Previous Posts: February 2013

Murillo at Dulwich

February 6 2013

Video: Dulwich Picture Gallery 

Interesting article by Maev Kennedy in The Guardian about the Murillo exhibition about to open at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Xavier Bray, Dulwich's Chief Curator, went to great lengths to track down one rarely seen picture:

St Peter was known only from an ancient black-and-white photograph, last catalogued in 1905. The last recorded owners lived at Newick, near Lewes in Sussex – as, by chance, do Bray's in-laws. He interrogated them about known inheritances among local families, and once he got a lead, settled down with Google Earth to track houses that might have walls large enough to take the painting.

After he narrowed it down, Bray lost his nerve about marching up a very long drive, probably with guard dogs, and knocking on the door. Instead, he ransacked the contact books of everyone he knew until he found an intermediary to break the news to the startled householders that they had inherited not just a mansion but a masterpiece. They had had no idea that the painting was of any significance.

Meanwhile, the Grumpy Art Historian is annoyed that Dulwich forked out for Maev Kennedy's trip to Spain to see the Prado's leg of the exhibition, and also at the fact that the museum has allowed one of the lenders, Lord Faringdon, to borrow a picture of theirs to fill the hole on his wall. 

Update - Brian Sewell's review is here.

Richard III?

February 5 2013

Image of Richard III?

Picture: BBC

I really want to believe that the skeleton found in a car park in Leicester is Richard III. (I'm aware this topic isn't very art historical, but you'll have to indulge me). The Wars of the Roses were the first thing to awaken my interest in history, and the story of Richard III in particular. I remember being quite convinced, as a seven year old, that Richard was a good 'un, and that Shakespeare was a Tudor propogandist villain. If the body is Richard's, which it certainly seems to be, then those responsible for finding it have performed nothing short of a historical miracle, and deserve our fullest possible congratulations. After all, what were the chances of finding the King's body in the first trench of the first dig, under a parking space marked 'R'...

And yet... It is true that the TV programme, The King in the Car Park, broadcast in the UK last night made for good telly, and that the newspaper reports have set out the main facts of the case well. The University of Leicester's website also has some intriguing further information. But the problem with being a trained, empirical historian is that you tend to want to examine all the evidence yourself, and then make up your own mind, rather than rely on the reports of others. And so far I cannot do that. The published evidence that the body is Richard III is quite convincing. But it really cannot be said to be entirely convincing.

Why does it matter? It's a good story, and has been fun to follow. But for an anorak like me that's not enough. If we want to be able to say, 'This is Richard III', with such conviction that we are able then to bury him with all the dignity the Church can muster, in a shrine in some exalted cathedral,* then we must be absolutely sure, beyond not just reasonable doubt but any doubt, that it is him. And we are not yet there.

Here are some of the problems I have with the evidence presented so far. First, having argued for decades (with some compelling contemporary evidence, it has to be said) that Richard III absolutely did not have a crooked spine, Ricardians have now seized on the fact that the skeleton did have a crooked spine as proof that it must be Richard III. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. Secondly, the evidence that Richard III was buried in Greyfriars monastery is quite strong, but to be sure this particular body is him we need to have far more archaeological evidence about the rest of the site, and even to be able to discount other bodies buried therein. Heralding the first body you dig up and then not fully excavating the rest of the site, is, again, not really good enough. I don't think we yet have conclusive proof that the body was by the altar. Thirdly, the evidence that the body died a violent death is useful, but hardly a clincher in a violent age, and in a place not far from one of the bloodiest battles fought on English soil. I'm also puzzled at the bound hands theory - why would you bind the hands of a dead person? Is it possible that the large slice at the back of the head, the bound hands, and the way the skull was rather oddly placed in the grave (higher than the skeleton), all suggest instead that we are dealing with some unfortunate captive who was beheaded? And finally, what of the DNA evidence? For me, the most compelling evidence was the DNA analysis linking the bones to Richard's descendants. But so far we have had no published evidence to back this up. All we had in the TV programme was the simple, impossibly brief conclusion that 'we have a match'.

Well, what sort of match? The graph above, from the University of Leicester's website, shows part of a sequence from the DNA of two descendants of Richard III's sister, Anne of York. The two descendants' DNA matches perfectly. The bottom graph shows the partial DNA sequence of Richard III. At first glance they look close - there is indeed 'a match'. But look closer and you'll see that there are quite distinct differences. My main question here is, if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically?

There may be a perfectly acceptable explanation for all this (and I'm no geneticist), but the problem is we are not provided with one. And before you think I'm just being curmudgeonly here, then you may be interested to read this from today's Guardian:

"Mitochondria is not brilliant for detecting relatedness but, given you've got so far back in time, so many generations back, it's as good as it can get. If the only thing you can compare that ancient DNA with is somebody living today, then you'd want it to be mitochondria," said Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London.

But it is not ideal. Two people could have the same mitochondrial type just by chance and it would not necessarily mean they shared a common ancestor at the time of Richard III. "If Richard III had a very common type of mitochondrial DNA, then there will be plenty of people in the country that have got the same," said Thomas.

Even if there is good circumstantial evidence to suggest two people are related, they might still share the same mtDNA by chance. One thing to look out for in any forthcoming research paper is just how rare the mtDNA type is that King's team measured – the rarer it is, the less likely it is to be a chance result and the more likely it is to be a robust family connection.

Ross Barnett of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen also questioned the depth of the mtDNA match between the skeleton and Ibsen.

"The [diagrams] they showed were only about 30 base pairs or so … you need to have quite a lot more than 30 base pairs to get a deep match." The more common a mtDNA type is in the population, the more base pairs of DNA are required to get a reliable match.

I have some concerns with other aspects of the archaeological evidence too. Now it is true that historians have long been wary of archaeologists jumping to logical-sounding conclusions based on almost no evidence, and I may just be being academically sniffy here. But take this explanation for some of the wounds on the body:

There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as "humiliation injuries". They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university's archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard's face was relatively undamaged.

"They'd killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable," Savage said. "To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much."

"It's the Gaddafi effect," Foxhall said. "We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting 'not the face, don't touch the face'. It's one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn."

This all sounds logical, but as hard historical evidence it won't entirely do. First, we cannot judge a battle in 1485 by comparing it to the death of a dictator in 2011. I don't know, but I suspect that those who confronted Richard III at Bosworth tried to kill him as quickly as they could, face or no face. There is no contemporary evidence that anyone cared a jot about Richard's face. And then there is the sudden supposition that this skeleton was that of a man who was wearing armour, when in fact there is no evidence he was wearing armour at all. Yes, if you assume this body was Richard III, he would have been wearing armour. But you cannot make that assumption first, and then use it as part of your argument that he was Richard III. Haven't the archaeologists got ahead of themselves here?

All of which brings me onto my main concern with this story - the academic processes followed by the University of Leicester (and I'm not just talking about the unfortunate archaeological digging that split open the body's leg and skull). As a historian, I cannot help but be instinctively uncomfortable with the seemingly subjective way in which the University has gone about their task. The press conference held yesterday to announce the discovery made for dramatic TV, but reflected badly on the University's regard for academic process and objectivity. One wondered if the university found only what they wanted to find. This is, however, potentially one of the most important archaeological and historical discoveries in British history, and the university owed it to their fellow historians and archaeological colleagues to ensure that the evidence was not only presented fairly, but in great detail, and at leisure (the DNA match was only made on Saturday night!). Instead, we have had no peer review process, and no in-depth evidence to analyse for ourselves. All we have so far is an engaging but historically redundant TV programme, and an entirely deficient (from an academic point of view) section on the University of Leicester website which raises more questions than answers, especially when it comes to the DNA evidence. On which, as Professor Mary Beard writes:

Then I found myself thinking... this is a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. OK, I see that there is a tricky dividing line. We want to have us, the public, informed of what's been going on -- and we dont necessarily think it is a great idea that we should all have to wait for that for months or years, until the academic seal of approval has been granted. But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn't one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).

I know I may come across as an old grump on this, and I really don't mean to begrudge the team at Leicester their excitement and justly won praise. I've little doubt that they're right and that the body really is Richard III. History and historians will forever owe them a debt of gratitude. But from a historical point of view the stakes could not be higher, and I just wish that a little more care had been taken to present the evidence properly. It's a shame that there need to be any doubts at all. I don't want to have any doubts. I want it to be true.

*I would argue for burial in York.

Update - a reader writes:

The concerns you raise regarding the university's approach to identifying the putative remains of the King are well taken. But on one point, there may be an easy answer. You ask "... if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically? According to the CBC National news last evening the descendants are actually Canadian brothers (Jeff and Michael Ibsen) whom, one presumes, are likely to have close to matching DNA. The film clip is here.

Update II - Neil Jeffares, via Twitter, asks some pertinent DNA questions:

How many of the other bodies left below the parking lot would have passed the mtDNA test? We need the numbers. After all, if it survives unchanged for 18 generations, lots of people must have the same...

How many of RIII's maternal cousins (perhaps many times removed) also slain at Bosworth and buried in same carpark?

Update III - more DNA questions on

Ancient DNA, however, is very susceptible to contamination, sparking some skepticism.

"Before being convinced of ANY aDNA study, it should be explicit that all possible cautions were taken to avoid potential contamination," Avila wrote in an email to LiveScience. "It is just part of the protocol." (aDNA refers to ancient DNA.)

Avila also warned that people could share mitochondrial DNA even if they didn't share a family tree. To be confident that Ibsen is related to the owner of the disinterred skeleton, the researchers must present statistics showing how common the DNA profile is in the United Kingdom, she said. Otherwise, the similarities between Ibsen's mitochondrial DNA and the skeleton's could be coincidental.

Avila noted that she doesn't necessarily disbelieve the team's conclusion that the skeleton is Richard III's, just that the DNA evidence isn't the strongest piece of the puzzle.

"It seems to me that osteological as well as archaeological evidence is stronger, however 'DNA evidence' sounds fancier so it looks like they used it as the hook to capture the attention of media," she said.

Personally, I see it the other way round. I hope we are able to say that the DNA evidence is stronger than the interesting, but not wholly convincing, archaeological evidence. Apparently fuller DNA details will be released in a week or so.

Update IV - revisiting this on 2nd September 2013, I see that the University of Leicester has still not released a fuller analysis of the DNA evidence.

Prado's 'Young Van Dyck' extended to 31st March

February 4 2013

Image of Prado's 'Young Van Dyck' extended to 31st March

Picture: Gemaldegalerie, Vienna/Museo Prado, Madrid

'The Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado has been extended from 3rd March to 31st March. This is a good sign, on many levels: not only because it means that people are interested in Van Dyck (hurrah); but also because this excellent, dare I say it, traditionally focused exhibition is a model of its type, and a stirring riposte to all the thematic faux-blockbuster nonsense we are increasingly served up these days.

A Poussin typo

February 4 2013

Image of A Poussin typo


A reader sends me this snippet from the arts page of The East African.

Lucian Freud's Corot

February 4 2013

Image of Lucian Freud's Corot

Picture: National Gallery/Getty

The National Gallery is up a Corot after the government permanently allocated to it the above portrait from Lucian Freud's collection, accepted by the nation in lieu of tax. The Courtauld has been allocated three sculptures by Degas. More here.

Update - a reader writes:

Interesting to see how the "bequest" is being reported.  It's as though the works are being seen as an outright gift when, in fact, the transfer has tax benefits for Freud's estate.

Update II - another reader writes:

I happened to see somewhere in the weekend papers that the Corot ‘had been valued at £5m.’ ?! Is it just me or does that seem an absurd amount for a (rather ugly) portrait by an artist famous for his landscapes ?! What intrigues me is who is doing these valuations on behalf of the Revenue ? 

I see from ArtInfo's Art Sales Index (which is free, and, wonderfully, means you no longer have to be fleeced by Artnet to look up prices paid at auction) that the picture sold at Christie's in New York on 9th May 2001 for $2.6m or $1.64m. With inflation at UK CPI that would be £2.16m today, which I know is a not very useful calculation, but nonetheless worth noting. Perhaps the remaining increase is accounted for by the illustrious new provenance?

Update III - clearer figures are emerging. The Guardian reports that the total tax benefit to the Freud estate of the Corot and the Degas sculptures is £2.34m. However, they still, pace our first comment, write the story up as 'Freud's donation', which it isn't. 

It's also good to see, following my comparison with Spain below, and the lack of visible high profile political support for art donations here in the UK, that the unveiling was attended by Culture Secretary Maria Miller. But then, I know they read AHN down at the Department for Culture, MEdia and Sport...

Update IV - another reader writes to defend the quality of the picture:

The late Corot figure given by the Freud estate in lieu of tax is a masterpiece and deserves its place among the other great paintings at Trafalgar Square. Its valuation is supported by a much smaller Corot figure of high quality which sold at Sotheby's New York more recently for over $4,000,000 US. Corot's figure paintings are among his most admired works, and the Freud Corot was one of the last major examples in private hands.

Update V - a reader asks:

Has anyone quoted to you the old art market adage about Corot Something like "there are 10,000 Corots in the United States of which 9,000 aren't by him".

New restitution claim - from the French Revolution?

February 4 2013

Image of New restitution claim - from the French Revolution?

Picture: Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

ArtInfo has news of another impossible long-sighted restitution claim:

During the French Revolution, the French army took a Rubens painting from the cathedral in Tournai. The work, titled “The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus,” [above] ended up in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes. Now the Belgian town is demanding the work’s return.

Rudy Demotte, president of the French Community of Belgium, has written to French president François Hollande and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti to ask that the painting be returned, Le Journal des Arts reports. He made the same request to the French government last year but received no reply.

Ludicrous though the claim is, it's a bit rich of the French to ignore this one, after they recently seized a painting they said was stolen in the French Revolution. That said, I still think that we need to think about a time limit for restitution cases. Otherwise minor politicians like Rudy Demotte will continue to seek media coverage by making silly claims like this.

Update - a reader writes:

I agree that some sort of time limit should be in force but, frankly, the seizure of the Tournier by the French state last year was - to say the least - a bit rich.  

Anyone visting the Louvre will notice that many major works in its collections were accessioned during the Revolutionary Wars: ie they were brought there from all over Europe by Napoleon's forces.  Altarpieces by Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico - all the way to Carracci and Barrocci - were "acquired" from Italian churches: indeed all sorts of objects, like the Rubens, found their way into French museums never to be returned.

While I think it is too late for restitution in most cases there are one or two instances where this should happen, for reasons of artistic inegrity as it were - though this might in itself provide a dangerous precedent.  

If one visits the Doges Palace yawning gaps will be seen in the coffered ceilings in two rooms - these were filled by paintings by Veronese removed by Napoleonic forces and still in the Louvre.  And then there's also the blank wall the end of the refectory in S Giorgio Maggiore which contained Veronese's Marriage at Cana in the Louvre. I seem to remember that the Treaty of Vienna specified the return of the latter but the French did a deal with Austria - who were given control of the Veneto - and exchanged it for a LeBrun for Vienna instead.

Perhaps the most heinous example of not returning an object concerns Mantegna's altarpiece from S Zeno in Verona.  Again, the restitution was specified in the Treaty of Vienna and the French complied, in part.  The main panels sent back to the church but the French kept the three predella panels: the Crucifixion is in the Louvre and the two others are in Tours.

It's worth pointing out that French institutions, as well as individuals, were also targetted during this time: the Louvre's van Eyck of the Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin came from Autun Cathedral.

A sleeper awakes...?

February 2 2013

Image of A sleeper awakes...?

Picture: Sotheby's

For me, the highlight of the New York Old Master sales was the above small oil on panel described as 'Follower of Rubens' at Sotheby's, with an estimate of $30,000-$50,000. The sitter was identified as 'Possibly Clara Serena Rubens', the artist's daughter, and was being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum. After a protracted bidding battle between what seemed to be at least half a dozen bidders, the picture sold for $626,500. 

The picture shone out from the wall at the viewing, and I'm not surprised that more than one person had the same idea as me - that this was by no mere follower of Rubens. What could have appeared at first glance to be a poorly drawn face was in fact a wonderfully observed informal portrait of a seemingly self-conscious but relaxed young girl. The shadowing and reflected light on the right hand side of the face and neck, for example, were masterly. The key here was the informality of the picture, which, in its sketchy application (especially in the drapery) set it apart from Rubens' better known and more finished head studies. The fact that it was partly obscured by several layers of old varnish, particularly in the hair and background, also made the quality of the work hard to read at first. But enough people were convinced to take it to a higher level, and I'm not surprised it made a high price.

You might say, however, that if it was so apparently by Rubens, why did it not fetch more? The answer lies in the - how shall I put this? - unsettled nature of Rubens scholarship at the moment. The Rubenianum is a fine and glorious body, but it is known for its multi-headed approach to its cataloguing - that is, it is unlike the Rembrandt Research Project, where a single figure of tested connoisseurial ability, Ernst van der Wetering, is the ultimate arbiter of attributions. As a result, a number of surprising attributional calls are made on Rubens as scholars with varying thresholds of what is and isn't a Rubens publish works on seperate areas of the artist's work. Therefore, the picture at Sotheby's will be a difficult one to 'get through', as we say in the trade, and thus carries a greater commercial risk. Plus, there is the fact that this picture was deaccessioned by the Met - as big an institution as they come - as a copy of a lost original, presumably with the agreement of the current crop of Rubens scholars, and with the views of important names such as Julius Held, who in 1959 first questioned the previously accepted attribution to Rubens, behind it. So the buyer of the picture is necessarily going to put a lot of noses out of joint if he or she does prove that it is by Rubens - almost as many as me for writing this post, in fact.

Still, it's all good fun, and art history will be the ultimate winner for the picture getting greater attention. I don't think, by the way, that Sotheby's were wrong to put the picture in as by a follower of Rubens. First, I and the other bidders may well be wrong (though I don't mind saying here that I think it certainly is by Rubens). Second, if the Metropolitan Museum and five decades of Rubens scholarship have said it is not by Rubens, then it's hardly up to Sotheby's to tell the Met where it might be going wrong. The picture will be an interesting one to follow, and gives a timely reminder here in the UK on (as I have highlighted many times) the perils of deaccessioning.

New York Old Master week

February 2 2013

Image of New York Old Master week

Picture: Sotheby's

Christie's seem to have had the more successful week of Old Master sales in New York, though I preferred Sotheby's offering myself. I flew out with my boss, Philip Mould, on Saturday and left on Sunday evening, which gave us enough time for a close view of the sales, and refresher trips around New York's incomparable Met and Frick collections. We've ended the week with three new acquisitions, two of which will prove to be, we hope, new discoveries - more details here soon.

Christie's seperate Renaissance sale did well, making a total of $42.6m (all prices with premium). Highlights included a Fra Bartolommeo Madonna and Child (in its original frame) at $12.9m; a Botticelli Madonna and Child at $10.4m; a Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni in incredible condition by Il Gaetano at $7.58m (a record for Gaetano, or Scipio Pulzone); and even a somewhat compromised Raphael drawing of Saint Benedict Receiving Maurus & Placidus making $1.2m. In their main sale, Christie's total of $88.4m with premium was just above its pre-sale estimate of $75m-$115m (excl. premium). However, their Bronzino Portrait of a Young Man with a Book at $12m-$18m failed to sell. Possibly this video didn't help. Other sales of note for Christie's included a Watteau at $602,500; and a fine Chardin making a record $4m. Van Dyck fans like me will have noted the 'Portrait of a Cavalier' making $542,500. A rare oil on panel portrait, it had been excluded from the recent 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne. But I thought there was little doubt about the attribution, and one could even argue, given the way colours fade less on panel, that more of Van Dyck's portraits looked as colourful as this once upon a time. Another record at Christie's was this delightful drawing by Claude, which made $6.1m against a $500k-$800k estimate. In all, Christie's totalled $88.4m, which was its best New York Old Master total since 2006 - so congratulations to them. 

For Sotheby's, things were a little patchy. Their total was just over $80m including premium, not far off Christie's, but some way below the lower estimate total of $89m (which does not include premium). Their highlights included Fragonard's Goddess Aurora Triumphing Over Night, which was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $3.8m; a newly discovered Christ Blessing by Hans Memling at $4.1m; a delightful Turner watercolour Heidelburg with a Rainbow at $4.5m; and Pompeo Batoni's amazingly fresh Susanna and the Elders [above], which made $11.4m against an estimate of $6m-$9m. The last price was interesting given that the picture failed to sell at £3m-£5m when last offered in London in 1991. Sotheby's did however have more than a few buy-ins, including a Goya estimated at $6m-$8m.

Overall the week was, I think, a reasonably healthy indicator of the Old Master market given the general economic backdrop. As ever, there were some record prices and many over-estimated turkeys. But I cannot see how Souren Melikian, writing in the New York Times, concludes that:

Slowly, the signs are multiplying that the auction market for Old Master paintings as a financially viable system might be drawing to a close.

In five to 10 years, there probably won’t be enough top- to middle-range pictures left to keep the two international auction houses’ engines running.

People have been saying this kind of thing for years.

Update: The Grumpy Art Historian has a review of the Old Master drawings sales here.

Agnews to close

February 2 2013

Image of Agnews to close

Picture: Look and Learn

I was very saddened to read in the FT this morning that Agnews, one of the world's oldest art dealers, is to close. Georgina Adams writes:

Agnews, one of the world’s oldest art dealers, is to close. The 195-year-old London gallery will cease trading on April 30, after a final outing at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht.

Chairman Julian Agnew is from the sixth generation to work for the family firm, which has long been in decline. In 2008 the chairman sold its historic Bond Street premises [above], purpose-built by his great-great grandfather in 1877, for a reported £25m, and moved to a smaller space in nearby Albemarle Street.

Negotiations with a prospective buyer ended in failure last year. “I wanted to retire and there was no obvious successor,” says Agnew, whose daughter Gina left last year to start her own gallery. “We are not in a happy place: we are neither big like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the ‘supermarkets’ of the art world, nor small enough. We were undercapitalised for today’s art prices.” The firm is privately owned, with 16 family shareholders, and its most recent available accounts, dating from 2011, reveal a loss of £1.8m, including various writedowns for accountancy reasons.

In its heyday, Agnews handled major Old Master paintings: Reynolds, Gainsborough, Van Dyke and Rembrandt, as well as selling watercolours and British paintings. One of many splendid works it sold is Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, now in London’s National Gallery.

The firm has been running down stock, and the remainder will be disposed of gradually. Agnew says he will continue to work from home advising clients privately, and that he will keep the company name. “I actually want to spend less time with my family, the company, and more with my own family,” he says.

Now is not the time for post-mortems. But Agnews' closure is more evidence, if we needed it, of how hard it is to be an Old Master art dealer these days. Recently, another major London dealer retreated from their traditional ground floor gallery to second and third floor offices. The two major auction houses are almost totally dominant, and have captured most of the market. Dealers cannot hope to outspend them or outmarket them. The only way we can compete now is to outthink them, which is why dealers have to be ruthlessly focused on a particular area of expertise, and, if possible, try always to remain one art historical step ahead. Knowledge is our most valuable commodity - not premises, brands, or even capital. That's what makes it so exciting.

Despite what you might read over the next few days in response to the Agnews story, the end of the London art market is not nigh. In the modern and contemporary sector all is booming - David Zwirner, for example, recently opened an enormous town house gallery next to us here in Dover Street.

Update - did I speak too soon? Christie's have announced that they are closing Haunch of Venison in London and New York. However, it has seemed for some time that the health of Christie's contemporary outpost was under question, after its original founders, Harry Blain and Graham Southern, left to start up another gallery.

Update II - a reader writes:

I am deeply saddened by your news that Agnew's is to close. But I feel you missed a big part of the story: what on earth will happen to their incomparable library and archive? This actually is a question of great importance. I did much of the key work for my phd in the basement of their old Bond Street gallery. The library was amazing - I wonder, come to think of it, if it was the same library whose sale you wrote about last year? - but the archive is perhaps more significant. They have complete dealers books and many valuable photographs and related correspondence. For example, they handled the sale of drawings by Francis Towne from the Merivale family - Towne, a late 18th century landscape painter (I did my phd on him), had bequeathed his entire estate to the Merivales in 1816 and the descendants began to sell in the 1920s and 30s. Paul Oppe advised them, and drew up a handlist of all the drawings, which Judith Merivale annotated with the dates, prices and buyers of her drawings. The only copy of this catalogue is in the Agnew's archive. Agnew's was the major dealer in English watercolours throughout the 'golden age' of collecting.

Update III - a dealing reader writes:

I largely agree with your interpretation of the not entirely unexpected news about Agnew’s demise, but should point out that the auctioneers are not yet all-conquering. No sooner had the hammer gone down on a lot in the OMP sale at Sotheby’s NY last week than one of the specialists ran up to ask if we would be prepared to ‘take a quick turn’ and sell it straight on to their client (the underbidder on the telephone) for a token profit. What this tells us is that, for all their supposed might, the auction house specialists still can’t encourage every client to outbid the dealers, with the result that they are reduced to traipsing round Maastricht day after day arm-in-arm with the underbidder wondering what might have been!

Rather like vultures at the roadside, the auction specialists are now present at Maastricht from the minute it opens almost until the end, keeping an eye on ‘their’ clients and patrolling the corridors for ones they don’t know. They bring private buyers onto stands and say, ‘Here’s that picture we told you to buy; look what he’s asking for it now !’ The implication is invariably that, ‘We know what we’re talking about, so listen to us next time; and, oh, by the way, aren’t dealers awful to ask such big mark-ups !’

The first point here illustrates the importance of the trade to the auction houses, and overall values in the Old Master sector. It isn't in the auctioneers' interest to kill the trade off entirely - it's the trade that underpins prices. We don't do Maastricht, so I can't comment on the second point.  

New Met videos

February 2 2013

Video: Metropolitan Museum

The Met has launched a new series of short films on the highlights of their collection. Watch the introduction above, and more episodes here

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