Previous Posts: November 2014

Sleeper Alert!

November 28 2014

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: The Saleroom

Just a tiddler this one, and one that, annoyingly, I missed by a mere half an hour (that is, the lot had passed by the time I'd seen it and logged in to bid), but nonetheless a sensitively rendered portrait of an unknown old woman by Joseph Wright of Derby, and a bargain at £750. Now, I know you're all thinking the sitter isn't exactly a beaut - but I think it's a great picture nonetheless. Sometimes, the older and craggier the sitter, the better.

Ouch! The 'sleeper' bites back (ctd.)

November 28 2014

Image of Ouch! The 'sleeper' bites back (ctd.)

Picture: Lyon & Turnbull

I mentioned earlier this month the curious story of the quarter of a million pound 'sleeper' being consigned back into auction at just £2,000-£3,000. The painting, an oil on copper depiction of Hercules, was being offered at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh as 'Manner of Francesco Albani' (above), despite having beeing bought at Bonhams last year for £254,000 where it was suspected by some of being by one of the Carraccis. Yesterday, the picture sold for £25,000 inc. premium, so that's pretty much a £225,000 hit. Ouch indeed...

I've never seen anyone cut their losses and run like that before. Normally, even if you couldn't get the experts to endorse with your 'sleeper' attribution, you'd hang on in there, in the hope that somebody somewhere might agree with you. The only possible explanation, I thought, was that the picture was an out and out fake, and had been consigned to Bonhams in a 'dirty' state, and cunningly devised to relate to a known drawing attributed to Annibale Carracci in which the hand is in a different position. In other words, the buyer at Bonhams felt there was no chance of the picture being worth anything, and wanted out.

But I went to see the picture, which has since been cleaned, and (although I couldn't spend too long looking at it - you try viewing an auction with an 11 week old) I thought that it probably was period. Admittedly, it wasn't a great painting, but I wouldn't rule out that it was painted by the same hand, or at least in the studio of the same hand, as made the drawing. From what I could gather, at least one prominent specialist on the Carraccis had not been shown the painting at all.

So it's all most curious. It seems thatsomeone bought it, but was unhappy with the cleaned picture, and simply decided not to bother pursuing the attribution any more. As a paid up member of Sleeper Hunters Anonymous, I can understand the attraction of taking a punt on things like this. But I can only dream of having such deep pockets. 

By the way, if the pockets were yours, and you need a little guidance in the auction field, you know who to call...

Gurlitt horde (ctd.)

November 28 2014

Image of Gurlitt horde (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

The Kunstmuseum in Berne has now formally accepted the bequest of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art collection. (Regular readers will remember that this was reported here as far back as October). The Kunstmuseum says they will return any legitimately claimed works, and keep the rest. More here

In The Guardian, Nigel Warburton looks at the legal and moral implications of Berne accepting the bequest. 

Sleeper Alert

November 28 2014

Image of Sleeper Alert

Picture: Cheffins

These 'Circle of John Constable' clouds made £32,000 against a £300-£500 estimate at a regional UK auction yesterday. More images here.

Perronneau catalogue raisonné

November 28 2014

Image of Perronneau catalogue raisonné

Picture: National Gallery

Neil Jeffares informs us that a new catalogue raisonné of Jean- Baptiste Perronneau's work will be published in January. He's one of my favourite French artists, and I particularly like the way his pastel technique (he was primarily a pastelist) translates into oil, as seen in the above portrait of Jacques Cazotte in the National Gallery. I've not come across a firm link, but I've often wondered if he had an impact on Gainsborough's later work.

I look forward to seeing the book, which is published by Arthena, and written by Dominique d'Arnoult. As is often the case with these things, there's no easily findable website to send you to (not even on Amazon). So I'm not sure how you'd buy it.

Update - a reader sends in this astonishing fact:

Thrilled to hear about the catalogue: if anyone decided to put on a show of 18thc French portraits, he would emerge as a real star.  Come to think of it, why hasn't there been one; I think people would be surprised how consistently good the works would be from the epochs of Rigaud to David. And, as your other recent post shows, the portrait sculpture was exceptional.

 One other thought per the recent dicsussions around the National's new Wilkie.  The Perronneau of Cazotte, which is a masterpiece, was bought by the Gallery at public auction in 1976 - for £88,000 I recall -  and is only one example of the practice of the then Director, Michael Levey, to bring in to the collection, and thereby for the public in this country overall, works by unfamiliar but important artists.  

It remains the only Perronneau painting in UK collections: PCF list 132 works by Wilkie.

And yes, in terms of price, French 18th portraits are cheap. I'm not sure why. I think the overall aesthetic is too 'peaches and cream' for today's modern taste. We could never shift them when I was flogging portraits in London. But doubtless this'll change.

Update II - Neil Jeffares has the order form here. It seems the publishers don't have a website. So much for digital art history...

All hail 'Your Sculptures'

November 28 2014

Image of All hail 'Your Sculptures'

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

Splendid news from the Public Catalogue Foundation; they have been awarded £2.84m by the Heritage Lottery Fund to begin digitising the UK's collection of sculptures. The project follows on from the PCF's ground breaking Your Paintings project, where over 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership were photographed and put online. 

The PCF estimates that there are 85,000 objects to photograph, and 15,000 outdoor works. More details here

The image above is one of my favourite sculptures in the UK, which I used to gaze at when I was at Cambridge; the Fitzwilliam's Philippe-Laurent Roland self-portrait. Personally, I think terracotta makes for the best portrait busts, and here we have further evidence that when artists portray themselves, they really push the boat out. I look forward to seeing how the Your Sculpture project presents such works. My hope is that the resolution of their photos is better than those available on Your Paintings.

'Hockney', The Movie

November 28 2014

Video: 'Hockney, Live from LA'

I'd like to see this, a feature film looking at Hockney's life. I can't find a website for the film, but it's in cinemas from today. Iain Miller in The Art Newspaper reports on Hockney's interview in a 'live screening' from earlier this week.

Art History sexism (ctd.)

November 28 2014

Regular readers will know of my little campaigns against 'The Girl Walking Blurrily in Front of a Painting' photo, and also 'The Useless White Glove' photo. Here, in The Telegraph, Claire Cohen, rails against the practice:

Just why is it that the moment it’s time to flog antiques or artworks, auction houses grab the nearest “young filly” (likely an employee who has better things to do). Are we really happy to patronise buyers by suggesting their wallets will magically open at the sight of a pretty girl? The poor women in these prehistoric auction house pictures look out of place – and I bet they feel it. 

How do I know? I used to be one of them.

Before becoming a journalist, I worked in the press office of a leading London auction house. It was a desk job – my first. Yet, time and again I was dragged off to pose alongside various artefacts. Who’s that grinning inanely at a Francis Bacon triptych? Me. Pretending to drive Hitler’s 1939 Auto Union D-Type car, worth upwards of £6 million? Guilty. That figure wearing a Stormtrooper helmet from the first Star Wars film looks familiar. Me again. […]

Posing in front of the camera like a mannequin, it was hard not to feel like the blue-blooded equivalent of the bikini-clad lovelies who parade the ring between rounds at a big fight.

Now, I look at the young women in such sales pictures and cringe. They represent an outdated, old boys’ club – the very image that many of our most prestigious auction houses have gone to great lengths to ditch. 

Actually, I'm not sure the most prestigious auction houses have gone to any lengths to ditch such practices. But actually, who is to blame here? Isn't it 'us', that is, the readers of newspapers and websites whom, picture editors and auction house PRs assume, need to have our visual radar piqued by something else going on in the photo, other than the art? And do we demand, albeit subconsciously, that that 'something else' is eye-catching, attractive, even female? Isn't that the same reason that two identically painted portraits of the same size by Gainsborough can so wildly differ in value, if one is of an old man two weeks away from his first heart attack (£10k) and the other a pretty young woman in a dashing dress (say, £5m)?

I'm not sure what the answer is, let me know what you think...

Update - a reader writes:

This is the most shameless example I've seen:

Also this recent one amused as the girl's reflection in the glass means she appears in the picture twice as often as Rembrandt does"

That might be a perfectly innocent one where they wanted someone looking at the picture but it's never usually an old lady and I suppose in that respect it's no different from most other PR managed images we see. Images of young women are used to promote most things because it sells but perhaps it just looks more ridiculous with art because the artwork itself is supposed to be the visually stimulating image.

The top one is fantastic, a real genre-leading example; white gloves, a young lovely, a Rembrandt, the classic 'I'm not actually lifting the picture' position, and... cleavage! Anyone got any better examples?

Update II - a reader with experience of these things writes:

Not that important but I thought an insider view point might be an interesting Friday distraction and you do always bang on about "the girl in the press photo"!

In my experience the decision to use a young girl is usually never anything to do with the ‘auction house’ or the specialist department of the item in question. Unfortunately most auction house specialists don’t have enough time to dedicate a whole morning to taking copious amounts of press shots from slightly different angles with overly enthusiastic photographers. Nor is there some sort of misogynistic board of chairmen with nothing more pressing to do than demand a young girl is used for the shoot.

Usually the press office is responsible for  the model and usually it will be the youngest employee or intern in the department willing to do what the elders don't have time for. Invariably they are not only young but female as the pr industry seems to female heavy...or at least It is at our auction house as I have never met a bloke working in our pr team in my years!

If anyone does demand anything at all its usually the photographer. Usually free-lance/external anyway, they are often more used to shooting z-list celebrities and therefore think a young lady or a pair of white gloves will make a painting as ‘cool’ to the tabloid readership.

'Stuart Little', art sleuth

November 28 2014

Image of 'Stuart Little', art sleuth

Picture: Guardian

Nice story in The Guardian about a picture discovery via the film 'Stuart Little':

A long-lost avant garde painting has returned home to Hungary after nine decades thanks to a sharp-eyed art historian who spotted it being used as a prop in the Hollywood film Stuart Little.

In 2009, Gergely Barki, a researcher at Hungary’s national gallery, noticed Sleeping Lady with Black Vase by Robert Bereny in the 1999 children’s movie about a mouse as he watched TV with his daughter Lola.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Bereny’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie. I nearly dropped Lola from my lap,” Barki, 43, said.

“A researcher can never take his eyes off the job, even when watching Christmas movies at home.” The painting disappeared in the 1920s, but Barki recognised it immediately even though he had only seen a faded black-and-white photo dating from a 1928 exhibition.

He sent a flurry of emails to staff at the film’s makers, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures, and received a reply from a former set designer – two years later.

“She said the picture was hanging on her wall,” Barki said.

Prince Charles and Hockney on drawing

November 28 2014

Image of Prince Charles and Hockney on drawing

Picture: Guardian

Prince Charles has persuaded his mum to grant the moniker ‘Royal’ to the drawing school he established some years ago. More details here.

For a reminder of why the Prince’s drawing school is a Good Thing, here’s a recent quote from David Hockney, from a piece in The Spectator by Martin Gayford:

He laments the neglect of drawing in recent art education. ‘People had been drawing for 40,000 years, and they gave it up in 1975. It’s almost funny. But they couldn’t give it up really. You can’t: it’s always back to the drawing board!’ By that, he means that any new way of seeing the world will have to be produced by the human eye, heart and hand, working together. And this applies as much to new types of photographic imagery as it does to paintings.

Such a view is, for me, one of the reasons Hockney will endure as one of the great artists of our age. I’m always surprised that, in financial terms, his work is relatively inexpensive, compared to some of the guff that sells for millions. That said, I’ve long wanted to own a Hockney drawing, and they’re way too pricey for me…


November 23 2014

I'm away today, Monday, so not much doing here I'm afraid. That said, we've had a number of new comments on recent stories such as the National Gallery's Wilkie purchase and the Royal Collection, so there's some good debate to catch up on and contribute to, if you fancy.

In fact, I'll take this opportunity to thank all of you for your continuing support and contributions, which make all the difference to the site (and indeed motivate me to keep going). So, thanks!

Update - more apologies! I've been away Tuesday, and will also be away tomorrow, Wednesday, too. But - standby for a slew of stories on Thursday.

And... I've put up some contributions to the National Gallery and Royal Collection debates that were kindly sent in yesterday. They raise interesting points, so do take a look.  

Update II - well, this is embarrassing; today, Thursday, is actually my birthday, which I'd forgotten. So there won't be the promised 'slew', as we're out and about for the day. So, stand by for tomorrow's slew instead... Sorry!

Update III - Happy Thanksgiving!

New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

November 21 2014

Image of New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

Picture: Guardian

Excellent news from the Royal Collection and Historic Royal Palaces; the 'Cumberland Rooms' at Hampton Court Palace have been refurbished and re-hung with some of the Royal Collection's finest paintings. There's even a Rembrandt self-portrait. Many pats on the back for both the RC and HRP for helping get so much great art out on display.

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones has been to see the new display, and writes:

The Cumberland Art Gallery – named after the Georgian prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, for whom in the 1730s William Kent created the suite of palace rooms where the superbly lit and sensitively selected new gallery has now been installed – is the Royal Collection’s latest attempt to display its art to us, the public. It is like looking into the Queen’s jewel box. This is a much more convincing royal art space than the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which always feels like a liveried adjunct to the royal tourist industry and has never succeeded in competing with London’s big museums – its exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings a few years ago, for instance, drew nothing like the attention the National Gallery’s Leonardo show got. [...]

Curator Brett Dolman says the thinking behind the new gallery was precisely to free the art from “heritage”. Paintings by artists as lofty as Rubens can be seen all over this palace, as part of its decor or even as props in tableaux of royal splendour.

“We’re aware that when you hang paintings in that way you sometimes can’t get near to the art,” he concedes. So the new gallery “is where art speaks for itself”.

It does so absorbingly in what amounts to a permanent gallery of some of the Queen’s very best paintings. The Rembrandt is stupendous. Admittedly the Queen has some other mighty Rembrandts that are not on view here, as well as a drop-dead Vermeer. But there are enough splendours of Renaissance and Baroque painting to satisfy anyone. Two Caravaggios reveal the opposing sides of his vision – a boy peels fruit in one of his early sensual works while Jesus calls his disciples to him in a sombre Christian scene. I was more moved however by a painting of St Jerome looking downward with deep introspective eyes by the 17th-century French master of light Georges de la Tour.

The new display is largely due to one of HRP's energetic curators, Brett Dolman, who I'll embarass by identifying here as posing in the above picture on the left, where he and a colleague are partaking in The Useless White Glove Photo Opportunity. Brett has done a great job persuading the Royal Collection to lend so many treasures, and for turning a part of Hampton Court Palace which used to be a little lost into a destination in its own right. He kindly asked me along when the Cumberland rooms were mid-renovation, and asked my views on the potential hang. Of course, I lobbied for Van Dycks to feature prominently... I can't see from the photos in The Guardian's piece whether they are - here's hoping!

Update - a reader writes:

This Gallery sounds magnificent. I can't wait to go and am especially pleased to see Watts's Lady Holland on view (it was cleaned for my exhibition Watts Portraits at the NPG  in 2004).

But, and this is a big but, it costs an eye-watering £17.05 to go (more if you pay on the door--£18.20) because it is included in admission to all of Hampton Court Palace.

Doesn't this raise the issue of the status of the paintings in the Royal Collection and just whose paintings they are?   I relish the masterpieces in the Royal Collection, admire its publications and value the expertise of its staff, so I certainly don't have an answer to this one. But many people might think twice about paying that much to go and see those wonderful paintings.

Another reader, on a similar theme, adds:

Just a thought on the Royal Collection hanging some of its gems at Hampton Court. Whilst this is good news, it does (as Jonathan Jones alludes) throw light on what is absent.

Ever since seeing Tim's Vermeer earlier in the year (silly concept but a decent film) I've wanted to see Vermeer's Music Lesson and yet because it usually hangs in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace I'm faced with having to await an honour or pay £20.50 to visit the state rooms in the summer. Why is this painting not on regular public show?

We're told that the Queen does not own the Royal Collection, she merely holds it in trust for the nation (and her successors). Well that's potentially a benign technicality as long as we have access to its treasures. But this is one of the world's great paintings (so I'm told) and it is hidden from most people, most of the time. Imagine if the National Gallery had a Vermeer that was in an upstairs room which you could only see when the Director invited you to or you had to pay £20 whilst he was on his summer holiday, what would the reaction be?

Yet with the Royal Collection this is accepted. The Music Lesson is not of a royal, it was not painted for a royal or to be hung in Buckingham Palace and as such there is no particular significance for it being there.

So if the Queen only holds it in trust for us, as she maintains, then could we see it please?

Update II - a curator writes:

Amid all the glamorous Old Masters, nice to see Frank Holl’s grave and lovely picture prominently hung  - a seriously under-rated painter.

I agree. I love Holl's portraits - for me, he's often on a par with the likes of Millais and Watts.

Update III - a reader writes:

May I take up the baton and run ( or totter in my case) with it a while ?

It seems to me that your recent correspondents may have missed the fact that the Royal Collection is indeed a private collection and is funded entirely by admission charges ,and other revenue raising enterprises, and from time to time I dare say the Queen opens her handbag to help fund an acquisition as indeed, she has done on many occasions in the past. So far as I know, there is no public funding whatever.

The works of art on display are changed about and loaned to exhibitions all over the world  viz the Watts of Lady Holland; and I am told such loan requests are sanctioned by the Queen personally.

I am certain that the vast majority of the works of art ( let’s not forget the furniture, sculpture and applied arts) is on view at most times of the year, throughout the royal residences, with only a small percentage displayed in the private apartments. All such places are staffed and maintained all of which has to be paid for.

All of these factors make it a fairly pricey visit, and short of hanging “Sponsored by Honda “ flags outside Buckingham Palace; I can’t see how else they can continue to delight us.

I have to say I'm inclined to agree with this. I think there's something rather magical about the fact that the Royal Collection is what we might call a 'working collection'. That is, it has a function which goes beyond the usual one of public display, and retains something of the original purpose of a 'royal collection'; that of pure decoration, be it in an ambassador's waiting room or the Queen's private study. Therefore, we ought to be patient that while I suppose 'we', the public' really own the collection, we cannot always see everything in it. Not being able to see a picture because it's being looked by the Queen is much more acceptable to me than the various excuses our museums come up with for keeping 80% of their works locked away in storage. And, for me, the Royal Collection staff more than make up for any access issues by consistently putting on some of the best exhibitions inthe world.

Update IV - a reader from Italy writes:

In my opinion the British royal collection is better 'visible' and better studied than many museums in Your country or abroad.

I think to the wonderful catalogues of Castiglione drawings , 2013, or Italian Renaissance and Baroque pictures, 2007 for example...

And it's true they often loan very important pieces to scientific exhibitions.

I live in Italy, and I could see wonderful royal paintings loaned to the Carracci exhibition in Bologna, 2006, a beautiful Cagnacci in Forlì,  2008, a supposed Raphael portrait in Urbino, 2009, and also in 2003 the Duccio tryptich in Siena at the monographic show (the NG or the American museums didn't loan anything). I remember also a Mantegna 'triumph' in Paris in the 2008 big  exhbition.

So the RC has to be congratulated for the care but also for sharing the Queen treasures (and look at the web site!). Sure, it's expensive to visit the Residences, but also if you visit the Louvre or the Vatican Florence and Siena now we have to pay for visit churches! 

Sotheby's CEO steps down

November 21 2014

Image of Sotheby's CEO steps down

Picture: FT

Sotheby's long-standing CEO Bill Ruprecht has agreed to step down. For some time now he's been in the cross hairs of Sotheby's activist investor, and recently appointed board member, Dan Loeb. The FT reports:

Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chairman and chief executive, is to leave the auction house 13 months after activist investor Dan Loeb launched a blistering public campaign against his managerial style and demanded his resignation.

Sotheby’s said on Thursday that Mr Ruprecht was stepping down by mutual agreement with the board after 14 years at the helm. It added a search was under way for a successor and that Mr Ruprecht would remain in his role until a replacement was found.

Sotheby’s shares – which have fallen steadily since peaking at $53.51 in January – surged 7.4 per cent to $42.12 on the management shake-up in after-hours New York trading.

Personally, from a customer point of view, I've always found Sotheby's a well run and highly effective organisation. I've no idea, but I suppose the resignation has something to do with Christie's continued trouncing of Sotheby's, for four sales on the trot, in the all-important modern and contemporary sectors. A recent Sotheby's fanfare highlighted their highest ever sale total, $422m. But Christie's recent '$852m' contemporary sale puts that figure into stark perspective.

Of course, it's important to note that Sotheby's don't go in for guarantees in the same way Christie's does. That is, they don't give guarantor buyers an effective discount on works they succesfully bid on at auction. I think there can be little doubt that it is Christie's willingness to rely heavily on guarantees that's helping them win in the modern and contemporary sector. 

This might change with a new CEO. If I were a Sotheby's share holder (and I wish I'd bought some stock at $8 back in late 2008 - it's now at $39) I'd hope not, for the last time Sotheby's and Christie's engaged in a guarantee battle, it ended horribly for both sides.

I have no information on who might take over at Sotheby's. But I wonder if we'll see a return of the great Tobias Meyer in some capacity.

Art History ads (ctd.)

November 21 2014

Image of Art History ads (ctd.)

Picture: Stella Artois

There are good ones, and there are bad ones. And then there are those that are just wrong. 

The first painting to make a million quid

November 20 2014

Image of The first painting to make a million quid

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

This surprised me - the first painting to ever sell for more than a million pounds, in 1970, was an Old Master; Velazquez's Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine anything other than a post-war & contemporary work breaking price records. Richard Cork, who was at the 1970 sale, relives the moment in this article for The Spectator:

The atmosphere was extraordinary. Most observers could not believe that the painting would fetch £1 million. But the bidding, in an auction room that I had never seen so packed and tense, outflew all expectations. It started at £315,000, and took just 130 seconds. After reaching £1 million, the bidding did not slacken. If anything, it strengthened, and eventually shot past £2 million. It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.

Scores of people swarmed around Alec Wildenstein, the 30-year-old dealer who had bought it. He had been sitting in the second row of the auction room and was escorted out by staff. But it took about ten minutes before a way could be found through the packed hall. He was visibly flushed, and at first seemed lost for words except to say that he was ‘very happy’. Then he managed to explain that the purchase realised the dream of his great-grandfather Nathan Wildenstein, who had founded the family firm 95 years before and thought this Pareja portrait was the greatest painting he had ever seen.

Update - A reader provides this valuable information:

To be pedantic, the painting was knocked down for £2,200,000 guineas - those were the days!  For more detail, Agnews, who were one of the underbidders, provided an account in a book they published on their history.  And, to put ther price in context, one could have bought four of these [Van Goghs] for the same price at around the same time and probably a studio's worth of Rothkos.

It has to be said, as far as the saleroom is concerned, the work was exceptional - a undoubted masterpiece by one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, in great condition (unlined), and not on the market since the Regency period (it was owned by the Radnors).

Wildenstein's guff about his great-grandfather was just that, as he had been commissioned by the Met to buy it - against fierce competition from Washington, who still don't have a major Velasquez, and, it was said, The Louvre.

Update II - another great comment comes in:

I too attended the sale of Juan de Pareja; and when I returned to Sotheby's where I was working at the time, I asked people to guess  what it had gone for. I had various offers of £250,000 and some. When I announced the figure; there was an audible sound of collective jaws dropping to the floor.

As a footnote; the final triumph was the discovery of some centimetres of painted canvas that had been folded over the right hand side, which when revealed, altered the balance of the composition to the left and to a state of perfection.

Update III - an economist writes:

Just for comparative purposes the Velasquez sold for about £ 33 million in current prices based on the UK consumer price index.     probably around two thirds of its current value which would complete well with the inflated contemporary art values.

Curiously it is also 33 million dollars if one converted the original purchase price to dollars in 1970 when the pound was around $ 2.40 and applies the United States price index since 1970 but 66 million dollars if valued at British inflation rates.   

Old masters at the top of the market have risen faster than consumer prices in either country but have been outpaced recently by tulip bulbs….. err… contemporary art, the prices of which have less to do with the art than collecting and competition in general spiced with some greed and lots of guff.

While another reader says in terms of buying power, the number is more like:

[...] about £60 million today. Certainly, central London property prices have risen well in excess of 30x during the last 44 years, but that's another planet.

Update IV - a reader points out that there were more expensive pictures sold before, albeit privately:

To be absolutely accurate, this was the first painting to exceed a million sterling at public auction.  It does remain remarkable that not only was the million pound ceiling broken through but the two million pound mark, but the point is that works could have, and indeed did, break the million pound limit in private sales some years before.

In 1967 the National Gallery of Art in Washington paid a reported $5 million for Leonardo’s Ginevra de’Benci – equivalent at the time to around £1.8 million.  More startlingly, in 1969 the Bavarian State Government – on behalf of the Munich Alte Pinakothek – paid a reported nearly £1.5 million for Hals’ full length portrait of Willem van Heythuysen.  Ironically, given they are now substantial collectors, both works came from among dispersals from the collections of the Princes of Liechtenstein.

Update V - Michael Daley from ArtWatch writes:

The Velazquez was not only priciest, but politically a v. hot purchase (at a time when Harlem was very restive). Hoving had the painting, then in fabulous, scarcely ever touched, condition secretly spirited into Wildenstein’s lair until he found the best formulation for the Met’s spin on such a potentially dangerous purchase 

...and while there, he had it secretly restored so that no one every again got to see it in its fabulous condition...the shenanigans were recalled here.

National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

November 20 2014

Image of National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

Picture: The National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has acquired its first painting by the Scottish artist David Wilkie, after it was discovered in a US auction by the sleuthing, London based art dealer Ben Elwes. Says the NG press release:

A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk was discovered in the USA after last being heard of in1872, when it was put up for sale by a relative of the 1st Earl Mulgrave. It is thought his daughter – Lady Augusta Phipps, who died in 1813 aged just 12 – is the subject of the painting.

The work was known to exist because it had featured in an oil sketch Display of Eight Paintings that the artist sent to his brother, Captain Wilkie, an army officer in India.

It was London-based art dealer Ben Elwes who recognised the painting as a Wilkie when he saw it in the catalogue for a sale in New York. He says “I know the work of Wilkie very well and I could see straight away that this was a painting of very great quality. It was tremendously exciting to make this discovery.”

The National Gallery is able to purchase A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk thanks to Marcia Lay – an art teacher who taught at Lordswood Girls School, Harborne, for more than 20 years. She died in June 2012, leaving a generous gift in her Will to the National Gallery, and this will fully fund the purchase of the painting in what is Legacy Awareness Month.  Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said “This acquisition is a fantastic example of legacy giving and one that I hope will inspire others to do the same. Thanks to the wonderful generosity of Marcia Lay, an art teacher, this beautiful painting will be seen and enjoyed by a huge audience for the first time, so helping to ensure that her name – and her gesture - is celebrated for generations to come.”

Congrats all round - a great story.

Update - a reader writes:

The Wilkie is nice but I don’t think it’s outstanding enough for the National, nor can I believe Wilkie could ever have been a priority for them in filling gaps.

Another reader, Selby Whittingham, points out that of course this is not in fact the National Gallery's 'first' Wilkie; there were plenty before the official split of the National's collection to form the Tate gallery in 1954, including The Blind Fiddler, which was part of the original 1826 Sir George Beaumont bequest which got the National collection going. Such was the artist's repute in those days that the National even had a statue of Wilkie by Samuel Joseph. The statue is now in storage at Tate, along with 58 of 60 works by Wilkie in Tate's collection.

Update II - another reader writes:

This is hardly a National Gallery-level picture. Regional museum at best. And on top of their recent acquisition of Lawrence's Portrait of Emily Lamb, which is the sort of thing you'd find in a Christie's or Sotheby's Day Sale. What's happening with the NG's quality control?

Update III - another reader writes to send a link to the National Gallery's collecting policy, but adds:

[...]though, for the life of me, I can't see where the Wilkie fit in [...]

Another reader leaps to the National's defence though, in response to our first two comments above:

I think your two recent commentators are being rather snobbish about the National Gallery’s very recent acquisition of the David Wilkie portrait.   Certainly, the Louvre did not think they were making an acquisition only suitable for a “Provincial” collection when they bought Wilkie’s portrait of his Parents in 2012. ( ref: Latribunedelart )  They, just like the NG, obviously thought he is a painter of international interest and worth, and the quality of the NG’s new “Portrait of a Young Woman kneeling at a Prayer Desk” is patently obvious.  I wonder if such distain would be shown by your commentators if the portrait was by a contemporary French artist ( say Isabey, Baron Gerard or a Troubadour-style Ingres ) rather than a Scottish artist?!

The Lawrence portrait of “Emily Mary Lamb” was an Acceptance in Lieu so the National Gallery paid nothing for this example of the artist’s fluent sketch portrait.  And the Wilkie fits easily into the NG’s Acquisition Policy of 2012, which details “Developing the canon” especially in eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, and Criteria 2: Narrative significance—does the painting enhance the way the National Gallery tells the story of art?

Both the Lawrence and the Wilkie fit the policy, albeit with small scale examples: and they are likely to remain on view amongst the grander British paintings in the collection.  Much more shocking, in my opinion, is why Tate Britain is unable or unwilling to display more of its rich and deep collection of historic British painting and still insists in giving over too much space to contemporary art?

I expect most of us can agree on the last point.

Another reader, who was involved in the Lawrence case cited above, writes to express further support for the two acquisitions, and lays into comment number 2 in some style:

I'm appalled that you've provided a stage for [the second comment above].

This person must be very grand to be able to pooh-pooh the taste and knowledge of the talented curators of the National Gallery. Emily Lamb is a beautiful portrait by one of this nation's greatest artists, of an important and interesting sitter, and it would certainly have been deemed "Evening Sale" material -- I know, because I was privy to its valuation during negotiations, and -- more practically -- I have foreign clients who would have paid through the nose if it could have been exported. It is a blessing to everyone that it has wound up on the Gallery's walls.

More importantly, someone should point out that given the piteous undervaluing of Old Masters as a field in general, the Day Sales at both Christie's and Sotheby's are often full of museum-quality pictures, for example the impeccably-preserved cover lot by Lemoyne at Christie's, or the fascinating Jan Boeckhorst at Sotheby's. Your contributor should look at all these works -- and the Wilkie, for that matter -- with more attention, and ask himself why all of the above artists are not better known to the lay public, rather than making the sort of snobbish and arrogant claims which are the armour of the secret intellectual insecurities of a pseudo-connoisseur. If museums do not display works by Lawrence, Wilkie, Lemoyne, Boeckhorst and other long-unfashionable or unrecognised artists, then they fail in their function, which is (at least in part) to deepen and broaden the public knowledge of the history of art, and its appreciation of all sorts of different real artistry -- an appreciation which should be the empirical bedrock of how we judge a work of art. The truth is that if Wilkie had even a fraction of the layman's celebrity that he deserves, this self-appointed critic would not dare to denigrate the acquisition. He does not realise that; the National Gallery curators do, and kudos to them.

I will refrain from sinking my teeth into the other moronic implication of this comment -- that it is acceptable or expected for regional museums to be second rate simply because they're further away from HIS address -- or perhaps because their visitors, poor hapless country rubes that they are, suffer from being less sophisticated than your omniscient, urbane, self-contented interlocutor?

Maybe it's the exhaustion talking -- I always enjoy reading this stuff but have never before been moved to write in. But that comment just gets my goat. What a twit.

At the risk of incurring this reader's permanent wrath, I must confess that I never quite saw the Lamb portrait as a natural fit for the National Gallery, and indeed said so at the time. The feeling was only strengthened after having been to see it hanging at the National, for it seemed to me overwhelmed by the pictures hanging nearby. But for what it's worth, I can see that it would have been in an Evening Sale! I can't find out what sum the picture was valued at, but I note from the AIL annual report that there was a 'negotiation' on the price before it was accepted, which means it must have started somewhat higher than the final figure.

Finally, another reader has this succinct view:

Ps, WT* is that NG Wilkie all about? Day sale mediocrity indeed.

Update IV: another reader is not at all convinced by the Wilkie:

You have recently highlighted the recent purchase of Wilkie's Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk and appeal to buy a new frame for one of their Titians.

I don't know the terms of Marcia Lay's bequest, and we should be grateful for any such generosity, but do these examples really represent the level of ambition we should aspire to for our National Collection? As far as I'm aware, they have not had a public appear for a painting since 2009. At the moment there is an export block on a wonderful early Italian painting by Giovanni da Rimini, that is one of a tiny number pre-renaissance Riminese paintings in the UK. The National has only a single work from this school, from the time when Italy was developing concepts that would define Western art until the 19th century. A beautiful Bruegel and one on Stubbs' most notable non-equine pictures were sold at the same time and will doubtless be up for export shortly. If the National Gallery isn't going to make an effort to save even one of these, what are they there for? It is hard work raising money for artworks, but it has begun to feel as though the National Gallery, as with the British Museum, has decided it can no longer be bothered even to try.

Update V - a reader wonders:

Wouldn’t you say this was a posthumous portrait done to memorialise the deceased daughter?  Using her clothes and maybe a miniature or drawing likeness, and staged by Wilkie to maximise the idea of a child ‘gone to heaven’.

Update VI - a reader who's been to see the picture writes:

It’s been very interesting reading the debate on the NG’s new Wilkie acquisition. I went to see it on Friday evening and liked it a lot (more than expected after the first couple of comments on the post). It looks beautifully painted and (though I’m far from an expert) in good condition.

The main issue is that it’s on display in Room 34, right next to Gainsborough’s Mrs Siddons and two along from Hogarth’s Graham Children. As such, it (and Lawrence’s Emily Mary Lamb) are completely dwarfed in scale. This is made even more pronounced by the sheer size of Room 34 itself. I’d have thought it would have been far better to hang them both in Room 35 (together with Mr and Mrs Andrews and Hogarth’s “Shrimp Girl”), which would much better suit their more intimate scale.

While another focuses on what we might have bought instead:

The reader who writes about the plight of the Rimini panel currently at risk of going abroad hits the nail squarely on its head.  Nine out of 11 export stopped paintings eventually went abroad last year and the National Gallery, to my knowledge, did not campaign for a single one.  I would like someone from the Gallery to explain why the Wilkie painting enables them to tell a better story of the development of Western art as compared to what would have been possible should any of the major paintings by Le Brun, Cropsey, Puligo or Coello have been acquired.  The Rimini Panel should be subject to an all guns blazing appeal given its rarity, beauty and provenance and it’s disappointing (but not surprising) that so far we hear nothing from those who could make a difference.

I think losing the Le Brun was a great shame.

Another reader tells us what the price was for both the Lawrence and the Wilkie:

Just on the question of prices for the Lawrence “Mary Lamb” portrait and the Wilkie.  The 2010-12 Acceptance in Lieu Report Appendix confirms that 472,500GBP was settled for the Lawrence and, according to the “Herald” the NG paid 200,000GBP for the Wilkie.

Finally, our chastised commenter number 2 writes to ask:

What is more snobbish (or Twit-ish); daring to express a view on the quality or not of a painting, or saying we must all slavishly follow the views of art dealers and museum curators, just because the former group sold it to the latter?

Update VII - I'm told by a reader who attended, that when the picture was unveiled at a recent Beaumont Group dinner (they're are the gallery's better off donors) there was something of a collective intake of breath, as if to say, 'what the...?'

Re-framing Titian

November 19 2014

Image of Re-framing Titian

Picture: The Frame Blog

The National Gallery is hoping to raise £27,000 to reframe the above picture by Titian, called An Allegory of Prudence. The new frame is on the right, the current one on the left. The new one is eye-wateringly expensive. But it's a good cause worth supporting, which you can do here. They're at 55% so far.

The painting is one of my favourite pictures in the National, mainly by virtue of its message. There's an inscription above the heads which translates as: 'The present does well to remember the past, lest future generations go astray'. It's an appropriate motto for a historians' trade union.

Personally, I hope the National spends some money getting the picture into conservation; they call it 'Titian and studio', but I suspect the 'less good' aspects of the picture that are deemed 'studio' are actually due to condition issues.

You can read more about the new frame and why it's such a good thing to re-frame the picture here on The Frame Blog.

Update - a reader isn't so keen:

I have to confess that I like the old frame.  It may just be that the 2  photographs differ slightly but the reddish gold on the new frame cancels out the red in the skin tones of the portraits and makes the painting look dull in comparison to when the picture was in the earlier frame.  It looks like a waste of money  but I'm sure it will brighten the overall decorative effect in the room, even if it 'kills' the painting!

Help restore Brunelleschi's 'Pazzi Chapel' in Florence

November 19 2014

Video: Opera Di Santa Croce

Great video this to help fundraising for a good cause:

The Pazzi Chapel is a landmark of Renaissance architecture in Florence, Italy. Located in the Santa Croce church complex, the structure was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi – the master architect who is most famous for engineering Florence’s beloved cathedral dome. The loggia in front of the Pazzi Chapel is a prime example of 15th-century architectural decoration in grey pietra serena sandstone, colourful maiolica and terracotta.

550 years have taken their toll on this structure and its decoration. The loggia of the Pazzi Chapel requires urgent restoration to stop further deterioration. Opera di Santa Croce, the non-profit institution in charge of the church’s administration, has raised 50% of the funds needed to carry out this restoration, slated to begin in early 2015. Your support of the loggia’s restoration will help to raise the remaining amount. In so doing, you will become part of the 720-year-long history of Santa Croce.

More details here

Update - a reader writes:

[...] my wife and I exchanged new wedding rings in the Pazzi chapel, all by ourselves, twenty years ago.  There is no more moving space, even if there are equally beautiful ones, which speaks to the Pazzi Chapel's architectural perfection.

Guffwatch - More on those urinals

November 19 2014

Image of Guffwatch - More on those urinals

Picture: FT/AFP

Because I know you can't get enough of them, AHNers, I wrote a piece for the Financial Times on those multi-million dollar urinals, and what they tell us about today's art world. You can read it here. No podcast this time, as it was for the paper's main op-ed comment section. 

Isn't it incredible that the person who paid $3.5m for the urinals at Christie's wasn't dissuaded by the large warning sign hung beside them.

Update - Marion Maneker at ArtMarketMonitor says it's a shame I've 'succumbed to splenetic envy' about such an 'important and fascinating artist'. Well, he's perfectly entitled to think that of Gober, and in fact I'd certainly agree that he's fascinating, and even to some degree important. I can still, however, be baffled that Three Urinals is worth $3.52m. Probably, the $130,000 they made last time they appeared at auction in 1996 is about right. I don't know. I wish, as he I bet he does, that he could have scooped the full $3.52m windfall this time round himself. But I certainly I don't envy anything about his work or the contemporary art market. I merely question it. 

Anyway, Marion also says I've engaged in 'silly conspiracy theories' about guarantees. But when Christie's catalogues openly state that in the case of guarantor purchases “remuneration may be netted against the final purchase price”, it's not a conspiracy theory to ask whether prices reported always reflect what is actually paid for a work of art. Because they don't. That's a fact, not a theory. 

Update II - it's been interesting to see the reaction to my FT piece. First, those contemporarists are very touchy sometimes. It's almost like it's a cult. They assume that anyone criticising either the market or the art is criticising everything to do with contemporary art. But it may surprise them to know that I have more contemporary pictures on my walls at home than antique ones. 

Secondly, it seems very few people are aware of how the guarantor system works, even amongst those familiar with the market. One reader raises the question; if, in the provenance of a work in a sale catalogue, a price is given (as often happens) for the previous time a work sold, but that refers to a guaranor purchase, is that being misleading?

How to solve the museum storage problem

November 19 2014

Image of How to solve the museum storage problem

Picture: Museo Prado

Now this is what I call a picture hang (as tweeted by the Prado earlier today to celebrate their 195th birthday). Which would you rather experience as a gallery visitor: fewer pictures with acres of space around them, and great works still in store; or more pictures on display, but hung closely together like this?

I'd go for the latter, with binoculars available to borrow. 

Update - a reader writes:

Well, I am with you half-way. For grand rooms, yes the old-fashioned hang could be a good way to see more art out of storage and even kind of fun (doesn't the Wallace in London do this, now?). But could we have as well smaller rooms where selected pieces are presented in some semblance of their original settings, such as altarpieces on plain altar-like structures and rooms with domestic art furnishings?  I expect this is anathema to curators (or am I wrong?), but what about the rest of us?

This is one reason I loved the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston - they go for the occasional crowded hang, and in other rooms hang pictures with relevant objects, such as furtniture and sculpture. 

Update II - another reader writes:

Nice photo from the Prado in days of old.

I wonder if it worth starting an on-line petition to get the Tate Britain Duveen Galleries rehung to the maximum? A grand 18/19th Century Royal Academy-style hanging.

The Art Fund arrange projects through crowdfunding these days.

Update III - a reader adds this memory of a trip to the Sorolla Museum:

When reading about the proposal to hang arrange the pictures "old-style", i disliked the notion at first.

But then I remembered my visit to Madrid's Sorolla museum. I fondly remember it as being one of my favourite museums, with quite an intimate atmosphere.

The walls are filled with sorolla works from bottom to top.

I'd be curious to see some modern museums attempt it. Altough it may be more suitable for a wood-furnished artist's atelier than for a stark white museum hallway. (since many museums nowadays resemble nothing more than a collection of corridors).

While another reader sends this image from the Frye Museum in Seattle:

I agree with you, I would rather have more on display and less wall space, which leads me to dwell on the color of the wall rather than the art.

We are fortunate to have a small gem of a museum in Seattle, The Frye Museum.  The Frye Museum along with contemporary exhibitions displays the original 232 paintings purchased by Charles and Emma Frye and left to the city for all to enjoy, and we do.

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