Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The theft of public sculpture has got to stop

Two nights ago a gang of scumbag opportunists broke through the gates of Dulwich Park, just five minutes from where I live in South London, and stole an important work of outdoor sculpture — Two Forms (Divided Circle) of 1970 (left) — by the great British modernist artist Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A popular local landmark, the 7ft high sculpture had stood beside the lake undisturbed for the past forty years, just a stone's throw from Dulwich Picture Gallery opposite.

Art theft is all too familiar in Dulwich. Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain's oldest public art gallery and has been targeted by thieves on more than one occasion. In 1966, Michael Hall, an unemployed ambulance driver, drilled a hole in a door and made off with three Rembrandts, three works by Rubens, and paintings by Adam Elsheimer and Gerard Dou. Happily the pictures were recovered a short time later, some of them discovered wrapped in newspaper under a bush in Rookery Park, Streatham, another popular pleasure spot.

In market value terms, Barbara Hepworth's bronze cannot compare with Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, but that is hardly the issue. Its real value is in the pleasure it gives to countless thousands of strolling dog-walkers, joggers and families on their Sunday outing. Its scrap value may be fairly significant to the despicable thugs who stole it, but as an important work of public sculpture by one of Britain's preeminent modernist artists it is irreplaceable and in that sense, priceless. Why, then, have local authorities offered just £1000 for information leading to its recovery? How brainless is that?

Hepworth's Two Forms can now be added to the melancholy roll-call of public sculpture stolen as a result of soaring scrap metal prices. The list is beginning to read like the index of a book on British sculpture as works by Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, and William Goscombe-John — to name just a few — have disappeared from public locations in recent years, never to be seen again.

This is not just another scrap metal problem. Granted, we're not talking about overhead cabling from a railway line, the theft of which can endanger human life. But the theft of sculpture can have a profound effect on local communities. A crudely truncated stump is now all that's left of Hepworth's elegant abstract form — another ghastly reminder of the philistinism spawned by the economic downturn.

Public sculpture theft is now out of control and something has to be done before all our parks and public spaces are desecrated in this way. I have no remedy for this problem, but if I were a chief at the Met I'd sure as hell light some fires under a few people. At present, the web pages devoted to metal theft at the Centre for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) make almost no reference to art or sculpture theft save to point out how inadequate security encourages thefts. It's time someone at the Met gave POP a new department — POP (ART).

We may not know who stole the Hepworth, but whoever they are will have set up a yard willing to melt it down. Those locations and the people who run them should also be known to police.

The Dulwich theft is worrying for another reason. The park was supposed to be secure. The gates (right) are locked every night, so the thieves had to break in and drive a van through the park in order to remove the work. What are the insurance implications of this? How many other parks will now be looking at what they believed were reasonable security measures and thinking again? If a set of ten-foot high iron gates aren't enough to keep out these vermin, what is?

I have a lovely little watercolour (left) of Barbara Hepworth's Single Form of 1961-62, which stands beside the lake in Battersea Park. Hepworth made the sculpture as a memorial to her friend, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who died in an air crash in Africa in 1961. Like the Dulwich work, Single Form amplifies the natural rhythms of the lake and surrounding park, subtly enhancing the experience of moving through the landscape. My watercolour — which I bought direct from an artist working at the Watts Gallery in Compton a few years ago — shows the park under snow when the sculpture takes on a different ambience.

Single Form is in good company at Battersea, sharing the park with Henry Moore's Three Standing Figures and Eric Kennington's dignified war memorial to the 24th Division that served at the Western Front. Happily the Moore and the Kennington are both in stone and so — for the time being at least — are relatively safe. The Hepworth should now be put under closer watch.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell, Hitch

I've never had heroes or idols, but Christopher Hitchens was one of the few people in the world I truly admired. Not merely on account of his muscular, persuasive support of the campaign to reunite the Parthenon Marbles in Athens, but for his glittering, coruscating turns of phrase, his resolute purpose, staggering erudition, willingness to change his mind as the facts changed, and his merciless demolition of the crapulous pygmy yes-men who populate even the highest stations of public office.

Oh to have encountered him at the bar...

Friday, December 9, 2011

OK, Cameron. If you're tough enough, now put a stake through the heart of Droit de Suite

It's ironic that the central plank of David Cameron's objection to entry into the new inner circle of European nations now taking shape in Brussels is that it would mean greater financial regulation for all member states. He is now being widely applauded in his own party for defending the very institutions — banks, hedge funds and other speculators — that were largely responsible for the near global financial meltdown.

His decision is perhaps justifiable given that financial services are about all Britain has to offer the world since the decline of its manufacturing base. But if the markets are the main focus of his heroic, General Custer-like stand against European bureaucracy, he should also say "Non!" to the dismal Brussels-born mechanism that has no doubt contributed to the steady decline of London's preeminent status as a centre of the global art trade. I'm referring, of course, to Droit de Suite, or the Artists' Re-Sale Rights Levy.

It may be true that China's inexorable advance to become the world's largest art market (now even bigger than America, according to most econometric analyses) was inevitable given all the other factors at play in its madly accelerating economy.

But unless Britain wants to slide even further into art market irrelevance, as France is in grave danger of doing, Cameron must do all in his power to make London the most attractive place to trade in art. The Brussels-imposed levy known in Europe as Droit de Suite, or the Artists' Re-sale Rights Levy — which grants the artist a small percentage share every time one of his or her works is re-sold on the secondary market — was widely opposed by the UK art trade, and for good reason. It has imposed a stultifying layer of costly administration on every secondary market transaction that qualifies for the levy. Moreover, after 2012 (when its reach is extended to cover transactions for up to 70 years after the artist's death, payable to the artist's heirs) it will drive yet another nail into the coffin of the British art trade.

Contrary to pro-levy propaganda circulated by the Design and Artists' Copyright Society Limited (DACS), and other levy-collecting bodies, it does NOT benefit artists to the extent they continue to maintain. Above all, after the 2012 extension it could well drive art transactions towards those markets where it does not apply (America and China, to name just two). To extend it at a moment when London is already surrendering art market prominence to China is utter madness.

You may be morally against the unconscionable sums that have been made (and are still being made) by those individuals who have benefited from the fiscal deregulation of recent years. But there is no denying that the art market benefits from wealth generation as investors see it as an attractive place to park surplus capital. Britain needs to nourish one of the strongest markets we have left.

It may well be that protecting the City is critical to Britain's future. But Cameron must now go further. He has already said "Nein!" to surrendering more sovereignty to European technocrats. Now he must add "Non!" to Droit de Suite.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saint Charles Saatchi blasts "vulgar, masturbatory, art-buying Eurotrash"

In 1971, the American artist Vito Acconci secreted himself under the floor of New York's Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while broadcasting his sexual fantasies through a loudspeaker audible to the gallery visitors above.

This er, seminal performance piece was not, however, what 'super-collector' Charles Saatchi was referring to in today's Guardian when he blasted the denizens of today's art world as "masturbatory", although as Acconci's performance piece makes clear, onanism has long been a feature of the art world.

Saatchi doesn't often address the media, generally preferring to keep his opinions to himself. Something of an art vampire, he is rarely glimpsed, only venturing out to feed on the freshest young contemporary talent for his Chelsea gallery.

I was therefore surprised, on emerging from the White Cube stand at the Frieze fair a few weeks ago, to spot the curmudgeonly old collector strolling towards me (above left), his features cast in a rictus of disgust, presumably at the acres of expensive tat that surrounded him. But given his usual reticence, it was even more surprising to see that look of disgust translated into an article for The Guardian, in which he rails at the "Eurotrashy, Hedgefundy, Hamptonites," and the "trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs…nestling together in their super yachts" at this year's Venice biennale.

He is right, of course. Loud money is everywhere in the art world. The big media draw at this year's Frieze fair was a super yacht and matching Riva power boat (right) by Italian company CRN, both of which had been blessed by German artist Christian Jankowski to become something more than mere maritime vessels…or so they would have you believe.

Luca Boldini, CRN's marketing director, told me, with an alarming lack of irony, "This is very much in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and the idea of the Readymade. I am very confident that we will sell it. If we do, it will send a great wave around the world that will confirm the value of the project." It didn't sell. It sank like a rusty rowing boat in a force ten gale of mocking laughter. It's amazing that the Frieze curators give tent-room to this stuff.

Such crass stunts surely endorse Saatchi's central point, which is that the art world is overrun by witless opportunists with no taste and too much money. He suggests that "the success of the uber art dealers is based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich." But 'twas ever thus.

You could probably track this trend back to the period of rising post-war affluence when Greek shipping magnates like Stavros Niarchos and Basil Goulandris — the oligarchs of their time, thanks largely to the Suez Crisis which made their shipping businesses so profitable — were paying top dollar for Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to stick on the walls of their many mansions. At the Biddle sale in Paris in 1957, Basil Goulandris bought Gauguin’s Still Life with Apples for $297,142 (buying power equivalent to $2.3m today), at which point “...the entire audience rose and burst into applause,” reported the New York Times.

Art has always been about conspicuous consumption (Veblen coined the term as far back as 1897), but it was really the Cognacq, Lurcy, Weinberg and Goldschmidt sales of the 1950s that marked the moment when the newly wealthy really discovered what Saatchi dismisses as the "pleasure to be found in having their lovely friends measure the weight of their baubles." (At least a Gauguin was a bauble worth measuring, unlike the dismal rubbish commanding top prices in the market today.)

Saatchi clearly has a problem with the oligarchs (one assumes he means Russian oligarchs) and on that point he's right on the money. Anyone who has bothered to read the recent history of Russia's power struggles and the turmoil in its economy will know that the Russian people were robbed blind by a few ruthless individuals in the early 1990s (Londongrad by Mark Holingsworth and Stewart Lansley is a good place to start.)

Recent BBC Radio 4 reports have focused attention on the corruption in Moscow's civic government and one can only wonder how far its tentacles spread. How much dirty money is being channelled into art? One sensed a good deal of it washing around Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams this week as all three houses dispersed Russian art to rooms full of what looked like paddle-waving gangsters with their anorexic girlfriends in tow.

The 'art world' has never been a particularly pleasant place in which to do business, but whether it's as bad as Saatchi maintains depends on your moral bias…or your taste (or lack of it).

Then again, Saatchi himself has hardly been an unequivocal force for good. Ask those artists whose paintings he bought back in the 1980s before unceremoniously dumping them a short while later. I've spoken to one or two who still can't bury the hatchet. Back then his approach to art was widely perceived as just as crude and philistine as the crapulous oligarchs and other freeloaders he's gunning for today.

Plus ça change...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rhino horn: myth and legend

Another day, another rhinoceros horn stolen from another museum. Not a beautifully carved Qing Dynasty rhino horn libation cup, but just the plain old horn. Why? — to capitalise on the anachronistic folkloric belief that powdered rhino horn has medicinal qualities. It doesn't. It's a bit of a dead animal. And the sooner they all disappear from Western museums the better.

Of course, the real problem is not rhino horn thefts from museums. It's rhinos being slaughtered for their horns.

The media reporting of rhino thefts doesn't help. This problem is not unlike the Dr No mythology that lingers around art theft. Rhino horn is not in common use as an aphrodisiac in Asia, although a few members of the wealthy business élite continue to see it as an exotic alternative to Viagra. That is doubtless more to do with the fact that it's expensive…and thus fashionable.

Rhino horn is, however, a treasured ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in which it is used to reduce fever. But as most of us know, TCM is medieval bunkum. Rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same as human hair or fingernails. Ever tried eating your own hair to reduce a fever? No, of course not.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the mounted rhino horn may have justified its inclusion in the Wunderkammern, or Cabinets of Curiosity assembled by most self-respecting European princes. Originating as it did from the fearsome, armour-plated beast drawn so exquisitely by Albrecht Dürer (above left), one can easily see how, during the superstitious pre-Enlightenment culture of seventeenth century Europe, the rhino's horn would exert a similar fascination to the myriad other wondrous things in the princely cabinet — the teeth of a mermaid, or blood said to have rained on the Isle of Wight. In the eighteenth century, those weird collections became the 'Universal' or 'Encyclopedic Museums' we have today.

However, as the directors of these museums continue to remind us, we are still living through the Enlightenment (I know, just look around you — it's a laughable notion, isn't it?). The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to have swept away medieval superstition and replaced it with rational thought. What's rational about a mouldy old rhino horn nailed to a mahogany shield in a tiny provincial museum in Surrey? Or anywhere else for that matter.

Precisely what educational significance can a mounted rhino horn have for the gentle denizens of Haslemere in Surrey, or Ipswich? Don't they get David Attenborough documentaries down there? National Geographic? The Discovery Channel? The internet? Perhaps not.

I can see them now, weeping into their Waitrose shopping trolleys at the cruel theft of the beloved rhino horn from their local museum. Meanwhile, somewhere in the basement restaurant of a brand new poured concrete metropolis in mainland China a group of priapic, freshly-minted billionaires stir the Haslemere Horn into their rice wine as the karaoke machine belts out James Brown's It's a man's World.

Rhino horn, powdered down by TCM practitioners for its medicinal properties (twice the value of gold in that market); public bronze sculpture melted down for its scrap metal content; Qing Dynasty porcelain vases making unconscionable sums at UK auctions — the Asian tiger is on the rampage, energised by a bizarre mixture of medieval superstition and ever-accelerating modernity.

Around the horn...
Rosie the rhino's horn stolen from Ipswich Museum

Irish rhino horn racket uncovered

Rhino horns put Europe's museums on thieves' must-visit list

Rhino horns stolen from museums in Italy and Germany

Rhino Conservation.org

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It doesn't matter how long ago it was stolen, French museum property is "inalienable"

"[B]ased on our legal knowledge (and well founded), the [Nicolas Tournier painting of The Carrying of the Cross] is indeed, in principle, the property of the Musée des Augustins. Works in French public collections are inalienable and imprescriptible, a fact we have always fought for here. This means that an object which enters a museum cannot be taken away, in any way, forever in time, which implies that although it may have disappeared for almost two hundred years, it will always belong to the establishment."

- The Art Tribune, commenting on the case of the disputed Baroque painting by Nicolas Tournier which is pitting London dealer Mark Weiss against the French Ministry of Culture.

If it is indeed true that works in French public collections are not subject to conventional statutes of limitations (and if found in the trade cannot therefore be legally transacted) then this increases the need to incorporate data about missing museum objects into due diligence databases. If the French Ministry of Culture places no time limitations on objects missing from its museums, then due diligence providers should do likewise.

Art Loss Register defends its Due Diligence vetting at TEFAF

The Art Loss Register, responsible for the annual Due Diligence vetting of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, has responded rapidly to a suggestion that its vetting processes might have been at fault after a Nicolas Tournier painting (left), sold on two occasions at the fair in 2010 and 2011, was later revealed to have gone missing from a French museum in the early nineteenth century.

As the newswires reported yesterday (and which I blogged here), French state authorities claim that the painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Nicolas Tournier went missing from the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse in 1818. It subsequently entered a private collection in Florence, Italy. When the picture turned up on the stand of London Old Master dealer Weiss at the recent Paris Tableau art fair, the French government immediately stepped in to try and confiscate the picture. It was reported that an export block would be placed on it.

It was also reported that Weiss had bought the picture from French dealer Didier Aaron at TEFAF Maastricht in 2010 and then offered it on their own stand at TEFAF in 2011.

I'm told the Art Loss Register has now written to Messrs Weiss and Aaron to reassure them that the picture was checked by their staff on both occasions, neither of which revealed any problems with its provenance. At present, the ALR's records do not extend back as far as 1818.

This would seem to indicate that some improvement in communications is required between agencies like the ALR and those state bodies who see a duty to intervene when problematic pictures appear at art fairs in their jurisdiction. It is embarrassing for the dealers and it is embarrassing for the ALR which, on this occasion, seems to have done what it was required to do.

How far back should stolen art databases go? The Tournier picture may have been stolen way back in the mists of the early nineteenth century (there is evidently still some doubt about whether it was actually stolen from the Toulouse museum or removed for some other unknown reason) and a statute of limitations may have expired long ago; but the theft remains part of the picture's provenance. Information on the 1818 theft ought to be included in the painting's historical profile. That data can only be acquired and incorporated if data companies work proactively with state departments to blend all the known data. That might be a step towards an even more comprehensive process of Due Diligence.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stolen painting offered twice at TEFAF Maastricht — in 2010, and again in 2011

We have only just waved a cheery farewell and happy holidays to hirsute hippy art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi as he disappeared, grinning like a Cheshire cat, into the all-too brief and cosy embrace of the German penal system. It's tempting on such occasions (art thefts fall into the same category here) to simply sigh and intone the now familiar phrase: "Who cares? It's only art."

Well, you'd care if you were London dealer Mark Weiss, who finds himself carrying the cross in a $550,000 title dispute after offering a work that had been stolen during the early nineteenth century. That fact failed to emerge despite two appearances at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht in 2010 and 2011.

The Jermyn Street Old Master dealer was an exhibitor at the recent Paris Tableau art fair where he was showing a work by the French Baroque painter Nicolas Tournier (c.1590-1639) — a typically Caravaggiste rendering of Christ stumbling with the Cross (above left).

Tout à coup, the French state intervened, laying claim to the painting on the grounds that it had been stolen from the Augustins Museum in Toulouse as far back as 1818. That's just a few years after Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon Marbles back to England, another misappropriated work of art that continues to generate controversy.

On the surface at least, it would seem that the Weiss Gallery had nothing to hide. Their given provenance even includes reference to the picture's sojourn at the Augustins Museum. But evidently the archival records they consulted didn't include the fact that the painting had been stolen. Or perhaps Weiss felt that a statute of limitations would kick in. The theft was, after all, almost 200 years ago — a time-lag that seems to protect any number of other illicit artworks on the global hot list.

It also seems that the picture was for a time with French dealer Didier Aaron & Cie., who sold the painting to Weiss at TEFAF in Maastricht in 2010 for €400,000 ($550,000). According to the French paper Libération Weiss re-offered it at TEFAF in 2011, now priced at €675,000.

All of this raises a number of questions. The first and most obvious one is why Didier Aaron, a respected and responsible member of the Paris Old Masters trade, failed to discover during its provenance research into the painting that it had been stolen from a French museum in 1818. Nor did that information emerge during Weiss's own research, if any was conducted.

Secondly, why did the French state not intervene when Didier Aaron advertised the picture at the world's most prestigious and high-profile Old Master art fair in Maastricht in 2010? Or again in 2011 when Weiss showed it?

Thirdly, why was the painting not detected during Due Diligence vetting at the European Fine Art Fair on either occasion? If the Due Diligence mechanisms at Maastricht don't embrace the international stolen art records that now seem to have revealed the Tournier as problematic, then the art trade is more vulnerable than we thought.

It would be interesting to know whether the picture's uncertain title status was discovered at the Paris Tableau fair as a result of the fair's Due Diligence vetting or through more anecdotal circumstances. Either way, Weiss now seem to find themselves on the wrong end of a title dispute that ought to have been picked up much earlier in the supply chain.

What happens to Weiss's investment in the painting? Will the French state (which has placed an export bar on the work) compensate them? Was Didier Aaron negligent in failing to investigate the Augustins theft and its potential impact on a future owner of the picture? What are the implications of Maastricht being branded as a place where stolen works of art are traded?

It's understandable that the painting could languish undetected in a wealthy Florentine private collection for almost 200 years following its original theft. But if there was something wrong with its provenance, as now seems to be the case, one would reasonably expect it to have been detected at Maastricht in 2010 and/or 2011 or during Didier Aaron's researches.

This sounds like yet an another compelling argument for better integration of international stolen art databases, but who is pushing for that?

Then again, who cares? It's only art.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More 'loot' from the Beijing Summer Palace at Salisbury auction in November

Not my word, but that of the man who looted it.

The fine and rare Chinese Qing dynasty Imperial gilt metal box (shown left), appearing at Woolley & Wallis's November 16 sale of Asian Art, bears an inscription — "Loot from the Summer Palace, Pekin, Oct. 1860. Capt. James Gunter, King's Dragoon Guards."

Rarely does colonial booty declare itself with such proud candour. The box is estimated to make £50,000-80,000 and is just one of half a dozen lots at this Part I sale that requires prospective bidders to register and provide financial guarantees and deposits prior to the sale. (There is still some caution in auction circles despite rumours that Bainbridge's Qing vase account has finally been settled).

Another item likely to get Asian pulses racing is a rare Chinese celadon jade seal of the Empress Xiaoyiren (right) which is estimated to fetch £500,000-800,000, but how does one estimate such a thing?

For the time being Chinese mainland collectors remain preoccupied with securing from Western collections examples of Imperial jades and porcelains, some of which were legitimately acquired during the eighteenth century, but many of which (like the box referred to above) were looted during the era of colonial confrontation.

By contrast, Chinese dealers and collectors have yet to catch on to mark and period Export Porcelain — those wares made and decorated specifically for export to Europe and elsewhere.

However, it is a widely held belief in the relevant European and North American trade and collecting communities that this will eventually change. It is not a matter of if, but when the Chinese will recognise export wares — but that 'when' could turn out to be sooner than many expect. And it may be when the store of imperial objects from European collections dries up.

Recent auctions in the UK — even those held in the British provinces — have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel — and indeed how high they are prepared to bid — to secure imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete, as the recent May sales of Asian Art at Duke's in Dorchester and Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury made clear.

Equally notable is the quantity of such material now being secured by provincial firms. Not so very long ago, most significant consignments of real quality would have been destined for London hammers. Yet firms like Duke's and Woolley & Wallis have demonstrated that they can offer as efficient and expert a service as their London counterparts and often at more competitive rates.

The next opportunity to test the market — and the to gauge the extent to which the Chinese and other Asian buyers remain active bidders for such material — comes in mid-November when Woolley & Wallis mount three sales. On 15 November they will offer around 360 lots of Yixing Zisha wares, including items from the Arthur J. Harris collection of Yixing teapots. This was doubtless prompted by the success of Woolley & Wallis's last Asian Art sale back on 18 May this year when a small selection of the distinctive and characterful Yixing red stoneware teapots from the Arthur J. Harris Collection performed encouragingly well.

The example illustrated (left), estimated at £1,200-1,800, fetched £105,000, one of a host of examples that roundly demolished its pre-sale forecast.

These little stoneware teapots are not just beautiful and historically interesting works of art. Woolley & Wallis inform us that the Yixing unglazed stoneware actually enhances the taste and olfactory pleasures of the tea brewed within. In fact many believe one should never wash a Yixing teapot but simply rinse it. We're led to believe that over time the red ware body absorbs so much of the tea's natural character that one can even brew a pot of tea without using any tea leaves. I'm not sure the Irish would buy that.

In economic terms, it goes without saying that Yixing wares have proved a superb investment for collectors like Arthur Harris, but anyone who has assembled a quality collection of Kangxi or Qianlong mark and period export porcelain is also likely to be quids in when the Chinese eventually come round to understanding it.

It is perhaps a measure of its basic rarity that there are no significant export wares included in Woolley & Wallis's Asian Art Part 1 sale on 16 November (nor indeed in Part II on 17 November). Imperial wares, on the other hand, are plentiful. It will be interesting to see how many Asian buyers are present on sale day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

From Little Apples...

For a while I'd considered dumping my old Macintosh Classic, but not any more.

1986...and it still works.

Thank you, Steve.

(Image taken on an iPad 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Unprovenanced Arts of the Islamic World under London hammers

It may be just a coincidence; it may be another consequence of the growth of the Middle East as yet another 'emerging market', but one could not help wondering at the sheer quantity of unprovenanced material under the hammer at Sotheby's sale this morning of 'Arts of The Islamic World'.

Admittedly, the reports of looted museum collections in Libya and elsewhere — which have been appearing with increasing frequency on the Museum Security Network in recent weeks — remain largely uncorroborated.

As with the Iraqi cultural heritage crisis, and indeed the plight of heritage sites in strife-torn Georgia in 2008 (which I reported on here), the 'fog of war' makes a proper assessment of the situation very difficult. Yet that seems an even more compelling reason why the major international auction houses ought to be exercising greater caution and responsibility towards cultural heritage on the open market.

Given the recent turmoil in the Maghreb it's extraordinary that the London auction houses are still blithely packing their catalogues with hundreds of lots of highly portable unprovenanced material. But then who is going to stop them?

Although most of the lots at Sotheby's evening sale on October 4 were predominantly sourced from the documented Harvey Plotnick Collection (and a few lots from that old favourite — the "European Private Collection"), the vast bulk of the 350 lots dispersed at this morning's day sale entered the catalogue entirely without provenance.

We know that Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator's LSE-educated son, had bought a great deal of the material contained in his Islamic Museum in Shari’ Sidi Khaliffa at Sotheby's Islamic sales in recent years. Some reports maintain that the Libyan Islamic Museum has been looted by rebels. Officials inside the country insist that the looting in Libya is not as bad as the media have suggested. (They said that about Iraq, too).

Sotheby's saleroom was packed this morning with Middle Eastern gentlemen huddling, conferring, marking their catalogues, battling with the telephone and internet bidders. One man in the room was particularly active, buying across the price range from a few thousand up to hundreds of thousands of pounds per lot. Afterwards I approached him to ask whether he was buying for himself or for an institution. He was very forthcoming. "I am a private collector, buying for myself," he said, "but I am planning to build a museum in Turkey."

How ironic that Western nations, hamstrung by cultural heritage laws and provenance restrictions, can no longer add to their museum collections via the open market, while Western auction houses continue, unchecked, to supply the new museums of emerging nations with unprovenanced objects. Am I missing something here? I don't think so.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sale commissions and recovery fees: how much is too much?

I am reliably informed by my well-placed spies in London and China that the Qing Dynasty porcelain vase bought by a Chinese bidder at Bainbridge's Auction Galleries in the London borough of Ruislip almost exactly twelve months ago (left), has finally been paid for. Many people in the art market (and indeed the mainstream media) had begun to doubt whether the £51.6 million bill for 'The Ruislip Vase', as it has become known, would ever be settled.

The delay in resolving that seemingly epochal transaction prompted a number of European auction houses to initiate new regulations at their sales of Asian art, requesting Asian bidders to pay a deposit prior to the sale. Whether those requirements will now be relaxed in the light of the apparent settlement of the Ruislip account remains to be seen.

The sticking point for the Chinese buyer who bought the vase at Bainbridge's was the auctioneer's commission. The hammer fell at £43 million but once the commission and VAT had been added, the bill soared to £51.6 million. On paper at least, that staggering buyer's premium (which includes VAT) made the auctioneer Peter Bainbridge an instant millionaire. But it now seems that the Chinese buyer only agreed to settle the account after re-negotiating the auctioneer's fees.

The hammer price for the vase was extraordinary in itself, but arguably even more bizarre is the idea that an auctioneer can suddenly find himself almost £10 million richer simply on account of having been fortunate enough to receive instructions to wield the gavel for an object about which he knows next to nothing. Nice work if you can get it, but how fair and reasonable is that?

There are no rules and regulations on auction fees, nor indeed on an art dealer's commission. It is widely known that dealers in contemporary art generally take up to 50% of the sale price of works they sell on the primary market, with the other 50% going to the artist. These percentages may change in favour of the artist as his or her reputation grows. That traditional arrangement — often open to negotiation — is regarded as broadly fair given the risk the dealer takes to promote the artist — the cost overheads of running a bricks and mortar gallery, catalogue publishing, and so on. But it has also encouraged some artists — Damien Hirst perhaps most famously — to demand a larger slice of the cake once fame and celebrity has properly kicked in.

The academic Olav Velthuis, who conducted extensive research on the the economic and social structures of the art market (Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art), found that some dealers considered their own 50% cut to be too much once an artist had reached a certain price point. From that moment it suddenly seemed disproportionate — and unfair to the artist — for the dealer to be taking such a large percentage of the transaction.

Today, vendors consigning high-value goods to auction can often negotiate the auctioneer's sales commission right down, sometimes playing one auction house off against another to do so. Auctioneers are prepared to cooperate because they know they will gain on the buyer side through the premium set out in the conditions of sale, and which is generally non-negotiable.

And yet, in the case of the Ruislip vase, the Chinese buyer has indeed finally succeeded in negotiating a more favourable premium. Presumably Bainbridge's were only too willing to cooperate given the alternative of continued delays and perhaps even the possibility of not being paid at all (the spectre of the Yves St. Laurent/Pierre Bergé Chinese rat and rabbit still haunts the market).

As prices continue to rise, are we likely to see more of this kind of thing? Will auctioneers come under increasing pressure to put a cap on their buyer's premium? Somehow £10 million seems an unreasonable amount to levy for a few minutes work. And so it has indeed proved.

From here, the next logical question concerns the not unrelated issue of recovery fees for stolen or looted art. Can anyone explain why it cost Michael Bakwin $3.1 million to get his stolen pictures back (including his Cézanne, shown right)? Exactly what is the cost breakdown behind that sum? Understandably, Bakwin is suing for recovery of those costs. But is he suing the right people?

When it comes to recovery fees and commissions, how much is too much?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Art Loss Register chairman speaks out on those who would try to benefit from stolen art

"Anyone, including lawyers, who thinks that they can obtain rewards for the return of stolen art without providing full information on who had them and why, should be prosecuted." — Julian Radcliffe, ALR Chairman, quoted in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, 2 September 2011. (my emphases)

You heard that right..."Anyone".

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture of silence and intimidation surrounds Degas sculpture trade

A fascinating piece by Bloomberg's William D. Cohan yesterday (here) throws light on the disturbing industry of questionable Degas bronze casting that has become a multi-million dollar business for those involved.

Tellingly, it seems to have been a couple of rich collectors who allegedly kick-started what looks increasingly like a wholesale cashing-in on the Degas legacy after "discovering" a cache of plasters purportedly by the French artist in a Parisian storeroom in 2001. For the original source of this story, see Judd Tully's piece for Art Info and Art + Auction here.

Nothing could be more illustrative of the extent to which money is dislodging traditional connoisseurial expertise in today's art market than the news that a rich collector and his wife have been allowed to ascribe a cache of previously unknown plasters to Degas — one of the most academically problematic "sculptors" of the modern period — without the involvement of recognised Degas experts and scholars. Indeed, according to Cohan, Degas scholarship has suddenly descended into Trappist silence.

At the heart of this story is an issue that warrants further scrutiny — namely the willingness of the Degas heirs to rubber-stamp the suspect process of authentication in return for a share of the proceeds.

But Cohan's piece is really about the omertà that has descended among museum directors and Degas scholars who, despite deep reservations about the authenticity of the plasters from which the new bronzes have been cast, are reluctant to express their doubts to journalists for fear of being sued. Here is yet another eloquent symbol of the power of money to corrupt due process in the art market.

Sadly, it is by no means unusual for an artist's hears to authorise posthumous bronze casting. But is it right to do so, just because the artist in question left no explicit prohibition on such activities? As Cohan notes, Degas had his own reservations about it:

"Before his death in 1917, he repeatedly expressed concern that charlatans might highjack his legacy by casting his sculptures in bronze and selling them to collectors, and is said to have told his fellow painter Georges Rouault, 'What I fear most is not dust but the hand of man.'"

That hand, it seems, is proving more grasping than even Degas might have imagined. Nor is the dead hand of acquisitive opportunism by any means unusual in the sculpture realm.

Not long ago, at the opening of an exhibition of recent casts of works by an important late British sculptor, one prominent UK museum curator confided to me his serious reservations about whether these "new" works ought to have been made at all, particularly when many of them had been cast from models that were never intended for translation into bronze. But it's one thing to murmur such concerns sotto voce over a glass of cheap white wine at a private view and quite another to express them on the record for publication.

As for the ability of expensive lawyers to foreclose disputes before they can be properly explored, this too is becoming almost endemic in the art market. Last year, we heard how Joe Simon-Whelan had to retreat from his dispute with the Andy Warhol Foundation after being engulfed by a tsunami of legal costs. In an email to Bloomberg, he said, "I am deeply saddened that I was unable to reveal the truth in court, but when faced with threats of bankruptcy, continuing personal attacks and counterclaims, I realized I no longer stood a chance of proceeding further."

It's coming to something when disputes might be resolved the wrong way just to avoid onerous legal costs, but when differences of opinion don't even make it to the level of open public discussion, that is a lot more worrying. One of the Degas scholars Cohan spoke to expressed hope for a "litigation-free zone" in which to air the issues properly and without redress, a notion promptly scorned by Delaware law professor, Ann Althouse.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a similarly glaring mismatch between corporate muscle and the broader public good is playing out in the realm of public sculpture. A case currently developing in California is pitting the intimidating financial reach of an oligarch against not only an artist, but against a local arts-commissioning authority cowed by the threat of lawsuits. Watch this space.

As threats and personal attacks rain down from wealthy, bullying collectors and foundations, the experts scuttle for cover, lips firmly sealed. Whither the artist's rights?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fake Art in Public Places

I recently wrote an article for The Art Newspaper (here) on what appears to be an industry of sculpture-faking which has emerged as a result of the Art in Public Places scheme in California.

Many of the works in question — unauthorised copies (left) by Chinese craftsmen of an original 1992 work by the Californian sculptors Don Wakefield and Chick Glickman — are situated in the grounds of the Olen Property Corporation's buildings in Newport Beach and Brea, California and have benefited from the Art in Public Places policy used in many US cities. This is how the Public Art scheme works:

Under the current Art in Public Places Policy, developments with a total building valuation of 1.5 million dollars ($1,500,000) or more are required to integrate publicly visible sculptures into their development projects. The artwork is regarded as an on-site amenity, a fixed asset on the property.

Developers are responsible for selecting an artist, commissioning the artwork, and maintaining the artwork. Each developer submits their proposed artwork for review by the Art in Public Places Advisory Committee, which reviews the artwork application based upon policy-defined criteria, such as the artist’s qualifications and the durability of materials. The developer is required to put one per cent of the total development budget towards the art.

The Olen Corporation is owned by the Florida-based billionaire property developer and convicted tax felon Igor Olenicoff who has real estate holdings in California, Arizona and Florida. He acquired the 'fake' sculptures in China during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and subsequently instructed the craftsmen there to adapt one of them from Wakefield's original design (image right shows Don Wakefield making the original work in a photograph date-marked 18 June 1992). The copies are now distributed around Olenicoff's corporate properties in Newport Beach and surrounding areas, including the City of Brea.

In the first instance, if these works are indeed unauthorised copies — and all the available evidence seems to suggest that they are — and if a craftsman (Chinese or otherwise) has been prepared to adapt the work of another artist without that artist's consent, this would likely constitute a breach of copyright under the Fair Use application. This would represent a breach of Mr Wakefield's moral rights as an artist which would have serious legal implications.

More importantly, the City of Brea seems to be failing to collect the comprehensive information on the artist, which is required under the regulations of the Art in Public Places scheme. Olenicoff has also declined to reveal the identity of the Chinese craftsmen. If the City of Brea is failing to collect the necessary information from the developer, it is, by default, encouraging the abuse of the scheme, in this case by allowing developers to use Chinese craftsmen to copy works at a fraction of the cost of the original. Whether this is a way for corporate developers to save money remains unclear, but it is in everyone's interest to ensure that the rights of artists are not abused by corporations.

I approached a Beijing-based stone-carving company and requested an estimate to make a single copy of Don Wakefield's 1992 sculpture based on a photograph. I was quoted $1,250, with the price dropping to $950 per unit for three. According to Wakefield, to make an original, unique work today of the kind he and Glickman made in 1992 would cost around $35,000. As they say in the States, do the math.

There is also the critical issue of how many other works might have been copied from original sculptures by other artists without their original creator's consent. The City of Brea appears to be turning a blind eye to this by not demanding comprehensive biographical information about the artists whose work is used in the Art In Public Places scheme. I have requested clarification of this from the City of Brea and from the Public Art authorities in Newport Beach, but have received no response.

We need to know the exact source of the sculptures acquired by Olen Corp. and the identity of the craftsman from whom Olenicoff commissioned the copied and adapted works. It would also be interesting to know how many other sculptures from the Chinese source have been used by Olen Corporation in Newport Beach and Brea. All this information ought to be on file under the Art in Public Places scheme.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Saturday 6th August, Pre-Season Friendly: Liverpool v Valencia

Liverpool kicked off their final pre-season friendly against a solid Valencia side at Anfield.

Once more, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, and Stuart Downing were included in the starting line-up.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Now you see it, now you don't: the mysterious case of the missing blog post

You know when you've hit a nerve.

I had a call this morning from a highly-placed contact in the London art security community alerting me to the fact that my blog post on the ALR's claim to be the "Rene Russo character" of real-life art crime had been posted on the Museum Security Network Google Group yesterday evening, only to disappear a short time later.

Happily it made it onto the email digest, presumably before the dead hand of persuasion descended.

Plus ça change...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Art Loss Register: "The Rene Russo character" of real-life art crime? I think not.

“We’re sort of the Rene Russo character in the real-life Thomas Crown Affair,” Christopher Marinello, Executive Director of The Art Loss Register recently told the New York Observer (here). If it weren't so serious I'd probably have died laughing.

Marinello wants us to believe that the Art Loss Register is the dashing art crime hero fighting the bad guys. But real-life art crime is a lot less glamorous than film fiction and the Art Loss Register is no Hollywood heroine.

If the Art Loss Register wants to boast that it represents the interests of the good guys against the bad guys, as Rene Russo's character did in the 1999 re-make of The Thomas Crown Affair, why did it choose to represent Nevada-based art dealer Jack Solomon in his title dispute against Steven Spielberg over ownership of Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom (right), (and later against Jody Goffman Cutler of the National Museum of American Illustration after she took Spielberg's place in the dispute)?

Marinello has been all over the news wires recently, telling anyone who'll listen that his organisation is a force for good in art disputes. He has just told CBC News (here) that "legitimate dealers will research the authenticity of a piece in a process known as provenance." But should they use the ALR for that research?

Authenticity and provenance are different matters. Provenance checking — confirming an object's ownership history — does not necessarily confirm its authenticity. Such subtleties are lost on those with little or no experience of the art world, but let's not be too pedantic for the moment as there is a broader issue here.

You might ask why a legitimate dealer would use the ALR to check provenance when a short while ago the ALR's own chairman Julian Radcliffe admitted in court to "misleading" a dealer who had made (and paid for) a provenance enquiry over paintings he wished to buy (see links to my earlier posts on this below).

More recently, the Art Loss Register failed to conduct its own "provenance" research into Jack Solomon's previous connections with the Russian Schoolroom painting before representing him in the doomed lawsuit against Mrs Goffman Cutler. Mrs Cutler won the case in April 2010 and the Art Loss Register is now suing its former client, Jack Solomon. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall seeing Rene Russo's character doing anything even remotely similar. She went after the bad guys; she didn't represent them.

I may come across as a stuck record on this ALR topic, but there is a serious issue here and it is about the need for organisations involved in title disputes and art theft resolution to demonstrate good judgement. Representing a guy in a title claim when even the most low-level due diligence would have confirmed the folly of such representation is poor judgement. Due diligence checking by the ALR would have demonstrated (as was later confirmed in court) that Mrs Cutler had a superior claim to Russian Schoolroom. Did the ALR, like its erstwhile client Jack Solomon, see a potential pot of gold lurking in the corner of the Russian Schoolroom (“I’m sure in two calls I could turn it over for x million dollars before the sun goes down.” — Solomon quoted in Riverfront Times, 2 March, 2007).

To many people, the ALR comes across as a pioneering crusader for a more ethical art world. Some of us have been working in the art world for decades and have slightly longer memories. The ALR "misled" Michael Marks when Marks sought to make a provenance enquiry; the ALR allegedly "fell out" with Gisela Berman-Fischer over her attempt to win restitution of a Pissarro painting Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (left) taken from her family during the Holocaust (story here); and now it is locked in a sordid lawsuit with Solomon, whose title claim to Russian Schoolroom was baseless and who was found to be "not credible" by a Nevada District Court judge.

The ALR, poorly managed for decades, needs root and branch reform. But does it have the financial resources to undertake that reform and do the big three auction houses and the insurance companies who are its major shareholders have the guts to stand up and demand change?

One thing is for sure, the ALR has a way to go before the world sees it as "the Rene Russo character" of real life art crime.

More of my blog entries on this topic and ALR-related issues:

Nevada judge rules in title dispute over Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom

Unanswered questions in Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom case

Art Loss Register sues Solomon over Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom case

Art recovery: another can of worms prised open (Pissarro Holocaust restitution case)

'Due Diligence' is just a "ruse" (Michael Marks provenance case)

The Art Loss Register: A Correction

Friday, July 22, 2011

When is a ransom not a ransom? Why, when it's "a fee for information leading to recovery", of course!

One senses that National Portrait Gallery director and former Tate employee Sandy Nairne might have been wiser to leave the case of the stolen Turner paintings alone instead of writing a book about it. The two pictures (left), stolen from the Kunsthalle Schirn in 1994, were eventually recovered in a shady deal engineered by the Tate with a little help from its friends on both sides of the ethical divide.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak wasn't the only one casting a jaundiced eye over the Tate's deft recovery of the paintings in 2002 when they clipped the ticket on the insurance side and then paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters for recovery of the paintings. Oh, sorry, did I just say "paid a ransom"? I meant to say, "paid a fee for information leading to the recovery of the paintings."

But this is semantics. Everyone knows that a ransom was paid. It's just that neither Sandy Nairne, nor Nicholas Serota, or anyone else involved in the case, could possibly step up and admit that. It would be tantamount to encouraging further art thefts. And yet that's the exact outcome of the whole affair. Gangsters from Oldham to Odessa will have looked at that deal and thought "Yes, art theft DOES pay after all."

To pretend otherwise is not just disingenuous, it's downright stupid. He may have been vilified for it, but at least Henri Nannen had the guts to admit that he'd paid a ransom in 1962 to recover the stolen Riemenschneider Madonna.

Meanwhile, art crime publishing is the gift that keeps on giving, with everyone from former FBI cops to museum directors cashing in on the enduring public fascination with the genre by writing their "memoirs". And yet it's instructive that very few art cops (with the exception, it seems, of Messrs Ellis and Hill) have ever succeeded in recovering any of these really high-profile stolen pictures, while it seems that of those pictures that HAVE been recovered, more than a few (whisper it) were recovered through clandestine payments to the criminals or their representatives.

The brilliant BBC2 investigative documentary about the recovery of the Tate's Turners left some of us in no doubt that the Tate had paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters. Sorry, did I just say "ransom to Balkan gangsters"? What I meant to say was: "fees for information openly paid to shady international lawyers who then passed it to the Balkan gangsters."

Pull the other one; it's got bells on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Artists and writers against CIA drone strikes

I recently attended a conference here in the UK that brought together painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, computer animators, cartoonists, art historians, political activists and investigative journalists to explore ways in which the cultural community can help raise awareness of the increasingly frequent use by the CIA of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Many people are still under the illusion that Barack Obama's dislodging of George W. Bush ushered in a more humanitarian approach to American foreign policy — no more invading weaker nations, no more imposing 'democracy', no more militarised regime-change.

Au contraire. While Obama may have eschewed the gung-ho, boots-on-the-ground approach favoured by his White House predecessor, he has instead presided over an exponential increase in the use of covert drone strikes by the CIA.

Drones — unmanned, remote-controlled strike aircraft — are now the favoured means of eliminating Al Qaeda or Taliban militants as part of America's so-called War on Terror. They're operated from a bunker at Creech Air Force Base deep in the Nevada desert, just a few miles from the gaming tables of Las Vegas.

Creech's drone operators (right) go to work in the morning and from the comfort of their armchairs, using a Nintendo-style joystick, direct their deadly payloads across to Waziristan in the north-western territories of Pakistan. Their targets have been pre-identified by CIA-paid spies and informers working undercover on the ground. At the end of their shift, the air force drone-jockeys leave their air-conditioned bunker, pick their kids up from school and head home — just another day at the office.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Waziristan, the remote-controlled drones have delivered clusters of Hellfire missiles with hugely destructive consequences. Evidence gathered by local Pakistani researchers reveals that for every putative militant or extremist killed by the drone missiles, some ten or fifteen innocent men, women and children are killed.

Drones hunt in packs. After they hit a target, often one drone is left behind to hover before striking again when local people come to search for survivors or to retrieve and bury their dead. More often than not, all that remains are unidentified body parts or the odd blood-stained flip-flop.

This indiscriminate killing, occurring beyond sight of the world's media, is serving to radicalize the very people it seeks to 'protect' from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, stirring up anti-American sentiment and effectively acting as a recruiting sergeant for militant forces.

So what can artists and others in the culture sector do? Well, this week sees the opening of 'Gaming in Waziristan', an exhibition at London's Beaconsfield Gallery of photographs by Noor Behram.

Behram has managed to reach the sites of 60 drone strikes, in both North and South Waziristan, in which he estimates more than 600 people were killed (full Guardian story here). The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday, July 19, features pictures from 27 different drone strikes.

As the Guardian reported this morning, Clive Stafford Smith, head of campaigning group, Reprieve, has initiated a lawsuit along with a Pakistani lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, seeking to bring to justice those responsible for civilian deaths from drones.

"I think these pictures are deeply important evidence," Stafford Smith told The Guardian. "They put a human face [on the drone strike campaign] that is in marked contrast to what the US is suggesting its operators in Nevada and elsewhere are doing. They show the reality of ordinary people being killed and losing their homes, not senior al-Qaida members."

Another illustration of how effective artists and designers can be in raising awareness of drone warfare can be seen in The Ethical Governor (below), a caustic parody by the Butler Brothers of a US training film. (With thanks to John Butler):

More on drones:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Guardian report of Clive Stafford-Smith and Reprieve's legal challenge to the CIA here

The brilliant writing of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on Al Jazeera here

Artnose story here

Friday, July 8, 2011

EXCLUSIVE — More on the Monet rejected by the Wildenstein Institute

Following the BBC's investigation into the authenticity of a Claude Monet painting owned by British collector David Joel (which I reported here), more evidence has emerged which endorses the growing consensus that the Wildenstein Institute can no longer be trusted to fulfill its role as the exclusive and official authenticator of Monet's paintings.

Briefly summarised, the BBC documentary entitled Fake or Fortune succeeded in establishing a watertight provenance and an unequivocal attribution for Mr Joel's Monet landscape — Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil (shown above left). The producers of the programme deftly disguised the fact that most of the research leads had been provided by David Joel himself, but I'll come back to that later.

Although the documentary was made last year, it has only just been broadcast. However, shortly after it was completed, the renowned art historian and Impressionist scholar John House, who had contributed to the programme, retired from his long-held post at London's Courtauld Institute of Art. While clearing out his office, Professor House stumbled upon a forgotten Monet obituary dated 1926 from Le Figaro Artistique. The obituary was illustrated with seven of Monet's paintings, including the landscape Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil owned by David Joel.

One of Monet's closest friends was the former French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau (1841-1929), who was present at the artist's death in December 1926, holding his hand and offering reassurance. The image (right) shows the two men on the bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny.

Indeed it was Clémenceau who persuaded Monet to dedicate his epic water lilies project to the French state to celebrate the Armistice of November 1918. As a result, two of the largest water lily paintings are now housed in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

First of all, it is inconceivable that Clémenceau, who had an intimate knowledge of Monet's work, would not have noticed if one of the illustrated paintings in the obituary was a fake. Had that painting been 'wrong' in any way shape or form, it could not have found its way into an authoritative obituary in Le Figaro Artistique without Monet's closest friends and associates noticing and drawing attention to it.

Furthermore, if the Wildenstein Institute is the panoptic and all-encompassing archive it purports to be, then a copy of the Le Figaro Artistique obituary would surely be included in its Monet files.

Why, then, did Daniel Wildenstein consistently reject the painting as not an autograph work by Monet? One explanation is that by dismissing it, the Wildensteins hoped the painting would then find its way onto the market as a lowly copy or rejected work, at which point they would be able to acquire it themselves at a knock-down price, "do the research" on it and conveniently change their mind. Such practices are by no means unusual in the art world.

Knowing that the late Daniel Wildenstein had consistently rejected the picture, Guy Wildenstein could not go back on his father's word for fear of undermining the family's fabled authority in such matters. It is also highly likely that Daniel Wildenstein never actually saw the painting in the flesh.

The picture's original owner, the Francophile Egyptian collector Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek (1877-1953) (right), acquired it from the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris (the painting still bears Petit's serrated stock label) and promptly took it back to Cairo where it entered his growing collection of French modernist masterpieces.

When Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and seized power in 1952, Kahlil fled to Paris. Shortly after arriving, he died of a heart attack, leaving his wife, the French-born Emiline Hector Luce, in straitened financial circumstances. She immediately looked to liquidate her few assets, one of which was the Monet that her husband had brought with him on fleeing Cairo (it had always been one of his favourite paintings). Madame Luce sold the picture to the Galerie André Maurice in Paris, who shortly afterwards sold it to Dudley Tooth during one of the London dealer's frequent buying sprees in the French capital. Tooth brought it back to London, had it restored, and sold it to the concert pianist Sir Clifford Curzon. Thus there were few opportunities for Daniel Wildenstein to have seen the painting.

David Joel has written a book on Monet at Véthueil, as well as a catalogue raisonné of British 18th-century marine painter Charles Brooking. But will his Monet ever be recognised as the real thing? Not while the Wildenstein Institute are guarding the lily pond.

In the light of the new evidence that has emerged, the BBC should revisit this issue and put a little more effort into exposing the compromised Wildenstein Institute.

The image of Monet's Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil illustrated above is reproduced by kind permission of David Joel. Image copyright David Joel

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Wildenstein era will end, and the art market will benefit

At last the BBC has made decent programme about the art market. However, the conclusions reached on 'Fake or Fortune' confirm what most of us already knew — that when exposed to a raking light, the art market is a deeply unpleasant place in which to do business.

The programme — still available on the BBC's iPlayer (here) had presenter Fiona Bruce and renowned London-based art sleuth Philip Mould (above left) seeking to authenticate a Monet — Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil — bought for £40,000 some 18 years ago by David Joel, a British man in his eighties. Mr Joel has never been in any doubt that his painting was a signature work by Monet. Trouble is, the Monet Committee at the mighty Wildenstein Institute in Paris disagrees.

For forty years the Wildenstein dynasty in Paris has been publishing the five-volume Monet catalogue raisonné, the 'bible' containing all known authenticated works by the artist. No Monet can be sold at a major auction house without being listed in the catalogue.

The problem is that the catalogue is based solely on the opinion of the Wildenstein's Monet Committee and, as the programme suggested, that opinion is now in doubt.

Daniel Wildenstein, who died in 2001, first published the Monet catalogue in 1974. On his death, Daniel's son Guy Wildenstein inherited the privilege of being, along with his Monet 'Committee', the main arbiter of authenticity where Monets are concerned. For some years now, the international art market has been re-routing the rivers of authentication to bypass connoisseurial 'authorities' like the Wildenstein family and their vested interests. The recent high-profile cases of art forgery in New York have brought forensic science into the arena, seemingly to the expense of traditional connoisseurship. This is perhaps not surprising given the authentication mistakes that were made over the 'Pollocks', 'Rothkos' and 'Motherwells' sold by the Knoedler Gallery, and the dark goings-on behind the scenes of the Beltracchi scandal in Germany.

In the BBC programme, Bruce and Mould ventured on a long and exhaustive quest that embraced cutting-edge technological analysis into the painting's physical structure, deep archival research into the picture's provenance, and all-embracing consultation with the world's leading Monet scholars.

The result appeared to be as close to a cast-iron, bullet-proof, water-tight attribution to Monet as one could ever hope to get. Yet still it was not enough to convince the Wildenstein's Monet Committee who would not even deign to meet Mould and Bruce. Instead they demanded that the painting and the dossier of evidence be left at their fortress-like headquarters in Paris where they would look at it in their own good time.

A few days later, the Wildenstein committee finally pronounced — "No," was their patrician verdict on the picture's authenticity — thereby seeming to confirm either how hopelessly compromised the Wildenstein edifice has become, or how connoisseurial art authentication is as inexact as tea-leaf reading.

For the past 18 years, the late Daniel Wildenstein has consistently rejected David Joel's painting, although at no point during that time had the painting been treated to the deep forensic analysis brought to bear on it during the BBC research. Thus, when presented with the compelling evidence of its authenticity, Daniel's son Guy was stuck between a rock and hard place.

To accept the painting as an authentic work would have been tantamount to undermining his father's fabled authority. This may explain why he and his committee failed properly to inspect the dossier of evidence, instead rejecting it out of hand. By doing so, he has exposed the Wildenstein authentication process as a creaking edifice teetering on the point of collapse. Perhaps we are hearing the death knell of an art market era once dominated by the likes of George Wildenstein (right) whose opinion on a work of art was equivalent to the word of God. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, or, as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head.

The Wildenstein family is currently under investigation for alleged "concealment of theft" of millions of pounds worth of paintings entrusted to Daniel Wildenstein by Anne-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Manet. A further allegation of "theft and concealment" has been made by the heirs of Joseph Reinach who had many works stolen by the Nazis. Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reports that the Wildenstein family faces allegations of having failed to declare the true extent of their estate for tax purposes.

The Wildensteins may have momentarily obstructed the progress of David Joel's Monet landscape, but it is only a matter of time before they and their ilk are swept aside by the forces of technology. Digital databases are already making provenance research more open and accessible. High-resolution Lumière cameras (240 million pixels), plus infra-red, ultra-violet and multi-spectral scanning, are steadily providing means of authenticating works of art that could undermine the exclusive privilege traditionally enjoyed by the connoisseur's eye. What is needed now is for the broader art market to build an ethical consensus and topple the Wildensteins from their lofty perch.

The Wildenstein era is almost over. Amen to that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Poulain's prize-winning penguin picture pips professional painters

Leila Poulain, 7, seen here holding a picture of a penguin she painted, has just won a prize in a competition for artists run by the Saatchi Gallery. But it was all a mistake, according to her mum, Rebekah.

Rebekah Poulain told The Sun that she meant to download an image of her daughter's penguin painting to a folder on her computer, but "accidentally" uploaded it into a competition run by the Saatchi Gallery. It won a prize.

That's so easy to do. I once tried to download one of my son's pictures to my computer, but then — Woops! — he won the Turner Prize!

"It seems it happened because I'm an idiot," said Rebekah Poulain.

No, Rebekah, it happened because whoever judged the Saatchi prize was wearing a blindfold at the time. Or because the competition was judged by a short-sighted hamster in dark glasses.

I'm sure Leila is a very clever girl. Like most 7-year olds, she likes to paint, and she has painted a very nice penguin. But that's all it is — a typical child's painting of a penguin, which has no particular aesthetic merit that sets it apart from the countless thousands of other paintings of penguins by 7-year olds all over the world.

If you're seeking evidence of the impoverished aesthetic judgment driving the contemporary art scene, look no further.

Leila's penguin will now hang in the Saatchi Gallery. As for the judges, hanging's too good for them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How reunifying cultural objects can foster deeper diplomatic relations

The British Museum may want to take a closer look at the case of the famous 14th century Chinese hand scroll painting, Dwelling in the Fu-ch'un Mountains, (left) the two long-separated sections of which are about to be reunited for the first time in 360 years, thereby promising an improvement in the troubled relations between China and its neighbour Taiwan.

The scroll, by the Yuan master painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), was divided into two sections around 300 years ago after its owner's daughter saved it from the furnace to which it was to be consigned on the collector's death. One of the most famous paintings in Chinese art, the scroll became part of the Qing imperial collections in the 18th century and in 1931 was among 650,000 treasures moved to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. (For the importance of Huang's scroll in the development of Chinese art, see Craig Clunas, Art in China, [Oxford, 1997, pp150-152]).

As The Independent has just reported, for decades the scroll has been divided, some parts residing in the Palace Museum in Taipei, the remainder being held in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum on the Chinese mainland.

The scroll is clearly a piece of Chinese cultural heritage, but in their beneficence the Chinese have elected to send the section held in Zhejiang Province to Taipei, evidently recognizing the extent to which seemingly small cultural gestures can have broader diplomatic benefits.

There's an obvious parallel here with the Parthenon Marbles whose components are divided between the British Museum and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. They too are a 'scroll' of sorts, a temporal narrative that unfolds through the length of the frieze, a narrative crudely interrupted by Lord Elgin's vandalism, but which could easily be reunited.

Greece is currently suffering at the sharp end of the global economic meltdown. Were the British Museum to take a lesson from China and the Yuan scroll and reunify the Marbles in Athens, it could resonate way beyond the closeted world of museums. Reunifying the Parthenon Marbles would help rebuild Greek self-confidence and revivify its sense of national pride during troubled times.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Don't put too much political meaning" on sales of looted cultural heritage, cautions Asian art dealer

A Taiwanese dealer today cautioned against reading too much political meaning into dispersals of Chinese cultural objects originally looted from the Summer Palace in Peking in the 19th century.

Mr Hai-Sheng Chou was speaking after a sale this afternoon at Duke's in the West Country town of Dorchester, UK.

Auctioneers Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury and Duke's in Dorchester (above left) this week held two resoundingly successful sales of Asian art as Chinese bidders arrived in force to contest two important consignments of imperial jade and other Asian works of art.

Woolley & Wallis emerged with the week's top price when a Hong Kong buyer offered £2.1 million (including premium) for a fine and rare Qing Dynasty Imperial white jade teapot and cover (right) that had been conservatively estimated at £200,000-300,000. This was just one of a host of exceptional prices in the Salisbury sale, which also saw a fine Chinese white jade conjoined vase and cover knocked down for £1.02 million (estimate £100,000-200,000) while a fine Qianlong celadon jade mythical animal group, expected to fetch £8,000-12,000, was bid up to a hammer price of £85,000.

The quality of the material on offer at Woolley and Wallis was enough to lure many Asian buyers deep into the English countryside on Wednesday and several of them were also present this afternoon (May 19) at Duke's in Dorchester. I attended that sale and spoke to one or two members of the Asian art trade afterwards.

On paper, Duke's material looked particularly promising, albeit arguably more controversial given that most of the prize lots were consigned by descendants of a Captain Gunter, a member of the King's Dragoon Guards who had been present during the looting of the Summer Palace in Peking in 1860. But clearly such back stories don't trouble Asian buyers; indeed they may even add a certain cachet.

In the event, although most of Duke's premium lots got away, a few of them failed to reach the stratospheric prices that many had been anticipating.

The sale's top lot — an exceptional Chinese white jade cup and saucer taken by Captain Gunter from the Summer Palace in 1860 (left) — more than doubled its upper estimate to bring a hammer price of £430,000. Before the sale many had expected it to bring a million pounds or more.

One specialist Asian dealer afterwards expressed his conviction that cup and saucer were not matched. "While the saucer is of superb quality, the cup is later, perhaps made to replace the original, which might have been broken or lost some time in the eighteenth or nineteenth century," he said.

This is one of the difficulties with Chinese ceramics and works of art. True connoisseurship is now all but non-existent in the London salerooms, which evens the playing-field between London and provincial auction houses who can draft in their expertise. Nor is it by any means unusual even for mainland Chinese specialists to disagree with one another over mark and period.

A Chinese 'clair de lune' double gourd vase bearing a Qianlong seal mark and an old collector's label (right), was a case in point. Some felt it was not period, while others disagreed. In the event a cautious estimate of £5,000-10,000 gave way to a telephone bid of £32,000 (hammer).

As these two sales made clear, a good deal of important Asian material now seems to be consigned to provincial auction houses like Woolley and Wallis and Duke's, both of whom can now offer the sort of expertise and service that was once confined to their London counterparts.

Nor did the 'difficult' provenance impede progress. There was a time not so very long ago when a military social provenance like that of the Gunter material would have been seen as illustrious and prestigious. Today, it may be viewed as controversial by some, but not all Asian dealers and collectors view it as an opportunity to sabotage the art market as the Chinese buyer of Christie's rat and rabbit did back in 2009.

However, aware that Ruislip auctioneers Bainbridge's are still awaiting payment of the inexplicable £53 million offered for a Qing vase at their November 2010 sale, both Woolley and Wallis and Duke's chose to request deposits from bidders intending to contest the "Premium Lots" in each sale.

Taiwanese dealer Hai-Sheng Chou, who secured a number of the fine jade items at both West Country auctions this week, told me after the sale this afternoon that most Asian buyers see these sales not as a way to settle old scores but as a chance to buy high quality material with an imperial provenance at "very reasonable" prices. "Don't put too much political meaning on these sales," he cautioned. "These are just economic opportunities." Mr Chou was among the underbidders on a magnificent yellow jade pendant (left) which had been estimated at £30,000-50,000 but which went on to realise £400,000. "I advised my client to pay no more than £300,000," he said afterwards