Previous Posts: May 2015

Gurlitt's looted Matisse returned

May 15 2015

Image of Gurlitt's looted Matisse returned

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that Germany has formally returned the first looted work from the collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. The Matisse, above, has been restituted to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, from whom the picture was stolen by the Nazis in World War Two.

Boom? (ctd.)

May 15 2015

Image of Boom? (ctd.)

Picture: AMM/FT

Marion Maneker of The Art Market Monitor alerts us to this graph compiled by the FT, which appears to show the price of art rising well above the volume of sales.

$179m Picasso record

May 13 2015

Video: Christie's

Christie's have set a new world record for a work of art sold at auction: $179.3m for Picasso's Women of Algiers. More here at the BBC. I was asked to comment by a few news outlets, whom I suspect were looking for a 'it's an outrageous price' sort of line. But a market's a market, and if more than one person wanted to bid on the painting, so be it. It's a fair price, for an important picture.

The question of who bought it, however, is interesting. Especially if it was the guarantor. The picture, as stated in the catalogue, was a guaranteed lot:

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in lots consigned for sale which may include guaranteeing a minimum price or making an advance to the consignor that is secured solely by consigned property. This is such a lot. This indicates both in cases where Christie's holds the financial interest on its own, and in cases where Christie's has financed all or a part of such interest through a third party. Such third parties generally benefit financially if a guaranteed lot is sold successfully and may incur a loss if the sale is not successful.

So it's not entirely clear here if Christie's guaranteed the lot solely with its own cash, or in partnership with a third party. Marion Maneker of the Art Market Monitor has this excellent overview of how Christie's are using guarantees to pretty much knock Sotheby's (and other dealers) out of the market. It seems to be working, so far, but of course is a risky strategy.

But regular readers will know that I've previously focused on just what these guarantees mean (here, for example). If a third party guarantor bought the Picasso, then are we entitled to wonder if the picture really did sell for $179.3m? The way Christie's guarantee system works, some guarantors are not only able to bid on their own work, but are entitled to a fee (or effectively a discount) depending on what the picture makes. So it's possible that the eventual sum that the buyer (if it was a guarantor) pays to Christie's will not actually be $179.3m. Of course, the fee or discount will be sizeable, but perhaps not in relative terms. In other words, someone somewhere still paid an extraordinary price for a Picasso this week.


May 13 2015

I'm sorry it has been a little quiet here lately. Yesterday I was in London, recording AHN's first podcast. My guest was Dr Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery. As soon as I have mastered the tech side of things, I'll post it here. (Anyone know the best way to upload a podcast?)

Update - and tomorrow I'm off to Germany to pick a painting, so don't expect much then either I'm afraid.

New UK Culture Secretary

May 11 2015

Image of New UK Culture Secretary

Picture: Guardian

John Whittingdale is the surprise new appointment as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. I think this is an excellent decision, for he knows the territory inside out. Of course, it is also excellent that DCMS survives - some had suggested the department would be axed. 

John has most recently been Chairman of the Culture Select Committee in the House of Commons, but before that was the Conservative's Shadow Secretary of State for Culture. I have good memories of working with him in the run up to the 2005 election, when he was an enthusiastic proponent of some very sound arts and heritage policies. Under John's leadership, we produced the most extensive Culture manifesto ever published by a political party. Another enthusiastic backer of that manifesto was, incidentally, David Cameron, who at the time had the job of signing off all parts of the manifesto; 'This is bloody good', he said once we had it all finished. I particularly enjoyed going with John, as a Tory adviser, to a pre-election meeting with DCMS's Permanent Secretary, to set out what we would do in the event of a Tory victory. These meetings are a constitutional obligation, and although John and I were both under few illusions as to our chances of victory, we had fun imagining 'what if...'

Anyway, those in the museum world should be reassured to know that John is very keen on the arts and museums. He is absolutely not going to be one of those Culture Secretaries who is more interested in seeking the next promotion.

John's favourite artist, I can exclusively reveal, is Caravaggio. We wait to hear who the rest of his team is.

Update - Ed Vaizey remains as Culture Minister. This is therefore probably the strongest arts pairing the Tories have yet had.

Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

May 8 2015

Image of Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

Picture: Getty

Getty alerts us to a handy, free new e-book all about frames and supports in 15th and 16th Century Netherlandish paintings. More here.

Sleeper Alert!

May 8 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Sheffield Auctions

The above picture sold for £64,000 hammer today, against an estimate of £100-£150. It was catalogued as 'Manner of Castiglione', though the composition has an air of Bassano. Bizarre surface.

New Titian discovery

May 8 2015

Image of New Titian discovery

Picture: Your Paintings

Here's a big one; conservators cleaning the above Portrait of a Lady, previously catalogued as 'Follower of Titian', have not only found a better than expected painting, but also what appears to be Titian's signature (below).

The painting belongs to English Heritage, as part of the Wellington Collection at Apsley House in London. An x-ray of the painting revealed an unfinished Titian composition beneath the portrait.

More details here

I don't think I ever remember seeing it on display at Apsley House. 

Leading art investment fund wound up

May 8 2015

Image of Leading art investment fund wound up

Picture: The Fine Art Fund

There's an interesting snippet in the FT from Georgina Adam, reporting that one of the leading art investment funds is to be closed:

The Fine Art Fund is winding down its first fund (started in 2005/06) and, says director Philip Hoffman, “has returned all the initial capital to investors”. Over the next three years, it will sell off the last nine works in that fund. Returns are expected to be between 4 and 7 per cent net, says Hoffman, who explains that the result has been “dragged down by sluggish yields” on Old Master paintings.

This outcome is disappointing, says Michael Plummer, of art investment firm Artvest: “Expectations are according to risk, and art falls between ultra-safe US treasuries with no interest and private equity or venture capital investments at 20 per cent, so investors could have expected a result in the teens. When you consider that the period the fund covered saw the greatest growth in value the art market has ever known, they could have expected better.”

Regular readers will know I often caution about seeing art as an investment in the short term, which is the sort of horizon investment funds like this must work on. The problem is not that paintings, even Old Masters, don't go up in value over even the short term, but that the market is so illiquid. You need to be sure of making in excess of 30% profit on a painting to take care of just the transaction fees. Add in the fees an investment fund charges, and it is very difficult to make short term gains on Old Masters. Unless you're in the sleeper game of course, but that is a whole different ball game, and the risk factor goes through the roof. So remember, even though Old Masters are a useful medium to long term store of value, you should first buy art because you like it. 

X-raying Rubens' 'The Fur'

May 8 2015

Image of X-raying Rubens' 'The Fur'

Picture: Codart

One of the exhibits in the Rubenshuis Museum's excellent new exhibition, Rubens in Private is the portrait of Rubens' second wife known as 'The Fur'. It shows Helena Fourment on a plain background wrapped in a fur coat. But an x-ray of the painting shows that there was originally a fountain in the background. The Codart website gives further details on the fountain:

It was a two-level fountain and reached to Helena’s shoulders, with the base adorned with a lion’s head, water streaming from its mouth. Of particular note is the sculpture on the pedestal of the fountain, which is of a little boy urinating. These hidden elements gave the portrait an explicit erotic connotation and that is most probably the reason why they were overpainted in a later stage.

Danger at the Biennale!

May 8 2015

Image of Danger at the Biennale!

Picture: Mirror

Guests at the Prada Venice Biennale party got a little wet when the pontoon collapsed into the Grand Canal. Nobody was injured. More here.

Clandon - one room survives

May 8 2015

Image of Clandon - one room survives

Picture: National Trust

Well, sort of. The above room, precariously hanging on, is the 'Speaker's Room'. More here.


May 7 2015

Image of Politics

Picture: Twitter

I thought I’d spend a few moments looking at the election here in the UK from the point of view of ‘the arts’. Regular readers may know that I was a Conservative adviser on the arts for some years, during the 2005 election, and the 2010 election. I know the arts minister, Ed Vaizey (above), reasonably well. I may be biased, but I think the Conservatives have been generally good for the arts sector.

First, I think Ed Vaizey has been an excellent arts minister. He has held the job for five years, and that’s provided a useful point of continuity for the sector. Too often, the job of arts minister is seen as a staging post for other jobs, and sometimes ministers don’t even last a year.  Ed’s first task in 2010 was to try and persuade the Chancellor, George Osborne, not to savage arts funding in his emergency budget of that year. Although there was a headline cut of 30% for the Arts Council, this was not as bad as many feared, and many other departments fared worse. Major museums were affected similarly, although some ‘only’ had to deal with a 15% cut initially.

Having been involved in trying to ‘sell’ the arts to the Tory leadership in earlier times, I can attest to Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt’s (Hunt was Secretary of State for Culture, before getting the Health job) success, and the difficulty of their challenge. Many Tory politicians, including some of the most senior, think the state should get the hell out of the arts and heritage. Leave it to the market and philanthropists, like they do in the US. That’s misguided, obviously, and it has taken some effort over the last 15 years to get the party to see the benefit of state support for the arts and heritage (and I'm proud to have played a small role in that). Free museum entry, for example, has been steadfastly maintained, when many said the Tories would abolish it. It has also been good for the arts in general that the government has adhered to the ‘arms length principle’, whereby Ministers stump up taxpayer cash, but leave the spending of it to semi-independent arts and heritage professionals. We’ve not seen a return to the ‘instrumentalism’ of New Labour days, when it was thought that the arts could be explicitly used to help health policy, for example.

Then there has been the dramatic benefits brought about by changes to the distribution of National Lottery good cause money. Under Labour, the original formula for distributing this money was altered - reducing it from 20% to 16.6% - and a significant chunk was diverted towards health and education spending. It was Conservative policy from 2005 onwards to reverse this change. Since 2010 this change has brought in over £400m in extra capital funding for the arts and heritage. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen some excellent museum extensions, and many stellar acquisitions (another change was to allow Lottery funding to be used to acquire objects). Sadly, some museum directors prefer £1m in guaranteed annual funds to the £10m one-off grant they may have to fight for. But there is now unprecedented cash available for museum renovations, acquisitions and extensions.

No other party has said they will retain this increase to arts and heritage capital spending. And we should really commend ministers for seeing through the change. When I first helped draw up this policy in 2005, we commissioned an opinion poll, to see what the public made of the changes. We expected everyone to want to see arts funding rise. But the opposite answer came back; people would rather Lottery money was spent in health and eduction, on cancer machines and the like. We quickly buried the poll. Too often, those lambasting the government for not greatly increasing arts funding forget that there is no widespread popular appetite for such an increase.

So, broadly speaking, it seems to me that the arts have done reasonably well under this government, given the economic backdrop. Those bewailing the cuts must surely understand that it was never going to be the case that the arts would be protected, when, say, the police and health budgets might not. Recently, the director of London’s Wallace Collection, Christoph Vogtherr, launched an extraordinary attack on the government, accusing ministers of “systematically reducing funding and commitments to the arts”. He also convened a debate at the Wallace Collection to discuss “this destructive development”, where he made many gloomy predictions, warning of a wholesale ‘privatisation’ of the arts, the return of admission fees, and even the destruction and sale of paintings.

A nationally funded museum has never been used in such a political way, and I thought it was a muddled intervention. It was noticeable that few other national museum directors came to his support. While it is true that the Wallace’s annual ‘grant-in-aid’ has shrunk by about a third (from £4.2m in 2010/11 to £3m in 2013/14) the scale of the reduction is no worse than that endured by other government bodies. It is simply wrong to suggest that cuts in the UK are due to a ‘systematic’, Tory targeting of the arts. After all, Ed Miliband has explicitly said there is no more money for the arts (though he has said, splendidly, that he wants to get more art out of London museum basements, and lent to regional museums).

Then there is the uncomfortable truth that, despite the Wallace’s reduced grant, the museum actually has more income than ever before. In the first year of this government, the Wallace’s total income was £6.8m; last year it was £8.12m. The same is true for a surprising number of museums; grant-in-aid has declined, but overall income has risen. Even the Guardian, following on from a  National Campaign for the Arts survey, had to concede recently: "One of the indicators that has risen most is the earned income of arts organisations."

Why? Because museums and arts organisations have been forced to go out and shake the tin - and have found that it works. In other words, the best response to government cuts is to try something different - not just whinge about it. As the Wallace coyly admits in its accounts, last year it enjoyed ‘a successful year of self-generated income’; restaurant takings, trading income and donations all rose. Visitor numbers are at a record level. The Collection’s major galleries have been refurbished for the first time in 30 years. The place is in better shape than it has ever been. But listening to Vogtherr, you’d think Isis were advancing down Oxford St.

I was surprised to see that Vogtherr’s remarks drew no response from the government. No. 10 (and the Tory campaign chief, Lynton Crosby) long ago decreed that ministers can talk only about the economy; there are no votes in museums. It was “long term economic plan” or nothing. The Conservative’s positive work in the arts (DCMS, by the way, never had any Lib Dem ministers) must thus be sacrificed to the most boring election slogan in history.

Here, then, is the real problem when it comes to arts funding, which I'm afraid is going to be under further pressure in the next parliament. Despite the view of those inside the sector, ‘the arts’ do not rank highly among the public when it comes to allocating government spending. That’s why local government can get away with outrageous cuts to regional museum budgets. Ultimately, I'm afriad this is the fault of those in the arts who have failed to make the wider case for public support. Government can't do everything.

Update - it's a massive Tory victory! I thought it would be much closer, and even suspected we'd get a Labour administration with support from other parties. The pollsters were way out, the poor Lib Dems are toast, and here in Scotland, the prospect of a second referendum has been almost a dead certainty. But the big question of course is; who will be the next Culture Secretary and Arts Minister? 

Update II - in fact, the bigger question is; will there continue to be a seperate culture ministry? 

New Leighton drawing discovered

May 6 2015

Video: Sotheby's

A newly discovered drawing by Lord Leighton (below), a study for his 'Flaming June', will be sold by Sotheby's as part of their 'Duchess' sale - featuring items from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburgh.

The sale is the subject of the above video, in which Sotheby's goes for the full 'Downton Abbey' effect. It works rather well.

Anyway, more details of the drawing here.


May 6 2015

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's New York Modern & Impressionist sale brought in $363m yesterday. The above featured Van Gogh made $66m, and sold to an Asian collector. More here.

Site-specific installations, Renaissance style

May 5 2015

Image of Site-specific installations, Renaissance style

Picture: TAN

I've written a piece for The Art Newspaper's new magazine supplement for the Venice Biennale. It's a handsome publication, and well worth buying if you're Venice-bound. Many of the articles are also online, including mine on (naturally) some of the more Old Master-y things to see in Venice; I focused on five works that remain in their original locations. More here.


May 5 2015

There have been no posts today - sorry about that. I'm on the way back to Edinburgh from London, where I was showing some pictures to various experts. I can't say what the pictures were here, but happily all went well. Some of them are headed to museums, so I should be able to tell you more soon.

I've been working on some of the pictures for what seems like an age. You can imagine the relief when years of 'is it or isn't it?' anxiousness finally comes to an end. I realise this might sound trite, but the most rewarding aspect is the feeling that you've somehow done justice to the artist concerned. Regular readers may remember Ernst van der Wetering discussing the same reaction, in relation to Rembrandt.

London mid-season OMP sales

May 4 2015

Image of London mid-season OMP sales

Picture: Sotheby's

The 'mid-season' Old Master sales were held in London last week, and one or two prices caught my eye. The above Virgin and Child was offered at Sotheby's as 'Workshop of Murillo', with only one enticing line of cataloguing; 'This appears to be a unique composition'. The estimate was £15,000-£20,000, and I wasn't surprised to see it make £269,000 (inc. premium).

At Christie's South Kensingon, the above 'Follower of Van Dyck' made £104,500 against an estimate of £3,000-£5,000. It was the second time I had seen the picture at auction (it came up about a year ago, in a minor UK sale, if I recall correctly), but the first time I had seen it in the flesh. It is plainly a copy, and the speculative high price is all the more suprising when we consider that the original (below), of which there can be no doubt, sold in 2010 at Sotheby's in New York, for $1.53m.

The only picture I bid on last week - but alas unsuccessfully - was the below 'Follower of Claude', which made £206,500 against an estimate of £7,000-£10,000. Neither landscapes nor Claude come within my limited area of expertise, but I thought the picture looked right for early Claude. It had been rejected as the work of an imitator in the 1961 Claude catalogue raisonné. We may yet see it again, as the real thing.

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