Previous Posts: January 2016

New Donatello discovery

January 20 2016

Image of New Donatello discovery

Picture: NYT

In the New York Times, Scott Reyburn draws our attention to a newly attributed work by Donatello (above). It was recently sold in New York for a figure reported to be between $8m-$11m. It was identified and sold by the New York dealer and scholar Andrew Butterfield. Reyburn writes:

Mr. Butterfield had acquired the 2-foot-8-inch tall putto, or “spiritello,” in 2012 from the estate of a Turin art dealer, Giancarlo Gallino, for an undisclosed amount. The piece was not unknown, but it was not thought to be by Donatello, the pre-eminent sculptor of the early Renaissance in Italy.

When Mr. Butterfield bought the sculpture, it was described simply as “Florentine 15th century.” Believing there was more to the story, he consulted several art historians, including Francesco Caglioti, a leading Italian scholar of Renaissance art.

Initial study identified the work as the twin to one in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that was listed as “Italian (possibly Florence), possibly mid-15th century.” Other factors, including the putto’s tiptoe stance, appeared to strengthen the connection to Donatello.

Mr. Butterfield exhibited the statue this fall at Moretti Fine Art in New York. In an accompanying catalog, Mr. Caglioti wrote that “we can safely attribute to Donatello not only the invention and design” of both sculptures “but also the personal responsibility for their execution in his workshop and directly under his eyes, for a decorative project he devised and followed through to its completion.” 

Reyburn then goes onto detail another Donatello find* by Mr. Caglioti:

Such a concern has not deterred Mr. Caglioti from announcing that he has discovered yet another Donatello.

In November, he argued in a 97-page article in the art journal Prospettiva that a terracotta bust of San Lorenzo that had been cataloged as “19th century” in the collection of the princes of Liechtenstein — and sold by them at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam in 2003 for about 2,000 euros, or about $2,175 — was a long-lost Donatello made for the facade of a church near Florence.Time will tell if this latest Donatello “discovery” — never historically documented and regarded, at best, as being by the artist’s circle — is accepted by other scholars, or indeed the market.

Reyburn begins the article with the premise that such discoveries are needed in the Old Master world because:

One of the problems for a billionaire wanting to put together a trophy collection of old master art is that the supply of documented works by the most illustrious sculptors and painters has all but dried up.

As a result, millions can be made if a work hitherto attributed to a minor or unknown artist can be upgraded to a famous name.

Such an introduction appears to perpetuate two Old Master myths. First, that works by great names aren't available any more. And second that art history mostly already knows who painted what, and that attribution is something of a settled thing.

To deal with the first, just take a look at some of the works available at Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sales, which include a documented and signed Raphael no less. Each Old Master season usually brings forth a major work that sells for tens of millions of dollars. There have been nine Rembrandts at auction since 2000 (and more sold privately). Take a more prolific artist like Rubens, and the numbers soon escalate. Certainly, the truly greatest Old Master paintings avilable for sale are rare. But I'm not sure there was ever a golden age of art auctions dripping with major works by the major names. Collections such as the Louvre and the British Royal Collection accounted for large numbers of the most important Old Masters from centuries ago.

And on the discovery point - well, regular readers will know my views on this. Art history, as a discipline of sorting out who painted what, has been all over the place for some time now. Connoisseurship fell away as a valued skill from the late 1970s onwards. Before then, there were indeed many excellent connoisseurs, but it was still a discipline in its infancy, dependent largely on black and white photos, and with no recourse to all the technical analysis we can do today. In other words, although the oeuvres of the great painters are indeed mostly settled, there is still significant blurring around the edges.

To take Van Dyck - an artist I know a little about - we had in the 1980s a useless catalogue raisonné by Prof. Erik Larsen, which included just about any picture that looked vaguely Flemish and 17th Century. For at least a decade, Van Dyck attributions were wildly out, for Larsen was seen as the authority by many auction houses and dealers. Then, thankfully, along came Yale with their much more disciplined catalogue in 2004. And yet I think it's not unfair to say that, in the light of Larsen's 'inclusionism', the 2004 catalogue was perhaps a little too exclusionist. Barely more than 20 head studies were included, for example, and yet we know that Van Dyck's working practice would have required the use of a far larger number. In other words, there is still much more discovering to be done, not least because connoisseurs (those that are left) have so many more tools at their disposal: digital imagery, paint analysis, high resolution x-rays, infra-red, and so on. 

*In my initial publication of this article I made a bish which appeared to suggest that Scott's "time will tell" line referred to the first mentioned Donatello discovery, not the second one. My apologies to both Scott and the New York Times!

Hermitage Rembrandts in Amsterdam

January 20 2016

Image of Hermitage Rembrandts in Amsterdam


Here's a show to look forward to - Dutch Masters on the Amstel at the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam, in 2017. Says the blurb:

Dutch Masters on the Amstel is the fulfilment of a long-standing wish of the Hermitage Amsterdam. The Hermitage’s collection of paintings, prints and drawings by Dutch Masters is one of the world’s largest. Many Russian collectors were passionate about Dutch painting and their collections span several centuries. Peter the Great was fond of seascapes, Catherine the Great purchased large works like Haman Recognizes His Fate (c. 1665) by Rembrandt. The tsars were not the only collectors. In the nineteenth century, Count Pyotr Petrovich Semenov-Tyan-Shansky was an avid collector of works by artists like Honthorst, Ruysdael, Post and Lastman, and his collection was an important addition to the Hermitage’s.

Russia’s love affair with the great Dutch painters will be on exhibit in 2017–18.

More here.

'Fake or Fortune?' discovery at auction

January 18 2016

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' discovery at auction

Picture: Sotheby's

A lost painting by Edouard Vuillard featured on the BBC programme 'Fake or Fortune?' is to be auctioned by Sotheby's next month. The estimate is £250,000-£350,000. I do hope it sells, not least because the owner is an exceedingly nice fellow.

How to hang Old Masters

January 18 2016

Image of How to hang Old Masters

Picture: Apollo

Apollo Magazine reports on the restoration of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, and in particular the original way the pictures were first displayed in the 1960s: on glass panels supported by concrete blocks on the floor. I must say I think it looks fantastic. And how nice (for anoraks like me) to see the backs of pictures too. More here.

Update - a reader writes:

It’s been many years since I was last there, but if memory serves correct, La Galleria Nazionale di Parma uses this method, but not at the complete abandonment of hanging works on walls as well. From the look of the Brazilian effort, the technique seems to be taking precedence over the works themselves.

Update II - a reader is not so keen:

This hanging is indeed striking modernist art in itself, but my own preference for old masters is to go in the opposite direction: to display truly old masters by means that at least hint at their original purpose and context, where that is possible, and counter the pure museification of artworks never made for museums (unlike so much modern art).  For instance, support former altarpieces upon altar-like structures, at their original heights; provide photographic mock-ups of a former altarpiece in its original situation; situate the old master in a context of other pieces evoking some sense of original context, for instance a casone underneath a wall-painting; avoid if possible the sterile separation of paintings from sculpture and “decorative arts”.  Of course this applies less to works made for secular wall-hanging, often in no particular type of room, yet it is not dissimilar to the “country house” visit which is so often appreciated by visitors as well as AHN (sans beanbags). That this approach can also be “modernist” was shown in the terrific V&A 2006-2007 exhibition (At Home in Renaissance Italy) of diverse Italian works from Florence and Venice situated together in modern structures hinting at different rooms — an approach which I was very sorry to see was ignored in the V&A’s own renovation of its medieval and renaissance galleries.  No doubt I am just an old fogey…

National Trust unveils Clandon plans

January 18 2016

Video: the National Trust

The National Trust have just unveiled their plans for the recently destroyed Clandon Park: they're going to restore the ground floor rooms, and rebuild the rest as more flexible spaces. More here

At first glance this seems like a sensible way forward. We must be grateful that the Trust is not abandoning the site altogether, as many suggested. 

We must also hope the new wiring is better than it used to be.

Van Dyck curiousness in the US

January 18 2016

Image of Van Dyck curiousness in the US

Picture: The Georgia Museum of Art

The Georgia Museum of Art in the US has announced the acquisition of a portrait it says in by Anthony Van Dyck, of Archbishop William Laud:

Van Dyck’s painting, a large portrait of Archbishop William Laud, was donated to the museum by Dr. and Mrs. M. Daniel Byrd, of Atlanta. [...] The painting is on display in the museum’s H. Randolph Holder Gallery. Lynn Boland, Pierre Daura Curator of European Art, said, “This world-class example of 17th-century portraiture, offering multiple avenues for interdisciplinary study, will serve as a lynchpin for the museum's small but important collection of European painting. Acquisitions of this significance would be beyond our reach were it not for the generosity of donors like the Byrds.”

I'm sorry to rain on the Georgia Museum's parade but this picture is not, alas, by Van Dyck. The picture listed as the original in the 2004 Yale catalogue raisonné is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK (below), and is of course significantly better than the picture seen above. You can see a higher resolution image of the Georgia picture here. Notice in particular the angular and clumsy drapery.

Van Dyck's portrait of Laud was much copied, and confusion often arises over the various copies and studio versions that were made. Indeed, the Codart website, in its reporting of the Georgia acquisition, in fact reproduces the Fitzwilliam painting. A little Googling reveals that the Georgia picture was in fact recently offered at auction (and seemingly by the current donors too) in the US as 'Studio of Van Dyck'. It did not sell, against an estimate of $100,000-$150,000. The auction house stated that the attribution to Van Dyck was supported by the late Prof. Erik Larsen, who did indeed write a catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's work. It is perhaps the most inept catalogue raisonné ever - even the front cover shows a copy. For more AHN on Larsen, see here.

From the photos currently available I'm not even sure the Georgia picture even qualifies as 'studio'. 

The Georgia Museum's press release is here.

Update - the story was picked up by The Independent, which prompted a slight climbdown from the museum. Though they still describe the picture as 'world class' it is now described as 'Van Dyck and Studio'. On what grounds I am not entirely sure - but obviously it's hard to be certain from the image. 

Securitising art

January 18 2016

Image of Securitising art

Picture: Art Newspaper

Art investment funds have been around for a while now, but they struggle to make reliably good returns for investors. A new fund called Arthena has now entered the game (reports The Art Newspaper), with the USP that it's for 'smaller' investors, who can put in as little as $2,500. Here's the business plan, as set out by founder Madelaine D'Angelo (above):

Arthena’s advisers began buying art last autumn with around $500,000 in funds that have been generated so far. The works fit into one of several investment categories, or “collections”, such as emerging art from New York and “undervalued” post-war art. D’Angelo says that each collection will be worth between $250,000 and $1m once all of the funds have been raised and the works bought. Arthena plans to hold the art for around five or seven years before beginning to sell it.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? But before you cash in your pension, think of this: art is illiquid, and has high transaction costs. Buy at auction, especially at the 'lower end' of the market, and you're instantly stung for the highest rates of buyer's premium - usually at least 25% (excluding taxes). Buy from an artist's dealer and you're likely looking at an even higher margin. Then to sell it again you're invariably losing another slice in commissions and taxes - sometimes up to 20% or more. So in that intervening five or seven years, you need to be pretty sure that the artists you're taking a punt on will grow by at least that much, just to get your money back. And don't forget the fund's own fees. 

If you've got $2,500 you want to 'invest' in art, my advice is to buy something yourself - and something you like. At least then you get the pleasure of actually looking at it. 

Art imitating art

January 18 2016

Image of Art imitating art


There's a performance artist called Deborah Robertis, who likes to get naked in front of paintings of naked women. She also likes to get naked at other times too (as you'll see if you Google her as I did, purely in the name of research). In the above photo she's about to sit down and do her thing in front of Corbet's 'Origin of the World'. Apparently it's called 'vagina activism'.

Her most recent stunt got her arrested, however, as the Daily Star explains in suitably tabloid form:

Deborah de Robertis tore of her clothes in front of a portrait of a prostitute.

She then laid down starkers in the same pose as the picture’s saucy model.

Visitors to the French capital’s Musee d’Orsay museum had been casually looking at an exhibition featuring famous nude artworks when de Robertis offered them the real version.

Once the artist from Luxembourg was completely naked, she laid down under Eduord Manet’s painting of the prostitute Olympia and copied her sultry pose.

But the artist wasn’t completely bare – she was wearing a portable camera to film the shocked audience’s reaction.

Her lawyer has defended her mid-exhibition exhibitionism, saying: “it was an artistic performance”

"Putting an artist in custody sends a very bad message."

Some might say that putting this artist in custody sends rather a good message.

Rembrandt goes to Belfast

January 18 2016

Image of Rembrandt goes to Belfast

Picture: National Gallery

I'm a fan of the National Gallery's 'Masterpiece Tour' initiative (and well done Christie's for sponsoring it). The latest loan is a Rembrandt Self-Portrait to the National Museum of Northern Ireland. More here.

Obviously, as a critic of the amount of great art in storage in London museums, I'd like to see more loans like this - and not just of the 'masterpieces' either.

Artist's resale right

January 18 2016


Here in the UK we have (courtesy of the EU) a law called the Artist's Resale Right. This means that every time you buy a painting sold by an artist who died within the last 70 years, you have to pay their designated heirs a commission. The idea is that the heirs should have a share in the 'success' of their artistic ancestor. Imagine doing the same for the architect of your house, or the fellow who made your car, and you can see what a silly thing this is. But perhaps the silliest aspect of all is that when, recently, I bought a picture from the heirs of a well-regarded modern British artist - who had already benefited from the rise in value of their father's work - I had to pay them ARR on top too!

'Fake or Fortune?' new jumper alert

January 18 2016

Image of  'Fake or Fortune?' new jumper alert

Picture: National Library of Scotland

The BBC came to look in on me doing some research in the National Library of Scotland on Friday. I treated them to a new jumper.

By the way - art history research fact: did you know that Edinburgh is, in terms of libraries, probably the best city in the world for an art historian? Not only do we have the excellent National Library (a UK legal deposit library, so it has a copy of everything ever published here) but we also have an amazing fine art room in the City public library, the best I've ever come across; I can borrow even the most obscure art historical titles. And for anything that's fallen through the cracks, there's the library at the Scottish National Gallery. 

Gurlitt horde (ctd.)

January 15 2016

Image of Gurlitt horde (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

From Berlin (via the New York Times) comes the disappointing and rather puzzling news that so far just five works out of 1200 are to be returned to their rightful owners. The governmnet-appointed 'taskforce' to look into the provenance of works owned by the late Cornelis Gurlitt has made slow progress in its provenance research. More here.

Cuts! (ctd.)

January 15 2016

Image of Cuts! (ctd.)

Picture: UPI

The FT reports that even museums in Qatar (whose government recently spent a reported $300m on the above Gauguin) are feeling the pinch, thanks to falling oil prices:

Qatar Museums, headed by Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, had 1,200 workers two years ago and was looking to double in size, but it has shrunk to fewer than 800, according to insiders.

Managers are said to have told drivers that they cannot use petty cash to wash official cars and staff receive one bottle of water on their desks each day rather than two.

“People are coming into the office to find their email not working. When they ask IT what’s going on they are told that they have been made redundant,” said one.“It’s absolutely grim what’s going on here.

It's not all bad though, for the same source adds:

"They are still buying lots of art, however.”

Louvre to clean another Leonardo

January 15 2016

Image of Louvre to clean another Leonardo

Picture: Louvre

The Louvre has announced that they're going to clean Leonardo's late work, St John the Baptist. This is a brave move, for their last major restoration, of Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne, was controversial and (in my opinion) not done especially well.

I'm afraid in my experience museum conservation departments don't always have the best conservators.

Still, according to The Art Newspaper, it looks like the conservation will focus on thinning the many layers of old varnish, not removing them entirely. This practice is more in keeping with the Louvre's traditional policy of not overly cleaning pictures. Indeed, the policy accounts for why the Louvre's collection is generally in such excellent condition. Remember, no single group of people has done more damage to paintings than those charged with 'conserving' them. 

Another curious thing about the decision to clean the Leonardo is that so many other pictures at the Louvre, including dozens in the same Italian gallery as the Leonardos, are almost impossible to appreciate thanks to the thick layers of dust (as I reported here last year). If only the Louvre, instead of comprehensively cleaning one picture at a time, could just go around with a feather duster every now and then, the whole collection would be in much better shape.

'Re-imagining Gentileschi's Danaë'

January 15 2016

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's asked film-maker Pamela Romanowsky to create a film inspired by Orazio Gentileschi's Danaë


January 15 2016

Image of 7.5p

Picture: Telegraph

That's the amount that, on average, visitors put in the National Gallery's donation boxes.

7.5p! What a stingy lot. 

The National tells me that the average amount raised annually from their donation boxes is £450,000. Nice - but that's from over 6m visitors a year. I do think museums in the UK (which generally are free) should be more muscular about steering visitors towards the donation boxes. But how to do it? At one extreme we have the Met in Ny with their mandatory 'voluntary' donations. While in the UK our boxes, though placed by the door, are too easy to ignore amid the hustle and bustle. Perhaps they should be moved to within the galleries themselves. And rather than say 'Please give £5', which let's face it not many people will, should we aim for a smaller target that's more likely to succeed in getting people to cough up - just £1?

Do readers have any other bright ideas?

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps a few signs simply stating that the average donation is (an embarrassing) 7 1/2p, together with a succinct statement saying why donations are needed, would improve the takings.

Update II - another reader writes:

Given the perverse nature of human psychology, publicising that there is a very low level of donation (7.5p average per visitor) will never encourage people to donate more. They're more likely to think 'Well if they can keep this establishment going on such a low level of contributions, clearly I've been over-donating with my £2.50 in the past - I won't put in anything this time..'

However, publicising what has been donated does encourage visitors to donate more - you promote the positive behaviour you would like to see more of and lo, it happens. 

So a museum or gallery could publicise one of their favourable figures or percentages and ask all other visitors to follow suit. For example '75% of our visitors donated £1 this year - thank you to every one for their support. Be part of supporting our arts/exhibitions #every£1counts - donate just £1 today'.

Update III - a reader adds:

I would try a sign saying “THANK YOU. Your donation helps to keep this museum open and free”. And put a poster of a favorite painting just above the box to attract attention.

Second offer an optional one pound donation added on in the café and the bookshop.  When people are already spending a little they might add a pound.     Have vouchers conveniently available that they can hand to the cashier to add a one pound gift to their purchase. 

Finally, have “Thank You for your gift to the museum” signs in other languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Japanese. In these cultures making a gift adds face to the donor. The word gift has a materially different meaning than does donation.

Confident that none of these suggestions will be undertaken.

Update IV - another reader writes:

You make a good point — why not donation boxes in some, at least, of the galleries where we really see the art, not just at the entry?  Rather “commercial” in some eyes, I am sure, but would it really be going too far?  In addition, of course, to better, more pointed, pleas — shaming? — at the usual spots; perhaps target notices at the majority who can easily afford donations?

Old Masters make you a better rockstar

January 15 2016

Image of Old Masters make you a better rockstar

Picture: Telegraph

The New York Times has re-run an interview with the late David Bowie, in which he talks about his art collection:

I have a couple of Tintorettos, which I’ve had for many, many years. I have a Rubens. Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings. 

There's also this acute assessment of the Chapman brothers:

I’m not a huge fan of the Chapmans. It’s this sniggering little schoolboy kind of thing, and I refuse to take it seriously. They seem to me to have achieved a certain fame by doing one thing — which is, in a way, an illustration of the problem. I think their art has the same kind of spin as Jerry Springer.



January 14 2016

Image of Apologies...

Picture: BG

Sorry for the lack of action today, the crew from 'Fake or Fortune?' were visiting... 

Van Dyck as Andy Warhol

January 13 2016

Image of Van Dyck as Andy Warhol

Picture: (with apologies to the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Much harrumphing here at AHN HQ this morning, after Jonathan Jones in The Guardian equated Van Dyck with Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol!

In his review of the new show at Dulwich centred on Van Dyck's recently acquired Self-Portrait, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, Jones writes:

Van Dyck is a flatterer of immense gifts, who never manages the depth and seriousness of his fellow 17th-century portraitists Velazquez and Rembrandt. Or does he? Van Dyck is the Andy Warhol of his time: apparently superficial yet somehow hitting intimate truths that can take you aback.

The idea that Van Dyck was a 'flatterer' seems to have taken hold in the recent literature, though of course it's almost impossible for us to tell (since his sitters are dead) whether he really was. Certainly, his portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria do not present them as the ugly curiosities of Goya's Spanish court (though Goya was aided by generations of Habsburg inbreeding).

But we shouldn't forget that one of the most detailed accounts we have of a sitter responding to a portrait in 17th Century England (from Eleanor Wortley, later Countess of Sussex) actually complains that Van Dyck didn't flatter her enough:

[...] the picture is very ill favoured, makes me quite out of love with myself, the face is so big and so fat that it pleases me not at all. It looks like one of the winds puffing - but truly I think it is like the original. If I ever come to London before Sir Van Dyck go, I will get him to mend my picture, for though I be ill favoured I think that makes worse than I am.

Anyway, inexplicably there are still some tickets left for my lecture on Van Dyck's self-portraits at Dulwich on 21st January. Sign up here!

Job Opportunity!

January 13 2016

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: Wikipedia

The Wallace Collection will soon start looking for a new director, for Christoph Vogtherr is leaving to run the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. Vogtherr joined the Wallace in 2011. Last year he launched a rather ill-advised attack on the government, warning of dire budget cuts ahead (which did not materialise), accusing ministers of “systematically reducing funding and commitments to the arts” in the UK. He also signalled his admiration for the 'European system' where museums rely more on state funding (and by extension, control). AHN wishes him good luck in Hamburg.

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