Unlocking Constable's 'Lock'

March 1 2011

Image of Unlocking Constable's 'Lock'

Picture: Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.

It seems John Constable's 'The Lock', currently part of Baroness Carmen Thyssen's collection, may be sold. The Baroness' collection of 240 paintings (which includes works by Canaletto, Monet, Picasso etc.) has been valued by Sotheby's at up to EUR700 million.

The collection is currently on loan to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The loan term is set to expire in 2012, and the Baroness and her step-daughter, Francesca Habsburg, disagree over the future of the collection. The Guardian reports that Francesca Habsburg has vetoed the removal of the Constable.

The Museo Thyssen is home to a painting that represents one of the greatest losses of English artistic heritage; Holbein's only surviving panel portrait of Henry VIII. It was sold by Earl Spencer in 1933/4.

Leonardo's 'Lady with an Ermine' cannot travel

March 1 2011

Image of Leonardo's 'Lady with an Ermine' cannot travel

Poland's chief arts conservator has refused permission for Leonardo's 'Lady with an Ermine' to travel to Berlin for an exhibition in August.

Earlier, concerned polish art historians had hoped to prevent the picture going to London for the National Gallery's Leonardo show, which opens in November. However, it appears that the London journey is still on. 

Tyntesfield Unwrapped

February 28 2011


The National Trust have released this splendid time-lapse video of Tyntesfield House being 'unwrapped', following a multi-million pound restoration. 

I was lucky enough to visit Tyntesfield shortly before it was acquired by the Trust. The present Lord Wraxall gave me lunch and a guided tour soon after he inherited from his brother. The place was chaotic, but inestimably charming. Lord Wraxall's reclusive brother had locked the doors to the 20th Century, and under his long ownership the house acquired a uniquely ancient patina. The effect of stepping back in time was spoiled only by the tiny Christie's tags that hung from every moveable object.

Thanks to the Trust, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the dreaded tags were removed. I can't wait to see it again.

Gainsborough goes to China

February 28 2011

Image of Gainsborough goes to China

Is this a first? Gainsborough's 'The Marsham Children' will go on display in Beijing as part of 'Art of the Enlightenment' from 2nd April 2011 to 31st March 2012. The exhibition will be in the National Museum of China, and is made up of loans from a trio of German museums. Exhibition website here

All Hail Maryan Ainsworth

February 26 2011

Image of All Hail Maryan Ainsworth

Of the many positive reviews of the excellent ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’ at the National Gallery (Guardian, Telegraph, Independent), none mention the driving force behind the show, Met Museum curator Maryan Ainsworth. I am in awe of what she has achieved. [More below]

Not only has she put on a first-class display in both New York and London devoted to a relatively unknown artist – not easy in this age of blockbuster shows – but she has compiled a monograph catalogue to accompany it. I thought monographic exhibitions were dead and buried, but happily not. The catalogue even has a section  called ‘Paintings previously Attributed to Gossart’, which immediately suggests thoroughness, and, whisper it, connoisseurship. Finally, the acknowledgments reveal that the exhibition and catalogue were first proposed only in 2007. What an undertaking.

The 484 page catalogue costs £60, but is well worth it. If only there was a cheaper paperback available at the National Gallery so that more people could learn about this great painter. Instead visitors have to make do with a £20 ‘Exhibition Book’ called ‘From Van Eyck to Gossart’, which includes only a handful of works by Gossart.  

Ps – I can’t help but feel sorry for Gossart. His name is changed so often, it is hardly surprising he is so little known. He preferred to call himself ‘Joannes/Johannes Malbodius’, or ‘John of Mabuse’. For many centuries he was therefore known as ‘Mabuse’. Now art historians call him ‘Jan Gossart’. In England, we persist in spelling this incorrectly as ‘Jan Gossaert’.

Looted Strozzi Refused Export Licence

February 25 2011

Image of Looted Strozzi Refused Export Licence

Picture: Philippa Calnan. 'Saint Catherine of Alexandria' by Bernardo Strozzi.

Title to a fine Strozzi seized in 1942 under Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws has been returned to its original owner's American heirs. But the picture itself cannot leave Italy after it was refused an export licence. It has been valued at $700,000. More here

Epic Guardi to be sold at Sotheby's - Aristo sell-off continues

February 24 2011

Image of Epic Guardi to be sold at Sotheby's - Aristo sell-off continues

Picture: New York Times

Sotheby’s have announced a highlight of their next Old Master sale in London in July; Francesco Guardi’s ‘Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge from the Fondamenta del Carbon’. The nearly 4ft by 6ft 'about $30m' canvas belongs to the family of the 1st Earl of Iveagh.

The sale demonstrates what I have suspected for a while – that we are witnessing the last hurrah of aristocratic art disposals. The following families have recently put a number of masterpieces up for sale; the Earls of Clarendon (Van Dyck), Jersey (Van Dyck), Rosebery (Turner), Wemyss (Poussin), Spencer (Rubens), and the Dukes of Portland (Van Dyck), Rutland (Poussin) and Sutherland (Titian). Even the Duke of Westminster is selling (Claude), though why is a mystery - he hardly needs the cash… [more below]

The consequence is that the UK's museum acquisition funds are being exposed as inadequate. Many significant works, like the Getty's new Turner, may now be lost overseas. We are facing a national heritage crisis.

There is one simple solution. For reasons I have never understood, the Heritage Lottery Fund resists funding acquisitions. As a result, museums rely on the dwindling National Heritage Memorial Fund of just £5m a year. But now that the government has increased the HLF’s share of Lottery cash (already £205m last year, with an extra £40m after the Olympics), surely the time has come for the HLF to step in, and help secure our national collection? 


In Minneapolis...

February 24 2011

Image of In Minneapolis...

...they censor Titian.

A poster for 'Titian and the Golden Age of Painting' at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has been covered up with graffiti. Apparently, some locals 'weren't comfortable seeing nudity outside of the museum.'

Rembrandt Research Project to close

February 24 2011

Image of Rembrandt Research Project to close

Picture: Otto Naumann Ltd. Detail from Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658.

The Rembrandt Research Project, which has been cataloguing the works of the great master since 1968, is to be closed down. This means that the final planned volume will be published in a reduced format. 

When the project started it set about drastically reducing the number of accepted works. The tally went down to less than 250, but has now gone back up to around 320 under the famous connoisseurship of Ernst Van de Wetering. Pictures once excluded but now back in favour include the Frick Collection's Polish Rider, and the Royal Collection's Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap.

This story was in the Art Newspaper print edition last month, but has just been put online today. 

The portraits always go first...

February 24 2011


Footage apparently from Fashloum, in Tripoli.

Going, going... Gone.

February 23 2011

Image of Going, going... Gone.

Picture: Sotheby's

Excitement is building in LA, as the Getty prepares for the arrival on 7th March of J M W Turner's masterpiece, 'Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino'.

The picture is a great loss. It belonged to the family of the Earls of Rosebery, and was sold at Sotheby's last year for £29.7m. No UK museum could hope to match the price, and none tried.

Isn't it time to look again at the whole question of acquisitions and export rules?

How those Titians came onto the market

February 23 2011

Image of How those Titians came onto the market

NPR (National Public Radio, in the US) has a good five minute story on how the Duke of Sutherland's two Titians came to be in Scotland, and why they were put up for sale.

It includes an interview with John Leighton, the Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland. He recalls how the Sutherland collection came to be on loan in his gallery in the first place;

"There's a very nice letter in our archives where the Duke of Sutherland writes to the gallery saying that he finds himself in the embarrassing position of not having enough room," says Leighton. "Would we be prepared to take some pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian, Raphael on loan?" the duke had asked.

Leighton goes on to say that at £50m apiece the pictures are 'a bargain', and probably half price. He's right. In many ways, the present Duke of Sutherland's handling of the sale is one of the great acts of modern arts philanthropy.  

'Now, for the Rubens estimated at £4-6m... do I hear £1m?'

February 23 2011

Image of 'Now, for the Rubens estimated at £4-6m... do I hear £1m?'

Picture: Sotheby's

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has flagged up some astonishing developments in the case of the Rubens/notRubens portrait that was stopped for export in January.

I discussed earlier the difficulties the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art must have had when deciding whether to stop the painting being exported, given the uncertainty over the attribution. Now, however, the story has taken a bizarre twist. It reveals the immense power of the single acknowledged expert, and the potential pitfalls of submitting a painting to the Reviewing Committee.

The basic facts are; [more below]

  • The portrait was previously unknown, and was offered at Sotheby's in December 2009 with an estimate of £4-6m. 
  • It failed to sell. Most scholars accepted it, but some did not, most notably Hans Vlieghe, who is as emminent as they come.
  • The vendors then decided they wanted to have the picture in the USA, where they also have interests. 
  • The picture was submitted to the Reviewing Committee at a valuation of £3.8m. 
  • An expert adviser, David Jaffe of the National Gallery, recommended the painting be stopped for export, as being of outstanding aesthetic significance.
  • The Committee could not agree on the valuation for any interested museum to buy it, and so two independent valuations were sought. The owner's valuer proposed £2.8m, the government's £1m.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. Since nobody could agree between the £2.8m valuation and the £1m valuation, an arbitrator was appointed to establish a final valuation. When a work of art is submitted to the Committee, the owner has to indicate that they will accept an offer to purchase from a museum, at whatever valuation the Committee decides on. If they withdraw, then the picture remains theirs, but cannot be exported for ten years. It can place owners in a very difficult position.

But the arbitrator appointed was - Hans Vlieghe!

I cannot quite believe this. Of course, Hans Vlieghe, believing that the picture was not by Rubens, had no choice but to decide on the lowest possible valuation, which was £1m (indeed, as merely 'Flemish School', it is worth less than half that). 

Was it really a fair decision to appoint Hans Vlieghe as arbitrator, either to him or the picture's owner? The owners may now feel compelled to sell the picture at one quarter of the low estimate that Sotheby's originally valued the painting at. 

If you had a million quid, and you believed the picture was 'right' (as we say in the trade) you could buy it under the 'Ridley Rules'. These allow for a private buyer to step in and purchase the painting at the set valuation, as long as it is displayed on loan for 100 days of the year in a museum. You would then hold it for a number of years, and hope that scholastic opinion accepts the painting as by Rubens. In which case, could you not then sell it at something close to Sotheby's original valuation? You have until March 17th to signal your interest...

Full details of the case here.


LACMA launches App

February 22 2011

Image of LACMA launches App

LACMA has launched its first App, which is free and impressive. It joins, amongst others, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Louvre

$150m Jackson Pollock will not be sold

February 22 2011

The Iowa legislature has withdrawn a bill that would have forced the University of Iowa to sell its prized painting by Jackson Pollock.

Representative Scott Raecker (a Republican) wanted to sell 'Mural' to fund scholarships. 

Have you seen this woman?

February 22 2011

Image of Have you seen this woman?

The new edition of the British Art Journal is out (Vol. XI, No.2), and it contains an appeal for information on the above painting. Yasmin Arshad is writing an article for a forthcoming BAJ on the possible identity of the portrait, and she is heading in the direction of Lady Anne Clifford. 

Also in the BAJ is;

  • A splendidly thorough article by David Wilson on Michael Rysbrack's bust of the Earl of Orkney (which is now on loan at the V&A).
  • An article by Stephanie Roberts and Robert Tittle on the elusive Stuart provincial portraitist 'T.Leigh'. This contains a checklist of up to 20 possible Leigh portraits, a commendable task in these days of unfashionable connoisseurship. 
  • A reconstruction of William and Catherine Blake's residence in South Molton Street, by Angus Whitehead.
  • An overview of the British paintings in the Doha Orientalist Museum, by Howard J M Hanley.

Well worth a read; you can order one here.

The Return of the Double Hang

February 21 2011

Image of The Return of the Double Hang

As an art dealer I'm always extolling the virtues of a double hang - more space to fill.

But I'm delighted to see that the National Gallery is increasingly double hanging in some of their larger rooms. The pictures on the top row are not of the first rank, but the overall effect is so much more exciting than the sparsely hung rooms of old. More please, and congratulations to whoever decided on the new approach. 

Lost Sickert to be Sold

February 21 2011

Image of Lost Sickert to be Sold

A previously unknown work by Walter Sickert will be auctioned in London on 9th March. Blind Beggar was found in Scotland. Bonham's estimate is £40-60,000. 

More on Caravaggio

February 21 2011


Here's a short video of the new Caravaggio exhibition, in which you can see the freshly restored portrait of Pope Paul V.

Some of the new facts on Caravaggio are:

  • He was born 29th September 1571 in Milan (not the nearby town of Caravaggio).
  • He arrived in Rome at the age of 25 (not 20, as previously thought).
  • The fight in which Caravaggio famously killed a man seems to have been planed in advance, and was probably over a gambling debt.
  • He died in a hospital at Porto Ercole in July 1610 (not on a beach).

You can download the full documentation at the bottom of this page (in Italian).

The Mona Lisa 'was not a man with implants'

February 21 2011

Germaine Greer has written a pacey article on the identity of the Mona Lisa in The Guardian

Mona Lisa has been securely identified by Vasari as Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, and the portrait as the one in the possession of François I now in the Louvre. It was assumed that the picture was painted in Florence after Leonardo returned from his travels with Cesare Borgia in 1503 and before he went back to Milan in 1506. The assumption was verified in 2005 when a librarian at the University of Heidelberg, preparing a copy of the 1477 edition of Cicero's Epistoles ad Familiares for an exhibition, came upon a marginal note by Agostino Vespucci comparing Leonardo with Apelles, in which he notes that Leonardo was then working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The note is dated 1503.

There is therefore no call for further speculation about who the original of the Mona Lisa might be, and yet it goes on...

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