Previous Posts: December 2015

Mr Fingerprint loses defamation case

December 16 2015

Image of Mr Fingerprint loses defamation case

Picture: New Yorker Magazine

In July 2010, David Grann published an important investigative article in the New Yorker magazine highlighting the work of Peter Paul Biro (above), a restorer and art investigator who claimed to be able to authenticate pictures by finding fingerprints on them and matching them with the artist in question. The article claimed, essentially, that Biro was making things up, and found that he had an awkward history involving court cases and suspect paintings. In the most damaging passage, the New Yorker deduced that in one case - an alleged Jackson Pollock - Biro had taken real fingerprints from Pollock's studio, and then applied copies of them onto the painting in question. Very quickly, Biro's reputation collapsed.

Biro sued the magazine, and others, but this week finally lost his case. It's a shame it dragged on for so long.

Before the New Yorker article, Biro was involved in a lot of important art investigations. He was asked, for example, to analyse a fingerprint apparently found on the 'Bella Principessa' drawing attributed by Prof. Martin Kemp to Leonardo. Here's a passage from the New Yorker article which sets out how Biro apparently 'found' a finger-print on the Bella Principessa, with the aid of our old friend the 'multi-spectral camera' (the one invented by Pascal Cotte):

Even in a high-resolution photograph, the fingerprint was unreadable; Biro called it “complete visual confusion.” Many fingerprint examiners, he said, would have been stymied. Then, as if he were lining up a row of mug shots, he called up a series of photographs from a multispectral-imaging camera. Because the images had been made with different wavelengths of light, none of them looked exactly the same. In some photographs, the texture of the parchment—the background “noise,” as Biro put it—was pronounced. In others, the ridge patterns in the fingerprint were accentuated and the parchment all but faded away. From one photograph to the next, Biro said, “the smudge becomes clearer.” Still, it was not clear enough. His next step, he said, was “proprietary.” Using advanced image-processing software, he subtracted the background noise from each image, until only the clearest parts of the fingerprint remained. Finally, he said, clicking on another icon, “You get this.”

The smudge had been transformed into a more legible print: now, at least, there were the outlines of ridges and bumps. When I asked Biro if he worried that his method might be flawed, he said that during nearly two decades of fingerprint examinations he had “not made one mistake.” He added, “I take a long time and I don’t allow myself to be rushed.”

In other words, if you look at enough multi-spectral images in the right way, there's a danger you can end up seeing what you want to see. Regrettably, Biro's results made it into the book heralding the 'Bella Principessa' as a Leonardo, somewhat undermining the whole project. The book was published in March 2010. I remember reading the fingerprint chapter, and thinking it was all extremely speculative, and very far from anything like a convincing match. But it was greeted at the time as a great discovery, mainly because Biro was a 'forensic' investigator, and the fingerprint was found using whizzy new scientific imagery. I'm afraid the whole saga is just more evidence of the tendency (as discussed below with the recent Mona Lisa story) for us to believe any art historican pronouncements if they're made by scientists, or even pseudo-scientists.

I have have a fear that if it hadn't been for the New Yorker's excellent article, Biro's methodology and questionable results would have proceeded almost unchallenged. I remember discussing his techniques with people at the time the Bella Principessa book was launched, and being surprised by their conviction that such 'forensic' methods would become a mainstay of 'modern connoisseurship'. I can sort of understand why - for fingerprinting is infallible in the criminal justice world, and its translation into art authentication seemed difficult to challenge. Biro was being hired and consulted by people's whose opinions count in the art world, and the 'Turners' and 'Picassos' were all beginning to enter the system. So - thank goodness for David Grann.

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

December 16 2015

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)


Here's a sad tale - an artist and lecturer was busted for selling fake prints by the likes of Leonard Beaumont, after experts noticed they still smelt of turpentine. Sheridan Tandy did, however, manage to sell some of his fakes at regional auction house Lawrences (and I think the image above was one of them). Tandy was found guilty, but spared jail. One of the reasons I don't buy 20th Century prints. More here.

Venice art sell-off?

December 16 2015

Image of Venice art sell-off?

Picture: TAN

The Mayor of Venice is threatening to sell off 'non-local' art - like the above Klimt - to plug a budget gap. More here from Gareth Harris in The Art Newspaper. Let's hope he doesn't, if only because it'll be the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

More angels at the National Gallery

December 16 2015

Video: National Gallery

You can see the other NG 'Angels' videos here.

Cleaning Millais

December 16 2015

Image of Cleaning Millais

Picture: Tate/BG

The Tate website tells us how they've cleaned Millais' The Northwest Passage. More here.

Art history, but not as we know it

December 14 2015

Image of Art history, but not as we know it

Picture: The Louvre

Poor ‘Mona Lisa’. We can't stop talking about her. Or speculating, theorising, investigating, filming, researching, and arguing about her. We seldom look at her. We're too busy trying to work out what we think ‘lies beneath’. But if we were to just stop and look at the picture, objectively and without pre-conceptions, we might then begin to accept that this mesmeric creation is simply a portrait of a Florentine lady who, as the old sources tell us, was born Lisa Gherardini, and Lisa del Giocondo - hence 'La Joconde'. True, it is one of the best portraits ever painted, by one of the greatest artist who ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. But it’s still a portrait. 

It is, of course, too late to just ‘look’ at the Mona Lisa. The picture has acquired too much history and legend. So all we can do is tackle each new theory as it comes along, and either bat it away as the latest in a long line of optimistic fantasies, or say, ‘well there may be something to this’. 

I watched the latest theory, ‘The Secrets of the Mona Lisa’, on BBC2 last week. Regular readers might appreciate that, as an occasional BBC arts presenter myself, I’m loath to critique other BBC arts programmes (though this one was made by independent production company). But the programme said it would not just rewrite art history, but reveal ‘one of the stories of the century’. And that's a big claim. So - here goes. 

As a piece of telly, I thought it was excellent. Enjoyable, well made, and, as ever with Andrew Graham-Dixon, well presented. It was ‘Grade A’ telly. As art history, however, it scored a ‘C minus’. A number of basic art historical errors were made early on, and these set the programme onto the pursuit of a flawed - but sensational - thesis.

Actually, the programme started well. We were presented with Prof. Martin Kemp of Oxford University, who might know more about Leonardo da Vinci than anyone else on the planet. He was asked some general questions about the Mona Lisa, but wasn't given a great opportunity to say anything in any detail. He merely set the scene - a Professor to tell us that we were indeed about to look into a Very Important Painting. 

Then we headed to Italy, and on the way unveiled some of the key evidence behind the Mona Lisa. ‘Exhibit A’ as Andrew Graham-Dixon called it, was the art historian Georgio Vasari’s description of the painting. He selected a few sentences, but it’s worth quoting a larger excerpt here:

Leonardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He lingered over it four years and left it unfinished. It is at present in the possession of the French King Francis, at Fontainebleau. In this head anyone who wished to see how closely art could come to imitating nature could easily do so; since here were rendered all those minute niceties which can only be painted with the most delicate means; the eyes had that lustre and liquid effulgence which are always to be observed in real life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints together with the eyelashes which could not have been depicted except by the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh, thick in one place, scanty and scarce in another. The nose with its beautiful nostrils, rose and tender, seemed to be alive. The open mouth and its corners, united by the red of the lips and the flesh tints of the face, appeared to be not painted but real flesh. By intently observing the pit of the throat the spectator would be convinced that he could see the pulse beating in it, and could but feel that this was a picture to make even the boldest artist tremble and lose courage. Leonardo made use, also, of this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he employed people to play and sing, and continually jested while working at the picture in order to keep the lady merry and thus banish the air of melancholy which is so often seen in painted portraits. In this picture of Leonardo’s there was a smile of such charm that it seemed more divine than human and was esteemed a miracle since it was nothing less than alive.

Vasari (1511-1574) was first writing in 1550; a second edition was published in 1568. As Andrew Graham-Dixon finished reading from Vasari, he wondered whether the history of the Mona Lisa was really as ‘open and shut’ as Vasari implied. And with that we were off.

First, however, everything seemed to reinforce Vasari’s basic points. Graham-Dixon told us about the extraordinary discovery in 2005 by Dr. Armin Schlechter at the University of Heidelberg, who found a marginal note written by the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci on a text about the Greek painter Apelles, which said:

"Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance [or, ‘head’] of Lisa del Giocondo and that of the holy Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503.

In other words, the Mona Lisa was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine Merchant. Her maiden name was Lisa Gherardini.

The programme then gave us an interview with the Italian art historian Giuseppe Pallanti, who has done much extraordinary research on the Mona Lisa. He showed us, for example, that Francesco del Giocondo’s house was very close to the house of Leonardo’s father, and, furthermore, that del Giocondo had been a client of Leonardo’s father. Pallanti has also found a record of Lisa’s death. So far, so conventional. Was it case closed?

No - for Andrew Graham-Dixon then set out the theory, held by many people (and for various reasons, as we’ll see below) that there were two versions of the Mona Lisa. Certain things in the evidence so far, said Graham-Dixon, ‘don’t add up’. These included, first, that the Mona Lisa in Paris has ‘no eyebrows’ - whereas Vasari describes eyebrows. Second, Vasari says the Mona Lisa was painted for Francesco del Giocondo - but he never owned the Mona Lisa now in the Louvre, for Leonardo kept that painting with him, and after his death it was sold to the French royal collection. 

Finally, Graham-Dixon introduced us to a third key piece of evidence about the Mona Lisa, a diary entry written by Antonio de Beatis. He was acting as secretary for a Cardinal making a tour of France, and wrote of visiting Leonardo in October 1517, where he saw;

[...] three pictures, one of a certain Florentine lady, done from life, at the instance of the late Magnificent Giuliano de Medici [...].

This, said Graham-Dixon, was puzzling, for Vasari (in 1550) tells us the Mona Lisa was painted for her husband, Francesco del Giocondo - but Beatis in 1517 tells us, from Leonardo himself, that the picture was commissioned by Giuliano de Medici. All of these points added together convinced Graham-Dixon that we were dealing with two separate paintings. 

And so we began our search for the missing picture. About which more in a moment - for here I want to unpack a little further the evidence cited so far to claim that there were two Mona Lisas. Because it seems to me that the programme has fundamentally misunderstood how we should be assessing the evidence mentioned above.

First, those eyebrows. Are we really sure there weren't any on the Louvre Mona Lisa? The picture is over 500 years old. Thinly painted eyebrows, made with a dark glaze as used by Leonardo (and thus of very soft pigments) could easily have been removed by some overzealous restorer. Such damage is the work of a moment, with the wrong cleaning solution, or too rough a sponge. Or, there could still be faint traces of eyebrow left - but we cannot clearly see them through the many layers of dirt and old varnish that now cover the painting. It is simply impossible to say in any objective way; ‘the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has no eyebrows, therefore Vasari must have been talking about a different painting’.

Furthermore, Vasari almost certainly did not see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The picture was in France, which he is not known to have visited. He must have been basing his description on either a copy or someone else’s account. In any case, we can already see how inaccurate his remarks are anyway when he talks about the Mona Lisa’s ‘open mouth’ - when her mouth is in fact closed.  And we ought to note here that the lavish praise Vasari gives the painting was no doubt ammunition in his broader campaign to convince the world of the benefits of his preferred school of Italian art; that is, of ‘disegno’ (where the design or drawing of a painting was the most important part) as practiced in Florence and Rome by the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as opposed to ‘colore’ (where the colour and application of paint was the best feature of a painting) as practiced in Venice by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto. 

So I think that’s the eyebrows taken care of. Next we have the evidence of the different owners, or commissioners of the painting. We have Vasari saying in 1550 that Leonardo ‘undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo’ a portrait of his wife. But apparently in 1517 Leonardo tells us (via de Beatis) that it was painted for Giuliano de Medici. Does this discrepancy point to two different paintings? I don't think so.

Let us look at the evidence, and how reliable it is. First, we know Vasari hasn’t seen the painting, and that his descriptions of it are not entirely reliable. Can we believe beyond doubt Vasari when he says that Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the portrait from Leonardo? In fact, Vasari says only that Francesco commissioned the painting, not that he ever owned it. Secondly, de Beatis talks of a portrait ‘of a certain Florentine lady, done from life’. In other words, he does not say that it is Lisa del Giocondo. It could be another sitter, another portrait. The two other pictures de Beatis mentions seeing on that day are a St John the Baptist, and a Madonna and Child, which are now both in the Louvre, and because the Mona Lisa is now in the Louvre, most people assume that de Beatis’ ‘Florentine lady’ is the Mona Lisa. But it’s far from certain - that is, it is not certain enough for us to say ‘there must be another painting’. Indeed, de Beatis makes another note the next day in his diary which confuses matters, for he describes seeing a different painting at Leonardo’s residence;

there was also a picture in which a certain lady from Lombardy is painted in oil from life, quite beautiful, but in my opinion not as much as the lady Gulanda, the lady Isabella Gulanda’.

Was one of these pictures the ‘Florentine lady’ de Beatis saw? Or is he (as is more likely) in a bit of a muddle about names and pictures and who commissioned what? For how many of us really can recall with clarity all the details of conversations we've had the day before, on all topics? De Beatis, unfortunately, reveals himself to be a somewhat unreliable witness when he says that Leonardo was then in his seventies, when he was actually 65, and that a paralysis on the right side of Leonardo’s body meant he couldn’t reach such artistic heights again - when of course Leonardo was left-handed. 

In other words, there really isn’t much in the way of reliable evidence, in the good old-fashioned historical sense, for us to say ‘there were two Mona Lisas’. Maybe both Francesco del Giocondo and Giuliano de Medici were involved in somehow pressing Leonardo (who was famously loath to take commissions at that time in Florence) to paint Lisa. The point is, we just don’t know.

Nevertheless, Andrew Graham-Dixon next went to Singapore to see contender number one for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa - the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ (above, it once belonged to a collector who lived in Isleworth). Regular readers will know my views about this picture, which is (perhaps rather too glibly) referred to in these parts as the ‘Isleworthless Mona Lisa’. It's most likely a later copy, and the fact that it's on canvas tells you a great deal. Leonardo preferred panel, and all his other portraits are on panel. A good summary of the efforts made by the proponents (and owners) of the Isleworth Mona Lisa comes to us courtesy of Luke Syson (see here), who curated the 2012 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London, and was commenting earlier this year on a lavish exhibition of the Isleworth picture in Singapore:

The story ignores art history, denies the principles of connoisseurship, and bypasses the experts. The whole thing is a little sad, especially for anyone visiting the display who is hoping to see a masterpiece by Leonardo.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, however, was impressed by the picture, when he saw it in a Singapore bank vault, saying:*

There’s a lot to be said for first impressions, and I did well not to jump backwards in shock. It’s too good in my opinion for any of the other school of Leonardo painters… I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this is the picture that Francesco [del Giocondo] took, and then Leonardo goes off and paints another picture, and that’s the ‘Mona Lisa’ [in the Louvre].

To reinforce the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s claim to be an autograph Leonardo, we were shown an interview with ‘an eminent scientist in California’ Dr. John Asmus. Here, the programme really began to stray from the more acceptable realms of art history. Dr Asmus, who I am sure is indeed an eminent scientist, had, said Graham-Dixon:

[…] developed a new test to authenticate paintings by Rembrandt; it compares the subtle distribution of light and shadow measured as histograms to isolate an artist’s unique way of painting.

Sadly, attribution by computer simply doesn’t work. Nobody of any serious repute in the world of Rembrandt authentication is ever going to rely on Dr Asmus’ Rembrandt histograms. I've never heard them mentioned before. And it was wrong of the programme to suggest, to a general audience, that attribution by computer is even possible in the first place. Furthermore, we were told by Dr Asmus himself that his initial tests (which showed a result of ’99%’ certainty that the Isleworth picture was indeed painted by Leonardo) were made on the basis of a photograph of the Isleworth picture taken on an ‘instamatic camera’. We were even shown the bad photograph on the screen. It’s one thing to try and compare, with the aid of a computer, artistic techniques on the basis of good digital photos - but quite another to try it on the basis of a poor quality print. So when Dr Asmus concludes that his tests ‘demonstrate that the technique for blinding light and shade in each face [that is, the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Louvre Mona Lisa] appears uncannily similar’, he is merely observing the characteristics of a copy.

Another piece of evidence we were shown in favour of the Isleworth painting - and as evidence that there were once two Mona Lisa’s - was a drawing by Raphael which is said to be a ‘a copy’ of the Mona Lisa (below). The drawing shows a woman with a similar pose of hands, the head in the same direction, a landscape background, and two columns on either side of her. 

The Isleworth backers say this relates more closely to their picture than the Louvre one. But of course it does not. There are too many differences between Raphael’s drawing and both the Louvre picture and the Isleworth picture for us to say it is a direct ‘copy’ of either. The ledge behind the sitter is at a higher level. The dress, both across the chest and the sleeves, is different. The landscape is different. Perhaps Raphael, whose own portraits at this date follow similar poses, was making an interpretation of the Mona Lisa, if he saw it, or a recollection of it.

(Much is made of the issue of the columns in Mona Lisa-ology. Proponents of the Isleworth Mona Lisa point to the columns in their painting and say it is evidence that it is not a copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, because that has only fragments of column visible. We must here, however, come back to the issue of condition. We cannot be entirely certain (though some claim you can) that the Louvre picture has never been trimmed at the sides, perhaps even very early in its career. Or, perhaps an early copyist decided to add in slightly larger columns of their own accord, and copies were taken from that copy, and so on. Again, it’s one of those things we can’t be certain about.)

In the end, Graham-Dixon decided that the Isleworth Mona Lisa wasn’t by Leonardo. His logic was curious. He correctly noted that the usual ‘barage of scientific tests’ such as infra-red, x-ray, carbon dating etc. cannot tell us that Leonardo definitely painted the Isleworth picture, only that he might have done (and in fact only that any half decent artist from the period or later might have done). He then, however, looked at the location of the paint analysis samples taken by the 'Mona Lisa Foundation' (which acts as cheerleader for the Isleworth picture) and noticed that none were taken from the face itself. He wondered if a later restorer might have interfered with the head in the Isleworth picture, to somehow ‘bring it up’ to a level good enough to make it appear Leonardo-esque. ‘Until the face is tested, doubt remains’, he concludes, as if (again) an attribution to any artist can be achieved by something as straightforward as a scientific test.

So, with the Isleworth picture duly ruled out (which was, I admit, a relief**), we followed one final lead on the hunt for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa. Enter Pascal Cotte, the scientist and inventor of the Lumiere multi-spectral high definition camera. The camera allows us, he claimes, to ‘peel back the layers of a painting, like an onion’, and he can reconstruct the way the painting was made as a result. M. Cotte took a series of multi-spectral scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa in 2004, and has been ‘decoding’ his results ever since. This programme was the first time he unveiled them. A book was announced almost immediately after transmission.

Now, regular readers will know that AHN and Pascal Cotte have ‘previous’. His recent analysis of Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ showed, he said, that the picture was first not painted with an ermine, but with the hands in a different place. Then the ermine was added, and moved. Having looked at the published photos, I concluded that M. Cotte was leaping to conclusions. You can read about that here.

And I’m afraid to say that this time I think M. Cotte’s eyes are again deceiving him. The last part of the programme followed M. Cotte taking us through ever more extraordinary theories; that Mona Lisa was first painted with an elaborate head-dress, which Leonardo then scraped off; that she may have had a blanket on her lap (like the Queen Mum); that she once had a much larger head; that her face was moved 14 degrees; that her mouth was originally smaller; and so on. My favourite was the discovery of 11 hairpins (below), which were determined not to be random array of damages or blemishes (for example) by the fact that there were part of a special type of headdress, into which hair pins went in almost random manner.

The conclusion? That the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was actually two paintings all along. Leonardo had begun to paint Lisa del Giocondo, just like Vasari and Vespucci said. But then he painted over her, and put someone else’s head on instead. Graham-Dixon speculated that this may have been a lover of Giuliano de Medici, Pacifica Brandano. M. Cotte has made a digital recreation (below) of what the ‘original’ Mona Lisa looked like (answer; Gollum’s mum).

I’m sorry to say that all this is scarcely believable. I find it extraordinary that for decades now art historians have wrung their hands about the dangers of ‘connoisseurship’ - that is, the ability to look at the surface of a painting and tell who painted it - but now some are prepared to accept completely the much more dubious interpretation of images underneath a painting. We are now so reluctant to trust our own eyes, that we outsource these questions to scientists, and just because the results are presented by a man or woman in a white coat (or in this case a bow tie) we feel compelled to accept them. Science must be right. 

But I’m afraid it isn’t - not always. And science in art history is in its infancy. We have no way of verifying M. Cotte’s tests. He’s the only one with the camera. And we haven't tested nearly enough paintings for us to say with confidence that we know how to interpret such images. In fact, it seems to me to be quite easy to question Cotte's results, just by using common sense and one’s own eyes. Where M. Cotte sees a larger head (below), artists and art historians will see a straightforward ‘penumbra’, which is the area of dead colour an artist lays down on the panel or canvas as a background colour, and onto which he begins to paint the head. Since we know that the Mona Lisa was painted over a number of years by Leonardo, it is likely that the background was added at a later stage than the initial life sittings, accounting for the differences M. Cotte’s cameras have identified around the head. Indeed, all M. Cotte's images prove is that Leonardo, like so many portraitists, fiddled with and changed his composition as he went along. This is a long way from saying; 'it's two different people'.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here is the view of Prof. Martin Kemp, who has worked extensively with M. Cotte in the past. With apologies, I here quote Prof. Kemp’s recent blog post extensively. He's much more diplomatic than I am:

Now that Pascal’s book is out in all its visual glory, and in the wake of the media interviews, edited as always to emphasise difference, it is worth laying out briefly how his researches look to me. It represents an extraordinary body of dedicated effort. He asked me for comments for his website - knowing that I disagreed with some of his interpretations.  He is a good guy.

The LAM technique undoubtedly provides an important new weapon in the armoury of those interested in scientific examinations of layered paintings. The Holy Grail of scientific examination is to disclose the successive layers that lie below the present surface. Pascal’s mode of analysis, adapting mathematical techniques from signal processing, is revealing far more from the deeper layers than was previously possible, but it does not definitively isolate information from a single layer. We are also unclear as to what is happening as the different frequencies of light penetrate the paint layers to varying degrees and interact in diverse ways with the varied optical properties of the materials within the layers of the picture. This means that tricky acts of interpretation are necessary – even more difficult than is the case with x-rays and infrared. There is always the danger of seeing what we want to see. None of us are immune from this.

Looking at a selection of the LAM images as an art historian, I can see things that are wholly consistent with Leonardo’s creative methods, such as the indication of the use of cartoon and the restless manoeuvrings of contours. Some of what Pascal sees and reconstructs, such as the elaborate headdress, makes no sense to me in terms of design procedures or in terms of Renaissance paintings. I have difficulties with his detailed reconstructions of finished or semi-finished paintings under the surface of the present one. Leonardo’s processes were very fluid, with things coming and going, and with varied levels of finish across the picture. There is obviously a question of presentation here, and I would have resisted the temptation to translate the complex and often ambiguous images from the lower layers into such definite “pictures”.

My strong sense, at this early stage in our understanding of what we are looking at, is that we are witnessing something consistent with the documentation and with Leonardo’s ways of proceeding. I see the painting beginning as a direct portrait of Lisa – building on the innovations of Leonardo’s Milanese portraits – and becoming increasingly conceptualised as picture that combines the combines the tropes of Renaissance love poetry with a profound interest in the microcosm of the human body and the “body of the earth”. I see a steady evolution from portrait to “picture”. The change in her draperies from a Florentine style (as Pascal shows) into a more conceptualised array of veils etc., is part of this process of generalisation. All this is consistent with the idea I first expressed in my 1981 monograph, that Giuliano de’ Medici asked Leonardo to finish the beautiful and remarkable picture when they were both in Rome from 1513-16.

Pascal is opening up very important fields for analysis.  We are at the beginning, Anyone is unwise to pronounce with certainty at this stage. I will have to make some sense of all this for the monograph of the Mona Lisa that I am currently writing with Giuseppe Pallanti.

All of which reinforces my earlier scepticism about Cotte's analysis of Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine. I note that so far, the Louvre has said rien.

Now, I am not trying to suggest here that Andrew Graham-Dixon's programme itself was flawed. I think it was an interesting and worthwhile investigation which genuinely added to our knowledge of the Mona Lisa. All it was missing was the occasional caveat. It’s a shame too that it didn't conclude with some form of independent assessment from Prof. Kemp. He was introduced at the beginning as an expert, so one might have expected to see him at the end. As we know, he would not have agreed with Pascal Cotte's and Andrew Graham-Dixon's conclusions. But I don't think the programme would have lost anything by leaving its dramatic conclusions open to doubt and interpretation.  

I haven’t yet mentioned another picture that Graham-Dixon went to see as a possible ‘other’ Mona Lisa; a work in Russia. It seemed quite clearly to be a later copy, and eventually with the help of more science we were shown that it couldn’t have been by Leonardo, for the ground layer dates to the 17th Century. We were told that little was known about the picture, except that it had been in an American collection since the end of the 18th Century, that it was bought from them by a Russian owner, and that 'it had hardly been seen since'. In fact (as a reader alerted us via Twitter) this picture had been sold at auction at Christie's in New York in 2009 as a copy of the Mona Lisa, and sold for $122,500, against an estimate of $20k-$30k. I'm not for a minute saying that such sale history means a picture can't be an important discovery. But one might think that had a potential '2nd Mona Lisa' appeared under the noses of every Old Master dealer and auction specialist in the world, it would have made more than $122,500.

And a few days after the BBC programme went out, there was a fresh flurry of excitement about a ‘new Mona Lisa’. It was the same picture Graham-Dixon went to see in Russia (detail below). Only this time, it had the name of ‘leading da Vinci scholar’ Prof. Carlo Pedretti attached to it. And why is he so confident that the Russian picture has a chance of being by Leonardo? Because he too has developed a ‘new art analysis software’. So we're back to square one in the Mona Lisa game; anything goes, as long as you can get enough media hype.

Computer software, ‘magic cameras’, mis-interpreted images, optimistically assessed paint analysis, the views of well-intentioned scientists who don’t know their way around a painting; is this to be the new way of deciding (at least in the public arena) what is and what is not a Leonardo (or a Michelangelo or whatever else is next)? Not if I have anything to do with it. The public deserves better.

By the way, I'm not claiming to be uniquely right in any of the above. Please do let me know what you thought of the new claims, whether you agree or not.

* I've been asked to see a few pictures in 'bank vaults'. It's usually a sure sign of something being a dud.

** This is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the Isleworth Mona Lisa - I might get round to that one day.

Update - thanks for all your comments. I'll put them up tomorrow (Weds).

Apologies (ctd.)

December 10 2015

Image of Apologies (ctd.)

Picture: IG

I'm rather snowed under at the moment with the day job. So, sorry about the lack of posts. I'm hoping to write something about the BBC Mona Lisa programme, which I watched yesterday. Great telly, not so great art history. Here's a fair summary I think in Apollo (and not just because it quotes me ranting away on Twitter). I'm also writing a summary of the Old Master sales for The Art Newspaper. Here's my highlight of the week

As you can see above, I've been trying to train the Deputy Editor to help out in these moments of crisis. But she still can't spell 'connoisseurship', and until then I daren't leave her in charge.

Caveat Emptor

December 9 2015

Image of Caveat Emptor

Picture: Hampel 

Coming up tomorrow, catalogue entry here.


December 8 2015


Sorry for the lack of action at the moment; it's Old Master week in London, and things are a little busy. Back soon!

Update - Wowee; a woeful evening sale at Christie's, totalling £6.45m. That's about half the pre-sale combined lower estimate. Many pictures buying in.

Before you all write off Old Masters, my hunch is that Christie's poor sale reflects the current state of affairs between the major auction houses. I may have to eat my words tomorrow night, but I expect Sotheby's to do much better.

Update II - the Day Sale at Christie's was much stronger. Good prices and sell rates. You can see the prices here. The total was over £3.5m. Of course, it won't stop the usual talk about 'the middle market' being dead. A fuller round up of the sales from me later in the week.


Mona Lisa theory no. 657

December 7 2015

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 657

Picture: Harsh Goenka

O. M. G.

The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

December 7 2015

Image of The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

Picture: BBC

The BBC has a new programme on the Mona Lisa, called 'The Secrets of the Mona Lisa', and it'll be shown on BBC2 this Wednesday at 9pm. It's presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and comes only four years after the last programme called 'Secret Life of the Mona Lisa', which was presented by Alan Yentob.

So, are there any more secrets for this much studied painting to give up?

Well, perhaps yes - for technology in this world moves quickly. And sharp-eyed readers will notice that in the above publicity still, Andrew Graham-Dixon poses not in front of the actual Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but the so-called 'Isleworth Mona Lisa', which is a copy not by Leonardo (on which, see AHN passim by putting 'Isleworth' into the search engine). Proponents of the 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' claim it to be not just by Leonardo, but an earlier work, done before the picture in Paris.

The owners of the 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' are busy sparing no expense in trying to promote their picture as a work by Leonardo, including most recently a lavish exhibition in Singapore. A new page on their website claims to show that '100% of experts who have seen the painting' say the picture is by Leonardo or 'possibly by' Leonardo. In the latter category, remarkably, we see the name of Keneth Clark - and I'd like to see the evidence for that.

Quite why we need to give this unremarkable copy yet more publicity is unclear. Would you promote a programme on the Mona Lisa by using a photograph of a copy? AHN will be watching anxiously, and hoping the programme doesn't even come close to suggesting the picture is by Leonardo. Andrew Graham-Dixon's programmes are always excellent - I'm sure his Leonardo connoisseurship is too.

Update - the conclusions of the Mona Lisa programme are in the news. And it's pretty bold stuff. The Mona Lisa is indeed a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, but the finished picture on top is of someone else. At least I think that's what it is. It all depends on Pascal Cotte's whizzy imagery. And regular readers will know what I make of that. More here, including scepticism from Prof. Martin Kemp. The Louvre is saying rien.


December 4 2015

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery's videos are getting better - splendid. This one is all about angels in pictures. And we see the first glimpse of new director, Gabriele Finaldi.

How should we save our 'national treasures'?

December 4 2015

Image of How should we save our 'national treasures'?

Picture: NAF

In Germany, the culture minister Monika Grütters has published draft legislation to, as she puts it, protect Germany’s cultural treasures. Specifically, she wants to extend a list of ‘national treasures’ that cannot ever be allowed to leave the country. This list includes all works in public museums, even those on loan from private owners. New regulations for what requires an export licence will also come into effect (more here). The proposals bring Germany closer to policies followed in France and Italy, and further from those here in the UK.

The result? ‘Truckloads’ of art have been leaving Germany, as owners of important artwork rush to get their pictures out of the country before the new law is passed and values go through the floor. Museum loans have been withdrawn too. The German artist Georg Baselitz withdrew all of his pictures in protest. Gerhard Richter threatened to do likewise, calling the new proposed law ‘an infringement of freedom’. 

In other words, messing around with laws to protect cultural heritage can be a dangerous business. By publishing a law to forbid the export of important privately owned works of art, the German government is making sure that soon there won’t be any left in Germany anyway.

On the one hand, this is a simple case of economics and self-preservation. Imagine you own, say, a Rembrandt that is valued at £35m on the open market. That market value is most likely dependent on international buyers, such as major Rembrandt collectors in the US, or Middle Eastern states looking to buy brand name works of art. If, suddenly, you can only sell to collectors or museums in Germany, competition for your Rembrandt is massively diminished - and thus also its value. In France, the state allows you to sell your pictures on the open market, but only in theory; as soon as any auction sale is concluded (for example) the state can automatically buy your picture for the final price, without having bid themselves. And because everybody knows this will happen, few people ever bid in the first place. 

On the other hand, however, Monika Grütters’ proposals reflect a belief that great art belongs ‘to the people’. This is a legitimate point of view, which I respect. But for me this means that the interests of those who happen to own it don’t really matter. And that I disagree with.

In Britain, we have a different system for protecting cultural treasures, because it also balances the rights of those who happen to own them. Here, owners can market their work internationally, and thus achieve the best price. (If you think that’s unfair, imagine selling your house, only for the estate agent to tell you they can’t offer it to anyone not already living in the same county.) Once someone has sold their painting, the government can grant institutions (or sometimes, in certain circumstances, other domestic private owners) a period of time to try and raise matching funds, usually about a year. If nobody can raise the money, the work of art can leave the country. Monika Grütters doesn’t like the UK system, because, she says; “the only objects that are protected are the ones that the state can afford to buy.”

This is, on the surface, to a certain extent true. But the sentence ‘the ones the state can afford to buy’ has many meanings. It can, literally, mean simply the amount of money easily available. But it also of course reflects the willingness to raise those funds. Because let us be in no doubt that states like Germany and the UK can afford, in a literal sense, to buy literally any work of art they wanted to. They are rich nations, with GDP measured in trillions of dollars. The question is, how much are politicians - or more broadly, the public - prepared to spend on a work of art, and does the cost justify the public interest. A Prime Minister, faced with a £100m bill for a new hospital or a Leonardo, will go for the hospital every time.

That, then, is the key test here; ‘the public interest’. In an article for the Art Fund’s quarterly magazine, the Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar, places great emphasis on the public interest, or at least his definition of it. Deuchar wants to see “radical improvements to the UK’s art export control mechanisms […] real action and reform, without further obfuscation or delay”. He writes after the recent controversy over the sale of a £35m Rembrandt portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (above) from Penrhyn Castle in Wales. The Art Fund was ready to launch a campaign to raise £22.5m to buy the picture (the remainder would have come from the government, in the form of tax foregone). The appeal showed great ambition, and the Art Fund must be applauded for giving it a go. But in the event, the campaign had to be halted at the last minute, because the new owner decided he wanted to keep the picture in the UK, and see off any risk that the Art Fund (or, in effect, the nation) might forcibly buy his picture from him against his wishes. 

The Art Fund, understandably disappointed at not having the chance to buy the picture, hinted that they alone were acting in ‘the wider public interest’. They also made some hyperbolic statements about the Rembrandt being under immediate and perilous threat - when actually it will stay in the country (I think for at least a decade) and will be lent to a public museum (for more on this, see here). Hence we are now seeing Deuchar’s call for change.

Deuchar shares Monika Grütters view that the UK system is no good, writing: “The UK’s Export Review system – both looser in the controls it exercises and more cumbersome in the machinery it employs than systems employed elsewhere in Europe and beyond – has been unable to guarantee its central task (to stop national treasures going abroad) for some time.”

Is he right? I’m not sure many things we can truly define as ‘a national treasure’ have been lost over, say, the last five years. This is not to say that many extremely significant pictures have not gone overseas, which under current criteria were rightly declared 'national treasures'. And which I would dearly loved to have seen in a UK gallery. I mean instead in the wider sense of pictures which the nation itself, as whole, would have really felt the loss of.

The Rosebery Turners were certainly a great loss, but they are well looked after in the Getty, and we do already have the Turner bequest at the Tate, as well as many other fine Turners in public collections (thanks mainly to the artist himself). I'm sorry if this sounds a reductionist argument, but it's valid. Then there was a £50m Picasso, ‘Child with a Dove’; expensive, yes, but was there national grieving over its departure? Would the public really have stomached raising £50m for the picture, of which a huge part must have been public money? I doubt it. One could say the same about the £25m Raphael drawing from Chatsworth; undoubtedly a jewel, but our national conscience was not pricked by its departure.

Instead, it seems to me that where there are pictures which truly do stimulate the interest of the wider public, like the £100m Titian ‘Dianas’, or the £10m Van Dyck Self-portrait, we are perfectly able to raise even gargantuan sums to save them. And well done the Art Fund for doing so. Indeed, the whole process of raising such sums, though laborious and painful, is a useful indicator of whether the works in question should be ‘saved’. Just because an overseas buyer values something more highly than we do, doesn’t mean we must ‘save it’ - and so stop some other nation from enjoying it. Must we buy everything?

Second, let’s look first at Deuchar’s definition of ‘the public interest’. He seems to assume that the public interest test is purely whether a picture goes on public display. But as any judge will tell you, a public interest test must involve a far broader consideration than that. Is it, for example, in the wider public interest that we only step in to buy expensive pictures that happen to have been in the UK for a long time? Was it in the public interest, on this occasion, for £12.5m of tax to be foregone by the Treasury, in order to buy a picture that not everybody thought was as ‘mesmerising’ as Deuchar did? (The pot of tax available for such transactions is limited, so other works of art available to buy might have been lost.) Is it in the public interest to undermine the UK’s internationally dominant position in the art trade (on which, more below), which creates thousands of jobs, and millions in tax revenue? Finally, is it in the public interest for the state to have the power to compel you to sell something against your wishes, even if it’s art?

For here I suspect that when Deuchar mentions approvingly other ‘European’ export systems, and calls for ‘radical reform’ of the UK system, he has in mind the ability for the government to forcibly block the export of works of art deemed ‘national treasures’. I may be wrong, and if so, then he has my apologies.

But how would such a policy work in practice? Moves to tighten up the export of cultural objects to a level that might satisfy the Art Fund would, in effect, require the part nationalisation of privately held assets, and simply because someone has deemed them to be of ‘national importance’. In other words, if now we are to draw up some German-style list of national treasures, or introduce a French system of pre-emption, we immediately deny the owners of those works the right to realise the full value of their assets. Is that fair? And can it in fact be done without first causing a mass exodus of national treasures?

And who would decide what should be saved? A grand committee? The Art Fund? The Art Fund thought the Rembrandt a national treasure worth spending £35m of public and charitable money on. Plenty of other people did not. One leading UK museum director told me the picture had a ‘good face and wimple, but [is] not a great Rembrandt. The Rembrandts at Chatsworth, Drumlanrig and Mulgrave are so much better - wait for those?” 

And let us look at the curious rationale on which the Art Fund partly based his decision to try and ‘save’ the Rembrandt:

Putting this great picture to such a powerful social purpose across Wales would, it must be said, also have provided a positive postscript to another, more controversial side to Penrhyn’s past. Not only had the family’s wealth originally derived from sugar and the slave trade, but their suppression of union activity and then strikes at the Penrhyn slate works in 1900-3 lies among the darkest chapters of Welsh industrial history. To this day many local people refuse to enter the castle by way of quiet retaliation. For all these reasons, the prospect of a sale by the Penrhyn trustees to the Art Fund, on behalf of the National Museum of Wales and the Welsh people more widely, rather than to a private overseas buyer, promised to be a welcome and potentially popular outcome.

Should a ‘powerful social purpose’, and writing a historic wrong, be a reason for deeming something a national treasure? I’m not sure.

And, yes, the art trade. Aha, you say - “this Grosvenor fellow is an art dealer. He just wants to be able to flog as many pricey pictures as he can, for as much as he can. Those fat commissions!” Well, if that’s what you want to think, so be it. Actually, I’m more concerned with old-fashioned notions of private property. We like these notions in Britain, hence Magna Carta.  Certainly, I think the UK’s traditional success as an international centre for the art trade is worth protecting. That does depend, to a certain extent, on being seen as a country where the rights of the owners of art are in some way protected. You need to be sure, if you move here with a picture, or merely send it for sale, that the state isn’t going to say ‘we’ll have that thanks’. It may be a nebulous concept, but it is around such fundamental certainties that generations of expertise coalesce over centuries and have helped create Britain’s dominant position in the art trade.

I don’t think Deuchar likes the art trade though. Here are the last two paragraphs of his Art Quarterly piece, which I quote in full:

Though we may regret the actions of many players in this saga, we should not be surprised by them. The UK’s Export Review system – both looser in the controls it exercises and more cumbersome in the machinery it employs than systems employed elsewhere in Europe and beyond – has been unable to guarantee its central task (to stop national treasures going abroad) for some time. Its rules and procedures have been developed over the years under the close scrutiny and lobbying of the British art trade, which has always wished to ensure as much freedom as possible to sell works of art abroad. Much is made – both by those who run and those who participate in the system – of the ‘gentlemanly’ procedures and etiquette that determine how business is conducted. Declarations are made by applicants on the basis of their word rather than through any legal contract, and in the majority of instances, it is true, the system’s many loopholes are not excessively exploited and abused. But in the growing roll call of recent occasions on which an applicant has been economical with the truth about some aspect of a sale, or gone back on their word, or acted in a way that has casually overridden the public interest – as in the case of the Rembrandt – notably large sums of money have been involved. With £35m at stake, gentlemanly conduct will forever be in short supply.

Human behaviour will not change, so the systems that regulate it must change instead. The Art Fund has been lobbying for many years for radical improvements to the UK’s art export control mechanisms. As a consequence of their weakness, the permanent loss to Wales and the UK of the Penrhyn Rembrandt may now look almost inevitable, but we appeal to the Treasury, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport and the Arts Council and all those who support and run the present and outdated systems, to respond to this terrible lesson by committing to real action and reform, without further obfuscation or delay.

I suppose some people are incapable of gentlemanly behaviour because they’re blinded by money. But actually, Deuchar has a lot of people in his sights here, not just dealers like me. He seems to mistrust, perhaps simply as naive, those who devised and run the current ‘cumbersome’ and ‘outdated’ export procedures. And he seems to believe we must be saved from ourselves by more regulation. 

But I think Deuchar is being a little unfair. I have some experience of export cases, both as an applicant and as an expert adviser, and though there are often snags, those who operate the system are unfailingly efficient, professional and selfless. Many of them, such as those who make up the export committee, are volunteers. Others work under great pressure with few resources. Nor have I seen much evidence of the sort of dodgy behaviour Deuchar seems to have seen. This is not to say it doesn’t happen - I've been in committee meetins where I've found myself arguing for lower valuations for example. But I would simply say that elements of the art world are prone to gossip, some of it malicious, and I wouldn’t believe everything you hear. Perhaps I have misread him, but Deuchar seems to start with a deep suspicion of the art trade. 

That said, I have great respect for Deuchar, who is a man of significant experience and undoubted decency. I can certainly agree with him that there is room for improvement in the export licence system. For example, the way licence applications are initially judged, by a single ‘expert assessor’ (usually a museum curator) can sometimes be a little arbitrary. It’s perhaps a matter of regret that pictures like the Charles Le Brun portrait of Everhard Jabach and his family was not taken to up to the level of the export licensing committee, for a full discussion on the picture’s merits. Maybe if two Expert Assessors were asked for their initial opinion, we might get a more consistent application of the criteria of what shouldbe stopped. And I can see the case for somehow ensuring that those who initially agree to accept a matching offer are under greater obligation to do so, to prevent situations where a campaign is undertaken but has to be abandoned because the applicant withdraws at the last minute. Fortunately, this scenario is rare, and in the case of the Penrhyn Rembrandt the campaign was never officially launched. 

However, the best way to improve the system is - let’s be honest - to have more money to buy the works of art we deem national treasures. At the moment, there’s not enough of money for us to buy all the things we want (or think we want - and don't forget that much goes straight into storage). When Deuchar says (about the Penrhyn Rembrandt), ‘in recent years, and to the consternation of many, it has been privately offered for sale on a number of occasions at an asking price far beyond the means of the most evidently appropriate public buyers – the National Museum of Wales, for example, or the National Trust itself”, we can perhaps discern that he thinks such works should be offered to an appropriate public buyer at a level they can afford. That is, at an artificially lowered price, or as an act of charity. 

But surely the best and fairest way to get around this issue is not to artificially create lower prices, but to somehow find more money to buy them, albeit at a fair price. But from where will we get this money? At root, we must realise that to a certain extent the majority of the public do not want to spend scarce resources buying lots of great art, even if they’re by Rembrandt. The reason regional museums are under threat, and the reason DCMS only gets 1% of total government revenue, is because the arts are not seen as a priority. That's a fact, albeit a painful one to us art lovers. In other words, if we want to buy more art, we art lovers need to dig deeper into our own pockets.

Therefore, where I disagree most with Deuchar is this: the best way to secure more treasures is by making a positive case of their merits - not by artificially trying to make them cheaper. That, surely, is the best way to get a wider, contributing public on board the Art Fund's brilliant and vital mission.


All ideas for any potential reform, or not, welcome - please send them in.

Update II:

A few years ago I discussed all this with A Very Senior UK Judge. He wondered, and I think more than half seriously, that if we went too far in tightening export controls, someone would one day take their case all the way to the highest European court (on the grounds that such restrictions infringed his/her right to enjoy their private property), and that they might well win. In which case, the whole system would come crashing down.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian agrees with AHN, mostly.

Update IV:

As an optimist, I can't help pointing out the good news: although many find it hard to accept, it was a Conservative administration (in 2012) which not only massively increased the amount of Lottery good cause money going to the Heritage Lottery Fund, but also changed the rules to allow that money to be spent on art acquisitions. That money has been instrumental in saving many important treasures, and will continue to be so. The Van Dyck self-portrait (to which the HLF contributed over £6m, and which was the first big test of the HLF's appetite for acquisitions) would probably have been sent overseas without these changes.  

And now a boast, and an idea; as an art lover and museum visitor, I too want to see even more money come in to buy pictures. That’s why, when I was helping write Conservative policy for the arts (in 2005 and 2010) I not only suggested the above changes, but also advocated creating a specific National Acquisition Fund. The man then in charge of Tory policy (one David Cameron) agreed with the idea, but insisted on changing the title to National Fund for Acquisitions, to avoid the unfortunate acronym. Perhaps we can persuade him to take up the idea again?

Update V - a reader writes:

I would challenge your suggestion that few ’national treasure’ paintings have left these shores over the past five years.  By definition, the Export Committee only considers artworks of utmost importance and therefore if the Committee temporarily stops an artwork from going abroad it is likely to be for a good reason.  I would suggest that the Committee does a ‘good job’ that balances the rights of buyers and sellers and the market overall as evidenced by the fact that of the thousands of paintings that have passed through the sale rooms over the past five years (to 2014/15) the Committee export stopped just 23 paintings (ie. 4-5 a year).  Are these 23  paintings not ‘national treasures”? If not then how should we view them?  

Of the 23 paintings, only six were saved (van Dyck, Stubbs x 2, Lorenzetti, Rimini and Manet).  Paintings by Turner, Poussin, Rembrandt, Brueghel, Claude, Hals, Guardi and Watteau have gone in addition to the Picasso and the de Bray you reference.  Why is this?  

I think you are right that the lack of funds available to British galleries to match the firepower of overseas buyers is a major issue.  A National Acquisition Fund is a great idea in principle but the source of sustainable funding remains unclear.  

Funding aside, I think there is also a real question mark over the appetite of our leading institutions to acquire these works.  If the Export committee is taking the trouble to provide such opportunities for British galleries then in my mind there should be some obligation on the sector to explain why the work in question is not to be pursued for acquisition.  It is currently too easy for museums to walk by on the other side.

And this brings us to the growing importance of a good campaign.  You suggest that the recent Picasso loss did not strike a chord with the public as did say the van Dyck self portrait and this is undoubtedly true.   However, it is a slippery slope to view each of these export stopped paintings in terms of how they can be packaged up for public consumption in a funding campaign.  Is our national collection richer for having secured another van Dyck (however wonderful and rare the self-portrait is) because it could be positioned as 'the world's first selfie' rather than less easy to digest paintings by de Bray or the Guardi? 

Update VI - a reader writes:

I would highlight a slightly different, but arguably more toxic problem with the export review procedure, one, ironically, which Deuchar is partly responsible for creating. The problem is rarely with works of art which come up before the reviewing committee, such as the Penryhn Rembrandt, but with the very major objects which are never even considered by the committee. This is not the fault of our export licensing laws, the excellent and efficient officials who run the tiny department responsible or the frankly brilliant committee members who represent amazing depth and range of knowledge but the so-called expert advisers who fail to submit significant objects for consideration by the committee. Take the Worcester College Ruisdael purchased last year by the Kimbell; an indisputably great Dutch landscape which surely met Waverly 2 and 3? It never even came before the committee, because the expert adviser made no case for its consideration and the license was simply granted. As academic art history becomes less and less interested in objects and more interested in theory and social contexts, the ability of national curators to adequately judge Waverly 2 and 3 and therefore discharge their duty as expert advisers comes under strain. During his lamentable period as director of Tate Britain, Deuchar oversaw the decimation of curatorial expertise. A small point, but it seems to me the major problem with the system.

Update VII - a reader from Germany writes:

regarding the national treasures. If the politicians want to act in the name 'of the people', then they should have a referendum before buying a multimillion piece of art. I wonder, when faced with the choice to buy a picture by say Rembrandt against improvements in public health, pensions, housing etc., what 'the people' will go for.

While a reader from the US writes:

In amending the Art Export Scheme perhaps a committee could make it known in advance that a work might be considered a national treasure when it is offered for sale and before a buyer has bid or offered to purchase it. This might reduce the price a bit but it doesn't create a certainty that it can't be exported and it provides a longer period to consider public acquisition irrespective of whether the buyer seeking the work is foreign or domestic.

More importantly, AHN has mentioned the importance to the art trade of Britain's respect for private property. As an economist and business consultant I can assure the reader that this deep respect for private property is core to the willingness of foreign businesses and investors to locate I the UK and to hold British assets. An infringement of this historically basic right could have economic affects beyond the art trade and the jobs it creates directly and that it supports in other services and industries whose products its participants consume in large quantities.

Update VIII - a reader writes:

Thanks for a very thoughtful essay.  One of the issues you rightly emphasize (and not only in this post) is the unintended consequences of well-intended policy measures.  Another is the difficulty of factoring into decisions the “opportunity cost” (one of the few economics buzzwords that is well-said): what else might have been done with the money and the effort or time involved?  Both require difficult assessments well beyond purely artistic quality, however difficult it surely is to determine what is or isn’t a “national treasure”.  Unfortunately, in my admittedly haphazard experience as an amateur historian of arts, curators tend to be among the most narrowly focussed people I have encountered, too prone to discount considerations outside their own professional compass or the views on arts of those outside their professionally academic community.  With many sterling exceptions, of course; but I do fear that contemporary academic trends accentuate the negatives.  I hope I am mistaken…. 

Another reader wonders if we should be saving things at all:

Firstly, it does seem rather rich to be invoking the dubious concept of a "national treasure" when so many of these artworks are by, of, or originally commissioned by, non-nationals. The Rembrandt portrait may have been in Wales for 150 years, but it has spent most of it's existence not being in Wales. I am Welsh and would love to see it here in Cardiff but the idea that the painting is a 'national treasure' seems ludicrous to me. 

Moreover, given that much of this material was hoovered up from Europe by the UK's wealthy aristocrats and industrialists during the 18th and 19th centuries, it smacks of sour grapes for us to then seek to prevent today's wealthy aristocrats (in the Middle East) and industrialists (in the US, Russia and China) from using their wealth from doing more or less the same thing. As an art lover I may not like seeing most of these works go, but I really don't feel that I have any rights in the matter, and the idea that there is some coterie of experts deciding what is a 'national treasure' and where the 'public interest' lies is not terribly appealing either....

I'm as susceptible as the next person when it comes to wanting to 'save' things. But there is undeniably an element of culture protectionism about the whole process.

Stupid story of the week

December 3 2015

Image of Stupid story of the week

Picture: BBC

The BBC News website has a real gem of a story today:

Universities across England have spent some £20m on art to furnish their buildings or museums over the past five years, a BBC investigation has found.

One work of art, from the University of Oxford, cost £7.9m.

Unison criticised the spend, saying universities were choosing "style over substance".

Universities said the works of art often went on public display and were used for teaching and research.

A Freedom of Information request by the BBC collated the information for 2010-2015. [...]

A Unison spokeswoman said: "Unison is appalled that universities can think about investing £20m in works of art when a significant number of institutions still pay their employees significantly less than the living wage.

"Universities must be more accountable on how they spend their money. The huge amount going on works of art suggests that during these austere times, universities are choosing style over substance.

"As nice as they might be to look at, paintings, statues and sculptures don't enhance teaching, and leave the lowest paid staff on campus unable to have a decent standard of living."

The BBC seems not to have noticed that universites like Oxford and Cambridge also have their own museums (respectively the Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam museums) which are an essential part of their educative mission. And occasionally these museums buy works of art (like the Ashmolean buying that £7.9m portrait by Manet). So it's daft to present this 'invstigation' as some sort of outrage about universities wasting money on art, as if it's for dons' private rooms. 

Sleeper Alert

December 2 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert


The above small canvas (50 x 31.5 cm) came up in Austria the other day as 'Attributed to El Greco'. As such, a price of €54,000 wasn't too unusual. But the estimate of €400-€800, with a starting bid of just €200 certainly was cheap.

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