Previous Posts: October 2016

A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

October 20 2016

Image of A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

The art historian Michael Liversidge, Emeritus Dean at Bristol University's Faculty of Arts, has kindly written to AHN. He begins by saying that all is not necessarily lost for people aged 16-18 wanting to take a course in art history:

There is an alternative to the axed AQA History of Art.  It is the Cambridge International Exams Pre-U Certificate qualification - an excellent A-level by another name.  

And then gives some valuable background as to why the A-Level has been axed:

AQA's decision is based on two substantive factors, and one nonsensical argument.  Firstly, that with 'only' 839 entrants in 2016, the A-level is uneconomic.  In fact, the cost per candidate for entering the exam was set at £158.05; this compares to £84.20 for a 'standard' humanities subject such as English Literature or History for which there are thousands of candidates (the prices rise to £168.75 and £89.90 for June 2017).  Secondly, that there is a shortage of examiners.  A third explanation was also offered by AQA which stated that "Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve - and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front..."  Managing the risk by taking away the opportunity is obviously an absurd argument - all it ensures is that nobody at all can get a result, whether deserved or otherwise.  The financial imperative is evidently the principal excuse, and it could be conceded that the work of reforming the examination to fit the new structure of A-levels would be an added cost which the income stream from candidates' fees would not cover since presumably every penny goes on administration and examiners.  But in fact much of the thinking needed has been carried out in consultation with the academic community, and rewriting the rules would be a relatively simple business.  The curriculum exists, and the Association of Art Historians has recently sponsored an excellent textbook by an experienced and expert teacher of the subject, Penny Huntsman's Thinking About Art (which I commend to all your readers).  

The cost of taking the A-level exam is a problem - not so much perhaps for independent schools (though budgetary considerations are important to them like everyone else in education), but certainly for the maintained sector.  Perhaps not insuperable, though, if the professional art world could come forward to subsidise it: AQA is an educational charity, so there is a tax-efficient way of contributing to the cause.  Finding examiners ought to be easier to solve, and surely not beyond the collective wisdom of the academic community to recruit them.

Changing an exam board's mind, especially when it has made the announcement, is not an easy thing to accomplish.  So the solution probably lies with schools going over to the Cambridge International Examinations Pre-U Certificate.  It is, in fact, an A-level, with a carefully structured two-year curriculum offering an excellent range of options involving visual analysis, historical periods, thematic topics and an extended research project.  Many UK schools already offer CIE qualifications, and they are fully recognised by British universities for admissions.  The Pre-U Art History, in other words, offers an existing, established exam which provides a rigorous and challenging qualification which universities accept, so whether a student is planning to go on to a degree in the subject or wants to do something else afterwards it affords an entirely credible indicator of intellectual attainment and potential.

Michael also takes aim at Jonathan Jones of The Guardian:

It has been quite shameful that someone like Jonathan Jones of The Guardian positively welcomed the axing of art history by AQA as "the end of one privilege of the public school elite" and has asserted that while scientists "are constantly communicating their latest whacky ideas in popular books or on TV, none of the readable books on art history you will find in shops are by academic art historians."  Maybe he doesn't read enough, and evidently he's missed a lot of good TV programmes recently.  The Association of Art Historians has achieved much to expand the subject by widening access through various initiatives, not least by investing in Thinking About Art, supporting its annual sell-out 'Ways of Seeing' study days at the British Museum and National Gallery (with free places for state school teachers and students funded by The Worshipful Company of Art Scholars), and through a range of schools initiatives it has encouraged universities around the country to engage with.  He's not the most coherent of commentators when it comes to parading his anti-elite credentials - £99 for three hours visiting the National Gallery last September, exclusively for Guardian members?  Hmmm.....more Swiss Cottage than Shepherds Bush?

A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

October 20 2016

Image of A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

There's a good letter in the Guardian from National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi, which not only states his support for the A-Level, but reveals that the Gallery was working with AQA on a new syllabus. (It looks more and more as if some AQA bean counter decided the A-level wasn't worth doing any more).

Further to the decision of the AQA exam board to discontinue the history of art A-level from 2018 (History of art A-level axed by last board offering subject, 13 October), I wanted to express concern and disappointment that history of art will no longer be an examined part of the school curriculum.

The National Gallery has recently been working in close association with AQA to develop a new history of art A-level syllabus, and paintings from the national collections were to provide a significant focus for parts of the course. The study of history of art offers young people a particularly incisive approach to the understanding of both history and of contemporary culture, which is increasingly image-led. It also equips students for potential future careers in the arts, in galleries and museums, and in the creative industries in which the UK currently excels.

We must assume that fewer people will now study history of art at university and I am concerned at the impact this will have on recruiting the high-level skills required in our institutions.

Over three and a half decades ago, I took up history of art A-level aged 16. It was most certainly not a “soft” option, but rather a stimulating and challenging one that taught me to think and look critically, to analyse and to reflect. It also set me on my own particular career path.

I would urge AQA to look hard at options for continuing with the art history A-level. The National Gallery will be there to help.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director, The National Gallery

Refurbished Uffizi galleries

October 19 2016

Video: You Tube

The Uffizi gallery in Florence has refurbished some rooms, mainly those housing pictures by Botticelli and van der Weyden. It's the first time they've been renovated since 1978. In the video above you can see them moving one of the Botticellis. More details here.

Wonderful. But you still have to queue for an age to get in. And there's no functioning website, or online collection.

Change in auction price reports

October 19 2016

Image of Change in auction price reports

Picture: Christie's

Marion Maneker's invaluable Art Market Monitor alerts me to an important change in how auction houses report their prices (in a story first reported by Bloomberg). Until now, there has been a difference in how Sotheby's and others report sale prices, as well as how they operate their guarantee processes. But thanks to a ruling by New York's Department of Consumer Affairs, all auction houses will have to follow the same rules, and the result will be greater price transparency.

Some background: at Christie's and Phillips, a guarantor is able to bid on a painting they have already guaranteed, and, if they buy it, end up with what amounts to a signfication reduction in the various premiums that would be due to a regular buyer. This is because as part of their guarantor agreement with they had agreed to benefit from a slice of the commissions if the picture sold above a certain level. They still get that slice even if they buy it themselves. Therefore, a guarantor could buy a picture a reported '$10m', but not actually pay that amount. 

Why does this matter? Because in any market, price transparency is key to assessing value. Imagine a stock being advertised as being worth $10 on the Dow Jones, but available for sale for $8 to certain investors. Those investors could then sell, or borrow against, a share that everyone else thinks is worth $10. That would be illegal.

In some sectors of the art market, what a picture recently sold for matters a great deal to what the next one will sell for. In the modern and contemporary sector, where we often encounter multiples or series, the price of, say, a Warhol Elvis really does depend on what the last one fetched. The market depends on the price reported being what the picture really sold for.

As I say, until now only Christie's and Phillips have operated in this manner - and not many people realised it. When I wrote about the practice in 2014 in the Financial Times many people didn't believe me. One leading arts journalist said I had made a factual error (after having spoken to Christie's press office!). But now Sotheby's has sought to level the playing field. As Bloomberg reports:

Auction houses, whose public sales are often obscured by undisclosed fees, have to report the prices of the artworks they sell in New York with more transparency.

The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, in a recent clarification to its law on auctioneers, outlined how companies should disclose prices for works that were guaranteed by third parties. The fees paid to the guarantors who end up buying the art must be subtracted from the total price reported to the public.

The disclosure of the selling price net of fees “reflects the true price paid by the bidder and promotes greater transparency in the auction process,” the department said in the letter dated Sept. 9.

“It levels the playing field,” said Mary Hoeveler, an art adviser in New York. “It’s important that the selling prices are not distorted by backroom transactions that are not made public. It’s not accurate representation of the actual price.”

Marion Maneker suggests the change is no big deal:

All of this is fine. Sotheby's went to the regulator; got a ruling in its favor; now all of the auction houses will have to change the reporting on these very few lots that appear in the course of a year.

How did this issue get elevated to the level where Bloomberg could write a headline declaring Auction Houses Told to Improve Transparency in Reporting Prices? Does reducing the reported figure on a handful of lots really improve transparency?

I think it does matter. Price transparency is, or rather should be, absolute; we should be able to believe the prices stated for all lots, not have to guess for some of them. Even if his guarantee process represents a handful of lots (and I can think of quite a few, even in the Old Master world) then it's worth remembering that even a few transactions can have a significant effect in a limited market.

A lost Durer in Germany?

October 19 2016

Image of A lost Durer in Germany?

Picture: BR24

A historian in Germany claims to have discovered a lost painting by Durer, above, in a museum in Regensburg. Rudolf Reiser's theory is based on letters by Durer, which apparently match the painting. But when asked about why Durer experts don't agree that the painting can be by Durer (which, alas it seems it cannot be) he said:

"I'm not interested in their expertise, they're only envious, and art historians do not go into archives."

Anyway, the main news I think is that it might be a looted picture, having once been owned by Goering. There is no recorded provenance between 1918 and 1942, when Goering acquired it. More details here

Old Master emojis

October 19 2016

Image of Old Master emojis

Picture: ArtNet news

Apparently you can now put these on your emails and texts. More here


October 18 2016

Image of Provenance

Picture: BG

For many, the response to the Old Master fake scandal has been to say; 'we must do more scientific testing'. That may be so, and it's true in the case of the Hals it was science that unmasked the fake in the end. But we shouldn't forget that the Louvre, when they tried to buy the picture, also conducted their own tests, and found nothing alarming. Scientific testing is only as reliable as the humans that do it. Likewise connoisseurship.

So while I'm all in favour of scientific testing, it's not going to always be the silver bullet here. The history of faking tells us that forgers soon work out ways to get around the latests tests. Each advance into the technical study of an artist is effectively a forger's charter. 

Instead, it seems to me that the elephant in the room is provenance. None of the allegedly fake paintings in this case came with convincing, verifiable provenance going back further than the 1980s or 90s. Mr Ruffini, the collector who has sold these works, has said some have come from the deceased French industrialist, André Borie. But no proof of this has been published, and nor has anyone found any evidence of Borie being a collector. No trace of any of these pictures has been found before Borie's alleged ownership. The Cranach that was sold from Ruffini to Colnaghi, and then to the Liechtenstein collection, was linked to some entirely spurious provenance about an anonymous Belgian family. 

And that's the problem here - too often in the art world, provenance is treated far too casually. How often do we see 'private collection', and just accept it? Most of the time we don't even ask for a private assurance of who the private collector was. To me, the suprising lack of any convincing story about previous ownership, even fake provenance, is evidence that the fakers knew that in the art world the question of provenance was not always probed as much as it should be.

Sometimes, masking true provenance is done because owners and dealers don't want to reveal where they bought a picture, or the price they paid for it. Other times it's because sellers want to maintain privacy. Both impulses are understandable.

But I'm not sure we can get away with that anymore. I don't think, really, that the art world has anything to fear from being more transparent about ownership. Provenance can rarely prove authenticity (that is, the difference between say a studio replica and an autograph original), just as science can't. But it can very quickly tell us if we're dealing with a modern forgery or not. It was dodgy provenance that led to the unwinding of the Knoedler fake scandal.

So in future, if someone turns up a new discovery with absolutely no provenance before the late 20th Century, we must proceed with great caution. 'Private collection' will no longer do. It sounds obvious, now, doesn't it?

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

October 18 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's/TAN

Vincent Noce in The Art Newspaper reports that another picture connected to Giulano Ruffini (the former owner of the recently declared fake Hals and the suspect Cranach) is to be scientifically tested. The picture, a St Jerome sold as Circle of Parmigianino (above) by Sotheby's in New York in 2012, was until recently on display at the Metropolitan Museum. There, its status had been upgraded to 'Attributed to Parmigianino'. It used to belong to Ruffini before it was consigned to Sotheby's.

The testing will be done by Jamie Martin of Orion Analytical in the US. He also tested the Hals, and discovered modern, synthetic materials not available before the 20th Century. He was also involved in exposing the Knoedler fake scandal, and tested a supposed 'Rothko'. In other words, he knows how to spot a fake.

TAN also reports that the dealer for whom Sotheby's sold the Hals, Mark Weiss, has not yet re-imbursed Sotheby's for the monies he recieved from the sale, even though Sotheby's has reimbursed the buyer, the Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen. Weiss says that he believes further tests should be carried out on the Hals, and that he has 'yet to be convinced' it is a fake. 

You can zoom in on the St Jerome on Sotheby's website here. It is an exceptionally good picture, really skillfully painted. The picture was described as 'newly discovered' in 1999. The list of literature references is long and impressive, and it seems the picture was given the enthusiastic endorsement of numerous scholars as a genuine Parmigianino. It was exhibited as a Parmigianino at the Kunsthistorisches Mueum in Vienna in 2003.

In other words, like the Hals sold by Sotheby's (and also handled by Christie's in Paris) this picture enjoyed a clean bill of health. That said, Sotheby's catalogued it cautiously as 'Circle of', after the leading British scholar for Parmigianino, Prof. David Ekserdjian said he didn't think it was by Parmigianino. The description 'Circle of' still means it was thought to be a 16th Century picture.

Is it? I've never seen the painting in the flesh. But I have to say I begin to doubt it. Now that we know how good this faker is, vis the Hals, we can begin to understand how they can also successfully mimic the work of an artist like Parmigianino. For a while, people in the art world, when wondering about this alleged cache of fake pictures, said; 'but that Hals has got to be right, it's too good'. It was considered the best of the bunch. The suggestion was that some of the pictures may be suspect, but that many of them were ok. But as we know now, the Hals is not ok.

Similarly, this St Jerome is seriously impressive - look at the hand, for example. The fingers look just like Parmigianino fingers. The modelling is superb. And yet is there something odd about the craquelure, across the whole panel? Are some of the darker pigments a little muddy, in areas like the wrist, and the junction of the elbow? Are there similarities to other suspect works, in the way the paint is handled (notwithstanding the fact that the faker seems to be a master at impersonating the styles of other artists)? Yes, I think there are. Does this picture follow what appears to be a modus operandi of the alleged faker, in creating a new composition that is based on existing elements of other works (answer, yes)? Must we seriously wonder about the origins of this painting, when we know it came from the collection of someone who (albeit, as I'm sure they would say, uknowingly) has been showed to have at least one proven fake in their collection?

Whether I'd have been able to raise all these questions if I didn't already know the suggestion of fakery had been made, I can't honestly say. I never viewed the sale, but I remember seeing the painting on the cover of the catalogue, and thinking; 'that looks like a nice picture.' So I'd better stop speculating and wait for Orion Analytical to do their thing.

In the meantime, I think we ought to applaud Sotheby's for tackling this issue openly and swiftly. 

Jacky Klein's must-see shows

October 17 2016

Video: Art Fund

Here's my telly colleague Jacky Klein giving her pick of the exhibitions on offer in the UK over the next few months.

'Beyond Caravaggio' (ctd.)

October 17 2016

Video: Art Fund

Here's an Art Fund video from Kate Bryan, with her five highlights of the National Gallery's new exhibition.

UK Government offers £19m for Pontormo

October 17 2016

Image of UK Government offers £19m for Pontormo

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London could be on course to acquire the above portrait by Pontormo for £30m, after the Treasury agreed to make an exceptional £19m grant. That leaves £11m to raise by 22nd October.

The picture had been sold to an overseas buyer in controversial circumstances. Normally, if treasures like the Pontormo are to be exported, UK museums have the ability to benefit from the UK government forgoing any taxes the seller might have had to pay on the painting (such as Capital Gains Tax or Inheritance Tax). But in this case, the painting was sold and paid for in quick order, meaning that the seller - the 7th Earl of Caledon - had already paid the tax by the time the National Gallery had thought about mounting a campaign to save the painting. But happily, the Treasury has agreed to effectively unwind this process, which means the National Gallery has £11m to find, rather than the full £30m. 

More details here from Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper. The US buyer was apparently Tom Hill, of the hedge fund Blackstone.

A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

October 17 2016

Image of A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

There has been a commendable response from art historians to the news that art history will no longer be an A-Level subject in the UK (ie, taught from the ages of 16 to 18). Some suspect it has been culled in response to former Education Secretary Michael Gove's aim to reduce the number of 'soft subjects' available at A-Level. Gove has strongly denied this, and says he loves art history.

Here's Deborah Swallow (Director of the Courtauld Institute) in The Guardian's letters page:

The definition of art history as a “soft subject” seriously misunderstands a subject that is enormously important to the economy, culture and wellbeing of this country. History of art is a rigorous interdisciplinary subject that gives students the critical skills to deal with a world that is increasingly saturated with images. It brings together visual analysis with history, languages, literature, chemistry, and art and design to name but a few inter-related areas of study and research. Those studying it at university level have a significant impact across the cultural sector, especially in public museums and galleries.

And here's Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times, making a passionate case for the subject absed on his own experiences:

It saved my life, if you must know. Art history lifted me out of a dark immigrant’s existence, where people washed their dogs in our communal bath, and turned me into a graduate. I was eight months old when my father was run over by a train in Basingstoke. I never knew him. I couldn’t speak any English till I was six. But I could look at paintings, at sculpture, at books full of pictures of beautiful things, at all the glorious art-historical evidence that survives from the story of humanity, and I could enjoy it and learn from it.

It soothed me. It educated me. Not just about my own world, but about all the other worlds out there. It filled my head with hopes and dreams. If it weren’t for art history . . . well, I dread to think how that sentence should end. One day I even found out that Picasso’s astoundingly intimate image of two enraptured blobs going at it like the clappers on a sandy beach was painted on my birthday — January 12. Who needs family photos when you have art history?

I agree with both Waldemar and Deborah Swallow about the wonderful merits of art history. And also that art history should be retained as an A Level subject. The more kids who do it the better.

But there are some big questions we need to address if we're actually going to reverse the subject's decline in schools. We need to do more than just sign petitions.

In the Telegraph, Adam Sammut looks at the numbers of those taking art history:

Only 839 students took the A-level this year, compared to over 43,000 who took art and design. History of Art was offered in 2014 by a mere 107 schools, the vast majority of them fee-paying. Whatever abuse might be hurled at the former Education Secretary by the intelligentsia, little of their weight was lent to encourage the subject’s tuition in schoolrooms. “Philistine” pursuits like athletics or woodwork make for sounder investments in your “bog-standard comp”, or so conventional thinking goes.

He also looks at the type of people who study it:

Britain is a nation of art-lovers, with London the art capital of the world. Its world-class museums and galleries draw vast crowds, free of charge – from every stratum of society. While a diverse mix go to art college, the stereotypical art history student is straight out of Made in Chelsea, more likely to buy art than read about it. Why is this?

Much of this 'art history is for poshos' theme may be a caricature. And you may even laugh that someone with a name like mine can say that with a straight face.* But the narrow social base of children wanting to study art history as an A Level is certainly a puzzling question, given the abundance of free to enter art collections in every city in the UK. It's not possible to say that in a place like Hull, with its wonderful Ferrens Museum, that people from working class backgrounds in the North have no access to great art.

To that extent, the lack of people in state schools wanting to do art history is a terrible indictment on the failure of art history as a whole - and especially the UK's museum sector - to broaden 'access'. This, after all, has been the defining policy of successive governments. If broadening young people's access to art history through local and national museums had been a success, surely more would want to study it at A-level? 

Or is the problem simply that for all the youngsters who may want to study art history, there is a lack of infrastructure in how we teach it? Why are state school head teachers not offering it more widely? Why are state schools not full of teachers enthusiastic to teach the subject? To a certain extent the problem must lie with the constant stream of Education Secretaries, like Gove, who have insisted schools focus endlessly on maths, English and science. Even history is now under threat. Then there is the fact that our exam boards in the UK are now private companies. Offering art history as an exam promises less profit, if few schools offer it. 

So will art history now increasingly be the preserve of the middle classes? Obviously, we must hope that is not the case. But as AHN has pointed out before, if UK museums continue to offer such meagre salaries to curators and other staff, then a career in art history is only ever going to be attractive to those who are already well off, and whose social background has already exposed them to art.

In other words, just worrying about the end of the A-Level is not enough. The abolition of the A-Level, sad as it is, is a symptom not a cause. There are many things we need to address if we want more youngsters to study art history. 

And dare I say, but the elephant in the room is (at least in part) art history itself. That is, the subject, and the way it is too often taught. Now you may think that art history is a fascinating and worthwhile subject. Who does not want to know about the history of some of the most wonderful objects mankind has ever produced? But these days 'art history' is not simply about the history of art. Here, I find myself agreeing with Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, who argues that the scrapping of the A-Level is the inevitable result of academic art history, as a discipline, disappearing up its own backside:

Art history has become an obscurantist, elitist subject. It is remarkable that while theoretical physicists are constantly communicating their latest whacky ideas in popular books or on TV, none of the readable popular books on art history you will find in shops are by academic art historians. They are more likely to be written by art critics such as Martin Gayford or Andrew Graham-Dixon. Why is this?

It is a perverse spasm that results from the (not entirely unjustified) perception of art history as a posh person’s leisure activity. In the 1980s, a generation of art historians styled themselves “new” and “radical” – just like literary critics at the time they embraced “French theory”. Ever since, art history at the research level has abandoned any idea of elucidating the story of art in a humane and cogent way. In other words, the drive to prove art history is neither posh nor soft has resulted in a dry Byzantine academicism that can’t communicate outside a secluded seminar.

On the one hand, art history produces the well-groomed salespeople who make Frieze Masters go with a swing. On the other it creates tedious discourses of no interest to anyone, or deconstructs its own intellectual purpose.

Meanwhile, the hole in our culture that was once filled by the great art historians gets ever larger. Abolish the A-level? This entire subject needs a shake-up.

Perhaps Jones' point is unwittingly re-inforced by the art historian Ben Street's otherwise eloquent defence of the subject (in Apollo):

Yes, art history is hard. As a former teacher of the subject, I’m familiar with the moment a student realises, with sinking heart, that he or she will have to spend more time reading than looking, more time writing than analysing. Anyone who’s ever taken art history at any level understands this: that art history is History in drag. ‘Historical context’, whatever that actually means, is foregrounded, with close looking at and discussion of objects secondary at best. Imagine studying English literature but spending most of the time talking about the economic, political and sociological context of King Lear, and only briefly discussing the way the thing was written: that’s art history. I’ve known people taking degrees in art history who barely ever look at art. That’s art history.

I think Ben is right. That is art history - at least, much of the time. But it doesn't have to be. And certainly not at A-Level.

The way forward, therefore, is not just to demand that the government 'brings back' the A-level as it currently was. We need to change the courses on offer. And we need, for example, better liaison between local museums and local schools. Sure, local museums have school trips in all the time. But that's not the same thing as building academic links between teachers and head teachers, so that art history can be taught in front of masterpieces, rather than small photos in books. 

The irony is that all this was starting to happen, with the likes of Art History Link Up. We need to make sure that it's not too little too late.

Update - more pro art history thoughts from the great and the good here in the Guardian. 

Update II - Jones' piece has struck many a nerve, see here for example.

Update III - Mary Beard has joined the debate, and raises many interesting questions. Not least is why we feel we have to endless 'test' subjects in the first place. Why not include art history as something we teach in a general school syllabus, without obliging kids to take an exam in it?

And may be we should look at the definition of some of these examinable subjects. How about a history syllabus that included special options in art history or archaeology? Maybe too we should think harder about the relationship of school subjects and university subjects. Back in the day (sorry to sound old and nostalgic) there would have been no possibility that universities would be looking for Art History A level from those wanting to read Art History (because there wasnt an Art History A level -- it's a relatively new invention). Even now, no one imagines that potential doctors or lawyers will have done Human Biology (another AQA casualty) or "Law". In fact medical courses are keener on Physics etc. Why do we invest so much in the beaten track from A level to degree.

The important issue here is how we let as many children as possible experience and get enthused by a range of subjects, examined or not. Blaming AQA for what, I am prepared to admit may have been a short-sighted decision, just reveal how enthralled we have all become to that link between between teaching and public testing.

That is what we should be challenging.

*As regular readers may know, I did not study art history at school. I wish I had done. But for some reason at my school it was only offered to those deemed less academically able (and by the way, I wasn't especially able, just below middling). I always found this rather odd.

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

October 17 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

Picture: L'Express

In response to the latest developments in the fake scandal, the director of the Liechtenstein collection has issued a statement about the Cranach Venus (above) suspected of being a forgery:

Taking into account all the evidence, and all examinations to date, the Princely Collections have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the painting, its authorship to Lucas Cranach the Elder, and the origin of the panel to the 16th Century. 

These examinations include, but are not limited to:

- The expert reports available at the time of the acquisition, given by the Cranach experts Dieter Koepplin and Werner Schade.

- Two restoration reports commissioned before the acquisition by the Princely Collections in 2013, as well as several other subsequent restoration reports. 

- The dendrochronological analysis executed by Peter Klein at the Zentrum Holzwirtschaft of the University of Hamburg, which was commissioned by the Princely Collections after the acquisition of the painting.

- The expert report received from Claus Grimm after the seizure of the painting earlier this year.

Any divergent opinions resulting from recent analysis instructed by the French authorities can and will be refuted, point by point, as part of an ongoing investigation. 

We would like to express our frustration that results of this ongoing investigation have been repeatedly passed on to members of the public, and before information has even been made available to us. We will not make any other public comment while the investigation in ongoing. 

Dr. Johann Kraeftner 


LIECHTENSTEIN, The Princely Collections

The Cranach scholar Dieter Koepplin, whom Kraeftner cites in the painting's defence above, has now changed his mind, and says he thinks the picture is now not only not by Cranach, but a fake. There is nothing in Kraeftern's statement about the fact that the provenance provided with the painting at the time of the sale has apparently turned out to be false.

I personally suspect the painting might turn out to be a fake, as the Hals that ultimately came from the same source has proved to be. That, of course, is not to say that anyone involved in the sale at the time had reason to suspect the painting was a fake.

Nevertheless, from recent conversations with multiple trusted sources, I regret to report that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in all this fake business. It's going to get a lot worse.

Update - a reader writes:

If no modern, synthesised pigments or other materials are found in the Cranach and it is, according to all available expertise, utterly indistinguishable from a genuine Cranach, then surely the only remaining barrier to the enjoyment of the painting as a genuine masterpiece of European art by a genuine European master artist, is the shadow cast by entirely fallible ... doubt?

I do agree that whoever made these pictures (if they are all proved to be fake) is indisputably a great painter. I'm full of admiration for their artistic ability. The question is, who are they? (Feel free to get in touch...)


October 17 2016

Image of Apologies...

Picture: BG

Sorry for the lack of blogging last week. We went to Paris, where our weakening pounds bought considerably less than they used to. As part of the Deputy Editor's connoisseurial training we went to the Louvre. Something in the Gericault room, above, seemed to catch her eye.

Sleeper alert?!

October 13 2016

Image of Sleeper alert?!

Picture: Christie's

Well, nearly. The above picture has been withdrawn. But zoom in on the picture here, and to the right of the ruff you can just make out a signature. It begins with 'R...'

Too early to say much from the photos. But possibly quite exciting.

A-Level art history axed

October 13 2016

Image of A-Level art history axed

Picture: Guardian

From The Guardian alarming and scarcely believable news: art history will no longer be an A-Level or AS-level subject from 2018. This means, effectively, the end of art history in UK schools. It was already a subject on the wane in state schools, being offered in only a few. It is more popular in private schools. But the move to scrap the A-level means that the latest efforts to get more state school kids to study art history will be rendered redundant. 

Says the Guardian:

The last exam board in England offering art history A-level will drop the subject from 2018, marking the latest in a cull of perceived “soft” subjects following the curriculum changes begun by the former education secretary Michael Gove.

The exam board, AQA, which had described history of art as a subject leading students to “an appreciation of some significant themes, from classical Greece to the end of the 20th century” confirmed that students taking AS exams in the subject next year and A-levels in 2018 will be the last of their kind.

The Association of Art Historians called the decision a significant loss of access to a range of cultures, artefacts and ideas for young people.

It added: “Being able to signpost educational opportunities such as an A-level in art history to students who may never have considered this an opportunity, forms a significant part of our campaign work with partners across west Yorkshire, Bristol, Brighton and Sussex. The loss of that A-level means that for many prospective students of the subject that door will close and future opportunities [will be] lost.”

Clearly we need to persuade the government to look again at this. I'm a little tied up today, but will revisit the issue later this week. Over on Twitter the likes of Simon Schama, Janina Ramirez and Waldemar Januszczak are all stirring into action. AHNers - to arms!

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

October 11 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

The news that Sotheby's had declared the above portrait by Frans Hals, which they'd sold privately in 2011 for a reported $10m, to be a 'modern forgery' has predictably caused quite a stir. It was interesting to see how, in one week, the news of a possible Raphael being found in Scotland was in the end heavily outweighed by the news that a Hals was not a Hals. 

I wrote a piece in the Financial Times on the background to the Hals case, and also covered some other paintings that have been sold by M. Ruffini. I came out - perhaps unwisely, you never know - and said that I believed the picture of David with the Head of Goliath that was until recently on display at the National Gallery in London was also fake. Actually, I had intended to say 'almost certainly a fake', but 'it's a fake' got printed. No matter, there's not much of a difference. I  may well be wrong - I'm no Gentileschi expert by any stretch of the imagination. But having been to Berlin to look at Gentileschi's undoubted original, small-scale version of the picture, there's little doubt in my mind that the picture recently shown at the National Gallery, which is painted on a most unusual surface (lapis) and which has never been known before, is not what it seems.

I should of course make it clear here, as I did in the FT, that there is no evidence that anyone who has handled, bought, exhibited or sold the Gentileschi suspected it might be a fake. I have no doubts that everyone acted in the most appropriate manner. The same of course goes for the Hals and all the other pictures in this case. The original source of both pictures, and also the Cranach that has been seized by a French court to investigate whether that too is a fake (having been bought by the Liechtenstein collection for a reported €7m), is a French collector called Giulano Ruffini. He is of course adamant that he did not believe any of these pictures to be fake, and we must believe him. He is also clear that he never thought any of them were certainly genuine either - he says he left that up to the experts.

And here is where Ruffini is right and has done us all a favour in a way. The real story is not just that there might be a fantastically gifted faker out there, able to morph from impersonating Hals to Gentileschi to Cranach, but that the system upon which the art market relies for determining authenticity is not working. The Hals was declared a 'national treasure' by the French government, the Louvre tried to buy it, the Hals scholars said it was wonderful, the Burlington Magazine carried an article giving it the best possible endorsement. In other words, something went very wrong here. I touch upon it briefly in the FT piece. But the issue is that we tend too much to outsource the determination of attribution to people who may have written books, but who may not have any skill at actually making attributions (ie, connoisseurship). 

This is absolutely not to say that all or even most scholars and experts do not have a good eye. In my experience most do. But there are some artists for whom scholarship is in a truly woeful state. The experts who preside over giving pictures the thumbs up or down may well be widely derided within the museum world and the trade for having 'no eye'. But they are still deferred to. And until they die or become irretrievably ancient they will go on being deferred to, wreaking havoc on their chosen artist's oeuvre. Many people reading this will be able to immediately think of 'experts' who fit this bill. It has since emerged that the National Gallery did not conduct any technical analysis of the picture before they put it on display, even though they have the facilities to do so.

You may say it was ever thus. Perhaps that's right. In most cases most of the time the Old Master world gets it right. (And by the way, who is to say that this master forger has not tried their hand at, say, Impressionists?) But we must strive to do better. If the art world is to learn anything from this scandal it is that we must be more open and honest of our attributional failings, and work hard to come up with a better system of who painted what, and when. It's not good enough for the Louvre to pull down the shutters on this case and pretend it never happened, as they seem to have done. More must be done to be transparent about sharing scientific data. And we must also be more transparent about provenance - the shadiness of which is too tolerated across the art trade.

Personally, I would like to see more emphasis placed on the views of people with 'good eyes', if I can glibly use that term. After all, it was primarily because a number of people (mainly within the art trade) who really know how to assess a picture, began to look at this group of pictures and think; 'there's something not right here'. It may have taken them, collectively, a long time to eventually bring the matter, through wider discussion, suggestions, and for want of a better term, eyebrow raising, to bring the matter to a head. But they got there in the end. I might even say we got there in the end.

Of course, I can't finish without discussing science. Regular readers will know that I've long been something of a Doubting Thomas about the ability of science to tell us who painted what. I remain so, even after the Hals was revealed by technical analysis to be a fake. Here, we shouldn't forget that the Louvre, before they attempted to buy the picture, did their own scientific tests, and declared the picture to be perfectly period. Therefore, as in connoisseurship, scientific analysis is not infallible. It's based on many subjective deductions, and is rarely as binary as we like to hope it is. And just as there are good and bad connoisseurs out there, so we must also reluctantly conclude that there are good and bad scientific analysers. In this case the gold medal goes to Jamie Martin at Orion Analytical in the USA, who was commissioned by Sotheby's to look into the Hals. He also, you may remember, was one of the people who helped unmask the Knoedler fake scandal. Of course, it is has long been the practice of forgers to be aware of the latest scientific data on an artist or period, and to work around it. In that sense, each new scientific investigation into a genuine painting can become a faker's charter.

Finally, a recap on the most recent developments. Here is the latest from Vincent Noce, the French journalist who has been pursuing this story from the start. It's looking bad for the Cranach, with some of the Cranach scholars who originally supported the attribution now saying they think it's a fake. But there's no certain proof of forgery yet.

Vincent also mentions this St Jerome by Parmigianino, which was apparently another painting that passed through Ruffini's hands, and which was sold by Sotheby's in New York as 'Circle of Parmigianino'. This was later put on display, from a private lender, at the Metropolitan Museum as 'attributed to Parmigianino'. It has since been taken off display. If that's fake, then it's yet more confirmation of what a gifted artist we're dealing with here. You may well look at it, and say 'that can't possibly be fake'. And I can't entirely believe it myseld. But that's what a lot of people said about the Hals too. And now that picture has been unmasked, the more one looks at it, the more obvious it seems. 

In the Antiques Trade Gazette, Ruffini's lawyer, Philippe Scarzella, says that his client should be described as a 'collector' and not a dealer. In my FT piece I described Ruffini as a dealer, given the number of pictures he has placed into the market over a period of time. The Hals was, Ruffini says, bought by him in 2000. He then began the process of selling by at least 2005, when it was brought, by Christie's in Paris, to the Louvre's attention. I think under British interpretations (for example, how one is taxed whether selling as a collector or a dealer) such a turnaround within five years would make you a dealer. But I am happy to take Ruffini's assertion on face value. Scarzella also reminds us that the chain of events behind the Cranach ending up in the hands of Colnaghi, the London art dealers, is far from straightforward. Ruffini says he consigned the picture to a middle man, and that this person or people then sold it to Colnaghi (with it seems some invented provenance too). He did not sell it directly to Colnaghi. That being so, then I should have thought that the Liechtenstein collection, if it wishes to get out of the picture and seek a refund, has a fairly easy case to make - since title was allegedly an issue.

For more background on all the above, put 'Ruffini' and 'Cranach' etc into the search box top right.

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

October 11 2016

Video: BBC

This week on 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' we're looking at two pictures that belong to the National Museum of Northern Ireland, in Belfast. They're thought to be copies of works by Peter Breughel the Younger. In the clip above, restorer Simon Gillespie and I get a nasty shock when we examine the back of one of the paintings.

Wednesday, BBC4, 9pm.

'Queen's House' re-opens

October 11 2016

Video: Evening Standard

The Queen's House in Greenwich has re-opened to the public after a refurbishment, and very handsome it looks too. Well done to all involved. A star exhibit is the newly acquired 'Armada Portrait' of Elizabeth I. 

Inevitably, there creeps into the video above the phrase 'an installation by the Turner-prize winning artist...'. No museum or gallery is safe without one these days, it seems. In this case it involves some gold squiggles on the wall. But it doesn't look too distracting from the main event, and even, dare I say it, might compliment it.

Rubens on Trump

October 10 2016

Image of Rubens on Trump

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

Donald Trump makes an unlikely appearance in Rubens' c. 1616 Atalanta and Meleager in the Metropolitan Museum. A sweating, combover-ed, orange 'blowhard', even 400 years ago.

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