This is not just a photo of some shoes...

January 15 2011

Image of This is not just a photo of some shoes...

Picture: Christie's

I'm fascinated by the language used by dealers and auctioneers to describe contemporary art, particularly when it's on sale with a hefty price tag.

Here's a good example from Christie's Spring 2011 'Highlights' magazine, describing a photograph by Andreas Gursky, 'Untitled V' (colour-print, no.2 of 6, estimate £800,000-£1,200,000):

Gleaming with spiritual beauty, the monumental scale and pure aesthetics of Andres Gursky's Untitled V makes this work one of the most powerful and arresting images. Based on the interioir of a luxury goods store, the work is a triumphal examination of consumer culture and the nature of global trade. Its strong architectural lines, muted, meditative lighting and row of sports shoes displayed like sparkling religious icons produces an almost sacred experience... The cool, crisp lines punctuated only by the brightly coloured footwear, are testimony to the enduring influence and Minimalism and to the work of Donald Judd in particular, whose transformation of what Peter Galassi has called 'the solemn majesty of infinite progression (...) into the aesthetic repetitions of the assembly line and the display case' has a particular significance here. 

Much more in the catalogue here.


The Holy Grail of Modern British?

January 13 2011

Image of The Holy Grail of Modern British?

A Francis Bacon triptych of Lucien Freud will be offered by Sotheby’s in London on 10th February. Painted in 1964, it should eclipse the £5.4m realised by Freud’s reciprocal portrait of Bacon, sold in October 2008 at Christie’s London. The Freud of Bacon had an estimate of £4m-7m. The Bacon of Freud has an estimate of £7m-9m.

Not William Gladstone...

January 12 2011

Image of Not William Gladstone...

Picture: Bonhams catalogued, but John Bright. Still worth buying though.

Bright wasn't Prime Minister, but he was one of the most important statesman of the Victorian age. He said the famous phrase during the Crimean War; "The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings." 

Update 19.1.11; it made £1,440.

How much will it make?

January 11 2011

Image of How much will it make?

Picture: Christie's

A previously unknown self-portrait by Andy Warhol will be auctioned by Christie's London on 16th February with an estimate of £3-5m. It is the eleventh version on a 6ft large canvas, and newly authenticated. Previously there were thought to be only ten.

There are more than forty on the smaller 22 inch scale. 

Update 20.1.11; full Christie's catalogue entry here.

Brueghel bought

January 7 2011

Image of Brueghel bought

Picture: National Trust

Splendid news; ‘The Procession to Calvary’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger at Nostell Priory has been bought for the nation after a campaign to raise £2.7m. The National Heritage Memorial Fund contributed £1m, and the Art Fund £500,000.

Public donations amounted to an impressive £680,000. The picture is a religious scene, by the younger Brueghel, and can in no way be described as specifically British. But that it still generated such a strong public response is testament to the appetite for good acquisitions.

Given the strong prices for anything Brueghel these days, I think £2.7m was a bit of a bargain. Well done to everybody involved.


The world's most coveted painting?

December 29 2010

Image of The world's most coveted painting?

A new book makes the case for van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece.

More baffling Contemporaryartspeak

December 28 2010

Image of More baffling Contemporaryartspeak

From, describing a new exhibition (featuring Turner Prize Winner Simon Starling) at the Camden Arts Centre:

"It aims to create a temporal cacaphony by orchestrating a series of collissions between spatially and historically remote works, that themselves push and pull at an understanding of linear time."


December 27 2010

Image of 9/11

The number one art event of the last decade, according to Robert Ayres. 

Go Rolf

December 26 2010

Rolf Harris wants to paint Wills n' Kate.

The Future of Art History?

December 23 2010

Image of The Future of Art History?

Picture: David Hockney

David Hockney paints on his iPad.

Velasquez Upgraded

December 22 2010

Image of Velasquez Upgraded

Picture: New York Times/Metropolitan Museum

After a long campaign of conservation, curators at the Met in New York believe that their ‘workshop’ portrait of Philip IV is in fact an autograph work by Velasquez.  It had been downgraded in 1973. The New York Times has a fascinating article, where you can see the picture before and after conservation. 

Philip’s left eye had been totally obliterated, and has had to be recreated (very well I think) from other versions of the portrait. Despite appearances, the picture is actually in a relatively good state. The story is yet another example of how a picture’s condition can throw people off the scent – ‘dirty’ paintings, obscured by old varnish and over-paint, are often hard to read.

The Met’s attribution of Philip IV follows on from their earlier upgrading of Portrait of a Man from workshop to autograph.

Courtauld defeats Jewish heirs to keep Rubens

December 20 2010

Image of Courtauld defeats Jewish heirs to keep Rubens

In a strange ruling, the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel has concluded that the heirs of a Jewish banker cannot claim ownership of a Rubens sketch sold under the Nazis. Herbert Gutmann sold the picture at Graupe auction house in 1934, a year after Hitler assumed full control of Germany. Austrian authorities, on the other hand, have previously decided that Gutmann’s paintings sold at Graupe should be returned to his heirs.

The case revolved around whether Gutmann sold the Rubens at its market value because of debts he was obliged to repay legitimately, or whether he was forced to sell the picture because of anti-semitism.

The basic facts of the case are these:

  • Gutmann was the son of the founder of Dresdner Bank, and a director of the board. His family were Jewish converts. Dresdner Bank was part nationalised in 1931, and Gutmann forced to resign and repay certain debts the bank claimed he owed it.
  • In April 1934, still needing to repay debts, he consigned his art collection, including the Rubens, to Graupe auction. Gutmann’s heirs contend that the debts were fictitious, and directed maliciously at a registered Jew by what was then a Nazi controlled bank.
  • The Rubens made 8,100 Reichsmarks, above the estimate of 5,000 marks.
  • In June 1934, Gutmann, a registered Jew, was arrested as part of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. He fled to Britain, where he died in 1942. His wife and brother were murdered by the Nazis.
  • The Rubens ended up in the hands of Kurt von Schroder, a prominent Nazi by the end of the war, and then, via Sotheby’s, to Count Antoine von Seilern, who bequeathed it to the Courtauld.
  • The Courtauld claimed that Gutmann’s debts were legitimate. Therefore, argues the museum, the sale was not forced. The Spoliation Panel agreed.

However, it appears the Panel did not adequately take into account the general atmosphere of prejudice against Jews and opponents of the Nazis at the time of the sale, and, crucially, whether Gutmann had any chance of realising the picture’s full market value.

Graupe auction, for example, was notorious for forced 'Judenauktion', and indeed the auctioneers bragged to potential bidders that for the Gutmann sale estimates were lower than for comparable sales outside Germany.

"Hitler's Willing Bankers"

Perhaps most importantly, the Panel does not seem to have considered the fact that Dresdner Bank was notorious for implementing anti-Jewish and Nazi policies, particularly against its own staff. Dresdner was Himmler’s favoured bank. A recent seven year study into Dresdner’s Nazi-era history concluded that "the bank took part early on in the Third Reich's policy of confiscating Jewish property and wealth".

Gutmann was a close associate of the Nazi’s political opponents, including Walther Rathenau, a former Foreign Minister, and Kurt von Schleicher, a former Chancellor. The Spoliation Advisory Panel also relates that "In the Reichstag elections of November 1932 a Nazi propaganda poster had described him [Gutmann] as a profiteer and a Jewish manipulator". But the panel then makes the following illogical statement; "However, in March/April 1934 [Gutmann] had no reason to suppose he would be arrested because of his political past."

This not only goes against the directly available evidence, but, one could argue, betrays an ignorance of the situation in Germany at the time. After Hitler’s assumption of the Chancellorship in January 1933, any political opponent of the Nazis knew they faced attack or arrest. Hitler’s purges of his own party had shown that he tolerated no opposition.

Moreover, Jews faced all sorts of restrictions on what they could or could not do, especially in relation to financial matters. The sale of the Rubens, therefore, could not possibly have been conducted in a manner that Gutmann would have chosen had he been free to dispose his assets as he wished. The panel agrees that Gutmann was not able to sell the picture where he wanted it, but concludes that "The fact that Gutmann was effectively unable to sell the work in London does not therefore mean that selling it in Germany was financially disadvantageous to him." I do not believe the Courtauld’s claim that the Graupe sale realised the picture’s full value, and nor do I believe the Panel's assessment of relative Rubens prices at the time. 

Immediately after the war, Gutmann’s family claimed compensation from the German state for punitive taxes levied by the Nazis, and have continued to successfully claim back his property. In 1992, they regained control of his large house in Potsdam. Last year, Vienna’s council decided that they could also claim his pictures, and returned a work by the Austrian artist Hans Makart, which had been sold in the Graupe sale. It seems to me that the UK Government should do the same for the Courtauld’s Rubens.

Gutmann's granddaughter has written a touching article on the circumstances of his dismissal from the bank.

Louvre secures Cranach

December 17 2010

Image of Louvre secures Cranach

Picture: Louvre

The Louvre has raised a million euros towards the EUR4M it needs to buy Cranach’s Three Graces. Amazingly, in these straitened times, the million boost came from 5,000 individual donors via the Louvre’s appeal website. "It's a magnificent Christmas present," the museum's director Loyrette said.

Looks like a bargain too. The picture was listed as a French National Treasure, meaning it could never be sold outside France. I fancy that if the picture was to appear in a Christie’s catalogue in London or New York, it would have a far higher estimate.

New Napoleon Exhibition

December 17 2010

Image of New Napoleon Exhibition

In Bonn till 25th April 2011, then at Les Invalides in Paris. 

Recreating a Raphael

December 16 2010

With real people, and togas.

Those Leonardo Stories

December 14 2010

Jonathan Jones has a good take on the recent crop of Leonardo tales.

Mona Lisa theory no. 672

December 13 2010

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 672

Picture: Nick Pisa

It’s been a busy few days for Leonardo da Vinci stories. Now an Italian researcher has found clues hidden in the Mona Lisa, which may reveal her identity. They are tiny brushstrokes only visible under magnification, and are ‘LV’ in her right pupil, and ‘B or S’ in her left (or perhaps even ‘BS’?). 

Silvano Vincenti, President of Italy's Committee for National Heritage, who spotted the letters, says;

‘In the right eye appear to be the letters LV which could well stand for his name, Leonardo da Vinci, while in the left eye there are also symbols but they are not as defined. ‘It is very difficult to make them out clearly but they appear to be the letters CE, or it could be the letter B. ‘In the arch of the bridge in the background the number 72 can be seen or it could be an L and the number 2. ‘You have to remember the picture is almost 500 years old so it is not as sharp and clear as when first painted.'

It all sounds a bit optimistic to me.

"Moving the Lady with an Ermine is absolutely crazy."

December 13 2010

Image of "Moving the Lady with an Ermine is absolutely crazy."

So says Michael Daley of ArtWatchUK, ahead of the picture’s loan to the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in London, scheduled for November 2011 – February 2012. A group of Polish art historians is also anxious about moving the picture.

There's been a growing neurosis about moving, or occasionally even looking at, old paintings over the last decade. But the Lady will be fine. As long as the National Gallery doesn’t drop any more pictures, that is…

Lucknow at LACMA

December 12 2010

Image of Lucknow at LACMA

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

A new exhibition on the court art of 18th and 19th Century Lucknow in India (then known as Oudh) has opened at LACMA. It runs until February 27th, when it departs for the Musee Guimet in Paris.

I'm pleased to say that our newly discovered portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh, by Robert Home will be joining the exhibition in Paris.

The Tudor Giant

December 9 2010

Image of The Tudor Giant

A full-length portrait of 'The Giant Porter' (7 1/2 feet), who worked for Elizabeth I, has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace. The Royal Collection picture, attributed to Cornelis Kettel, has been recently restored.

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