Knoedler employee named Julian Weissman, who in turn sold them for millions of dollars to customers who placed their faith in the dealers’ reputations and the supporting words of some experts.

Ms. Rosales told the dealers that the vast majority of the paintings came from a collector who had inherited the works from his father and adamantly refused to be identified. Over time, this anonymous owner came to be referred to as “Secret Santa” and “Mr. X.”

Knoedler, its former president Ann Freedman and Mr. Weissman have repeatedly said they always believed the works to be authentic, despite the lack of documentation.

Meanwhile, Ann Freedman, who seems never to have wondered where all these mysteriously undocumented paintings came from, now says that she is the 'central victim' in this whole business. Again, from the NY Times:

[...] the saga began in the early nineties when Rosales approached Freedman with a fabulous tale. She claimed to represent a foreign collector who “was of Eastern European descent, maintained residences in Switzerland and Mexico, wished to remain anonymous, and had inherited the works ... from a relative.” Based on this account, Freedman came to call the relative “Mr. X” and the anonymous seller “Mr. X, Jr” — of course, neither existed.

“The story was credible,” said Freedman, who is tall with tightly curled silver hair and a controlled, energetic manner. “Dealers often do not know the specifics of origin or background, or how the art left the artist’s studio. You cannot turn the pages of an auction catalogue or museum publication without seeing a majority of the works labeled ‘private collection.’ The chain of ownership is often out of order and incomplete.”

With time, the story of how Rosales obtained the paintings became more complex: The married Mr. X and David Herbert, a real-life gallery employee and owner who died in 1995, knew each other in the fifties; they were lovers, and Herbert offered Mr. X access to the studios of the Abstract Expressionists, through whom he could purchase paintings off the books; these works were hidden away until Herbert’s death to protect Mr. X’s secret. (Herbert, of course, had nothing do with any Mr. X or secret stash of paintings — since neither existed.)

Freedman says that she did her best to get answers from Rosales. “I went to Glafira and pushed and pushed to get more information, relentlessly,” Freedman said. "My ongoing diligence met more than the gold standard; there is plenty of evidence of that.”

For previous AHN coverage of the case, put 'Knoedler' into the search box top right.

Achtung! A cunning disguise

August 28 2013

Image of Achtung! A cunning disguise

Picture: Merenti Auktion

Depictions of Hitler and swastikas are verboten in Germany. But you'd never guess who these portraits, coming up at auction soon, showed...

A rare Old Master victory

August 27 2013

Image of A rare Old Master victory


It's not often that Old Masters win a battle against contemporary art. I'm pleased to report that the daft plan to put half of the Berlin Gemaldegalerie's collection into long term storage (to make way for contemporary art) has been abandoned. More details (in German) here.

Update - more in The Art Newspaper here.

Who should get the kangaroo?

August 27 2013

Image of Who should get the kangaroo?

Picture: Guardian

The National Maritime Museum has put up a commendable fight to acquire George Stubbs' two paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo, aided by a most handsome donation of £3.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The two pictures are under a temporary export bar, having been bought for £5.5m by the National Gallery of Australia. 

The Grumpy Art Historian believes that the pictures should go to Australia, and I can see an argument for that. But there's a strong claim I think for these pictures being intrinsically 'British', despite their antipodean subject matter; the pictures were painted from only sketches and descriptions, and, for the kangaroo, the skin of a dead one, so they're very much related to contemporary British interest in Australia, as conveyed by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks' voyages. The pictures have never left Britain before. If they'd been painted by Stubbs on the spot in Australia the case might be different. Here's hoping the NMM secures the necessary £1.5m by November to keep the pictures in the UK.

Update - in an article on the Museum Association website entitled 'Stupid Curators', MA Head of Communication Maurice Davies says the battle between Greenwich and the National Gallery of Australia is a 'farcical row' all about 'curatorial glory':

It turns out the Australian National Gallery has bought them, but they’ve been export barred so Greenwich can try to raise enough millions to buy them, which I guess rests primarily on the strength of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s nationalism.

Now the two museums are shouting, or at least sniffing, at each other through the press. In The Guardian Christine Riding, senior paintings curator at the Maritime Museum, claims: “The Stubbs paintings, which have never left England, would be a transformational acquisition.”

In The Telegraph Australian National gallery Director Ron Radford dismisses the London claim as “very tenuous” and says: “These paintings should be in Australia, in the national art collection… they should belong to the people of Australia.”

Honestly! You do wonder how much the two protagonists really care about the people rather than their own curatorial glory.

And, as ever, the people are far more sensible, with many comments making the same point as a user named necronancy in the Guardian: “Couldn't they share them? Why does it always have to be all or nothing?”

As so often, while we are preoccupied with our arcane museum arguments, the public cut through it all with the perfect solution.

You sometimes have to wonder whose side the MA is on.

A Sotheby's takeover?

August 27 2013

Image of A Sotheby's takeover?

Picture: Google Finance

Bloomberg reports that the US hedge fund Third Point is targeting Sotheby's for a possible takeover. The head of the hedge fund, Daniel Loeb, collects post-war and contemporary art.

In my long list of Clever things I never quite got round to doing was buying Sotheby's shares shortly after the financial crash. In early 2009 you could buy a Sotheby's share for as little as $6.47. Now they're trading at $47.21.

Liberating great art

August 27 2013

Video: Getty

I love this video from the Getty, following their recent abolition of image fees. UK institutions take note (again) please.

Blog on

August 27 2013

Image of Blog on

Picture: BG

Well, that was fun - ten days making a programme for BBC2 on... top secret, I'm afraid. The historically minded among you may guess the subject matter from the above photo. The programme will probably go out sometime next year, and though I can't say much now, it should be a good one. It's a little more history than art this time, which is something I've always wanted to do, being a historian by training.

This was my first programme as a solo presenter, and if it was possible my admiration for people who work in telly is higher than ever. Everyone has to work so hard. A twelve hour day was entirely normal, and most days were longer. I was lucky to have an excellent crew, a wonderful director, and an efficient support staff to organise everything from hotels to travel. You quickly begin to exist in a bubble, where it's nothing but work, sleep and the occasional meal, so that soon you are totally immersed in making the film, as the outside world (tedious things like news and paying bills) vanishes entirely. To be honest, I'm not quite used to it all being over. 

Still, it's good to be back. This week, I'm going to be immersed in Samuel Cooper miniatures, as the deadline for our catalogue (we're having a Cooper exhibition in November) is fast approaching.

Blog off

August 15 2013

Image of Blog off


That's it folks - no blogging for a week. I'm off to make a programme for the BBC.

Hope you're all having a nice summer. In the meantime, have a go at these fiendish rounds of 'Test Your Connoisseurship'.

Find the answers below by clicking 'read on'.

Read More

'Fresco Jesus' - the payday

August 15 2013

Image of 'Fresco Jesus' - the payday

Picture: AP

Remember this? The restoration job that was so bad it became a world cultural event? Well now the 'restorer', Cecilia Gimenez, has cashed in on her reputation by signing a deal with the local council to split profits from merchandising featuring the image. The 'artist', as the Washington Post describes her, gets 49% of everything.

This is all very amusing, but there's something jarring about rewarding the person who trashed a perfectly decent painting. If the resulting damage didn't look so funny, I suspect she'd have been arrested by now.

Getty images made free

August 14 2013

Image of Getty images made free

Picture: Getty

Great news from the Getty Museum in California - 4,600 of their images are now free to use in high resolution, for any purpose. Yet again, a US museum leads the way, and shows rights-wedded UK institutions the error of their ways. More details of the new policy here.

V&A's Dundee extension

August 14 2013

Video: Kengo Kuma

News of the V&A's outpost in Dundee had quite passed me by. On Monday, the £45m project was given planning permission, and it could be open as soon as 2016. More here.

Rare 15thC English religious art stolen

August 14 2013

Image of Rare 15thC English religious art stolen

Picture: Apex, via Mail

Horrible story this - thieves in Devon have ripped out two panels from a set of 15th Century religious icons, and damaged a third. English religious art like this is very rare. More details here.

Please help 'Your Paintings'...

August 13 2013

Image of Please help 'Your Paintings'...

Picture: Your Paintings taking a few moments to complete their user survey.

Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

August 13 2013

Image of Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

Picture: AFP

The trial was meant to start today, but it has now been delayed until September. One defence lawyer has said the pictures are intact, and returnable. It's all most mysterious. I'm going to be discussing the case on BBC World radio* & TV shortly (everyone else, I guess, being on holiday).

Update - thinking further about this, I'd be prepared to bet that the paintings have not in fact been destroyed (as the mother of the gang leader first claimed), and will turn up one day. It seems clear to me from the trial details so far that we're dealing here only with the low-level villains, those who physically removed the pictures. I refuse to believe their story so far; that the crime was just one of opportunity, that they thought the pictures might be valuable, and so worth nicking. They also claim that they found the museum just by googling 'museum' in Rotterdam (where they were already living).

I'm sure that somewhere out there is the usual 'Mr Big', the one who plans and bankrolls such operations. Invariably, as I believe probably happened in this case, the paintings are stolen as hostages, one day to be ransomed back to the museum or insurer. Therefore, the whole 'the pictures are burnt' story, and the presentation of the thieves as amateurish chancers, is useful in that it takes the heat off those who are likely still holding the paintings. In five, ten, twenty years time, once things have died down and the police have moved on, I'm confident we'll see the pictures again. 

* here, at about 48 minutes in.

Mona Lisa theory no. 952 (ctd.)

August 12 2013

Video: AP

In Florence, they're still digging up bodies to try and prove that the Mona Lisa was - gasp - a real person. Scientists hope DNA will be able to solve the 'age old mystery' of who the Mona Lisa really is (answer, she's Lisa del Giocondo, which we've known since Vasari recorded the sitter in the 16th Century). 

Update - a reader writes:

Indisputably identifiable is the enigmatic smile.

'Monuments Men' - trailer released

August 9 2013

Video: via LA Times

Wow - can't wait to see this. I'm a bit of a war film buff, so chuck in a bit of art, and BG is in movie heaven.

Sharp-eyed readers will spot Raphael's lost Portrait of a Young Man being destroyed at the beginning.

Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

August 9 2013

Image of Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

Picture: Mail

More details of the Kunsthal theft case have emerged. Yesterday, experts from Romania's National History Museum (above) gave a presentation on the old nails, pigments and other details found in the ashes of Olga Dogaru's stove. Olga is the mother of one of the accused thieves, who admitted to police that she burnt at least two of the works, though she has since changed her story, and we don't know which ones were really destroyed.

There were also further details of the theft in Rotterdam, where it seems the security response to the alarm going off was pretty woeful (according to Dutch News:

Police [...] alerted by the alarm, carried out an inspection but failed to realise the museum had actually been broken into because the thieves had closed the door behind them.

In addition, security staff wondered if the gaps on the walls of the exhibition were due to paintings being moved. It was only 75 minutes after the alarm went off that officials realised paintings had been stolen, the AD said.

Lawyer Maria Vasii even claims police saw the suspects shortly after the robbery. ‘One officer waved, as if to say "all’s fine boys",’ the lawyer is quoted as saying.

The paper says the thieves were so shocked by their narrow escape they left the paintings in their getaway car on the nearby Coolsingel canal and did not pick them up until the next morning. 

The works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse with a value of some €17m, were not smuggled out of the country for several days.

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