In recent news, an original Willem de Kooning known as “Woman-Ochre” was found at an estate sale by owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, a New Mexico furniture and antiques shop (the owners include Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker).

Unaware that the work was an original de Kooning that had been stolen thirty years before, the antique dealers brought the work to their shop and marketed it as a decorative piece.  However, after the painting received significant interest, the dealers researched the provenance and determined that the work was the stolen art.  As a result of their efforts, the painting has been returned to its original owner, the University of Arizona Museum of Art.  Reunited with the Museum, the work (which had been cut from its frame during the heist thirty years ago) “fits like a glove” in its original frame.

In November, the Museum will have a special presentation regarding the “Woman-Ochre” entitled Out of the Vault – Art Crime. Museum Curator Olivia Miller and Registrar Kristen Schmidt will present on the theft of the de Kooning and Meredith Savona, a Special Agent with the FBI’s Art Crime Unit, will discuss art theft.

This recent discovery demonstrates the need to conduct proper provenance research.

 

In March 2016, a US auction gallery sold an Old Master oil painting (a sketch of an old woman) for $27,000. The sale price was nearly double the high auction estimate of 15,000.  However, when the same painting was recently sold by Sotheby’s London in a July 2017 sale as an authentic Peter Paul Rubens, it achieved a hammer of £416,750 (close to $550,000 USD), which is nearly 20 times the original purchase price.

It has been reported that the appraisers at Sotheby’s London relied on certain clues to authenticate painting and attribute to Peter Paul Rubens himself. For example, Rubens had painted this old lady before, and there were examples of Rubens work with the old women at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lichtenstein museum.  Interestingly, the work was consigned to Sotheby’s after it had been properly cleaned and restored. The restoration work revealed that the sketch had been overpainted, and this overpainting is likely the reason why the work was not properly attributed in the first place.   Importantly, this is not the first time an authentic Rubens was late discovered. In 2015, a portrait deaccessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was later determined to be an authentic Rubens and fetched $626,500 at auction (over 20 times its original high estimate of $30,000).

As the Washington Post reports, authentic Rubens are valuable – even if they are mere sketches and not final oil portraits. Rubens value has increased. For example, last year a Rubens painting, Lot and his Daughters, set a new record for an Old Masters sale fetching £44.8 million ($58.1 million USD).

Unfortunately, the value and popularity of Rubens make his Old Master works a prime target for forgery. This heightened concern can move an appraiser to conservatively attribute paintings to “school/student/studio of” an Old Master rather than the Old Master himself.  This recent Rubens auction sale demonstrates that sometimes the caveat emptor/buyer beware mantra can benefit the buyer in more ways than one. In this case, taking the extra step to invest in restoration and cleaning paid off exponentially for the original auction buyer.

In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has turned over another antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan after one of its curators had raised concerns about the ancient object after researching it last year.  Prosecutors have taken custody of the ancient artifact, the head of an ancient marble sculpture of a bull, on loan to the Met Museum, due to concerns that it had been looted from a Lebanese storage area during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.

The prior owners of the 2,300 year old marble object claim they have clear title to the antiquity and have taken legal action against the prosecutors for its return.  The prior owners are also pursuing legal action against Lebanon’s antiquities directorate in connection with a federal lawsuit in which they argue that “neither the Lebanese government nor the Manhattan prosecutors have offered convincing proof that the [antiquity] was stolen.  The lawsuit also cites property rights, cultural patrimony laws, statutes of limitations and jurisdictional issues as grounds for the sculpture’s return to them.”

The prior owners purchased the artifact from an art dealer in London back in 1996 for over $1 million and then sold it to a collector in 2010 who is the current owner.  The current owner loaned the antiquity to the museum that year, but has since asked the prior owners to take the artwork back and compensate him after becoming aware that Lebanon was disputing its provenance.

The prior owners’ attorney said in a statement that he and his clients believe the “district attorney’s position is ill-founded” and added that the prior owners are “bona fide purchasers with clean hands.  By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed [to] take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.”

The Met Museum released the following statement:  “Upon a Met curator’s discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the museum took immediate action.  We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the head of the bull to the Manhattan D.A. upon its request.”

The antiquity has a deeply rooted history.  According to museum and Lebanese authorities, the artifact was “first catalogued in 1967 by a Swiss archaeologist excavating the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon.  It is believed to be of Greek origin, was warehoused in the city of Byblos, the site of a looting spree in the 1980s.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that the museum has been asked to turn over an antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan with different circumstances in each case.  As discussed in our recent blog post last week, the Met Museum returned an ancient vase that it bought at auction back in 1989 due to concerns that it may have been looted from Italy.

For more information on this latest antiquity provenance dispute, see “Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors,” published online by the New York Times on August 1, 2017.

In recent art world news, an ancient vase known as a krater, prominently displayed in the Greco-Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades, was quietly seized by U.S. prosecutors from the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after the issuance of a warrant last week.  The vibrantly painted krater dates back to 360 B.C. and depicts Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, sitting in a cart pulled by a satyr.  The antiquity is attributed to the Greek artist Python, who is considered one of the two greatest painters of that time.

A warrant was issued to the Met after investigators reviewed photos and other evidence sent to them back in May by a forensic archaeologist based in Europe who has been tracing looted artifacts for over a decade.  The museum had hand-delivered the vase to prosecutors the following day and expects that it will be eventually returned to Italy.  The vase was seized based on evidence that it had been looted by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s.

The recent seizure of the krater is similar to the removal of another terracotta vase, known as the Euphronios Krater, from the Met back in 2008 after evidence revealed that the object had been illegally excavated from an ancient burial ground in Italy.  Both law enforcement and museum authorities believe that the vases passed through Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who was arrested in 1997 and convicted in a Rome court in 2004 for conspiracy to traffic in antiquities.

Medici, who has since been released from prison, has denied any role in connection with the recently seized vase.  The Met purchased the vase at a Sotheby’s auction in 1989 for $90,000.  Sotheby’s has said it did not have any knowledge of provenance issues with the object at the time it handled the sale.

While its significance does not rise to the level of the far larger Euphronios Krater, which the Met sent back to Italy after a 30-year dispute, the newly confiscated vessel is a remarkably intact survivor of an age when the Greeks colonized Paestum, a Mediterranean city in the Campania region south of Rome, and created temples and artworks of legendary beauty.”

The forensic archaeologist in Europe who traced the krater said that his evidence suggested that the object was disinterred by looters from a grave site in southern Italy and eventually ended up in Medici’s possession.  Many of the antiquities that went through Medici ultimately ended up in museums throughout the world.

This latest case appears as “more and more museums are being pressed to scour their collections for items trafficked by known antiquities smugglers whose goods originated in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cambodia, India, and Egypt” and other countries long affected by looting.

For more information on this story and the forensic archaeologist’s evidence resulting in the seizure of the krater, see “Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum On Suspicion It Was Looted,” published online by the New York Times on July 31, 2017.

 

In recent art world news, earlier this month the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art of Turin, Italy announced an agreement with the Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte to maintain and display the impressive but largely unknown private collection of the late Francesco Federico Cerruti of 13th– to 20th-century treasures.  Cerruti was a reclusive Italian art collector and entrepreneur whose collection was regarded as one of the best in Europe.

The collection has been valued at $570 million to $600 million by Sotheby’s in 2015 and includes masterworks by Francis Bacon, Giorgio de Chirico and Jacopo Pontormo.  The collection is on permanent loan to the museum and is planned to be the centerpiece of a museum expansion scheduled to open to the public in January 2019.

Cerruti’s collection, amassed over seven decades, includes about 300 paintings and sculptures, 200 rare and ancient books, including fine hand-bound editions, and 300 pieces of furniture and other decorative works.  Cerruti owned some exceptional works, including Bacon’s canvas “Study for a Portrait IX” (1957), a postwar highlight, Amedeo Modigliani’s “Woman in a Yellow Dress (La Belle Espagnole)” (1918), and a group of five rare “Metaphysical” (1910) oil paintings by de Chirico.

When purchasing art in Italy, Cerruti benefited from “a Mussolini-vintage regulation prohibiting the permanent export of artworks more than 50 years old officially designated as having cultural interest.  These works could not be sold on the international market.”  The late Cerruti was from a generation that did not buy 21st-century art.

The Cerruti collection represents a “rare case of a contemporary-art museum incorporating an encyclopedic and historical art trove.”  The museum intends to integrate works from the collection into its changing displays of contemporary art instead of keeping old and new works separate.

 

In recent art news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) announced earlier this week that it is planning the largest exhibition of Michelangelo works in its history set to open later this year.

The exhibition will be entitled “Michelangelo:  Divine Draftsman and Designer,” and will include 150 drawings, three marble sculptures, the artist’s earliest known painting (“The Torment of Saint Anthony”), and other works, curated from 54 public and private art collections throughout the United States and Europe.  A substantial body of complementary works by other artists will be included for comparison and context.  According to The Met’s website, the “exhibition will examine Michelangelo’s rich legacy as a supreme draftsman and designer.”

The Met presently has three works by Michelangelo, two of which are drawings (“Studies for the Libyan Sibyl,” and “Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere”) and the third, a sculpture entitled “Young Archer,” which is on loan from the French government.  Due to their sensitivity to light, the two drawings are typically not exhibited, but they will be included in the upcoming exhibition.

The anticipated exhibition is scheduled to open November 13, 2017 and will run through February 12, 2018.  The Met’s Curator of Italian and Spanish drawings, Carmen C. Bambach, a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, is organizing the exhibition.

For further information on The Met’s upcoming Michelangelo exhibition, see Exhibition Overview on The Met’s website.

In recent art world news, Poland’s Museum of the Second World War, said to be the “most comprehensive public exhibition in Europe about the greatest cataclysm of the 20th century,” opened last month.  The new museum, situated in the seaside city of Gdansk, has drawn around 14,000 visitors in its first two weeks of being open.  Among those in attendance included former prisoners of German Nazi concentration camps and Soviet labor camps.

Earlier this week, Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court cleared the path for the country’s right-wing government, which came to power in 2015, to take control of the museum and merge it with a smaller, yet to be built museum that would take a more narrow focus on the conflict and provide a nationalistic perspective.  It is believed that the merger will likely result in the dismissal of the museum’s director, historian Pawel Machcewicz.

Controversy surrounding the new museum has been occurring for months, but the Polish Court’s decision this week is a strong signal that the government will get its way.  According to the country’s culture ministry, the merger is effective immediately.

Under Machcewicz’s direction, the new museum’s permanent exhibition spanning three floors offers an “expansive and international view of the conflict, focusing on the wartime experiences of civilians in Poland and Eastern Europe, which suffered from both Nazi and Soviet repression.”

The country’s right-wing government, however, argues that the new museum does not give enough focus on the Polish perspective.  Poland’s culture minister would like to absorb the museum within a planned institution dedicated to the Battle of Westerplatte, which was the first battle of the war in September 1939, when Germany began its invasion of Poland.  The institution would focus on the “Polish narrative of sacrifice and suffering, and take what skeptics see as a more nationalistic perspective.”

The museum’s permanent exhibition has received enthusiastic reviews from around the world, including from international museum experts, journalists and historians.

Although Machcewicz is uncertain what the culture ministry will do about the permanent exhibition, he expressed hope that the culture minister would keep the exhibition in its present form and “[l]et tourists from all around the world judge the exhibition first[.]”

For further information on Poland’s Museum of the Second World War and its mission and purpose, see the museum’s website.

In recent art news, the New York Times ran a story on this week’s opening of the “Mummies” exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  In the exhibition, more than a dozen specimens are on display, some of which have not been on public view in more than 100 years since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The new exhibition explores how and why two ancient civilizations, ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru, separated by a distance of about 7,500 miles, practiced mummification.

One of the mummies known as Mummy No. 30007 or the “Gilded Lady” did not assume her name by accident – her coffin is intricately decorated with linen, has a golden headdress and facial features, and possesses an air of divinity.

She’s so well preserved that she looks exactly how the people of her time hoped she would appear for eternity.”  To modern scientists, however, it is what they do not see that is just as intriguing, that is “[w]ho was this ancient woman, and what did she look like when she was alive?”

The icon of today’s mummy investigations is the CT scanner, which provides archaeologists with an inside view of the millenniums-old specimens without damaging them.  This is in stark contrast to just a century ago when scientists would typically unwrap their finds or specimens often harming them in the process.

The Gilded Lady was never unwrapped as archaeologists instead used state of the art CT scanning to create a 3-D print of her skull that helped a forensic artist with the reconstruction of her features.  Scientists were even able to determine her potential cause of death from tuberculosis about 2,000 years ago, and age (in her 40s) dating back to Roman-era Egypt.

The exhibition was organized by David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American archaeology, and John J. Flynn, a curator of fossil mammals, both at the American Museum of Natural History.  The exhibition is scheduled to run through January 7, 2018.

For an overview of the exhibition, see “Unraveling the Mystery of Who Lies Beneath the Cloth” published by the New York Times on March 23, 2017 and the American Museum of Natural History website.

 

In recent art news, the Frick Collection is among a distinguished group of art institutions around the world that is taking its antiquated system of photography archives and digitizing it such that the photography archives are part of a “mega-size, searchable scholarly database and web portal that will eventually hold 22 million images, 17 million of them artworks and the rest supplemental material.”

This collaborative effort of the participating art institutions is known as Pharos, which is an international consortium of fourteen European and North American art historical photo archives committed to creating a digital research platform allowing for comprehensive consolidated access to photo archive images and their associated scholarly documentation.”

Although Pharos’ intended audience is art historians, anyone will be able to use it.  It is anticipated that Pharos could have broad implications for genealogical research and art restitution as well as other unforeseen applications.  Pharos provides many advantages in that users will be able to “search the restoration history of the works, including different states of the same piece over time . . . ; past ownership; and even background on related works that have been lost or destroyed.”

As the Pharos consortium is committed to scholarly depth, it is currently working on image-recognition technology so that there will be no language barriers from the scholars’ searches.

For further information and recent developments of the Pharos consortium, visit the Pharos website.

I was very inspired after reading this recent online NPR article on blind and visually impaired art enthusiasts being able to “see” and experience works of art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. through uniquely guided tours.  The museum offers America InSight tours twice a month led by specially trained docents to blind and visually impaired visitors.

During these specially guided tours, the dozen or so volunteer docents use verbal descriptions of artwork as well as other senses in their verbal descriptions, such as the sound of music to bring to life a work of art.  The visitors are encouraged to imitate the pose of a sculpture while participating in the tour.  In some cases, low vision and blind visitors can even touch some of the art with the use of Latex-free gloves.

While moving slowly through the museum during the tour, the blind and visually impaired visitors are able to “see” the artworks in their imaginations with some getting close to the artwork to view it better with the aid of a magnifying device.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s America InSight tours certainly prove that there are a number of ways to experience works of art and not just through sight.