Previous Posts: April 2016

Mona Lisa theory no. 748

April 21 2016

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 748

Picture: Louvre

The Italian 'art detective' Silvano Vinceti (past claims include finding Caravaggio's remains) has been in the news again - this time saying that the Mona Lisa is in fact Leonardo's gay lover, Salai. It's not actually a new idea, and in fact Vinceti has already tried this exact story before, in 2011. Such is the media's demand for any story connected to the Mona Lisa that nowadays you can just get away with recycling any old theory. This time around it's chiefly of note for producing one of the best art historical put downs I've yet seen, from the Leonardo scholar Prof. Martin Kemp, who told The Telegraph:

“This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy”.

Who was André Borie? (ctd.)

April 20 2016

Image of Who was André Borie? (ctd.)

Picture: Journal des Arts

The seller of the cache of Old Master paintings caught up at the centre of potential faking scandal has broken cover. He is Giulano Ruffini, and is shown in the photo above with Andrée Borie, the daughter of Andre Borie the French industrialist who died in 1971. It is from Borie's collection that, we were told, the Old Masters came from. Ruffini is in his 70s, and lives in Malta.

Ruffini has given two interviews. The first is in Le Journal des Arts to the French journalis Vincent Noce, who first broke the story in The Art Newspaper. The other is to the online magazine called Roadsmag. Both are in French, and worth reading in full. There is a lot of stuff in the latter about the financial dealings between the various parties who sold the Cranach Venus (seized last month by a French court amid allegations that it was a fake) to Colnaghi, the London dealers who then sold the picture to the Prince of Liechtenstein. These are allegations that I don't want to get involved with, for the main interest for AHNers is in whether the pictures are genuine or not. 

So, here are the headlines from Ruffini's interviews. First, the Journal des Arts. My thoughts, for what they're worth] are in square brackets.

  • Through Ruffini's hands passed works by, or described as being by; Bruegel, Hals, Gentileschi, Correggio, Van Dyck, El Greco, Velazquez, Parmigianino, Bronzino, Grimmer, Coorte, and others. [The Correggio AHN readers will be aware of - that picture was on the market with Borie provenance. The Van Dyck I have not heard of, the Velazquez may be the same picture referred to already on AHN (see below). Rumours have been circulating in the London art trade about a Coorte for some time. Whether it is associated with this discussion I do not know.] 
  • The Hals (sold to the London dealer Mark Weiss) was, Ruffini says, not from the Borie collection, but bought in 2000 in France from the 'friend of a Duke, who was ambassador to the Netherlands for just €7,000 or €8,000. [This is new information - previously it appeared that the Hals came from the Borie collection.]. Ruffini says he showed the picture first to Diaz Padron (formerly of the Museo Prado) who said it was not by Hals. Then he showed it to Christie's in Paris, who said it was by Hals, and that they could sell it for him. The Louvre then tried to buy the picture, for €5m, but failed. It was then sold in 2010 to Weiss, with, Ruffini says, 'no guarantee of authenticity'.
  • The Gentileschi did, Ruffini says, come from the Borie collection, though he bought it 'indirectly'. Again, Ruffini himself did not believe the picture was genuine - other experts declared it so. Weiss acquired it in 2012.
  • The Cranach also, it appears from this interview, comes from the Borie collection. He had it since 1973 (which is when, we have been told previously, Ruffini acquired a number of pictures from Borie's daughter). Again, Ruffini says he did not think it was genuine, but other experts declared it so.
  • The Velazquez of Cardinal Borgia Ruffini also says was a copy, and that he never wanted to sell it as an original. This was apparently consigned to Colnaghi for a while, but is now back in Ruffini's possession. [This may or may not be the same Velasquez of Cardinal Borgia which a Velasquez scholar told me was, in his view, 'a recent fake'.]
  • Andrée Borie died in 1980. She had previously sold some works from her father's collection [where are they?] but others she gave to Ruffini. There is no paperwork, and it was says Ruffini a private transaction. He says he had many photographs, but his wife threw them away.
  • He reiterates, finally, that he at no time said his pictures were genunie.

Now, onto the Roadsmag interview.

  • This begins with reference to a novel by the French author Jules-Francois Ferrillon about a forger. This forger happens to sell a fake Cranach of Venus, and indeed a photo of the Liechtenstein Venus appeared last year in a You Tube video about the book. Ferrillon in interviews has so far been vague about any connection between the two cases, but now Ruffini says that he discussed the whole idea with Ferrillon. 
  • He says he was qualified to discuss these matters with Ferrillon because he knew about how forger's make copies, and discusses some of the techniques (such as being heated in an oven).
  • Ruffini says in this interview that he bought the Gentileschi in 1995. He does not say from where. He says he thought it was a later copy, perhaps 19th Century.
  • Ruffini says he sold the Hals for €3m 'without warranty' for the attribution. 
  • He says he never said the Cranach was genuine. There is a great deal of allegation about the people he says cheated him out of money on the Cranach.
  • In his youth Ruffini was an artist.

So, what to make of all the above? I need to digest all this further, and must now dash off to a speaking engagement at the Bowes Museum. But first, it seems to me that Ruffini has been extraordinarily lucky, to find or buy or be given a succession of previously unknown Old Masters which are unusually well preserved.

Second, I am struck by the repeated insistence that he never himself thought or claimed that his pictures were genuine. He thought they were all copies - it was other people who declared them so. And yet at the same time he is now claiming he has been swindled out of the proceeds of the sale of a genuine Cranach.

Is Ruffini the luckiest collector in history?

Update - here is a follow up piece in Le Quotidien de L'Art which has a photograph of a 'Pontormo' apparently connected to the affair. It also reports that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is involved in analysing the Cranach. I heard independently, but cannot verify, that the Louvre had apparently refused to be involved in testing the Cranach.

Update II - further provenance for the Hals can be found in the Weiss Gallery's catalogue here, no.20, which states that it came from the collection of the 4th Viscount Mablas (1893-1985) of Spain, and that it then passed to a private collection in Biarritz, from where it was sold in 1994.  

Update III - something about that photo is puzzling me.

Apologies (ctd.)

April 17 2016

I'm off early to London tomorrow (Monday) for 'Fake or Fortune?', so there may not be any posts. I do have interesting news on the Borie/Cranach story, which I hope to put up before the end of the day.

In other news, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the BBC have commissioned a new series with yours truly, for which production is now getting under way. This may mean a quite a few 'Apologies' days over the next few months, I'm afraid. 

Still, it's exciting stuff, and I shall let you know more details when I can.

Update - sorry, sorry, sorry: filming was rather busy so I had no time to post anything on the blog. And now I'm off to the Bowes Museum in County Durham to discuss a new discovery (on which, more soon). 

Here's a photo from Philip's Twitter, which shows us discussin a potential Lucian Freud in The French House pub in Soho. Freud used to drink there with Francis Bacon. The picture is just out of shot on the left. 

Christie's 'Classic Art Week' (ctd.)

April 16 2016

Image of Christie's 'Classic Art Week' (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

There has been much chatter in the Old Master world about the wisdom or otherwise of Christie's moving their main New York Old Master sales from January to April. The move also saw a re-branding to 'Classic Art Week'.

The Old Master sales were yesterday, and it looks to me as if the results were very strong indeed. The gamble has paid off, and we must congratulate Christie's for doing something bold and different - and also, more significantly, for halting what appeared to be a slide in their New York Old Master fortunes. There have been some key new appointments in the New York office in the last year or so, most notably Francois de Poortere, the new head of Old Masters. 

The 'Part 1' sale total was $30.4m. Last year's major January Old Master sales at Christie's (their 'Part 1' and 'Renaissance' sales combined) made just under $25m. This year's 'Part II' sale did better than last year's too. Here's Christie's press release heralding the news.

Christie's top lot was a small El Greco (above, 11 x 7.5 inches) of The Entombment, which made $6.1m (inc. premium) against an estimate of $4m-$6m. El Greco is one of the Old Master artists of the moment - his quirkiness and bright colouring appeals to today's artistic taste. Next up was an early 15th C gold-ground painting by Bernardo Daddi, which made $3.8m (inc. premium). There were very few buy-ins in the Part 1 sale. See the full results here. The newly discovered almost-sleeper Rubens I mentioned earlier, sold well at $269k (est. $120-$180k).

So, although I am of course a perennial Old Master optimist, I think this is all a good sign for the market. There were no real mega-star pictures in Christie's sale, but they still got a good total with decent selling rates. Should Sotheby's move their sale too? I hope not - I think it's a good thing the major Old Master offerings are spread more evenly throughout the year. Dumping so many pictures on a small market all at once always struck me as an odd strategy.


April 15 2016

Image of Apologies...

Picture: David Taylor

...for the lack of action yesterday and today - I have been in London Lachlan Goudie's evening on Scottish Art at the Mall Galleries. Above is a photo of the speakers, in front of a self-portrait by Alexander Goudie. It was a fascinating evening, with a good turn out - a special thanks to those AHNers who made it!

A new 'lost' portrait of Anne Boleyn?

April 13 2016

Image of A new 'lost' portrait of Anne Boleyn?

Picture: Mail

There was a story in the newspapers (The Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday) over the weekend about a 'newly discovered' portrait of Anne Boleyn. Actually, what has been discovered is an old reproduction (above) of an apparently lost painting - and the fact that it was found on eBay has given the story added legs (although just to be precise, what was being sold on eBay were modern reproductions - for £70 - of a print found in a print shop near Oxford by a former farmer and Tudor portrait enthusiast Howard Jones).

The identity of the sitter as Anne Boleyn has been endorsed by the Tudor historian Alison Weir, and also by Tracy Borman, who is joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Borman says:

I'm very convinced by this. It is hugely exciting. This could well be a Coronation portrait.

The whereabouts of the original painting are reported as being unknown:

The original painting was sold in 1842 from Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham castle to a London art dealer. 

He in turn sold it to Ralph Bernal, a British politician and collector who died in 1854. 

Then the trail goes cold. Weir said: 'Someone might come forward and say they've got it. They don't realise it now because it's bound to be labelled Lady Bergavenny.' 

As far as I can make out, the only evidence here to suggest that the sitter is Anne Boleyn is the letter 'A' at the centre of the necklace, and the repeated 'A's in the headdress, and a 'B' and an 'R' at the left and right of the necklace. These apparently point us to 'Anne Boleyn' and 'Anne Regina', hence the portrait being a coronation portrait. The fashion is also right for a portrait of the 1530s.

But of course, Anne Boleyn was not the only Anne in Tudor Britain, and we might even have to allow the possibility that the sitter was called Alice, or Angela, or some such name. Monogrammed jewels were all the rage in the 1530s, as the many surviving designs by Holbein show. And I think probably we would expect Anne, in a coronation portrait, to have either 'AR' for Anne Regina (as we see in the 1534 coronation medal) or 'HA' for Henry & Anne, which again we know was used by the couple thanks to Holbein's designs, and also from some surviving architectural elements. The use of 'AB', or even just a 'B', in the jewels some Anne Boleyn portraits come from posthumous portraits which we cannot take as reliable indicators of either likeness or what jewels she wore. 

The image is not unknown, for it was engraved at least twice in the 19th Century (here and here). Then, the sitter was thought to be Joanna Fitzalan, Lady Bergavenny. This Lady Bergavenny, however, died some time before 1515, and the fashion would appear to rule her out as the sitter in this portrait (though one never knows in Tudor portraiture, and we cannot exclude the possibility that it shows another member of the family). The picture was once at Strawberry Hill, and we must tempted to assume that if there really was any historical chance this sitter might have been Anne Boleyn, then those old iconographical optimists of the 18th and 19th Centuries would have labelled it such.

Anyway, AHNers, I can tell you that the original portrait is not lost, for some years ago I saw a good colour photograph of it. I was shown the photo in strictest confidence by someone who had been asked to look into the possibility that the sitter might be Anne. That person, incidentally, certainly knew their Tudor portrait onions.

Our belief at the time was the sitter was most likely not Anne Boleyn, though the tedious thing is I can't now remember all of our conclusions. There was nothing in the way of provenance, or traditional identification, to lead us down that path. As far as I recall, there was no mathing necklace in any Royal Tudor jewel inventory. But I do remember paying attention to the other motifs in the headdress, and not being able to connect any of them to Anne Boleyn. It's much clearer in the photograph of the actual painting, but the other letter given equal prominence in the headdress alongside the 'A' is what is most likely an 'I' (to see a similar Tudor decorative 'I' see here). It is therefore likely that the sitter in the original portrait is someone called 'AI' or 'IA', with some other initials 'B' and 'R' elsewhere in her or her family's name.

If anyone has any better ideas as to who she is, let me know!

Of course, it's worth remembering that we do in fact have a life portrait of Anne Boleyn by Holbein...

Update - the print itself is now being offered for sale by Howard Jones on Ebay for £1,000. Which is a lot of money for a print of an unknown 16th Century sitter.

Update II - here's a long analysis of the claims (and a sceptical one) from Claire Ridgway, on her blog The Anne Boleyn Files, including a view that the costume is in fact from the 1520s.

Update III - and here's a blog post from Alison Weir (scroll down the page) on why she thinks it might be Anne. I'm afraid it displays some basic misunderstandings about Boleyn's iconography.

Is there a €120m Caravaggio in your roof?

April 13 2016

Video: AFP

Zut alors! Imagine going to fix a leak in the roof of your house, and finding a lost Caravaggio instead. That apparently is what happened to a French family in Toulouse two years ago. The picture, below, Judith and Holofernes, has been researched by the French art expert and auctioneer Eric Turquin, and he has assembled a number of art historians who have pronounced the picture genuine.

The discovery was being kept under wraps, but the story was broken last week by the sharp-eyed French blogger Didier Rykner, after he spotted that the picture had been temporarily listed as a 'National Treasure' by the French government. The picture is now being analysed by the Louvre, who will pronounce on its authenticity. The figure of €120m has been attached to it.

Is the picture 'right'? Well, so far what are the known facts? The most pertinent ones are outlined in the video above by M. Turquin. I've attempted to go into the matter in a little more detail. But bear with me here, because I am not a Caravaggio scholar, and there is very little information available so far. I'm also rather busy today, so the thoughts below might be a little jumbled up.

  • First, we know Caravaggio painted a Judith and Holofernes in about 1598/9. That painting (below) is in Rome. Here's a high res photo of it. Naturally, it's very good. 
  • The claim is that Caravaggio painted another version of the subject at about the same time, and the Toulouse picture is it. An AHN reader in Paris has kindly sent some high res photos of details of the new discovery - and it is very good.
  • We apparently know that Caravaggio painted another version of Judith and Holofernes because Caravaggio's contemporary, Louis Finson (a Flemish painter), paints a copy of it when he has the original in his studio in Naples 1607.
  • The Finson copy (below) belongs to the Banco di Napoli, and is on display in Naples. Here is a decent photo of it. It is evidently quite copy-ish. But we await categorical proof that this picture is by Finson.
  • How do we know Finson painted a copy of Caravaggio's second Judith and Holofernes? The artist Frans Pourbus the Younger saw, we are told, Caravaggio's second Judith in Finson's studio, and wrote about it. 
  • This last piece of evidence is key, and as far as I can make out the letter is published here in French. But if this is the source, then Pourbus' description is in fact quite vague, for he just mentions a Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes that is for sale, and doesn't describe the composition in any detail at all.
  • Nevertheless, it is thought that Pourbus couldn't be referring (in Naples) to Caravaggio's first version of Judith and Holofernes (the one now in Rome), because that painting was believed to have been painted for Ottavio Costa, a banker in Rome, and it is listed in his posthumous inventory of 1639. In other words, the first Judith is thought always to have been in Rome.
  • Finson apparently owned Caravaggio's other version of the Judith and Holofernes along with another Caravaggio, The Madonna of the Rosary, for both pictures are recorded in his will in 1617. So that's two documentary sources (Pourbus in Naples in 1607 and a will in Amsterdam in 1617) that seem to attest to the existence of another Judtih by Caravaggio.
  • Therefore, it is likely (but not certain) that Pourbus was indeed referring to another version of the Judith subject by Caravaggio, that this picture was taken back to Amsterdam by Finson, who made a copy of it. 
  • As ever, there are already disputes over the attribution, billed by The Guardian here as 'splits in the art world'. Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has said it is not by Caravaggio. (She also said, regular readers will remember, than the late Sir Denis Mahon's Cardsharps was by Caravaggio, though it is not - just go give you an idea of how difficult Caravaggio connoisseurship can be). The Tribune de l'Art reports that many other experts agree with the attribution to Caravaggio, but few are willing to go on the record.
  • A key part of any argument in favour of the painting will be to demonstrate evidence of the artist's creative process; that is, any changes (pentimenti) to show that this is the first attempt at that composition, and not another copy by someone else. 
Update - Jonathan Jones in The Guardian declares it a modern fake.

Update II - here's a video from M. Turquin about the discovery (in French). He says that there is a pentimenti in the hand, where you can see an extra finger (which would be very helpful in proving the picture is not a copy). I've taken a screen grab of the area below. But I see no extra finger - it's just a brush stroke.

Update III - Justin Davies of the Jordaens and Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project (about which more soon) has very kindly shared this snippet of research with us:

I am researching the collection of the engraver Alexander Voet I, who owned a considerable number of Van Dyck and Jordaens panels. In the posthumous inventory of his house in Antwerp, the Golden Arrow, in 1689 is, as the first painting in a huge collection:

"Een stuck schilderije wesende een Judith van Michiel Angelo de Caravasio".

The references are Duverger Kunstinventarissen, Vol. XI, p. 531 and p. 569. 

Majesty travesty

April 13 2016

Image of Majesty travesty

Picture: Guardian

The Central bank of Australia has issued a new $5 note – featuring a rather awkward portrait of the Queen. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones looks at the progression of the Queen's portraits as she has got older:

It is a fine line between lending a modern monarch the magic of regal myth and telling obvious lies. As the Queen has got older that balance has got harder. The young woman who was crowned in 1953 was much easier to fit into fairytale fictions of royalty. More and more portraitists have tried to show the “real” Queen as she has aged, with less than happy results. Lucian Freud is one of the greatest British painters of all time, but his portrait of an unhappy Queen uneasily wearing the crown was not exactly a popular success. Profound realism or epic royal fail?

Bol export application withdrawn

April 13 2016

Image of Bol export application withdrawn

Picture: Arts Council

More bad news on the export licensing front: the buyer of a £5 million portrait by Ferdinand Bol (above) has withdrawn their application to export the painting following the expression of 'strong interest' from a UK institution to acquire the work. I do not know which institution tried to buy the picture, which used to hang at Castle Howard. The picture must now stay in the UK for ten years before a new application can be made.

The note of the hearing for the Bol portrait (held in December 2015) stated that the picture's owner:

understood the circumstances under which an export licence might be refused and that, if the decision on the licence was deferred, the owner would allow the portrait to be displayed for fundraising purposes.

In other words, this is another case where the owner of a painting has reneged on an undertaken accepted in good faith by the export licensing committee. Just to recap, under the UK's export licensing system, an owner can only apply for an export license if they agree in principle to allow any UK museum that wishes to try and 'save' the painting to raise a matching price. If the owner doesn't agree to this, no licence is granted. If they renege, as has happened here, no new licence can be applied for for ten years. 

So in one sense the system has worked, in that an important painting is going to stay in the country. However, the owner's actions point to a growing trend among export applicants to abuse the UK's scrupulously fair system. Regular readers will know that while I have argued strongly that the UK system does not need radical change, as demanded by the director of the art fund Stephan Deuchar, we do need to stop abuses like this taking place. It seems to be fair game now for owners to say 'yes I will accept a matching offer', but actually they're just saying that to get the application under way, and hoping that no museum shows any interest in the work. My suggestion has been to increase the 'pentalty' period for which a painting must stay in the UK if an application is withdrawn under such circumstances, from 10 years to, say, 15 years - or perhaps longer.

National Gallery acquires Signorelli

April 13 2016

Image of National Gallery acquires Signorelli

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has acquired a new picture by Luca Signorelli through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Man on a Ladder, painted between 1504-5, was (says the NG website):

Originally part of a vast altarpiece depicting the 'Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross' commissioned in 1504 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Matelica, a town in central Italy, the large panel was subsequently cut into separate pieces for sale to different purchasers. 'Man on a Ladder' is one of six known fragments of this altarpiece. The others are currently housed in museums and collections around the world, including the Museo Civico, Bologna, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and private collections in Genoa, Rome and England. 'Man on a Ladder' is the only fragment that can be seen in a UK public collection.


April 12 2016

... For the lack of blogging lately. I'm afraid I'm little unwell again. Hopefully back tomorrow.

Raising 'The Raising the Lazarus'

April 8 2016

Video: National Gallery, London

These National Gallery videos are getting better and better. In the video above, National Gallery restorer Jill Dunkerton (who, I must say, has great TV presence and authority) talks about restoring Joachim Wtewael's Raising of Lazarus. Longstanding readers might remember that this picture was a discovery from back in 2014, when it was spotted by a Bonhams specialist in Wycombe Museum. It had previously had no attribution at all, and was covered in many layers of dirt and old varnish. 

For more NG videos, see here.

'Panama Papers' & the art world

April 8 2016

Image of 'Panama Papers' & the art world

Picture: Christie's

The 'Panama Papers' leak has prompted a fascinating piece in The Guardian about the famous Ganz sale of modern art at Christie's in 1997. The sale was seen as a beginning of the boom in modern art prices. It appears that the Ganz sale was effectively guaranteed by the auction house, although no mention of the guarantee was made in the catalogue. The Ganz collection was bought before the sale by Christie's then largest shareholder, Joe Lewis. Says The Guardian:

In a secret deal six months earlier, an offshore company whose bank account was controlled by the secretive billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis had bought all of the most valuable works. On the same day, it had contracted to auction them at Christie’s, to be marketed as the Ganz collection. 

The Met's new David drawing

April 6 2016

Video: The Met

The Met has bought a drawing by Jacques Louis David, which according to the video above is one of the artist's first explorations of The Death of Socrates, a painting the Met owns. The drawing apparently surfaced on the art market last year. The new addition means that the Met has recently bought two preparatory drawings by David for The Death of Socrates, for in 2013 (regular readers may remember) they bought another, a 'sleeper' in a New York auction, for just $800. The video doesn't say how the two drawings are related.

Update - a reader points me to the latest drawing's sale at Christie's for $593,000. That's a quite a spread for David drawings of the same subject.

'The Next Rembrandt'?

April 6 2016


There's been widespread news coverage for a Dutch project to create a 'new Rembrandt' painting. The picture, below, was made by scanning in over 50 Rembrandt portraits, and a computer programme made up a 'new' Rembrandt-like face. The result was then printed on a 3D printer.

The finished result was hailed by its creators thus:

347 years after his death the next Rembrandt is unveiled.

But actually it looks like someone who's been to a fancy dress photography shop.

The main pitch of the project, according to sponsors ING, was to 'see where innovation can take us'. What it really shows is that even with the might of modern technology we cannot make portraits as beautiful as those made by an eccentric Dutchman four hundred years ago using nothing more than paint and genius. What we have gained in technology, we have long lost in artistry.

Update - a reader writes:

How absurd?  Contrary to the claims in the film, the algorithm hasn't succeeded in making a 'typical' Rembrandt eye (or nose, or mouth) because their eye doesn't belong to anyone.  So they've only succeeded in making a pastiche of a Rembrandt eye and a pastiche of a Rembrandt face.  The man doesn't exist.  He has more in common with a modern photofit than anyone Rembrandt might have known.

The technology would be more impressive if it could transform the image of a real sitter into a convincing Rembrandt portrait.  But we have no photos of Rembrandt's sitters, so nobody could devise an algorithm to account for the deviations from photoreality which make a painting recognisably by Rembrandt.

Even if it were possible, what would be the point?  The great thing, the magical thing about portraits is that, at some point, some human beings realised that they could stoop down to the ground, take a handful of earth and rock, mix it with the oil from the pressed seeds of a common plant, and somehow transform those base ingredients into what, for who knows how many millennia, had only existed as a reflection on the surface of still water.

We don't need machines that can squirt out pastiches of Rembrandt.  We need painters like Rembrandt, who can show us how to make magic from dust and seeds.

Penrhyn Rembrandt goes on public display

April 5 2016

Image of Penrhyn Rembrandt goes on public display

Picture: TAN/Media Wales

Rembrandt's portrait of Catrina Hoogshaet has gone on display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. We must hope the superhumanly strong curator charged with holding the picture up is given the odd day off.

The £35m picture was recently caught up on a hoo ha over the UK's export licensing rules, after the new owner withdrew an export application. The Art Fund had declared that it would try and buy the picture (at a tax reduced price of £22.5m), and the new owner decided they'd rather keep it. The picture must now stay in the UK for at least ten years before a new application can be made, so it's good to see it going on public display. The National Museum of Wales has a free Rembrandt, at least for the time being.

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper highlights the fact that in 2025 the picture might be more expensive should a new attempt be made to acquire the picture for the nation, not least because the tax advantages would not apply. He also adds:

The loan of the painting to an important museum could also add to its financial value.

I don't think that's true, however. We're not dealing here with a newly discovered Rembrandt of questionable status, which might benefit from a period of institutional endorsement in the eyes of future buyers. This is a well known painting, which has already been on public display for many years (albeit in a National Trust house). The idea of museums adding value to pictures is widespread, but (at least in the Old Master sector) it's a chicken and egg question: is a picture chosen for display by a museum because it is already museum quality, or does museum display make it museum quality? Almost all of the time, curators and museum directors chose pictures for display because they deem them to be museum quality.

Anyway, I recently wrote a piece for Apollo Magazine on whether the UK's export licensing rules need changing. I argued 'no' and Prof. Christopher Brown, former director of the Ashmolean Museum, argued 'yes'. Though I was amused to see that in the end we largely agree with each other.

Update - the Rembrandt news is not featured on the National Museum of Wales' website. The press release is included (unillistrated) on the Museum's press page. But it's amazing how often museums can't get their press office and website people to work together. Surely the site should have the Rembrandt news on the front page, with details about the painting and how anyone who has read the news story can now come and see the painting themselves.

Update II - a reader writes:

Your highlighting the abject failure of National Museum Wales to promote adequately the new display of Rembrandt’s Catrina Hooghsaet at the museum is sadly charateristic of a general failing of most art museums in Britain other than the London nationals, the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam and a handful of others. Indeed the appalling quality of most regional museums’ websites is a disgrace. At a time when they are desperate for more funds and more visitors it is surely inexcusable for so many of them to ignore the power of the internet to advertise their collections. Just two examples (but it’s not difficult to find others) - the Higgins in Bedford and Nottingham Museum at Nottingham Castle say nothing on their websites – not a single word – about their collections, and yet they both have some wonderful works of art. Amazingly, the Museums Association, which is so keen on ‘access’ seems to have no interest in this issue at all.

Another reader adds:

Perhaps the NMGW website (never much good at the best of times) failed to be updated due to the recent strike action??

Update III - a curator writes:

The Rembrandt from Penrhyn was on loan to the Ashmolean Museum from January 2014 until it was transferred to the National Gallery for their exhibition 'Rembrandt: The Late Works' in autumn that year. It had previously been on loan to the National Museum of Wales in 2009-10. So, it is certainly not unknown to the general public. Unfortunately, this does not make it a better picture - the current valuation is grotesque, and it is difficult to understand why, apart from sentimentality, it can be considered part of our national heritage. There are much more important paintings by Rembrandt in private collections in the UK.

'Visitors shouldn't feel stupid'

April 5 2016

Image of 'Visitors shouldn't feel stupid'

Picture: FT

There's a good interview in the FT with James Bradburne, the new director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. He was appointed as part of a (much needed) government policy to shake up Italy's museums. Among the bold and revolutionary ideas Bradburne wants to introduce to the Brera are... decent lighting and picture labels. He says:

“When I got here I was shocked by the dull, flat approach to lighting, which strove to recreate the sort of northern light the artist would have worked in,” he says. (Painters’ studios have historically tended to face north because light from that orientation produces the least shadow.) “That is an old orthodoxy; the prevailing fashion today is to put things in the spotlight. We speak with light and colour now.”

Most importantly, each work is labelled. “There are curators who believe the works should speak for themselves,” he tells me over breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental, the city’s newest hotel, close to the Brera. “But unless you’ve been reading Ovid [specifically Book VII of his Metamorphoses], you probably don’t know why a child is being born out of a tree,” as you wonder at the frescoes in the museum’s first gallery. For the moment there’s no clue even as to who the artist was (Bernardino Luini). “Curators have forgotten what it’s like not to know stuff. A visitor should not leave feeling stupid.”

Update - a reader writes:

You might want to tell James Bradburne though, that artists favoured northern light not because it cast the least shadow(?), but because it maintains a more constant colour and intensity throughout the day.  Any photographer will tell you that light from the morning sun tends to be significantly bluer than light in the afternoon, which is much yellower.

The variation plays havoc with the choice and mixture of paint on your palette, especially when it comes to skin tones (which can look too 'wet' and yellow in the morning and then too 'biscuit-dry' and red in the afternoon).  Luckily, working exclusively with northern light evens out these light temperature fluctuations, giving a skin tone which is usually just what the artist wanted, in all conditions. 

Also, if the weather changes much through the day, northern light evens out the worst of the contrast fluctuations.

What's going on at Sotheby's?

April 5 2016

Image of What's going on at Sotheby's?

Picture: Sotheby's

Well, it depends who you read. The broad media narrative is of an 'art market in decline', and Sotheby's, who reported a recent fourth quarter loss last year of $11.2m, are apparently suffering as a result. But look more closely at the numbers, and not everything seems as dire. Nevertheless, the stock price is bumping along at around $26 a share, some way of its highs of $46 in the summer. Earlier this year it fell as low as $19 a share.

Much of the media focus has been on Sotheby's new CEO, Tad Smith, who used to run Madison Square Gardens in New York (and very successfully). As a publicly listed company, Sotheby's comes under a lot more scrutiny than Christie's. So I always read the travails of whoever is CEO with some sympathy. I have never met Mr. Smith, but I was pleasantly surprised to see him wandering around the salerooms when I was last at Sotheby's in January, for the Old Master sales. It’s always good to see management ‘on the shop floor’.

But Mr Smith has had an uneasy inheritance. Over the last couple of years we had the former CEO Bill Ruprecht, and indeed the whole of Sotheby's, being bashed repeatedly and publicly by activist investor Daniel Loeb. Loeb’s hedge fund, Third Point, owns around 10% of Sotheby’s, and is the company’s largest single shareholde. You might have thought he’d be more diplomatic, but he seemed to delight in branding the company 'dysfunctional' and like 'an old painting in desperate need of restoration’. The attack was was unnecessary, and really Mr Loeb should have known better. In the art world, and especially in a duopoly, reputations and sentiment matter, and Loeb's message stuck. But in the short term he got what he wanted, for in 2014 he secured a number of seats on Sotheby’s board, and Ruprecht resigned in November that year. Tad Smith was, it seems safe to say, largely Mr Loeb’s appointment.

There's not been a great deal of good news for Sotheby's to celebrate since. The acknowledgement by the company that they will lose money on the Taubman sales got widespread coverage. Strong competition from Christie's for the chance to sell the collection of the late Sotheby's owner, Alfred Taubman, prompted Sotheby's to offer a guarantee of $515m to Taubman's heirs. Personally, I couldn't see the wisdom of Sotheby's taking such a huge punt on the collection of their jailed former owner - it hardly offered the sort of freshness and provenance collectors like to get excited about. That said, the final stand-alone Taubman sale, of his Old Masters, went better than expected, and Sotheby's cash loss on the whole deal will be slight, about $9m ($3m on the sales themselves, and $6m in marketing).

Another recent Sotheby's announcement has led to further head scratching in some quarters; the acquisition of an an art advisory firm, Art Agency Partners, for $50m in cash (and up to $85m in options if all goes well). The first question many asked was; why buy a business whose pitch is seemingly to provide 'independent' art advice to buyers, and then shackle it to Sotheby's? Won't that risk losing that firm's clients? And how could an agency business be so valuable? Evidently, Sotheby's believed that it was hiring the best art sellers in the business, and Amy Cappellazzo and Allan Schwartzman will now effectively head a new department selling everything from impressionist to contemporary. There has been talk of Sotheby's getting more involved in the financing end of the market, especially in private equity.

However, the acquisition of Art Agency Partners has led to a number of high profile departures from the company, the most recent being Alex Rotter and David Norman, two long-standing members of the contemporary and impressionist departments respectively, and just last week Cheyenne Westphal, the ‘Global’ head of contemporary art. Such departures come on top of Sotheby's programme to seek a 5% reduction in head count through a voluntary redundancy programme, which may or may not be connected with the departure of their (and the market’s) best auctioneer, Henry Wyndham. 

Why does all this matter? At the top end of the market, both securing high value consignments and engineering sales depends a great deal on longstanding personal relationships. So when you lose a large number of experienced staff in one go you inevitably lose a lot of client relationships too. And worse, who can doubt that many of those who have left the company will soon either set up on their own, or go and join the competition. People don't forget what, and who, they know. 

Still, I must confess to speaking from a point of ignorance on how the modern and contemporary market works. It amazes me that the super rich need so many people to help them buy art (many of whom, of course, are on a commission). In the modern and contemporary field it seems a given that you don't just pitch up and buy what takes your fancy.

Anyway, where is Sotheby's going? The worrying thing is that many of those in the company I speak to don’t entirely know. Sotheby's is clearly undergoing some significant changes, at Tad Smith's behest, and it's too early to judge whether they'll work. Time will tell whether the Art Agency acquisition pays off. Historically, Sotheby's has had a tendency to make bold buys like this, and they haven't always worked. There was the acquisition of Butterfields in 1990 for $260m, which was soon offloaded to Bonhams in 2002 for a fraction of that price. The first tie-in with Ebay back in 2002 was a costly disaster (and I'm still not sure how the latest one is going to work). And the purchase of the Noortman Old Master business back in 2006 was always a curious thing; that business is also now closed.

But what would concern me most, were I Sotheby’s shareholder, is the talk from Sotheby's of ‘new metrics’ by which to measure the performance of staff in the future. The problem is, measuring individual performance in the rarefied world of selling art is difficult to do. It’s not like Sotheby’s makes a product that its salesmen then go out sell, all reporting back with measurable performance. Auction houses rely instead on specialist knowledge.

But how do you measure the value of that knowledge? Let’s say that X specialist secures the consignment of an Old Master picture, but it is their colleague Y who actually knows that it’s not a humdrum ‘Spanish School’ picture but an El Greco. The picture may then be sold to a client by colleague Z. The performance of the people doing the consigning and selling could be ‘measured’, but actually it’s Y who has added value, and who is the most important part of the whole business. All of which makes people like me wonder whether Wall Street types ever realise that the art business is very different from most other businesses.

Evidently, both Sotheby's and Christie's are going to have a difficult time adjusting to the end of the cash cow of a ballooning modern and contemporary sector. Despite the media reports, Sotheby's recent quarterly filings painted a somewhat more healthy picture of the business. Overall sales in 2015 were similar to those in 2014. The recent losses are mainly due to one-off transactions. Overall performance seems to be strong enough. That's hardly evidence of a market slump, although Tad Smith did recently describe the market as ‘flagging'. But the good news is that Sotheby’s sells more than just modern art. I'd be fascinated to know how profitable their Old Master department is; I suspect it performs consistently well. Sotheby's might yet find that concentrating on what they've always done, selling stuff (as opposed to financing it) pays off in the end.

Quite how all this ends up for Dan Loeb’s hedge fund I’m not sure. As far as I can make out, Third Point bought a 5.7% share in Sotheby’s in August 2013, when the share price was around the $45 mark. Later, in October 2013 he upped his stake to 9.3%, and at this stage the share price was nearing $50. If those figures are anything like correct, Loeb is currently nursing a 50% loss on his initial investment. And much of it is self-inflicted.

A new Caravaggio discovery?

April 4 2016

Image of A new Caravaggio discovery?

Picture: La Tribune de l'Art/Didier Rykner

Didier Rykner at La Tribune de l'Art reports that the French government has declared a 'national treasure' (and thus carrying certain export constraints) a possible new discovery of a work by Caravaggio. There is alas no photo available, but it is said to be Caravaggio's original version of Judith and Holofernes, which composition has been known until now through a copy by Louis Finson (above). Caravaggio's original is recorded as being in Finson's studio in 1607. The discovery has been hailed by Dr Mina Gregori. Let's hope some images are available soon.

US National Gallery 'online editions'

April 4 2016

Image of US National Gallery 'online editions'


The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has put a second volume on its excellent 'online editions' site. First we had Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, and now we have 'Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries'.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.