Previous Posts: December 2013

Happy Christmas everyone

December 19 2013

Right, that's it, I'm off for Christmas. I hope you all have a great holiday, wherever you are. See you in the New Year. 

Bigging up the Old Masters

December 19 2013

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's Old Master department gives itself the Hollywood treatment. The specialists are even doing pieces to camera (or PTC's as they're known in telly). Great!

Christie's Detroit valuation published

December 19 2013

Image of Christie's Detroit valuation published

Picture: DIA/BG

The Christie's valuation of those works the city of Detroit can sell from the walls of the DIA has been published. You can see the list here. The top Old Master valuation is for Bruegel the Elder's Wedding Dance at $100m-$200m. Next up is Rembrandt's 'The Visitation' at $50m-$90m.


Tabloid art history

December 18 2013

Image of Tabloid art history

Picture: Daily Mirror

Incisive new research via the Daily Mirror:

Prime Minister David Cameron has been discovered to have an uncanny resemblance to the former Empress of Russia Catherine the Great.

An 18th Century painting of Catherine the Great went viral after Sophie Gadd noticed the likeness to Cameron and tweeted a picture. Thousands of people agreed.

Miss Gadd, a student at York University, viewed the painting last weekend at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

She tweeted: "This painting of an 18th century woman totally looks like David Cameron in drag."

It has been re-tweeted more than 2,500 times since then - which left her somewhat shocked.

Update - personally, I always thought the PM looked a bit like this portrait of John Lambert (NPG, London).

Meanwhile a reader alerts me to this display of hams that look like Cameron.

To China, or not?

December 18 2013

There are two interesting stories in this week's Antiques Trade Gazette on Chinese demand for Old Masters and western antiques. The first is a claim by Sotheby's that more and more bids are coming from China for non-Chinese art:

Key findings from Sotheby's show that in the last three years the number of bidders from mainland China active in sectors other than Chinese art has increased by 54%. Over this period, 660 bidders from mainland China competed for more than 7800 lots in these 'non-Chinese' sectors, spending a total of $378m (£241m).

Chairman of Sotheby's Asia Patti Wong told ATG: "Over the last ten years we have seen a constant growth of Asian buyers buying abroad, but in the last five years, and especially the last three, we've seen a real increase coming out of mainland China in particular."

660 bidders in three years (from a population of over 1.3 billion) does not a stampede make. But it's an encouraging start. Obviously, everyone in the trade dreams of wealthy Chinese clients suddenly developing a passion for old western art. It's yet to happen in a big way, but it might, and certainly there are stories of the odd Rembrandt being sent to China. At the other end of the scale, I was recently in a minor Scottish auction room buying antique furniture,* and heard of a number of phone bids from China (and why not, 'brown furniture' is so cheap these days they're practically giving it away).

The second story, however, might appear to suggest that the demand isn't yet there in China, as TEFAF Maastricht's plan to open a satellite fair in Beijing has been scrapped. This project was a joint venture with Sotheby's. However, I hear it's that element of the venture which caused concern, especially amongst potentially participating dealers, rather than any feeling that no Chinese punters would turn up. Sotheby's were insisting that all sales made at the fair go through them, with a commission payable. Hardly an incentive for independent dealers whose biggest competition is the auction houses.

*long story...

'Fake or Fortune?' returns"!

December 18 2013

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' returns"!

Picture: BBC

What better antidote could there be to cold, dark winter evenings than series 3 of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The first of four programmes goes out on Sunday 19th January, BBC1, 6pm. I should be able to tell you the artists involved soon.

'Cleaning' the Elgin Marbles

December 17 2013

Video: ZCZ

Here's a short film by Waldemar on the 'cleaning' of the Elgin marbles in the early 20th Century. Here, the bad guy is 'unscrupulous dealer' Lord Duveen (said as if all art dealers are unscrupulous), but in actual fact the damage was done in the name of conservation, by conservators.

The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today's conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn't go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again.

It's a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be 'conserving' them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today's foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow's restorers. Sometimes I think it's all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator's union. 

If you're going to steal a Damien Hirst...

December 17 2013

Video: BBC

First make sure you can fit it into your car.

Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

December 16 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: The Sunday Times

There have been two more heavyweight articles on the NPG's Van Dyck campaign - first, a really excellent piece by Ben Macintyre in The Times [paywall] on Friday, headed 'This portrait changed how Britain saw itself'. Then yesterday in the Sunday Times Waldemar, in his usual engaging style, drew attention to William Dobson's self-portrait (above right), which was of course inspired by Van Dyck's. Waldemar is another who thinks the NPG should have bought the picture at auction in 2009 for just one bid over the £8.4m it made, despite the fact that winning bidder was prepared to go much, much higher. Anyway, these broadly positive pieces are in addition to all the press from earlier this month, even an article in the Spectator, and I can't recall a 'save this picture' campaign ever receiving so much serious comment in the media. The NPG and the ArtFund have done a good job so far.

Dobson is a particular favourite of Waldemar's, and he'd like the nation to own that self-portrait too. He may in fact get his wish, for while at the moment the picture belongs to the Earls of Jersey, the Jersey Trustees have recently been selling works of art (the latest being the unfinished Lawrence of the Duke of Wellington at Sotheby's two weeks ago). Incidentally, I can tell you that the Dobson will soon be going on public display at Osterley Park outside London, where it used to hang until the Earls of Jersey gave the house to the National Trust.

Dobson was of course not the only mid-17th Century artist inspired by Van Dyck, and by Van Dyck's self-portrait. Regular readers will also know that Samuel Cooper was similarly inspired, following it for his own self-portrait in 1645 (below, (C) Royal Collection Trust, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). Add to this the fact that Sir Peter Lely, Van Dyck's successor as court artist, owned the Van Dyck self-portrait, and it's not too fanciful to see in one painting the very axis upon which British portraiture in the 17th Century, and even beyond, turns.

Update - a reader writes:

It seems that for those of us who don't want another trinket or more sweets for Christmas a contribution to the NPG is just the thing, of more enduring value and free from GMOs and calories.

Update II - a reader writes:

Your citing of Waldemar’s article this weekend with approval is interesting.

Firstly, he says this – the sort of thing you have been very displeased with others for: “It’s a marvellous picture. So I’ll certainly be putting my money in the box. But the annoying fact remains, instead of the £8 I could have put in in 2009, I now have to put in £12. Something isn’t working.”

Secondly, is it fair to wonder aloud why, if Waldemar has always thought so much of this particular painting, he didn’t give it even a cursory mention in his review of the ‘Van Dyck and Britain’ show back in 2009, or express his supposed ‘regret’ at the ‘failure’ of the NPG to acquire it in 2009, via any of the various channels available to him?

Art history communism

December 13 2013

There's a daft article in The Art Newspaper on the 'art belongs to everyone' theory. Philosopher Nigel Warburton writes:

If you happen to own a unique and important painting by Francis Bacon, or happen to be the buyer of the artist’s triptych portrait of Lucian Freud, which sold for a record $142.4m at Christie’s in New York last month, then your decisions about what you are going to do with it affect my potential to enjoy that work. 

Just as violins are designed to be played, so works of visual art are intended to be viewed. We are not rivals for ownership, since a Bacon is well beyond my means, but we are rivals for spending time with the painting. If you choose to restrict access to it, this doesn’t just prevent my appreciation of your painting, but can affect my appreciation of other related works by the artist, since we typically understand an artist’s particular choices against our understanding of their entire oeuvre, or at least against a subset of the most significant works. [...]

Those who own paintings or sculptures that are both unique and of art-historical significance have special responsibilities since they have the power to exclude ordinary viewers. Your Bacon can be kept in a private house and only shown to family and close friends. Your Rothko can be stored in a bank vault. This is legal. But is it moral? I suspect not. Not when the artist is significant and the work is more than minor.

Marvel at this philosophical communism. Why should art 'belong to everyone', but not, say, houses? Is it right for Mr Warburton to deny me access to his house? You never know, he might have a particularly fine Adam fireplace that I'd like to study, and of course a photograph of it would not do. The point is, why should the private ownership of something be deemed less private, just because it happens to be 'art'? Why is it be immoral to own a 'great' work of art and hang it in your house, but not a minor one? Where is the distinction - who decides? And where does Mr Warburton think art history would be if there were no private patrons to support arists, and commission works which they invariably hung in their house? Rembrandt was a capitalist. They all were. If anyone can think of a great Old Master who ever said, 'no, I will not sell you my painting, Mr evil immoral collector, to hang in your house where nobody can see it, I will instead put it on public display for free, and starve instead' (or something like it), I'll give them a tenner.

Update - a reader writes:

This comes to the basic moral principal of ownership of private property.  The public can't enjoy the unique view from your hilltop cottage or the unique pleasures you receive from other goods that society allows you to own.  In point of fact art has always in socialist as well as capitalist societies had restricted access.  The right to access comes with ownership.  A benevolent and generous owner makes his art available to the public periodically, which may increase its value as well.

Keeping art in vaults, unviewable and only as a financial asset is reprehensible as are some other permitted activities in a free society. 

If the society wants to make a painting or sculpture available to the public it can always tax the public and apply the tax revenues to its purchase, even in a forced sale at market as in France.  And then who decides what is bought.

I think that the author wants to appropriate both the right to view the art and the funds to own it from its owner.

Update II - another reader takes the case to extremes:

Philosophical communism?

Does the owner of an important painting have the moral right to burn it?

Does the state have the moral right to prevent an owner taking a painting to their home in another country?

Does an institutional owner have the moral right to sell works of art to raise money?

Update III - a reader points us to another gem:

The Nigel Warburton article is bad, but not as bad as this one in New Republic, which argues that the prices themselves (along with a lack of ‘embarrassment’ about them) ruin art for the rest of us!

Job opportunity - LA

December 13 2013

Image of Job opportunity - LA

Picture: LA Times

News that Scott Schaefer, above, is to retire as Senior Curator of Paintings at the Getty next year means that one of the museum world's plummest jobs is up for grabs (tho' the position is not yet open on the Getty's vacancies page). The LA Times reports:

Scott Schaefer, who has played a key role in building the collections of Los Angeles’ two biggest art museums over the last 33 years, will retire next month from his job as the Getty Museum’s senior curator of paintings.

Since joining the Getty in 1999, Schaefer has overseen the acquisition of 70 paintings and pastels and five sculptures, including “Rembrandt Laughing,” a recently purchased self-portrait of the artist as a young man; Edouard Manet’s “Portrait of Madame Brunet,” J.M.W. Turner’s “Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino,” Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian painting “Arii Matamoe” and Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “The Italian Comedians.”

As curator of European paintings and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1980 to 1987, Schaefer helped engineer the acquisition of 64 works, among them a “Madonna and Child” by Jacopo Bellini, “Apollo and Phaethon” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Anthony van Dyck’s “Andromeda Chained to the Rock.”

Interestingly, the last picture mentioned, the Andromeda, was excluded from the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne as inauthentic. I've always been intrigued by it, and would love to see it, but have only ever managed to get a poor quality photograph. In its handling it is hard to see where it fits in with Van Dyck's oeuvre, but I wouldn't entirely rule it out yet.

Gettin down with the kids

December 12 2013

Video: Tate

Tate's branching out into skateboards. 

Guffwatch - how to graduate from art school

December 12 2013

Video: ProbcauseTV

Reader Dr Ben Harvey alerts me to this excellent Guff tutorial.

How paintings lose their attribution

December 11 2013

Image of How paintings lose their attribution

Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

Here's an interesting example of how easily pictures can become 'unknown', and lose their attribution. The above portrait belongs to Birmingham Museums Trust, and was acquired in 1999 as a work by George Romney. But it was recently submitted to the Understanding British Portraits website with a plea for help, because the picture had:

[...] a problematic attribution. It was acquired in 1999 as by Romney, but we have never been able to confirm this and we are hoping to draw on the Understanding British Portrait network’s expertise to try and find out more about it. Our former Principal Curator Jane Farrington sought advice in 1999 from Alex Kidson, who asserted that the costume and conception of the portrait were close to Romney’s ‘Mrs Collingwood’ in the Walker, however expressed doubts over the attribution based on the handling of paint. Jane also corresponded with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to enquire as to whether the work could be by Allan Ramsay, but James Holloway and Nicola Kalinsky both responded that this was unlikely, but suggested similarities with the work of Francis Cotes or Wright of Derby.

The work is currently on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Gallery 23 until around May 2014, so if anyone from the network is passing through Birmingham over the next seven months it is available to view and we welcome any thoughts or suggestions about it – please use the ‘add a comment’ facility below.

The portrait is quite clearly an early work by George Romney. Intrigued, I emailed Alex Kidson, whose catalogue raisonne of Romney's work will soon be published. Alex tells me that he also thinks the portrait is by Romney, and that it will be included in his catalogue. So somehow there was a misunderstanding back in 1999, when Alex mentioned some unusual aspects of the handling in the arm (which as you can see from the image was altered by Romney).

Sometimes I've seen pictures appear at auction as by an unknown artist, despite the fact that they were sold as fully (and correctly) catalogued works just a few years earlier. I always advise people to physically attach any letters/invoices/provenance to the back of a painting. 

Want to be an artist?

December 10 2013

Video: via The Dish

Then, says Jerry Saltz, don't do a degree in fine arts (at least, in the US):

I think it's great for young artists to go to grad school if they've got the time, inclination, and money — whether it's Mom and Dad's money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. New languages are incubated. But I've also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques. Zealous theoreticians continue to scare the creativity and opinions out their third generation of young artists and critics. Too many students make highly derivative work (often like that of their teachers) and no one tells them so. A lot of artists in these programs learn how to talk a good game instead of being honestly self-critical about their own work.

Saltz also says that aspiring artists should (gasp) study more art history too:

[...] Call me conservative, but it's also time for grad programs to stress courses in craft and various skills — from blacksmithing to animal tracking, if these are things students need to learn for the visions they want to pursue. There should be a lot more art history in addition to all the current theory.

Vermeer cheated

December 10 2013


A new documentary is coming out soon called 'Tim's Vermeer', in which some fellow named Tim says artists like Vermeer relied on camera obscuras.

David Hockney made the same argument some years ago. Personally, I'm not persuaded that Vermeer, Canaleto, Van Eyck et al relied as heavily on camera obscuras as some like to believe. It's just a fact that some people are able to perfectly render a 3D world onto paper and canvas. They're called great artists.

The auction world in cartoons

December 9 2013

Image of The auction world in cartoons

Picture: Christie's

Interesting set of cartoons coming up at Christie's tomorrow on the auction world, by Michael Ffolkes. Above is a pertinent one for the current Van Dyck self-portrait campaign.

Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

December 9 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

There were two Van Dyck self-portrait stories in the papers over the weekend: first, the Daily Mail reported that businessman and collector James Stunt is the overseas buyer of the picture; and secondly, the Sunday Times claimed that the National Portrait Gallery had made a '£3m bungle' by not buying the picture years earlier.

The Mail article included some quotes from Brian Sewell, which were probably among the silliest things he's ever said. That is, of course, saying something. Regular readers will know that AHN has been a Sewell fan, not for what he says but how he says it (at least on paper), for there's no denying he's a gifted writer on art. But in insulting the NPG director Sandy Nairne, the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, and Mr Stunt, Sewell revealed himself as needlessly bitter. His remarks are a good example of that unattractive British habit of demeaning anyone who happens to be successful. Sewell sniffed at something Mr Stunt may or may not have said about his collection (which is already one of the best for 17th C English portraits), when as a lover of art he should applaud the fact that a successful British businessman under the age of 30 not only cares about 'old' British art, but also supports, very strongly, exhibitions, publications, loans and research. Mr Stunt has a particular interest in Sir Peter Lely, and it's probably no exageration to say that he has done more to advance our understanding of Lely than any other collector ever has. (Lely, by the way, owned the Van Dyck self-portrait, and made a copy of it.)

Sewell's other complaint was that the NPG should have bought the picture at auction in 2009, and thus somehow have 'saved' the nation £4m. But as I mentioned earlier, this is an implausible claim, not least because no UK museum can raise that sort of money to buy at auction, and in any case I know the buyer (for whom we act) would have bid far more than £8.4m - we all believed that the picture was worth more.*

The Times story also questioned why the NPG had not bought the picture years earlier. I can tell you that they tried, and nearly succeeded, but the economic climate in 2009/10 was very different to what it is now. The grant-giving bodies also then operated in a different way - acquisitions were much more difficult than they are now. It simply wasn't possible for them to raise all the money then. But the fact that they tried demonstrates their determination to try to buy the picture, and invalidates the Sunday Times' allegation. It wasn't the fault of the NPG that the picture wasn't bought earlier, but the system for acquiring pictures. Happily, the system is now working better, tho' personally I'm not entirely sure that the Van Dyck will remain in the UK.

Today is the 372nd anniversary of Van Dyck's death.

*The picture is still, incidentally, cheaper than the Fragonard portrait sold last week, and the Rembrandt self-portrait sold to the Getty earlier this year.

£17m Fragonard sold at Bonhams

December 9 2013

Image of £17m Fragonard sold at Bonhams

Picture: Bonhams

Congratulations to Bonhams for selling the above fantasy portrait of the 5th Duc d'Harcourt by Fragonard for an impressive £17.1m ($27.9m). The picture was being sold by the estate of Gustav Rau, in aid of Unicef. I know I would say this, as an Old Master dealer, but there's definitely something shifting in the prices of top-end Old Masters at the moment. More here.

Detroit sell off (ctd.)

December 9 2013

Image of Detroit sell off (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Christie's has submitted its initial valuation of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to the city's emregency managers. More details here. The good news is that the number of works the city could possibly sell (that is, those bought by the city directly, not gifts or DIA acquired objects) is only 5% of the museum's total collection. Still, that means some 2,781 works. And of course, some of the pictures that could be sold are big name items like the Van Gogh self-portrait. Just 11 sellable works comprise 75% of the total value of that 5%. The overall valuation is much lower than I'd expected, at $452m-$866m. In other words, creditors of Detroit, why bother?

In the meantime, a former Detroit university professor, Paul Schaap, has pledged $5m towards a recovery fund for the DIA. 

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