In recent art world news, the Board of Directors of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has voted to extend the $10 million reward for information leading to the return of 13 art works (valued at half a billion dollars) that were stolen nearly 30 years ago.  The reward was to have reverted to $5 million at the end of last year had it not been for the Board’s recent vote.  The extension of the reward was done in the “hope of enticing tips that would help recover works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Manet and others that were stolen in the world’s largest unsolved art heist.”

The theft occurred just after midnight on March 18, 1990 when two thieves appearing as Boston police officers deceived museum guards in gaining access to the building, restrained the guards, and then left nearly an hour and a half later with the valuable art works.

While there have been multiple suspects throughout the years and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has said in 2013 that agents had determined who the thieves were (but did not reveal their names), and added that the thieves were no longer living, the statute of limitations has run out on the theft in 1995, but the investigation is ongoing.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, the woman for whom the museum is named, was a leading American art collector, art patron, and philanthropist, who passed away in 1924.  Gardner had stipulated in her will that “the vast art collection in her home, modeled on a 15th-century Venetian palace, remain on permanent display exactly as she left it.  Nowadays empty gilded frames that held some of the works that were taken in 1990 still hang on the walls.”

For further information about the theft and Isabella Stewart Gardner, see the following articles, Learn About The Theft and An Unconventional Life, via the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website.

 

In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Met”) announced last Thursday that visitors will have to pay a $25 mandatory admission fee if they reside outside New York State under a new policy that goes into effect on March 1, 2018.  The Met’s existing “pay-as-you-wish” policy will continue for state residents, but such individuals will be required to present address identification when the new policy begins—those without it will not be turned away and will be asked to bring it on their next visit.  The existing policy will also continue for students from adjacent states, Connecticut and New Jersey.  A full price admission ticket will be valid for three consecutive days at the Met’s three locations, which include the Met Breuer and the Cloisters.

The change is said to reflect the museum’s efforts to create “a reliable, annual revenue stream after a period of financial turbulence and leadership turmoil, particularly given what the Met describes as a sharp decline in people willing to pay the current ‘suggested’ admission price, also $25.”  In particular, the change is intended to provide the museum with

a predictable source of revenue at a time when institutions all over the country face competition for private donations and patrons’ leisure time; declining membership; and dwindling public dollars.”

As one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world, the Met has long distinguished itself from other such institutions, among the likes of the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, by not charging a mandatory admissions fee.  The museum has long sustained itself through a combination of private donations and public dollars (the city provides operating support each year since it owns the Met’s building on Fifth Avenue).  The city’s allocation (currently about $26 million), however, is subject to changing economic conditions and the discretion of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Tellingly, over the past 10 plus years, even when Met attendance had risen from 4.7 million to 7 million visitors, the museum had observed a sharp decline in the proportion of attendees who paid the full suggested admission fee (from 63 percent to 17 percent).  The museum admission fees account for 14 percent (or $43 million) of the Met’s $305 million operating budget.  The figure is expected to increase to 16 or 17 percent (or $49 million) with the new policy change.

For further information on the Met’s new admissions policy and for art critics’ reactions to same, see “Met Changes 50-Year Admissions Policy:  Non-New Yorkers Must Pay” and “The Met Should Be Open to All.  The New Pay Policy Is a Mistake[,]” published online by the New York Times on January 4, 2018.

In a recent report, New York City (Manhattan) District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., announced the formation of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which was created to work with U.S. Homeland Security to combat the trade of stolen antiquities.  The Unit was formed after a number of culturally valuable pieces were found in New York City.  The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office recently announced the return of three ancient statutes to the Lebanese Republic.  It will be interesting to see what other treasures this Unit will uncover.

Some in the art world may not know that the 500-year old masterpiece painting Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”) by Leonardo da Vinci that recently sold for nearly half a billion dollars is imperfect.  The work with a shady history was damaged and heavily repainted and then restored.  At least one well regarded Leonardo da Vinci expert went on record stating that he doesn’t believe the acclaimed artist was the primary artist behind the work.  The painting was owned by King Charles I in the 17th century, disappeared from records from 1763 to 1900, resurfaced again in 1958, and sold for under $10,000 in 2005.  Less than 10 years later, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev brought the work to the market after purchasing it for $127.5 million in 2013.

Before the recent November 15, 2017 sale of the painting at Christie’s in New York, it was reported that Nica Rieppi, Principal Investigator at Art Analysis & Research, and her scientific team spent four years using the latest technology and a number of art books in authenticating the da Vinci work.  The painting was meticulously analyzed down to a microscopic level in which the team took miniscule samples to determine the pigments, materials and techniques used in creating it.  Technical imaging with x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet technology was also used by the team to assess how the painting developed with each stroke.

According to Rieppi, science is becoming more important than ever in the growing “high-stakes world of multimillion-dollar fine art sales” and the purpose is to “get inside the head of the artist.”

The masterpiece painting is a depiction of Christ draped in a blue robe holding one hand in prayer and a crystal sphere in the other and is said to be one of less than 20 paintings known to be created by the Italian master.

A significant clue in establishing the authenticity of the work derived from the composition of the paint.  The scientific team, through microscopic sampling, detected the use of lapis lazuli, a very rare pigment considered more expensive than gold in Italy at the time, in “extraordinarily high quality” throughout the blue in Christ’s robe in the painting.  The pigment was imported from the Middle East and the material was “so expensive and only available to someone of a master and stature as Leonardo,” explained Rieppi.

A further clue as to the authenticity of the work was the use of complex and sophisticated layering by the artist.  Through the use of a powerful microscope, the scientific team discovered monochromatic layers that were applied to the canvas before the addition of the pigment.  This included the use of a warm brown color on Christ’s robe along with transparent washes throughout the painting.  Such details are said to be consistent with da Vinci’s technique in the unfinished work The Adoration of Magi.  Rieppi believes there is no doubt that anyone other than da Vinci could have created the work due to the uniqueness of the painting at a microscopic level.

The complex history of the painting left many in the art world perplexed as to its provenance with some outright doubtful.  In particular, Jacques Frank, an art historian and da Vinci specialist who had examined the work, said to the media that “[t]he composition doesn’t come from Leonardo. He preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged.”

At the outset of authenticating the work, Rieppi and her scientific team approached the project with “doubt and skepticism” in view of the questionable history of the painting.  However, the materials lined up and the techniques aligned to a point in which it became clear to Rieppi and her team about the origin and identity of the da Vinci masterpiece.

As for where Rieppi sees things heading in the art market, the authenticator believes that “[s]cience is allowing us to move toward evidence-based connoisseurship.”

 

 

 

 

In recent art world news, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (circa 1500) sold for $450.3 million on Wednesday evening at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction.  The sale of the rare masterpiece painting made history as the most expensive art market transaction of all time.  The work is believed to be the last painting by the renowned Renaissance artist in private hands.  Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art for the Americas, represented the unidentified winning bidder on the phone after a nearly 20-minute bidding session that included five bidders (four on the phone and one in the room).

The previous highest art market transaction was recorded back in 2015 with the $300 million sale of Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) purchased by Kenneth Griffin from David Geffen.

The Leonardo da Vinci lot accounted for more than half of the total sales at the evening auction, which came to an impressive $788.9 million.  The auction had a “respectable” sell-through rate of 84 percent.

After Wednesday evening’s history making sale at Christie’s, this begs the question from the art world as to whether there is no longer a ceiling in the sale of valuable works of art.  For thoughtful commentary on this, see “After Leonardo’s Sky-High Sale, the Art World Asks, Is There Still a Ceiling?” published online by the New York Times on November 16, 2017.

 

Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice, Joseph A. Trainor, granted a motion for an injunction on the sale of important works of the Berkshire Museum.  The auction was to be hosted by Sotheby’s this week. The controversial injunction was entered two weeks after Judge John A. Agostini of Massachusetts’ Superior Court held that the Board of Trustee’s of the Berkshire Museum was permitted to pursue its plan to raise $50 M through the sale of art.

Justice Trainor entered his decision after the Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey, filed an appeal three days before the scheduled auction. The Massachusetts Attorney General based her last minute appeal on the fact that the lower court did not consider, among other things, that the planned deaccession of important works would violate the museum board’s duties under its museum charter.

The museum’s controversial sale was to include the sale of two famous Norman Rockwell paintings – Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftesbury Blacksmith Shop. Sotheby’s announced that it was disappointed that the Massachusetts Attorney General had decided to appeal, and that Justice Trainor entered the injunction.  The Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum has been fighting Margaret Rockwell, who represents the family of Norman Rockwell as well as other dissatisfied museum members.

In recent art world news, Sotheby’s posted a $23.5 million net loss during the traditionally slow third quarter, up 57 percent from last year, announced by the auction house in its quarterly earnings call last Friday.  The “net loss of $0.45 per share beat expectations that foresaw a $0.67 per share drop, and the revenue total of $171 million was ahead of the anticipated figure of $110.9 million.”

The increase was attributed in part to the inclusion of Hong Kong fall sales in the financial period along with an atypical $7.4 million tax benefit.  Sotheby’s had built a reserve to defend against a potential tax liability and has since reversed the reserve with the one-time liability now past the statute of limitations to challenge.  In effect, this action gave the auction house a one-time cash infusion during this traditionally slow period in the summer months.

Sotheby’s executives were cautiously optimistic in addressing the quarter noting that “both sales in Asia and sales of contemporary art are up from a year ago—at this point last year, both sectors were trending down from the year prior.”  The auction house acknowledged that the while it benefited from the change in timing of the Hong Kong sales in the third quarter, the fourth quarter will be “negatively affected” with the exclusion of the Hong Kong sales.

The third quarter is typically the slowest period of the year as it accounted for less than five percent of the auction house’s total sales last year.  Sotheby’s total consolidated sales, which include auctions, private sales and inventory sales, are up 13 percent nine months into this year.

 

An intriguing story recently ran in the Los Angeles Times regarding an 18th century masterpiece painting that has gone missing for more than a century.  The mysterious painting seems to have been hiding in plain sight in a Los Angeles home since the mid-1950s, but the exact location of the work is unknown.  The painting is known as “Española” (Spanish Girl) after the primped and powdered child that is the focus of the work.  The lost work is from a treasured set of 16 paintings by the artist Miguel Cabrera (circa 1715-1768), who is considered the “greatest painter of his age” in Mexico.  It is believed that the paintings left the country shortly before the artist’s death, but the whereabouts of Española have long remained unknown.

Curator of Latin American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Ilona Katzew, has been perplexed over the lost painting since 2015 after receiving an eccentric letter written in the first person voice of Española and then signed as if by the young child.  Española wrote in late summer 2015:  “You should know that I am well and living less than two (2) miles from LACMA,” adding “I have been in the same family for I believe 60 years, although I do not know how I was acquired.”

Cabrera’s Española painting is part of a treasured set of casta, or caste, paintings.  More than 120 casta sets, which typically include 16 numbered paintings, are known.  The casta sets were painted in different formats by talented artists of varying skill.  Most of these sets have been divided up and individual paintings widely circulated.  Cabrera had painted just one set, which is considered the genre’s finest.

Two paintings from Cabrera’s set of 16 had gone missing long ago, but one of them, No. 6, was found hidden in a Northern California home.  The painting’s owner researched the work’s history and her surprising discovery landed on the cover page of the Los Angeles Times in April 2015.  Soon thereafter, LACMA acquired the painting.  And Española’s owner went to see it.  Española in her letter from late summer 2015 further wrote:  “My owner enjoyed seeing #6 and I am pleased that we are all now accounted for despite the diaspora.”

Several photographs showing details of the missing Española painting were enclosed in the envelope.  Although there are no known pre-modern images or written descriptions of Cabrera’s set, Katzew has little doubt of the authenticity of the painting.

Española’s letter revealed another astonishing detail.

If you ever gather a reunion of all my siblings, I would welcome the opportunity to be on display for a limited period of time.  I am not lost, I just do not wish to be found.”

A near complete reunion occurred several years earlier when 14 of the 16 paintings from Cabrera’s set were brought together from museums in Madrid and Monterrey, Mexico as well as a Los Angeles foundation, for a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros:  The Art in Latin America, 1492-1820” in 2006.  The paintings from Cabrera’s set had not been displayed together in at least a century.

Española’s letter was signed by her and neatly typed in the format of formal business correspondence, however, she did not include a return mailing address, telephone number, e-mail address, or any other way to get in contact with the owner.  The stamps on the envelope were not even canceled at the post office.

During this time, Katzew was well into her research for her upcoming exhibition entitled “Painted in Mexico, 1700-1790:  Pinxit Mexici,” which is said to be the most comprehensive museum survey ever devoted to the period and is set to open at LACMA later this month on November 19, 2017.

Katzew is hopeful that Española’s owner will stop in to see the exhibition and perhaps get in contact again.  She has even made space for Española on the wall next to the painting’s “rediscovered sibling,” No. 6:

‘[No.] 3.  From Spaniard and Castiza, Spanish Girl,’ its full title, is an especially important picture in the set because of its uniquely sumptuous details.  The Spanish father, dressed in a dove-gray frock coat and tri-corner hat, is an aristocrat.  The castiza mother, offspring of a Spaniard and a mestiza (half Spanish, half Indian), is dressed in regal splendor—embroidered silks, delicate lace, pearls on her wrist and an extravagant coral necklace.”

For further information on this fascinating story, see “A masterpiece of Baroque painting, missing for more than a century, is hiding somewhere in L.A.,” published online by the Los Angeles Times on October 22, 2017.

In recent art world news, a never before auctioned work, Contraste de forms (1913), by French artist Fernand Léger is to lead Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening auction in New York this fall.  The vibrant abstract painting is estimated to sell for $65 million, which would be a new record for the artist if sold.  The work has been in the family of art collector Hans Arnhold since the 1950s and has never been auctioned.  The previous record for a Léger work was set with the sale of La femme en bleu (study) (1912-13) for $39.2 million in New York in 2008.

The work is considered among the greatest Léger works still in private hands with its bold intensity.  According to Conor Jordan, deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s,

[e]xecuted just months before the First World War, Contraste de forms, with its groundbreaking abstract conception and its thrillingly preserved physical state, is without question a major work of Modern Art.”

The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation consigned the groundbreaking work with the proceeds to go toward supporting the non-profit’s philanthropic mission.  Anna-Maria Arnhold Kellen was the daughter of Hans Arnhold.

As for the work’s provenance, the painting was initially acquired by prominent Parisian dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler after its completion.  Hans Arnhold purchased it from Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1956.  The work was passed on to Arnhold’s daughter and her husband, who was a New York banker, and remained in the family until the death of Anna-Maria Kellen in April 2017 at the age of 98.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening auction is set for November 13, 2017 at the auction house’s New York City headquarters.

 

In recent art world news, British artist Paul Stephenson has recreated some of Andy Warhol’s most celebrated works using the exact same materials and methods as the late artist.  This has sparked a lively debate as to what can be done after an artist’s death.

Warhol’s legendary New York City studio, The Factory, was fittingly named as it functioned as an assembly line of assistants who worked on his iconic screen print paintings of famous folks.  Occasionally, Warhol’s assistant and his mother would sign the paintings on his behalf.

Back in the early 1960s, Warhol had famously told an interviewer “I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me.”  “I think it would be so great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.”  Nearly 55 years later, Stephenson has created new versions of Warhol’s works by “posthumously tracking down the pop artist’s original acetates, paints and printer, and recreating the entire process as precisely as possible.”

Stephenson started his project with the purchase of ten original Warhol acetates, which are the enlarged photographic negatives of the icons used by Warhol to create his screen prints.  Although Warhol’s assistants did much of the physical work, Warhol was the sole individual who worked directly with the acetates by touching up portions of the portraits in preparation for printing.

The British artist used one of Warhol’s original screen printers in New York, Alexander Heinrici, who offered to help use the original Warhol acetates to make the new paintings.

Of his recreated Warhol works, Stephenson said “I’m not saying they’re Warhols.”  “It’s a forced collaboration because the original author doesn’t know anything about it.”

While the artist himself does not claim that the recreated paintings should be considered posthumous Warhol works, one of the leading Warhol authorities and the earliest to catalogue the late artist’s work, Rainer Crone, said before his passing in 2016 that they could be.  After seeing Stephenson’s recreated Warhol works, Crone sent the British artist an e-mail that said “paintings made with these film positives under described circumstances and executed posthumously by professionals (scholars as well as printers) are authentic Andy Warhol paintings.”

Stephenson succinctly framed the issue as “[i]f the world-leading Warhol scholar say it’s a Warhol, and you do everything in the mechanical process that the original artist did, and the original artist said ‘I want other people to make my paintings’, which he did – what is it?”  Stephenson said that he does not know the answer.

Other examples of works being made in an artist’s name after their death include the estates of Degas and Rodin, which both made bronze sculptures using the artists’ original designs.  The sculptures are sold as posthumous works with lower prices.

Stephenson’s recreated Warhols are modestly priced at £4,000 ($5,260) and £10,000 ($13,150), which seem to suggest that he is not expecting prospective buyers to believe such works are authentic Warhols.

Warhol expert Richard Polsky, who provides an authentication service for Warhol works and other artists’ works and has previously written for the Art Law blog, believes that the recreated Warhols should not be regarded as posthumous Warhols.  Polsky says “[i]t sounds like he’s trying to extend Warhol’s career, so to speak, even though he’s dead.”

Jessica Beck, curator of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, believes that it is “problematic” taking Warhol’s screens and recreating new Warhols without being in dialogue with the late artist.  Beck explains that Warhol was “always involved in [the] final product in some way” as he oversaw everything at his studio and became involved in other ways after inception.

All this said, the recreated Warhol works will likely be attractive to those who want to appear to have an original Warhol displayed on their wall without having to spend a hefty eight to nine figures to get one.

Stephenson’s recreated paintings will be on display at the Buy Art Fair in Manchester, England later this month.