22,503 times the estimate - or, why I wish I could speak Chinese

March 24 2011

Image of 22,503 times the estimate - or, why I wish I could speak Chinese

Picture: Sotheby's

Bit off beam this one, but I love these Chinese vase stories. A vase estimated by Sotheby's at $800-1,000 has sold in New York for a whopping $18,002,500. The auctioneers believed the vase to be 20th Century, but up to seven bidders saw the mark at the base and thought otherwise. 

More here. You can read the latest about the £51.6m vase sold in West Ruislip in November, here

Art History Trivia - Hollywood Edition

March 24 2011

Image of Art History Trivia - Hollywood Edition

In 1969 Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor the famous pearl 'La Peregrina', which she wears above right. It had first been given by Philip II to Mary Tudor before their marriage in 1554. Almost all of Mary's portraits as Queen show her with the pearl.

In 1971 a small portrait by Hans Eworth of Mary was offered at Sotheby's (detail, above left). It was bought by the National Portrait Gallery with substantial help by Taylor and Burton, who remain credited on the NPG website to this day.

You can read a full account of the tale on Hope Walker's Hans Eworth website

Mid-Season sales online

March 23 2011

Image of Mid-Season sales online

Picture: Christie's. Detail of lot 60; View of the Thames at Wesminster by Gabriele Ricciardelli

The mid-season Old Master sales (traditionally where they offer the not so good stuff) have gone online. If you have the patience to navigate the tortuous 'eCatalogues', Sotheby's is here, and Christie's here. There are some nice things - check back nearer the auction date (14th April) for my pick of the sales. 

The Renoir's in the post...

March 23 2011

Image of The Renoir's in the post...

This is a novel way of cutting down on shipping costs - someone in Poland has dropped a Renoir into a post box, to be sent to the USA.

The picture, valued at about 700,000 Zlotys (about £155k), was discovered in the mail by Polish customs officials. It is believed the sender was trying to circumvent Poland's stirct export process, and the 25% levy charged on exported paintings. Prosecutors are trying to ascertain who the sender was. The destination was a US P.O. Box.

I suspect this sort of thing happens quite often...

Better photo of that new Van Dyck

March 22 2011

Image of Better photo of that new Van Dyck

Picture: RASF, Madrid

A slightly better image of the newly discovered Van Dyck I mentioned earlier

Anne Boleyn needs YOU!

March 22 2011

Image of Anne Boleyn needs YOU!

Picture: The National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery needs help to begin urgent conservation work on their portrait of Anne Boleyn. The wooden panel is buckling and cracking, causing damage to the paint layers. This is happening because the picture was long ago 'cradled', a conservation practice that was all the rage in the early twentieth century, and which is preventing the panel from moving naturally.

You can donate online here - they have so far raised £2,500, and need to hit £4,000 before work can begin. Please pass this round if you know anyone else who might bung in a few quid.

The picture is probably the most important extant painting of Anne, and consciously presents her as the dark witch-like figure she was portrayed as after her execution.

But it probably doesn't look anything like her. In 2007 David Starkey and I argued that she actually looked like this - and that the old inscription on Holbein's drawing labelled 'Anna Bollein Queen' was valid. Previously, the drawing had been called simply 'Portrait of a Lady'. I'm pleased to note that the Royal Collection now definitively catalogues it as 'Anne Boleyn' in full, and says 'This is a rare surviving portrait of Anne'. Hooray! [Bragging note: to see another royal portrait in a public collection I have re-identified, click here.]

Mothers at Maastricht

March 21 2011

Image of Mothers at Maastricht

The picture I most coveted at The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht was Thomas Lawrence's portrait of his mother (above left). I first saw it at Christie's, and was not in the least surprised when it soared above its estimate of £50-80,000 to make £373,000. Painted in 1797 shortly before she died, it is a dazzling display of Lawrence's genius in oil. I found it very moving.

I was surprised also to find in Maastricht Lucian Freud's similarly treated portrait of his mother (right), painted in 1972. I have no idea if Freud knew of Lawrence's portrait. But I was struck by the similarities between the two. Both are unfinished, and both show their sitters looking awkwardly to the side. Neither are painted with any obvious sign of affection. And yet in both it is the unusual intensity that reveals the deep bond between subject and sitter. 

British Museum Shakespeare Exhibition in 2012

March 21 2011

Image of British Museum Shakespeare Exhibition in 2012

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

The British Museum is to hold a major Shakespeare exhibition in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. There are few details at the moment, but I'm most interested in which portrait of him they will exhibit.

Above is the National Portrait Gallery's 'Chandos portrait' of Shakespeare - which for me is the best example. Quite a few newspapers, books and magazines these days illustrate the 'Cobbe portrait' which was recently proclaimed 'the only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life'. Alas, it is most definitely not him

PS - if you're really keen on the idea of the Shakespeare exhibition, you can apply here to be a project curator - £22,907 p.a. Entries close 1st April. 

An art dealer's Sunday afternoon

March 20 2011

Image of An art dealer's Sunday afternoon

After a smash and grab raid at a London auction house, I found that a framed 50x40 painting will just fit into my motor. And that it takes about half an hour just to get it out again. 

Vermeer will not be restituted

March 20 2011

Image of Vermeer will not be restituted

Picture: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (detail).

Authorities in Austria have ruled that the heirs of Jaromir Czernin cannot claim ownership of Vermeer's Art of Painting. The picture was bought in 1940 by Hitler for his Fuehrermuseum in Linz for 1.6m Reichsmarks, about $660,000 at the time. Despite the fact that Czernin was a member of the Nazi Party, and had written to Hitler after the sale saying, 'I ask that you accept my sincere thanks. Wishing that this picture may bring you, my Führer, joy always, I greet you, my Führer, with the German salute, as your devoted Count Jaromir Czernin-Morzin", Czernin's descendants claimed the sale was forced.

More on the latest developments here. A fuller history of the case is set out here

To sell or not to sell? Sewell vs. Deuchar on deaccessioning.

March 19 2011

The Guardian today had an interesting debate on deaccessioning between the art critic Brian Sewell and the director of the Art Fund, Stephan Deuchar. Deuchar was against, Sewell for. I'm broadly with Sewell, but would limit funds raised to collection care or acquisitions. 

The problem with the deaccessioning debate is that it is increasingly irrelevant. Museums up and down the country are already selling on a large scale. The question should instead be - what are we going to do about it? [More below]


In May I shall be taking part in a conference at the National Gallery on deaccessioning. I shall argue, as I have done for some time, that we need a government sponsored body to manage deaccessioning on a national level. This body, which would be similar to the Export Reviewing Committee, would have two main functions: first, to ensure that the national collection does not suddenly lose, say, all its Girolamo di Carpos in one go; and second, to make sure no mistakes are made.

I'm particularly worried about the latter situation. As an art dealer (there, interest declared), I regularly see American Museums mistakenly deaccession what they think is a work by an unknown artist. I know of many good pictures languishing in UK museum basements that are miscatalogued - and I don't want to see them being sold by accident to dealers like me.

In fact, I'm going to start a regular feature called 'In the Basement', where I shall give some examples. Feel free to join in if you know of any yourself. 


Van Dyck discovered in Spain

March 18 2011

Image of Van Dyck discovered in Spain

This is exciting - a lost painting by Van Dyck appears to have been found in the stores of a Spanish Museum. The Virgin and Child Adored by Penitent Sinners is in the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. 

The news reports are sketchy and describe the painting as 'previously unknown'. I see from the 2004 catalogue raisonne, however, that there was a reference to a similarly titled work in the Spanish Royal Collection in 1681, so perhaps this is it. There is another version in the Louvre (below), in which the central penitent figure holds a different position. In 2004, Horst Vey described the Louvre version as being in bad condition. Perhaps the newly discovered version is in better shape - certainly, the hands and face of the central figure are more compelling than in the Louvre version. 

I've asked the Academy of San Fernando for a better photo - I'll put it up here if I get it.

Gainsborough 'improved' by Reynolds?

March 18 2011

Image of Gainsborough 'improved' by Reynolds?

National Trust curators are investigating evidence that a portrait by Gainsborough of Susannah Trevelyan (x-rayed above) was repainted by Joshua Reynolds. More here

Some gems amongst the crowds at Maastricht

March 18 2011

Image of Some gems amongst the crowds at Maastricht

It was a mistake to go to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht on the opening day - too many people. If you happened upon a swarm of freeloaders around a canape tray, it actually became impossible to move. 

Still, there were some fine pictures on display. Jack Kilgore had what I thought was the discovery of the fair, a work by the young Rubens. [More below]

Painted between 1597-1600, The Empreror Commodus as Hercules and Gladiator is a rare example of Rubens' early subject pictures from before he left for Italy in 1600. Most impressively of all is the fact that it is in really excellent condition. You can read more detailed cataloguing of the picture on Jack's website

Rafael Valls always seems to have a fine Kauffmann on display, and this year he had a bozzetto of Euphrosyne Wounded by Cupid, Complaining to Venus (above). Other highlights included Frans Francken's epic Man Choosing between Virtue and Vice with Johnny Van Haeften, and Thomas Lawrence's Mary, Countess of Wilton (below) with Richard Green, both of which are also in very good condition. Lowell Libson had the best collection of English works, including a trio of exquisite Gainsborough drawings, as well as George Romney's Titania and Her Attendants

There were also some not so good pictures, which I won't mention (at least not yet). The New York Times' review of the fair is worth reading, and entitled 'At Maastricht, the Great Art is Getting Scarce'. I can see their point. 

Get out the jet - it's Maastricht

March 16 2011

Image of Get out the jet - it's Maastricht

Excitement is building ahead of The European Fine Art Fair, which opens tomorrow in Maastricht. Last year, 171 private jets landed at the local airport. The event is a major showcase for Old Master dealers - but can they withstand the pressure from major auction houses? 

Scott Reyburn of Bloomberg has highlighted the growing battle between dealers and auction houses: [More below]

Works by Rembrandt and Renoir will be among 30,000 items worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) offered at the world’s biggest art and antiques fair as dealers vie with auction houses to lure wealthy buyers.

Old Master dealers have been the mainstay of Tefaf. With auctions now usually the starting point for the limited pool of new buyers drawn to historic paintings, the event gives traders a chance to see fresh faces. 

“People go to the auctions first, then come to dealers when they feel more confident,” the London-based Old Master specialist Jean-Luc Baroni said in an interview. “If we’re going to meet new collectors, we’ll meet them at Maastricht.”

Recently, Sotheby's and Christie's have seen their own private sales grow enormously. In 2006, Sotheby's acquired one of the world's major Old Master dealers, Noortman Master Paintings, which exhibits at Maastricht every year. I'm going tomorrow (by train), and will report back on any excitements. 

Things to look forward to in New York

March 16 2011

The Metropolitan Museum has released dates of their forthcoming exhibitions.

Highlights include: 'Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century' (5 April-4 July); 'Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th Century Europe' (17 May-14 August); and 'Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum' (26 July-10 October). More here

Recession? What recession?

March 15 2011

Image of Recession? What recession?

Picture: Cleveland Museum of Art

Hats off to the Cleveland Museum of Art for a really impressive piece of acquisitioning; they've just bought the above cabinet miniature by Isaac Oliver. Possibly painted for Anne of Denmark, it is one of very few large scale miniatures by Oliver to survive. 

It's not only a good buy, but a canny one. The picture was offered at Sotheby's in New York in January with an estimate of $200 - 300,000, which I felt was too high. However, it failed to sell, and presumably the museum were able to secure it for a good price post-sale. [More below]

No matter what Cleveland paid for it, the value today is probably a bargain compared to its original price. Cabinet miniatures were highly prized in the seventeenth century; in the sale of Charles I's collection in 1649 similar miniatures by Isaac Oliver's son, Peter, sold for the enormous sum of £50 each. By comparison, a Holbein sold for £30 and a Corregio for £40.

See Cleveland's other new acquisitions here. See their admirably comprehensive way of enlisting donations and supporters (no state funding) here.

Five Star Watteau

March 15 2011

Image of Five Star Watteau

Picture: Royal Academy. Detail of Nude Man Kneeling, c.1715/16, Louvre.

The Royal Academy's new exhibition of Watteau's drawings has been given five stars by Alastair Sooke in the Daily Telegraph.

The RA has a selection of the drawings in high-res here

The one third acquisition policy

March 15 2011

Image of The one third acquisition policy

A legal dispute between the contemporary art dealer Larry Gagosian and one of his clients has revealed a potentially novel approach to museum acquisitions. The collector Robert Wylde thought he was buying all of Mark Tansey's 1981 painitng The Innocent Eye Test in 2009, for $2.5m, only to find out later that the Met Museum in New York owns 1/3 of it. 

More here


March 14 2011

Here's a strange one - a full-length portrait has gone on display at a museum in Florida because;

'...the owners have spent more than 20 frustrating years unable to sell it for what they think it is worth. By placing it at the Lightner [Museum], they hope to inspire new interest.'

The owners, one of whom is Mr Paul Partel, believe their portrait of Louis XVIII by Antoine-Francois Callet is 'worth millions'. However, it was offered at auction by Christie's in 1991 with an estimate of $60-80,000, before being withdrawn by Mr Partel because; [More below]

Partel is convinced a conspiracy has existed in the art world to suppress the price of his painting, which he too says is worth "millions." On several occasions, he said, buyers have been close to paying him a price he considered fair, only to lose interest after consulting advisers. When it is suggested that the auction houses should want to get the highest price possible since their profit comes from a commission on the sale price, Partel points to what happened in 2001.

That year, the heads of Sotheby's and Christie's were indicted by federal prosecutors for conspiring to fix prices and cheat more than 130,000 customers over six years. The two houses paid $512 million to clients - $256 million apiece - as part of a class-action lawsuit...

Although Partel was not part of the class-action suit, he says the scandal is proof that his conspiracy theory makes sense.

Or it could be that the conspiring art advisers saw that the auction record for a work by Callet is just £145,000, and that the corpulent Louis XVIII is perhaps the least commercial of all the French kings in history. 

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