Monday, 1 July 2019

London Art Week: old master auction roundup

London Art Week is anchored by the summer old master auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, a brief, glorious chance to see wonderful private masterpieces. Some of the pictures up for sale this week would hold their own in any museum. But I’m troubled by the marketing of Art Week, dominated by the giant Masterpiece Fair. It treats the fine arts as dowdy relatives of the luxury goods industry, selling culture as fashion. I didn’t enjoy Masterpiece; too much muzak for the eyes, too little art. The new theme is ‘crossover collecting’, which means selling a few striking old masters to collectors in other fields. The auction houses still produce impressive catalogues with substantial, serious essays. But it seems that there are fewer connoisseur-collectors and more rich people making statements. I think that’s unhealthy for the art market, and for our wider culture.

But enough grumpiness; time for beauty. And how beautiful is this Johann Liss The Temptation of St Mary Magdalene(£4m-£6m at Sotheby’s). His pictures are rare because he died in his early 30s. Despite his short life Liss is an important figure in art history because he synthesised so many important developments in the early seventeenth century: Caravaggio, northern mannerism, Rubens and Jordaens, and Venetian high renaissance and baroque art. But that’s a lifeless way of describing Liss’s explosive genius; never mind the categories and the synthesis, his art stands high on its own merits. This is an extraordinary composition, bringing moral struggle to life. But it’s not a moralistic painting, rather a sumptuous tour de force of vibrant brushwork and brilliant colour. It’s rare for any picture of this quality to come up for sale.

It’s one of an exceptional group of masterpieces at Sotheby’s. Top by value is a big landscape by Gainsborough Going to Market, Early Morning (£7m-£9m) controversially sold by Royal Holloway College in 1993. Gainsborough’s landscapes are under-rated, perceived as decorative and not taken as seriously as the specialists, Constable and Turner. I think they’re among the highpoints of British art, and this is a great one. Northern mannerism has happily become rather more fashionable in recent years, and the best works are now expensive. Joachim Wtewael’s Diana and Actaeon (£4m-£6m) is an especially beautiful example of his small cabinet pictures, painted on copper. And visitors to London’s National Gallery will be familiar with Ribera’s brilliant, charming Girl with a Tambourine (the sense of hearing) estimated at £5m-£7m. A high price, but how could you not love this? 

The top end of the market is still a duopoly, both firms following similar strategies. Their sales fall in the same week, they both have expert staff, lavish catalogues, sophisticated client relationship management and marketing and similar buyer’s premiums. But Sotheby’s has a far better sale. Why? One possibility is greater willingness to guarantee prices to vendors. Sotheby’s has guaranteed eight lots in the evening sale, including the Gainsborough, Liss, Wtewael and Ribera, with a total low estimate of £26m. Christie’s has guaranteed one lot with a low estimate of £250k. As an interested observer it looks to me that Sotheby’s is winning, but they’re taking on a lot more risk. The guaranteed lots are sensibly estimated and commercially desirable, and some are backed by irrevocable bids, but Christie’s might have the smarter financial strategy. There’s also a risk that guarantees distort incentives. If an auction house is perceived as promoting its guaranteed lots more assiduously, other vendors will be less willing to consign without a guarantee.  

Christie’s still has some fine and interesting things, including a curious triptych wing by Hans Memling, with teeny-tiny estimate of £1.5m-£2.5m. The catalogue essay explains why. It was so heavily restored and repainted that the attribution itself was uncertain. It was restored over six years (!) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There are large areas of loss and repaint and it’s unclear just how much of the face is original. It’s still a rare thing, and beautiful despite the restoration. My favourite picture in the Christie’s old master sale is Adriaen Isenbrant’s Portrait of a Lady, half length, with a dog (£70k-£100k), consigned by a Thyssen heir. But the best of the Christie’s old masters is in the Rothschild sale: an outstanding David TeniersDéjeuner au jambon (a snip at £800k-£1.2m). Peasant scenes aren’t to everyone’s taste (“disgusting”, says one contemptuous friend), but this one is great. The Rothschild sale is a sad illustration of changing taste. French furniture used to be fought over by oligarchs as the ultimate status symbol, but iconic masterpieces are now estimated at half what they made twenty years ago. A magnificent porcelain-mounted Carlin gueridon of the highest quality is now estimated at £400k-£600k. What’s wrong with billionaires today?

As ever the day sales have lots of good things at extraordinarily low estimates; good art has never been so affordable for the middle classes. I hesitated to tell you about my favourite, because I was sorely tempted to re-mortgage the house to bid on a set of pictures by the engraver Petrus Staverenus Personification of the five senses (£50k-£80k). But I’m sure they’ll go for more, and there will be other targets another day. I will envy their new owner.  

The old master drawings market is bifurcated. Good drawings sell, but great drawings sell for extraordinary prices. In general there seems to be a strong correlation between price and quality; great drawings consistently sell well. Leon Black is well-known as a deep-pocketed collector, but auctions need at least two to drive up the price. There must be a handful of collectors, who seem to have either good taste or good advisors.

Christie’s old master drawings sale is huge, with lots of good mid-priced works and one masterpiece: a rare Montagna A woman standing on a grassyknoll, holding a fruit. High estimate of £1m-£1.5m reflects competition for rare, iconic drawings.

Sotheby’s has a newly-discovered Rosso Fiorentino, a design for an altarpiece of The Visitation. It’s a tiny masterpiece that doesn’t reproduce well, an early work that quotes lots of high renaissance tropes with a few mannerist twists. The sophisticated composition and dynamic interplay between figures brings to mind Poussin, a very different artist in many ways, but perhaps a kindred spirit in others. This rare and beautiful drawing deserves to do better than its £500k-£700k estimate. Top lot is a Canaletto(£1.5m-£2.5m), which shows just what a great artist he could be at his best. This one makes up for a lot of rather repetitive Venetian scenes that come to auction fairly regularly. I’d take this over most of his paintings.

Good luck if you’re bidding!

Monday, 3 December 2018

Old Master Auctions

Sotheby's and Christie's dominate high-end art auctions, but Bonham's has some particularly interesting pictures this month. There are no multi-million pound masterpieces, but some good and intriguing mid-range pictures with enticing estimates. My favourite is a full-size contemporary copy of Poussin's The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea that they attribute to Le Brun. Not quite an original work of art, but the £25k-£35k estimate is maybe a hundred times less than what a Le Brun of this scale and quality might fetch, and a thousand times less than a Poussin. It's worth £25k just for the 1830s Smith & Son frame.

This Dutch still life is a bit of a problem picture. It's attributed to Pieter Claesz, although some scholars favour the much less esteemed Hendrick van Heemskirk. The odd thing is that the left hand part seems very high quality, but other elements are quite slovenly. It's a union of a £200k-£300k picture with a £2k-£3k picture. They compromised with an estimate of £20k-£30k. You just need to spend the savings on a tapestry to hide the bad bits.

My other favourites from Bonham's were a lovely Jan Asselijn is estimated at £12k-£18k, a Cavallino £20k-£30k and a newly-discovered Andrea Sacchi at £250k-£350k.

The highlight of this season is a picture I've wanted to see for a very long time: a masterpiece by the Master of St Veronica, an anonymous but enormously talented early Cologne artist. It's the best thing in the London sales, both very rare and imporant and very beautiful and moving. I love the idiosyncrasy of early German art, the jovial Christ delighted by his resurrection, transcendence made imminent. The estimate of £1.2m - £1.8m seems paltry. It's not the most 'commercial' picture, and the central figures are a bit abraded, but that's still very little for something so fabulous. It represents an imporant moment in art history that's poorly represented in many museums. The National Gallery ought to go for it, but I don't believe they will. The Getty and the Met are obvious contenders, plus maybe Cleveland or the Louvre. It's been widely published and known about, and it's an obvious gap in many collections. Museums should be ready to pounce, and I'm surprised a sale wasn't brokered before the auction. A £1.8m low estimate disrespects the artist's genius; isn't it enough that we've forgotten the poor chap's name? I really hope that later this week we'll hear that it's gone to a great museum.

Sotheby's also has a glorious early Jan Brueghel the elder (£1.8m-£2.5m; really nice little picture, but this shouldn't be more expensive than the Master of St Veronica!), a Rembrandt Head of Christ (£6m-£8m) and an interesting pair of pictures of beggars by Giordiano (£150k-£200k).

The best things aren't always the most valuable, and one of my favourites at Christie's is this Ecce Homo, vaguely described as 'Italo-Flemish seventeenth century', which is a technical art history term for "we're not quite sure". I don't know either, but I love it. It needs to be seen from below, the figures looking down at us. It's a very Roman image, reminiscent of Mantegna more than Flemish art. If I had space I'd certainly be bidding against the enticing estimate of just £5k-£8k.

Christie's has the Eric Albada Jelgersma collection of mainly Dutch and Flemish pictures. He had some fine pictures, but his taste is not mine. More appealing to me is this Antwerp school Lamentation with an unusually horrific scalped Christ (£250k-£350k). A lot of similar pictures were painted in Antwerp, and the quality is often really good. But I wonder how many people would want to live with that rather harrowing image. More conventionally popular is a magnificent English-period Van Dyck of a beautiful young Princess Mary (£5m-£8m). Another version is at Sotheby's, given to Van Dyck and studio, but not a patch on the Christie's masterpiece.

The other highlight of the season is a sale from Rugby school, which is all much to my taste. The old master drawings include some artists I especially like: Orsi, Cades, Testa, plus a rare Lucas van Leyden, a Correggio and a superb Jan Brueghel the elder. Giuseppe Cades is an eighteenth century Italian draughtsman who deserves to be better known. Three Bishop Saints above is estimated at £15k-£25k.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Contrasting Rubens portraits at London auctions

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Sotheby's and Christie's each offered Rubens portraits at their auctions last week. The Christie's picture, Clara Serena Rubens (above) had been recently deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and sold by Sotheby's in 2013 as the work of a follower. Back then it made $626,500 against an estimate of $20k-$30k. It's been promoted hard as a Rubens, including spells on loan to the Rubenshuis and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. A dealer described the estimate of £3m-£5m as low, and predicted that she would 'break records'. It didn't sell.

I saw it at the Rubenshuis, exhibited alongside certain works by Rubens, and didn't think it stood up. It's a really endearing image and beautiful in parts, but the ambiguously sculptural treatment of the bust seems wrong for an intimate portrait of his daughter, and the application of paint seemed quite different from the other Rubens in the exhibition I saw. I'm not a Rubens specialist, and I know that some thought it was right even after seeing the Rubenshuis show. But a lot of Rubens specialists weren't quoted in the catalogue and haven't committed a view either way. Scholars are cautious of criticising new attributions, which are often uncertain rather than plainly wrong. But I am uneasy about museums showing controversial works with full attributions just before they're sold.

The Rubens at Sotheby's, which I wrote about in my preview post, was unquestioned and made £5,416,500 against an estimate of £3m-£4m. The market gave its verdict on the relative merits of the two portraits. The wonderful portrait attributed to Dürer - my favourite in the Sotheby's sale - made £1,150,000, over a cautious £300k-£400k estimate. It's still good value for something so rare and so good. Last time I can recall a plausible Dürer offered at auction was the Portrait of Michael Wohlgemut from the Schäfer collection at Sotheby's in December 1992, where it was unsold against an estimate then of £600k-£800k.
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Sotheby's had a lot of pictures to my taste. I've always liked the mysterious Jacobus Vrel, and I was pleased to see one of his best pictures sell for £838k (estimated £300k-£400k). Cassone panels are often disappointing because they get so damaged, kicked and scrubbed over the centuries. The Liberale da Verona Triumph of Chastity was one of the most beautiful and well-preserved to appear on the market, and deservedly made £1,330,000 (estimate £400k-£600k, detail above). I was more surprised to see four South Netherlandish panels from the early fifteenth century sell strongly for £2.65m (est £1m-£1.5m). They're enormously rare, but I thought not of the finest artistic quality. I preferred a really fine Adoration of the Magi by a follower of Van der Goes, which made just £250k (est £200k-£300k).

At Christie's an attractive Gerard David Holy Family made £4,846,250 (est £1.5m-£2.5m) and a major portrait by Ludovico Carracci that emerged in 2005 made £5,071,250 (est £3.5m-£5m).

In drawings, Turner's spectacular Lake of Lucerne made £2,050,000 at Sotheby's. I thought it would do better. That's less than half the Blue Rigi, which is a steep discount for a less sexy title. Van Goyen drawings are common, but an especially beautiful one sold for £68,750 against a £20k-£30k estimate. There's a strong market for the very best drawings. The very best drawing sold last week, in my view, was the incredible early Fuseli of The Faerie Queen that made £728,750 (est £150k-£250k), which is both a high price and a bargain.
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There were a couple of high prices in the day sales. At Sotheby's an attractive and commercial Netscher made £274k against £60k-£80k estimate. At Christie's a thirteenth century Tuscan Madonna and Child enthroned with angels (pictured) sold for £992,750 against a £30k-£50k estimate.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Auction bargains

The glitzy evening sales are a precious opportunity to see masterpieces that might not return to public view for a long time. There's usually a handful of optimistic attributions and bad-but-commercial pictures, too. The day sales are more of a mixed bag, but prices start really low and quality rises really quite high. I know that objectively £5k or £10k is a lot of money, but art has always been expensive, and collectors at every price point make sacrifices. Put off replacing the car (or cycle instead), choose cheaper holidays, plan to work a little longer, or just sell the kids. A lot of these pictures are within reach for many people.
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I like the early Netherlandish and early Germany pictures. Some of the studios turned out high quality pictures in some quantity. These Old Testament prophets from the Swabian school are great! Just £40k-£60k for the pair at Sotheby's. They have the same estimate on a beautiful Annunciation from the circle of the Master of the Housebook, just a foot and a half high. Look for pictures from the 'Antwerp School' for bargains. There are a few conventional names given to identifiable groups of pictures, but a lot of pictures from Antwerp studios are unidetified but often high quality. This St Jerome is particularly nice, with an excellent landscape, estimated at just £20k-£30k at Sotheby's. A little later is a large Martyrdom of St Sebastian (£25k-£35k at Christie's) by Cornelis van Haarlem, an artist of mixed quality, but rather under-rated in my view.
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Christie's says this is from the circle of Anthonis Mor. It's not the only attribution I disagree with, but wherever it's from this is a fine portrait (£10k-£15k). It stands up well displayed just off the main gallery at Christie's, among the evening sale highlights. Another anonymous picture is this fine Roman school Head of a Man, which will be worth much more than £7k-£10k if someone can identify the artist.
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Rubens's prolific studio produced a lot of good pictures. There's a huge price change between 'Rubens' and 'studio', so a big incentive to over-attribute. On the other hand, pictures given to the studio can be cheap. Christie's has a version of the Washington Daniel in the Lions' Den without Daniel, by a follower of Rubens (£25k-£35k). And let's face it, it's the lions we really love! Big kitty cats; Internet, do your thing.
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Do have a look at the catalogues; they're big sales with lots of interesting pictures. At the lower end, this Nicolò Giolfino St Roch is quite charming at £10k-£15k at Christie's, and Sotheby's has a Jean-Baptiste-Marie Huët portrait for £7k-£10k. A beautiful Ceruti still life of chestnuts is estimated at £40k-£60k at Sotheby's. I like it more than a lot of evening sale still lifes.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Summer auction highlights

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It's bronze-o-rama this month. Really great bronzes rarely come up for sale, but this month there are three in London. My favourite is by the greatest sculptor of small bronzes, Giambologna. The Dresden Mars (£3m-£5m, above) is a heart-stopping masterpiece. Exquisitely detailed and with beautiful patina, it's also a consummate summary of mannerism with its subtle and not-so-subtle distortions. The massive foreshortened hand is marvellously expressive with detailed veins and an exaggerated radius bone that looks almost like a ganglion cyst. The calf muscles are over-sized, and more distortions become evident when you study it. But the effect is artistic rather than awkward.

Sculptures are hard to display. They need protection from curious hands, but they can't really be appreciated in vitrines. Sculptures are often seen as the poor relations of paintings, and don't get the same curatorial attention. That's why auction viewings are so worthwhile. The auctioneers do a much better job of showing their wares, and you can really appreciate the quality of this masterpiece. It's a logical acquisition for the Getty, which has developed a choice collection of sculptures. I hope they get it, because they display their collection so well.

Christie's also leads with bronzes. There's a great group of Hercules overcoming Achelous by Tacca, an artist in Giambologna's studio. A gilt version of this is in the Wallace Collection, and comparing the two really emphasises the quality of the Christie's bronze. Estimate is 'on request', circa £5m. They also have a magnificent rediscovered masterpiece by Giradon, a large bronze of Louis XIV on Horseback (£7m-£10m).
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The picture that grabbed my attention was this outstanding Portrait of a Man against a green background, plausibly attributed to Dürer. I don't know if it's by him or one of his close followers like Schongauer, but whoever it's by, it is a masterpiece. Condition is clearly compromised; the background looks horrible. It might have been overpainted and then cleaned. But the face itself is well-preserved and fabulous quality. This kind of picture is rare outside Germany and the estimate of £300k-£400k is modest, reflecting its small size and the diminished impact from damage to the background. The excellent catalogue entry gives more background on disputes over its attribution, which is welcome. Continuing with the northern Renaissance, Sotheby's also has a rare picture by one of my favourite artists, Hans Baldung. The Holy Family with Five Angels (£2.5m-£3.5m) is rather worn in the key parts, but other elements are still finely preserved. And they almost never appear for sale. Hugo van der Goes is another rare and prized master. The Adoration of the Magi at Sotheby's is only by a follower, but I like it a lot. And over 2m wide, it's unusually large and is good value at the estimate of £200k-£300k.
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Speaking of attribution disputes, Rubens was enormously prolific and pictures by him and his studio often appear at auction and there's sometimes a fine line between the master and his school. The best this time is a fine Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman at Sotheby's (£3m-£4m), which looks even better in the flesh, with an ambiguous sense of swagger and vulnerability. Christie's has a newly-attributed portrait with a slightly higher estimate (£3m-£5m), which I don't love. Christie's also has a fine large studio version of a lion's den, derived from the Washington Daniel in the Lion's Den, without the lions (£25k-£35k).
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At Christie's there's a fine large Zanobi Strozzi Last Judgment which represents Fra Angelico's beautiful style (£2-£4m) and a superb early Spanish masterpiece by Miguel Ximénez, also of the Last Judgment (£600k-£800k). My favourite is a small Virgin and Child in a Walled Garden by the Master of the Triburtine Sibyl (£400k-£600k, above).

Image result for A Wide Village Street in summer with carts, villagers and gentlefolk sotheby's
A tiny Jan Brueghel the elder, A Wide Village Street in summer with carts, villagers and gentlefolk (the title says it all) reminds me that he's a really great artist (£2.5m-£3.5m, Sotheby's). Not all his pictures rise to this level, and weaker ones appear at auction quite often. It's a beautiful and easily appreciated picture, but it's also a sophisticated image. Perspective is cleverly distorted; compare the trees on the left and the right. It's a trick used by Rubens, but on a tiny scale. When you see lots of pictures of this type you come to appreciate how hard it is to integrate those seemingly-random figures into a harmonious whole. It's a really great picture.

Sotheby's has a sleeper in reverse. This Ecce Homo is described as Venetian School, early sixteenth century, with an estimate of £30k-£50k. The catalogue note doesn't mention that it was previously offered in New York in 2009 with full attribution to Lorenzo Lotto, endorsed by Keith Christiansen of the Met, with estimate of $400k-$600k. It's still a fine, unusual picture. I wonder if it would have been better marketed without the initial Lotto attribution, encouraging the trade to bid it up as a sleeper.
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There's a dearth of great drawings at this week's sales, but each auction house has a few spectacular things. There's an overwhelming early Fuseli at Christie's, The Faerie Queen appears to Prince Arthur (£150k-£250k, above). The most fascinating is a twenty-foot panorama of London just after the Napoleonic Wars, by Pierre Prévost (£200k-£300k at Sotheby's).

These are the big-money highlights, though not so big compared to contemporary art. I'll write a separate post tomorrow about the day sales and antiquities sales, where there are some really good pictures with really modest estimates.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Christmas shopping: old masters at Sotheby's and Christie's

I hear there were some expensive things at recent contemporary sales, but I don't pay much attention to such vulgarities. The real action is at the Old Master auctions. They were queuing around the block last month at Christie's to see something from the contemporary sale, but few people visit the free, public views for the old master auctions.

I've always wanted to see a version of Titian's St Margaret that's in a lot of the Titian catalogues, listed as in the Kisters Collection, Kreuzlingen. Kisters pictures have been coming onto the market over the past few years, and the one I'd wanted to see is on preview at Sotheby's this week, ahead of its sale in New York in January. Alas, I was disappointed. There are flashes of brilliance, but it's got nothing on the Prado version. Rightly attributed to 'Titian and studio', the estimate of $2-3m tells you how much Titian is in it. Very rich people can bid anything to the sky if the both want it, and this might just attract the attention of gazillionaires. But $3m or so is a prudent estimate and a fair price for a big and striking picture with a bit of Titian in it.

Another Kisters picture is much more exciting: a Velazquez I didn't know at all! It's a collaboration with Pietro Martire Neri, but the face looks all Velazquez. Estimate is $3-4m, which seems cheap for just the face. You get the rest gratis. There's also a gorgeous double portrait attributed to Bartholomäus Zeitblom (surely too good for school, and who else?), and a Virgin and Child with St Anne by Holbein the Elder coming up in New York. Wowsers!

Winter 2017 is the Northern Renaissance season, largely thanks to the Kreuzlingen collection. Other than Cranach, these guys don't come to market often enough to estimate reliably. They're not especially fashionable, and for reasons I can't fathom museums don't generally buy them. In the past few decades the Getty has bought a few, the National Gallery in Washington has bought a wonderful Calvary by the wonderfully-named 'Master of the Death of St Nicholas of Münster' and UK museums have bought ... nichts. I shudder to think of what they could have had for the cost of all those British portraits.

This Betrayal of Christ is by an unknown master from the Lower Rhine, c. 1510-15. It's an exceptional and beautiful picture that is worthy of the National Gallery, estimated at £200k-£300k at Sotheby's. Lack of comparisons makes estimating it difficult, and good Northern pictures have tended to sell strongly recently. But for 'relative value' in the old master world, this is my pick. Tremendous quality, with such characterful figures.

Another potential bargain is a panel that might be by Van der Vliet at Christie's, which needs attention. I don't know the artist well enough to judge, but the quality looks high. A much larger version sold for a lot of money a few years ago. Rohan McCulloch pointed out on Twitter that this one made £5k at a regional auction not long ago, against a low estimate. It's interesting that the buyer flipped it to a major auction house without restoring it. That might mean that the buyer couldn't get an expert endorsement (seducing experts is a crucial skill in the art market). I think it's more likely that the buyer thought it the best way to maximise risk-adjusted return. Dealers are keen to buy 'sleepers', because it makes them look smart and the re-sale price won't be anchored by the auction price. The £12k-18k estimate is way too low if it's right. But cleaning it is a cost and a risk; it might not be as good as it seems, and it might not be accepted. Even if it is, there's a risk that the right buyers aren't there on the day, and trade buyers won't pay full price for a fully-authenticated work. If I were a cynic, I'd be tempted to under-attribute and tip off potential buyers as a deliberate marketing strategy.

Speaking of cynical marketing strategy, I wonder if this picture would sell better as three or four fragments. The catalogue entry says it's a clever exercise in distorted perspective, but I don't think the composition works. In real life it looks much better than the photo. I'm entranced by the details, like a camp proto-mannerist take on Andrea Mantegna. It's by the Master of the Figdor St Eustache, £300k-£400k at Sotheby's.

My favourite Christie's picture is early German, too. This Massacre of the Innocents is by the Master of the Dinkensbühl Altarpiece, another wonderful moniker (beaten only by the Master of the Kitten). Wonderfully theatrical characterisation of calculated thuggery overseen by a sociopathically impassive king, wicked dog, and distraught mothers. Estimate is just £400-£600k, which is surely within the reach of many museums. Christie's also has an exciting rediscovery: a rare picture by the Prague mannerist Bartholomäus Spranger, Mercury carrying Psyche to Mount Olympus (£400k-£600k). Tragically it's rather abraded, like so many of his pictures that were presumably looted during the Thirty Years' War. It's still a rare and important picture that would be a fine acquisition by a major museum like the Met or the National Gallery in Washington, representing a school of art that bloomed brightly but briefly.

As ever, there are eye-watering gems in the sub-£100k range, which barely buys a snotty handkerchief by the trendy contemporaries. Adriaen van Stalbemt will never be a household name, but this picture of The building of the Tabernacle with the Israelites sewing the curtains was good enough to be included as an Elsheimer in an old catalogue raisonné. It had been downgraded by 1977, when it sold for about £65k in inflation-adjusted terms. In 1977 inflation was nearly 16%, income tax was 83% above £20k and globalisation hadn't begun. Today it's estimated at £60k-£80k.

I'm not a great admirer of Victorian pictures, but this Landseer sketch is gorgeous, at £50k-£70k. I wish I knew more about sculpture. There seems to be a gap in the mid-market, with wealthy collectors paying millions for the very best, but bargains in the low-five-figure range. Sotheby's is previewing a tremendous collection of drawings including a Fra Bartolommeo landscape from the album sold in the 1950s and a couple of Watteaus. They're being sold in New York in January, and I'll say more about them then. In the meantime, I'm off to buy some lottery tickets.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

How not to clean pictures: the risk of gels

An art dealer has taken down the video nasty of this picture being scrubbed 'clean' with a harsh brush while gel drips across the cleaned area. You can still see it here as of today. The American Institute for Conservation issued a critical statement and conservators were furious. I don't know who was cleaning the picture, but a conservator on social media calls him 'Scrubby Jelly Pants'. The vigorous scraping with a harsh brush is horrifying, and obviously risks damage. We'll never know how much harm was done; working that quickly makes assessment impossible. In the image above the uncleaned eyebrow looks clearer than the cleaned one, despite the varnish. Of course it's possible that it's an effect of light or they were touched up by a later restorer, but the most likely explanation is damage to the original paint. But although the risk of mechanical abrasion is obvious, my concern here is with the relatively new use of gels in conservation.

Gels allow better control of solvents, restricting penetration. Conservators worry that residues could continue to act on painting long after the restoration, but extensive research suggests that the risk is low. My concern is slightly different: it's that new techniques encourage over-confidence. The defence of Scrubby Jelly Pants has been to assert that gels can be tailored to remove only varnish. Bullish conservators have always claimed only to remove varnish; no one wants to say they're removing original paint. But it's just not true. There's always a risk of removing original paint, particularly when it's applied as glazes that might be made of pigment suspended in varnish. Gels are not magic, and cleaning pictures is not an exact science.

Psychologists speculate that we have a 'risk budget', so we respond to new safety measures by taking more risk. Make us wear seatbelts, and we'll drive faster. The other risk is that new techniques are over-sold. There's a mountain of research on the benefits and uses of gels in conservation, but none of it says you can mix a Magic Gel that can be safely slavered over a picture and scrubbed away without risk. One of the main benefits of gels is the controlled application of solvent; in this video it is so thin it runs down the surface. If it were truly the case that the solvent can only dissolve varnish, and not affect underlying paint, it would not be necessary to apply it in a controlled way. The whole point of gels is to mitigate that risk.

The Hippocratic Oath - "first, do no harm" - is not appropriate in conservation. It would mean doing nothing. Old pictures, unlike people, do not heal or regenerate. Over time we can only ever have less of the original artwork. The challenge is to minimise the damage and weigh it against the benefits. Conservation is essential and desirable; a great masterpiece hidden behind dirt and varnish can't be enjoyed by anyone. But the idea of doing irreversible damage to irreplaceable art is horrifying, so the temptation is to deny the trade-off. I recently heard the leader of a major conservation project assert that there was 'no risk' involved. That either misunderstands risk, or mistrusts her audience to understand the trade-off.

Conservation has become highly professionalised and sophisticated. Good conservators use artistic knowledge and skill in the application of advanced scientific techniques that are extensively tested and debated. But their work is not widely appreciated outside the field. There ought to be a better quality debate about the costs and benefits of conservation projects, rather than spin about 'zero risk, all benefit'. The failure to have that debate is part of what creates the space for videos like this to go viral, and for bad conservation techniques to thrive.