Previous Posts: November 2015

Bonhams goes 'aspirational'

November 8 2015

Image of Bonhams goes 'aspirational'

Picture: Gulf News

There's an interview with Bonhams CEO Matthew Girling (above) in The Art Newspaper, which tells me something I didn't know: that Bonhams have stopped all their regional sales, with the exception of Edinburgh. Apparently, says Girling:

The problem was that people were willing to consign lesser items to us, but not their prized works. That wasn't good for the brand, which needs to be more aspirational.

Bit of a shame if you ask me. One of Bonhams' most prized Old Masters in recent years, a newly discovered portrait by Velasquez, was found in one of their Oxford sales. 


November 8 2015

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: A reader

A reader sends in this gem, from Manchester City Art Gallery.

Hot Modigliani porn

November 8 2015

Image of Hot Modigliani porn

Picture: Ashleigh Wilson via Twitter.

In its printed edition, the Financial Times apparently felt the need to censor Modigliani this weekend. The picture is coming up for sale next week at Christie's*, and was discussed in this profile of Christie's head honcho, Jussi Pylkannen.

The profile also looks at why the auction houses have come to so dominate the art world, and (as the Art Market Monitor agrees) it has to do with the particular pressures the auction process puts on buyers: the feeling of competition and the sense of excitement that generates; the public statement of prices,** and the apparent reassurance that gives; the fact that a deadline encourages people to make their mind up, which is always a problem for dealers. By the way, I suspect these pressures affect men more than women.

Update - a reader writes:

I am probably not the first to notice this but my copy of Saturday's FT, bought in London, has an uncensored version of the painting. Does the FT have different print runs for different markets?

* The catalogue says 'estimate on request', which means 'don't even think of asking, poor people'.

** which for the most part are correct. 

Taubman sales at Sotheby's

November 6 2015

Image of Taubman sales at Sotheby's

Picture: NYT

It's been interesting to see the various takes on Sotheby's handling of the Taubman collection so far. To recap, the late Alfred Taubman was a former owner of Sotheby's, but later went to jail as a result of price-fixing with Christie's (Christie's 'co-operated' with the authorities and nobody from there was jailed). Despite the family connection, Taubman's heirs courted both Christie's and Sotheby's for the chance to sell the collection, eventually ending up with a $500m guarantee from Sotheby's.

This week, the more valuable works from Taubman's collection have been sold, with Modigliani, Picasso et al taking their turns on the rostrum. The headline sale has been felt to be disappointing, taking in $377m with premium, against a $375m lower estimate (which doesn't include premium). And consequently, some are interpreting this as a sign of market 'concerns', or, as the New York Times put it, a 'market chill'.

So, is the music stopping at the top end of the art market? I doubt it. The Taubman sale estimates were already punchy - as you would expect with a collection secured by guarantee. It was always unlikely things would fly away - and market watchers seem obsessed by the idea that art values have to go up; stability is never good enough. 90% of the works sold, which normally is a good result.

Certain circumstances were against Sotheby's. First, it can hardly be said that the Taubman provenance was a plus (whether that's right or wrong is another matter), and nor did the pre-sale chat about various Taubman family spats help matters (the traditional step-mom/widow vs children kind of thing). There's also been a typical New York art world bitch-fest over whether Taubman's 'taste' was any good, as amusingly surveyed here by Marion Maneker. I thought the pictures were perfectly good.

The most interesting question for me, however, is whether Sotheby's were right to place a half billion dollar bet on the collection of the their former owner. Will Sotheby's make money on the deal? It's hard to see at this stage, at least not mega money worthy of a $500m punt. It was perhaps always going to be difficult to do so, and maybe the auction house felt little choice but to stump up - to prevent the PR faux-pas of rival Christie's getting the collection. Here's Sotheby's new (and refreshingly honest) CEO Tad Smith on how they're doing so far on the numbers:

 “With more than 400 works still to be sold over the next several months, we are on track to cover most of the total guarantee[...]"


Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps art market watchers are obsessed with the idea that art prices have to go up, because they know that current prices (and prices paid in the recent past) are entirely predicated on a fallacy of ever-increasing returns.  When it comes to twentieth century masters in particular, the market has been locked in a self-reinforcing inflationary spiral in which almost no amount of money was too much to pay for say a Warhol, because it would surely be worth 2x five years in the future.  If the market really has plateaued, the implication is: the greatest fool has been found.  And that would be a terrible thing for what is, at its heart, a speculation-driven asset bubble.

Job opportunity

November 5 2015

Image of Job opportunity

Picture: Soane Museum

The Soane Museum is looking for a new Director. The previous one, Abraham Thomas, has left after less than two years in the post. More here. Deadline is 18th November. Good luck!

Should museums be free? (ctd.)

November 5 2015

Image of Should museums be free? (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Here in the UK, one of the culture arguments we like to debate endlessly is whether museums should be free to visit. Since the early 2000s, government funded museums have been free to enter. And, on the whole, that's a Good Thing (in my view).

However, the British Museum has re-opened the debate by suggesting it might levy a fee for 'tour groups'. These tour groups are generally full of foreigners, so the story has become, 'British Museum to charge foreigners'. Which on one level makes sense, for it is UK taxpayers who deserve free entry, not overseas tourists. I don't get into the Louvre for free, after all. And overseas visitors make up the majority of the British Museum's visitors.

The trouble is, there's no way, in practice, to charge 'foreigners'. How do you establish who is 'foreign'? ID cards? We don't have them. And in any case, EU law prevents museums charging French visitors but not British ones. 

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, however, goes one step further, and says we should all be paying to get into museums:

The same people who support protests against corporate sponsorship almost certainly support universal free entry. But unfortunately, a Conservative government was elected this year, and is committed to deep cuts. Museums, already feeling the pinch after five years of fiscal stringency under the coalition, have been warned to prepare for big reductions in funding.

Museums deserve our support in these difficult times, but instead they get censured if they put a foot wrong. The National Gallery was criticised for turning to privatisation to tackle the finding crisis. The Tate and National Portrait Gallery share the stick for accepting the largesse of BP. Now the British Museum will be accused of flirting with entrance charges.

The reality is that our superb museums are staring into a financial abyss. I would love them to stay free, but an entrance charge is now the most rational way of protecting these great institutions. We pay for every other cultural activity, for theatre, cinema, music, games, books and sport – why must museums be the poor relation?

Arguments like this ignore the fact that major UK museums like the National Gallery are, despite the 'Tory cuts', better off than ever before. As the saying goes, 'if it ain't broke...'

There is, however, a real problem with tour groups at museums, and if it was up to me I would ban them. Large, dense and slow-moving groups following a loud (often ignorant) tour guide are a real menace to the general visitor, clogging up corridors and making it impossible to see popular works. When I went to the Louvre the other day, such groups made the museum almost impossible to navigate. A tense standoff outside a lift (capacity 6) between us and a Chinese tour group, of about 12, was only resolved by aggressive positioning of the pushchair.

Update - a reader writes:

Simple.  Groups of ten or more max 25 must be escorted by a Museum Guide at a fee of £ 75 per hour (one hour minimum) plus £ 2 per person. This provides museum revenues and employment for art history students. Cheap disposable earbuds will be provided as with large tour groups everywhere now and the Guide can speak softly into a lapel mic.

School groups are free if scheduled ahead at hours approved by the Museum. This will space groups. We should encourage kids to visit.

'World's Greatest Cat Painting'

November 5 2015

Video: Sotheby's

Apparently there is such a thing, and yesterday it sold at auction for $826,000. 

Old Master Tattoos

November 5 2015

Image of Old Master Tattoos

Picture: Susannah Griggs

Saw this on the Twitter* - a tattoo of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes, by the tattoo artist Susannah Griggs. You wouldn't mess with the wearer of that. Very cool though.

*Original picture posted on Instagram - which is apparently where it's at these days. Is Twitter now old hat?

The power of telly? Marketing the Old Masters

November 4 2015

Image of The power of telly? Marketing the Old Masters

Picture: BBC

A couple of weeks ago, I appeared in a BBC Artsnight programme to discuss an upcoming Old Master auction, with an emphasis on how affordable some of the great names of art history could be. A picture I picked out from Christie's mid-season Old Master sale was the above unfinished head by Sir Thomas Lawrence, my favourite British artist. The estimate was £15k-£20k, and it had previously bought-in at a Christie's sale when estimated at £30k-£50k. This time around it sold for £40,000.

All of which made me think about the way to market these Old Master auctions - are the auction houses really doing enough? The short answer is no.

For example, Sotheby's mid-season sale (that is, with pictures from the hundreds of pounds up to the low tens of thousands) was held on a Tuesday, starting at 2pm. The view, however, was only open on the previous Friday till 4.30pm, Sunday from 12 till 5pm, and Monday till 4.30pm. That left precious little time for anyone to see what was on offer - for most working people it was just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, when they probably had other things to do. Nor was the cataloguing at Sotheby's particularly informative; for the most part title, artist, dimensions and estimate. Sure, the rooms looked nice when you got there, with good lighting and a nice atmosphere, and the website has good quality images. But is that enough to persuade potential new collectors to come and bid? 

Not really. Let's say you went to the view on Sunday, and liked a picture. That gave you a day to think about bidding, which you might not have done before. Perhaps you might fancy an online bid - but then you find out the cut off time to register is 24 hours before the sale, so unless you're committed to bid by 2pm on Monday, you can't take part. If you're busy, you're unlikely to have the time to go and bid in person. Which leaves a phone bid of course, but then that too takes time to set up, especially if you don't have an account at Sotheby's already. Some advice on delivery and hanging your new purchase? A photo of the picture in its frame? Good luck.

In other words, it seems to me that the auction houses sometimes don't do enough to tempt new collectors into the market. Christie's are a more pro-active in London, for their saleroom at South Kensington is more retail-friendly. It's open on Saturdays, has late night viewings, and publishes magazines directed towards new collectors and the 'middle market'. Sotheby's has no secondary saleroom. Bonhams does, in Knightsbridge, but they're a long way away from Christie's in their presentation (and viewing times).

So that's why I suggested the BBC film at Christie's, because there at least anyone in the audience who was interested in the Lawrence, or some of the other pictures we featured, had a better chance of being able to follow it up.

Of course, these questions are all part of the wider issue of whether the auction market is best placed to help drive interest in Old Masters. Fewer dealers around (because they find it hard to compete with the auction houses) means fewer ambassadors out there to make the pitch for Old Masters all year round, at fairs, with catalogues, and galleries. So instead the Old Master market is becoming concentrated into three or four sales a year. And for the 'middle market' sales, like the ones last week, that means dumping about 600 or more pictures onto the market in a quiet week in October, with little effort made to get out and advertise them. It's no wonder some of the lots (like this one)* could hardly be given away. Few other markets would function like that.

So here we are, then, with a business model primarly designed centuries ago to cater for a wholesale market now trying to be a retail market - but failing. Certainly, the auctioneers might say they only really care about the high end stuff. But in fact auction margins are highest for items up to about £500,000. And if the auctioneers don't take care to nurture the new Old Master buyer who wants to start with a £2k picture, before graduating up to a £200k one, or even higher (and in my experience that's how most of them start), then they're in danger of turning away future clients. 

Many people who saw the Artsnight programme were genuinely amazed that a picture by a big name like Lawrence could be so (relatively) 'cheap' - at least at the initial estimate. As regular readers will know, I am optimistic about the depth of interest out there for Old Masters. But those of us in the trade, collectively, need to think again about how we reach that market in today's time-starved, short-attention-span, digital world. As far as auction houses go, there would seem to be a few simple steps to take: have longer viewing times which are more suited to people's lifestyles; make it easier for people to register and bid; write a few lines in the catalogue entry about the artist and period of the picture you're selling, even if it is a generic cut and paste paragraph about the life of an artist; and at viewings, don't be afraid to go up to obviously new clients, ask them what they're looking for, and generally be helpful. It is possible to convert people to the virtues of Old Masters - we just have to try.

Update - a reader writes:

I couldn’t disagree more with you about the lighting at [Sotheby's] Bond Street for their mid season sale.

It was like viewing in a nightclub. I know they are trying to cut costs but this was ridiculous.

Otherwise spot on. 

* I was watching the sale online, but couldn't bid because I'd not registered in time. I'd certainly have bid on some these bargains, where there was no reserve, if I'd been able to.

Undistinguished provenance

November 4 2015

Image of Undistinguished provenance

Picture: Sotheby's

There's a still life coming up for sale at Sotheby's in London, as part of the 'Bernheimer Evening Sale', which was once in the collection of (as they say in the war films) 'the Führer himself'. It's a rather indistiguished picture, and the attribution has been as varied as the provenance. But then Hitler was a vegetarian, so perhaps baskets of fruit appealed to him. Details here.

"He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".

November 4 2015

Image of "He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".

Picture: Royal Collection Trust

Conservators at the Royal Collection have uncovered a man doing a 'number 2' as we say here, up against a wall in a painting by Isaack van Ostade. The detail had been painted out by a restorer in 1903 when the work was put on display at Buckingham Palace. Below is the offending detail (to be found lower right in the painting) and below that the picture before cleaning.

Here's the Royal Collection press release:

From street vendors peddling food to singers performing to a crowd, a 17th-century Dutch painting in the Royal Collection captures all the rustic charm of a village fair. But work undertaken by Royal Collection Trust conservators ahead of a new exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month has revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. Painstaking cleaning of the painting has uncovered a squatting figure relieving himself in the foreground, hidden for more than 100 years under overpainted shrubbery.

Painted in 1643, A Village Fair with a Church Behind by Isack van Ostade is one of 27 works going on display in the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. It was acquired in 1810 by George IV, when Prince of Wales, and hung in the Middle Room at Carlton House, the Prince's London residence on Pall Mall. Inventories of Carlton House in the Royal Archives show that the coarse, comic depictions of peasant life in A Village Fair with a Church Behind would have been entirely to the future king's taste.

It is believed that the offending figure was painted over in 1903, when the work, which by then hung in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, was sent for treatment by an art restorer. The modified painting, perhaps now more in tune with Edwardian sensibilities, was returned to the Picture Gallery, where it hung for several more years. A similar alteration had been made to A Village Revel by Jan Steen, 1673, also acquired by George IV and in the Royal Collection. The painting shows a group of country people drinking and brawling outside an inn, symbolising human folly. Conservation revealed that the tavern sign was originally painted with an image of a man with his buttocks exposed, which at some point had been overpainted with a bull's head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures and curator of the exhibition said:

'Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word 'nature', the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a 'low style'; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly'.

The new exhibition opens in London at the Queen's Gallery on 13th November.


November 3 2015


I was in London yesterday, and just managed to escape the fog. I've a few things to catch up on, and will be back to blogging duties later today.

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