Previous Posts: July 2013

Suing the Met

July 9 2013

Image of Suing the Met

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

I mentioned a while ago an attempt to sue the Metropolitan Museum in New York for not adhering strictly to a free admission policy. To recap, a group of lawyers is trying to sue the museum, saying that by asking for a voluntary donation (of $25) a New York city law was being violated, and that thus decades worth of visitors are due a refund. Now this attempt to squeeze out a fat legal free class action lawsuit has reached the courts, and a key piece of evidence comes from one Gerald Lee Jones, who, according to Bloomberg, says:

he worked at the museum from 2007 to 2011, mostly supervising cashiers. They were instructed to never volunteer that visitors may pay less than the “recommended” fee, he said.

“Cashiers are not only trained to avoid disclosing the truth about the museum’s admission prices; their compensation and their continued employment may largely depend on them not revealing it,” Jones said in court papers.

Which is all surely phooey, for I remember visiting the museum many times between 2007-11, and always noted how the cashiers said (something like) 'you can pay what you like, or nothing'. It's true that the net effect is to make you feel guilty about not paying the full $25, but the offer not to pay was still there.

The Met says in response to Mr Jones:

Harold Holzer, the Met senior vice president for public affairs, described Jones as “one of many floor managers” and said Jones’ description of his job is “glib spin on his experience here.”

The museum tracks what cashiers collect because auditors require it, Holzer said in an interview.

“It has nothing to do with performance evaluation or salary,” Holzer said. “We at the museum contest in the strongest terms the allegations in the Gerald Jones affidavit. The Met will offer its responses in due course.”

Sewell on the National's 'Vermeer and Music'

July 6 2013

Image of Sewell on the National's 'Vermeer and Music'

Picture: National Gallery

He doesn't approve:

[...] the whole exhibition is a pretence, even a cheat, and certainly a snare, for it is essentially about the representation of music in 17th-century Holland rather than about Vermeer, whose contribution is only one sixth of the paintings, and of the other 20, 19 are from the gallery’s permanent collection. For the 10 weeks of the exhibition’s duration the visitor must pay £7 for admission to 21 paintings that before and after it he could see for nothing. These few are supported by three borrowed pictures that could have reached Trafalgar Square by bus, the irksome little dud from New York, only seven instruments and a handful of song books.

This is an exhibition that has had far weightier publicity than it can stand, seducing the innocent and gullible, and those who come hot foot in expectation of a Vermeer show will be crushingly disappointed — it must, indeed, be more rewarding for the historian of keyboard and stringed instruments, and perhaps for the historian of costume. Only by chance does it raise a point of Vermeer scholarship: according to the inventory of Vermeer’s household possessions made, room by room, 10 weeks after his death, he owned not one single musical instrument of any kind; in whose lofty rooms, then, were the expensive virginals on which his egg-faced women played with their pig’s trotter hands (those of the standing player I saw repainted by Helmuth Ruhemann, the gallery’s conservator, 60 years ago)? Is it possible that these rooms are invented? Alternatively, is it possible that they are more or less real and that these excessively plain women are portraits of the wives or daughters of the house? Were such instruments ever in Vermeer’s possession? Had he sold them to pay the butcher’s bill? Was he so passionate an amateur musician that, deprived of them, he fell into the mortal frenzy of his wife’s account?

The National Gallery has, as it were, done nothing but rearrange its deckchairs so that we can see the band. Two Caravaggiesque paintings by Ter Brugghen set the scene before Vermeer’s birth — raw-faced Dutchmen in the togs of the Italian bravo. From the warped View of Delft by Carel Fabritius (proposed by some to have been Vermeer’s instructor) we may conclude that instruments were, like fish and vegetables, sold from stalls in the street. A handful of Vermeerish subjects by his contemporaries Dou, De Hooch, Metsu and Jan Steen (whose Music Makers on a Terrace — possibly based on a performance by travelling players — seems in its sweet melancholy to anticipate Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes), and another handful of musical merrymakers in paintings so trifling that they should be banished to the basement, make up the number.

Update - a painter writes:

Brian Sewell points out there were not many Vermeers on view  in the 'Vermeer in Music' exhibition, but this did make me look at those few in more detail than usual.

I was fascinated to notice for the first time that the strings of the guitar under the player's right hand  in 'The Guitar Player' 1670-72 (The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood) which you illustrate, are shown in motion- actually blurred. Whereas the further up on the neck, they are clearly defined as lines. Of course Velasquez had already done something similar with the blurred wheel in 'The spinners' 1644-48 (Prado). 

Part of the 'timeless' feel of the best Vermeers must come from his habit  of depicting  actions taking place over time; the playing of musical instruments, the stream of milk that pours for ever without the bowl overflowing,  in 'The milkmaid' (Rijksmuseum), the painter with his model.

A close study of  'The guitar player' also reveals the extreme economy of Vermeer's technique of representing light falling on a variety of surfaces, leaving the spectator unconsciously to supply the missing details. For example, the string pegs on the guitar are shown just as two rows of black and white dots, and the pearl necklace is painted as pale circular tube with highlights at intervals. All the details of the hands, face and cloth are shown as flat areas of colour, blending into adjacent planes, creating an illusion of reality and microsopic detail which isn't actually there; all held together by superb drawing and a flawless composition.

One can argue that this all comes from observing the scene depicted  via the use of a lens, a prism or a camera obscura, but that is to miss the point. Vermeer used whatever means were necessary to seduce us into his quiet, contemplative world, and he succeeds every time.

'Draw like an old master'

July 6 2013

Video: via Kickstarter

Or, depending on your view, cheat like one. Looks like a nifty gadget though.

'Manner of Romney' (ctd.)

July 6 2013

Image of 'Manner of Romney' (ctd.)

Picture: Tate

I mentioned a few weeks ago a picture I'd come across on the Tate's website, called 'Manner of Romney'. I wrote that I felt it was by Romney, and the Tate's curatorial department kindly asked me to their store rooms to see it. I'm happy to report that it is certainly by Romney, and that the compiler of the forthcoming Romney catalogue Raisonne, Alex Kidson, agrees with the attribution. 

National Trust goes contemporary

July 6 2013

Video: National Trust

As they used to say in the 18th Century, 'most curious'.

Art is good for your health

July 6 2013

Image of Art is good for your health

Picture: ITV

The Lindo Wing at St Mary's hospital in London, where the Duchess of Cambridge will soon give birth, has been given an artistic overhaul by Julian Opie, of whom AHN is a big fan. More details here

More cuts at English Heritage

July 6 2013

Image of More cuts at English Heritage


Not strictly art history this, but worth mentioning: English Heritage's budget has been cut again, this time by 10% for the year 2015/16. There has, however, been little in the way of protest from the cultural sector. I've often wondered why it is that 'the arts' have such a strong political voice, and are comparatively protected from cuts, but heritage does not. By many measures, it is more incumbent on the state to protect its physical heritage assets (from Dover Castle to Bletchley Park) than it is to keep a contemporary dance troupe in clover.

Of course, the primary responsiblity for this short-term cut must lie with the government. But I believe that part of the problem is a failure of leadership in the heritage sector. The case for heritage is not properly made in goverment, despite the clear evidence that more people visit 'heritage' sites than take part in 'the arts', and despite the fact that heritage is more important to our tourism industry (and thus the government's growth strategy) than the arts.

Proof of this is the fact that the budget for English Heritage has been cut in real terms consistently since long before the current economic crisis. In 2004/5, English Heritage's grant-in-aid budget was £127,901,000. Now, nearly a decade later, it is just £83,056,000. I can't do the inflationary maths, but I bet few other government departments have suffered such a consistent funding squeeze. Indeed, I was working in politics at the time the English Heritage budgets began to be cut, in 2004, which were days of plenty, and arts spending was rising massively. We tried to criticise the government for the cuts, but heritage never had the traction of the arts. Nobody in government seemed to be on the receiving end of a clear and concise case for heritage. It seems they still aren't.

Partly to make up for the history of cuts, which have led to a backlog in heritage repairs, the present government has now granted English Heritage a one-off capital grant of £80m. This will also help establish a seperate, independent body to look after sites such as Dover Castle. The long-term future, therefore, looks like being one of a further reduction in state support for heritage, as English Heritage is forced to become increasingly independent. 

An intriguing glimpse of what might be going wrong at English Heritage is the recent story of their blue plaque programme (which are placed on the homes of the great and good after they die). The Telegraph reports:

The programme, which involves commemorative signs being attached to the former homes of celebrated personalities from the past, has been drastically scaled back by the English Heritage, which has seen a reduction in Government funding. The numbers of plaques being awarded has been reduced and nominations for new ones suspended entirely.

The three resignations - including by the chairman and vice chairman - mean the panel has lost more than a quarter of its membership. Some of the remaining eight members are also said to be considering their position over the changes, and the body itself is now facing an uncertain future.

You have to wonder why the scheme is so expensive in the first place, and why such a large and fractious panel is required. Surely the decision as to who merits a plaque can be made in minutes with common sense by no more than one or two people. And since the plaques do wonders for the value of a property, the cost of making and installing them could be borne by the householder.

Update - see my more recent post for what the real terms cut amounts to.

Sleeper alert?

July 5 2013

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above 'Circle of Rubens' Mater Dolorosa just made £193,000 at Christie's South Kensington, against a £2-£3k estimate.


Sotheby's Old Master sale makes £35m

July 4 2013

Video: Sotheby's

There seemed to be stronger bidding all round at Sotheby's Old Master sale last night, so the total of £35m against Christie's £23.8m isn't surprising. The comparison between Sotheby's and Christie's totals is a little tortoise and hare - despite there being fewer 'star' pictures, Sotheby's sale was perhaps stronger in depth, and, crucially, the estimates were on the right side of realistic. For example, my favourite lot in the sale, the series of six Tiepolo frescoes featured in the video above, were estimated at what I thought was a reasonable £3-5m, and just scraped home, making £3.2m with premium. 

Sotheby's press release says:

An unprecedented level of participation from new markets propelled Sotheby’s London Evening Sale of Old Master & British Paintings to £35,048,000. Collectors from 33 countries took part in the sale with record numbers from Asia and the Middle East. More than 400 years since El Greco executed Saint Dominic in Prayer in early 17th-century Toledo, bidders from new markets battled tenaciously for this powerfully expressive work which was appearing at auction for the first time. They drove the price to £9,154,500 (est. £3-5million), a new record for a Spanish Old Master and the highest price across London’s Old Masters sales this week.

In total, 8 auction records tumbled tonight, including that for Claude-Joseph Vernet, whose outstanding View of Avignon from the right bank of the Rhône outstripped pre-sale expectations to realise £5,346,500 (est. £3-5million). A new auction record for a female Old Master artist was also established when Rachel Ruysch’s Still Life of Roses from 1710 achieved £1,650,000 (est. £1-1.5million).

There was a bit of drama when Sotheby's phone bidder lost their connection on the £9.1m El Greco at £7.1m. The auctioneer, Henry Wyndham (as I've said here before, the best in the business) was about to put the hammer down, after waiting what seemed an age. But at the last moment connection was re-established, and £2m later the person with the dodgy mobile walked away the winner. I imagine they were sitting casually on their yacht, drifting in and out of signal on the Cote d'Azur.

PS - I'm aware there's been lots of other non-market related art history news this week, so sorry for the paucity of stories. This crazy week is nearly over, and the blog'll be back to normal soon.

Update - the Vernet was bought by Axa insurance for the Louvre. More details here

'The market for Old Masters has never been stronger'

July 3 2013

Video: Christie's

So says the commentary for Christie's video above, showing highlights of the Old Master sale last night here in London. Sadly, the prices realised didn't quite prove the theory right. The total raised, including buyer's premium, was £23,852,300. In the same sale last year, the total was £85m.

So what happened? There were some fine pictures, the room was packed, the exhibition was well laid out, and the catalogue was first-class (they're getting really good these days). The problem was, I suspect, the high estimates. The £7m-£10m Jan Steen, for example, failed to elicit a single bid. The estimate was, I presume, arrived at on the back of Sotheby's record Steen price of £5.6m, realised last year for 'The Prayer Before the Meal'. However, the Prayer picture was, I believe, bought by a pre-sale guarantor, so it's not certain that the £5.6m figure is truly representative of Steen's 'value'. I'm afraid I thought the Christie's Steen rather an unappealing thing. Other buy-ins included a £1.5m-£2m Lucas Cranach the Elder of Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, a pair of Wright of Derby landscapes at £500k-£700k, and a £3m-£5m Poussin of Hannibal on his Elephant. 

The sale total was significantly helped by a Canaletto making £8.46m. A fine Rubens head study made £1.74m, which was a little low I thought for such a well painted image. Interestingly, Van Dyck head studies seem to be making much more than Rubens' examples at the moment. Something to do, I suspect, with Van Dyck being a better portraitist than Rubens, and his heads (especially in study form) therefore having a more immediate, modern feel to them. 

On a night of fairly lacklustre bidding, it fell to our own British portraitists to shatter the estimate barrier - a Thomas Lawrence of Lady Berkeley made £901k against a £400k-£600k estimate, while George Romney's beautiful Portrait of Elizabeth Ramus made £541k against a (too low) estimate of £150k-£200k. The buyer of the Romney was so keen to have it that they unilaterally increased the bidding increments by £50,000. My kind of client.

It'll be interesting to see what tonight's Sotheby's sale makes. Last time round, in December, Sotheby's whupped Christie's with a total of £59m vs £11.2m.

Update - Christie's press release says:

Last night’s sale of Old Master & British Paintings was led by Canaletto’s The Molo, Venice, from the Bacino di San Marco, doubling its presale estimate to realise £8,461,875 / $12,870,512 / €9,841,161.

The sale saw strong prices for paintings from all schools, particularly Italian, Flemish and British, while six new artist world records were achieved.

With participation from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Russia as well as Europe and North America, the sale total of £23,852,300 / $36,279,348 / €27,740,225 reflects the continued global interest in Old Master Paintings.

Update II - a reader reminds me that I made a rash prediction on the Steen price, and writes:

I am happy to see that the buyers kept their paddles down so you wont have to eat your trousers...

More pictures under attack?

July 1 2013

It seems that Fathers4Justice protesters are now deliberately targeting works of art. Last week we had an attack on Constable's Haywain, and before that a portrait of the Queen was spray painted in Westminster Abbey. Now, the Abbey has been targeted again, this time with a statue being defaced. And worryingly, The Guardian reports a F4J source as saying that similar protests are on the way:

Obviously that is the way we are heading at the moment after the two protests on paintings.

What to do? Glaze everything? At the moment, people who damage works of art in this way can only be charged with causing criminal damage. Do we need a new offence that makes the targeting of heritage assets a more serious offence?

Update - a reader writes, correcting me:

It is possible to prosecute someone for a ‘heritage crime’, which can be interpreted as any offence which harms the value of heritage assets and their settings.

The idea was pioneered by English Heritage who set up “The Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage” (ARCH) in response to the metal theft crisis.

Essentially it allows the crime to be properly recorded, and for sentencing to be more severe. More info here.

Another reader writes:

I think you must recognise a great difference between suffragettes slashing the Rokeby Venus [Fathers4Justice claim, strangely, that their protests are akin to the suffragettes attacks on art in the early 20thC], and a disposessed father sticking  a photograph to a Constable, an act which apparently resulted in no lasting damage, criminal or otherwise. The great worry is that the warders at the National Gallery are not sufficiently numerous or alert to prevent an attack on a painting in their care. If they were, it would be impossible to touch the pictures, even to write in the dust.

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