Previous Posts: July 2018

Michael Jackson at the NPG

July 20 2018

Video: NPG

When Nicholas Cullinan became director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, he promised us some interesting changes. His new exhibition at the NPG - and I mean really 'his', for Cullinan has curated this one himself - is all about Michael Jackson. The NPG hails it as 'the exhibition of the year', which I suspect it isn't, though many critics seem to lie it. The Great Waldemar did, here. On the other hand, the Evening Standard gives it two stars, and calls it 'confused'.

I don't need to go into why Jackson was a controversial figure. But I see in the credits of the video above that the exhibition is produced "with the co-operation of the Michael Jackson Estate". I wonder whether the National Portrait Gallery felt sufficiently able to demonstrate any critical distance from its subject. I must wait to see the show, but the video above, as well as the Gallery's online text, suggests not.

The show is on until 21st October. 

Weenix catalogue raisonné

July 20 2018

Video: Spy Newspapers of Maryland

Did you know that there's a new two volume catalogue raisonné on the works of the father and son artists, Jan Baptist Weenix & Jan Weenix? It's written by Dr Anke Van Wagenberg, who is also Chief Curator at the Academy Art Museum in Maryland, and in the video above she is talking a little about the Weenixs' career. Says the publisher:

This book fills a gap in art history and throws new light on the appreciation of Dutch art. Since 2004, hundreds of paintings have been documented as either Weenix I or Weenix II. For centuries, attributions had been confused because of the two artists’ similar subject choices and (at least for a time) similar style. Following the death of his father (and teacher), Jan gradually changed his style to conform to the more courtly taste of the late 17th and early 18th century.

This first ever published monograph on Jan Baptist Weenix and his son Jan Weenix includes over 500 paintings.

You can order the book here, or on Amazon here. It looks to be well worth it for the very reasonable price of €95, or £85. Normally these catalogues can cost hundreds of pounds.

Of course, anyone who writes such a fantastic resource as a catalogue raisonné is automatically enrolled as an AHN 'Hero of Art History'; bravo Anke!   

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

July 20 2018

Video: National Gallery

Here's a new video from the National Gallery's head of conservation, Larry Keith, about how he and his team will be cleaning the Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait. It's excellent that the National Gallery is making this much effort to showcase their new acquisition, and especially that they're putting the focus on restoration. This is an area that really connects with new audiences, as it allows you a satisfying revelation as the old varnish comes off. It's why we make such a big deal of it in Britain's Lost Masterpieces, and why The Burlington stressed the importance of discussing paintings' condition in an editorial recently.  

'Rembrandt: Britain's discovery of the master' (ctd.)

July 19 2018

Image of 'Rembrandt: Britain's discovery of the master' (ctd.)

Picture: BG

There’s an excellent new exhibition on Rembrandt in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh; ‘Rembrandt: Britain’s discovery of the master'. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. It explores the history of collecting and admiring Rembrandt in Britain, from within his lifetime right up to the present day (even here, the now ubiquitous contemporary tack-on works well, and leaves us Rembrandt lovers with a rather triumphant demonstration of how his work still influences great artists, like Auerbach, today).

The exhibition covers everything from Rembrandt’s paintings, to his drawings, to his prints. The assembly of paintings is first class, and they look tremendous hung in the rooms of the Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound. The choice of drawings is really fascinating, and includes works with intriguing attributional issues, such as four drawings of scenes in Britain which have long been connected to Rembrandt, even though he very likely never came here. And the section on prints is equally interesting; it not only includes some of Rembrandt’s own best prints (including the famous ‘100 guilders print’ showing Christ Preaching) but also those by other artists who either admired him, or in some cases made forgeries in imitation. 

One such example was by Benjamin Wilson, who forged a Rembrandt landscape print in order to fool the artist Thomas Hudson. Hudson had outbid Wilson for a number of Rembrandt etchings in a London auction, and had also insulted him. So, to get his revenge, and to mock Hudson’s connoisseurship, Wilson made up a print and sold it to Hudson as a Rembrandt. He triumphantly inscribed a second state of the print; ‘A proof print from this plate, designed and etched by B Wilson, was sold as a very fine Rembrandt to one of the Greatest connoisseurs for Six Shillings, the 17 April 1751’.

What I liked most about the show was its unapologetic celebration of one person's artistic genius. In an age when many academic art historians tell us that 'value judgements' are the discipline's cardinal sin, to say nothing of the belief that attribution doesn't matter, this is refreshing. Because the focus was on why collectors in Britain admired Rembrandt, the exhibition consisted of excellent examples of Rembrandt’s work, told us why they were excellent, and how people acted on that excellence. Nor was there any hint of the pretentious art history guff we sometimes see in major Old Master exhibitions. AHN cannot praise the show's curator, Dr Tico Seifert, enough.

As an evangelist for both Old Masters and Scotland, I was of course keen to tell AHNers and others about the show, in the hope of enticing some of you to Edinburgh (the show runs until 14th October). So, as we so often do these days, I wanted to take some photos in the show, both as an aide-memoir, but also to post images on here, and also on Twitter. But alas. No sooner had I taken out my phone, to take a snap of The Holy Family at Night (’The Cradle’) attributed to the workshop of Rembrandt (more on this soon), than an energetic room warden marched over, saying photography was not allowed, and waving his arms in front of the camera (see above). He then said I had to delete the photos I’d just taken. I agreed to stop taking photos, but declined to delete anything. A lady with a radio then appeared and kept a watchful eye on me. Dr Bendor Grosvenor; famous threat to the safety of Old Masters. 

Regular readers will know that I’m a champion of both photography in galleries, and the abolition of museum image reproduction fees. So I decided to tweet the photo of the guard’s hand in front of ‘The Cradle’. It seems to have caught on, and by the end of the day I was on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme (which you can listen to here, I'm on at 12 minutes in). The next morning, the photo appeared in The Telegraph, as part of a long story on the rights and wrongs of taking photographs in museums.

It seems hard to believe now that it was only in 2014 that the National Gallery in London allowed photography in its main galleries. But still the norm is for temporary exhibitions to ban photography. I think it’s time this changed. First, the problem is that most museum visitors now understand that photography is allowed, and we snap away avidly at things we want to share, or record. So it comes as something of a shock when we reach for our camera in a different part of the museum, but are immediately shouted at. 

Why is there a photography ban in temporary exhibitions still? In the Telegraph, the Scottish National Gallery gave the following statement:

“Photography is usually not permitted in special exhibitions which include works that do not belong to NGS. This is primarily because many lenders (private and public) understandably require us to restrict or ban photography of the works that they have entrusted to our care. 

Why ‘understandably’? If as a lender you take the decision to lend a work of art to an exhibition, you are clearly happy for it to be viewed by the public. I don’t really see why you should then want to ban people from taking a photo of it. In fact, the reason photography is banned is largely to do with the pernicious business of image reproduction fees. Museums who try to make money from selling images of their artworks need above all to restrict people’s ability to take their own photos of those artworks. And because an exhibition like the Rembrandt show in Edinburgh contains works from galleries with varying rules on photography and image reproductions, a lowest common denominator approach is enforced. If one lender wants to ban photography, then it’s banned in the whole exhibition. (The irony is that in my case, the painting I was trying to photograph belonged to the Rijksmuseum, who are entirely relaxed about photography and image use.)

The end result is unsettled visitors, room guards who spend much of their time shouting at visitors, and, most seriously of all, a dramatic limitation on museums’ ability to market their exhibitions. These days, because almost all exhibition visitors have a smartphone in their pocket, each of us has the potential to be a mini marketing machine on behalf the museum. Every time we share a photo of an exhibition, we can encourage people to visit that show. This is particularly important for engaging new audiences. A recent survey by Tate found that for young people, the top two drivers for getting them to visit an art exhibition was ‘word of mouth’ at 37% and social media at 25%. The more traditional ways of exhibition marketing, such as adverts, barely even registered with young people. 

And it’s not as if museums aren’t beginning to accept this. Just before the Rembrandt exhibition, I was contacted by the Scottish National Gallery’s new ‘Digital Content and Social Coordinator’. They wanted 'to meet with people such as yourself who engage across a wide network on social media.’ I responded that I was glad to meet and to help do my bit to spread the word. But I literally cannot do that if photography is banned. Of course, if I’d gone to the press preview of the exhibition, or even the private view (though they don’t invite me to the those), I would have been allowed to snap away to my heart’s content. But for ordinary exhibition-going folk it’s a different story. Even though the likes of AHNers would be the best kind of word of mouth marketers for the exhibition. 

I think it’s time for those organising exhibitions to be more muscular with potential lenders, especially when it comes to putting on shows in museums which already allow photography. They need to say, we’re a public gallery, putting on a public exhibition in the 21st Century, and if you don’t want to allow people to take photos, then we’ll borrow a work from elsewhere. Museums need to stop being paranoid that those taking photos of paintings are going to make a fortune by launching their own range of tea towels. I said on Radio 4 that there was a touch of the Gollum about too many museums these days; they view their artworks as ‘their precious’, even though they’re public institutions. This whole way of thinking needs to change if museums are going to be able to thrive with new audiences in the digital age.

But that’s enough about marketing. There are many other reasons we might want to take photos in an exhibition like the Rembrandt show. In the Telegraph article, Sir Simon Schama told us why he needs to take photos:

“They can be fantastic research tools if you want to see how the paint lies on the painting. I do that all the time. Then you have a photo archive to work with. You can see it in much more detail than on an online picture.”

I find it’s also useful to be able to make a record of things like frames, and picture hangs in exhibitions, none of which we find in exhibition catalogues. I also find it really useful to take photos of accompanying wall labels. In the Rembrandt exhibition, the wall labels are superb. In fact, because the exhibition catalogue in this case is (very sadly) not a traditional one with each artwork getting an entry, and is instead a series of essays, there is far more information available on the wall labels than in the catalogue. For example, the full story of the Benjamin Wilson forgery I mentioned at the top of this post is only very briefly mentioned in the catalogue. And then there is the quality of the reproductions in the catalogue, which are very poor. Finally, although some art historians might sniff at it, it is actually possible to trigger new debates and research leads through sharing images online. We don't have to do everything through peer reviewed articles that hardly anybody reads. Let's take our subject online, and make it accessible to all.

I’ll write more about some of the exhibits in the exhibition soon. But in the meantime, do go and see it if you can. 

The 'National Gallery 27'

July 16 2018

Video: National Gallery 27

The National Gallery in London is being sued by a group of lecturers, who say they were unfairly dismissed and discriminated against. It's not the most straightforward case, but I think the crux of it is this: the lecturers (there are 27 of them) say they were directly employed by the National Gallery. But when earlier this year the National Gallery sought to re-organise the education department, the lecturers were treated as freelance employees, and summarily and unfairly dismissed. So the legal case is about first addressing their unfair dismissal, and also about forcing the National Gallery to recognise that they had always been direct employees, and therefore entitled to all the usual in-work benefits that employees get (such as holiday time, employee rights, and so on).

The case has been covered today in The Guardian, and the Financial Times. But I think a good summary of the case is on the lecturers' crowdfunding page (they need to raise £65,000 to fund their campaign):

We are asking to be recognised as employees (and at a minimum  ‘workers’), and not self-employed. We are bringing a case of unfair dismissal and claim that the National Gallery has discriminated against members of our group, in respect to longevity of service, sex and age. We have rights to consultation and retrospective holiday pay.

Despite the day-to-day reality of our integrated working relationship, the National Gallery insists we were self employed. We have been denied the protection and rights we were due as employees or workers.  

We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes. We were required to attend staff training and team meetings and received formal reviews of our work. But we had no job security or employment rights, including holiday pay and sick pay.

The Gallery has shown no interest in conciliation, despite our attempts to raise concerns personally with the Director and senior staff. It is with disappointment and sadness that their behaviour has led us to this point of bringing a legal claim.

The Gallery has replaced our large group of long-serving educators with a small number of in-house educator roles on greatly reduced salary and terms, to which we do not consent.

In response, the National Gallery has said:

"The Gallery has been issued with a number of different claims from a number of freelance workers who have been providing a range of different services for the Gallery (and other museums and galleries across London) on an ad hoc basis for a number of years.

It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the Gallery's wish to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits. This change reflects the Gallery's strategy to develop our programmes to increasingly reach new audiences and make the most of digital technology to widen our engagement.

The entire group were consulted for their views together and individually over the change for a period of three months between October 2017 and January 2018. These jobs were offered to all of our existing freelance service providers last year. We still have vacancies which are available, although unfortunately not all of the group have expressed an interest in these.

At the present time, it is our understanding that the tribunal is actually scheduled for the end of the year. The session on Monday 16 July is an administrative session to discuss process.

The Gallery is not yet in receipt of the details of each complaint, but believes that we have acted both lawfully and fairly in changing our service provision to one of secure employment."

Reading the National Gallery's statement, it might seem that their course was not unreasonable. But you need here to consider what the National Gallery is not saying. What they're not telling you in the above statement is that the pay on offer to the lecturers in the new structure was considerably less than they were getting before.

In terms of the legal case, it seems to me that the lecturers have a strong case. There was a similar recent case, involving Pimlico Plumbers in London. Pimlico Plumbers insisted that all its plumbers work as self-employed plumbers, despite them wearing company uniform and driving company vans. This allowed the company to not treat its plumbers as normal employees, which is cheaper for the company, and gives the plumbers less rights. The plumbers, however, won their case. And the lecturers' case is very similar.

As is usually the case with these things, this dispute is about money. The National Gallery wants to run a more efficient ship. And so it should. But this is a public institution, which has a need also for good lecturers. And the National Gallery, as regular readers will know, is awash with cash, and better off than it has ever been. Just last week it acquired a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi almost entirely from its own funds, and having paid £1.6m more than the picture recently fetched at auction. But it seems to consistenly make unforced errors in the way it handles its organisational functions. The handling of the warders case in 2014 was a case in point, though in that case I had more sympathy with the National Gallery's overall goals than many others.

But in the case of the lecturers, however, it's hard to see what the National Gallery gains here, either by its heavy-handedly going on with the department restructure, or by contesting the lecturers' case. The National Gallery had some of the best lecturers there were, a dedicated, hard-working team who I always found impressive. They've now junked all that, and now stand to win only a slew of negative headlines, and a large legal bill. It's at moments like this that you want a board of trustees to shake the management by the lapels, and say, 'what the hell are you doing?'. But there'll be no chance of that; as any reading of trustee meeting minutes shows, they're content to nod through what the staff suggest. That's what happens if you reserve trustee-ships for the great and the good.

Update - here's something worth considering; institutions like the National Gallery rightly make every effort to broaden the diversity of both their staff and their audience. But one of the lecturers suing the National Gallery is Leslie Primo. Leslie was the first black employee at the National Gallery, and it's only black lecturer. He was also the last. 

Rembrandt & Britain

July 15 2018

Video: National Gallery of Scotland

If you haven't already booked your tickets to Edinburgh for the incomparable Festival and Fringe, then yet another reason to visit the world's finest city is a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland, 'Rembrandt - Britain's Discovery of the Master'. It's open now until 14th October, and looks to be a fascinating exhibition. Unusually, this isn't a travelling show, so you'll need to come to Scotland to see it. I'm hoping to go this week. More details here

'Dutch design in the age of Rembrandt'

July 15 2018

Video: Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition on Dutch design in the age of Rembrandt. As ever, the museum goes for an innovative and eye-catching way of marketing the exhibition, above. Bravo. More on the exhibition here

Go to bed with an Old Master

July 13 2018

Image of Go to bed with an Old Master

Picture: Savoir Beds

The National Gallery has launched a partnership with Savoir Beds, to sell a range of bedheads illustrated with paintings from the Gallery's collection. I can't see any prices on the Savoir site, but they're doubtless not cheap. There is, however, some splendid guff:

Once commissioned, the design is specially printed in the UK, by Andrew Martin, using the latest technology on a selection of three fabrics – lustrous velvet, textured linen viscose and versatile cotton. Finished with a bespoke plaque detailing the portrait and artist, every commission will be personally approved by The National Gallery to guarantee the design preserves the essence and integrity of one of the greatest art institutes in the world. The fine art of sleeping beautifully.

Which is presumably an excellent and worthy use of National Gallery staff time.

But of course this is a Good Thing, and I hope the National Gallery raise lots of money from it. I also hope the National Gallery can see that this is the sort of thing that constitutes a 'commercial' use of their images, not an academic book published by a university press.

How to be a good curator (part 52)

July 12 2018

Video: British Museum

Here's our favourite British Museum curator, Dr Irving Finkel, talking about ghosts in Mesopotamia. The video has had over 15,000 views in less than a month on the British Museum's YouTube channel. What's remarkable about it is that it's just Dr Finkel sitting in a chair talking about objects, which we occassionally see images of. Nothing fancier than that.

All you need to make a good video like this, through which you can engage new audiences on an otherwise obscure topic (Dr Finkel is the BM's 'curator of cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia', which on one level is about as niche as it gets), is to know your stuff and be good at telling stories.

Unfortunately, knowing your stuff is actually the easy part. Telling good stories is harder than we think. We need more Dr Finkels.

Museum image fees (ctd.)

July 9 2018

Image of Museum image fees (ctd.)

Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

Good news from the campaign to abolish (or significantly reduce) image reproduction fees. First, from Birmingham Museums Trust. This institution manages nine sites in Birmingham, with over 800,000 objects. And soon images of those works which are already out of copyright will be free to use, in any way you wish. This is the first major collection in the UK to go 'open', and follows the lead of York Museums Trust. 

There is a catch, but I think it's a clever one. Free images will be limited to 3MB at 300 dpi. So the highest resolution images (the ones that you need to making tea towels, say) will still be chargeable. I think this strikes a good balance between wider access and commercial necessities (I've written more about it in this month's Art Newspaper). 3MB at a good resolution is enough for most publishing needs. Here is Birmingham's full statement:

Birmingham Museums Trust has taken the decision to make collection images up to 3MB (no more than 300dpi) freely available, in a step to make the collection more accessible.

Released under the CC0 licence, images of copyright-expired objects in the collection and images of objects not subject to third-party copyright, can now be accessed for free. This approach has been taken to create a simple system which is easy to understand and encourage images to be used widely.

Open access to images will make the collection accessible to as many people as possible. It is hoped the decision will allow academics and researchers more freedom to explore the collection in greater detail, as the images will be available at a suitable size for academic publication. Birmingham Museums will ask publishers to give attribution voluntarily and send a copy of their publication to the museum where possible.

The Trust will continue to charge for high resolution images, helping to protect some of the income from commercial use of images.

To improve access further, Birmingham Museums will introduce a new Digital Asset Management System in late 2019. This means people will be able to download images directly from the Trust’s website, removing the need for an administrative intermediate. More details about this system will be announced later in the year.

The decision comes at a time when Birmingham Museums is planning for a major redevelopment of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Opening access to the images will mean the collection is still accessible in some form online, helping to keep the museum in the public eye at a time when many objects will be off display."

My campaigning colleagues (including Dr Richard Stephens, who has been in very useful discussions with Birmingham on this issue for some time) hope that more institutions will soon be able to follow the example set by Birmingham. 

The next piece of good news is from the Wallace Collection. This has committed to allow free 'academic' use of its images. The announcement comes in its launch of a new website, which is excellent. The new policy has yet to be fully 'rolled out', and currently the Wallace's own definition of 'academic' is extremely limited (essentially, everything you or I would call 'academic' is deemed by them - like most UK museums - to actually be 'commercial, see here.) But I'm glad to be able to report that this will change soon, and be much more generous. 

It's worth noting, incidentally, that the Wallace currently makes no meaningful revenue from image fees. Figures obtained by our campaign show that over the last five years they have never made more than £10,000 profit on image fees. And the profit figure only accounts for 'direct costs', such as staff, and not indirect costs such as general overheads, office space, equipment and other support costs. For the last two years, the Wallace Collection's stated profits from image fees were £6,000 and £9,000, on sales of £28,000 and £32,000. Direct costs to service these sales were £22,000 and £23,000. Add in indirect costs, and you're just treading water. As I've been saying for a long time, image fees are not a sensible way to raise revenue.

Rubens' crypt opened

July 9 2018

Image of Rubens' crypt opened

Picture: Codart

I'm not entirely sure why, but Rubens' crypt has been opened. It was last opened in the 1970s. Samples were taken, to see if we can find out exactly what killed him. I've never been a fan of disturbing graves.

More here

Pourbus in Vienna

July 9 2018

Image of Pourbus in Vienna

Picture: KHM

I do like the portraiture of Frans Pourbus the Younger. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, there's a new exhibition reuniting a pair of his early works, a husband and wife. More here.  

New Michaelina Wautier painting discovered

July 9 2018

Picture: via Codart

It's all go for the 17th Century artist Michaelina Wautiers at the moment; there's the first exhibition ever staged on her work in Antwerp (till 2nd September), and now the curator of the show, Katlijne Van der Stighelen, has identified a new work by her (above). More here

'British Old Masters are booming'

July 9 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Here's a punch video from Sotheby's, urging you to consign your British Old Masters for sale. The category is 'booming', they say, and you wouldn't be surprised to hear that I agree. Though as ever with the Old Master market there are pockets that remain resolutely unfashionable.

In The Art Newspaper, Anna Brady has good analysis of the recent London Old Master sales, with Sotheby's edging Christie's in both overall totals as well as selling rate (Sotheby's sale covered here, and Christie's here). It was interesting to see a number of pictures make serious price rises on even recent sales, such as a portrait by Caracci, which made £4.3m, after selling in New York in 2005 for £1.8m.

But there was disappointment at Christie's in not being able to sell Ruben's portrait of his daughter Clara Serena, despite doing an excellent job marketing it. I thought the picture would fly. So treat all my market views with great caution. But then regular readers know to treat everything I say with great caution...

I'll write more about the Clara Serena soon.

Victoria Beckham does Old Masters

July 9 2018

Video: Sotheby's

I've been meaning to mention this excellent Sotheby's video, about an exhibition of Old Masters in Victoria Beckham's shop in London. Bravo Posh, and bravo Sotheby's.

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery

July 9 2018

Video: Drouot

Remember the newly discovered Artemesia Gentileschi self-portrait that surfaced at auction in Paris last year? It has been acquired by the National Gallery in London (as first reported by one French art historian back in April). It's an excellent purchase by the National Gallery, and a coup to get such an important painting out of France, given their rather draconian export laws. 

But I'm puzzled by the reported price. The picture was sold at auction for €2.3m (including fees) in December. But the National Gallery announced last week that they have paid £3.6m. That's quite a steep mark up. 

Normally, the argument in such circumstances goes like this; museums don't have access to the sort of ready cash needed to buy something at short notice at auction. But is that the case with the National Gallery? The French auctioneers did a good job in publicising the picture, so the National Gallery would certainly have been aware of it at the time of the sale.

As I reported first in my diary piece in The Art Newspaper, the National Gallery has reserves of well over £200m. They could quite easily have bid for the painting at auction themselves, should they have wished to. The main donor towards the £3.6m cost in this case is the American Friends of the National Gallery (for whom the latest accounts showed a balance of $180m), which contributed $3.7m - more than the cost of the painting at auction. Therefore, a quick phone call to the US could have amassed the necessary funds to bid for the picture at auction.

So what justification is there for the £1.6m mark up? Very often, dealers buy a dirty looking picture like this, and then re-present it post-restoration. They take the risk that beneath all the dirt and old varnish, there's a picture in fine condition. But in this case that doesn't apply, as the National Gallery have bought the picture un-cleaned. The only other justification I can think of is the strict French export laws I referred to earlier. Perhaps the National Gallery didn't want to be faced with buying a painting which might then never be allowed to leave France, and so was happy to leave bidding on the painting to someone else who was prepared to carry the risk of being left with it in France. 

But £1.6m might be seen by some as rather a lot to pay a dealer for taking that risk. I think the National Gallery needs to explain their reasoning here. On the one hand they tell us that they need to raise every penny then can via things like image fees. But on the other, they're prepared to spray the cash about when securing acquisitions in this less than efficient way.

Update - I asked the National Gallery for a statement, and they have sent me the below:

 “The National Gallery was not given notice of the painting's appearance at auction in Paris, so we were only able to consider its acquisition once it had been purchased there by dealers. Though the price paid by the Gallery is considerably higher than that for which it sold in Paris, we sought independent views on what a fair market price would be prior to making its purchase (as is normal practice).

 “The painting did not feature in a major London or New York sale with one of the main auction houses, where the National Gallery might have been made aware of the painting prior to the sale. Unlike these auction houses, who publish catalogues weeks if not months in advance of their major sales, auctions through Drouot in Paris are made up of lots of different dealers/consignors, and it is typical to only have a few days’ notice of what is going into a sale (the commissaire priseur’s video on the painting was only put online on 7th December 2017 – just a fortnight before the actual sale). Therefore the National Gallery only became aware of the painting just 2-3 days before the auction, but did not see it at first hand. After the sale we discovered the identity of the buyer and arranged to see the painting as soon as possible thereafter, shortly after the picture's arrival in London.”  

I'm afraid this statement is rather unsatisfactory. The National Gallery, as a centre of international scholarship on Old Master paintings, should not take the view that it is up to auction houses to 'give them notice' of major pictures coming up for sale. The National Gallery should make it their business to become aware of major re-discoveries like an Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait, especially when she is an artist who is high up on their acquisition wish-list. 

Furthermore, this was a picture whose emergence was in fact widely publicised. As the National Gallery statement says, the video above may have been put online two weeks before the sale on 7th December. But a catalogue entry was online on 23rd November, and a press release was sent out on 22nd November, long before the sale on 19th December. That's a month's notice, which is entirely standard practive for an Old Master sale. The French art historian Didier Rykner wrote about the painting on La Tribune de l'Art on 6th December.   

Furthermore, I'm also told that at the time of the sale in Paris, the picture already had an export licence. So there was no danger in the painting not being able to leave France, as I had suggested above. 

Now, why does this matter? The National Gallery has acquired an excellent painting. It means that two previously unknown Artemisia self-portraits are now on public display, one at the Wadsworth Atheneum in the US, and the other in London. (The painting at the Wadsworth Atheneum was acquired after it failed to sell at Christie's in New York at an estimate of $3m-$5m in 2014.) Of course, there's no guarantee that had the National Gallery bid directly for the picture in Paris that they would have been successful. I'm also not for one moment criticising the dealers involved. They did what dealers do - and they ultimately helped the UK acquire this important work.

But I think it's important that the National Gallery is able to demonstrate that it is a proper steward of public - and donor's - money. Justifying paying £1.6m more for a painting just because they didn't see it in time is not impressive. The National Gallery may say that it don't have the staff or resources to monitor every auction around the world. But even a fraction of that £1.6m would pay for a member of staff to properly scan auction catalogues, and make sure the Gallery is aware of what's coming up for sale. Cheaper still would be an auction email alert service for the words 'Artemisia Gentileschi'. Or ask me to be their auction searcher; I'd be delighted do it gratis.

The National Gallery is probably the only major gallery in the UK which has the means to go out and buy major pictures these days. But they need to be much better at it. Because if they get better at it, they'll be able to buy more pictures. 

Update II - for an example of a British museum able to buy works at auction at short notice, see here for Derby Museum's bold buy of two Wright of Derby's in New York, at only ten days notice, for $293,000.

Update III - the estimate at the time of the Drouot sale was €300,000-€400,000. Potential bargain territory.

Update IV - a reader writes:

I think that you are absolutely right about the necessity of the National Gallery's keeping tabs on the movement of important paintings on the art market, and I would also think that it is imperative that the respective curators keep up, via social media (often where knowledge of these things first surfaces), with what is happening.

In respect of this, I am continually aghast that the IT dept of the NG is in charge of Twitter; it seems to me that each curator should have a shift doing the official tweets from the Gallery. The Getty, for instance, and the Liverpool Museums, to mention two at random, will engage in conversations with one on Twitter, go away and look things up if asked, and generally have an interesting and fruitful dialogue.  The NG, on the other hand, has a Twitter account (and Facebook) which is run by people who know nothing about art; so they just tweet/ post what they're given, and don't engage.

The point about social media is a good one, not least because it makes it so easy to find out about things like the impending Gentileschi sale. The news of the upcoming Gentileschi auction in Paris was widely shared on social media, including a post by the account @RembrandtsRoom (7,700 followers) on 13th November, which in turn was re-Tweeted by me. The original post was 'liked' by National Gallery staff members. So although the NG statement says the Gallery only became aware of the sale 2-3 days prior to the auction, some Gallery staff members knew of it long before. 

Update V - another reader writes:

Indeed, the NG goofed.  How much was the goof is uncertain, but the amount was material.    Given that another bidder paid 2.3 million Euros for the picture, the NG would have had to bid up somewhat to get it, perhaps another 200 K or so.   That still leaves a large hole for the NG to explain.    Their error isn't the price that they paid, which is a respectable price for a rare picture by AG who is now increasingly important, it is that they overlooked the sale. 

But on Twitter, the former National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith says:

I think this is a bit unfair: it's not always possible to know what is going through a French saleroom, see and study the painting, and get approval for a high bid at short notice. It's a great acquisition using private funds, not public.

I don't necessarily disagree with Charles; all I'm suggesting here is that the National Gallery should aspire to be more alert to what is coming up at auction, so that it can acquire good pictures at good prices. It's just good practice to monitor what's coming up for sale, not least because it's in sale catalogues that so many new discoveries and evidence is unearthed.

Street art in the Louvre

July 9 2018

Video: Louvre

The Louvre has made a series of most curious videos, called 'Dialoguer avec le Street Art'. Which is surprisingly Franglais for such a seriously French institution. More here

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

July 9 2018

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

Picture: via TAN

The painting of St Jerome exhibited at the Met as a work by Parmigianino (for the backstory see here) has again been declared a fake, this time by the Italian analyst Maurizio Seracini. The journalist who has been at the heart of this story, Vincent Noce, writes in The Art Newspaper:

[...] he found a “synthetic resin”, manufactured after 1930, in the varnish and used “as binding media, throughout the layers of the painting”, according to the report. “Infiltration of the surface varnish in the layers underneath should be totally ruled out,” he insists, “since no other binding media was found in the paint layers”. Seracini also detected modern pigments such as zinc sulphide and titanium dioxide in the ground layer, suggesting the forgery might have been made “around the first half of the 20th century”.

Seracini’s theory is that Saint Jerome was painted over another composition covered by an old varnish, which was “either scraped off or cleaned up”. He also notes “long-lasting woodworm activity” and “significant damages” consistent with age on the panel, but not on the painting. The same contradiction was noticed in the painting sold as a Cranach to the Prince of Liechtenstein. Both works, among others, are now sequestered in Paris by order of the judge in charge of a criminal investigation that opened in 2015.

The suggested date of the forgery is interesting, pointing to the earlier half of the 20th Century. Though personally I think we're dealing with someone making these paintings much more recently. 

Pastels at the Louvre

July 9 2018

Image of Pastels at the Louvre

Picture: Louvre

There's a new exhibition on pastels at the Louvre. On his blog, the king of all things pastel, Neil Jeffares, gives it the ultimate review. 

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

July 9 2018

Image of 'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

Picture: via Christie's

My latest diary piece for The Art Newspaper is online, here. Among other things, I struggle to see the justification of Picasso's Young Girl with a Flower Basket making $115m at auction.

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