Sunday, 3 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

How not to clean pictures: the risk of gels

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 August 2017

Museums are not the answer for Confederate monuments

Confederate monuments celebrate a failed war to defend slavery. Most were erected long after the Civil War as a deliberate assertion of white supremacy, alongside Jim Crow laws and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Other historical figures have flaws against the standards of our times, but statues of Washington and Jefferson celebrate their enlightened nation-building, not their slave ownership. I understand why so many think the statues must go. I'm still not persuaded. People really are worried about a slippery slope that will carry away all historic statues. They're not racists, and they're not fools. Radicals really are targeting Columbus now.

But this debate isn't really about the merits of Confederate monuments, and I don't think the statue smashers' primary concern is racism. In a recent poll a plurality of African Americans want the statues to remain. That's especially awkward for protesters who believe we should defer to minority experience, so they've mostly ignored it. The inflamed passions are really a manifestation of the culture wars. The most angry voices and most sanctimonious arguments are from the people who most strongly identify with one or other tribe in the culture wars. They're animated by hatred for the other side in the here and now, not racism. It's telling that the debate over symbols has been so much more gripping and more inspiring than policy debates about issues like gerrymandering or civil forfeiture or policing that have much more real-world impact here and now.

Any solution that doesn't recognise that will fail. The task isn't deciding what to do with statues, it's working out how to pacify culture warriors. And that's why I think some of the 'middle ground' solutions are the worst of all worlds.

Putting the statues in museums assumes that museums will give the 'right' interpretation, so that the oiks who won't 'get it' in the public square can be made to understand. It co-opts museums for a particular side in the culture war. Sorting institutions into 'ours' and 'theirs' is a catastrophic strategy. Museums already tend to lean liberal. Many were founded as patriotic projects, but today they're more likely to indulge the cringing political correctness of Fred Wilson. Putting the sculptures in museums won't calm the passions. It will shift the focus to museums, further politicising them and alienating a large section of the public.

Adding new statues of heroes that today's critics approve is also a problem. They are bound to be a focus of bitter debate when the symbolism is raised to such importance. Maybe they could raise statues of Frederick Douglass holding a rifle, to show his support for gun rights? And it feels condescending to require a statue of a black hero directly opposite a Confederate criminal to provide 'balance'. A non-trivial problem is that a lot of public sculpture is quite awful, and bad monuments have proliferated in the UK and sullied our towns and cities.

I don't have any better ideas. I think it's tragic that iconoclasm has become a radical strategy, and also tragic that so many conservatives struggle to concede the awfulness of the Confederacy. But anything that reinforces destructive tribal loyalties in the culture wars will make things worse.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

It's all about context: assessing the old master market

The old master auctions that I wrote about recently did ... OK. Sold percentage was high, but the major Turner that I didn't care for just squeaked by at £18.5m. Some wonderful Northern pictures did deservedly well, a portrait of Anne of Hungary's court fool (above) that they gave to Jan Sanders van Hemessen making £2.2m against an upper estimate of £600k. A marvellous Murillo made £2.7m, a little less than it made in 2005, adjusted for inflation. Conventional wisdom is that the market doesn't like 'stale' pictures, but twelve years is enough of a gap for a new generation of collectors to come through. And whilst novelty doubtless has some inherent value, there are other reasons for recent returns to do poorly at auction. The person willing to bid highest last time has dropped out - because they're selling it. The last auction established an anchor price, so it's easier to offer around the market than something with uncertain value. Auction might be the last resort. And they might be selling because it wasn't as good as they hoped, after cleaning and research. Finally the market is inherently volatile. There just aren't that many people chasing after each lot, and indeed some pictures returning to auction do very well indeed, from this to this.

Art market reports tend to read to much into each auction. It's a small sample, and it's mostly noise rather than signal. The July sales were solid, but not spectacular, so people tended to read into them what they wanted. Some old master dealers are too keen on talking up their market. Short term fluctuations are market volatility are literally their living, but sometimes being too close to the action means missing the context. Just because some dealers might be making a killing doesn't mean the market is in splendid good health. So I find myself again in disagreement with Art History News.

Supply of old masters fluctuates a bit, but not by as much as you might think. Great things do still come to market, and there’s a fairly steady stream of material. But they’re not making any more, so it is a finite market. The key change is demand. Art and antiques are bought by the affluent and the rich. And their ranks have been multiplying. There’s been a massive growth of global wealth, and a particularly striking growth in the super-rich. The potential market has been growing.

If a population increases and grows richer, a car manufacturer with static sales shouldn’t get too excited. There are more potential customers, but they’re not buying cars. If it turns out that all the other manufacturers are selling more and more cars, as you’d expect in a growing market, our manufacturer ought to get a bit worried. That's the situation in the old masters market; other sectors in the art market are booming.

Bendor Grosvenor references a lightweight report by Arts Economics. It’s hard to assess the report because there are so few references. The lack of caveats (uncertainty about size of market given different definitions and different sales channels) makes it look more like a marketing brochure than serious research. But it’s still hard to read as an endorsement of the old master market. Old masters are ‘best performing’ in the UK market only in the context of relative increase (of 16%). But that’s against a decline of 50% the year before ($438m to $219m). Of course that’s partly driven by decisions about where to sell, but it shows the danger of cherry-picking data.

The report confuses regions and hubs, and is padded out with unsubstantiated claims about the “knowledge-intensive and gender-balanced” jobs that are provided (what is a ‘gender-balanced’ job?). But it does show that the old master market is almost the smallest segment of the fine art market: 45% post-war and contemporary, 30% modern, 12% impressionist and post-impressionist and just 13% old master. So the market post-war and contemporary – just a few generations – is nearly as large as the seven previous centuries.

Billionaires' net worth has increased roughly fivefold since 1995. Globalisation has created a vast new upper middle class in developing countries who are able to afford works of art. The boom in contemporary art isn't surprising. The remarkable thing is that so few rich people are spending their wealth on old masters.

It’s not a slight on old masters, or on the people who market them for a living, to say that the market is weak. I see it more as an indictment of the taste of the rich, but we shouldn’t take rich people’s taste too seriously. If you have even a little spare money you can buy pictures that really ought to be out of your league. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Summer auctions: Old Master Week in London

Auction viewings are under-rated. Collectors and dealers go, but the interested public neglects these rare chances to see things that might not be on public display again for a generation. It's not just the museum-quality masterpieces that are worth seeing. Seeing lots of mundane pictures helps develop a feel for relative quality and gives a sense of art history's mountains, as well as the peaks that museums select for us. I started going to viewings as a teenager and I still love them.

Old masters are even more under-rated than auction viewings. It's just inexplicable to me that they are so cheap in a world that's so rich. Whenever a particular picture or auction marginally exceeds expectations there are boosters ready to jump in with stories about market take-off, but in context the market is still in the gutter. You can get an absolute masterpiece for a tenth the cost of a Basquiat, a significant museum-quality picture for a tenth the cost of a central London townhouse, and a pretty good entry-level picture for no more than the price of an annual travelcard in London. Head to Sotheby's and Christie's this week for bargains galore!

Sotheby's sale is strong, with some splendid Northern portraits that are much to my taste and a beautiful Murillo Ecce Homo (£2m-3m). But my favourites were a couple of Italian baroque pictures. The strong artistic culture of that time maintained extraordinarily high standards, taking for granted the technical achievements of the Renaissance and trying to get ahead in swagger and bombast. There's a wonderful little mythological picture of Bacchus and Ariadne by Francisco Solimena at Sotheby's estimated at just £300k-£400k. It's a virtuoso little showpiece and I love it. But my favourite is Castiglione's Pagan Sacrifice (£400k-£600k), an incredible picture that I've wanted to see in the flesh ever since I came across it in an old catalogue years ago. It didn't disappoint; one his best pictures. Castiglione can be sloppy, but this one is controlled and the colouration is fabulous.

Christie's has got pobably the most significant work of art in André Beauneveu's marble Lions ('estimate on request'), a remarkable rediscovery from the tomb of Charles V. My favourite of their pictures is a triptych by the Master of the Antwerp Adoration (£600k-£800k), a delightfully inventive creation with wonderful monkey-like faces. Dutch pictures are thin on the ground this year, but I liked this superior Jan Steen Boors playing a game of beugelen (£800k-£1.2m). There's a bargain basement still life, too: a flower piece from the studio of Ambrosius Bosschaert I (£80k-£100k). It's fine quality, and if it was just enough better to lose the 'studio' attribution it would be ten times as much.

The drawings viewings are the biggest draw for me. Museums can't keep old master drawings on display, so you have to grab every chance you can to see them. Sotheby's has an exceptional Canaletto. I get a bit jaded by vedute, but this drawing has it all. Well worth the £2.5m-£3.5m estimate. Prices fall away rapidly below the very first rank. There's an intriguing and wonderful  drawing from Rubens's workshop that's been reworked by the man himself estimated at just 1% of the Canaletto, and a beautiful small Poppi St John the Baptist and a young standing man (£20k-£30k).

Sometimes estimates don't give you much clue, and old master drawings are especially hard to predict. Christie's has taken a cautious approach. I hate it when the tease me into thinking even I can afford something fabulous. The opening lot, Timoteo Viti's The Massacre of the Innocents is surely in a higher league than its £25k-£35k estimate. A wonderful Ribera, above, is estimated at £80k-£120k. It's interesting to compare to Goya, who would be worth ten to twenty times as much. There's a lot to like in a strong sale, including particularly good English drawings. I loved the well-preserved Romneys. But my absolute favourite is Giuseppe Cades's Portrait of the princes Camillo and Francesco Borghese as young boys (below). The £20k-£30k estimate is no guide to its quality, and possibly not much guide to its value either.

If some things are relatively under-rated, I ought to tell you what I think's over-rated too. I heartily disliked the Frans Hals Two Fisherboys (Christie's, £1m-£1.5m). My first thought was Norman Rockwell. Technical analysis shows that it really is old, and Claus Grimm - whose scholarship I revere - thinks it's right. I think it's an awful picture, even if it's an awful picture by Frans Hals. The estimate is too high for a wrong 'un, but surely far too low for an authentic Hals. We'll see. I don't believe the Christie's 'attributed to Rembrandt', either. It's 'estimate on request', but I thought it a weak picture that doesn't rise above any number of competent portraits in his late style.

Turner's Ehrenbreitstein at Sotheby's is unquestionably 'important' (£15m-£25m), but it leaves me cold. I don't care for Turner's figures, and there are too many here. I can admire it, but can't love it.

I'll say more about the day sales next week when I write up the results, but lots of minor treasures there too. Let me end on a high note, with a masterpiece from the start of the Western artistic tradition. This attic red-figured pelike is attributed to the Carpenter Painter, one of the best painters from the best period of Greek vase painting. It's reconstucted from fragments, but the main painted areas seem to be original. Can you believe it's estimated at just £80k-£120k?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' at the National Gallery

Michelangelo & Sebastiano National Gallery London to 25 June

Sebastiano del Piombo’s great fortune was to be taken under Michelangelo’s wing. But that was his great misfortune too, for he has lingered in Michelangelo's shadow. This scholarly and delightful exhibition traces their relationship, showing the confluence of Michelangelo's genius for composition and Sebastiano's mastery of colour and quirky inventiveness, Michelangelo's supreme command of anatomy and Sebastiano's talents as portraitist.

In the early Judgment of Solomon you get a sense of Sebastiano's soaring ambition, a large complex composition that he couldn’t quite resolve and abandoned unfinished. His encounter with Michelangelo in Rome was fortuitous. Sebastiano got compositional ideas from Michelangelo, Michelangelo got his ideals taken forward in the intensely competitive marketplace that Raphael was starting to dominate. 

The mix of sublime masterpieces and sometimes faltering trials is compelling. Sometimes you get both together. The Viterbo Pieta (top) is an inventive and moving masterpiece, but who can believe in that masculine mother? A friend said you expect chest hairs to sprout from her robe. The walnut frame was specially made for the exhibition by the National Gallery's Head of Framing, Peter Schade. He also made the new and spectacular frame for the NG's 'first' picture, the great Raising of Lazarus, below in its new frame.

For me the sculptures were the high point and the low point. The plaster cast of Michelangelo's Pieta gives a better feeling for it than the original in Rome, hidden behind inches of glass. The two versions of The Risen Christ, one a cast, are intensely moving, and seen together with Michelangelo's drawings is an unforgettably powerful visual experience. The low point is seeing the Royal Academy's Taddei Tondo imprisoned in a box (below). It's an utterly unsympathetic and depressing display. Better if it weren't there at all.

The selection and display is surprising. Artists' letters are interesting for content rather than form, but this show includes original missives taking space that could have been given to drawings. Sebastiano's portraits have least connection to Michelangelo, but there are some fine examples included. It's wonderful to see them, and the Clement VII is a masterpiece, but they confuse the focus of the exhibition. Worst of all, the National Gallery has been hornswoggled into showing  a purported portrait of Michelangelo that might be an outright fake. It's a recent attribution shown as 'Probably by Sebastiano' (what's wrong with the word 'attributed'?). The condition is poor, and so is the anatomy. There's a better Sebastiano on loan from Longford Castle in the main galleries, in a little focus exhibition of works related to the exhibition. Discoveries seem new and exciting, but selection should be driven by quality rather than celebrity.

Both artists benefited from collaboration, which this exhibition shows brilliantly. But who can stand comparison to a genius like Michelangelo? Inevitably Sebastiano is diminished by juxtaposition. Sebastiano was a wonderful draughtsman, but he seems almost feeble set against some of Michelangelo’s greatest hits. A show that ought to have rehabilitated Sebastiano has pushed him further into the shadows. And that is my main reservation about this exhibition. Conceiving of the show as ‘Michelangelo & Sebastiano’ keys into our worst expectations of exhibitions: ‘unmissable’ blockbuster (‘Michelangelo – so famous he was even a Ninja Turtle!), or else as competition (who’s the best? As if that could be in doubt).

If you know anything about Sebastiano, it's that he was Michelangelo's ally against Raphael. I just wish the exhibition had been oriented more explicitly to the wider context. La Madonna del Velo is an obvious response to Raphael, as the catalogue notes, and the portraits seem indebted to Raphael too. It wasn't simply a time of Renaissance rivalry. Personal rivalries make compelling stories, but in the long run the creative mix of ideas was more important. And beneath that unbelievable triad of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael were dozens of lesser artists who deserve more attention. Some are distinctive and well understood, like Sebastiano, but others are still hard to isolate like Gianfrancesco Penni. 

Commercial reality and cultural expectations conspire to push museums towards simple formulae. A lot of critics have failed to grasp the show, seemingly disappointed that Michelangelo is encumbered by the little guy. But museums of the National Gallery's stature ought to be able to take more risks. How wonderful it would be to see the little guys together, to see how the second tier drew on the breakthroughs of the High Renaissance and try to get closer to some of mysterious students and followers. In the meantime we just have to make the effort to appreciate Sebastiano in his own terms, as well as enjoying some of the absolute pinnacles of human culture in this show.