74 Times the Estimate

December 8 2010

Image of 74 Times the Estimate

Picture: Bonham's

An interior of a church catalogued as 'Studio of Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597-1665)' has sold for £1,476,000 at Bonhams today. The estimate was £20,000 to £30,000.

It might appear at first as if a 'sleeper' has slipped through the net. But reading the text of the catalogue, it seems the auctioneers knew exactly what they were doing - it effectively says, 'we think this is really by Saenredam'. And by leaving open the element of discovery, the (rather dirty) 'studio' picture was the perfect cheese in the trap for the world's Old Master dealers.

The price beat the existing auction record for a Saenredam by some margin.  

Poussin fails to fly

December 7 2010

Image of Poussin fails to fly

Picture: Christie's

Christie’s star lot at the Old Master sales this week, one of Nicolas Poussin’s Sacrament series – Ordination - has failed to sell. The estimate was £15-20 million. I hear that at least one US museum was interested, but in the end could not commit. 

The picture was being offered from the collection of the Duke of Rutland, who has five Sacrament scenes in all. One of the seven, Penance, was destroyed by fire in 1816, and number six, Baptism, was sold by the 9th Duke in 1939. It is now in The National Gallery, Washington.  

Ordination is a an exquisite work, but I feared before the sale that the estimate was a touch high. Realistically, any serious collector or museum who has that kind of money to spend is going to want to try and collect the series, or at least as much of it as they can. That means earmarking perhaps £100 million to get all five from the Rutland collection, with no guarantee that you ever could get all five, and knowing for certain that the one in Washington will always elude you. Meanwhile, a second (more dramatic) series sits enticingly in National Gallery of Scotland, on loan from the Duke of Sutherland, who has been known to sell the odd picture recently...

The Rutland trustees might perhaps have tried to put together a long term deal for all five, with say the Getty or Washington. I'd have taken anything over £50 million, and run... 

Try reading it backwards

December 6 2010

Image of Try reading it backwards

Picture: Guardian

Experts have been baffled by a scrawled 15th Century manuscript recently found in a French library. But holding it up to a mirror reveals it to have been written by Leonardo.

Not by Kauffmann...

December 5 2010

Image of Not by Kauffmann...

Picture: Christie's

...as the catalogue suggests, but by Nathaniel Hone (in my opinion).

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Philip Mould

Blog on

March 16 2010

Video: Handmade Films

Well, bless you all for putting up with my moment of introspection. It has been an extraordinary privilege to receive so many kind emails. Thank you. I don't want to sound boastful, but I was amazed to hear what AHN means to some of you. 

AHN must and will therefore continue. In any case, as one reader wrote:

[...] I do not think that you are entitled to resign without asking [your readers'] prior permission.

And as you imagine they have already definitely decided that (un-) fortunately your resignation has not been accepted.

I was also honoured to meet so many readers at TEFAF in Maastricht, where I went last Saturday.  

In fact, after reflecting on events over the last week or so, I've decided that AHN will not only continue, but be bigger and better. AHN2.0 will take me a while to implement, so bear with me. I want to refresh the site so that it's easier to search, have zoomable images, and also be easier for me to upload (especially on the move). I'd like to hire an Assistant Deputy Editor to help me keep things ticking over whenever I'm on the road (which - for reasons I'm not able to yet discuss - I will be a great deal over the next six months). And I'd be glad to hear from AHNers about any other improvements you want to see.

I was touched that many of you offered to make donations to help maintain the site. Happily, that's not necessary at the moment. But it got me thinking that AHNers who were so minded could be persuaded to support various good causes. So AHN2.0 will have a monthly good cause that readers can chose to donate towards. Of course, it's won't at all be compulsory. But between us we may be able help the odd museum or two.

I must admit to being slightly anxious entering TEFAF last week. Into the Lion's Den, and all that. It looked as classy and well organised as ever. But there were few masterpieces, and it seems not a great deal of business is being done this year. Many participants were, as a result, dealing mainly in gossip. Every third conversation seemed to begin, 'I heard...', and it was surreal hearing rumours which I absolutely knew not to be true. It reminded me of being at boarding school. Such behaviour doesn't reflect well on the trade. 

That said, I sensed more than ever a passing of the baton (albeit perhaps reluctantly) between what we might call 'the old guard', and a newer, more positive, engaging and frankly nicer generation of younger dealers. There was a palpable dismay among this group that so little was being done about the latest fake scandal. So I left TEFAF feeling optimistic about the longer term health of the Old Master market. 

Forgive the language in the above clip from one of my favourite films, but there's a Withnail & I quote for every occasion in life. See if you can guess which line I am particularly thinking of at the moment. 

Thank you again. Onwards!

Blog off

March 7 2010

Some readers may have noticed that AHN has been rather 'feast or famine' of late. I can only apologise. Partly this is because I've been traveling a lot, in connection with some new television work. But it's also partly because I've been trying to navigate some rather stressful circumstances to do with what we might call my day job. I'm not at all seeking any sympathy by writing this. But it's best to be straightforward, and since my relationship with AHNers is something I value greatly, I wanted to explain (at least to the extent that I am able to) what has been going on. 

Ever since I started writing this blog, my aims have been as follows: to make the history of art as welcoming and accessible to new audiences as possible; to share my passion for Old Masters and the stories behind them; and to be as frank and fair in adding my own opinions where relevant. Since the blog went live in December 2010 there have been 4,452 posts, which have been viewed over 2m times. All AHN content is free, and I have never taken advertising. It takes quite up quite a lot of time. But I do it for pleasure, for the pictures, and for anyone who cares to take an interest. I am grateful every day to those of you who come along for the ride.

However, AHN pays neither the mortgage nor the school fees. The day job is my work as a dealer, or rather, as someone who tries to unearth lost and interesting pictures, and to occasionally sell them on for a profit. A difficulty arises, therefore, if AHN impacts on my ability to do the day job.  

The problem comes in part because what we might call 'the art world' is quite small, at least in my Old Master niche. In writing AHN, I am delighted and flattered by the number of people who appreciate the result. It's really very heartening. But at the same time AHN also makes me a significant number of, well, 'enemies' is not too strong a term. Every walk of life has its Salieris, but in the art market there are an awful lot of them. And recently they have been out in force, eager to cut me down to size. I don't mind admitting that I have found it all quite distressing. 

So I'm afraid I need to reassess whether I can continue to do AHN justice. And this requires a time out. I hope you'll understand that I must put my family first. Probably in a day or two I'll delete this post and carry on with renewed vigour. But until then, adieu.

Update: The Deputy Editor says thank you very much for all your emails.

BG photo test

January 21 2009

Image of BG photo test

Antwerp - 'Year of Baroque' in 2018

February 2 2008

Image of Antwerp - 'Year of Baroque' in 2018

Picture: KMSKA

Regular readers will know that Antwerp is one of my favourite cities; we even managed to get it into two out of three programmes for our BBC series, 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (for films on Jordaens and Brueghel the Younger). I was glad to hear, therefore, that 2018 was to be a special 'Year of the Baroque'. And particularly that one of the projects planned to celebrate this was an extraordinary recreation of three altarpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck (above) and Jordaens painted in 1628 for the masterpiece of baroque architecture, the Church of St Augustin. The three altarpieces are currently in storage at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (which is closed and undergoing restoration). The church is no longer used for religious practices, and is instead a music venue. 

But now it seems that this laudable project is to be axed, according to the boss of Flanders' tourist office Peter de Wilde (more here, in French). And to make matters worse, it seems (according to Tweets by the Great Waldemar) that instead of the 1628 altarpieces, the church will be turned into a contemporary installation by the artist Jan Fabre. Waldemar has a particular dislike of Fabre's work, having had a trip to the Hermitage spoiled by Fabre's 'interventions' amongst the various baroque pictures there (see one of Waldemar's photos below, and for more on the 'dead animals' concept behind that exhibition, here). 

Let us hope that this rumour is not true, and that the original plan to celebrate Antwerp's baroque heritage goes ahead. As anyone who has seen the magnificent Titians and Bellinis in the Frari church in Venice can tell you, there's something magical and powerful about seeing paintings like this in situ. You can read more about the history of the altarpiece here

Update - a reader connected to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts writes:

I understand that the reason for reconsidering this project is not budgetary, but due to legitimate concerns of safety for the art works.

At the moment they are stored in the underground storage facility of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum is a huge and complex construction site at the moment, so the works are not readily accessible. They are also of an enormous size (especially the Rubens), so transporting them is a very difficult operation in itself.

In the St-Augustin church, the original altarpieces are currently replaced by rather excellent copies. So it would just be a matter of replacing the copies with the originals. Although I greatly prefer looking at originals compared to copies, the question can be asked if this risky operation would really significantly enhance the visual experience in the church. Especially when some of the copies are in a better condition than the originals, and the originals will be back on view in the museum in 2019, hardly a year after the event.

I do hope the St. Augustin church will play a significant role in the Year of the Baroque event, it is a baroque gem in itself and not enough known. The detailed program will be published at the end of this month.

One would hope that with a little imagination and ambition the museum could do better than just display copies. There is always a reason for not doing something...

Anyway, what this situation would appear to reflect is the fact that the museum has been shut since 2011 for a renovation, and won't re-open again until 2019. It's always a mistake when museums close entirely for renovations, rather than do it stage by stage. Inevitably the closure period grows and grows, as has happened in Antwerp, and pictures that are for whatever reason too complicated or expensive to take out of storage ust stay there.

What's wrong with the National Trust (ctd.)

April 1 2007

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