Previous Posts: June 2013

Hunting down art thieves

June 11 2013

Image of Hunting down art thieves

Picture: FT

Interesting interview in the FT with Dick Ellis, a former police detective who is now probably the best known hunter of stolen art. Emma Jacobs reports:

According to Mr Ellis, art thieves are career criminals. While most crime is undertaken by opportunists, an art thief needs to know the market and be professional. “They find the Achilles heel in security,” he says. After all, you can’t “take a painting off the wall and flog it in the pub”.

The idea of masterpieces being stolen to order for a criminal mastermind, typified by James Bond villain Dr No displaying Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, is entirely fictional, says Mr Ellis. In his 20 years as an art crime investigator he has never come across a “Mr Big”.

But is a Picasso stolen from a wealthy collector of any concern beyond the victim of the crime when most people have more pressing concerns? Mr Ellis believes it is. “Art is being used as a currency to fund criminality, arms, drugs and terrorism,” he says. “It’s far more important than just losing cultural property. If you stop art crime you are stopping the funding of arms and drugs”.

Dictator art - North Korean export special

June 10 2013

Image of Dictator art - North Korean export special

Picture: AFP/Getty/Bloomberg

We have a strange fascination with 'socialist realist' art here on AHN, so I was delighted when a reader sent me this article on Bloomberg about the North Korean art factory called Mansudae [above]. There they make all the propogandist pictures and posters for Kim Jong Un's dodgy regime. Did you know, however, that the Mansudae studio also does work for other countries, including Germany? News to me. Caroline Winter reports on Bloomberg:

In November 2005, two Germans flew to North Korea on official business. Their goal was not to discuss nuclear disarmament or diplomatic relations. Rather, they went to check on the progress of a sculptural commission: the reconstruction of Frankfurt’s so-called Fairy Tale Fountain [below], an art nouveau relic from 1910 that had been melted down for its metal during World War II.

Blueprints for the original Fairy Tale Fountain had gone missing, and the City of Frankfurt needed sculptors who could work from old photographs to re-create the naked beauty gazing down on an array of cherubic children and enormous water-spewing reptiles and fish. For this intricate job, the Germans had turned to Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Studio.

Perhaps the world’s biggest art factory, Mansudae employs roughly 4,000 North Koreans, including some 1,000 artists, handpicked from the country’s best academies. These favored few are the only artists officially sanctioned to portray the Kim family dynasty, and their primary task is to churn out propaganda paintings, murals, posters, billboards, and Soviet-style monuments deifying the country’s Great, Dear, and Supreme Leaders, also known as Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. But Mansudae does more than just set the stage for North Korea’s self-celebration. The studio also runs a thriving multimillion-dollar side business: building statues, monuments, museums, sports stadiums, and at least one palace, for a long list of countries across the world, many of them in Africa.

PS - curious to note that Kim Jong Un has not yet appeared in propagandist paintings and sculptures. 

PPS - you can keep up to date with all the goings on in North Korea at this curious blog. My favourite recent report shows Kim Jong Un visiting an unfinished ski resort. 

Sleeper Alert

June 10 2013

Image of Sleeper Alert


We were sad to underbid, at CHF125,000 (hammer price), this interesting portrait by Sir Peter Lely at the weekend, which came up in Switzerland as 'English School'. The sitter is currently unknown. The pose is repeated by Lely a number of times with different heads, so one must watch for the dread hand of studio. 

Guffwatch - Biennale 2013

June 10 2013

Video: Biennale Channel

Here's a video about the US pavilion at the Biennale, which I found to be one of the more pointless ones. Note how all the usual Guff genericisms trip off the tongue, especially the use of opposites, which are useful because they allow you to say pretty much anything:

...this experiance of intimacy in a very public space seems like it's an accumulation of found objects and random, but in fact it's carefully studied, it's almost like a poem on many levels...'s about the organic growth of things, and also their detrioration...

...there's this mesmeric beauty that is inevitable with a pendulum, but there's this constant anxiety of the potential for something to go wrong...

Regular readers may be surprised to hear that there were a number of pavilions I liked very much, such as those of Belgium, Spain and Germany. More on my trip to Venice soon...

Update - a reader says the above approach is not dissimilar to the fashionista inteviewed by Sacha Baron Cohen here

Honthorst's 'Duet' sold in New York

June 10 2013

Image of Honthorst's 'Duet' sold in New York

Picture: Christie's

Christie's did well with the above Honthorst in their New York Old Master sale last week, selling 'The Duet' for $3.37m (inc. premium). The estimate was $2-3m. The picture had an interesting provenance; having once been in the collection a Russian aristocratic family, the Stroganovs, it was seized by the Soviets and displayed in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It was then sold by the Soviets in Berlin in 1931, where it was bought by Bruno and Ellen Spiro. Their possessions were seized by the Nazis in 1938, and it was re-sold, again in Berlin, only to end up in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1969. Happily, the picture was restituted to the Spiro heirs earlier this year. 

Update - a reader Tweets:

Happy for the Spiros, but will they be dividing the proceeds with the Stroganovs?

Interesting point - how far back should we take restitution cases?

Cuts ahoy!

June 10 2013

Image of Cuts ahoy!

Picture: Evening Standard

It's interesting to see the briefing going on here in the UK press about cuts to the arts. Details of the Government's spending review are due to be announced in late June, and departments are now engaged in last minute negotiations with the Treasury. On Saturday, the FT reported that Culture Secretary Maria Miller (of whom AHN recently disapproved) is 'resisting' cuts to her department's £1.2bn budget, a briefing which comes hot on the heels of suggestions that she might be sacked and her department axed altogether. On Sunday, the Sunday Times quoted a 'Whitehall Source' as saying that the Opera-loving George Osborne was in favour of shielding the arts from hefty cuts, but that his 'Philistine' deputy, Liberal Democrat Tresury Secretary Danny Alexander, was insisting that the arts take a hit. This last story is most curious, as Osborne is Chancellor after all, and has the final word. Either way, it all points to the fact that the arts world is being softened up for a significant cut, and that axe-wielding Tories are looking for someone to blame. 

It's curious to note that there has been relative silence about cuts from the art world, aside from a recent plea by Sir Nicholas Serota. Are the grand fromages of the arts resigned to the inevitable, or are they concerned that, in these austere times, public pleas for special treatment might only damage their case?

A Turner for Bristol

June 10 2013

Image of A Turner for Bristol

Picture: Bristol Art Gallery

Congratulations to Bristol Art Gallery, who have acquired a Turner watercolour of Avon Gorge. More details here in the Bristol Post, which delights in the fact that the city of Bristol has acquired the picture 'without paying a penny' (all the funding came from charitable sources). 

LACMA buying and selling

June 10 2013

Image of LACMA buying and selling

Picture: LACMA

Didier Rykner at Tribune de L'Art reports on two new acquisitions by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Daniele Crespi Mocking of Christ, above, and a Pieta by Francesco Trevisani. All most encouraging, though I have heard lately of an imminent LACMA disposal of a work more important than this. I can't reveal the picture, but its instances like this which make me glad we don't have deaccessioning here in the UK.

Sewell on the Royal Academy Summer Show

June 9 2013

Image of Sewell on the Royal Academy Summer Show


He doesn't like it:

In the past I have occasionally discussed the 10 best exhibits and ignored the other 1,200 or so; this year, as there are no best, I thought to choose the 10 worst, but in so universally dismal a gathering, even that has proved impossible and I have only three to offer, all in their own ways so ghastly that I must award them Equal First. They are Lorry Art, by Rose Wylie [above], a daub worthy of a child of four; Sudden Rain in Mombasa, by Mohammed Abdullah Ariba Khan, who has the impertinence to ask £1,400 for a seascape (in an ornate sham gold frame) of the kind to be expected in a Margate B&B; and The Vanity of Small Differences, Perry’s six tapestries in hideous homage to Hogarth, visually raucous and machine-made offences to all for whom the word tapestry conjures the glories of Mortlake and Brussels.

A copy of a Raphael - yours for £1m

June 7 2013

Image of A copy of a Raphael - yours for £1m

Picture: The De Brecy Trust

Some years ago I was taken to a bank vault in London to look at the above picture, which was claimed to be a contemporary copy or version of Raphael's Sistine Madonna

The picture is now being sold by the De Brecy Trust, which owns it, in an online auction with an opening bid of £1m. Various claims, some backed by 'science', are made for the picture. 

I can say only one thing - caveat emptor.

A rare National Gallery deaccession

June 7 2013

Image of A rare National Gallery deaccession

Picture: Christie's

A fascinating enamel by Henry Bone RA is being offered for sale at Christie's later this month (est. £80k-£120k), of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London). The provenance reveals that Bone's copy after Titian was in fact once owned by the National Gallery, having been bought by them in 1971 for $8,000 but then sold just two years later, though the catalogue doesn't state why. 

Update - a reader has been sleuthing around in the National Gallery's online archive pages, and has found the story. The enamel was loaned to the National Gallery during the restoration of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne in 1969. But the enamel was somehow damaged, and the Gallery was obliged to buy it. They then sold it on soon afterwards. From the NG archive:

Enamel after Titian by Henry Bone. Damage sustained on return from loan at the National Gallery, photographs and x-rays, correspondence with conservators and owners re cost of repair to be met by the National Gallery. Agreement made for work to be ceded to the National Gallery upon payment to owners. Correspondence with Christie’s re sale of enamel upon Department of Education and Science’s advice.

Curiously, this aspect of the Bone's history is not mentioned in the latest catalogue entry.

Update II - another reader writes, from Truro:

Henry Bone, that great Truronian, himself precipitated a catastrophic crash of a different nature with his masterpiece in 1811. 

 This was at the time the largest enamel ever painted and was viewed by 4000 people before the buyer, Mr Bowles,  took it away. He paid 2,200 guineas for it.

 Bone was paid a big fat cheque which he promptly cashed at Fauntleroys Bank so that he could impress his wife with a huge pile of money. The next day the bank collapsed.

Always so nice when extra information like this is sent in by readers - thanks!

'Non!' - attributing works the French way

June 7 2013

Image of 'Non!' - attributing works the French way

Picture: TAN

Melanie Girlis in The Art Newspaper reports that a possible Utrillo consigned to Sotheby's has been turned down by the Association Utrillo, which is run by the man who has inherited the right to attribute Utrillos all over the world, Jean Fabris.

Inherited? Indeed, for in France you can only authenticate modern art if you have inherited the droit de moral of an artist. As TAN reports:

The weight of Fabris’s decision is entirely in accordance with French law, under which artists have moral rights that protect the integrity of a work, including when and how it is shown and treated, regardless of its owner. When an artist dies, this right is bequeathed either to an heir or to another designated person, or people. In theory, the right does not extend to authentication, but in practice, the owners of the droit moral also, by default, become artists’ external validators, often compiling their catalogues raisonnés.

Incroyable. Mind you, there's a hefty reward for any geneologists out there who can find a link between me and Van Dyck.

Update - a reader alerts me to M. Fabris' previous form on hunting down what he thinks are fake Utrillos. This comes from an AP news story back in 1989:

Jean Fabris, 58, is waging war against the alleged fakes, accusing art dealers, auctioneers and experts of putting profit before art. Critics of his efforts claim he's the one who is after money.

He disrupted auction sales in April at both Christies and Sotheby's in London, crying ''Fake, fake.'' He was removed from the auction houses, and the sales of the 17 contested Utrillos went ahead. His campaign scored a tentative victory in Paris when he persuaded a criminal court judge to confiscate seven alleged Utrillo paintings valued at more than $1 million from well-known Paris auctioneer Guy Loudmer.

Verification of the disputed paintings will be handled by a court-appointed panel of experts. A final decision is not expected until early summer.

Fabris has also challenged the New York market. He has written to Sotheby's and Christie's threatening court action if they do not withdraw nine Utrillos to be sold by Sotheby's on May 10 and six more by Christie's on May 11.

''We're not surprised to learn that he is once again attempting to promote unfounded allegations in the press,'' said Diana Levitt, a vice president and director of corporate affairs for Sotheby's in New York.

''As we previously stated, and as the courts in France have also found, Mr. Fabris is not a recognized expert in Utrillo's works. We have notified him that we stand by our authentication of the works in our sale and that we intend to offer them for sale on the date scheduled and that if he interferes in our sale, we will take whatever action we think approbriate to protect Sotheby's and our consignors' rights.''

The seven Utrillos in the April 4 London sale fetched over 1 million pounds ($1.68 million).

Update II - an auctioneer with direct experience of this kind of thing writes:

These self-acclaimed experts are quite a nuisance, since they can't just be ignored, how preposterous their claims might be. Insecure potential clients seek their advice or request their approval, and as an auctioneer to say 'Don't listen to him, he's a nutter" doesn't really come through as a nuanced advise…

Ciao Venezia

June 7 2013

Image of Ciao Venezia

Picture: BG

I'm back - apologies for the lack of service this week. I'll return soon with a bountiful haul of stories and the usual nonsense. 

Is the Future Online?

June 4 2013

By Lawrence Hendra

With the increasing presence of the internet it is hardly surprising to see a number of 'online only' auctioneers emerging, who, with much lower overheads, seem to offer a better deal for buyer and seller alike, but is this really the case?

It is true that the internet has helped auction houses; the ATG recently reported a 41% increase in the number of lots bought via online bidding between March 2012-13, however this doesn’t take into account the number of people who viewed the auction in person prior to bidding online. 

It is undeniable that a good premises can be costly however it gives the auction house a sense of permanence and is in many ways reassuring for potential buyers who (like me) likes to be able to stroll in and talk to a specialist without the secret squirrel routine of buzzers, intercoms and appointments as expected with the 'online only' option. In fact, as I scroll through the 'About Us' page of one online auction now, it doesn’t even say who the specialists are.

Another way which the online auctions keep overheads down is by not producing expensive catalogues. Indeed, this is a topic of debate which anyone who has worked in the art trade is familiar with; auction/stock catalogues can indeed be pricey (especially when the majority of auctions can be viewed online), but again, i do not feel we are ready to depart entirely from this practice. I worked for five years as a cataloguer in an auction house specialising in fine art and a vast proportion of our clients did not (and had no intention of) sitting behind a computer screen scrolling through online auctions. Knowing this, if we decided not to produce an illustrated catalogue, would we have been taking the necessary due diligence to ensure the lots made their best returns to the seller?

It is true that these shortcuts enable more competitive buyer and seller premiums (as little as 10% buyers premium in some instances), but does this reflect the quality of service provided? Would simply uploading a digital catalogue to a website from an obscure office address really have the same lasting effect on the potential buyer as viewing an auction and having a catalogue kicking round their house for a week or two?

This subject is obviously too broad to discuss in a few paragraphs, but will no doubt be an important topic of debate in the years to follow. 

Auctions to Axe Buyer's Premium?

June 4 2013

By Lawrence Hendra

We wish...

However, in response to declining attendance numbers, this New Jersey auction house decided to do just that, completely axing buyer’s premium in a recent sale for anyone who bought in the room and not remotely via the internet from elsewhere. It's amazing how much bidding is down via the internet now; I recently went to an auction in central London and could count on one hand the number of people sitting in front of the rostrum. 

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