Previous Posts: November 2013

Bacon Triptych heads to Qatar?

November 20 2013

Image of Bacon Triptych heads to Qatar?

Picture: Telegraph/Christie's

Apparently the buyer of the $142.4m Bacon triptych was the mega art buying Shiekha Mayassa bin Hamad al-Thani, of Qatar. More here. She is also thought to have bought the $250m Cezanne Card Sharps, which means she owns the most expensive pieces of art ever sold both privately and at auction.

A reader alerts me to this rather appropriate cartoon, from The New Yorker:

Nazi-era law prevents restitutions

November 20 2013

Image of Nazi-era law prevents restitutions

Picture: Getty Images/AP. 'Landscape with Horses' by Franz Marc, from the Gurlitt collection.

Extraordinary to think that, as the New York Times reports, the 1938 law which allowed the Nazis to seize 'degenerate' art is still valid in Germany, and may prevent much of Cornelius Gurlitt's art stash ever being restituted:

The Nazis sold thousands of the confiscated works on the open art market to fill wartime coffers. Repeal or reform of the 1938 law could unravel an intricate web of art deals involving such works that have been negotiated around the world in the decades since, something that even many museum curators like Mr. Büche are loath to consider.

Despite the lengths Germany has gone to to repair the moral and material damage done during World War II, for decades the restitution of confiscated art was not a topic of discussion or action here, and no German government has sought to repeal the Nazi law.

Update - a barrister writes:

Your post questions why the law has not been repealed; and, on the surface, it is a reasonable question.  Framing the issue in that way of course obscures a veritable plethora of considerations and ramifications that would flow from repeal of a law, that you have noted, has served as the root of good title to the works upon which many subsequent transactions have undoubtedly been based.  The sheer effluxion of time since the works were taken will mean that many of those works are now in the possession, and have been through the hands, of many people and institutions whose conduct could not be reasonably impugned, and who have acted only in good faith and almost certainly without notice of what may, upon repeal of the 1938 law, become a defect in the title to the works.  Repeal of the 1938 might well satisfy a moral need but the consequence will almost inevitably be the visiting of considerable harm of other people and institutions who are on any any view blameless.  It is for this reason that many common law jurisdictions will ordinarily protect the position of a bona fide purchaser for value without notice.

Nothing that I have written is intended to suggest that restitution cannot or should not be made where the circumstances reasonably permit it.  I write only to observe that the failure to repeal the 1938 law may not be so much a moral failure as a recognition of the extraordinary consequences that may flow and the almost impossible balancing of the many interests that would be affected.  That in itself is not a reason to stay restitution, however it must also be acknowledged that the intergeneration unravelling of so many transactions will not be without ramification or consequence, and the results could well be incredibly harsh for some people who could only be properly described as innocent.  Many legal scholars will tell you that difficult cases tend to make bad law, and these circumstances may become a stark demonstration of the truth of that adage.

New Tate Britain unveiled

November 18 2013

Video: Tate

The new entrance and rooms at Tate Britain open tomorrow. There's a shiny new staircase, and even a 'newly discovered' room. £45m has been spent. I must say, I quite liked the old rotunda, and I'm not entirely sure why Tate needed to isntall a staircase to take visitors downstairs, when they've just had to go upstairs (from the street) to get in. But anyway, it all looks splendid - so well done Tate Britain. In the film above, Kevin McCloud goes over the site when work was being done. More pictures and video of the finished galleries here.

Plug! Our Samuel Cooper exhibition (ctd.)

November 18 2013

Image of Plug! Our Samuel Cooper exhibition (ctd.)

Picture: BG

What - you haven't been yet? Tut tut. In case you needed persuading, even the Grumpy Art Historian likes the show. Thanks GAH!

The shady side of the art market

November 18 2013

Image of The shady side of the art market

Picture: Amazon

In USA Today, Michael Wolff wonders if there's something dodgy in all these latest mega-prices:

Art has become an efficient instrument for hiding cash. Swiss banks are no longer a very private place. But a warehouse in Switzerland — or, for that matter, New Jersey — is nicely confidential.

And art is a way to clean up your dirty wealth. Say you sell, well, drugs. You might buy a painting for $7 million, paying $2 million in cash (helping the seller to avoid taxes), so the transaction is listed as $5 million. You put it in a warehouse for two years, let it predictably appreciate, and then sell it for $9 million. You've not only made $2 million, but you've cleaned another $2 million. Nobody the wiser.

Art, too, is a market that can be handily manipulated in a way that is likely more beautiful than art itself to financial fixers. If you own, for instance, five Warhols, you might put one up for auction, participate yourself in bidding up the price — you might even buy it yourself at a high price — thereby increasing the value of your other four paintings (which, now you can borrow against at their higher valuation).

A notable anomaly in the market is that old masters, with their limited supply, are now in less demand and are often priced more modestly than new artists, with unlimited supply. That defies economic logic — yet can be explained. Living artists print money. If you are a big buyer who helps set prices, you might be offered work at a goodly increase over an artist's last price point: $2 million, where the last sale was at $1 million. For that, you get one thrown in free, hence the deal has cost you nothing, but doubled the value for everybody else who holds the works, including the artist — leaving everybody happy.

If you fancy laundering a bit of cash in the art market, this handy book (illustrated above) will tell you how to do it.

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps we need an FSA or SEC for the art market now that it has become a financial asset stored in Swiss vaults.

At least the market indicates to an economist like me that Old Masters are still valued more as art than as financial vehicles often for dodgy buyers.

Guffwatch - Waldemar wades in

November 18 2013

Image of Guffwatch - Waldemar wades in

Picture: Tate

Good news. Momentum continues to build in the battle against art-world Guff. Now, Waldemar has launched a sharp attack on the latest salvo of Guff to emerge from Tate, in its new 'Painting Now' show. In his review, he writes that:

The five painters have been chosen by no less than three curators (1.666 artists each?), whose ramblings in the catalogue are a disgrace to the English language and an insult to the few poor souls wandering through Tate Britain on the day I visited. No wonder there was hardly anyone there. Why should anyone visit an institution so insensitive to the needs of communication that its catalogues contain sentences that proceed “As painting is no longer in a position of autonomy — alone and apart — this also entails a move away from an idea of medium specificity, defining a practice as ‘painting’ or ‘film’, and towards a post-medium age, what a recent conference at Harvard examined as the ‘medium under the condition of its de-specification’ ”?

Update - a reader writes:

It's interesting that the Tate is showing five contemporary painters with such a fanfare. Ten years ago painters were meant to be extinct and even five years ago they were an oddity. Now painting is everywhere and it's the installations that look old hat.

I wondered if you could thank Damien Hirst for this, for overdosing everyone on rotting animals and chemist's shops and for hard-pedalling painting again.

Art theft '2nd most profitable crime'

November 18 2013

Image of Art theft '2nd most profitable crime'

Picture: Mirror

The Mirror reports the UK police now believe that art crime is the second most profitable crime in Britain, after drug dealing.

'Nein, nein, nein!'

November 18 2013

Cornelius Gurlitt, the owner of the alleged 'Nazi art hoard' of some 1400 works, says he won't surrender the works (reports Bloomberg):

“What kind of a state is it that confiscates my private property?” the Spiegel quoted Gurlitt as saying. The magazine said Gurlitt, 80, who has until now shied away from journalists, agreed to spend several days with a reporter.

“They must be returned to me,” Spiegel quoted Gurlitt as saying. “They are putting all this in a false light. I won’t speak to them and I won’t give anything back -- no, no, no.”

When is a Warhol not a Warhol?

November 15 2013

Image of When is a Warhol not a Warhol?

Picture: TAN

Or rather, when is a Not Warhol a Warhol? In The Art Newspaper, Richard Dorment has unearthed fascinating new evidence on how the Warhol authentication board upgraded to 'authentic' a series of 35 works it once deemed to be not authentic. Briefly, the works in question are a series of paintings made without Warhol's knowledge by his printer, Rupert Jasen Smith. In 1991 these were confiscated by the Warhol estate and deemed to be 'not the works of Andy Warhol'. But in 2003 (against, Dorment notes, a backdrop of rising Warhol prices), the Warhol Art Authentication Board changed its mind - and then sold the works! Easy money...

More background on the case here.

Nailing the mega consignments

November 15 2013

Image of Nailing the mega consignments

Picture: Newsweek/Kai Nedden/laif/Redux

In Newsweek, Katrina Brooker has an excellent article on how Sotheby's and Christie's compete for the big ticket modern and contemporary consignments. Apparently, the recent mega sales of Bacon and Warhol were so tense that Sotheby's Tobias Meyer, of whom AHN is a great fan, was brought to tears:

"Without this, we would be in trouble,” Tobias Meyer says. It’s a warm October morning in New York City, and the head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s is standing in front of a huge canvas depicting a horrific car crash, the vehicle gruesomely crumpled against a tree. The label reads, “Andy Warhol. Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) 1963. Estimate upon request.” The huge (8-foot-by-13-foot) canvas is, by all accounts, a masterpiece; part of Warhol’s disaster series – his reflections on mortality. Nearby are other rare treasures consigned for Sotheby’s all-important November auctions: paintings from the collection of Steven Cohen – the notorious billionaire hedge fund manager; a $40 million Picasso; a 56.9 carat pink diamond. Yet Meyer cannot stop thinking about that Warhol.

Few people will ever know how hard he fought for this painting – or understand how much he has riding on it. Twenty-three blocks south, in midtown, Meyer’s archrival at Christie’s has amassed the largest cache of art ever to come to auction – more than a half-billion dollars’ worth. In an all-out battle over the summer, Christie’s beat Sotheby’s on consignment after consignment, snaring major trophies of the contemporary art world by superstar artists such as Francis Bacon, Jeffrey Koons, Christopher Wool, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. By early fall, the roster for the Christie’s November 12 auction was expected to sell for between $500 million to $700 million.

Just weeks before the sales were to start, Meyer had nothing that could compete with the caliber of art Christie’s was bringing to market. That Warhol was his last shot at a major consignment, and as its owner wavered throughout September, Meyer flew to Switzerland to plead his case. When that didn’t clinch the deal, he invited the collector to spend the weekend at his country house in Connecticut. The pressure on Meyer was enormous and mounting. And it wasn’t just Christie’s colossal sale weighing on him; Sotheby’s largest shareholder, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, was growing increasingly disgusted by the company’s lagging performance. In an open letter, he castigated the company’s management and demanded that Meyer’s boss, CEO Bill Ruprecht, be fired.

“You know, I talk about the near-death experience,” Meyer says, recalling his hectic summer. He tells the story of how he put his heart and soul into winning the picture; how finally – right before the print deadline for the auction catalogue – he got word that the consignment was his. Meyer pauses for a moment, mid-tale, as though to add drama to his victory. Then, suddenly, something strange happens: His chest caves deeply, as though a huge weight has been dropped on him. He holds out his hand, as if reaching for support. His voice trembles into a deep, raw sob. “Let’s go somewhere else,” he finally says in a hoarse whisper. Meyer – renowned in the art world for his poise on the auction block – steps behind a wall and into a side gallery where privately, quietly, he wipes a few tears from his cheeks.

Watch a Turner being cleaned

November 14 2013

Image of Watch a Turner being cleaned

Picture: Bowes Museum

This looks like fun - the Bowes Museum is cleaning their 'Lowther Castle - Evening' by Turner, and all in public. You can go along and watch if you like. The picture was recently acquired through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme. More details here on the museum's blog. 

Will Van Dyck be saved for the nation?

November 14 2013

Image of Will Van Dyck be saved for the nation?

Picture: BG

Now here's a curious position for your humble correspondent to be in - a self-portrait by his favourite artist, which he was charged with researching and selling, has now been researched and sold. But!... to an overseas buyer. This means that a portrait which has remained in the UK ever since it was painted is poised to leave the country.

For the art dealing day-jobber in me, this has to be seen as a Good Thing. We bought the picture (in the thick of the global downturn) because we believed in it, and had the aim of adding value and selling it on. And I believe we have done that. For example, by showing that the self-portrait was that which belonged to Van Dyck when he died, and that it belonged to and was copied by his successor as court artist, Sir Peter Lely, we now know much more about its early history, and consequently its place in the creation of the British concept of artist as celebrity. Both Dobson and Cooper also emulated the picture, and it's not too much of a jump to see it as one of the defining images in the history of British portraiture, which in turn, is undeniably this country's leading contribution to the history of Western art. However, for the Van Dyck fan, it obviously pains me that the picture might leave the UK. And it doubly pains me that I might in some small way be responsible for that!

A month or so ago we attended the UK government's Export Licence Reviewing Committee - as representatives of the picture's buyer - at the Arts Council's new office. Notwithstanding the fact that we had to put the picture on an armchair (as above, they had no easel), it looked fantastic, and was temporarily blocked for export by the committee on all three 'Waverley' criteria (which is unusual). I felt a strange pride in Sir Anthony for pulling that off. The criteria are:

  • Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  • Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  • Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Will a UK institution be able to raise the funds to stop the sale? The price is £12.5m (about 1/3 of a Koons Orange Dog). You can read more about today's news in The Guardian here, and more about the picture's history here.

Update - over at The Guardian a commenter comments:

Can't we just take a high-quality photograph of it and hang that on a wall? Is it the art or the rarity that gives it value?

Perhaps time for a new 3D printing option?

Boom (ctd.)

November 14 2013

Video: AP

A new Warhol record was set last night at Sotheby's New York, $105m.

Did the Nazis steal the Mona Lisa?

November 14 2013

Image of Did the Nazis steal the Mona Lisa?

Picture: Artinfo

No, but Noah Charney has investigated the mysterious whereabouts of the picture during WW2.

Guffwatch - Koons on 'Balloon Dog'

November 13 2013

Video: Christie's

Marvel at the emptiness of the World's Most Expensive Living Artist. To the art historian finding this on Google Cache 560.0 in 2113, can you believe someone actually paid $58.4m for it?

Waldemar's on You Tube

November 13 2013

Video: ZCZ Films

I didn't know that Waldemar has his own You Tube channel. Very cool. Above is his film on Stubb's kangaroo and dingo, recently saved for the nation by the National Maritime Museum.

Boom (ctd.)

November 13 2013

Video: Christie's

A new record for a work of art at auction was set last night at Christie's in New York, when Francis Bacon's triptych portrait of Lucian Freud sold for $142.4m, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. The overall sale was also the highest in auction history, netting $691,583,000.

So far so impressive. But I wonder if, in the long run, people in some distant, more rational age might come to view yet another record set last night as the most significant event of the evening: the $58.4m paid for Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog (Orange)*, which Christie's had touted as 'the Holy Grail of art'. This makes Koons the most expensive living artist.

Think of those last six words as some of the most depressing in the history of art, and gawp at the swaggering, smirking, vulgar display of taste-free excess on display in the video above.

*one of five

Update: Michael Savage Tweets that, using the US inflation calculator, Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet is still the most expensive painting bought at auction, just, at $147.8m. It sold in 1990 for $82.5m.

Update II - a reader writes

Fascinating -- the Christie's video which you slam (" swaggering, smirking, vulgar display of taste-free excess") has "been removed by the user" from YouTube.

Curious. So it has. And apparently the Koons was guaranteed, so someone evidently made a few bucks out of the upside.

Update III - a reader hears:

While in a NYC yesterday a person at the Met Museum suggested that the Koons was worth its price because he is more accessible than say Bacon.

Does accessible in the art world now mean shallow and lacking content.

Is Old Master dealing getting harder?

November 12 2013

Image of Is Old Master dealing getting harder?

Picture: Artinfo

Yes, is the short answer. That is, dealing in the sense of having a small business selling directly to clients, rather than at auction. This week, the Antiques Trade Gazette reports that Noortman, one of the pre-eminent European Old Master dealers, is to close. It's not long since Agnews, another great art dealing name, closed.

The main issue is competition from the auction houses. Sotheby's and Christie's bring an enormous, global corporate momentum to the Old Master world, and it's almost impossible for your traditional small-scale independent dealer to compete against that. Dealers can never hope to out-market or out-spend such companies. The old model of retail art dealing is therefore long dead. The only way left to beat the auctioneers is to out-think them. It's bloody difficult, but fun.

The irony in this case is that Noortman was wholly owned by Sotheby's. 

'Fake or Fortune?' returns

November 12 2013

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' returns

Picture: BBC

Word is that series 3* of 'Fake or Fortune?' will be broadcast from Sunday 19th January onwards, on BBC1 at 6pm. This series has four programmes. Last time round we featured Van Dyck, Degas and Turner. This time we have paintings by... can't say yet.

I'm also pleased to announce that we have been re-commissioned for a fourth series. So if your granny has a lost Leonardo in her downstairs lav (our dream scenario), then please get in touch. 

* Though I so want to say an American-style 'season 3'.

Fakes and connoisseurship

November 12 2013

Image of Fakes and connoisseurship

Picture: Knoedler

Writing in the New York Times, Blake Gopnik says that if a fake Jackson Pollock fooled some 'experts', then it deserves to be thought of as 'the sublime masterwork that Rothko happened not to have gotten around to', and, consequently, that the recent Knoedler fake scandal tells us connoisseurship is all a load of phooey:

[...] forgers teach us to doubt connoisseurs. There’s a myth out there, propagated by the market and some strains of academe, that certain thoroughbred experts can smell authentic art at 100 yards. After more than a century of bad attributions, reattributions and long-lived fakes, you’d think we would know better than to believe in such fantasy creatures. The truth is, the connoisseur’s eye works brilliantly in that vast majority of attributions where an artwork comes without a name attached but clearly has a single maker’s signature look. And then that eye fails utterly in those remaining, more iffy cases where a piece looks quite like some artist’s work, but may almost as easily be by someone else — including a forger.

Every time an expert is fooled by a fake, the faker has once again taught us that connoisseurship is not to be trusted. More important, we’re reminded that the whole idea of a unique artistic “touch,” along with the ideal of “authenticity” that goes with it, may be beside the point in our understanding of art.

As I've said before, there's a difference between good connoisseurs and bad ones. Gopnik's argument is a bit like saying that all medical science is to be mistrusted, because some doctors have misdiagnosed their patients. Or, because one New York Times writer writes balls (type Gopnik into my search box to see more examples), then that entire paper is, ergo, balls.

Happily, Peter Schjeldahl is on hand in the New Yorker to consider the question of fakes and connoisseurship in a more balanced context:

Time destroys fakes by revealing features of the era—the climate of taste—in which they were made. “Forgeries must be served hot,” said the art historian Max Friedländer. I’ve seen two “Vermeers” that were painted in the nineteen-twenties by the king of modern forgers, the Dutchman Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), and which hung unchallenged, for decades, in the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C. They are ridiculous. Among other blinking signs of fraudulence, there’s an interesting suggestion that the likes of flappers and Greta Garbo inhabited seventeenth-century Delft.

How could anyone ever, for a minute, have mistaken those howlers for Vermeers? That’s easy. Connoisseurs are products of their times as much as anyone else, subject to the same unexamined assumptions. But it’s usually a connoisseur who soonest smells a rat. He or she does so not by being wary but by becoming puzzled in a normal pursuit of pleasure.

What do we see when we look at a painting? Decisions. Stroke by stroke, the painter did something rather than something else, a sequence of choices that add up to a general effect. If you’re like me—and, yes, I count myself a middling connoisseur—you register the effect and then investigate how it was achieved; walking the cat back, as they say in espionage. As a trick, ask yourself, of details in a painting, something like, “Why would I have done that in that way?” The aim is to enter into the mind, and the heart, of the creator. Attaining it entails trust, like that of a child attending a fairy tale.

Update - a reader writes:

To deny connoisseurship is to deny that there are visually discernable differences between the work of one artist and that of another who is imitating his style.  If that were true then why buy the original if a copy or similar work is as good.

Copyists and forgers are artists and some are very good artists but the point is attribution rather than quality, and either an artists work has unique qualities or attribution of unsigned works is irrelevant except to price.

As to whether there are individuals who can recognize these unique qualities, they vary at least as much as the quality of artists' work.

This should all be obvious to anyone who looks at art.


Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.