Monday, 27 July 2015

Museums! Stop engaging youth, start engaging middle aged men!

'Ritratto di nonno con nipote' by Domenico Ghirlandaio Picture: Web Gallery of Art
Data prove that museums are letting me down. Fewer over-educated middle-aged white men are visiting museums and galleries. Something must be done.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 18.7% of men visited a museum or art gallery in 2012, sharply down from the 21.4% that visited in 2008 and well below the 23.1% of women who've visited museums (down only marginally from 24.0% in 2008). It's not only my sex that's being squeezed out of museums, but my age cohort too. The 35-44 age group saw a whopping fall from 25.7% to 21.2%. There was also a statistically significant decline in visits by white people, and even a small decline in visits by people with post-graduate degrees too.
What are museums going to do about this? I would be happy to share my expertise in what grumpy middle aged white blokes with PhDs want from museums (regular readers can probably guess). My consultancy fees are very reasonable.
Of course I jest. It would be absurd for museums to try to orient themselves more to male visitors, as if we'd want something different from women (masculine colour schemes? Top Gear exhibitions?). It's revealing of our prejudices that it seems so daft to ask the question, because it's taken as given that middle aged white men have diverse interests, whereas 'experts' are always poised to speak up on behalf of children or youth or minorities and tell us what they need as groups. 

Museums should do absolutely nothing to address the 'man gap' in museum visiting. Make great exhibits and we will come. Or not, if we have better things to do. But please don't patronise us with schemes designed around whatever you think middle aged men are into. I don't think it's a problem that men are a little less likely to visit museums, or that older people are a little more likely to visit.
Declining attendance by men rightly passes without comment, but a decline in visits by young people is taken as a sign of crisis and used to justify all kinds of madcap schemes to engage 'millennials'. They're mostly based on superficial and banal observations about young people today, and fail to distinguish genuine generational change from perennial differences between different age groups. Night clubs attract younger crowds than bingo halls. There's no reason to expect museums to appeal especially to the young, who have lots of other enticing options vying for their attention.   
The NEA data show that concern about young people in museums isn't driven by evidence. It's constructed by a professional coterie with its own agenda. I found the NEA study from a link in an article by Matt Heller about how museums should engage millennials. It particularly riled me because it repeats ideas that have been conventional wisdom in the museum studies world for a generation, yet its author claims to be an 'expert' in millennnials (attempting humility, he actually tells us that other people think he's an expert and seek his advice). Heller's pomposity irks me, but more disturbing is that his superficial and weakly supported observations reflect popular current prejudices that are rarely scrutinised but probably wrong.
He starts by telling us that millennials seek new experiences. His source is a marketing piece by a business that sells, um, experiences to millennials. It takes a special kind of historical myopia to imagine that seeking new experiences is unique to young people today, as if kids in the 1960s were all buttoned-up fogies.  
Then he says that millennials are more likely to say that cultural organisations 'encourage self-discovery and reflection', based on this study (p.3). But let's track back to the source. The striking thing about responses is how little they vary between cohorts. Responses change with age in only a few cases, and some responses reflect perennial aspects of youth, such as their (slightly) greater unwillingness to visit a museum if they have no one to go with. But for any of these to be a meaningful findings about this generation you need to compare the responses of 'boomers' and 'gen-Xers' when they were young. Otherwise you have no way of distinguishing genuine differences between generations from more prosaic differences between younger people and older people. 
Finally Heller thinks museums need to be more interactive. Actually, he says that's what millennials want, based on a focus group conducted by the Center for the Future of Museums. It obviously has its own agenda, which is conveniently echoed by the participants. Trendy museum professionals have pushed greater interactivity since at least the 1970s. If museum exhibits don't sell themselves, offering social interaction is an obvious alternative. And it's such a conventional idea that it's not surprising that people repeat it back in focus groups. But it's a losing battle, because even if interactivity is what people want, it's not clear that museums are best placed to offer it. If we want to interact, we can go to the pub. 
Heller's article is a particularly weak target, but it's revealing of how easy it is to get away with writing drivel when it coincides with the mood of the times. He tells people what they expect - and want - to hear, so people don't enquire too closely. This kind of guff proliferates without challenge. It should be refuted robustly so the real experts - the people who know about the stuff that museums collect - can get on with their job of displaying it, instead of worrying about whichever audience has captured the imagination of the marketing team.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

'Donations' in lieu of tax: a stupid way to fund the arts

Picture: University of Cambridge
Margaret Thatcher's archives were recently transferred to the nation in lieu of tax, under a scheme that's seen many important artworks and historic documents transferred to public ownership. We even got her handbag (above). The Thatcher archives have been controversial, but for the wrong reasons. There's no question of their importance, whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher. But the scheme itself is absurd. I've done an interview with The One Show on BBC about the acceptance in lieu scheme, which should be broadcast on Friday. Acceptance in lieu almost universally popular because it seems to give free pictures to museums. The official website explains its advangages:  "The primary benefit for a host/acquiring museum, gallery or library is that it receives an important object at no cost".
But this is nonsense. These are not free objects. They are objects bought out of foregone taxes. If the tax were paid to the Treasury and then given to the museum, it could spend the money on any picture it liked. What are the chances that of all the pictures available in the world, they'd want the very one handed over in lieu of tax?
The beneficiaries are not museums, but the wealthy people with important pictures on their walls and archives in their attics. I don't for a moment blame them for using the scheme - I would in their shoes. They aren't cheating the system; they're using it exactly as it was intended. Our ire should be directed at the Treasury. This is just one of many examples of misleading policies that benefit a tiny number at the expense of the majority. They are pretending that it isn't really arts funding, because the transfer takes place instead of gathering tax and distributing it.
The iniquity stings twice. First, it stings that the very wealthy can enjoy such a splendid privilege. Can you imagine the reaction if you offered to pay your council tax by spending a few hours doing some gardening in the local park, and offering your labour at £50 an hour? I'm going to hazard a guess that they won't convene an expert panel to assess the quality of your work and value of your labour. But if you have an important picture you not only get to save on transaction fees from selling it on the open market, you get a tax rebate too - you save a quarter of the tax that would have been due on the object. The other side, of course, is that taxpayers are paying extra for the privilege of acquiring something via the acceptance in lieu scheme. It's actually a more expensive way to buy stuff. And the people transferring objects are often treated as philanthropists, and credited by the museums as donors. They are not donors; they are simply taxpayers. And they're using a loophole that means they are paying relatively less tax than the rest of us. We are paying more than they are.
But the scheme also stings because we keep getting more of the kind of pictures that happen to have been popular with British collectors - unsurprisingly, they're the pictures that are usually quite well represented in our national collections, too. We've just got a cache of 44 Frank Auerbachs, which are fine pictures, but do we need so very many of them? We have a total of 54 Auberbach oils alone in British public collections, but not a single picture by the American abstract artist Richard Diebenkorn. And where are the early German pictures, the Scandinavian art, seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings, nineteenth century German art, and American art, all poorly represented in both public and private collections in the UK? We're missing out on so much because our acquisitions are skewed towards 'saving' more of the same.
The cultural sector is extravagantly grateful for acceptance in lieu. But it's a bit like getting a pay rise, but then being told that it will be paid in the form of a monthly delivery of groceries chosen by your employer. Getting a free grocery delivery is better than not getting one. But if the cost is the same to my employer, I'd rather have the cash thanks all the same. And can you image a public company choosing to pay in groceries, but then deciding to pay the supermarket a bit more than their retail prices? That's what the government is doing when it buys pictures under the acceptance in lieu scheme. Shareholders would demand the board be sacked if it were a public company; as taxpayers we should be holding the Treasury to account. To be clear, I'm not making a partisan point here. Acceptance in lieu enjoys cross-party support, and no party has a monopoly on distorting tax schemes. But they should still be held accountable for this stupidity.

It's even more stupid in the context of funding cuts that mean we can't get to see the stuff we're acquiring because museums can't afford to keep the doors open. Money is available for acquisitions, but not for running costs. The British Museum has acquired some wonderful drawings under the acceptance in lieu scheme. But it's just slashed the opening hours at the print room, so it's now harder to see them. And we're acquiring archives, but shutting libraries. It's perverse to keep buying things when we can't afford to display them. 
Of course the risk for the cultural sector is that the acceptance in lieu scheme gets scrapped without any compensating payment. But we are citizen as well as art enthusiasts, and we have a duty to play fair. We should seek to win the argument for funding on its own terms, not on the basis of secret subventions. And those secret subventions impose a real cost. It is more expensive to acquire via acceptance in lieu, because of the extra tax rebate. And too often it means we acquire the wrong things; museums need to get more creative with their acquisitions, and the Treasury should be a little less creative in its accounting. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Old Master Market: Dead, or merely resting?

Picture: Wikipedia
Bendor Grosvenor has rightly debunked a number of myths around the supposed collapse of the old master market. I think he's spot on about the hyped listings of 'top collectors', the difficulty interpreting auction results and the importance of assessing the quality of what happens to have come up for sale on that particular day. Clearly plenty of people are still buying old masters, some for very hefty prices. But I still think the truth lies somewhere in the middle; the market is not dead, but I don't think it's in particularly ruddy health either. There are £30m Turners and £20m Stubbs, but an awful lot of good pictures are selling poorly.

Even when growth is sluggish, economies reliably produce oodles of data. But the art market is still hard to see. Most transactions aren't just private, they're secret. The dealers open up for Old Master Week, but I was still rather unceremoniously turfed out of one gallery when they wanted to be alone with a client (thanks for the welcome, Ariadne Galleries ... and people wonder why new customers are put off old art ...). The one time when the market surfaces is the spectacular auctions when pictures dramatically sell for millions. They're the focus of art market comment, and unwarranted hasty conclusions are drawn from a tiny random sample of pictures offered in the big sales. A particularly weak sale at Christie's has caused a flurry of comment about the death of the old master market.

Some dealers continue to make a good living, but that is another piece of evidence that must be treated cautiously. The overall performance of an industry is weakly correlated with how much money people can make from it. There are probably blacksmiths still making a good living, whereas returns to manufacturers of computer hardware have been lackluster throughout the IT boom. We can't assess the health of the market on the basis of how much money some dealers are making. A more telling comparison is with the contemporary market, which I discuss in a separate post

But taking a step back from comparing different market segments or assessing performance over time, a simple measure of supply and demand is telling. Supply in the old master market is constrained; they're not making any more! Supply can increase as a result of new discoveries or museum deaccessions, and in the short term the amount coming up for sale can increase as a result of tax changes or as a result of increased demand pushing up prices and tempting people to sell. Supply can decrease as a result of museum acquisitions, damage and destruction, and re-attribution. None of these factors tell us a great deal about the health of the market, though. But another angle is to look at re-appraisals. In a booming market, more minor artists are rediscovered and re-evaluated. That's not happened much recently. Different schools wax and wane, but despite a long boom in Dutch art, Musscher and Sorgh remain under-appreciated. The best works rose sharply in price, pursued by a coterie of keen collectors, but bargains still abound in the lower end of the market. Unattributed works rarely make high prices, and unfashionable schools like the northern mannerists remain cheap. 

The demand side is even more stark. A long global economic boom has created an unprecedented number of millionaires and billionaires. The fruits of growth have disproportionately benefited the wealthy; even in the old world, the mass affluent are numerous and wealthy. The economy distributes rewards unequally, so even within professions like law and banking, those at the top have done disproportionately well. The results of these trends is evident everywhere except the old master market: the luxury goods industries have been growing strongly for decades, house prices in the world's most desirable enclaves have never been so high, and contemporary art is booming. For old masters merely to maintain their value in real terms in these circumstances is a sign of weakness; all things being equal, they too should be booming. 

It was not always so. In the 1970s and 1980s the impressionists were really taking off, but there were prominent public collectors vying for old masters: Getty, Thyssen, Norton Simon, Wrightsman. French eighteenth century art was eagerly pursued by the new rich. Rembrandt and Velazquez smashed records. Museums competed to buy great old masters. Earlier still, old masters were the epitome of fashionable taste. Not only were the very richest competing for fashionable Italian renaissance masterpieces, English portraits and the best Dutch masters, but there were layers of connoisseur-collectors focused on baroque art (Mahon, Seilern) or early Italian and early Netherlandish art (Lehman, Thyssen). Collectors wanted to show off their connoisseurship and discernment, seeking advice from scholars and experts. 

Today it seems that collectors seek to be curators rather than connoisseurs. They seek brands rather than beauty. Of course my examples are merely anecdotal, but I think the evidence of the market points to a real shift in elite taste. The old master market isn't dead, but its recent lethargy is more than a blip. 

Auction results: comparing old and new

The divergence between contemporary and old master pictures is often noted in abstract terms, and the highest priced contemporary works evince sneers from fuddy-duddys like me. But the contemporary market is broadly based, and it's interesting to compare across a range of prices. So rather than the usual post-mortem on the old master sales, I've made some direct comparisons. I've selected some old masters sold in the past couple of months from different price points and juxtaposed them with the closest comparison in price from the contemporary sales conducted by the same auction house in the same city. I think it gives some context to the debate about the state of the old master market. 
Noli me tangere
Francesco Solimena Noli me Tangere Christie's New York 3 June 2015 $353,000

This sublime Solimena sold fractionally above estimate recently, but it's a bargain for one of the most beautiful and perfect Italian baroque pictures at auction recently. The catalogue entry is excellent; I get the sense the writer liked it, too. It's a small and really attractive image of a quality that would hold up in any of the world's greatest museums. Yet it made just $350k. 
Study for Little Aviation
Two weeks earlier a minor and, to my eyes, artless sketch by Roy Lichtenstein sold for exactly the same price (above). Nearest prices in the same contemporary sale were for works by John Chamberlain and Lucas Samaras - not exactly household names. I've chosen the Solimena deliberately because I think it's a really great and undervalued picture, but it was well marketed and selected as the cover lot for the catalogue, so it's not exactly a sleeper. Yet it only made as much as some relatively quite minor and quite commonplace contemporary works. 
A coastal landscape with fisherfolk, a beached boat beyond
Richard Parkes Bonington A Coastal Landscape with Fisherfolk Christie's London £2,490,500

This wonderful languid landscape by the excessively rare Bonington sold for nearly £400k less than Martin Kippenberger's Untitled (below). I think the Bonington is the most beautiful English landscape picture sold in years, by a significant artist who died young and whose oil paintings are absent from many of the best public collections of British art. It's beautiful, easily appreciated, rare and art historically important. But cheaper than a Kippenberger that doesn't even have a title.
Untitled (from the Hand-Painted Picture Series)

At the lower end of the market, a classic Dutch townscape by Berckheyde sold at Christie's for £48,750. It's not a picture that I love, and I think you could do better for the money. But I've chosen it because it's a good and decorative picture, easily recognised and appreciated. Yet it's slightly cheaper than a limited edition print of Marilyn Monroe by Vik Muniz, from 2004, which fetched £50k on 1 July. And Sotheby's got just £37,500 for this gorgeous (but deeply unfashionable) Bonito.
Jan de Bray A Violin Player accompanying two young singers Sotheby's 8 July £125,000 

I really thought this would soar, but it just beat the estimate modestly. It's an early work, and not his best, but still fabulous in my view. Six days earlier the same price was achieved for Ai Weiwei's Coloured Vases, neolithic vases vandalised in 2002 with industrial paint by a living artist who can churn out as many more of them as there are neolithic vases.  
Ferdinand Bol Portrait of a Boy Sotheby's 8 July £5,189,000

At the top end, Bol's Portrait of a Boy won many hearts and no one was surprised that it exceeded the estimate and smashed the record for Bol. But was £5m so much for such a fabulous picture? It's less than Yves Klein's Untitled Blue Monochrome, which is a blue monochrome painting without a title (sold on 1 July for £5,525,000). I reckon even I could knock you up a pretty good copy of the Klein, but who could replicate that Bol? I'd take just the still life over the Klein! In the same sale as the Klein, a Basquiat and a couple of Warhol dollar sign pictures sold in the same range, but works by Richter and Bacon sold for three times as much, and a Warhol dollar bill for four times as much. These are iconic pictures, but none is particularly uncommon and to my mind none comes close to the artistry of the Bol. 

We're used to seeing top contemporary pictures smash records, and truly outstanding old masters rarely come to market. But the depth of the contemporary market is striking. It's not just a handful of top names selling for vast fortunes. At every price point contemporary art is selling strongly. Contemporary art lacks rarity value, and has none of the history and romance that comes with a picture like the Bol, possibly a portrait of the artist's son, painted during one of the greatest flowerings of human civilization and then hung for centuries in one of England's grandest country houses. For a hundred times less money, the Berckheyde is another really fine picture with similar associations with the Dutch golden age, a timeless masterpiece within reach of thousands of the 'mass affluent'. Yet Warhol trumps Bol, a trivial sketch by Lichtenstein is valued on a par with a baroque masterpiece, and a pop art print outsells the Berckheyde. Reports of the demise of the old master market may be over-stated, but in relative terms the contemporary market is powering ahead.

All pictures sourced from auction houses. 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Listening to the pictures: Sound in museums

Picture: Wikipedia
This picture has haunted me since I first saw it some years ago in Utrecht's Catherijneconvent. It's a tiny painting that hung in a darkened cloister, a sublime masterpiece that jumped out from the other fine medieval pictures in that lovely little museum. I'd known it from illustrations, but it hadn't prepared me for the really emotional experience of seeing the original. I went back recently specifically to see this one picture, after seeing the Wtewael show nearby. It was one of the most awful experiences I've ever had at a museum. The picture is now in the middle of a brightly lit gallery, with a loud musical soundtrack booming out from a speaker above it. Music from different periods plays on a short loop. It simply ruins the experience, and makes it impossible to appreciate the picture. Even with fingers in ears, the music is unavoidable. This deeply emotional and profoundly sorrowful picture is wrecked and trivialised when booming mood music is imposed on it. The subtlety of Geergen's vision is overwritten by the curators' crass muzak selection.

Music creates a particular mood. Advertisers and marketers deliberately use music to establish brand image and persuade you to spend money. It's their prerogative to impose a uniform experience on consumers. But pictures are naturally more open-ended. My experience of the Man of Sorrows is likely to be different from yours. But the imposition of a specific soundtrack closes down those experiences, enforcing uniformity. It's utterly inimical to the way I want to see art. Yet museums are introducing sound and video more and more into the staid galleries of old masters. The Met has an especially ridiculous audio visual display around the great Adam sculpture that they smashed a few years ago. It was apparently championed by their director, scholar-turned-impresario Thomas Campbell, and curator Luke Syson, notorious for his role on the committee overseeing the disastrous restoration of Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne.

Now the National Gallery has an entire exhibition of 'sound art', in which 'sound artists' are invited to respond to pictures in the collection. It is feeble, as astute critics have recognised. The display of Antonello's St Jerome also includes a model of his study with a hilly landscape, which looks a lot like a craft project I did at school when I was six or seven years old. The musical choices are painfully obvious, and this ticketed exhibition deprives visitors of great pictures like Holbein's Ambassadors

The defensive publicity material tells us that the National Gallery is meant to be an inspiration to all kinds of artists, not just visual. Indeed. But that doesn't mean that the NG is obliged to show the fruits of that inspiration, no matter how badly they've withered. Nature, too, is an inspiration to poets and artists. But we can appreciate the lake district without have romantic poetry broadcast from the hilltops. And in the case of the NG's exhibition, it's more William McGonagall than William Wordsworth.

So why the desire to include sound in museums? The most hilarious comment I've seen is from Sandra Beate Reimann, who curated a sound show at the Tinguely Museum: "Our culture, since Plato, has focused on the primacy of the eye as a means of understanding the world. In the past year we've seen a trend to go wider and bring in other senses." Wow. Just wow. It tells us so much about the self-regard of contemporary art, and its utter lack of historic sense that anyone could try to divide the history of human culture into 'all history from Plato to 2014' and '2014 to 2015'. Of course anyone with an iota of historical awareness knows there's a rich history of exploring the world through different senses, and of reflecting critically upon it. We might reasonably wonder what Reimann can add to our culture given her profound ignorance of its history.

The curators at the Met and the National Gallery aren't ignorant of history. They are learned scholars expert in art history and skilled in sharing their knowledge with a lay public. Yet they seem defensive about their own expertise. Rather than tell us about great works of art, they defer to idiot popularisers who claim implausibly to have special insight into modern audiences and modern art (you know, the great advances of the past 365 days that Reimann enthuses over). The curators' knowledge is for nothing if they can't tell these people to shove off. These intrusive and stupid musical shows are not only without merit, they rob us of the chance to enjoy our own experience of truly great art.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Old Master auction week

Picture: Sotheby's
The old master auction viewings are a great opportunity to see privately owned masterpieces. But I especially relish the chance to see more 'minor' pictures, which can be incredibly rewarding. Some people think money degrades art, as if it should exist on a higher plane. I think that's nonsense. Not only is the relationship inevitable, it's also fascinating to see how the market judges art. Some things are valuable because they are decorative, but it always astonishes me how museums tend to follow the same fads. And besides, looking at prices gives us all an opportunity to feel superior. We may not be billionaires, but if we were we'd have the good taste to buy better art. 

Among the lower-estimate lots, I love the anonymous Central Italian School Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (above). It's close to Perugino, but not by him. I have no idea who it is by, but what a wonderful picture. An absolute snip at £100k to £150k. That's what happens when a fine picture doesn't have a great label.

The northern mannerists have a branding problem too. The northern renaissance is anchored by great names - Van Eyck and Van der Weyden at one end, Bruegel and Bosch at the other. The golden age has the triumvirate of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. The northern mannerists, stretching across the low countries through into Bohemia, fall between the two. Splendid artists like Wtewael and Spranger just don't have the crowd appeal or name recognition of earlier and later masters. They're particularly poorly represented in British collections; we're so busy 'saving' yet more Turners and Constables that we never get around to them. There's a ravishing group at Sotheby's this week, with tiny little estimates.
Picture: Sotheby's
The deliciously sexy Diana and Callisto by Joseph Heintz the elder is estimated at £300k - £400k, which won't even cover the premium on a more fashionable name. Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hans Rottenhammer is just £70k - £100k and a large Cornelis van Haarlem Paris and Oenone is £300k - £400k. I'd give up any number of Constables and Gainsboroughs for any of them. But if I could take home one thing, I think I'd go for the little Wtewael Mars, Venus and Cupid. It's just 13cm by 10cm, a little worn and with some small losses, but utterly ravishing and worth its £800k - £1.2m estimate. Come on National Gallery, dig deep...

I like Cranach well enough, though I find his runaway popularity hard to understand. But The Mouth of Truth at Sotheby's has it all - a major large-scale picture, an interesting subject, beautiful image and really good quality. They must love getting consignments like this, which sell themselves. Given the high price of even mediocre Cranachs, this one ought really to do better than the £6m - £8m estimate. 
Picture: Arts Council England
Another picture that should sell itself is the wonderful Bol from Castle Howard (£2m - £3m). Bol isn't the biggest name from the Dutch golden age, but anyone can see the quality of this portrait. Great picture, charming subject, top provenance.  Overall the Sotheby's sale is extremely strong. There are a couple of ravishing Lawrences, a full length Batoni and a fine Fragonard too. The standard of cataloguing from both auction houses is really high.
Image result for wtewael rest christie's
Picture: Christie's
Christie's had its major consignment withdrawn at the last minute, and I really do feel for them; it leaves a huge hole in their evening sale. I'd love to have seen the two Rubens, and excellent works by Ostade and Teniers from the Beit collection. There are lots of other excellent things in the sale, but they are less to my taste than those at Sotheby's. I heard people raving about their Bonington, but it was off the wall for inspection when I called by. They have a fascinating early Spanish picture by Nicolas Frances, The Mass of St Gregory (£200k - £300k) and some fine Dutch pictures including this unusual figure scene by Jan van Goyen (£150k - £250k), which was on loan to the National Gallery in Washington for many years. They also have two Wtewaels, including The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (above, £200k - £400k). I thought the best things at Christie's were in their Exceptional Sale and 'Taste of the Royal Court', which includes some absolutely top-notch French decorative art.

Sotheby's Treasures sale includes a Sansovino from Castle Howard that really impressed me on a recent visit (cheap at £400k - £600k), this wonderful and really unusual sixteenth century Bavarian relief sculpture (£300k - £500k; hard to estimate and presumabaly hard to sell as it's such an unusual object, but it's really high quality, which you can't properly appreciate from the picture) and the world's most expensive cat toy (£200k - £300k).
Picture: Sotheby's
The day sales are for the lower-value lots, but both houses have some especially good things, some of which have tantalising low estimates. At Sotheby's there's a large Pieter Codde family portrait (£60k - £80k) that charmed me. I find the inclusion of Jan de Bray's early A Violin Player Accompanying two young singers in the day sale inexplicable, as is its teeny weeny estimate of £60k - £80k. Jan de Bray is a big name, it's a commercial subject and a really good picture. Perhaps there aren't many closely comparable sales to establish an estimate, but it deserves to fly. Solimena's Saint Augustine triumphing over heresy (£20k - £40k) and Giuseppe Bonito's The Immaculate Conception (£30k - £40k) are perhaps not to today's taste, but both are really cheaply estimated for such well-painted pictures. 

Christie's has the world's cheapest Sebastiano del Piombo (£50k - £100k). It's an absolute wreck in dreadful condition, but I thought its underlying quality shone through at the viewing. Still, not sure I could live with something so damaged. A picture I'd love to live with is this unusual Greuze portrait of an elegant lady (£20k - £30k), far removed from his usual run of servants with hang overs. A version of one of Boucher's pictures of putti is modestly attributed to Boucher and Studio, but most attractive and reasonably estimated at £40k - £60k. Another Boucher is this grisaille, which I think I've seen offered previously, now estimated at just £20k - £30k. It's not the most fashionable picture, nor typical of Boucher, but well painted and cheap at the estimate.

Sales run through this week. I'll try to find time to write about the dealer shows later in the week, and the old master drawings - some nice things, including a group of Menzels at Sotheby's and a Robert Adam design at Christie's.