Previous Posts: February 2015

Move along folks, nothing to see here... (ctd.)

February 17 2015

Image of Move along folks, nothing to see here... (ctd.)

Picture: Die Welt

More bad news for the owners/promoters of the 'Leonardo' (above) that isn't: Prof. Carlo Pedretti, of the University of California, has denied that he ever said the painting was by Leonardo. Although, he was quoted at the time of its unveiling (in Corriere Della Sera, for example) as saying:

"There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo."

Given that Pedretti was, apparently, the only person who seriously thought the picture was any good, I think we can safely go back to regarding this picture as a copy. And the fellow charged with 'illegally exporting' this masterpiece of Italian heritage to Switzerland can rest easy.

For earlier AHN on this picture, see here and here.

For more curious Pedretti/Leonardo-ness, see here

Michelangelo bronzes discovered (ctd.)

February 17 2015

Image of Michelangelo bronzes discovered (ctd.)

Picture: Fitzwilliam

From Germany, doubts. Writing in Die Welt, the German art historian and Michelangelo scholar Prof. Frank Zöllner, lists his misgivings on the new attribution. You can read his article here in German, and ArtNet has a summary in English:

Zöllner explains that the total absence of historical documentation detailing Michelangelo's creation of the bronzes is highly problematic. Taking into account the extremely complex and expensive casting process, he argues that it is very unlikely that the artist would have been able to create the sculptures in his studio without leaving behind any documentation, and without assistance.

Moreover, the expert alleges that the Fitzwilliam Museum's authentication was based on a flawed visual and stylistic comparison made between the two sculptures, and a portfolio attributed to Michelangelo's studio which contains a number of sketches, including a small sketch of a naked man riding a panther. He labels this approach "a little tricky, especially with such an adventurous attribution."

Zöllner points out a series of crucial differences between the sketch and the statue including significant discrepancies between the size of the panther and the position of the man's torso. Additionally, he suggests it cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the sketch is in fact one of Michelangelo's design concepts.

He then goes on to criticize the "sensationalist" reaction to the news of the attribution of the sculptures to Michelangelo, "especially from the British press."

According to Zöllner, the only person to voice serious concerns over the attribution is Frits Scholten, Curator of Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Scholten, who saw the bronzes at an exhibition in 2003 attributed the sculptures to the Dutch sculptor Willem Danielsz van Tetrode (1525-1588). Zöllner predicts, "this assessment will probably prevail and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge will suffer significant damage to its image."

Well, boo to the British press. But Prof. Zöllner raises many interesting questions. Given the somewhat limited evidence in favour of the attribution, and the way it was presented, was it inevitable that there would be an element of suprise and doubt amongst some in the wider art historical community? Especially if one authority, the curator of sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, says they're Dutch. Did the Fitzwilliam really need to leave itself vulnerable to such criticism, by saying 'These are undoubtedly by Michelanglo'? There can be few bigger claims to make in art history. 

Anne Boleyn-ollocks

February 16 2015

Image of Anne Boleyn-ollocks

Picture: via Flickr

The Anne Boleyn story doing the rounds today highlights everything that is wrong with art research and art reporting at the moment. It is head-bangingly frustrating. 

First, the story, as reported in The Telegraph:

Two of the most well known portraits of Anne Boleyn, which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, may not be her, scientists have concluded.

Facial recognition experts have created a computer algorithm which maps the faces from portraits to find a match with other paintings.

They used a contemporaneous miniature of Boleyn from the British Museum as a reference, as it is the only undisputed likeness of Henry VIII’s second wife.

After running the software, the experts said they could not be sure that the ‘Anna Bolina’ portrait, a late 16th century copy of a painting from 1533, which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery, was the queen. [...]

Professor Amit Roy-Chowdhury, of the University of California, created the algorithm after being approached by a history student who was keen to see if facial recognition technology could be applied to art history.

The technology also appears to have cleared up the mystery of the Nidd Hall portrait [above], a painting labelled as Anne Boleyn, but which many historians believed actually depicted Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. The image shows a young woman in a gable hood, wearing a brooch bearing the initials ‘AB’ which was known to belong to Boleyn.

The portrait was labelled as “The Most Excellent Princesse Anne Boleyn” but many historians claimed it was based a painting of Seymour by Holbein. [...]

Well, where to begin? The 'miniature' referred to in this piece is in fact a medal (below) in the British Museum, which is dated 1534. While it certainly does show Anne, the main problem is that it has become so damaged over time that it gives few reliable clues as to what she really looked like. The nose has been flattened, and one side of the face has been rubbed clear of any defining features. She looks like a drunken boxer. Can there really be anything reliable here for a computer programme to register? No.

Next, the National Portrait Gallery portrait and Hever Castle portrait (below). For me, the Hever Castle type is the best of a number of versions of this image, all of which date from the late 16th Century. That is, they are not contemporaneous. They are consciously historical portraits, pianted to fit the political and artistic tastes of the time. While some believe that they copy an earlier portrait, there is no firm evidence that they do. In fact, as actual likenesses, they may not be very reliable at all, and could be said to reflect, in the pale complexion, black hair and black dress, the view of her projected by those who resented her role in the break with Rome - that she was some sort of witch who cast a spell over Henry, and thus set the nation on its fateful path away from Catholicism. For example, in 1586, Nicholas Sanders wrote, 'Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat.' By this account, it's hard to imagine what Henry VIII saw in her. 

The Nidd Hall portrait [illustrated at the top] 'proved' by Prof. Roy-Chowdhury has never struck me as a particularly convincing candidate as a contemporary portrait, although I must stress that I haven't seen it. As far as I know, there is no firm evidence that it is a contemporary image. But I certainly don't think it's right to say that 'many historians' have said it was Jane Seymour. The enormous 'AB' pendant is a bit of a giveaway as to who the portrait was meant to represent. Still, that hasn't stopped the newspapers getting into a terrible muddle. On the website of The Australian, they showed Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour - over which there is no doubt whatsoever - to illustrate the Nidd Hall image.

Finally, Prof Roy-Chowdhury evidently did not place much faith in our best contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn; that by Holbein in the Royal Collection (above). It is true that for much of the latter half of the 20th Century, this drawing was doubted - but mainly because it didn't fit in with the NPG and Hever portrait type of Anne, which many people then thought were contemporary images. Now, however, the Royal Collection describes their fine drawing as showing Anne. Regular readers may recall that I had a role in this. For more details see earlier AHN here

The idea of using facial recognition technology to identify sitters in portraits has been around for years. But I'm afraid I've never been persuaded by it. Prof Roy-Chowdhury says, according to The Telegraph that:

The programme is so advanced that it even takes into account how individual painters like Holbein and Clouet represented certain facial characteristics, making allowances for artists’ style.

Whilst there can be no doubt that such technology can be used for scanning the faces of real people in, say, CCTV footage or Facebook, there are just too many hurdles to overcome in art. 

First, in historical portraits we have no control model to use as a true foundation for a face. All the actual sitters are dead. So while it may be possible to make a computer programme make allowances for an artist's style (and personally I doubt it can) we can never know how an artist translated a real human face onto canvas in the first place.

Then there is the question of wider artistic styles - a Mannerist face will look quite different from a Counter-Reformation face. And finally, there is the question of artistic ability - your average jobbing 16th Century English portrait artists, such as the fellow who made the Hever Castle portrait, would have been simply unable to capture all the intricacies of a face, and could only ever present the very basic elements of a likeness. And sometimes not even that.

Which is why it pains me to have to conclude that another of Prof Roy-Chowdhury's findings can also not be relied upon; that the 'Cobbe Portrait' doesn't show William Shakespeare. As The Telegraph says:

But while the software has cleared up one mystery, it may have opened the doors to several others.

It revealed that two pictures of William Shakespeare are also unlikely to be the bard. The Cobbe portrait which dates from around 1610 is probably not the playwright. Historians have long speculated the painting may be poet Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court Palace painting is also unlikely to be Shakespeare.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of the Cobbe portrait, and (like the National Portrait Gallery) have never believed that the sitter shows Shakespeare.

You can read more coverage of Prof. Roy-Chowdhury's findings here in The Independent, and here in The Guardian

For an interesting take on what the British Museum medal might have looked like before it was damaged, see Lucy Churchill's website here

Update - it's been interesting to see the media response to this story unfold. The presentation of the new research has been uniformly presented as 'experts say'. Despite the fact that Prof. Roy-Chowdhury, while of course an expert in his own field, can hardly be considered 'expert' in Tudor portraits. Would it be too much to ask that news organisations first ask real experts, before presenting stories of this kind as de facto revelations, rather than just speculation? 

Update II - a reader tweets:

Count to 1510, Bendor.

Yes, I'm aware I get a bit ranty about this sort of thing. But it bothers me that so many people may be misled by badly presented research.

A sculptor writes:

No facial recognition software is needed to confirm that the portrait of Anne Boleyn in a gable hood (Is it the Nidd Hall portrait?) probably shows the same person as the squashed lead portrait medal of 1534. The curious piece of cloth on the top of the head in both portraits (as well as the gable hood), is the same shape in both, which can't be pure chance. This has often been pointed out before. One only needs a good pair of eyes.

The gable hood moreover (without the piece of cloth on top) is very similar to that in a portrait miniature of a woman by Lucas Horenbolte which Sir Roy Strong believes is a portrait of Anne Boleyn, because of its undoubted similarity to the woman represented in the two Holbein drawings, supposedly of her. 

I think it reasonable to suggest that both Nidd Hall portrait and the medal derive ultimately from the Hornebolte, and are vastly inferior versions of the likeness. 

On a technical note, I would suggest that the manufacturing method of the medal relates to contemporary and earlier lead alloy ' pilgrim badges' in technique. 

A fine grain Silnhofen limestone ( imported from Bavaria), was engraved to form a mould. Into this an alloy of tin and lead (similar to type metal) was poured to make one or many casts.(A similar profile portrait medal in lead alloy of Elizabeth 1 by Steven van Herwijck was cast in 1565).

The image had to be engraved in reverse in the mould for Anne to face in the same direction as the portrait it copied. I think this more likely than that the painted portraits face in the same direction as the medal because they were based on it as exemplar.

To confuse things, in a similarly poor NPG portrait, Catherine of Aragon  wears an almost identical hood to the portrait of Anne Boleyn we are discussing.

Quite how poor home grown portraiture seems to have been at the time is clear when we compare these paintings with the marvellous portrait of Catherine of Aragon C. 1502 by Michael Sittow, the Holbein drawings of Anne and Horenbolte's miniature.

The other potential likeness perhaps worth mentioning is the tiny enamel portrait in Elizabeth 1's ring at Hever Castle.

I don't personally subscribed to the theory that the image in the ring referred to here is Anne Boleyn. The evidence to suggest that it is is meagre. I suspect it may just as well be a young Elizabeth I, and that the ring is a private demonstration of 'look how far I've come'; from the 'bastard' daughter of Henry VIII to Queen of England.

Another reader writes:

Having done some work on facial sculpture, I know that computers can reconstruct one side of a face based on the other, barring unknown scars or deformities.

I think the point here, with relation to the British Museum medal, is that there isn't much face to begin with, even on the good side.

Another reader adds, pertinently:

Now Anne Boleyn can join others including Moses and Jesus of whom we have portraits that don't depict their actual  likeness.

Another reader refers us to the other Holbein drawing that was for many years claimed to be Anne Boleyn. There is no evidence that the sitter is Anne, and it can be easily ruled out. 

Update III - another reader adds:

In my experience, the best software development and application is directed by subject matter experts.

Spot on.

The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

February 13 2015

Image of The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

Picture: Getty

The three day trial of M. Le Guennec (the man accused of stealing 271 works by Picasso) has ended, with the former electrician leaving the court 'obviously distressed', according to The Art Newspaper.

The elderly M. Le Guennec misheard the French prosecutor's demand for a five year custodial sentence - even though no verdict has yet been reached - and thought he had been found guilty:

“That’s it, we’ve been condemned?” a startled Guennec asked his lawyer.

No evidence whatsoever was presented that M. Le Guennec stole the works, only a series of thin claims that Picasso would never have given them away - despite the fact that M. Le Guennec has said all along that he was given the works by Picasso's wife:

[...] members and associates of the Picasso family all testified that the artist would have never given away such a collection, which includes intimate portraits of his first wife Olga and Fernande, his long-term lover who lived with him while he painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at the Bateau Lavoir studio, in Montmartre. 

Anne Baldessari, the former director of the Musée Picasso in Paris and an ally of Claude Picasso, his son, said that it was “improbable” that the artist would give away a collection of this size. “The Picasso that I know did not separate himself from his work,” she said, “it would be like ripping off his skin.” Even the son of the painter’s housemaid said in court that Picasso might “give a print or a drawing, but he would always sign and dedicate it”.

Of course, it is the Picasso estate who stand to gain most by a guilty verdict - they would get ownership of a cache of works valued in the French press at €60m. 

Update - Claude Picasso's lawyer alleged in court (says The Guardian) that M. Le Guennec was no the original thief, but part of an international conspiracy to 'launder' these 'stolen' artworks, and was selected because he happened to have links with Picasso many years ago. But no evidence was presented as to who were the original thiefs, and who was to benefit from their sale now.

The Hirst 'record' that wasn't (ctd.)

February 12 2015

Image of The Hirst 'record' that wasn't (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

As I suspected, the Hirst pill cabinet, Lullaby Winter, I mentioned earlier this week sold at Christie's contemporary sale yesterday - but only just. It made £3,050,500 including premium, having reached £2.65m hammer in the room (against an estimate of £2.5m-£4m). At today's rates, that's $4.64m in total - nearly $3m less than the $7.4m it was reportedly sold for in 2007 (but the buyer didn't pay - sensible fellow).

The price is also quite a bit less than the £9.65m someone paid for the comparable pill cabinet, Lullaby Spring, in 2007, hot on the heels of the apparent success of Lullaby Winter.

So it would seem Hirst has had his moment. But all credit to him, he cashed in while he could...

By the way, apparently the auctioneer for yesterday's sale, Christie's Global President Jussi Pylkännen was announced off stage, like a rock star, before he came onto the rostrum; 'Ladies and Gentlemen, our President, Jussi Pylkännen...' You'd never catch Henry Wyndham doing that.

Michelangelo bronzes discovered (ctd.)

February 11 2015

Image of Michelangelo bronzes discovered (ctd.)

Picture: Fitzwilliam

Further to the news that the Fitzwilliam Museum has put two newly attributed Michelangelo bronzes on display, here is the very interesting view of Martin Kemp, as set out on his blog. As Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Oxford, Kemp is some ways the opposite number (if you want to see it like that) to Emeritus Professor Paul Joannides of Cambridge, whose discovery of a key drawing (below) played a role in attributing the bronzes to Michelangelo. 

Kemp seems impressed by the male nudes, and though he doesn't explicity say 'yes, they're by Michelangelo'. However, he has reservations about the beasts on which they sit.

Do read his full opinion (which also has some great insights into the need to judge objects 'in the flesh' rather than images). But here's his conclusion:

The men’s’ figures are compelling in themselves, and are based on models that can be reasonably attributed to Michelangelo. The “panthers” seem to have been designed by someone else to accommodate the men. My hypothesis is that the large models of the men, originally intended to hold weapons, were made for an unidentified ensemble, perhaps a tomb (like that sketched in the corner of the Albertina drawing, fig. 31 in the book), in which they straddled or knelt on an architectural feature.  Someone has utilised the exisiting models of the men to realise a pair of bronze sculptures that have Bacchic connotations. This is of course very hypothetical.

Is the bronze of the “panthers” the same as that of men?  Are the anal rods that are used to insert the men into the backs of the “panthers” cast from the same bronze as the men?  There are many questions to resolve.

Of course, the theory that the male nudes were originally astride something else other than 'panthers' renders invalid the discovery of the drawing that showed two nudes astride similar beasts. That said, it was interesting that many readers felt the panthers (or lions, or whatever they are) were the least convincing aspect of the sculptures. 

It would be interesting to have the answers to Kemps questions about the basic structure of the sculptures. 

I think the take away point here, though, is that is someone like Prof. Kemp isn't immediately persuaded that the bronzes are by Michelangelo, along with the limited documentary evidence in favour of the bronzes, should the Fitzwilliam not have played it safe (at least at this stage) and described the pieces as 'Attributed to Michelangelo'?

Update - a reader writes:

Having read about the two bronzes being attributed to Michelangelo in Cambridge, I thought I’d share my two cents.  Leaving aside the funny looking cats for the moment, it seems to me the strength of the attribution to Michelangelo really depends on the dating.  It’s claimed neutron scan puts them in the first decade of the sixteenth century, which is remarkably precise for what is really just a powerful x-ray showing how thick the casting is (a case of “the computer says so” connoisseurship).  I’m not convinced there’s good data to suggest all bronze sculpture of that thickness are from 1500-1510, and anything else was from before or after.  Certainly if it was done then, there really aren’t too many candidates besides Michelangelo, but if you go just a few decades later the number of mannerist sculptors who could fit the bill goes way up.  I haven’t seen them at the Fitzwilliam, so I’m still happy to be persuaded, but I’m not yet.

Another reader writes:

Whilst the press have been having a lot of fun and Facebook and other blogs have had lots of comments from naysayers, the catalogue clearly indicates on the title page the uncertainty of the attribution to the great M:

A Michelangelo Discovery: The Rothschild bronzes and the case for their proposed attribution.

The Barber buys a Bellows

February 11 2015

Picture: Guardian

The Barber Institute in Birmingham has bought a nude by George Bellows. This is now the second Bellows in a UK public collection. More here

Move along folks, nothing to see here... (ctd.)

February 11 2015

Image of Move along folks, nothing to see here... (ctd.)

Picture: Die Welt

Great excitement in the press today about a '£90m lost Leonardo seized by Italian police in a Swiss bank vault'. Art history headlines rarely get much better than that. Here is Reuter's report:

Police have seized a portrait attributed to Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci from the vault of a Swiss bank during an investigation into tax crime and insurance fraud, an Italian court said on Tuesday.

Negotiations to sell the oil painting of a fifteenth-century noblewoman, Isabella D'Este, for around 120 million euros ($135.9 million) were at an advanced stage, the prosecutor's office in Pesaro, Italy, said in a statement.

Police were first alerted to the existence of a possible da Vinci after a southern Italian lawyer was found in 2013 with a warrant to sell it for no less than 95 million euros. But the initial investigation failed to find the painting.

A separate investigation into tax crimes and insurance fraud uncovered evidence that eventually led police to the picture, which they seized on Monday in Lugano, near the Swiss-Italian border.

Except - the picture isn't by Leonardo. Long standing readers may remember the painting from back in 2013, when it first surfaced as a 'newly discovered Leonardo'. 

All of which raises some interesting questions. First, that the Italian police need to get hold of some good art historians, so they don't waste any more time chasing rainbows. Second, that if indeed the picture was about to be sold for the absurd amount of €120 million, then some poor sod has had a lucky escape thanks to the police. And finally, if indeed some fellow, be it the seller or the owner of the painting, is charged with illegally exporting the picture from Italy, he can easily get off by saying - in all truth - ah, this picture isn't by Leonardo, and it's a pretty worthless copy. Therefore, it is not covered by Italian art export laws. But then, of course, they'll lose any chance of a sale...

Update - here is a picture of the painting being liberated from the Swiss bank vault. I wonder if this whole thing is a clever piece of marketing...

The man who stole 271 Picassos?

February 10 2015

Image of The man who stole 271 Picassos?

Picture: Telegraph

I feel rather sorry for Pierre Le Guennec (above), the French electrician who has gone on trial accused of 'stealing' 271 works by Picasso. M. Le Guennec used to work for Picasso and his wife, doing various odd jobs. He says Mme Picasso gave him the parcel of works, mostly drawings, one day in the early 1970s as a gift. 

In 2010 he took some of the works to the Picasso Administration headquarters in Paris. There, they were declared authentic, but the Picasso family said they must have been stolen. The works were promptly confiscated by the police, and M. Le Guennec has now gone on trial. 

But there is no proof that he stole anything. No theft was ever recorded. And if he had stolen them, why would he voluntarily go to the Picasso estate and say 'look what I have'? 

Instead, the allegations against M. Le Guennec consist entirely of speculation from the Picasso estate that Picasso would never have given away works like this. From The Telegraph:

Jean-Jacques Neuer, lawyer for Claude Picasso [Picasso's son, who administers the estate], said the couple were deliberately vague. “They don’t remember whether they received the ‘gift’ in 1970, 71 or 72. If you are given 271 Picassos, you remember it,” he said.

“You have to imagine that Picasso kept hold of them for 70 years and suddenly decided to give the lot away.” That did not make sense, he added.

“Picasso signed his works at the last moment, to give them away or sell them.”

“The issue is not whether Picasso was generous or not. Picasso wasn’t someone who was careless about his works; he didn’t give away any old how.”

Phooey. Picasso did many odd and random things. He was hardly Mr Predictable. And of course, the Picasso estate, which would regain title to the works - now valued at tens of millions of Euros - should M. Le Guennec be found guilty, doesn't have a motive for saying they're stolen. Oh no.

More here.

Update - a reader who used to live in Madrid writes:

Early in 1984, a middle-aged Spaniard told me the story of Picasso's barber; this man, Eugenio Arias, had approached the Picasso heirs, cap in hand, after the maestro's death, and claimed that he had been like a spiritual brother/son to the artist, and that they were close friends who chatted daily, and therefore he was entitled to part of the estate.

Maya said that this was nonsense; apparently Picasso was always absorbed in his thoughts and his work and was not in any way loquacious. Nevertheless, for the sake of peace and quiet they rewarded the barber with a pile of secondary art.

If a shave-meister was able to blag a pile of bits and pieces sufficient to fill a small town museum, IMHO it seems perfectly feasible for Madame Picasso to have rewarded Pierre Le Guennec with a few souvenirs.

Fascinating. More on the barber's hoarde here

Liberate Tate strike again!

February 9 2015

Video: via You Tube

Liberate Tate - with whom AHN recently found itself in an uneasy alliance over the question of BP's sponsorship - has struck again; this time, £240,000 of fake 'Tate/BP money' was thrown theatrically into the rotunda at Tate Britain. Actually, it looks rather well done on the video. But must Liberate Tate insist on always wearing masks? And must we now call all arts protests, as is this one was, 'performances'?

Update - a reader writes:

I also agree with your comment is it necessary for Liberate Tate to wear masks?  Frankly, to me it demonstrates a  a lack of conviction.  Are they drama students or those who look to bring a situation to public awareness.   When you believe in a cause you show yourself and not hide behind a mask.

Another reader wonders:

I’ll bet that the fake Tate/BP money was printed using oil based inks…

Update II - another reader writes:

My American view is that the Tate should be encouraged to relieve BP of much more of its profits so long as I they don't come with artistic influence and a petrol station (unless it's by Hirst or his ilk).

Attempts to purchase standing are seen for what they are whether it's an oil company or a certain Swiss bank or an individual.

Ultimately we are known for our deeds and for our accomplishments.

The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

February 9 2015

Image of The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

Picture: Christie's

Colin Gleadell of The Telegraph alerts us to an interesting Damien Hirst coming up for sale at Christie's on Wednesday (11th Feb), called Lullaby Winter. The pill cabinet was sold in New York on 16th May 2007 for $7.4m, but, says Gleadell, was never paid for. Having guaranteed the lot before the 2007 sale, Christie's were obliged to take ownership of the piece themselves. Now it is on offer with an estimate of £2.5m-£4m.

Will Christie's recoup their investment? Last time around, the piece was estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m, and the guarantee was probably at around the lower estimate. So if the piece sells at the lower estimate this time, Christie's are ok. I bet you it does sell - a failure would be too alarming for the value of everyone else's Hirsts. 

The current Christie's catalogue makes no mention of the 2007 sale, or the buyer's failure to pay. But of course, the 2007 'price' has remained on the Christie's sale database all these years, helping to bolster other Hirst works.

Can we judge what effect the apparent $7.4m 'sale' had on the Hirst market in 2007 and subsequently? At the time, $7.4m represented a new auction record for Hirst, more than doubling the previous record of $3m for a pickled sheep sold at Christie's in 2006* (according to a list of prices on the Blouin Art Sales Index).

Speaking to Bloomberg at the time, Sotheby's Oliver Barker said that the apparent high price fetched by Lullaby Winter made the owner of a comparable work, Lullaby Spring, keener to sell:

'The record prices for Damien are all for his sculptural works,' he said. The price Christie's got for Lullaby Winter made the owner of Lullaby Spring more willing to sell, according to Barker.

Lullaby Spring was estimated at £3m-£4m when it was sold on 21st June 2007, and fetched £9.65m - a figure that was duly hailed as 'a new auction record' for Hirst, indeed for any living artist. As far as we know, the buyer of Lullaby Spring duly paid up. But if Lullaby Winter doesn't do well on Wednesday, they may be wishing they hadn't...

Actually, if I was the owner of Lullaby Spring, I'd already be worried that Christie's are not more confident in marketing Lullaby Winter. Surely, with the current contemporary art boom showing no signs of flagging, Lullaby Spring should be on the block for more than £2.5m-£4m.

Inevitably, there's some good guff in the catalogue note for Lullaby Winter, which says, with unintended irony:

As with so much of the artist’s work, the pill cabinets are fundamentally about our sociological need to construct belief systems out of nothing, about our need to come to terms with the often-mysterious fabric of existence. Lullaby Winter addresses this need and the aesthetic allure of the pills is rendered useless in the face of their unknown medical purpose, as Hirst reminds, ‘we have to simply believe that somehow our ills will be cured.’

That's the contemporary art market in a phrase there folks - 'simply believe...'

* People from the future, I am not making this up.

Update - a reader writes:

I think Damien Hirst must spend most of his day giggling uncontrollably at his skill in fooling people endlessly…

Update II - I've done a little more digging on how the Hirst 'record' was reported in 2007. Here's The Guardian:

new records were also set by the British artist Damien Hirst whose rise to pre-eminence as one of the world's most profitable artists continued with the sale of Lullaby Winter for $7.4m. The work, a rainbow-like arrangement of pharmaceutical pills set in a frame against a metallic background, had been expected to sell for less than half that amount.

Here was the FT:

If a visitor to London’s vibrant cultural scene were seeking a metaphor to describe the crazed buoyancy of the contemporary art market, here it is. The past couple of weeks have seen further records tumble for contemporary artists at auction, including Hirst’s own, when “Lullaby Winter”, one of his medicine cabinet altars, sold for $7.4m at Christie’s New York. [...] Hirst, who has already amassed a personal fortune of £130m, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, is hotter, and richer, than ever.

Here was the New York Times:

Damien Hirst's prankish selections of "things" displayed in cases or dipped in glass tanks holding a formaldehyde solution made a spectacular progression, jumping from $3.37 million - given in May 2006 at Christie's New York for "Away from the flock, divided" - to $7.43 million paid this week for "Lullaby Winter," a title describing the parody of a medicine cabinet.

And here was The Art Newspaper looking at the wider Hirst price levels around that time:

Rumour has it that the Doig record was like a red rag to a bull for those in the Damien Hirst camp, while devotees of Lucian Freud thought that the senior painter was the rightful title-bearer. Since an auction record usually leads to a rise in prices for all the artist’s works, dealers and collectors (and a growing number of hybrid dealer-collectors) have a major stake in such accolades because they can have a serious impact on the value of their inventory.

Not surprisingly, last June at Christie’s in London (a few months after the Doig record was set), Freud’s Bruce Bernard, a connoisseur’s picture from 1992, knocked White Canoe off the top spot by selling for £7.9m ($15.7m). The next night at Sotheby’s in London, the sombre Freud was whacked off its pedestal by Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, 2002, which sold for a whopping £9.7m ($19.2m). Most importantly, Hirst grabbed the coveted worldwide title, which Johns had held (on and off) for 19 years.

Lullaby Spring is part of a seasonal series of four, but some 20 other large-scale pill cabinets are said to exist. Only the month before, its near-identical sibling Lullaby Winter, 2002, had sold for a mere $7.4m at Christie’s New York. Sometimes the consignor can add value; in the case of Lullaby Spring, New York lawyer Joel Mallin provided respectable, but not what one would describe as premium provenance. Some insiders pointed to the fact that Lullaby Spring’s little pills were more vibrantly coloured than Lullaby Winter’s, but the logic behind the $12m price gap lies elsewhere. Nobody understands better than an auction house that price appreciation of this magnitude is seldom intrinsic to the work.

Whereas Christie’s rarely puts all its marketing muscle behind a single work of art, choosing instead to promote a handful of lots on its front, back and inside catalogue covers, Sotheby’s marketing of contemporary works has tended to be doggedly single-minded. Much like their handling of Doig’s White Canoe, Lullaby Spring enjoyed a wrap-around cover. This time, however, their on-message communications predicted a new living artist auction record. In both cases, Sotheby’s had their reasons. With the Doig, they owned (or partially owned) six paintings by the artist, so it was imperative that this first work to hit the block should sell well. With Hirst, the logic was a little different. Since the Pharmacy sale in which Hirst made the unprecedented move of taking his own work to auction, Sotheby’s London had enjoyed a positive alliance with the artist as well as strong relationships with his primary dealers and loyal stockholders. The opportunity for a record was clear, if only they get could the right people interested.

Also worth noting is the Christie's press release for Wednesday's sale. It makes no mention of the non sale in 2007, but pushes instead the Sotheby's sale of Lullaby Spring for £9.65m, which of course was set immediately after the 'sale' of Lullaby Winter:

Damien Hirst’s iconic pill cabinet Lullaby Winter, 2002 is to be offered at Christie’s in February (estimate: £2.5-4million). Another from the series of four cabinets named after the four seasons, Lullaby Spring, sold at auction in 2007 for £9.65million, breaking the record for a work by a European living artist at the time of sale. Just as Monet painted the four seasons, Hirst captures the winter atmosphere with his assembly of thousands of beautifully hand-crafted pills. Precisely positioned on razor-sharp shelving and enshrined within a perfect, mirrored surgical steel cabinet, these pills number the amount a single human might expect to consume in a lifetime.

V&A acquires Wolsey's 'Angels'

February 9 2015

Video: V&A

Congratulations to the V&A, who have raised £5m to acquire four Tudor bronzes designed to surround Cardinal Wolsey's planned tomb in Westminster Abbey. £2m came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and £.5m from the Art Fund. A tremendous achievement and acquisition. More here

A $300m Gauguin?

February 9 2015

Image of A $300m Gauguin?

Picture: New York Times

The New York Times has reported that Gauguin's When will you Marry?, above, has been bought for $300m from a private collection. The Qatari's, who recently bought Cezanne's Card Players for a reported $250m, are reported to be the buyers. Says the NYT:

The sale of the 1892 oil painting, “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?),” was confirmed by the seller, Rudolf Staechelin, 62, a retired Sotheby’s executive living in Basel, Switzerland, who through a family trust owns more than 20 works in a valuable collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including the Gauguin, which has been on loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel for nearly a half-century. [...]

“The real question is why only now?” Mr. Staechelin said of the Gauguin sale. “It’s mainly because we got a good offer. The market is very high and who knows what it will be in 10 years. I always tried to keep as much together as I could.” He added, “Over 90 percent of our assets are paintings hanging for free in the museum.”

“For me they are family history and art,” he said of the artworks. “But they are also security and investments.”

In The Art Market Monitor, Marion Maneker says the $300m figure 'seems plausible and not too unreasonable'. He also points to the Staechlin family's 'very smart use of museums as an art bank for a family’s prime asset.'

I was asked by a leading news organisation to go on the telly and talk about the sale. However, they were clearly after someone who would froth about the price, and say that the picture was not 'worth' $300m. It was put to me that had the painting been sold at auction, it would never have fetched $300m. Thus, the $300m was distorting the art market.

Which of course is not right. First, a painting is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, period. Second, we can never know that the painting would not have fetched $300m at auction - these things are unpredictable.  

Update - a reader writes:

It did strike me that the National Gallery is now well and truly buggered if it wants to try and fill the yawning gap of a major figure piece by Gauguin. 

If the story is true, Michael Levey should have disregarded his personal taste and purchased Annah the Javanese when it was offered thirty odd years ago – the Gallery could have afforded it then.

Update II - in response to the above point, another reader writes:

Hmmm. Money aside, not sure a major figure painting by Gauguin will ever be on the National Gallery’s agenda if the recent Wilkie acquisition signals the direction of travel.

Update III - there's a video of the exhibition opening here.

Update IV - the Staechelin family have removed all their pictures from the Kunstmuseum in Basel. 

Lost Gauguin sculpture found

February 9 2015

Image of Lost Gauguin sculpture found

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that a lost sculpture by Gauguin (above) has been discovered. It will feature in a Gauguin retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler. More here

Strikes - National Gallery fights back (ctd.)

February 9 2015

Image of Strikes - National Gallery fights back (ctd.)

Picture: Museums Journal

Further to my below post on the continued strikes at the National Gallery, I was well and truly trolled by someone claiming to be a Gallery employee. I have posted the more coherent comments (It's not always entirely clear what he is trying to say) as updates to the original post. Although the correspondent supplied a name, and really exists (he has his own website) I won't name him - if he genuinely is a Gallery employee, I'm not sure his conduct does him any favours.

Anyway, the employee's chief claim was that in his four years of working at the Gallery, there had been only one strike. This was contrary to the Gallery's assertion that over the last nine years there had been on average a strike of some description every two months. 

So I asked the Gallery for more details of the 'every two months' claim. And here are some of the numbers: between 2006 and 2007 there were 45 separate PCS union walk outs over annual leave entitlement; between February and May 2010 there were 8 over pay; between January and August 2012 there were 6 over invigilation methods. In addition, PCS members participate in all national strike initiatives, such as that which affected the Gallery in October last year. Then we have the five day strike this year. Even excluding the five days this year, there have been 59 separate walk outs by PCS members since July 2006. Divide 103 months up until December 2014 by 59 walk outs, and you get the once every two month average.

It's also worth noting that the recent 5 day strike saw a protest to reinstate a suspended Gallery employee, Candy Udwin. Udwin, an adminstrator in the art handling department and elected union representative, was, according to Union Solidarity International:

[...] part of the PCS negotiating team in talks at ACAS on Friday, [and] has been accused of breaching commercial confidentiality by sharing a document with her full time union official – which included information about the costs of using a private company – and asking him to take up the matter with gallery management.

Udwin is on the executive committee of PCS's culture, media and sport occupational association. She is a member of the Socialist Worker's Party, and in 2000 was expelled from Unison over strike activities at UCL hospital in London. Before joining the Gallery she was a medical administrator.

It seems the Gallery and the PCS union are further apart than ever before. Will there be more strikes to come?


February 9 2015

Sorry for the lack of posts over the last few days - I'm writing a couple of articles for The Art Newspaper. Hope to return to blogging later today...

Walter Liedtke

February 4 2015

Image of Walter Liedtke

Picture: Met

Some very sad news; Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, has died in a train accident. He had been at the Met since 1979. 

Update - a reader writes:

I was with him only last Thursday. Very sad news, a horrific accident, and a terrible loss of a great curator.

Update II - another reader writes:

I had known Walter and his wife Nancy for 34 years.

He was not only a very fine art historian and a first class museum curator, he was above all a wonderful and kind human being, very loyal and caring. He will be missed as a great friend above all.

He had married his college sweetheart Nancy and until yesterday they were one of the most touching couple you could possibly meet. My heart goes to her above all.

I had dinner with them both last Wednesday... and find in truly shocking that he is gone.

I never knew him. But like all of us profited greatly from his many publications on Dutch and Flemish art. 

Update III - appreciations from Arthur Wheelock here, and Gary Schwartz here.

Update IV - and another from Met Director Thomas Campbell here, with links to a number of obituaries. 

Van Dyck's self-portrait at the National Gallery

February 4 2015

Video: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery has posted a series of really excellent videos on You Tube about their newly acquired Van Dyck self-portrait. In the above video, 17th Century curator Catharine MacLeod discusses the picture's technique and possible purpose. 

There's another video here on Van Dyck's career, and one on the conservation of the picture here. Well worth a click.

Guffwatch - charity edition

February 3 2015

Video: Darren Bader

Ever seen an auction estimate like this?

Click on the image above to find out more.


New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

February 3 2015

Image of New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

Picture: The Saleroom

A quick update on a 'sleeper' story I featured last year. The above drawing came up for sale in the shires here in the UK catalogued as 'attributed to Veronese', and made £15,500. 

At the time, a sharp-eyed reader (who underbid it) wrote in to say he thought it was by Jan van der Straet, and related to an engraving in the British Museum. Well, he was right, for now the picture has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as by van der Straet. The provenance on the Met site reveals that it was acquired through the Old Master drawings dealer Katrin Bellinger.

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