Previous Posts: June 2016


June 29 2016

Sorry for the lack of posts recently - been rather tied up with telly, and also dealing with the fallout of our ongoing revolution.

Brexit: “We have chosen the way of Hogarth over Turner”

June 27 2016

Image of Brexit: “We have chosen the way of Hogarth over Turner”

Picture: Tate 

I wrote a piece for The Art Newspaper on what Brexit might mean for both the arts and the art market in the UK, at least in the short term.

Update - Colin Gleadell in the Telegraph has more on how Brexit might affect the art market. His conclusion:

 It could go either way.

Update II - a dealer writes:

I'm very low in the food chain but even boot fairs were dismal sellling spaces last weekend. The only thing that has gone up is gold prices so unless you have a stash somewhere, which I dont, we will all need to start scraping the leaf off picture frames in the future.

An Inglorious Revolution

June 24 2016

Image of An Inglorious Revolution

Picture: Barcroft Media

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. As I write, at 5.31am, the pound has fallen to its lowest level against the US dollar since the 1980s. It has even fallen against the Zimbabwean dollar. The FTSE futures promise a significant fall when markets open. Everybody in my country has become instantly poorer. The future is frighteningly uncertain. But Boris Johnson says today is our 'independence day'. Apparently we are now 'free'. But free from what? Free to commit economic suicide? Free to undermine European solidarity and peace? Free to break up the UK (Scotland will surely hold another independence referendum soon)? I am truly baffled. And, to be honest, terrified. Above all I am sad. We are a divided nation. In terms of our system of government, we have taken the most momentous decision since the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, when we evicted the Stuarts and James II. I see no glory in this new revolution. God help us.

Update - thanks for your emails, it seems most British AHNers wanted to stay in the EU. I entirely respect the views of those who didn't - and congratulations on your victory. One reader, however, wrote:

I enjoy reading your blog for art news, but your recent foray into political commentary has really highlighted how removed you and your peers in the art industry are from the everyday person. You are just as up yourselves as the idiots who promote contemporary 'art' when push comes to shove. Learn some humility and stick to your day job please.

If I may, here's a few words about my day job. AHN is not my day job. I earn nothing from it, and despite offers have kept it advert free. I devote as much time as I can to it every week because I want to raise awareness about art history, and because I enjoy the interaction with readers. My day job - the thing that pays the mortgage, and the school fees, and everything else (and gives me the time to write AHN) - is being an art dealer in Old Master pictures. That wasn't easy before the Brexit vote, and it is even harder now. Hence my concern above.

In my experience, people only buy paintings if economic times are good, and they are feeling both prosperous and confident in the future (in terms of earning power). That depends in turn on economic growth - and above all stability. Take that stability away, and suddenly things begin to look very different. Brexit changes everything. And for this art dealer, self-employed with a new business, a family, and also facing the prospect of not only years of economic uncertainty, but living in a new country (I'm based in Edinburgh, and the art market operates almost entirely out of London) things look pretty grim right now.

On Thursday, before the Brexit result, the UK was the fifth largest economy in the world. Immediately after the result, we became the sixth. It's that bad. Last  week we were just getting on with our lives. Now, we're wondering just how different life is going to be. You'll just have to forgive me if my feelings on this occasionally stray onto AHN. It does say 'opinions' on the masthead.

Update II - thanks for your further emails. One intrigued me:

I have discovered a scholar who is charging $24.95 annually (cheap at twice the price) for his Early Christianity blog to keep the haters at bay. Last year, he raised more than $100k and donated 100% to non-profits for the homeless and hungry. Aren't there art history students who need a scholarship/travel stipend? Museums that need conservation projects funded?  Sleepers that need to be purchased and donated?


I think I will always keep AHN free to access. But I would like to do more to raise funds for various art historical causes, with readers' generous help. We might call it a voluntary AHN tax. I will think further on this.

Update III - a reader asks:


Is the oil of Boris on canvas or board? this is an art blog isnt it…



Derby museum scoops two Wrights

June 20 2016

Image of Derby museum scoops two Wrights

Picture: Guardian/Derby Museum

We often hear about how difficult it is for museums to buy at auction - time is tight, and it's almost impossible to raise large amounts of money on both a speculation and within weeks. But Derby Museum has audaciously secured a pair of Wright of Derby landscapes from a recent sale at Christie's in New York for $293,000. They had just ten days to raise the money.

The landscapes relate to the famous industrialist, Sir Richard Arkwright; one shows his mill at Cromford (above), and the other his home, Willersley Castle. The pictures were offered at Christie's in New York as part of their Classic Art Week, and were estimated at $300,000-$500,000 (which I thought was cheap). The final price, which includes premium, means they sold for well under the lower estimate, and represents a bargain for two works in good condition. The money was raised through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Fund and the museum's own Friends organisation. A starring role was played by the Duke of Devonshire. More here in The Guardian.

So, many congratulations to Derby Museum and everyone involved for showing such ambition and energy. Other museums, take note - it can be done. 

Alleged Cranach fake - verdict soon?

June 20 2016

Image of Alleged Cranach fake - verdict soon?

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper carries an interview with the man at the centre of a series of new discoveries, some alleged to be fake, including a Cranach the Elder of Venus (detail above). We don't learn a great deal new from this latest piece on Giulano Ruffini, except that apparently a decision by the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France at the Musée du Louvre, who were tasked by a French judge with investigating the authenticity of the Cranach, is due 'soon'. 

Should it be proved to be a fake, then I suspect we will hear a lot of this line of defence:

Ruffini said that he was also lucky enough to find paintings that could have been done by Jan or Pieter Brueghel, Van Dyck, Correggio, Bronzino, Parmigianino, Solario, Van Bassen, Grimmer, Coorte and others. They were all put on sale. Indeed, several were then authenticated as genuine works by these artists and some were even exhibited in museums around the world. But Ruffini insists he never presented a single painting as the real thing. “I am a collector, not an expert,” he says.

But then of course, the Louvre might not say it's a fake.

Leighton's 'Flaming June' returns to London

June 20 2016

Image of Leighton's 'Flaming June' returns to London

Picture: Guardian/Museo de Arte de Ponce

In The Guardian, Maev Kennedy reports that Lord Leighton's masterpiece, Flaming June, is to return on loan to the studio where it was painted in London (now the Leighton House Museum). She also recounts the picture's extraordinary history after Leighton's death in 1896:

In the early 20th century, when Victorian art was already falling out of fashion, Samuel Courtauld, the millionaire collector and founder of the Courtauld Institute, called it “the most wonderful painting in existence”.

It was on loan to the Ashmolean in Oxford in the early 1900s, but vanished for decades before being rediscovered in the early 1960s, boxed in over a chimney in a house in Battersea. The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose own collecting helped revive serious interest in the art of the period, never forgave his grandmother for refusing to lend him £50 to buy it when he saw it soon afterwards in a shop on the Kings Road. “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat,” she told him.

The picture was bought by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico in 1963.

A Modigliani found in the trash?

June 20 2016

Image of A Modigliani found in the trash?

Picture: AP

So an antiques dealer finds a Modigliani near a rubbish bin in Rome, and gets the picture approved by a PR firm doubling as the 'Amadeao Modigliani Institute'. What could possibly be curious about that? Nicole Winfield of AP investigates:

It’s a story almost too fantastical to be true: A flea market dealer finds a painting near a subway trash bin, submits it to laboratory analysis and emerges convinced he has a Modigliani on his hands.

No one would believe it, given the modernist master is one of the most sought-after and forged artists around.

But a public relations firm in Rome that doubles as the Amedeo Modigliani Institute is claiming a signed portrait of “Odette” could be a real deal. It’s putting the work on public view next week saying it hopes to start an academic debate on its authenticity.

“I assure you, this isn’t a fake and we are dealing with a discovery,” insisted Luciano Renzi, the institute’s president and head of an eponymous publicity firm. While acknowledging that experts must make such a certification, he said he wouldn’t put it up to critical review “if the institute didn’t firmly believe it.”

However, the institute has no role or expertise in authenticating Modigliani works, has a financial interest in drumming up publicity for its exhibit, and even the lab it hired refuses to date the painting.

More here.

Update - a painter writes:

The face of the alleged Modigliani painting looks1960's just as the female faces in Van Meergeren's fake Vermeers look in retrospect like silent film stars. Difficult to spot at the time? Interesting too that the canvas is attached to the stretcher with staples. Staple guns for this purpose seem to have appeared in 1934 at the earliest. Modi died in 1920. He probably couldn't have afforded one anyway.

New Van Dyck self-portrait at the National Gallery

June 17 2016

Video: National Gallery

I was delighted to see in the above video, for the National Gallery's new Painters' Paintings exhibition, a newly discovered Van Dyck self-portrait I helped unearth. The picture was bought by Philip Mould back in 2012 on behalf of a private client from a minor German auction, where it was described as a copy. An inspired and brave purchase (the bidding went way above €500,000), and probably the most exciting picture I worked on when I was working for Philip, he later sold it to a US private collector. It has been on loan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but now makes its London debut.

I remember going to see the painting with Philip at the auction. Anxious that we were being watched, we dared not look at the painting for any prolonged period. Philip knew within a second that it was 'right', even though it was extensively overpainted. It took me a little longer.

More on the picture here.

Italian Museums (ctd.)

June 17 2016

The Washington Post has a good piece on the continuing struggle to reform Italian museums. The Italian culture ministry has shaken things up at the directorial level, hiring a slew of new and often foreign directors. But the legacy of bad practice still runs deep:

A larger problem has been that under current laws, the new directors don’t have the power to hire staff. Nearly 37% of the ministry’s workforce is made up of security guards. The lack of art historians, curators or art marketing experts has made it very difficult to address the museums’ chronic weakness in communications, strategy and fundraising, the directors said.

Anna Coliva, director at Rome’s Borghese Gallery, would like to outsource some of the museum’s services such as managing the ticket office or running restaurant services, but she lacks a staffer with experience in organizing a bid. “We can control our own budget now, which is good, but we don’t have a budget director,” she said.

At the Reggia di Caserta [above], halls are dusty, toilets are dirty and the palace’s 18th century garden is in disrepair because of lack of staff. Mr. Felicori is trying to reallocate some of his 230-strong staff to address the problems, but most are security guards and he can’t make new hires.

When the air conditioning at Capodimonte broke last year, the museum became a “steam bath” when a heat wave swept Italy. But the red tape in securing extra funds to repair the air conditioning was so thick that it remained broken until recently, Mr. Bellenger said.


June 16 2016

There’s a grimness in Britain tonight. Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament, was stabbed and shot by one of her constituents, Tommy Mair. The motive is not known, but a number of witnesses heard him shouting ‘Britain First’. The attack was vicious, prolonged and deliberate. She was 41, and leaves behind two young children. 

The backdrop to this horrible murder is the referendum, to be held next week, on whether the UK should leave the EU. In principle, referenda are the purest exercise in democracy a nation can enjoy. In practice, they are poisonous, divisive things. I hope we never have another.

Lost Gauguin found

June 16 2016

Image of Lost Gauguin found

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports on the discovery of a long lost Gauguin still life in the US. It was identified by Litchfield County Auctions after the work was consigned to them. The owner had no idea it was a lost Gauguin, but the painting matches a black and white illustration in the Wildenstein catalogue raisonneé of Gauguin's work. The picture will be sold on June 29th, and the estimate is $800,000-$1,200,000. The catalogue entry is here.

Sleeper alert?

June 16 2016

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above painting described as 'After George Stubbs' was offered in a minor Christie's New York 'Living with Art' sale earlier this week, with an estimate of $3,000-$5,000. It sold for $215,000.

The picture was deaccessioned by the Huntington Art Collection in California.

But its status as 'not Stubbs' is new. The picture is listed in the recent Yale catalogue raisonné as a genuine work by Stubbs. It was acquired by the Huntington as a Stubbs. It is signed (lower right) and is on panel, as is often the case with Stubbs. From the (not especially good) online photo I can see why the picture might have struck some as being 'right'. According to the catalogue note, the painting is now 'understood' to be a copy of another work, even though the whereabouts of that work is not currently known, and could only be judged on the basis (it seems) of a photo from 1958.

Hmmm. Has a bish been made here? If so, it's one of the biggest deaccessioning blunders of modern times. The Huntington is not awash with Stubbs, and has only one other painting by him. Or is it the most expensive Stubbs copy in history?

Either way, here's what I don't really understand about these deaccessioning cases. The picture was offered 'without reserve', which means that the Huntington were happy to literally give it away. If only one person had bid $50, then that's what they would have been obliged to sell it for. But that being so, then why bother selling it in the first place? The picture had evidently been recognised as a genuine Stubbs for many years. It was dirty and apparently overpainted in parts - and thus impossible to judge with certainty whether it was by Stubbs or not. So why take the risk of getting it wrong? And why have such little institutional curiosity as to not investigate the possibility of Stubbs' authorship more fully, if only as an interesting academic exercise?

Sewell's art collection to be sold

June 16 2016

Image of Sewell's art collection to be sold

Picture: Christie's

I've been meaning to note that the late Brian Sewell's art collection will be sold at Christie's later this year, in September. The catalogue is not yet published, but Christie's press release says there'll be some 200 lots, including the above Matthias Stomer, estimated at £400,000-£600,000.

Update - discussing the sale in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones says that art critics shouldn't buy art:

I wouldn’t collect, even if I had the money. I think it is morally dubious for art critics to be collectors. But if I did I would only buy art that dates from before 1800. Make of that what you will.

Update II - a reader writes:

On the matter of ethics and art critics, a couple of things strike me. The first is that I'm immediately reminded of the tale of Henry Geldzahler barging his way into Robert Hughes' New York flat back in the earlier days of Hughes's US tenure and demanding to view Hughes' art collection, before declaring, upon being informed that there wasn't a collection to view, "Well then! Somebody in here is certainly going to die poor!" The second is that I think, and have thought for some while, that there's a book to be written on the ethics of both art critics and public art institutions in the post-war to the contemporary periods - though it will take somebody with nerves of steel to write it. I get the impression that a lot of what goes on makes Sewell's collection look like pretty small beer, if that.

I found Jones' musings on what the 20th century works in Sewell's collection tells us about his critical judgements interesting, though perhaps not particularly enlightening. Fow what it's worth, I think Sewell is fair game on this front - I remember him writing of his enjoyment of the Kenneth Clark exhibition at the Tate owing to the fact that he thought it vindicated his view that Clark was a terrible phony with iffy taste. And it would be foolish to argue that a collection is in no way an expression of the likings and tastes of the collector. But beyond that, I think it's all a bit of a stretch. Apart from the fact - which Jones concedes - that the top rank artists of the 20th Century were almost certainly beyond Sewell's pocket, I don't think it necessarily follows that collectors invariably collect what they consider, in purely analytical terms, to be "great" art. I see no reason why this should not apply to critics as much as the next person. There are surely many reasons why one can be drawn to art and they range far beyond appreciation for technical or innovative aspects. I enjoy the work of Laura Knight (some of it...). I would be very happy to live with her work and to see it every day. I came away from the recent major Laura Knight exhibition absolutely convinced that her reputation was being oversold and that she was by no measure an artist of the first-rank - even by the standards of British art of the first half of the 20th century. But so what? I'm not convinced that these two instincts are mutually exclusive. I very much like the work of Thomas Hart Benton. I'd collect it if I could afford it. I would not, were somebody mad enough to pay me to write on the subject, argue for a moment that Benton was one of the great artists of the 20th Century. I appreciate his work because it evokes, powerfully and quite poignantly, a particular time and place  in history (See also: Grant Wood etc). This appeals to my historical interests. It's a question of art as artefact. I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of Sewell's acquisitions were made with a similar outlook. The irony is that Jones has written himself (with regard to Lowry) that "art is a witness to history... The trouble is, the art world – that silly term says it all, as if art were another world – lacks a vocabulary to praise art for its historical and human significance. Art has to be praised as art, and artists glamorised as geniuses."

Regular late openings at Tate?

June 16 2016


Regular readers will know that I've often advocated regular late night openings in museums. So I was glad to see The Times calling for the same in an editorial earlier this week, in response to the suggestion by Sir Nicholas Serota that parts of the new Tate Modern extension could stay open till late at night. I've always found it frustrating that museum hours don't suit most working people.

At the Prado in Madrid, where I was yesterday, you can go every weekday evening till 8pm. Although there's a charge for entry before 6pm, it's free thereafter.

Unknown Lucian Freud self-portrait

June 16 2016

Image of Unknown Lucian Freud self-portrait

Picture: Lucian Freud Archive

A previously unknown self-portrait by Lucian Freud (archive) has gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A new exhibition will explore the NPG's recently acquired Freud archive, which features a range of letters and sketches. More here at the NPG's website.

Sleeper Alert!

June 16 2016

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Ferri-Drouot

The above painting made €1.56m (hammer) against an estimate of €6k-€8k in Paris last week. The 'Judgement of Paris' was catalogued as 'Workshop of Rubens', but a number of trade buyers thought it was the real deal. It's painted in oil on panel. Having seen some high-res photos (as far as one can judge these things from photos) I agree - it is probably 'right', and must be Rubens' study for the painting in the National Gallery in London. It was underbid by a London dealer. I don't know who bought it. At close to €2m with commissions I suppose the picture more or less made its money. All will depend on condition.

The National Gallery picture follows the sketch very clossely, but Rubens has altered the angle of Paris' leg. Look closely at the NG painting, however, and you can see that underneath the green background paint, the original position of Paris' leg is still visible - which matches the newly discovered sketch. Until now, the only evidence of Rubens' sketch for the NG painting has been a copy in the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden. You can read more about the genesis of the NG painting here in the 'National Gallery Technical Bulletin' (although I don't personally agree with all their conclusions).

I missed the auction in Paris entirely. My eye has been completely off the ball of late - too tied up with telly, which can be all consuming.

In fact, I haven't done very well with my Judgements of Paris this year. Some months ago I underbid a good, previously unknown studio version of the NG painting, which came up for sale in Antwerp. I thought that probably there were a number of areas that Rubens might have touched up himself. The painting was later flipped into a sale in Dorotheum in Vienna, and made a smooth profit of about €700k. That picture must have been made working from the newly discovered study, for it follows the original position of Paris' leg.

Anyway, thanks to these new discoveries we have a much more complete view of how Rubens tackled this subject. It's an example of how the marketplace can help advance art historical understanding.

Update - the Antiques Trade Gazette reports that the French auction house sent a photo of the painting to the Rubenianum in Antwerp before the sale. Their response was apparently that it was neither an autograph nor a studio work:

Cabinet Turquin’s Eric Turquin told ATG that they had studied and researched the work for three months before the auction and felt it was “a real workshop painting,  that is of the period and something done under the direction of the master with or without his participation”.

The expert also said they made an enquiry and sent a photograph of the painting to the research centre in Antwerp, The Rubenianum, but the centre did not think it was either by Rubens or from his studio.

Queueing for the Prado

June 16 2016

Image of Queueing for the Prado

Picture: BG

I was in the wonderful Prado yesterday, looking at some pictures for my new BBC4 series. The queue to get in went half way round the block. You had first to join one line to buy a ticket, and then another one (much shorter) to get through security (x-ray machines and body scanners). All of this is perfectly understandable. But it makes me realise how lucky we are in Britain just to be able to walk straight into our museums. With funding uncertain, and security an ever present issue, can it last?

Update - a reader writes:

I write you about your opinion to get into the Prado museum. You can buy the tickets online to don't make the main queue. About the second line, it's only one minute long more or less. You may know that there is not any similar experience to see a painting through any glass as it occurs in almost every picture gallery. It is a honor to have some of the most important European paintings and enjoy them in such priceless way. 


June 16 2016

Image of Voiceover

Picture: Canongate Studios

You know that awkward feeling when you hear a recording of your own voice, and think 'I don't sound like that'? Well magnify that times a hundred when you have to do a voiceover session. You have to watch yourself on a screen in front of you, and then when a large red light comes on, read the relevant lines from a script. It's all rather unnerving. Here I am doing 'the VO' (as it's called in telly land) for an episode of 'Fake or Fortune?', which will be out soon.

Sooke on Rubens' 'Lot and his Daughters'

June 16 2016

Video: Christie's

Alistair Sooke has made a short film for Christie's on their forthcoming £20m-£30m Rubens, 'Lot and his Daughters'.

Christie's London 'Classic Week'

June 16 2016

Video: Christie's

Christie's makeover for 'old' art continues. Very good, I think.

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