Previous Posts: August 2017


August 30 2017

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National Gallery acquires £11.6m Bellotto (ctd.)

August 28 2017

Image of National Gallery acquires £11.6m Bellotto (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

I wrote last week about the National Gallery’s successful attempt to acquire Bellotto’s View of Koenigstein Fortress from the North for £11.6m. I’ve now learnt that the Gallery’s fundraising effort was much more challenging (and commendable) than usual. The case highlights why we need to reform the arrangements surrounding the export and taxation of important works of art in Britain. (Warning, this post gets a bit technical.)

First, a quick recap. The painting belonged to the collection of the Earls of Derby. It was a ‘conditionally exempt’ painting, which meant that it had been exempted from death duties on the understanding that it wasn’t sold, and was accessible to the public for a number of days a year. The conditional exemption scheme is intended to help keep historic collections of pre-eminent artworks together. So if you inherit a collection of important pictures, which may have hung in the same setting for three centuries, you can keep them on your walls for you and others to enjoy. But if you ever decide to sell one of the pictures, then you are taxed the full rate. 

When a conditionally exempt work is to be sold, the owner is supposed to notify the government, through the Arts Council, that they intend to sell it. A guide price is suggested. This period, usually of three months, is intended to allow any interested museum to attempt to buy the work, and also to qualify for various tax incentives, including something known as the 'douceur'. This allows the museum to benefit from a discount on the painting, because the Treasury foregoes the tax due. In most cases, this equates to a 30% discount, that being the current rate of death duties plus the 'douceur' (but sometimes the discount can be as much as 80%). So the seller settles their tax liability, the museum gets a discount, and the taxpayer subsidises the museum’s acquisition. Everyone’s a winner.

But recent cases, including the Bellotto, have shown that there are a number of areas which need to be reviewed in this scheme. Strangely, the requirement to notify the government of an intention to sell is not compulsory. This means that important artworks can be sold under the noses of UK museums, who not only lose time to plan a fundraising campaign, but also lose the opportunity to benefit from the tax breaks. An added complication is when these important artworks are sold to an overseas buyer, bringing the export licence system into play.

We saw this with the Pontormo Portrait of a Man (above) sold in 2015 to a US collector for £30m while it was on loan to the National Gallery in London. In this case, the seller of the Pontormo (the Earl of Caledon, or his trustees) completed the sale to the US collector (Tom Hill), and therefore paid the tax to the Treasury. Furthermore, Mr Hill paid for the picture before an export licence was granted, when normally overseas buyers agree to buy important pictures in the UK subject to an export licence being granted. That way, the overseas buyer doesn’t take the risk of paying £xm for a painting which might then be held up in the system for up to a year as a British institution tries to ‘save’ it. At the time, Francis Russell of Christie’s (who had discovered the Pontormo) said (in The Guardian):

“No doubt the picture was sold furtively as the purchaser wished to ensure that it couldn’t be bought in a tax-efficient way by an institution here.”

In the case of the Bellotto, the sale (this time to a Chinese buyer, in a private treaty sale through Christie’s) was also completed prior to an export licence being granted. The tax was settled. And so the National Gallery had to raise the full £11.6m asking price, as they were now transacting with the new Chinese owner. 

When, last year, the National Gallery succeeded in raising the £30m necessary to try and buy the Pontormo from Mr Hill, the Treasury agreed to effectively refund the £19m of tax that the Earl of Caledon (or his trustees) had paid. However, that was a special one-off case, and it has been confirmed to me that this option was not available to the National Gallery for the Bellotto.

Now, I make no suggestion here that the Earl of Derby (or his trustees) were under any obligation to try and structure the sale of their property so as to maximise the ability of a UK museum to try and buy it. They were made an offer for the Bellotto, and accepted it (long after making the necessary notification of intention to sell in 2014) which is perfectly proper. It was not up to the Earl of Derby to suggest that the Chinese buyer shouldn’t pay for the painting before an export licence was granted.

I think the point here is that a museum's ability to save pictures for the nation should not be at the mercy of the decisions made by vendors, the trade, and buyers. Regular readers will know that I've long argued for the rights of the owners of paintings like this. But the way the system is currently designed creates an unnecessary point of conflict between museums, the trade, private owners, and the government. Therefore, I would suggest we need to reform the system to achieve the following:

  • First, the ability of a museum to qualify for an effective discount (through tax foregone by the Treasury) shouldn’t really depend on which point in the transaction the museum gets involved. If the Treasury felt able to refund the tax in the Pontormo case, they should be able to do it for all similar cases. This is just a matter of accounting.
  • Second, the ‘notification of intention to sell’ should be made compulsory.
  • Third, it is sometimes suggested that the ‘guide price’ at the point of a notification of intention to sell is set artificially high, to discourage museum bids (I should stress this was not the case with the Bellotto). Therefore, I would make an independent, third-party assessment of value a part of the compulsory notification of intention to sell process. Remember, these conditionally exempt artworks are already effectively part-owned by the state, and it is not unreasonable for the state (or state-owned museums) to play a slightly more pro-active role in their sale.
  • Fourth, as AHN has repeatedly suggested in the past, there should be a greater sanction for those overseas buyers who refuse to accept a UK museum’s matching offer. 

Finally, UK museums should not always leave these things so late! If a museum sees a painting and really thinks it is worthy of their collection, it doesn’t have to wait until there is a threat of export to acquire it. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, their acquisitions will be cheaper. 

Art history, Daily Mail style

August 28 2017

Image of Art history, Daily Mail style

Pictures: Mail

When clickbait and art history collide.

British university art collections

August 28 2017

Image of British university art collections

Picture: Burlington

The latest edition of The Burlington Magazine draws attention, in its editorial, to the excellence and value of Britain's university museums. The magazine has compiled a survey of new acquisitions by these institutions (excluding the major ones like Oxford and Cambridge). The works collected are, says the magazine, overwhelmingly 20th C or contemporary, but this is not surprising as, 'most of these museums, like their universities, are creations of the past century.'

More surprising is the fact that many universities don't make enough effort to use their collections when it comes to teaching:

It is dispiriting that so few departments of art history use the resources of their university’s collections in any systematic way. The Whitworth shows what can be done: in 2016–17 undergraduates and graduates of the Department of Art History and Visual Studies assisted with the exhibition Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael and the Image Multiplied,1 and the museum’s curators have for forty years taught on the University’s MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Elsewhere, curators reported to us that the art history courses in their universities failed to encourage the close involvement with objects that a museum offers. This disconnection is reflected in funding. In 2016 a funding review by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) resulted in an annual investment for higher education museums, set for 2017–18 at £10.7 million. Almost four-fifths of this (£8.5 million) was allocated to just four universities – London, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester. Only five of the museums we contacted for this Supplement receive HEFCE funding – the Barber, the Whitworth, the Sainsbury Centre, the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds and the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle.

As AHN has said before, much of this is due to the object-phobic way in which much art history is taught at universities. It's amazing really to think that this disconnect between academic art history and museum-based art history is still so pronounced.

Elsewhere in the new Burlington there are articles on Carlo Maratti, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Paul Gauguin.

3D printing art history (ctd.)

August 28 2017

Image of 3D printing art history (ctd.)

Picture: British Museum

Back in 2013 I reported that you could buy, for $30k, a 3D printed replica of a Van Gogh. It looked quite good, and more recently we have had 3D printed replicas (of a Del Piombo) at the National Gallery. But setting the cause of 3D printed replicas back somewhat is a new product being touted by the British Museum, a copy of their c.130-140AD bust of Antinous. For £250 you get a 25cm high resin bust which lacks any of the definition or texture of the original. A souvenir Parianware bust from the 19th Century would look better. How can the BM charge £250 for this?

'Awesome Beauty' on BBC4

August 28 2017

Video: BBC

This will be good, a one hour programme on the art of industrial Britain. 'Awesome Beauty' will be on BBC4 on Tuesday 29th August, at 9pm, and is presented by the excellent Lachlan Goudie. More here

In Russia, a new Titian discovery

August 28 2017

Image of In Russia, a new Titian discovery

Picture: Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The Art Newspaper has news of a newly discovered Titian unveiled in Moscow. The painting, a version of Venus and Adonis, was thought previously to have been a copy when it was bought by a French dealer in 2005. But then a Russian collector, Vladimir Logvinenko bought the painting and had it restored, when it was apparently discovered to be a version by Titian himself.

Says TAN:

The collector would not reveal how much he paid for the painting but said that it was “much more” than the €50,000-€70,000 the previous buyer forked out. Logvinenko contacted the Pushkin's chief researcher and custodian of Italian paintings, Victoria Markova, to help restore the painting, but he was in for surprise. After a quick look, Markova judged the work to be by Titian. 

“When a painting has three layers [of paint] it’s difficult to determine if it’s an original. Marina had a look at it, made certain technological and radiographic research, and concluded it was an original”, Logvinenko says. “However, Marina and I realised we couldn’t restore the artwork in Russia as there aren’t enough Venetian art restorers here”.

They sent the Venus and Adonis to Italy where the country’s Ministry of Culture, Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, and Madrid’s Prado Museum backed up Markova’s research. The painting was restored in a Venetian art gallery and eventually sold by Logvinenko to “a group of collectors who are not Russian”.

For a long time it was believed that Titian’s Venus and Adonis on show at the Prado Museum was the earliest edition still in existence, painted in 1554 for King Philip II, but this may no longer be the case. “The Prado decided to study [the Moscow painting] and found a preliminary drawing under the colourful layer of the canvas, thus it should be considered the first version of the famous composition, which served as both the model for the Madrid canvas and numerous repetitions,” Loshak says. 

The version in the Prado is dated 1554, but Titian is first thought have made a Venus and Adonis in the 1520s, which was long presumed lost. Is the Moscow painting it? The Pushkin museum is now trying to raise the money to buy the painting, for a figure reported to be between $10m and $20m.

Job Opportunity!

August 24 2017

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: via TAN

Here's a good one - the National Trust is looking for a Curatorial and Collections Director. For £86k a year, the Trust is looking for:

[...] someone to lead the curatorial and heritage conservation work of the National Trust. You will work with the Director of Curation & Experiences to help shape and deliver the Trust’s ambitious new curatorial strategy, including high quality research, inspirational engagement, and excellent care for the historic environment. We provide access to extraordinary places and we want people to experience them in ways which deepen their understanding and engagement.

The challenge and the opportunity are huge. You and your team will work with our operations teams and our internal consultancy, providing land and property General Managers with ways of working that are easy to navigate and understand. That means working cross functionally at the highest level, developing trust wide standards and ensuring we have the capability and resources to achieve our vision. That includes taking ownership of the professional development for our curatorial and conservator populations.

It sounds like fun. If it wasn't for the distance between Swindon (where the job is based) and Edinburgh, even I might be tempted. Then maybe finally we could do away with those beanbags. Also, I have no idea what 'cross functionally' means.

If you fancy applying you'll need to have:

  • A dynamic approach to making cultural heritage relevant to the broadest possible audience
  • A strong track record in communication and advocacy including leading on external contacts, media relations, networking and persuading
  • A strong track record of publishing and programming (ideally in an area that reflects the Trust’s work)
  • The ability to look beyond narrow specialisms and object categories, and think ambitiously about how to connect with audiences
  • Strong people skills, including forming and leading teams
  • A strong profile in heritage, conservation or the museum world

If the Trust gets the right person, or has the courage to appoint the right person, then much good can be done. For too long, the presentation of the many extraordinary artefacts the Trust owns has been done with a lack of confidence, and a tendency to rely on gimmickry. At its root, this problem derives from a lack of knowledge (or worse, curiosity) about the objects themselves. If you don't know the story behind, say, a historical portrait by a famous artist, then you will always struggle to make audiences relate to it. Hopefully, new posts like this one, together with the new Director of Curation, will help bring the Trust's collections to the fore once more.

Still, there are many challenges. First, the Trust is too big. Historic houses jostle for attention with beaches, renewable energy schemes and farms. Second, the Trust's management is obsessed with a one-size-fits all organisational structure. Directives flow from the Trust's head office in Swindon. Wizard ideas dreamt up on whiteboards in over-crowded meetings are imposed on properties large and small, ancient and new, whether they are appropriate for that property or not. Most egregiously, the people in the middle and lower tiers of the organisation, who actually know stuff and are daily at the coal face, feel ignored. These are common problems in any large organisation.

There is a danger, therefore, that these new curatorial posts, which are billed as the solution to the various backward steps we have seen in National Trust properties (the removal of original furniture to make way for beanbags; the removal of paintings to make way for loud, incessant TV screens; the cheap, indecorous labels demanding we focus on a particular object or narrative) will only lead to more centrally imposed 'visions'. If it was up to me, I would instead hire better and more experienced house managers (for which the first requirement is - pay them more, salaries are currently in the low 20 thousands), and let them get on with the job.

All of this comes at a crucial time for the Trust, with the search for a new Director General. There was a discussion on the Trust's future on BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend last Sunday, which you can listen to here. Sir Roy Strong pointed out the many frustrations that stuck-in-the-mud members like me feel, and said that the new Director General will need to 're-invent heritage for a new generation'. In defence of her tenure as Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh said that the Trust has more members and visitors than ever before, and spends more on conservation than ever before. 

Finally, I went to Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire recently. It's a Trust house which has been filled with portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. It's a great example of collaboration between a major London institution which has too many paintings to display, and a historic house with too few. The National Portrait Gallery has taken the lead in this approach (they have a similar arrangement with Montacute House in Somerset). I highly recomment a visit. But do ignore the bizarre projector installation in the magnificent entrance hall (below), which not only spoils the room and gets in the way, but doesn't actually work, for the projector isn't bright enough. This is the sort of gimmick that the Trust could do without.

The deadline for the post of Curatorial Collections Director is 10th Sept.

Art history toilets (ctd.)

August 23 2017

Video: Golden Throne

Because I lead a sheltered life, I wasn't aware of the Maurizio Cattelan work 'America', which is a fully functioning, solid gold toilet at the Guggenheim museum in New York. Visitors to the museum can wait up to an hour to use it, putting, I suppose, a whole new meaning on the phrase dying for your art. Anyway, The Art Newspaper reports that the toilet will soon come off display and sent back to the artist.

In the video above, the host of Golden Thrones (a You Tube channel dedicated to America's best toilets) tells you all you need to know about Cattelan's 'piece', including how often it has be plunged. I think all art historical analysis should be as straightforward as this.

The BP Portrait Award

August 23 2017

Video: NPG

Here's a charming video of the winner of the BP Portrait Award, Benjamin Sullivan and his subjects, his wife and daughter. Whoever had the idea for this at the National Portrait Gallery, take a bow.

I thought Sullivan's portrait was a worthy winner. The entries were, as ever patchy. A stand out portrait for me was 'Alejandro' by Anca-Luiz Sirbu, above. Beautifully and originally painted, it didn't get any notice from the judges.

Slavishly painted photographs Photo-realist works were as ubiquitous as ever. In one example the artist had even painted the reflection, in the sitter's eye, of themselves taking the photograph. The portrait drew many admiring remarks from visitors, who said 'it's just like a photograph'. Well, it is a photograph.

'The Encounter' at the NPG

August 23 2017

Video: NPG

I enjoyed the new Old Master drawings exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It's on until 22nd October. There are a number of connoisseurial conundrums, including the below 'Venetian School' portrait drawing of the early 1500s, which is nagging me because I'm sure I've seen him before somewhere. Anybody got any ideas? It was once called Durer.

There were other conundrum drawings in the show, but I was stopped from taking photos, even though all the works are of course out of copyright. Meanwhile, in the next door gallery at the NPG you could take photos to your heart's content, even though all the works were in copyright. I suppose the argument is that some lenders insist on not allowing photography. In which case, major institutions like the NPG, which allow photography everywhere else in their galleries, should simply refuse to borrow from these lenders.

Curiously, the catalogue for the exhibition contains (as numbered catalogue entries) two oil sketches, one of which, attributed to Rubens, I have long wanted to see. But they were not included in the actual exhibition. I've never seen this before.

$1.6m Rockwell discovery

August 23 2017

Image of $1.6m Rockwell discovery

Picture: via ATG/Heritage Auctions

The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that an oil on paper study by Norman Rockwell, 'Tough Call', has sold in the US for $1.6m. At first it was believed by the vendors to be a print. More here.

Stolen de Kooning returns to US museum

August 23 2017

Video: UA Research

An abstract painting by Willem de Kooning which was stolen from the University of Arizona's museum of art in 1985 has been returned. 'Woman Ochre' turned up in a New Mexico antiques store this year after being bought at an estate sale. When the store owners realised it was a stolen de Kooning they immediately notified the museum.

In 1985 a man and woman (never caught) had cut it out of its frame. Confirmation that the painting in the antiques shop was indeed the stolen painting came when the original stretcher and the remains of canvas still on it were perfectly aligned with the rest of the canvas, as seen in the video above.

More in the New York Times.

National Gallery acquires £11.6m Bellotto

August 23 2017

Image of National Gallery acquires £11.6m Bellotto

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London has raised £11.6m to keep Bernardo Bellotto's 'The Fortress of Konigstein from the North' in the UK. It had been sold via Christie's to an overseas buyer. Says the NG's press release:

The National Gallery is very strong in 18th-century view paintings, however almost all of our works are of Italian sites. Bellotto’s 'The Fortress of Königstein from the North' is the first major 18th-century landscape at the National Gallery to depict a Northern European view, and so this acquisition creates a bridge between Northern and Southern European painting in the collection.

The painting, from the collection of the Earls of Derby, was first listed on the Arts Council's 'notification of intention to sell page' back in late 2014. The funds were raised from a number of sources:

The £11,670,000 acquisition has been made possible thanks to a generous legacy from Mrs Madeline Swallow, a £550,000 grant from Art Fund, contributions from the American Friends of the National Gallery and the National Gallery Trust, and the support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, the Manny and Brigitta Davidson Charitable Foundation, the Sackler Trust, and other individual donors, trusts, and foundations.

The paintings were first listed on the Arts Council site, and this normally means that the paintings were 'conditionally exempt' from some capital taxes. But the National Gallery's press release makes no mention on any contribution by the Treasury. So I'm not sure what this means. Maybe the tax was already paid at the point of sale. This would have had the net effect of making the paintings more expensive for the National Gallery to buy. IN which case, it's an even more remarkable feat of fundraising and institutional determination.

The painting is one of a series of five. I'm not sure what has happened to 'The Fortress of Konigstein from the South', but I believe it now remains in the Derby collection. The two others show the fortress with views of the courtyard (here and here) and belong to the Manchester Art Gallery. The fifth was sold to the National Gallery in Washington in 1993.

Update - a sharp-eyed reader writes:

If you notice the collection number for the work, the four previous numbers are missing from the on-line catalogue. So they have a further four new acquisitions to announce.


UK police's art unit under threat

August 20 2017

Image of UK police's art unit under threat

Picture: via TAN

Alarming news that the London Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit is under threat, after three detectives were transferred to the Grenfell Tower enquiry (the Tower burnt down in London earlier this year, leaving over 80 people dead). The unit was already small enough, but there are fears that the three staff might never be transferred back to art crime duties. More here from Martin Bailey in TAN.

Martin's piece tells us that the Metropolitan Police has something called the 'London Stolen Art Database', with details of 54,000 stolen items. But the website for this seems to no longer be functioning.

The lack of a worldwide, impartial, police-maintained database of stolen and looted art is one of the most serious challenges in the art world. Museums and the trade are forced instead to rely on private, for-profit enterprises like the Art Loss Register.

'Confessions of the Bolton Forger'

August 20 2017

Image of 'Confessions of the Bolton Forger'

Picture: Cheltenham Festivals

This looks interesting; the 'Bolton Forger', Shaun Greenhalgh, will be talking about his fakes with the great Waldemar at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday 13th October. More here

Me on Van Dyck!

August 20 2017

Image of Me on Van Dyck!

Picture: IG

Just a reminder that I'll be taking part in the Chatsworth Festival this September, with a talk on the life and art of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. I'm speaking at 10am on Sunday September 24th, and the festival itself starts on Friday 22nd. There are many excellent speakers, including Grayson Perry and Cornelia Parker. Alarmingly, my talk is going head to head with another by Marc Quinn, so I need all the help I can get, if you're minded to come. That said, my mother is convinced that nobody will come to my talk anyway, as 'they'll all be at church'.

There's better news with my Royal Academy course on connoisseurship; sold out! 

Sunflowers live!

August 20 2017

Video: National Gallery

I've written before about the success of the National Gallery's Facebook Live films. The latest saw the NG team up with four other galleries around the world to focus on Van Gogh's famous 'Sunflower' paintings. Above is the NG's film with the always excellent Chris Riopelle, while you can find links to the other four here

An amazing 1.5m people watched the films (or at least part of them). For the investment (the films are very simple to make, after all and can't cost more than a few hundred pounds, technically) this is an extraordinary RoI. 

Perspectives (ctd.)

August 20 2017

Video: NBC

I'll be writing more about the issue of Confederate monuments in the USA for The Art Newspaper, but in the meantime here is a good overview of the issues and the monuments in question. Above is a video of the removal of a memorial to Confederate soldiers in Raleigh Durham. What do AHNers think of whether these statues should be removed?

Restoring the Armada Portrait

August 20 2017

Video: NMM

The National Maritime Museum's recently acquired Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I has now been sent off for conservation. It will be away for six to nine months.

More about the picture here

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