Previous Posts: November 2017

'Salvator Mundi' - the most expensive artwork ever sold (ctd)

November 21 2017

Video: Christie's

Here are the edited highlights from the sale night. Christie's Jussi Pylkannen makes auctioneering look easy; it's anything but. And here he produced an auction performance for the ages. Bravo.

There's been a lot of comment on Christie's decision to put the picture in a contemporary art sale, rather than an Old Master sale. Many say that the sale was a 'triumph of marketing and branding', and that somehow the picture made an unjustified price, or that Christie's pulled a fast one. 

But Christie's made a conscious decision to turn its back on the politics  that can sometimes dominate an Old Master sale. Despite the scholarly acclaim that has greeted the Salvator Mundi, we've seen that if enough sceptical voices decry the picture, it can become 'disputed' - even if those voices lack the necessary authority to be cited as experts. We might call them 'neinsagers', after the phrase used by the art historian Max Friedlander:

As the 'No' man imagines that he stands above the 'Yes' man - and probably also to others to seem to stand higher - critics will always feel the impulse to attack genuine works in order to win the applause of the maliciously minded. The 'Yes' men have done more harm, but have also been of greater usefulness, than the rigorous 'no' men, who deserve no confidence if they never have proved their worth as 'Yes' men.

The view for your average major Old Master sale is full of 'neinsagers'. It can get quite nasty at times. And this was the atmosphere that Christie's decided to remove the Salvator Mundi - the most important Old Master to be sold in recent times - from entirely. Those in the business of selling Old Masters ought to reflect on this. 

Incidentally, for the last two years, the most expensive paintings sold in the world have been Old Masters (last year's being the Rothschild Rembrandts).

Virtual reality Bellotto and Canaletto

November 21 2017

Video: Sotheby's

Here's one of those fancy virtual reality art videos, this time on some Bellottos and Canalettos coming up in Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sales. 

New Constable discovery at Sotheby's (ctd.)

November 21 2017

Video: Sotheby's

I mentioned recently that Sotheby's would be offering a newly discovered Constable in December in London. Here's a video on the picture, which is an interesting addition to the oeuvre of auction house videos; there's no specialist interview or voiceover, just text and nicely shot images. I like it. 

'Conserving Michelangelo'

November 16 2017

Video: The Met

Here's a Met video on conserving a Michelangelo drawing. 

'Breaking news'

November 16 2017

Video: CBC

The Canadian broadcaster CBC went live last night to Christie's New York to cover the last $200 million. 

'Salvator Mundi restored'

November 16 2017

Video: The Guardian

The Guardian has made a time lapse video of the Salvator Mundi, from the images made available by Christie's in their catalogue. 

'Monet's personal collection'

November 16 2017

Video: Christie's


'Salvator Mundi' - the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction

November 16 2017

Image of 'Salvator Mundi' - the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art

It's 1am here in the UK and I've just witnessed the most extraordinary moment of auction drama at Christie's New York (via Facebook live). Leonardo's Salvator Mundi has sold for £400m hammer, or $450m with fees.

The lot was first announced as 'selling' at $80m, which I presume represents the level of the guarantee. Bidding was then brisk to the high $100ms, before, to audible gasps in the room, the picture broke through the $200m mark. Thereafter it was a battle between two phone bidders. The winning bidder kept making unilateral bids way above the usual bidding increments. Their final gambit was to announce, with the bidding at $370m, that their next bid was $400m. This finally knocked the competition out, and - after 19 minutes - the hammer came down. Whoever it was evidently has some serious cash to burn.

And so an Old Master painting has become the most expensive artwork ever sold. It will have completely overshadowed everything else in the sale. The next lot, a Basquiat (usually a high point for contemporary sales) bought in as the room buzzed with Leonardo chatter. Will the sale prompt people to now look anew at Old Masters? Maybe. It will surely end for good now the tired clicheé that the Old Master market is dead. 

Some immediate thoughts. First, the guarantor has made a few quid, and deserves it - guaranteeing that picture at this stage in its history (post rediscovery, and in the midst of an ugly legal battle between the vendor and his agent) was quite a risk. Second, the vendor - Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev - has made about $180m. He's in the midst of a legal battle with the person he bought the picture from, an art agent called Yves Bouvier, alleging that he was over-charged (it has been reported that Bouvier bought it from Sotheby's for about $80m, and sold it to Rybolovlev for about $125m - allegedly). I'm not sure how that over-charging allegation plays out now.

Third, Christie's just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly - the best piece of art marketing I've ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN congratulates them all. 

Finally, despite the fact that this picture enjoyed near universal endorsement from Leonardo scholars, and had a weight of other technical and historical evidence behind it, there was a tendency in many quarters to be sniffy about it. I found this puzzling - not just because (for what it's worth) I believed in the picture myself - since the determination amongst some to criticise the picture was in inverse proportion to their art historical expertise. It sometimes seems that the more famous the artist, the more people assume they are an expert in them. And with Leonardo being the most famous of them all, the armchair connoisseurs have been having a field day these last few weeks.

Anyway, I'm going to bed. What a ride. I was sure the picture would sell, but never imagined it would make this much. We must all now wonder where the picture is going to end up next. 

Re-discovered Lawrence portrait in Edinburgh

November 15 2017

Video: Lyon & Turnbull

The Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have an unfinished portrait of a young girl by Sir Thomas Lawrence in their next sale. It's an early work, and can be dated to c.1790. The estimate is £30k-£50k, and the catalogue entry is here. [Disclaimer, I'm on the board of L&T!]

Government review of UK museums

November 14 2017

Image of Government review of UK museums

Picture: DCMS

The UK government's Department for Culture has published a review into the nation's museums. It's called the Mendoza Review, and it's very disappointing. It's full of jargon (the dreaded "upskilling" features), and makes few useful and specific recommendations beyond urging institutions to 'work together' with each other and 'strategise'. Most worryingly of all, it ignores many elephants in the room: there is nothing meaningful on Brexit, nothing serious on how to get artworks out of storage and on display; and the problem of deaccessions from local authority museums is ignored. Perhaps a reason the report is so weak becomes clear when we look at the team behind it; they're almost all current or former museum employees. In other words, the report is entirely 'sector led'. What it really needed was some outside voices, not least someone to properly represent museum users.

I'll focus on three areas here briefly. First, the report appears to encourage a fresh look at deaccessioning. Here's an excerpt from page 45:

At the other end of the collections cycle is disposal or transfer. Many museums would like to rationalise their collections in an ethical way to improve collections management; make best use of the most important and interesting objects; and reduce pressure on storage. Guidance does exist on making appropriate disposals: the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics sets out strict guidelines55 and the process is governed by ACE’s Disposals Toolkit. Disposal or transfer is often prevented by lack of resources, acceptable process in the individual museum, or confidence: museums reported they would like explicit ‘permission’ to make disposals. The Review team suggests that museums should have an active programme of assessing and, where appropriate, rationalising their collections. [My italics]

The really bold thing would have been to explore how local authority collections should be nationalised, to prevent cash-strapped councillors selling local treasures.

Secondly, the report ignores one of the issues of concern to the art historical community at the moment - image reproduction fees. The only mention of these fees is a condoning reference to museums using them to raise revenue:

Digitised collections offer new opportunities for both research and commercial purposes. For research, digitisation offers the opportunity to look at metadata in new ways, link collections from disparate sources, and conduct new forms of analysis. Museum trading arms are increasing their use of digitised collections to generate income, for example, by licensing images from the collection, while also allowing free use for educational and research purposes. Art UK, an online centralised platform for art museum collections, is exploring how it can offer a licensing service to generate income for its members. 

Finally, the report appears to recommend that 'good cause' funding from the the Heritage Lottery Fund (which traditionally adheres to the principle of 'additionality'; that is, the money should only be in addition to regular government funding, not in place of it) should be reviewed:

HLF should focus its museums funding on capital projects with a significant impact, whether major transformation or much-needed repair of valuable buildings. It should consider how to interpret ‘additionality’ in the contemporary context where museums need to use investment to tackle buildings conservation and maintenance backlogs, attract and maintain new audiences, and generate new funding streams. 

Restitution news (ctd.)

November 13 2017

Image of Restitution news (ctd.)

Picture: Commission for Looted Art in Europe

Some impressive sleuthing by Anne Webber, the indefatigable co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, has led to the restitution of a painting by Jacob Ochtervelt. The picture, The Oyster Meal, was stolen by the Nazis in Holland in 1945, and ended up in the collection of the City of London. Mrs Charlotte Bischoff von Heemskerck (above), the 96 year old daughter of the picture's late owner, Dr. J. H. Smidt van Gelder - who was director of the Children’s Hospital of Arnhem, where the picture was stolen - received the picture personally. More here in The Times, and here on the Commission's website. 

More museums join the free image revolution (ctd.)

November 12 2017

Image of More museums join the free image revolution (ctd.)

Picture: via

Merete Sanderhoff, Senior Advisor of digital museum practice at the National Gallery of Denmark, is delighted (in this article on Medium) that so many of her museum's artworks have featured in a new Netflix show, set in the 1840s. The National Gallery of Denmark has of course made all of its out of copyright artworks free to use, in any context. 

Lost Mary Queen of Scots portrait found? (ctd.)

November 12 2017

Video: National Gallery of Scotland

This video explains more about the technical research project behind the discovery announced last month of a hidden portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. 

A Titian for the Rubenshuis

November 12 2017

Video: Rubenshuis, Antwerp

Did you know that there is only one Titian on public display in Belgium (here at the KMSKA)? That's about to change with the loan of Titian's 'Portrait of a Lady and her Daughter' to the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. The video above shows that the picture, an unfinished work by Titian, had once been overpainted, to alter the sitter into an angel.

Leonardo's 'Salvator Mundi' to be sold at Christie's (ctd.)

November 12 2017

Video: Christie's

I love this video of people seeing Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. Christie's say 20,000 have been to see the painting on its world tour. I've been impressed by how Christie's have marketed the picture - in fact, I'd say that they've taken marketing Old Masters to a whole new level. A well deserved AHN pat on the back to all involved. The sale is on Wednesday 15th November. Anyone care to make a prediction?


November 9 2017

Sorry for the lack of posts this last few days - the Deputy Editor has been unwell. On the mend; back in business next week.

UK art historians call for abolition of image fees (ctd.)

November 7 2017

Image of UK art historians call for abolition of image fees (ctd.)

Picture: The Times

The campaign to abolish image reproduction fees for out of copyright paintings, drawings and prints held by UK national collections has moved up a gear. In parliament, Lord Freyberg has tabled the following questions to the Department for Culture Media and Sport:


  • To ask Her Majesty's Government whether National Museums will review their imaging policies in the light of recent calls to abolish image fees for out of copyright paintings, prints and drawings.
  • To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the charging of image fees for academic use by National Museums on their use in academic lectures and publications.
  • To ask Her Majesty's Government whether National Museums will consider providing open access to images of publicly owned, out of copyright paintings, prints, and drawings so that they are free for the public to reproduce; and whether they have held discussions with non-UK museums about such access.
  • To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they sanction each National Museum's interpretation of image copyright law; and if not, what measures are in place to review whether National Museums are interpreting image copyright law correctly.
  • To ask Her Majesty's Government how much income was raised by each National Museum by licensing images of out of copyright works in the last five years.
  • To ask Her Majesty's Government how National Museums assess whether the image fees they charge for academic use are reasonable; and what representations they have made to academic communities to evaluate their fees.


The first answers should come in within a couple of weeks. It will be particularly interesting to see the government's response on the question of copyright. Although we believe that there are strong moral, educational and public policy reasons to make images free, the question of whether museums are actually entitled to charge for 'licensing' copyright to third parties is crucial to the whole system. If, as I strongly suspect, it turns out that they are not, then museums will be under significant pressure to end charges for out of copyright artworks.

I'll be writing a post about the copyright issue in more detail soon.

Meanwhile, Neil Jeffares has posted his letter to the British Art Journal on image fees, from 13 years ago. It's sad that there has been no movement on the issue from museums, despite the likes of Neil and the BAJ making such a convincing argument for so long. 

More museums join the free image revolution (ctd.)

November 6 2017

Image of More museums join the free image revolution (ctd.)

Picture: SMK

The National Gallery of Denmark has put images of its out of copyright artworks into the public domain. This means that, as the museum's website says;

[...] you have the right to:

  • Share the images – i.e. to copy, distribute, and transmit them.
  • Remix the images – i.e. modify and reuse them in new contexts.
  • Use the images in any context – e.g. teaching, research, lectures, publications, film productions, etc. This includes commercial purposes.

Bravo SMK!

UK art historians call for abolition of image fees

November 6 2017

Image of UK art historians call for abolition of image fees

Picture: Times

The Times today published a letter from a group of Britain's leading art historian - including Professors Martin Kemp, David Solkin and Simon Schama, the editors of The Burlington Magazine, the British Art Journal and Art History, as well as Pontus Rosen of the Association for Art History - calling for the UK's national museums to abolish image fees for out of copyright paintings, prints and drawings. The Times also ran a long story on the letter too, here. Here's the text of the letter and the list of signatories:

Dear Sir,

The fees charged by the UK’s national museums to reproduce images of historic paintings, prints and drawings are unjustified, and should be abolished. Such fees inhibit the dissemination of knowledge that is the very purpose of public museums and galleries. Fees charged for academic use pose a serious threat to art history: a single lecture can cost hundreds of pounds; a book, thousands.

Fees are also charged despite the fact that the artworks in question are not only publicly owned, but out of copyright (that is, made by artists who died more than 70 years ago). Museums claim they create a new copyright when making a faithful reproduction of a 2D artwork by photography or scanning, but it is doubtful that the law supports this. Museums' rules for using images are confusing and inconsistent, and do not raise meaningful funds once costs are taken into account. We urge the UK's national museums to follow the example of a growing number of international museums (such as Holland’s Rijksmuseum) and provide open access to images of publicly owned, out of copyright paintings, prints, and drawings so that they are free for the public to reproduce.

Yours sincerely, (in alphabetical order)

  • Hugh Belsey MBE, Senior Research Fellow, Paul Mellon Centre 
  • Diana Dethloff FSA, University College London 
  • Dr Rhoda Eitel-Porter, Editor, Print Quarterly
  • Professor Anthony Geraghty, University of York 
  • Sir Nicholas Goodison FBA, FSA 
  • Antony Griffiths FBA, Chairman, The Walpole Society
  • Dr Bendor Grosvenor
  • Michael Hall FSA, Editor, The Burlington Magazine 
  • James Holloway CBE, former Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 
  • Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times 
  • Professor Martin Kemp FBA, FRSE, University of Oxford 
  • Alex Kidson, independent art historian
  • Michael Liversidge FSA, FRSA, Emeritus Dean, Faculty of Arts, Bristol University 
  • Dr Matt Lodder, University of Essex 
  • Dr Thomas Marks, Editor, Apollo
  • Dr Alexander Marr, FSA, FRHistS, University of Cambridge 
  • Dr Dorothy Price FSA, University of Bristol, Editor, Art History 
  • Dr Janina Ramirez, University of Oxford 
  • Dr Jacqueline Riding, author and independent art historian
  • Dr Malcolm Rogers CBE FSA, Director Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
  • Pontus Rosén, CEO, Association for Art History 
  • Professor Simon Schama CBE FRSL, Columbia University 
  • Dr Katherine Schofield, King’s College London 
  • Dr Robin Simon FSA, Editor, The British Art Journal 
  • Professor David Solkin FBA, Courtauld Institute of Art 
  • Dr Richard Stephens FSA
  • Dr Duncan Thomson, former Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery
  • Professor Michael White, Head of History of Art, University of York

The letter was organised by myself and Dr Richard Stephens; we are very grateful to all those who signed. I've no doubt we could have got many more signatories. I hope that the list of names here gives museums serious pause for thought on this vitally important issue. 

In The Times, Tate gave a very defensive, if interesting response:

The Tate said that it allows free non-commercial use of low-resolution images, and offers subsidised rates for high-resolution images for non- commercial use. “There are significant costs to Tate for creating authoritative images of works in the collection, both in the preparation of artwork to be photographed and in post-production of the photograph,” a spokeswoman said. “We recover some of these costs through our licensing activities but not all.”

Which is interesting, because normally institutions say they have to charge fees to raise revenue. So here it seems Tate are saying that their licensing operation actually costs them money. I'd love to know how many staff they employ to check which author has requested which print run, and whether the image will be a 1/4 page or a half page and so on. A Freedom of Information request will hopefully flush this out. Also, Tate's response would appear to suggest that they are passing all their photography costs onto the licensing operation, when of course having a decent photograph of an object is one of the basic requirements of collection care. Many departments within a museum will make use of images; conservation, marketing, online. But Tate seems not to share the cost of photography equally around the museum. Finally, you don't have to look far to discover that the vast majority of Tate's online images were paid for long ago - by a grant of public money. 

But - watch this space. Tate are reviewing their image licensing policy in January 2018. We have just a couple of months to keep the pressure up, and achieve something really vital to the cause of art history.

Update - the British Museum were also quoted in The Times saying that providing photos was an expensive business. To which an informed source replies:

I thought it was a bit rich for the British Museum to state that the cost of making the images was so high since a huge number of these (notably their British print collection) was paid for with a grant of £500,000 from the Paul Mellon Centre awarded back in 2011.

Update II - via Twitter, an instance of the craziness of the current situation, faced by a PhD student at Cambridge:

More museums join the free image revolution

November 5 2017

Image of More museums join the free image revolution

Picture: Mauritshuis

Exciting news that the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Mauritshuis in The Hague have made images of out of copyright artworks in their collection free to reproduce. The images are downloadable online in high resolution formats, and you can use them in any way you like. Brilliant. AHN applauds both institutions.

You can read more about the Mauritshuis' decision here on Europeana. And an article on Medium by Shelley Bernstein of The Barnes' reasoning makes an unarguable case in favour of more museums following their lead:

Providing open access to collection objects is a vital step in moving the institution forward in our digital world [...] 

[...] it was critical that we promote downloads and sharing whenever possible — the result will mean that many more people can use these images — wherever they please — and that opens the institution up for even greater awareness which will help promote greater access, especially with the new audiences we are now seeking to develop.

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