Previous Posts: February 2017

Getty seeks to buy major Parmigianino (ctd.)

February 10 2017

Image of Getty seeks to buy major Parmigianino (ctd.)

Picture: ACE

When I mentioned last year the Getty's intended purchase of a wonderful Madonna by Parmigianino (above) there was no value given. 'In the tens of millions' I speculated, and today the case notes for the export licence hearing have been published, giving the value at £24.5m. The notes seem to confirm that (unlike the case of the recent Pontormo) the Getty has not paid for the painting already, and that the sale is therefore dependent on an export licence. The painting comes from Sudeley Castle, where it used to hang over a door (as below).

Will a UK institution be interested in buying the picture? One would imagine that there are certain tax incentives here, with perhaps a 'discount' of 40% on the £24.5m if the painting has been conditionally exempt from inheritance tax. 

The case notes also reveal that the painting is on paper, something not previously known.

'How to Find a Lost Brueghel'

February 10 2017

Image of 'How to Find a Lost Brueghel'

Picture:  Holburne Museum

I'll be giving a talk at the Holburne Museum in Bath on discovering lost pictures. The lecture is part of the museum's exhibition: Bruegel - Defining a Dynasty. One of the star exhibits of the exhibition is a re-discovered Breughel the Younger, Wedding Dance, which was identified by the Holburne's director Jennifer Scott. So we'll be discussing how such pictures are found, and what else might be out there.

The lecture is at 7pm on March 23rd. I hope to see some of you there! More details here.

UK government art collection to open new museum

February 10 2017

Image of UK government art collection to open new museum

Picture: TAN

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that the UK's Government Art Collection (which provides art for places like 10 Downing Street) is to open a new exhibition space. Great news. Inevitably, though, it's going to be in London. Why? This was a great opportunity to move more art into the regions. More here.

'Art market slump worsens'

February 10 2017

Image of 'Art market slump worsens'

Picture: via wikiart

So reports Kelly Crow in the Wall Street Journal:

The art market sank into a deeper slump last year, with London-based auction house Christie’s International PLC saying Wednesday it sold £4 billion, or $5.4 billion, of art last year, a 27% decline from a year earlier—and a 36% drop from the market’s peak two years ago.

Christie’s total included $4.4 billion in auction sales, down 32% from the year before. The drop was partly offset by a boost in privately brokered art sales, as more collectors sought to sell their art discreetly rather than risk putting pieces up for public bid. Christie’s sold $935.5 million privately, up 10% from a year earlier.

Rival Sotheby’s, based in New York, auctioned $4.1 billion last year, down 30% from the year before. Sotheby’s will release its consolidated sale totals later this month. Boutique house Phillips said it auctioned $500 million in art last year, down 1.5% from 2015, and privately sold an additional $67.8 million of art.

I love the way 'boutique' has replaced the word 'small' in commercial terms. Can I call myself a 'boutique dealer'? Certainly, some days I feel like a boutique blogger.

Anyway, there's no denying some of the heat has been taken out of the higher end of the art market. This is surely a Good Thing, and lessens the possibility of the bubble bursting. A slow and controlled deflation, if not stability, is in most people's interests. With all the news of Chinese buyers making strong bids for top works (e.g. the sale reported yesterday of Oprah's Kilmt for $150m) many will be hoping they're not the ones left standing when the music stops, as the Japanese were in the 1980s. Still, there are enough threats to the world economy at the moment to mean we can't be sure of anything anymore (Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, protectionism).

But before we end on too gloomy a note, look at this! Also from the WSJ article:

Sales perked up in other areas, though. Christie’s sales of Old Master paintings, along with 19th-century art and Russian art, grew 31% to $312 million. 

These three areas are the ones that have been most eagerly written off by commentators over the last few years. The pendulum swings...

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

February 9 2017

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

In her coverage of the new Sotheby's/Weiss Gallery lawsuit, Nina Siegal in the New York Times has a fascinating update on the case of the St Jerome once attributed to Parmigianino (above), after securing an interview with the vendor:

The sale price of the circle of Parmigianino work was $842,500, and Sotheby’s is demanding that Mr. de Saint Donat-Pourrières return the $672,000 profit he earned from the sale of the work, in keeping with the presale contract. He has so far refused to do so, saying that he is unconvinced by the scientific data provided by James Martin, who conducted the analysis for Sotheby’s.

“Nobody thought even once that it was a fake, nobody, nobody,” Mr. de Saint Donat-Pourrières said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “The best experts in the world have seen this painting over many years and nobody during that whole period thought it was a fake. Now, only Mr. Martin says that it’s a fake. Only him, nobody else. And all the other experts in the world are forgotten?”

Mr. Martin said that he took 21 paint samples from many different areas of the paint layer and found the 20th-century pigment throughout the work, including in areas of the painting that were never restored. “It’s a bit like taking the pulse of a corpse 21 times,” he said.

Update - Mr. de Saint Donat-Pourrières' defence does go straight to the heart of the matter for those involved. It must be really terrible to have unwittingly handled one of these alleged fakes. Imagine you are a dealer of many decades standing, well versed in how the Old Master market operates. You are presented with a painting, in Weiss' case the Hals, which has not only been 'accepted' by the relevant authorities as a Hals, but sung to the rafters by an institution like the Louvre. The picture had as clean a bill of health as it is possible to have. You buy it, find a buyer (in this case with Sotheby's help), and sell it. And then it all goes wrong. You, for the sin of only having bought the painting, are then faced with serious financial penalties. But the people who - arguably - really erred in all this, those who elevated the painting to the status of a Hals in the first place, face no sanction at all. Such are the risks art dealers face. I'm not saying there's anything bad about that - dealers in any commodity accept such risks, just as Sotheby's did, and acted on them. But in all this sad business we musn't lose sight of the unfortunate human consequences for those involved. 

Oprah flips a Klimt

February 9 2017

Image of Oprah flips a Klimt

Picture: Bloomberg

Bloomberg reports that the US TV star Oprah Winfrey has sold her Gustav Klimt to a Chinese buyer for $150m. It was bought at Christie's in 2006 for $87.9m. 

Van Dyck's coat of arms

February 9 2017

Image of Van Dyck's coat of arms


One of the blog items on the new Jordaens/Van Dyck panel paintings project (mentioned below) was a query about Van Dyck's coat of arms. The arms appear on a mid-17thC engraving by Paulus Pontius, which shows a self-portrait by Van Dyck, and Van Dyck's portrait of Rubens. The engraving was presented as showing the two 'knights' of Flemish painting (both were knighted by Charles I). But while the coat of arms of Rubens has always been confirmed, there was thought to be some doubt over whether Van Dyck's coat of arms is accurately represented.

In response to the JVD blog item, the art historian Karen Hearn tells us that the arms were confirmed by the herald Michael Siddons in his 2010 book The Heraldry of Foreigners in England 1400-1700. The registered arms were: 

ARMS: Quarters 1 & 4. Azure six roundels 3, 2 and 1 Or and for augmentation on a chief Gules a lion passant gardant Or. 2 & 3. Sable a saltire Or. Over all an inescutcheon Or thereon a bend sinister Azure.

CREST: A greyhound’s head.

Which matches the engraving.

(Boast: Regular readers may remember that the self-portrait shown in the engraving was re-discovered by yours truly a few years ago.)

The arms also appear on the frontispiece of Van Dyck's Iconography engraved by Jacques Neefs, which was published four years after his death.

Restitution news (ctd.)

February 9 2017

Image of Restitution news (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

The Max Stern restitution project has scored another success, this time with the help of FBI agents in New York, with the return of the above painting by Jan Franse Verzijl. The painting was entered into a forced sale in Dusseldorf in 1936 by the Nazis. More here

Art market transparency (ctd.)

February 8 2017

Image of Art market transparency (ctd.)

Picture: Bloomberg

Poor old Yves Bouvier! The art dealer and free port owner, who allegedly made about $50m in less than a day by 'flipping' Leonardo's Salvator Mundi to his client (the Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev) says nobody takes him seriously any more. Bloomberg has an interview with him:

Bouvier says there was no broker-client relationship between the two men and that Rybolovlev was merely a good repeat customer who willingly paid top dollar. Bouvier says that as a result of the hit to his reputation he’s foregone “many hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue from art deals in each of the past two years as his networks dried up, leaving him with "insignificant" revenue from dealing art.

“Today, I can no longer discreetly buy a painting,” said Bouvier, 53, dressed in jeans and a blue-and-gray merino wool hoodie, after tucking into a lunch of leeks, steak tenderloin and fries at Geneva’s Hotel Kempinski. “Before, if I wanted to buy a canvas, people dealt with me normally. Now, after what’s happened, they’re twice as difficult to negotiate with or they don’t even want to negotiate with me because they’re afraid.”

Mona Lisa theory no. 768

February 8 2017

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 768

Picture: Guardian

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones wonders if syphilis explains 'that famous smile'.

I think a sharp attack of clickbait is more likely.

Money laundering and the art market

February 8 2017

Image of Money laundering and the art market

Picture: Christie's

The allegation that the art market is a magnet for money laundering is often made - but with precious little hard evidence. Marion Maneker looks at the latest allegations, and why they're wrong, over on Art Market Monitor.

This is not to say, of course, that the art market is whiter than white in all other areas; far from it. 

Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

February 8 2017

Image of Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

The Wall Street Journal kindly asked me to write an op-ed on Brexit and the UK art market. More here.

Met images go free

February 7 2017

Image of Met images go free

Picture: Met

The Metropolitan Museum has made its iamges free to use under a wikimedia commons licence. Bravo. More here

Jordaens and Van Dyck panel paintings project

February 7 2017

Image of Jordaens and Van Dyck panel paintings project


Here's something I've been excited about for a while; a new research project on the panel paintings of both Jordaens and Van Dyck. As is so often the case, there is so much we can learn about the materials on which artists like Van Dyck and Jordaens painted, especially when in Antwerp, where we often find detailed panel marks that can further help us with dating. 

The project will now begin:

systematically studying the oil paintings on oak panels by Jacques Jordaens (1593-1678) and Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). A comprehensive dendrochronological survey and the recording and collating of the Antwerp panel makers’ and Guild brand marks on the reverse of the panels, combined with new archival research and traditional art historical scholarship, will throw new light on these artists, their oeuvres and painting on wood panels in the 17th century.

Its results and findings will be made accessible for the widest possible audience through the JVDPPP website and the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History databases. Its archival research will be translated into English, as will out of copyright articles on Van Dyck and Jordaens originally published in German, French and Dutch. The project includes the creation of a unique database of the 1,000 Flemish panel makers’ marks collected by Prof. em. Dr. Jørgen Wadum over the course of his career.

The team behind the project are:

Dr. Joost Vander Auwera, Co-Founder & Project Leader

Drs. Justin Davies, Co-Founder & Research Fellow

Dr. Johannes Edvardsson, Dendrochronologist

Prof. em. Dr. Jørgen Wadum, Panel marks consultant

Sotheby's sues vendor of fake Hals

February 7 2017

Image of Sotheby's sues vendor of fake Hals

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's has filed a lawsuit against Mark Weiss, the london-based dealer, seeking the return of monies paid after the sale of a painting by Frans Hals, which was subsequently declared a fake. The painting was sold by Sotheby's in 2011 on behalf of Weiss in a private treaty sale for a reported $10m. But after doubts grew over the painting's former owner, Giulano Ruffini, Sotheby's commissioned a full technical analysis of the painting, and this found that the painting was a modern forgery. More background here.

As is the case in any consignment with a major auction house, the sale contract states that should a sale collapse (over something like authenticity) then the consignor must return the funds. Sotheby's has already refunded the buyer of the painting, Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen. The case against Weiss is in the English High Court, and follows a similar case filed in a US court against the consignor of a St Jerome, attributed to the Circle of Parmigianino, which was sold by Sotheby's in 2012. That painting had also, like the Hals, once been owned by Ruffini.

Sotheby's put out a statement about the new legal action:

Today, Sotheby's issued proceedings against Mark Weiss, Mark Weiss Limited and Fairlight Art Ventures LLP (an investment vehicle of David Kowitz), for the recovery of sums paid following the sale of the counterfeit Frans Hals painting "Portrait of a Gentleman" in 2011.

When we learned last year that the painting originated from Giuliano Ruffini, we commissioned an in-depth technical analysis which established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery and we rescinded the sale and reimbursed the buyer in full. 

The technical analysis was conducted by Orion Analytical, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, and was peer reviewed by John Twilley, another leading conservation scientist.  In light of Sotheby’s recent acquisition of Orion Analytical, Sotheby’s has now engaged Dr. Ashok Roy, former Director of Collections and Director of Science, National Gallery in London.

While we always prefer to settle matters without legal action, the sellers have refused to make good on their contractual obligations and we have been left with no other option than to take appropriate action to enforce our rights.  

As the matter is now before the English High Court, Sotheby's has no further comment.

The decision to hire Ashok Roy as an independent specialist to study the Hals is presumably in response to some criticism that has been made by Ruffini's lawyer, in the New York Times, that Orion Analytical's findings are somehow tainted by the fact that Sotheby's bought the company after the Hals tests were announced. I must say I find this logic extremely hard to follow, since you'd imagine that if there were to be any conflict of interest it would be the other way around; pressure to declare the painting genuine. And that presumes that any of the parties involved would be prepared to make such decisions or exert such pressue anyway.

It's interesting to see that Sotheby's are also suing David Kowitz. Kowitz has been a longstanding client of Weiss, as set out in this article in the FT from 2010. Presumably in this case Kowitz has also been acting as Weiss' business partner. 

Mark Weiss still believes the picture is by Hals; here it is on the notable sales page of his website. He has responded with a statement to the Antiques Trade Gazette:

A statement from Weiss said that when the sale of the painting was made in 2011 it was "widely believed by all the leading connoisseurs to be a work by Frans Hals". Weiss and his advisors argue further testing should be carried out "before the assertion that this work is a modern fake can be definitively made".

The statement said Sotheby’s has "repeatedly refused to allow Weiss’s experts access to the painting to carry out the further tests."

However Sotheby's said the painting was with the "experts Mr. Weiss had instructed for a four month period and was subject to extensive testing by them. Mr. Weiss later suggested that additional tests be conducted by a new group of conservators, but Sotheby’s concluded that none of these further tests would change its conclusion”.

The Weiss statement said he "intends to contest the claim vigorously".

Presumably this means we can look forward to another High Court trial about the authenticity of an Old Master painting. The most recent one, about the supposed Caravaggio Card Sharps, was fascinating, but eye-wateringly expensive for both sides. 

As ever, the usual caveats apply here; there is no evidence that anyone involved in selling or handling these paintings knew at the time that they were or might be fake, and no suggestion that anyone acted anything other than diligently and honestly.

All change at the Vatican Museum

February 7 2017

Image of All change at the Vatican Museum

Picture: Washington Post

There's a good piece in the Wall Street Journal on the plans of Barbara Jatta (above), the new director of the Vatican Museums. First we learn that the museum makes a profit of some €40m a year, but that thankfully Jatta has plans to do something about the vast crowds that line the visitor route:

At the height of the summer tourist season, as many as 28,000 people walk through the Sistine Chapel and the rooms in the Apostolic Palace decorated with frescoes by Raphael in the course of a day. In the Sistine Chapel alone, dust left by visitors over the course of a year—much of it the accumulation of microscopic bits of human hair and skin—takes weeks to remove in an annual cleaning, Ms. Jatta said.

To minimize the damage such crowds inflict on the works of art and improve the visitors’ experience, the museums have installed new energy-saving LED lighting in the Raphael rooms and will soon install new air conditioning systems there, following a similar light-and-air project undertaken in 2014 in the Sistine Chapel.

Working with tour guides and the companies responsible for a large proportion of the visitors, Ms. Jatta hopes to spread out the flow to make the experience in those areas less stressful for people and the artworks themselves.

That means getting people to spend more time in lesser-known parts of the museum complex, including the Etruscan Museum, one of the most valuable collections of artifacts from that ancient Italian civilization. A large elevator will be installed to facilitate access to that museum, which in addition to the glories of its collection, boasts a 360-degree panorama of Rome.

Who'll buy £30m Pontormo portrait? (ctd.)

February 6 2017

Image of Who'll buy £30m Pontormo portrait? (ctd.)

Picture: DCMS

The saga of the Pontormo portrait continues. The US owner of the painting, financier Tom Hill, has rejected a 'matching offer' from the National Gallery to buy the painting for £30.7m (reports Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper). He bought the painting for that amount two years ago. But Hill's argument is that because of the fall in the value of the pound since, he would be nursing a $10m loss if he were to accept the offer.

Therefore, two things will happen next. First, the painting will stay in the UK. The rules state that if a matching offer is declined, no new export licence can be applied for within ten years. Second, there will be more calls to amend the export licence system.

On the first; it's clear that the export licence system has done its work. It is not designed primarily to make it easier for UK museums to buy things. It is designed to make sure important works of art cannot go overseas without a UK buyer first having an opportunity to stop that happening.

On the second; evidently some changes need to be made, but there is no case for drastic changes. The system broadly works (see above). What does need to be looked at is the effective 'penalty' for overseas owners who subsequently renege on their commitment to accept a matching offer. (As the system works at the moment, in order to apply for an export licence you have to commit to accepting a matching offer, otherwise a licence is refused, and the painting must stay in the UK for at least ten years.) I expect very shortly that the ten year period will be extended. Clearly, we cannot have a situation where museums and bodies like the Art Fund spend months heroically raising money, for it to all be in vain.

And what of Mr Hill now? Personally, I can understand his dilemma. Why should he be compelled to accept a $10m loss? He saw a painting, loved it and bought it. We cannot criticise him for doing what he can to keep it. And according to The Art Newspaper he has said that it is available for public display in the UK.

That said, I don't think Mr Hill has necessarily been well advised in this case. It was unusual to pay the £30.7m up front, before an export licence was actually completed. Usually, buyers make an offer subject to an export licence being granted. Which means that the question of currency fluctations would never come into it. Furthermore, the decision to pay up front meant that a UK institution could not enjoy the tax breaks usually provided in such situations; the seller, the Earl of Caledon, had a number of tax liabilities on the painting, and in normal circumstances the Treasury is able to write these off if the painting is bought by a public institution. (Subsequently, in a special deal, the Treasury did grant the National Gallery the equivalent amount, some £19m. It was one of the last actions of George Osborne).

The suspicion must be that the sale of the Pontormo to Mr Hill was structured in such a way as to make it more difficult that a matching offer would be made by a UK institution. And if that is the case, then nobody can blame the government for wanting to look at the export licensing system again.

Update - a reader writes:

Is it not indeed good news that the primary purpose of the UK’s art export licensing system has been achieved - retaining the Pontormo in this country?  And at no cost to the taxpayer too!

But how odd, if the Art Newspaper has quoted accurately, that the NG has no plans at this time to request a loan of it.  For free.

Update II - another reader, a financier himself, writes:

After all the hard work form HM Treasury, the HLF and the Art Fund the outcome of this case is deeply frustrating although I am not sure we should feel too sorry for Mr Hill. 

As a hedge fund manager I think we can assume he would have been cognisant of the exchange rate risk.  Indeed, when he agreed to accept a matching offer for the painting it must have been tempting to think of it as a one way bet with two highly attractive outcomes.  Outcome 1 - no matching offer is forthcoming and Mr Hill keeps the painting.  Option 2 - a matching offer is made and stronger Sterling (following a probable Yes vote in the referendum) leads to an exchange gain.  In such circumstances It would be interesting to know if Mr Hill would have accepted a lower sterling price if he was now $10m better off.

Sadly the unexpected referendum result wrong footed many people, Mr Hill included, and for now the Pontormo sits in storage, a hapless victim of Brexit.

Update III - the Financial Times has more on the story here

Update IV - another reader writes:

You continue to argue that we have the best heritage protection system in the world. If a key objective of the system is the long-term preservation of the UK's heritage I just don't think this is supported by the evidence.

I calculated the outcomes for all of last year's deferrals. We should remember that most object are exported without ever being considered by the Committee. They recommend a deferral only where in their expert view pretty tough criteria one what is important enough to save are met.

In 9 cases objects were purchased through matching offers with a total value of about  £6.5 million. In 6 cases, with combined values of about £37 million, no effort was made to raise matching funds and items were exported. The fairly shocking figure is that in four cases, with a combined value of around £71 million, efforts to raise matching funds looked like being successful and the owners either rejected the offer or withdrew their application when it became clear that one would be made. 

Each year is different, but it has consistently been the case that the system is quite good at saving items of local interest and modest value, but does not prevent the export of items of international significance and consequent higher values in more than 90% of cases . A very small proportion of objects valued at £10 million or more are saved. This is because UK institutions have very modest funding and major UK philanthropists are largely a figment of the government's imagination. It therefore takes an extraordinary effort - most often led by the Art Fund - to raise the amount needed to save something of international significance. They know that if they launched a campaign for everything important most campaigns would end in failure, making it harder to get people to buy into the next campaign. When it comes to expensive works, they therefore only launch a campaign in rare cases for very special things.

Last year for the three most expensive export barred items they launched a campaign for, the exporter waited until it was clear they would succeed and then withdrew or just dishonoured their commitment to accept an offer. This happened in relation to more than 90% by value of what they raised money for - the Pontormo case is not unique - it is becoming the norm. The system was already failing to a very large extent in relation to major, and therefore expensive, items. The increasing tendency for exporters to game the system - let people try to raise money and then pull out if they succeed - means the system should now be assessed as being altogether broken. Reform is needed - at the very least to make the commitment to accept a matching offer legally binding and irrevocable once a hearing has taken place.

One last though. It seems to me quite important the V&A and/ or National Trust do make the effort to but the two Clive of India items bought by Qatar 10 years ago, which started the trend for buyers to renege on their promise to accept a matching offer. They have now been barred again - but if no matching offer is made this time it will send a further message to exporters that they might as well dishonour their commitments and have another go after 10 years.

First, I don't argue that the UK has the best heritage protection system in the world. I argue that it has the best export licence system in the world. The best heritage protection system would be one that refuses point blank to let any heritage item ever leave the country. They probably have something similar in North Korea. But there the rights of private owners do not count for much either.

Second, the 'truly shocking' case of the four works worth £71m having their export licences withdrawn is, I would suggest, not shocking at all. Yes, it's a shame that some organisations had their fundraising work dashed. But the point is that those four paintings have stayed in the UK, and for free.

'Swindlers all around'

February 6 2017

Image of 'Swindlers all around'

Picture: TAN

News that the FSB in Russia (today's KGB) has raided the Hermitage's storage building highlights just how difficult it is to work in Russia's museum sector. The Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, says there are 'swindler's all around'. More here

UK museum visitors decline

February 6 2017

Image of UK museum visitors decline

Picture: DCMS

There's some anxiety in the press about the 'first decline in museum visitor attendance in almost a decade. More here in The Guardian and here on the BBC. There has been some wild speculation about terrorism.

AHN says; chill out. The overall decline is of 1.4m visitors compared to last year, and reflects only the 15 museums funded directly by the government. The 1.4m number is mostly accounted for by a decline in visitors to Tate, as the above graph shows. Having checked figures from previous years, the Tate's visitor numbers do fluctuate more than most museums, and this I think we can put down to the success and frequency of their blockbuster shows like Matisse. There's been a small decline in National Gallery visitors, but this cancels out a comparable rise from the year before.

Update - a reader points out that much of the NG's decline must be due to the strike action that led to so many room closures. 

The decline in attendance was about sixty percent at Tate, especially the Tate Modern which was coming off a record year fueled by the Matisse Cutouts exhibition, and about forty percent at The National Gallery which was affected by many weeks of strikes affecting both adult visitors and possibly causing the cancellation of many school groups.   

Unions should realize that strikes can affect revenues and thereby their members’ future employment and thefunds available for salaries and benefits.

Lutes & Old Masters

February 6 2017

Image of Lutes & Old Masters

Picture: NG

If you like lutes and Old Masters, and who wouldn't, then in April my friend Adam Busiakiewicz is doing a talk at the National Gallery on why the instrument features in so many great paintings. It's free and on 26th April. More here

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