New date for 'Leonardo?' court case

May 30 2011

Image of New date for 'Leonardo?' court case


The case of Marchig vs. Christie's returns to court on 24th June.

The dispute involves the drawing, above, sold in 1998 by Christie's as 19thC German School for $19,000. A subsequent owner now claims it is by Leonardo, and worth $100m. Unsurprisingly, the vendor at Christie's, Jeanne Marchig, has been trying to take Christie's to court. But she has so far lost her case because the relevant statute of limitations in New York (6 years) has expired. 

Marchig has sought leave to appeal the limitations decision. If she wins, then the far more difficult case of is it or is it not a Leonardo will come before the court. And since at the last count an impressive array of scholars do not think it is by Leonardo, who knows where we'll end up. For a fuller discussion on the case's implications see here.

And if you're really keen, the case is being heard at 2pm, 500 Pearl Street, in the Ceremonial Courtroom, 9th floor.

New acquisition

May 27 2011

Image of New acquisition

Picture: The Art Fund

Congratulations to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for acquiring View of Matlock, c.1780, by William Marlow. The total cost was a bargain £20,000, towards which the Art Fund contributed £6,666.

Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

May 27 2011

Image of Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

Picture: Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian dares to ask, and makes the comparison with French art at the turn of the 19th Century:

How many great works of art can we actually count that our age will bequeath posterity? Where are our Sunflowers, our apples [Cezanne] and our dancers [Degas].

There is a pitiful gulf between noise and achievement in contemporary British art. Of course, we have some good artists, some very good artists, and maybe a couple of great ones. But the vast majority of exhibitions are slight and huge numbers of artists are "farting around", as I observed of Mark Leckey the other day. I did not mean to imply he is the only bad artist. In fact, truly honest art criticism in Britain today would mostly consist of reviews like that one.

Look – as I say – do the maths. You must know how many, or rather how few, artists it is possible to truly love, how small the selection of artworks that really make an impact is. Now pick up any art magazine and sample the latest haul of significant, new, radical, cool artists: it seems there never has been and never will be an age when artists of real value proliferate so readily. Therefore, by plain logic and common sense, a vast proportion of the art we hear so much about in Britain today must be rubbish. It's that simple.

I've never been one to deride contemporary art - I think a lot of it really is excellent. But there can be no doubt at all that the prices paid for most of it are over-inflated.

Long-term, the true value of art is best established after the hype has died down. Museum collections around the world are full of once-contemporary pieces bought at the height of the primary market - but which are now worth a fraction of what was paid.

Equally, there are just as many pictures that could have been bought for nothing when painted, but which are now worth millions. Van Gogh's Red Vineyard (above), supposedly the only painting he ever sold, was bought for just 400 francs in 1890 (about $1000-1500 today). 

The Churchill boom

May 27 2011

Image of The Churchill boom

Picture: Christie's

The Beach at Walmer, painted in 1938 by Sir Winston Churchill, has sold for £313,250.

Churchill was certainly a handy painter, and in the list of history's most important figures he ranks near the top. But I wonder if his paintings are becoming a little over-priced?

I can see why, for today's market, his paintings are attractive. But when valuing art you always have to take the long view. So, one has to ask whether the fascination for all things Churcill will be as strong in, say, 100 years, or will he have been eclipsed by a new clutch of popular heroes?

Would a painting by Oliver Cromwell, or Churchill's ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, fetch such sums today? Probably not. The best indicator of value in a painting will always be the quality of the work itself - nothing else really matters.

New Lowry record

May 27 2011

Image of New Lowry record

L S Lowry's Football Match was sold yesterday at Christie's for £5,641,250, including buyer's premium. The estimate was £3.5-4.5m. 

The previous record was set in 2007, with £3.77m paid for Good Friday, Daisy Nook.

On the joys of being an art dealer

May 27 2011

Image of On the joys of being an art dealer


The recession may continue to throw up challenges for art dealers - some say that this year’s European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht was pretty gloomy - but there is still plenty of fun to be had 'in the trade'.

For me, the most exciting part of art dealing is that you never know where the fickle of finger of fate might point you, be it the pictures you encounter, or the people you meet.

Every week I look at hundreds of paintings for sale around the world, and though much of it is little better than the stuff you find on the railings outside Hyde Park, probably at least one will be worth buying. [More below]

If, like me, you're on the lookout for 'sleepers' - those rare cases where pictures at auction are in some way mis-catalogued - then each potential new discovery opens up an array of exciting of possibilities. You might then have to research the life of an intriguing historical figure, in which case a library or distant archive beckons, or you may have to immerse yourself in the technique of an artist whose work you have not previously studied - for which nothing beats a quick visit to a gallery for first hand inspection of a well-preserved original. And, happily, there is no better city to do this than London.  

This may sound rather grandiloquent, but I often think that those of us in the trade who search out pictures which have, for whatever reason, been over-looked, are working at 'the coalface' of art history. We continually offer up for further discussion newly discovered pictures and evidence for debate, acceptance, or rejection. Sometimes, people find it hard to believe just how much art remains undiscovered, for the tendency is to think that the world’s art historians and museum curators have between them accounted for every painting or fact of any worth, that 'the canon' is more or less settled. 

But that cannot be the case. For, if you consider how many thousands of artists painted how many thousands of paintings, there must at any one time be a reasonably high proportion of works that are either unknown or unfairly rejected – and even unfairly elevated. This can be for a variety of reasons, the three main causes being: condition (where a picture is obscured by dirt, varnish and over-paint); the uncertain processes of private ownership (which may shield a painting from analysis for several generations); and, finally, ignorance (most notably when an artist’s oeuvre falls under the clutches of an ‘expert’ who can’t tell the difference between, say, a Giotto and a Giacometti).

All of which leads me onto our new loan exhibition at Philip Mould Ltd, ‘Finding Van Dyck’. By a strange coincidence, we have over the last few years hit a small seam of works by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The exhibition will demonstrate how anyone might go about finding such works. We will look at the whole range of factors one has to take into account when hunting for lost paintings, and the processes and risks involved. How, for example, can you tell the difference between a copy of a Van Dyck and the real thing, or, harder still, between a painting entirely painted by Van Dyck and one partly completed by his many studio assistants? And how can you tell whether a dirty picture hidden by layers of grime has any areas of quality beneath? We will also exhibit some newly discovered and rarely seen works by Van Dyck’s followers in England, including Sir Peter Lely, as well as a number of miniatures by the artist dubbed ‘Van Dyck in little’, Samuel Cooper.

The show opens on 15th June and closes on the 13th July, at 29 Dover Street. Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, and Saturdays 12pm-4pm. A catalogue will be available (that is, if I can finish it in time), which will also include essays by Dr Toby Osborne, Philip Mould and Emma Rutherford.

Steve Bell exhibition

May 26 2011


The Cartoon Museum in London has a new exhibition devoted to Steve Bell, best known for his biting cartoons in the Guardian. The video above is well worth a click, as is this piece recording the thoughts of a few politicians who have been drawn by Bell.

Says John Prescott:

Every politician likes to think they aren't going to be dumped on, but cartoons don't play to the normal rules. And the images do influence people's attitudes. The character Steve Bell turned me into was a bulldog. I couldn't see if I had any balls or not, but the suggestion is I hadn't. And I had no teeth. That was his judgment on me politically, I assume.

Such cartoons are not always considered 'proper art', but in my view they undoubtedly are. Few mediums capture the spirit of an age better than political cartoons, and probably Steve Bell is the best practitioner of the genre of his generation. It helps that he's also a very good artist. 

Here is Bell's own take on the retrospective.

Van Gogh in bloom

May 26 2011

Image of Van Gogh in bloom

Picture: National Gallery

How about this for idea of the year - the National Gallery is planting a 'living wall' on its facade in the form of Van Gogh's A Wheatfield. 

The wall will comprise of over 8,000 living plants, and will stay in place until October:

The living painting has been constructed by specialist horticulture and design company ANS using over 8,000 plants of more than 26 different varieties. To create the artwork, each plant was selected for its unique colour to match the tones of the original painting. It was then hand-planted into its location in one of three modules according to a numbered drawing which replicated the image. The modules were then grown vertically at the nursery ready for installation.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses was painted in September 1889, when Van Gogh was in the St-Rémy mental asylum, near Arles, where he was a patient from May 1889 until May 1890. Writing to his brother Theo early in September, Van Gogh promised to send his brother ‘twelve size 30 canvases’ and it seems likely that A Wheatfield, with Cypresses was one of them.

Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

May 25 2011

Image of Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

Picture: Museo Prado

The Prado is to restore Rogier van der Weyden's c.1460 The Crucifixion. The process is expected to take two years:

The study and subsequent restoration of Van der Weyden’s Crucifixion will be undertaken by the Museo del Prado’s restoration team in collaboration with restorers from Patrimonio Nacional, to whom the Museum will be making available its technical resources and experience acquired through the restoration of other works on panel in recent decades, including The Descent from the Cross by the same artist, which was restored in 1993. The lengthy procedure envisaged will involve a detailed and complete study of the panel in order to decide on the most appropriate procedures for its conservation and restoration.

Full details here.

A nice pair...

May 25 2011

Image of A nice pair...

Picture: BBC/PA

... of Turners.

On the left behind Dave is Scene in Venice, c.1840-5, while on the right behind Barack is Venetian Scene, c.1840-5. Both belong to Tate (who I presume came up with the imaginative titles), and are part of the 1856 Turner Bequest.

They are in the White Drawing Room in Downing Street.

Depression art discovery

May 25 2011

Image of Depression art discovery

Picture: AP/Gallup Independent

Here's a curious coincidence - two days ago I mentioned the exhibition in Oklahoma of paintings funded by Roosevelt's Public Works of Art Project, part of the New Deal.

Now, another work funded by the programme has apparently been found by construction workers in the roof of Gallup City Hall, New Mexico.

What is most interesting about the picture, by Eliseo Rodriguez, is that it isn't very good. I suppose there will always be a quality control issue if the state suddenly commissions thousands of paintings all at once. Arguably, though, the bad pictures commissioned by Roosevelt's programme tell us more about the era than the good ones.

Romney sketchbook published

May 24 2011

Image of Romney sketchbook published


The Romney Society has published a facsimile of George Romney's Kendal Sketchbook, 1763-71. There are 104 pages of Romney drawings, and a fine catalogue written by Dr Yvonne Romney Dixon.

It's a really impressive publication, and well worth having - order a copy here.

Armageddon outta here, take 2

May 24 2011

Image of Armageddon outta here, take 2

Harold Camping says the world is still going to end on October 21st - he just got the date of Judgement Day a bit wrong (he said 21st May).

So, just for fun, here's another guide from art history of what we're all in for, this time from Hans Memling, in a detail from his Last Judgement triptych, in the Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.

Or, you could take a more optimistic line, like Thomas Gainsborough, who, on his deathbed, is reported to have said: 'We're all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company'. Now, that would be cool, not least because I have a few questions for old Anthony, like: where is the quadruple portrait of you and your wife with Charles I and Henrietta Maria, which belonged to Cesare Scaglia; and, did you really paint this?

Restoring a Van Gogh

May 24 2011


Here's an excellent idea - the Cincinnati Art Museum is to restore Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Two Figures in public. The 1890 painting was re-lined in the 1970s, and the wax applied to the back of the canvas is now affecting the paint layers. Now, the wax is being removed, and visitors to the museum can watch via a giant screen.

I regularly encounter damage caused by these wax re-linings. They were all the rage at one point, but now we look back on the process and shudder. Usually, a hot iron was used to melt the wax and so glue the new canvas onto the back of the old. Sadly, this often had the effect of flattening the paint layers - not entirely surprising if you iron a painting - and so the texture and impasto of a painting was lost forever.

I wonder what conservation treatments we use these days that will have to be undone by the next generation of restorers

Another happy ending

May 24 2011

Image of Another happy ending

A triptych stolen from Italy and bought by the Speed Museum in Kentucky in 1973, has been returned to its owners.

The picture, thought to be by Jacopo da Casentino (d.1358), was one of 14 works of art stolen in a raid on an Italian Villa, now thought to be worth $33m. The Speed Museum paid $38,000 for it, unwittingly, and has no insurance to cover the loss.

A happy ending

May 23 2011

Image of A happy ending

Picture: Antiques Trade Gazette

This bust, of Elisabeth Borrett by Sir Henry Cheere, was stolen in January from the church of St Peter & St Paul, Shoreham, West Sussex. It has now been returned, after a photograph was published in the indispensable Antiques Trade Gazette.

The bust was bought, unwittingly, by a dealer, who then consigned it to Sotheby's. He saw the picture in the ATG, and pulled it from the sale. See the pair, of John Borrett, here

Despite the happy ending, there is something profoundly sad about someone wanting to make a few quid (probably literally) by stealing a marble bust from a church.

Pablo who?

May 23 2011

Image of Pablo who?

Picture: China Guardian Auctions

Another record price in China seems to confirm the direction of the art market: a work by Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was sold in Beijing yesterday for $65m (or 425.m yuan). Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree, 1946, sets a new record for a modern Chinese painting.

According to Art Price, Qi's work raised $70m worldwide in 2009 - the only artists ranked higher were Warhol and Picasso. 

The auction house was China Guardian Auctions

Art of the New Deal

May 23 2011

Image of Art of the New Deal

Picture: Smithsonian American Art Museum

A fascinating new exhibition opens this week at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art - 1934: A New Deal for Artists.

The show will have 56 works that emerged from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Public Works of Art Project. Under the scheme artists were encouraged to depict various aspects of 'the American Scene'.

Above is Lily Furedi's 'Subway', 1934. See more examples here and here.

The project lasted just six months, but led to 15,663 paintings at a cost of $1.3m. Should we something similar for the Great Recession?

Lady with an Ermine vs Mona Lisa

May 23 2011

Image of Lady with an Ermine vs Mona Lisa

Might The Lady with an Ermine one day trump the Mona Lisa as the most popular Leonardo painting? Sam Leith, in the Guardian, investigates ahead of the National Gallery's Leonardo blockbuster.

Sinful bronze

May 22 2011

Image of Sinful bronze

Picture: AP

The Vatican doesn't like Oliviero Rainaldi's new statue of John Paul II - despite the fact that they approved the artist's original sketches. 

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