Previous Posts: July 2018

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.

Augustus John discovery

July 9 2018

Image of Augustus John discovery

Picture: via BBC News

A previously unknown painting by Augustus John has been bought at auction by quick-thinking staff at Poole Museum. From the BBC:

"Edwin on the Beach" was bought by Poole Museum for £1,850 after manager Michael Spender saw the piece at an auction.

The artist's granddaughter Rebecca John who is a leading expert on his work, has confirmed the piece is genuine, meaning its value has soared. [...]

He found the piece in an auction catalogue after a house clearance in Moreton-in-Marsh, in the Cotswolds.

Excellent work, Mr Spender; AHN salutes you!

There's currently an exhibition of John's works on at Poole Museum, more here

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