Previous Posts: October 2018

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 18 2018

Video: Banksy

There's a new video from Banksy, in which the artist suggests that the entire picture was meant to be shredded. Not so sure.

But the most interesting thing is that this new video confirms the first video (which Banksy released immediately after the Sotheby's sale) was not the full picture. So to speak. As I pointed out at the time, the shredding mechanism we were initially shown (with a series of pantomime razor blades) would not have actually worked. And in the new video we see a very different mechanism, using rollers, which would appear to be more plausible. 

So why go to all the trouble of making two films? Why create one shredding mechanism purely for show? 

Incidentally, a reader writes wondering what the taxman will have to say about all this:

Sotheby's claim on their website that after the gavel fell, Banksy created a new work of art. If it is new, then it should attract VAT at the standard rate on the hammer price. 

If the vendors claim that the picture was a gift back in 2006,  HMRC will point out  that the electric cutting device is a new addition, integral to the artwork, so that the net proceeds would be subject to income tax.

A minefield!

Update - it all comes down to the timing of the 'creation'. Another reader writes:

“Sotheby's claim on their website that after the gavel fell, Banksy created a new work of art. If it is new, then it should attract VAT at the standard rate on the hammer price. “

The new work of art was created AFTER the painting was sold (assuming reframing and insertion of the shredder is not creating a new artwork) so on that basis I am afraid I disagree with your correspondent. 

Of course, if it is actually fresh from Banksy’s Studio then I am sure he will be accounting for VAT on the proceeds; only the Sotheby’s invoice will not state this so the purchaser will not be able to reclaim the VAT when she exports it home to the Middle East. 

“If the vendors claim that the picture was a gift back in 2006,  HMRC will point out  that the electric cutting device is a new addition, integral to the artwork, so that the net proceeds would be subject to income tax.”

Again, it depends who the vendor is. If I as a private individual invite Banksy to amend a piece of art he gave me a decade ago and then I sell it, as a one-off, then I am unlikely to be trading, so therefore am within the CGT regime. Interestingly, machinery - like antique clocks or cars - is free of CGT too, so if (and it is a big if though maybe not if it is ‘integral’ as your correspondent suggests) the vendor can argue that it is a machine on account of the shredder then it is entirely tax free. Machinery is CGT free as it is regarded as having only a short life, the picture itself certainly had a short life... And as the sale took place before the shredder revealed itself the vendor’s profit has nothing to do with the ‘unusual’ reframing. The idea that reframing a picture and reselling it a decade later brings you into trading is too far-fetched for me. 

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 15 2018

Sound: TAN

The latest Art Newspaper podcast discusses the Banksy shredding, with Anny Shaw and Ben Luke; it's well worth a listen. As you may know by now, the work has been re-authenticated by Banksy, and is now titled 'Love is in the Bin'. The successful bidder has agreed to pay for the work. Sotheby's have put it on display again, and say that Banksy didn't destroy a work of art, but created one. Everyone is happy. But as Ben Luke observes, this undermines the idea that Banksy was trying to stick two fingers up to the art market. It was always, as I theorised last week, about the money.

The TAN podcast interviews one of the underbidders, Jonathan Cheung from the Maddox Gallery. He says he bid on the picture because it was voted the UK's 'most popular image'. As I've said before, that poll (designed to sell Samsung TVs) was just a confection. But in this smoke and mirrors market, facts aren't as important as headlines. Banksy must be eternally grateful to Samsung. 

Naturally, the question of value is discussed; is the shredded work now worth 'more'? Jonathan Cheung isn't sure it is, but Ben Luke is. For what it's worth, I agree with Ben; whatever the ethical and market questions that this whole affair has triggered, there's no doubting that the stunt has been a triumphant success. Art historically, I really can see this work becoming established as something that stands the test of time. It's infinitely more interesting than a spot painting. 

But I still think all those questions are worth asking. Ben Luke asks the key one; was this really a work from 2006? Jonathan Cheung says that for him, part of the appeal of the painting at Sotheby's was the fact that it was a unique work - thought to be the only 'one of one' of Girl with Balloon - and from relatively early in the genesis of the composition. So the date matters.

But since it is now widely suggested that (as first reported by AHN) the picture was consigned by his publicist, Jo Brooks, and that it was authenticated by the artist (or his representatives), to what extent can we believe the whole story? It was interesting to hear in the podcast that Sotheby's say the provenance of the painting was true to the best of their knowledge. In other words, they don't know for sure either. 

The answer is we just have to take it all on trust. In an excellent article, Jan Dalley explores this aspect further in the FT

With work by living artists, the trust system is bolstered by the simple fact of the artist’s say-so. But what does an apparently harmless stunt such as Banksy’s do to this deeper system? That iteration of the “Girl with Balloon” was estimated at £200,000-£300,000 because, we were told, it was not one of the thousands of cheap prints of that very well-known image but a unique work made in 2006, and dedicated in the artist’s hand. We believed that — as did the buyer — because Banksy and Pest Control said so.

But if the work was booby-trapped, essentially a giant prank, which bits of it were “genuine”? Why should the work have been the work, if the frame wasn’t the frame? Never mind that a new artwork has been created, and that the lucky buyer finds herself in possession of a piece that’s more valuable because of its notoriety: start pulling a single loose thread of this trust system and things unravel fast.

Will the high end contemporary market unravel fast? It's too early to say, but it seems to me that there is something about the opacity and remoteness of the high end contemporary art market which is similar to the pre-2008, under-regulated financial market. People are paying a lot of money for things they don't entirely understand, and cannot always get reliable information about. As long as the prices keep going up, everything's ok.

Will Banksy's trick cause people to ask the probing questions that might make a crash more likely? Was that his design? Or was he wanting to cash in before the balloon goes up, to borrow his own imagery? The clever thing about Banksy, is that it's likely both. 

Finally, there's a quote from Banksy's 'spokesperson' in The Guardian, denying that Sotheby's had any knowledge of what would happen during the sale:

A spokesperson on behalf of Banksy said: “I can categorically tell you there was no collusion between the artist and the auction house in any shape or form.

"The painting had 27 confirmed bidders on the night. A reputable auction house would never encourage their valued clients to bid on something they knew would be destroyed, their credibility would never recover. Banksy was as surprised as anyone when the painting made it past their security systems.”

Was this spokesperson Jo Brooks, the possible consignor? We mere punters aren't allowed to know. Smoke and mirrors.

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 11 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

Further to my post below, the cataloguing for Girl with Balloon read:

"Signed and dedicated on the reverse."

I can report that the dedication was, ‘Thanks Jo’, with a heart and a CND symbol.

It may be a coincidence, but Banksy's publicist is Jo Brooks

Art and Brexit (ctd.)

October 10 2018

Image of Art and Brexit (ctd.)

Picture: via OSF Home

The Guardian has run with the Brexit art preferences story I mentioned below last week. But alas it doesn't question the dodgy research behind the results. There's too much of this unquestioning media response to duff art 'research' like this. Another example is the 'Banksy is Britain's favourite painting' story that did the rounds last year, which soon became hard fact, and in turn helped fuel the recent shredding hoo ha at Sotheby's.  

Shredding Banksy

October 8 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

I enjoyed Banksy's shredding stunt at Sotheby’s Contemporary art Evening sale in London last week. It was clever and amusing. These days we want even our art history to be instant, and there it was; an unprecedented masterpiece of performance art, perfectly packaged to go around the world in moments. Bravo, Banksy. 

But let’s subject this to a bit of instant art historical analysis. What did it mean? What was it really all about? Art? Protest? 

Nope. It's about money.

And not in the way you might think. This wasn’t a wry comment from an artist questioning why people would pay over £1m for a painting made with a stencil. It was about making sure people would go on paying £1m - more, even - for such works. This was a perfect reflection of the hubris and hypocrisy that has infected the upper reaches of the contemporary art market. There’s a lot of money involved. Everyone wants some. Everyone’s in on it. But nobody wants to be the sucker left holding the baby when the party’s over. Behind the smiles, that’s what they’re all frightened about. The show must go on. Banksy made the show go on. That’s why they love him.

Sotheby’s say emphatically that they “had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved”. I know a lot of people at Sotheby’s, and they’re straightforward, and I believe them. But there are too many questions to not wonder if an over-enthusiastic specialist got carried away. I don’t blame them. Points for initiative.

That said, from an institutional point of view, I can see why Sotheby’s wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Had they been complicit, then straight away you’re looking at fraud; inducing people to bid on an object without telling them what it really was, who really owned it, and who else might therefore be bidding on it. The contemporary auction market relies on a lot of smoke and mirrors, but even that would have been a step too far. There’d have been calls for regulation quicker than you can say shredder. 

Let’s look then at the facts we know so far. The picture shows one of Banksy’s most famous images - in fact probably his most famous. Its fortunes have been helped by the fact that (as the auction house catalogues never tire of saying) “in a poll commissioned last year it was voted Britain's favourite artwork beating such historical heavyweights as John Constable's The Hay Wain and JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.”  Regular readers know that was a phoney poll - organised to sell TVs - and isn’t to be taken seriously. 

The original graffiti was painted on a wall in London but has since been lost. A series of 25 replicas on canvas were made in 2003, and can make big money; one made £344,750 at Bonhams in London earlier this year. More usually they have made in the fifty and sixty thousand pound range, including this example sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for £51k. Much more numerous are the prints, of which there may be some 600. Until Girl and Balloon made £1.042m at Sotheby’s, the Bonhams price was by some distance the record for that compositioin.

There are some odd things about the picture sold at Sotheby’s though. It was made in 2006, and not part of the original series. As far as I can see, ‘Girl and Balloon’ has usually been a ‘Day Sale’ picture. Maybe Sotheby’s looked at the Bonhams price earlier this year and thought it was worth a shot at the estimate of £200,000-£300,000. As they said in the catalogue, it was ‘unique’ in not being part of the original series, and in their eyes this made it more desirable. Although generally it’s the earlier iterations that tend to command higher prices. Another apparently unique and later (2005) version of the work made only £169k at Sotheby's in 2012. 

The picture was, said the Sotheby’s catalogue note, housed in an ‘artist’s frame’. As the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz said on the BBC this morning, that’s an unusual statement to have in a catalogue. And the frame, irrespective of what ultimately proved to be inside it, must have been in one other respect unusual too; a clunking, heavy thing with a slit in it. Will Gompertz also said that Sotheby’s twice asked the artist - through his market friendly authentication service Pest Control - whether they could open the frame, and were told no. I wonder why they didn’t just ask the owner. The provenance given by Sotheby’s was clear; the picture was acquired by the vendor directly from the artist in 2006, and therefore according to Sotheby’s was not owned by Banksy himself.

The picture was the last lot of the Evening Sale, and thus perfectly timed for Banksy to perform his trick. It was also hanging in the auction room during the sale. Most pictures get taken down from the view when Sotheby’s rearrange their salesroom for evening sales, and only a few get left on the wall. It’s possible Sotheby’s chose to leave the picture on display because it is one of those ‘iconic’ images. But such coincidences must make us wonder whether someone at Sotheby’s knew. 

Until the sale, the Banksy market was, as Naomi Rea and Javier Pes say in ArtNet, ‘down from its high in 2008. The elusive street artist’s auction record was set a decade ago, when his riff on Damien Hirst, ‘Keep It Spotless’ (2007), sold for $1.87 million at Sotheby’s New York.’ By coincidence, the final bid for Girl and Balloon equalled Banksy’s previous auction record. 

After the sale Banksy released a video, above. He said that he installed the shredder ‘a few years ago’, ‘in case it ever came to auction’. A few years ago suggests that the shredder was installed after the picture was acquired in 2006. Batteries are unlikely to last twelve years. As you can see from the screen grab below, the mechanism looks quite complex. 

That said, I don’t know how much we can rely on the video. Although the cross-section of the frame matches that seen on the painting at Sotheby’s, the shredding mechanism itself appears to be phoney; the razor blades are facing the wrong way. Maybe this was later rectified, and the painting was indeed shredded at Sotheby’s. Or somehow a pre-shredded picture was fed out of the bottom of the picture when the mechanism was triggered by remote. (Look at the video a few times, and see for yourself if the shredded part of the picture matches the unshredded part above it.)

Nevertheless, if we take Banksy at his word, that the shredder was installed ‘a few years ago’, and just assumed to be still working by the time of the auction, we can still deduce that the vendor was almost certainly aware of what was going to happen at the Sotheby’s sale. 

The next question, therefore, is what sort of vendor does that? Sotheby’s have, rightly, said that the successful bidder can walk away from their obligation to buy the work. If so, whoever consigned the work took a significant risk, and must have known that they’d potentially lose a significant amount of money. This (combined with the likelihood that the mechanism was installed after the date of acquisition in 2006) implies either that a) the vendor was already rich enough, or b) they’re close to Banksy himself, and were happy to let him do his trick. 

There is another possibility of course; that the vendor was someone with a close interest in sustaining wider Banksy prices. Here’s how it works; the contemporary art market, with its fondness for editions that are easily commodified, loves a good benchmark price. That Banksy/Warhol/Koons made £xm? This one must also be worth £xm! A cleverly consigned work here, a few bids or bidding partners there, and hey presto; you’ve got a new asset value. Even the risk of paying out some auction house commission - if you end up with your picture back - would be worth it for the new price level (and in this case the worldwide PR bonanza.) AHN’s legal adviser would like to make clear I’m not suggesting any of the above happened on this occasion. I’m just speculating.

So where does all this leave us? Immediately after the sale, I said (on Twitter) that I thought Sotheby’s were likely ‘in on it’, not least for the rapid way their specialist came out celebrating the event, and talking up the shredded picture's new, supposedly higher value. But having thought about it further, and assessed the corporate stakes involved for a publicly listed company, I can now believe they weren’t. 

More interesting is what it tells us about Banksy. Is he the anti-market hero the press have made him out to be? Jonathan Jones in The Guardian buys that theory completely. But I doubt it. Banksy depends on the market. If he didn't care about the market, he wouldn't offer the Pest Control authentication service. The only way artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst can get away with churning out the same old compositions is because they're worth something. I don't blame them for doing so - well done them; take the money and run. Artists have always done this. I would.

But let's not pretend this is about anything other than money. Banksy’s line in the video above, ‘in case it ever came to auction’, makes us want to believe that installing the shredder was a protest at the picture's possible sale. But in that case, why did he chose to shred the painting only after the hammer had fallen, and a price record reached? And why only shred half the picture, leaving it intact as an artwork?

A far better protest would have been to press the button during the auction itself. I'd like to have seen Sotheby's explain that one; an artwork self-destructing while people were actually bidding on it. That would have been much more impressive. But it would also have required a little more authenticity, and balls. Whatever you think of his art, Banksy seems as keen to trouser the cash as anyone. And so the show goes on. Bravo, Banksy.

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps I'm giving Banksy too much credit, but I thought the whole point was to show that, no matter what an artist does, the market will simply absorb it?

Artists love to play the 'bite the hand that feeds' card, earning street cred in arty circles, while their work is simultaneously fed into the junk bond mod/con art market.  That's not new, the 'new' element was the live demonstration of how the market simply absorbed the stunt (plus the demonstration of just how shallow the definition of 'art history' has become).  The artist is no longer important to the art world.

Like you, I doubt if it was meant as a serious protest.  I think it more likely that it was merely a stunt aimed at highlighting a serious problem - the market makes the art and all 'serious' art now is made with the market in mind (even if the route to market is devious and contorted).

Update II - Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph has published an excellent take on the affair. First, he tells us he was tipped off that the lot would 'fly'. Which is interesting since it's been a long time since a Banksy flew at auction. He also noticed that the picture was so heavy it was hung on a special load-bearing baton in the auction room. 

Ironing Artemisia

October 8 2018

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery has nearly finished conservation of their newly acquired Artemisia Gentileschi Self-Portrait. And very fine it looks too. I went to see it in the conservation studio recently. The overall condition is very good, and the lighting in the picture works well, which you'd only get with the majority of the glazes and layers intact. In the above video you can see the final stages of the re-lining process. Don't be alarmed to see the conservators taking an iron to Artemisia's face - this is part of the process of making the new lining canvas bond to the original canvas. Of course, in the old days this was often done badly, and sometimes you'll see a paint surface with all the impasto squashed flat - like roadkill - from the application of an iron that was on a cotton setting, when it should have been on silk. 

Museo del Prado - the Movie

October 8 2018

Video: Prado

Marvellous. All other museums, do this!

Heni Art Talks (ctd.)

October 8 2018

Video: Heni 

Here's another good Heni Art Talk, with Dr James Fox on the artist behind the WW1 'Dazzle' ships, Norman Wilkinson.  

Tate in China

October 8 2018

Image of Tate in China

Picture: Shanghai Museum

It's good to see that Tate's touring exhibition in China has been such a success, as Martin Bailey reports in TAN:

The Tate’s most popular ever exhibition is not one that was staged in any of its London galleries—but in Shanghai. Landscapes of the Mind: Masterpieces from Tate Britain (1700-1980), which closed at the Shanghai Museum in August, attracted 615,000 visitors in 14 weeks—more than 6,000 a day. Up until then, the Tate’s most successful show had been Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, which was seen by 467,000 people during 21 weeks in 2014. [...]

The two-venue exhibition has been supported by a one-off £1.3m grant from the UK government—a huge subsidy for a single show. 

It's interesting that Tate didn't just take modern works, but the full range of British landscape art, including Gainsborough, Wright of Derby and Constable. Imagine the transformative effect on interest in art history (and indeed the market) if just a small fraction of Chinese art lovers took an insterest in, say, Gainsborough.

More here.

The future of art history publishing

October 8 2018

Image of The future of art history publishing

Picture: Birkbeck College

On 19th October in London, Birkbeck College are hosting a seminar on 'the future of art history publishing':

We are at a turning point in the publishing of art historical research. To what extent is the existing model of art history publishing sustainable? What does the future hold for the illustrated scholarly print journal and monograph? How is art history responding to the push for online open access publishing? How do copyright and licensing restrictions and costs affect what can be published and in what form? This session brings together print and online publishers and editors, an intellectual property expert and academics to think about the way forward.

* Baillie Card, Paul Mellon Centre

* Natalie Foster, Routledge

* Bernard Horrocks, Intellectual Property Manager, Tate

* Steve Edwards, Birkbeck

* Chair: Leslie Topp, Birkbeck

Sadly, there it appears there will be nobody speaking from an Open Access poit of view. But if you want to go along and challenge Tate's intellectual property manager, tickets are free, and available here. Ask him why Tate refuses to put anything other than low-res images on its website, and why they don't know if they actually make a profit from image licensing.  

New pictures at the Rubenshuis

October 8 2018

Image of New pictures at the Rubenshuis

Picture: Rubenshuis

Good news from one of my favourite museums, the Rubenshuis in Antwerp; they've acquired one of Van Dyck's Apostle paintings (St Matthew, above), and have on loan from Ontario Rubens' extraordinary Massacre of the Innocents. The latter picture is the most expensive Rubens ever sold - and I imagine his ghost will be delighted to see it back in the studio where he painted it, some 400 years ago. Worth getting on a plane for, anyway. 

Mid-season Old Master sales

October 8 2018

Image of Mid-season Old Master sales

Picture: Dorotheum

There are some nice, even bargain pictures on offer in the mid-season Old Master sales. Bonhams in London, 24th October, is here, Christie's in New York on 30th October is here, and Dorotheum in Vienna on 23rd October is here, where a highlight is the above Artemisia Gentileschi at €500k-€700k. Happy bidding. I'm always happy to answer any questions you might have on upcoming lots. 

Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery

October 2 2018

Video: National Gallery

The new Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery has opened, and looks to be fascinating. It's on until 27th January. The critics like it: Jackie Wullschlager calls it 'marvellous' in the FT; Ben Luke gives it five stars in the Evening Standard; and Nancy Durrant in The Times gives it four stars. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian is less keen, giving it three stars. 

I'm glad to see the National Gallery making another good video for the show, above. But as talking about Old Masters on film is dear to my heart, I can't avoid pointing out that it doesn't really deliver. This is a video made by art historians for art historians. It should be made for the more general audience of potential visitors, who might not know why Mantegna is worth getting excited about. It needs to get quickly to the point about what the exhibition is about, why these artists matter, and in an accessible way. It doesn't even say that Mantegna and Bellini were brothers-in-law, which is rather a key point in why the exhibition is looking at the two artists together.  

Art and Brexit

October 2 2018

Image of Art and Brexit

Picture: via OSF Home

Does your taste in art dictate your political preferences? I suspect not. But some academics at Oxford's Nuffield College have set about trying to find out. The trouble is, the artworks they've chosen are ill-suited to the task, and there aren't enough of them. I've seen some pretty pathetic attempts to link art and politics before, but this is the most risible yet. I can't believe any academic, yet alone an Oxford one, thought this was a good idea.

The aim of the study was to see if people who preferred 'realistic' art - as opposed to 'abstract' art - also preferred Brexit to Remain. The study concluded that they did, by some 15-20%. Now, you might well think that a preference for abstract art equates to a preference for more 'liberal', or globalist, Remain-type politics. And that's doubtless the stereotype the study's authors were hoping to promote - modern art lovers have more modern politics. 

But leaving aside whether we can ever characterise Leave/Remain politics along such lines, let's look at the methodology behind the study. Which is frankly laughable. The authors chose four pairs of pictures, and in each one there was a 'realistic' picture and an 'abstract' picture. And we can tell all we need to know about the study by the fact that the first 'realistic' painting was a Thomas Kinkade 'light' painting, 'Village Lighthouse' (above), a completely invented, fantasy picture of so little artistic merit and such confected, cloudy schmaltz that it's actually impossible to decide whether it's 'realistic' or 'abstract' (in fact, it's more catarract than abstract). The 'abstract' pair to the Kinkade painting is a fairly literal depiction of Yarmouth Port by Irma Cerese (below). 

The other pairs are only slightly less daft. Here's the portrait category. 'Realistic' is Jessica in Profile by David Gray.

Then for the 'abstract', Francis Bacon's Isabel Rawthorne. 

For the still life category, the realistic picture was Purple of Lilies with White Variation by Michael Klein.

Versus Pink Caladium by David Hockney. 

Now, I don't doubt that it may be possible to determine if people who like, say, 'old' art versus modern art have different political outlooks. But the way to do this is not by showing a small group of people a small number of badly chosen pictures. If you want to choose a 'realistic' landscape, then at least go for something that is a real scene, painted outside, by an artist who was determinedly trying to capture something 'real'. Perhaps a scene by Calame, say. And then you need to allow for all sorts of other biases in the way people choose their art preferences, like modern versus old - so perhaps an abstract painting by Turner should be included too. There is a way to do studies like this; it just requires a better understanding of art history. Let's stop using tired clichés about art to justify pre-determined social and political conclusions. 

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