Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Why the old master market really is dead

The lackluster totals from the recent old master auctions in London prompted more observations about the parlous state of the old master market. I liked Scott Reyburn's account in the New York Times, but Bendor Grosvenor has issued a firm critique with useful data. But I'm still with Reyburn, and I think Bendor's evidence reinforces Reyburn's conclusion, if we put it in context.

The important question is what you're comparing against. The value of money itself changes, so you have to adjust for inflation. But over time economies tend to grow, so any sector simply keeping up with inflation isn't doing so well. Sectors wax and wane, of course. But if the auto industry is booming and Ford's sales are increasing in double digits, it's not enough for General Motors to say they're doing great because their sales are in line with the overall economy. Bendor's charts show old masters just about keeping up with inflation at a time when the potential market is booming because there are far more very rich people in the world, with far more disposable income. It's just that they're spending that income on modern and contemporary art, which is booming. That can't be explained away as a speculative bubble, because it's supported by strong market demand that's boosting all kinds of luxury products—except old master paintings.

It's not just that there are more rich people. Wealth increased significantly in the post-war boom, but there was a big lag before the art market took off. One reason for that is relatively high tax rates and relatively high returns to labour rather than capital. But that didn't change until the subsequent growth of the art market was already well underway. I think the other aspect is that returns on investment were strong as the economy recovered after the war. There was high demand for capital, and good long-term returns. Today that's not so true; returns on all asset classes are muted and  growth is sluggish. So it makes sense for the elite to divert resources towards consumption—which, again, is exactly what we've seen in the luxury good industry, and in every sector of the art market except old master paintings. Old masters really are the anomaly.

Historically the old master market performed much as you might expect based on the changing fortunes of the very rich. In the early twentieth century they were booming, as American millionaires entered the market for the first time. After the depression prices fell sharply. There have been plenty of strong trends, even if they even out over the very long term. Incidentally, even in the boom years of the early twentieth century dealers complained about the difficulty of obtaining good mark-ups on pictures bought at auction; Duveen liked to buy collections en bloc to avoid the anchor of publicised prices, and Wildenstein kept things in stock for decades before resale. Agnew used to sell stock bought at auction on very thin margins in the nineteenth century. And there are still plenty of dealers buying at auction and then selling retail in Mayfair or at Maastricht. I think the bigger story is that old master dealers are being squeezed in a declining market, not that their old business model has suddenly failed.

Finally, we can look more anecdotally at the market itself. Some parts do better than others; prices for Dutch pictures and Brueghels seem to have softened recently. Elizabethan portraits are doing better. French eighteenth century pictures are especially out of favour. But the overall impression is that really good mid-range pictures are selling consistently poorly if you think in terms of their relation to house prices, or to the incomes of the relatively affluent (top professionals and business leaders). Today a month's income for a barrister, or partner in a big accounting or consulting firm would buy a picture that would grace a museum. And there are more people earning those salaries than ever before. It's just that they're buying contemporary art.

A coda on data
Because each old master painting is unique, there's no reliable indicator equivalent to, say, the price of gold. Even the same picture re-sold may come with a different attribution, or following restoration that may have helped or hurt its value. Sales volume in the overall market is hard to find, because of coding and categorisation issues. The top auction houses re-position themselves from time to time, going into the mid-market and then pulling back. Supply is only slightly elastic. The 'three Ds' (death, divorce, death) produce a reliable stream of consignments from forced sellers, but rising prices don't automatically secure big increases in supply. But rising prices do tempt treasures into the market, so there's a degree of pro-cyclicality in raw sales data, as well as volatility because the market is so thin.

Bendor's data show sales increasing slightly above inflation, which in the context I've described is frankly dreadful. Sotheby's closed its Olympia saleroom and Phillips withdrew entirely from the old master market in that period. The data are difficult to obtain, because old master picture sales sometimes include drawings and sculptures (including a £29.7m Raphael), and old masters are sometimes sold in other sales (such as mixed single owner sales). The trend line is influenced by start date; I calculate Sotheby's results from 2002 to have been £153m, inflation-adjusted, which may have given a different slant to the trend. But the only element I really object to is comparing performance with the FTSE without reinvesting dividends, which is meaningless (do we assume the dividends were just eaten?). I don't think art should be treated as an investment class, for the reasons Bendor himself sets out. And for what it's worth, I don't think it's right to call the contemporary market a 'speculative bubble', though economic shifts could easily see significant price falls.

Artprice has an alternative index showing old master prices declining, but their index shows far more volatility than I perceive in the actual market, so take their data with a pinch of salt.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Old Master Results

Picture: Sotheby's
London's auctioneers put on a fine show last week: plenty of good pictures with mostly quite reasonable estimates. But results were disappointing. High levels unsold (about half the Christie's evening auction), and no really spectacular prices. There seemed to be less trade buying than usual, and dealers declining to add to their stock is a bad sign. The day sales did a little better, but prices are still astoundingly low compared to contemporary art, and unprecedented relative to the immense resources of the wealthy global elite. The large number of unsold pictures indicates that prices are 'sticky downwards', as economists say: sellers are reluctant to crystallise losses relative to their expectations, so they decline to sell. It implies market weakness, but the inherent volatility of the art market makes the signal hard to read. We must also be cautious of drawing conclusions too hastily from a small sample of lots sold in a single week, although it really only confirms long-standing trends.

The high-end market is sewn up by Christie's and Sotheby's, and usually reported as a messianic struggle between them. But reporters are measuring the wrong thing when they compare value of sales, a metric chosen because it's easily available and easily understood rather than because it's actually important or meaningful. If you're selling pictures, you want to know which auctioneer will get the higher price, and it's not clear to me that either has a clear edge. Knowing how much they've sold for other people doesn't answer that question. If you're a shareholder, you want to know about risk-adjusted return. Sale volume doesn't help that analysis: you need to know the commission charged and guarantees granted. And mere observers like me would be happy if either of them could just make navigating their websites easier than bitcoin mining.

On the face of it Christie's sale was a disaster. But it really comes down to a handful of pictures. Their top lot, Hoffmann's Hare didn't sell, despite being one of the best things offered in London in recent years. Maybe private equity magnates think hanging a fluffy bunny on their wall would convey the wrong message. When I first saw it I thought the estimate would be £3m-£5m, but it was actually pitched at a slightly more aggressive £4m-£6m. Given its appeal, I didn't think that unreasonable, and it was quite plausible that a couple of interested collectors could have pushed it well beyond that. A small Claude drawing sold recently for just shy of the Hoffmann low estimate, after all. Sotheby's top lot, a Constable that didn't inspire me, sold to a single bidder at its reserve. If that buyer had gone for the Hoffmann at Christie's, it would have looked very different.

We don't know the economics of either auction, particularly how much commission they earned (assume negative seller's commission). The other expensive lot at Christie's was withdrawn; surprisingly, it was consigned by Christie's itself, having taken ownership when it failed to meet its guaranteed price a few years ago. It was sold privately, I'm told above its high estimate. That would also have boosted their total significantly. It ought also to boost profits too, as it would have been taken to inventory at the lower of estimated realisable value and purchase price. I'd say a prudent accounting treatment would be to discount by at least 20%, causing a big loss then but a decent profit now.

A few other observations:

  • Vive la France! The Louvre made a great purchase of the Master of the Dreux Budé Triptych's Arrest of Christ for £965k (pictured above). It's a good and unusual picture that would complement any of the great collections of northern renaissance painting. Well done them for getting it directly from auction. Another fine French museum acquisition was Cabanal's Portrait of an Artist from the Winter Collection sale, for just £6,250. There are plenty of opportunities for good but cheap pictures that museums could be buying, but it's rare for them to do so. Do watch La Tribune de l'Art for the most thorough coverage of museum acquisitions, including the Cabanal.
  • Things I got right: of the pictures I thought looked cheap, the Moillon doubled estimate, Flinck, MignonBachiacca and Testa all exceeded estimate (even before premium). Two early Italian pictures I thought seemed cheap sold for approximately double and triple their respective estimates.  
  • The pictures I thought expensive mostly did poorly, which wasn't my expectation. The Constable scraped its reserve with one bid, view pictures and the Bosschaert still life did poorly, and the Henry VIII sold below low estimate. Tudor portraits have been madly expensive recently; historically interesting, but artistically dull. 
  • Things I got wrong: the Cariani was a bargain at its low estimate (£100k, £125k with premium), though dark pictures of Christ with the Cross are not the most 'commercial'. Baciccio made its high estimate (£35k with premium), but I still say it was cheap at that price. Mr Market didn't share my fondness for the early Cologne picture that made just £50k. I was surprised the Verspronck didn't sell; I thought it might exceed the estimate. His portraits are not rare, but this was a good one (though not in perfect condition). The Standard Bearer by Verspronck made $1.5m in 1998, and is now in the National Gallery, Washington. This one wasn't nearly as spectacularly swashbuckling, but similar order of quality.
  • So I was more right than wrong. I'm a genius, right? Well, alas no. Estimates aren't really predictions. Some pictures are estimated low to encourage interest (and tease us). Some are estimated 'robustly' to signal their importance (e.g. Hoffmann). And others are estimated high because the seller has demanded a high reserve. The auction house has marginal costs that aren't fully recovered from cataloguing fees, and they don't want too many unsold lots. But against that, they want to ensure their sales have a reasonable balance and low marginal costs make it worthwhile to take a punt if there's even a small chance of selling. There might also be opportunities for commission from private sale after the auction, and including some lots with high reserves might facilitate other consignments from the same seller. Sometimes unsold lots are no surprise to anyone, even the auctioneers. But that doesn't mean they're acting irrationally. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Old Master Auctions

A hare among plants
Picture: Christie's
It's the week of the winter old master sales in London, and Sotheby's and Christie's have some great pictures for sale just in time for Christmas.

Best of all is surely this wonderful hare, at once stunningly beautiful, marvelously endearing, and art historically important. It's painted on vellum by Hans Hoffmann, who was clearly inspired by Dürer, but working a generation after his death. It's bigger than you'd imagine, combining a meticulous miniature technique with impactful presence at a distance. It's being sold at Christie's on Tuesday with an estimate of £4m-£6m. It's a prudent estimate, but given its potential appeal outside traditional old master collectors, and the tendency for some old master drawing collectors to pay enormous prices for the very best works, it could conceivably soar above that. You can zoom in on the detail on Christie's website. 

The Hoffmann is the top lot at Christie's, but many of my favourite pictures weren't actually the most expensive. A newly-discovered bouquet of flowers by Abraham Mignon at Sotheby's estimated at £200k-£300k is beautifully preserved and ranks as one of the finest Dutch flower pictures I've seen at auction, but he is less appreciated than Bosschaert or Huysum, and Mr Art Market can remember only so many names at one time. 

Some pictures sell cheaply because the market just doesn't appreciate them. Others seem just to have particularly conservative estimates. Here are some things that look cheap to me: 
Apricots in a ceramic bowl, with plums on a stone ledge
Picture: Christie's
Louise Moillon is a wonderful still life artist, absent from many major museums. Christie's has this lovely still life of apricots estimated at £70k - £100k. Its panel is badly warped, and there are paint losses along the cracks. But fundamentally it looks in rather good condition, and hasn't suffered the overcleaning endemic to seventeenth century still life. It needs careful restoration, but a bargain at that price.
Picture: Sotheby's
This Cariani Christ Carrying the Cross is a new discovery, and is unusually good for the artist. The estimate is just £70k-£100k at Sotheby's; it made a powerful impression at the viewing, and I suspect it will sell rather higher. It's a really moving image that wouldn't look out of place in a major museum, but it's perhaps not the most 'commercial' subject. 
Picture: Sotheby's
A more immediately attractive Italian picture, also at Sotheby's, is this wonderful Bachiacca, which is also notably well-preserved. Its estimate of £150k-£200k is rather than than the inflation-adjusted £16k that Agnew's paid for it in 1965 (around £277k today). Do zoom in on the Sotheby's website to get a better view of the details. Second-tier Italian artists like Bachiacca seem really undervalued to me, especially compared to Dutch pictures. 
Christ in Glory, in a painted oval
Picture: Christie's
Christie's has this Christ in Glory by Il Baciccio estimated at just £20k-£30k. Justice demands ten times as much; it looked spectacular at the viewing, though harder to appreciate in reproduction. 

Among the array of gold-ground pictures, it was two cheaper panels that particularly appealed to me. Sotheby's has Cola di Petruccioli da Orvieto's Madonna and Child Enthroned estimated at £60k-£80k and Giovanni da Modena's St Sebastian (£15k-£20k). 
Picture: Sotheby's
I greatly liked this anonymous Adoration of the Magi from Cologne, c.1450. This kind of picture rarely appears on the market, and it's high-quality despite its anonymity. Good value at its £50k-£80k estimate, at Sotheby's. Unusually it has been restituted twice. It was confiscated from a member of the Thyssen family, and returned after World War II. But now it's been returned to the heir of the owner before Thyssen, who presumably sold under duress. It's the sort of picture that regional British museums should pursue, instead of buying more overpriced Constables and Gainsboroughs. 

Among the Dutch pictures, this powerful portrait by Verspronck really stands out. He was a variable artist, but this is a particularly good example, despite some wear. The estimate of £100k-£200k is in line with his more pedestrian work; this deserves to sell for more. The other striking Dutch picture is a Govaert Flinck Tronie of a Young Woman, estimated at £200k-£300k. The market for Dutch pictures has been moderating recently, after years of strength, but this fine and immediately attractive picture is the sort of thing that might sell very highly. Both are at Sotheby's. 
A tulip, a Snakeshead, a Love-in-a-mist, a double variegated columbine, a Dog Rose, a Maiden’s Blush Rose, lilies of the valley and a pansy in a pot with a garden tiger moth, a shell, and a caterpillar on a ledge, a butterfly above
Picture: Christie's
Jan Wijnants isn't a particularly exciting artist, a Dutch landscapist less inventive and less brilliant than the bigger names. But Christie's has a delightful one on a very small scale at just £7k-£10k. Looking beyond the name you can find some exceptionally good value pictures in the day sales. Dutch flower still lifes are highly valued, but collectors tend to pursue the biggest names. Bosschaert is especially prized, and Christie's has one estimated at £600k-£800k. Estimate is reasonable and in line with comparable pictures, but it's no bargain at that level. More interesting to me is the picture hanging opposite at the viewing: a rare flower piece by Jacques de Gheyn II estimated at £100k-£150k (above). 
Picture: Sotheby's
For some things to seem relatively cheap, others must be expensive. Sotheby's top lot is a big Contstable estimated at £8m-£12m. I'm not a great fan of Constable, and that price can buy you many better pictures. Buy the wonderful Mabuse instead, which I neglected to mention only because its worth is already reflected in the £4m-£6m estimate (pictured above). The market for Brueghel and Cranach has moderated, but second-rate pictures still attract high estimates. I have a suspicion that the Holbein school Portrait of Henry VIII at Sotheby's will sell for more that its estimated £800k-£1.2m, but despite being a relatively good studio work it still seems too much to me. Iconic image of Britain's favourite psychopath, but not an inspiring picture. And view scenes always seem absurdly expensive to me: pretty and decorative, but rarely really good. Christie's has a really superior Guardi, but still doesn't seem worth £1.5m-£2.5m to me (though people with actual money will disagree, and it's their votes that count!). 
Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl presenting the Golden Bough to Charon
Picture: Christie's
Poussin is one of my very favourite artists, but to my surprise his Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist was one of my least favourite picture at Christie's. It's an early work, before he developed the austere classical style that's his hallmark. And it's not in great condition; selective cleaning has altered contrasts, and tonal variation has been lost. Not worth £400k-£600k, in my view; better off with the big Pietro Testa Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl presenting the Golden Bough to Charon, the next lot in the Christie's sale, estimated at £300k-£500k. It's over two meters wide, but a really fine picture (above). 

The viewings are always a revelation, a display of privately owned pictures that you wouldn't otherwise get to see. It surprises me that more people don't attend; they are free and open to everyone, but it seems to be a preponderance of dealers and collectors rather than art historians or the merely curious.

They've typically been less well-studied than museum pictures, and I welcome the chance to form a view relatively unclouded by the dense heritage of scholarly opinions expressed on museums' pictures. It's also a way to develop a feel for condition, which is less apparent in museums that restore to a common standard. In the auction rooms you can see pictures in a range of states: battered and broken, overcleaned, repainted, cracked or torn, but sometimes marvelously pristine beneath dirty varnish. This season's sales had a lot of things especially to my taste, and there are many more wonderful pictures. Do have a look at the catalogues for the Master of St Ursula, Ambrosius Benson, a fascinating picture from the workshop of Joos van Cleve that was updated in a more modern style, a newly discovered (sadly worn) Spranger, a wild mannerist picture by Mirabello Cavallori, the Master of the Dreux Budé Triptych (possibly the earliest noctural panel painting), Ligozzi, Gandolfi and excellent pictures by Herri met de Bles and Hans Rottenhammer.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

'Saving' treasures

Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar has written an intemperate article about Britain's export controls, in the context of the sale of the Penrhyn Rembrandt. Bendor Grosvenor has written a considered response (naturally my choice of adjectives reflects my position in the debate!). I'd put a slightly different emphasis on the debate, so here are my thoughts: 
  • Prohibiting export of works of art is an arbitrary confiscation of private property. A picture that can only be sold in one country is worth less than one on the global market. Spanish law effectively confiscates pictures as soon as they arrive on their shores. It's bizarre policy to punish people for buying art. You can still believe in punitive tax on gifts and inheritance, and taxing the rich until the pips squeak, You can still disbelieve in the merits of private property. But punitively confiscating wealth if it's in the form of art is utterly bizarre.
  • I disagree with Bendor Grosvenor that the works of art that have been saved are those that objectively are most cherished by the nation. I think donors place a lot of belief in the expert assessments of works that must be saved. And I don't think they always make the right choices. Personally I'd take the Le Brun, which was let out without a squeak, over the Van Dyck. And I wholeheartedly agree with the museum director who told Bendor that the Penrhyn Rembrandt isn't the best in the country. Apparently the Art Fund has never failed in its appeals, which means they're probably taking too few risks. 
  • There really are some things that it's in the national interest to save because they are so strongly connected to the country. I'm not convinced that applies to everything that is export-blocked, and I don't think there is such a strong case for trying to save things simply because they are especially important. In any case, the really good things are usually the ones that get away because we can't afford them. I agree with Bendor that the answer is funding, not export controls. 
  • Stephen Deuchar completely misses the point of what the Art Fund ought to be doing: helping to pay for really good museum acquisitions. Limiting it to 'saving' the stuff that happens to be in the UK is needlessly limiting. Pictures that can be exported are worth more because they can be sold to a global market. The other side of that is that we can buy better things if we look around the world for the best acquisitions, rather than trying to 'save' things that happen already to be here, deferring to the historic judgment of British collectors. 
  • Here are some ideas from me on what to buy. And now I'm off to see the Gentileschi at Sotheby's. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Recent reading

Jan Royt The Master of the Trebon Altarpiece Carolinum Press 2015 £31.50

This is a book and an artist worthy of more attention. The artist's work is almost all in Prague, and the book was published by Charles University and seems not to have been widely reviewed. But the pictures are amazing, as you'll appreciate from the book's high-quality plates. The solidly academic text explains multiple contexts for the Trebon Master and discusses his known works. Its style is a little formal, and I thought it could benefit from the structure of a traditional catalogue raisonné, rather than an analytic monograph. As it is, parts of the text read like catalogue entries pasted together. But the quality of analysis is high, and the book is worth getting for the pictures alone.

Frank McLynn Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world Bodley Head 2015 £25

This enjoyable popular history narrates the astonishing rise of the Mongols, who went from being central Asian subsistence nomads to conquerors of most of the known world, from China to eastern Europe. McLynn focuses on the great military campaigns which are both the most salient aspect of Genghis Khan's reign, and the best documented. But he ranges widely, discussing administrative practice and religious beliefs, which seem to have been rather new-age ecumenical. He leaves grand speculation on the causes of the Mongol hegemony to the last chapter, which I found least satisfactory and overly hasty in downplaying environmental factors. But although I learned a lot from the book, I was frustrated that the narrative pace trumped historical scruples. 

Sources on the Mongols are partial, biased and ancient. Reportage and myth are entwined. McLynn is a popular historian trying to tell a good story, so he doesn't pay enough attention to uncertainty. It struck me when he wrote definitively about the Mongol's skill as warriors, including the ability to time their shot at the exact moment when the horse's feet are all off the ground (p.130). But people didn't even know that horses even raised all their feet off the ground at once until Muybridge's photographs. Makes me wonder about the other claims, including the remarkably precise report of the archer who shot a bow 550 yards in a contest in 1225. He suggests that despotism is against Buddhist creed (p. 143); he should read Brian Daizen Victoria's Zen at War.

McLynn has a peculiar fascination with alcohol. Massive piss-ups are a staple of ancient culture, and hardly confined to the Mongols (though the shift to higher-alcohol wine was a shock to their system). But for McLynn it's an opportunity for wild speculation: "As a student of human nature, [Genghis Khan] knew that a ban or prohibition would be a pointless gesture which would not work, so he tried to moderate the problem by decreeing that none of his subjects should get drunk more than three times a month" (p.158). Remarkable that he was so much smarter than our current rulers, but of course it's an evidence-free assertion. Later McLynn writes that "Severe alcoholism was the major reason for the short lifespans of the great Mongol khans and aristocrats" (p. 363). That's an absurd assumption that tells us more about the author's preoccupation with a fashionable cause of our own times than about the health of thirteenth century warrior elites.

Academic and popular history are needlessly far apart. Often academics are to blame for bad writing and an excessive preoccupation with their peers rather than their sources, and also for a sometimes snooty disdain for history written by non-academic historians. But often the fault is with popular historians who are cavalier with evidence and think that telling a good story is sufficient. This book has many merits, and its daft speculative moments damage its credibility.

Rachel Laudan Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in world history University of California Press 2015 £19.95

Satisfying big history packed with delicious morsels, taking us from prehistory to the present day. Love the old warnings against vegetables, and the Soviet caution against drinking too much water. Laudan is a smart cookie who keeps a sense of narrative sweep holding together the details. For much of history innovation was limited to elite food; everyone else was stuck with dull staples. ‘Middling cuisine’ arose late, giving us all better and more varied options. She is cautious of the moralistic critique of diet, rightly celebrating our great success in providing such rich and varied food for all. 

Bernd Roeck Florence 1900: The quest for arcadia Yale University Press 2009 £25

The years from about 1890 to 1914 are some of the most fascinating in human history, a time of change that eclipses our own supposedly unprecedented dynamism. It was a time of rapid urbanisation, and cities like Vienna, London, Paris and New York led the charge. This book can be read as a fascinating oblique take on these changes, writing about a city that even in 1900 was becoming a tourist shrine, despite rapid growth. Roeck focuses on expatriate communities, the Germans and English who made Florence their home. It's remarkable to read about the extent of destruction in central Florence at this late date, and of plans for even more thorough-going redevelopment. I enjoyed it less than I expected; its tone is a little dry, and much of the material about expats was familiar to me from other sources. But weaves together a magnificent kaleidoscope; how wonderful it must have been as part of that cultural circle.  

Frank E. Zimring The City that became safe: New York's lessons for urban crime and its control Oxford University Press 2013 £13.49

Crime rates have collapsed across the western world. It's one of the most amazing social developments, yet good news stories prompt less discussion than bad. The rapid rise in crime from the 1960s prompted an industry of hand-wringing and competing explanations powered by different biases and ideologies. It's fascinating on many levels, and deserves much more attention; I'm always glad to find smart books addressing the question.

New York's crime statistics led the way up and down, and Zimring's book tries to explain it. I hadn't appreciated just how dramatically crime fell in NYC (99% decline in auto crime, for example). And some of the common explanations, like zero-tolerance, are less important than is commonly believed. Unfortunately the dearth of studies at the time means that data aren't available to test some hypotheses. But just as those in charge were blamed for rising crime rates, so those in charge more recently are credited with bringing about decline, and we accept their explanations too readily. Impressive book, and the lack of definitive answers is a failing of the data not the author.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

National Trust gets it right at Basildon Park

Picture: Wikipedia
This weekend I went to Basildon Park. Some of you will know it as home to Victorian art collector James Morrison, who owned a couple of Poussin's best pictures, plus Rubens, Claude, Rembrandt and modern British pictures, which in his day meant Constable and Turner. Others will know its interiors from Downton Abbey, where it was used as the family's London house. Basildon has been cruelly abused, and had to be substantially re-made in the 1950s. It's not entirely clear from the guidebook which bits are new, but I thought the plasterwork in the entrance hall a heavy-handed caricature of Adam's delicate neoclassicism. It's not clear if it was a heavy-handed eighteenth century plasterer, or modern work. The house is still a delight, and it has some wonderful things, including eight apostles by Pompeo Batoni. 
Picture: MS
I went particularly to see an exhibition of pictures from the late Brinsley Ford's collection. I have a two volume catalogue of his collection published by the Walpole Society. He owned a superb Michelangelo drawing that was sold a few years ago, and a magnificent Subleyras that is now a highlight of the eighteenth century French room at the National Gallery. But his house was also crammed with 'minor' works, including modern British and pictures related to the Grand Tour, which was a particular interest of Ford's. Basildon is an ideal venue to show the collection, and the display is perfect. It includes fabulous portraits by Batoni and Mengs, a famous drawing of a temporary ballroom attributed to Adam (more likely by an assistant who was actually a better draughtsman), drawings by Tiepolo and a wonderful big caricature of grand tourists by Patch. 

I like the dense hang, and it convincingly recreates the feel of Ford's own house, as seen in the Walpole Society volumes. A couple of the pictures are masterpieces, but I enjoyed the mix of more minor works, too. The NT wanted the light off; I don't know why the are so attached to darkness. The room guide sensibly used her initiative on a dull day and turned it on so we could actually see the pictures. Unfortunately they're not allowed to sell catalogues in the house (do they think the guides will defraud them?), so you have to remember to go into the shop before entering the house. But it's only a fiver, and it's very good, summarising the entries from the Walpole catalogue. Good art, good display, good catalogue. The NT has done everything right this time. 

The Basildon exhibition will be in place for at least five years, so do try to see it. It's an easy day trip from London. It shows the excellent things still done by the National Trust, despite the best efforts of 
Dame Beanbag. Speaking of which, I got a response from the NT following my gripe about Kedleston. The response went from the house manager to the regional manager to the head office, but of course I wasn't given any contact details other than head office. Despite drafting so many layers of management, the response could have been written by a computer, and the needless levels of bureaucracy and oversight are an ominous sign of mismanagement. Especially concerning to me is the delegation of accountability. Silly stunts like the Kedleston party have been encouraged from the very top. But they present it as a purely local decision for which they have no central accountability—except, of course, to coordinate and vet the responses to make sure they are written in the blandest possible corporatese. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

What happens without guards...

Picture: MS
It looks like some one has run their fingers across this frame at the National Gallery, breaking off a big chunk of gilding. I assume it happened quite recently, as the fragment is still there. There are quite a few other chips where the gesso is bright white, indicating that they could be recent. The picture, Departure of the Argonauts by the Master of 1487, is on loan from a private collector. It's in the same gallery as the celebrated Botticelli Mars and Venus and it's often packed, but the guards has to cover the room with the Leonardo as well, so it's usually unattended. Two renaissance cassoni are used as tripods for photos, and the gilding is noticeably worn in the middle. 

Cost cutting in museums imposes real costs, alas.

Exhibitions in London

Picture: Guardian
The only current exhibition that I'm inspired to review at length is the NG's Botticini's Palmieri Altarpiece, to follow. In the meantime, some thoughts on 'the rest'.

Goya: The Portraits National Gallery to January 16

Another rather formulaic idea for a guaranteed 'blockbuster': assemble pictures by the same famous artist around a particular theme and wait for the crowds. I haven’t even bought the catalogue, because recent offerings have been so feeble and yet again there’s no actual catalogue. You have to be really dedicated to see an NG blockbuster, because it’s just never quiet. Even at opening time the galleries are mobbed by people who’ve been at private views. The picture above is cruelly tempting: imagine twenty people between the bench and the pictures and you'll get a better idea. It’s interesting how much difference it makes. I recall the Family of the Infanta Don Luis when it was on extended loan at the NG some years ago, and it made a terrific impression on me. Seeing it behind thirty people deadened it. No point.

I was interested in the critical response. Fawning adulation from all the right-on critics in the main newspapers, but some intelligent criticism from Neil Jeffares. But must one be a great painter to be a great artist? I'm not so sure. Goya certainly had his weaknesses; just look at all those superficial hands. And some of the pictures in this show are absolute dogs. But others are, to me, quite wonderful. In the last room there are some especially feeble late works, but you can compare them to the superb Don Tiburcio (and look how cunningly he hides the hands!). I actually like many of the pictures a good deal, but we should take his critics seriously, and acknowledge his flaws. Indeed, a show focused on what's good and what's bad in Goya would have been much more interesting.

Ai Weiwei Royal Academy to 13 December

Wow, this is bad. This splendid Spectator article put it better than I could. But even people who recognise the art as execrable fawn over his politics. Actually Weiwei’s politics are as limp as his art. Banal, obvious and (from a western perspective) utterly safe. 

Jean-Etienne Liotard Royal Academy to 31 January

The Royal Academy puts on some of the best shows in London in its tiny little top floor galleries, whereas its grand blockbusters in the big rooms on the main floor are usually duds. The catalogue for Liotard is excellent, and I'd love to have written about the exhibition. I needed to see it a second time, and took a day off work to get there first thing and enjoy it quietly for a good block of time, but I was turned away at the door because my Friends card had expired and they haven't yet sent me a new one. I don't have many days off work, and to have wasted one of them because of such a stupidly bureaucratic response is utterly infuriating. It looks wonderful, so I hope you have more luck than me.
Picture: MS

Best thing I’ve seen in London. Really excellent and rarely-seen things, including a stunning Lelio Orsi and a Bernard van Orley (above) that I’ve coveted since seeing it in an auction catalogue about two decades ago. I didn’t know it would be in the show, and it was a wonderful surprise to see it.  A couple of superior Cranachs and a Spranger that I’d seen in New York were the other highlights for me, but there was a strong group of nineteenth century pictures too. I enjoyed this more than most of the big exhibitions. Really worth a look if you get the chance.

Bringing together drawings from wildly different traditions simply because they use the same medium seemed a weak theme for an exhibition, but this show is convincing. Rather than attempt a comprehensive narrative, it is separated into four relatively self-contained and coherent sections: the Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, Dutch mannerism (stretching to other northern seventeenth century sheets), and the twentieth century. There are some sublime masterpieces here, and the connections and distinctions are revealing. The twentieth century section lacks the peaks of the other sections of the show, but there are still some fine drawings by artists that deserve to be better known. 

The show is well organised and the wall text is excellent, but unfortunately the display in London had some serious drawbacks. The early Italian drawings were wrecked by the reflection from a video loop, imposing moving images among the Raphaels. There's really no excuse these days for having an Open University style film showing in the gallery, when it could be put on YouTube for people to consult at home. And some of the northern mannerists were invisible, because they were so far back in vitrines. It didn’t matter as much with the rest of the exhibition, but some of the mannerist sheets are minutely detailed and demand close study. 

Even if you can't see the exhibition, I really commend the excellent catalogue. I especially hope it's read at the National Gallery. The Liotard and Metalpoint catalogues are both models they should follow.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why is the National Trust hiding our pictures?

Picture: Lynn Roberts
Recent trips to National Trust houses prompt me to add to Art History News's concerns about this failing institution.

Last week I went to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire with friends. It was seven hours of driving, and one of our party had traveled from the US, but worth it to see one of Adam's masterpieces, stuffed with fabulous furniture and baroque pictures. But the drawing room - one of the highlights - was in darkness. We couldn't see any of the pictures. The room has been set up to recreate the sense of an eighteenth century party. It fails on so many levels. It stops us seeing the things we had made great effort to visit. It patronises us by asking us to imagine a party at Kedleston, then assuming we're incapable of imagining and have to have the whole thing set up for us. And it fails because the execution is so feeble: a few wine glasses, electric lighting, and added spotlights on the gilt furniture for effect. 

Tracy Emin would do a better job (and I never thought I'd say that). The National Trust panjandrums are using great houses as backdrop for their own art projects. I am just furious that we weren't allowed to see anything in the room because of this childish prank. And I'm embarrassed that my friend, who is a passionate connoisseur of the Italian baroque, will now likely never get to see the pictures. They threaten to extend this throughout the house:

Adding to the sense that the National Trust doesn't care for the things in its trust is the dumbed-down guidebook. The original guidebook lists virtually all of the pictures. The new guidebook just mentions a couple in passing. In the library one pictures is listed, and we are told the theme of another (Diogenes), but they don't even give the artist (Asserto, according to the old guide I own). Stourhead, which I also visited recently, is even worse. It has one of the best picture collections of any National Trust house, and the old guidebook I own provided a separate handlist of all the pictures on display, and discussed some in detail in the main guidebook. The new one mentions just half a dozen paintings in the picture gallery, but speculates that the collector 'was especially moved by female distress', seemingly on the evidence of two pictures he bought. This kind of gossipy human interest speculation is typical; the older guide discussed his taste in the context of eighteenth century collecting and stylistic preferences that make historical sense. 

As I child I don't remember ever going to an art gallery, but my parents did take me to National Trust houses. I was enthralled, and I used to devour the guidebooks. Learning about this 'stuff' set off a lifelong interest in art history. Now they think I should instead have been distracted with gimmicks. The new guidebooks give a fraction of the information in the old. And instead of encouraging children to enjoy the houses and look at their contents, they put toy animals in the rooms and ask kids to locate them. I'm all in favour of engaging children with activities, but couldn't they make the activity in some way relevant to the house? They can play finding games anywhere. Here's the cat that I found:

Our visit also reminded me of all that is wonderful about National Trust houses. Kedleston really is one of the great neoclassical houses, with a vast entrance hall whose proportions work so much better than you'd imagine from pictures, its Roman austerity softened with alabaster pillars, leading through to a giant rotunda. Not everything works at Kedleston; the oddly reduced proportions of copied classical sculptures seem lost in the niches, and the functions of some rooms seem rather overwhelmed by the grandeur of their setting; modest bookcases are out of place in the library. But the collections are largely intact and so well-suited, the wonderful Linnell furniture and Italian pictures. Reminding us of the good work still done by the National Trust is a fine new acquisition, a delightful Carlo Dolci that was owned by the family until recently. For all its prejudice against 'stuff', they still acquire good things.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dear museums: buy this!

Image of Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?
Picture: Sotheby's
This Orazio Gentileschi is a supreme masterpiece. It's coming up for auction with an estimate of $25m - $35m. It's beautiful, art historically 'important' and a simply magnificent picture. I've known it from reproductions and I'd longed to see it, so I was delighted to see it on loan at the Met last time I visited. It surpassed most of the masterpieces in the permanent collection, a truly memorable and stupendous picture. So why aren't we buying it for the National Gallery?

Museums always talk about wanting to buy masterpieces rather than 'filling gaps', but they usually do exactly the opposite. The Met, the National Gallery in Washington and the Getty should be going all-out for this, but the Met seems more enthused for contemporary and the National Gallery in Washington has an absurdly myopic focus on buying only Dutch pictures. But what about Europe? 

It would be a great complement to the National Gallery's strong collection of baroque art, but it could equally transform a regional museum's collection - Birmingham would be a fine home, alongside another large Gentileschi and some other fine baroque pictures. It's a measure of the picture's importance and originality that it would complement even the Louvre's magnificent holdings, or the Prado's. German museums bought aggressively and well in the 1970s and 1980s, but little since; it would make up for some of the large baroque pictures that Berlin lost in a fire in 1945. But because it's not already in one of those countries, they're highly unlikely to pursue it. Why not sell the right to export another national treasure and use the funds to buy this instead?

I'll be amazed if any of them are even considering it. Europe's cultural conservatism is so ingrained that even in collecting historic art it seeks to hold onto the stuff that hasn't already been exported rather than seek out the best, wherever it lies. But the UK's cultural class deserves special contempt in this unedifying contest, because they are still obsessing about an over-priced Rembrandt that they should let go, instead of pursuing a great masterpiece that they should buy. The Rembrandt is £35m; the (better) Gentileschi is $35m. But The Art Fund is desperately trying to 'save' the Rembrandt (which seems likely to remain here anyway), and seems not even to have noticed the Gentileschi. 

One possibility, not to be dismissed lightly, is that the Art Fund is run by idiots. They seem more interested in marketing than in art, demanding that museums include prominent lurid acknowledgement of their support and following fashion in headlong pursuit of trendy contemporary art. Describing the Rembrandt as 'perilously unsafe' is absurd hyperbole that reveals their real focus: keeping stuff in the UK rather than developing our public art collections. 

The other possibility is that they have just given up on the idea of developing collections and buying great works of art in favour of simply keeping in  the UK whatever is already in the UK. The trope of 'saving our art' plays to the bias of loss-aversion, which as specialists in advertising rather than art they will understand well. But it's a sign of the stultifying monoculture of arts discussion here that it goes unchallenged. No one questions the absurdly distorted funding model, or makes the case for going out to buy art that is great rather than art that is here. 

The Treasury is willing to subsidise the purchase of pictures arbitrarily, simply because the owners happen to have some tax to pay. That's an irrational and expensive subsidy that should be abolished. And the fact that it also involves an added subsidy to the owners is despicable. Whatever your views on the UK government's welfare cuts, it's hard to adduce any plausible case for taxpayers making transfers to especially wealthy people just because they own good art. The real cost of the Rembrandt is £35m, not the reduced amount based on tax discount. The tax discount is just a payment from the Treasury. Better to use the money to buy the Danae instead, and have enough change left over to buy some other good pictures. 

Should museums borrow from dealers?

The great Gentileschi coming up for sale has prompted a debate about the ethics of museums displaying loaned pictures that are 'for sale'. Lee Rosenbaum chose a poor example to criticise in the Gentileschi because it is such an exceptional picture, of unquestioned quality and significance. It's been owned by the dealer for decades and hung in his own dining room for most of that time, so describing it as from his 'private collection' rather than stock seems fair. That said, I think she describes a real problem. 

Bendor Grosvenor goes too far the other way, in my view. I'm sure he's right that museums are no pushover for loans, and he agrees that it's unseemly to sell straight after exhibition. But I'm not sure that the quality of old masters is always so self-evident. The fact that dealers go to such lengths to establish the quality of what they're selling speaks to that - the experts consulted, and the often impressively scholarly and luxurious catalogues that they produce are all part of marketing their wares, explaining and justifying their assertion of its worth. The term 'museum quality' is used by dealers to convey value, but they would say that, wouldn't they? You can't argue with the claim if it's actually been shown at a museum.

I'm glad Feigen lent the Danae, and the Met was right to take it. But I've seen other loans that are less worthy, including things claimed as being from the 'private collection of [so-and-so-who-just-happens-to-be-a-dealer]. And I've heard from the author of a monograph on a certain artist that a work loaned by a dealer was exhibited as being by said artist, although the curator who borrowed it agreed with the author that it was no such thing. That provenance (on loan to major museum with dealer's preferred attribution) adds kudos, and even if it's not reflected directly in price it may make it easier to sell.

I think it comes down to a question of balance, and the debate between Lee Rosenbaum's and Bendor Grosvenor's positions is healthy. Museums should be worried about what people will say about the loans they accept from dealers, but they shouldn't automatically turn them down or impose onerous conditions either.

Carlo Crivelli

Picture: Amazon
Stephen J. Campbell (ed) Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice Paul Hoberton 2015 £35

Carlo Crivelli's sparkling pictures abound with spectacular, opulent detail. His beautiful pictures are immediately appealing, but his idiosyncrasy puts him outside the mainstream, hard to fit into the heroic teleology of the Renaissance. Vasari excluded him, and formalistic art historians thought him a bit retardaire. His appeal has come and gone; the National Gallery in London bought oodles of them in the nineteenth century, but came close to selling them in the twentieth. U.S. collectors bought them avidly in the early twentieth century, but his reputation waned as professional curators struggled to include him in the forward thrust of art history. An exquisite show at the Isabella Stuart Gardner has selected some of his very best pictures. I'm sorry that I can't visit, but there is some compensation in the excellent catalogue. 

Crivelli worked in towns along the Adriatic coast that make up the Marches, across the mountains from Florence and Rome and south of Venice. The map in the catalogue doesn't do justice to the mountainous geography, which meant that these places were connected more to the maritime trading routes from Venice to the Balkans, down to the Ottoman Empire rather than to Florence and Rome. Even today it's easier to travel north-south than east-west. There were still abundant cultural transfers; Piero della Francesca worked here, importing the most sophisticated understand of perspective. An interesting observation from Stephen Campbell is that whereas Florentine patrons backed their own and supported the development of a local school, Marchigean patrons appreciated different styles. It was not that they were necessarily backward and traditional, but rather that their more ecumenical taste gave scope for Crivelli's individuality, which he may have developed in conscious opposition to those fashionable Florentines. 

The catalogue successfully (& rightly) rescues Crivelli from the rather staid strictures of certain art historical traditions. I loved the opening of Jean Campbell's chapter, which criticises the wall text on the Rijksmuseum's Crivelli for treating him as an illustration of the International Gothic style, as if artists are producing slides to illustrate art history lectures. Go get 'em! The editor's introductory chapter seeks to rescue Crivelli from both the "need to see art as a kind of geographic or ethnic expression, like a local dialect, and on the other to see style in terms of questions of artistic problem-solving, synthesis, and an internalized impetus toward modernization" (p. 23), and also from 'material historians' for whom "style can be understood less as an internal morphology of form than as an index of social and political affiliations and exchanges" (p.23). I appreciated the gently implied critique of Lisa Jardine and others for building a new reductionism from their criticism of the old.

It's become standard to include a chapter on the history of collecting in monographic catalogues, but they're too often just cobbled together comments on provenance. Francesco de Carolis's chapter is exemplary, going much further into the detail of his differential reception, including a flurry of interest in the eighteenth century. He adduces good evidence for his particular favour in the U.S. early in the  twentieth century, but I always think that contingencies of availability are insufficiently appreciated. Collectors buy what they like and what is valued, but also what is available on the market.

The short essays are well-written and dense with information, and there are full entries for all exhibits. The production is superb, with fabulous reproductions that capture the three-dimensionality of Crivelli's pictures, which incorporated moulded elements in plaster and wood. Above all Crivelli's pictures are a joy to look at, and it is a tribute to the catalogue's scholarship that it recognises Crivelli's value in his own terms rather than as illustrating an academic thesis. 

The book has one flaw: its referencing. Endnotes appear after each chapter, so you have to keep skipping around each time you start a new chapter. Then the endnotes use Chicago referencing, sending you to the consolidated bibliography at the back to find the sources. The system proved to complicated for the proof readers, because some references can't be found (Di Stefano 2009, Feldman 2014, for example). It reflects well on the authors that I wanted to consult their sources, but it reflects badly on the publisher that I couldn't. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Cultural Value

Picture: Telegraph
Our cultural apparatchiks have turned away from the narrow instrumentalism of measuring performance against targets, which probably just reflects that they could never meet the targets. But art for its own sake is still passé. So how can they justify themselves? The Arts and Humanities Research Council has spent £2m to find out. Private Eye reports that the project's advisors have given over a tenth of the funding to themselves. Cultural elites have never been shy about rewarding themselves with commissions, but in the old days the commissions were for actual artworks, and at least we might have got a good picture out of it. The new elites spend cash to produce reports on things like "the contribution of participatory user-generated machine-cinema to cultural values".

A grant of £38,427 was made to “evaluate the relationship between arts and cultural engagement and long-term health outcomes in the UK”. It's an odd topic for the humanities, given the need for high-level statistical knowledge and engagement with the techniques of medical research. But those problems were bypassed; all they got for £38k was some superficial summaries of fifteen existing studies. It wasn't research at all. It was just advocacy, squandering money to highlight a supposed link between arts funding and public health.

They spent £26,872 for a project “using Facebook to investigate local history: experience, value and policy implications in one town”. It “works with” one Facebook page: ‘Forgotten Abergavenny’, hoping to contribute to the nation’s health by “assisting the understanding of the experiences and value attached by users to the most popular and accessed social media platform in the UK, thus facilitating the usefulness of such a platform as a means for the delivery of news, information and other content relevant to governments and local authorities”.

There is a cynical element to this, where self-selected elites reward themselves with public money. Explaining it as corruption makes easier sense of the absurdity of some of the funded projects. But I think they're actually sincere in wanted to define cultural value better. Trouble is, their stilted efforts to define the problem reveal it as a fool's errand. They want to avoid the accountability that comes from instrumentalist measures, but also avoid the political and philosophical challenge of making the case for art's intrinsic value.

Mocking academic research is a staple of populist philistinism. But my aim is different. I criticise them because I love the arts and humanities, and these ridiculous projects reflect badly on the entire enterprise. The debate needs to be animated with some strong ideas, not using oodles of public cash to manufacture bullshit advocacy research to bolster the case for yet more public cash. 

Bendor Grosvenor reports on another manifestation of this debate with the Arts Council getting Alain de Botton to make a moronic instrumental case for the arts. Arts Council and Alain de Botton is a deadly combination!