In recent art world news, three paintings by Flemish master Joachim Patinir were formally handed over to the descendants of Herta and Henry Bromberg at the Louvre Museum by French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen.  This is the second time in two years that France has returned looted art to the family.  In 2016, France has handed over another 16th-century painting, “Portrait of a Man”, created by one of the followers of Antwerp artist Joos van Cleve.

The Bromberg family was forced to sell the 16th-century “Triptych of the Crucifixion” depicting Christ on the cross, along with several other paintings, the following year after fleeing Germany for France in 1938, so they could come to the United States by way of Switzerland.

The three Patinir paintings had faded away for nearly seven decades as unclaimed in the French state collections after having been recovered in Munich following World War II.

The late Flemish master is considered the father of landscape painting who developed the panoramic style that became the distinctive feature of the northern Renaissance.

In recent years, France has improved its efforts of the restitution of looted art from World War II to its rightful owners through the use of genealogical experts to trace families.

According to former culture minister Audrey Azoulay, who is now Director-General of UNESCO:

It is no longer acceptable to wait for descendants to turn up and ask for the restitution of their family’s art for them to be given their due[.]”

It has been reported that up to 100,000 works of art, and millions of books, were stolen from French Jewish families or Jewish families who had fled to France prior to the German occupation.

After World War II, the Allies had located 60,000 of the missing works of art, and France has been returning works of arts to families since the 1960s though only 30 works were returned up to 1994.

Since 2013 France has made a more concerted effort to resolving the issue of the restitution of looted art with a commission of experts, historians and archivists.

 

 

 

 

In recent art world news, following strong sales in 2017, the international auction houses are said to be “feeling bullish” once again.  Last Friday, Christie’s announced that it had sold about £5.1 billion or $7.3 billion of art and collectibles worldwide (up 26 percent from 2016) in 2017.  Phillips saw a similar improvement over 2016 sales with auction and private sales of $708.8 million (up 25 percent from 2016) in 2017.  As both auction houses are privately held, neither one disclosed a profit or loss.  Publicly traded Sotheby’s will disclose its financial results for 2017 at month’s end.

The $450.3 million fetched in November for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” helped propel Christie’s auction sales by 38 percent along with 65 lots that sold for more than £10 million.  Many of the auction house’s lots were supported by financial guarantees.  The strong sales signify that the art market is surging.

Auction houses among the likes of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have high overheads with business models that haven’t changed much since the 18th-century.  A primary challenge is that they keep up with the upward trajectory growth of global wealth and earn money from it.  Each auction house has its own unique strategy in doing so.

In particular, Phillips’ key selling category is 20th-century and contemporary art that raised $421.8 million at auction last year (or 60 percent of the annual total).  Phillips complements its art auctions with sales of 20th– and 21st-century design, photography and prints, and generates further revenue by sales of watches and jewelry.  Phillips has held just two online-only auctions in collaboration with Artsy last year.

In contrast, Christie’s attracts new buyers through its own well-established program of online-only auctions.  Last year, Christie’s held 85 digital sales of luxury goods and lower-value collectibles fetching £55.9 million or about $80 million.  Although this accounted for only one percent of annual total sales, it represented 37 percent of the auction house’s new buyers.

Last December, Sotheby’s announced that it had sold $4.7 billion of art and collectibles at auction in 2017 (up 13.1 percent from 2016).  While this was below Christie’s auction sales of $6.6 billion, Sotheby’s has diversified into other areas, including financial services, art advice and managing artist estates, and image recognition technology.  Sotheby’s upcoming financial results for 2017 will disclose the amount of its revenue derived from such 21st-century business models.

But for the moment, the 18th-century model of live auctions continues to do nicely [for the auction houses], tracking global economic growth.”

It remains to be seen as to how technology is going to change things, but it would seem that it could streamline and add efficiency to the art buying process and attract a greater reach of new buyers, particularly the future generation of art buyers and collectors.

 

In recent art world news, one may think that the digital revolution has provided some “much-needed transparency” to the art market with the sale of artwork now being bought online as regularly as books and music.  However, according to last year’s Hiscox Online Art Trade Report (publication of the 2018 edition is forthcoming in April), it is estimated that online platforms accounted for about $3.75 billion of sales in 2016 (up 15% from 2015), which represents just an 8.4 percent share (up from 7.4% in 2015) of the overall art market.

Despite the low overall art market share for online platforms, the art world’s digital sector has seen new developments.  In particular, just last week it was announced that online auction house Paddle8 had merged with Swiss tech company The Native, and would develop an auction that accepts virtual currency (i.e., bitcoin).  Also, last week Sotheby’s announced that it had acquired Thread Genius, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup company specializing in developing identification software by using algorithms to identify objects and suggest images of similar objects.

While the music and publishing industries have been transformed by retailing via an online platform, this has not been the case for the art market, which has been slower to move in such direction.  Some in the art world have made the well taken point that artwork is unique and much more expensive than mass-produced books and music.  A high price tag of six figures and up has the effect of deterring digital impulse purchases.  Indeed, online art sales tend to be dominated by artwork priced below $5,000.

Prices remain a major hurdle for the expansion of the digital art trade, not just because they are often so high, but because of their lack of availability.  Consumers looking to buy, say, a shirt online can browse numerous fashion websites where thousands of items are clearly labeled and priced.  But all too often, prices on art dealers’ websites—and in their galleries and booths at fairs—are ‘on application,’ a process that can be both laborious and forbidding.”

Unsurprisingly, from the perspective of the consumer, dedicated online-only art auctions having transparent price structures benefit from a definite edge over dealer transactions in the digital space.  Since last May, in an effort to aid transparency, Christie’s website has included results from its online-only art auctions, which had an average lot price of $7,305 (up from $6,047 in 2016).  This information is not provided by competitors such as Sotheby’s and Paddle8.

Although results achieved for resold artworks can be accessed via subscription websites such as Artnet and Artprice, the “primary market” prices charged by galleries for new artworks by contemporary artists remain private with “many dealers regarding them as trade secrets available only to insiders.”

A new app started in 2016 named Magnus seeks to disrupt the art market and make it more transparent.  In use, the smartphone user simply aims their device at a particular artwork in a gallery or fair and visual recognition technology rapidly provides auction and dealer prices for the specific artist.  In such way, it is said that Magnus works for art as Shazam, the mainstream song-identifying app, works for music.  The new app’s database stores about 10 million prices, which are compiled through crowdsourcing, and 10 percent of which are from the primary market.  The app is said to be especially strong at art fairs with estimates that it identified around 80 percent of the prices at events such as Art Basel.

It will be interesting to see how the art market engages the next generation of art collectors and buyers.  The recent developments in the digital space described above seem like a solid start.

 

 

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has added a new employee to its roster, a Weimaraner puppy named Riley.  Riley will patrol the gallery on a quest to locate insects or other pests that can damage fine art and tapestry. Unfortunately, Riley will not be visible to patrons.

It will be interesting to hear if Riley’s addition to the museum helps to preserve the artwork and prevent damage from insects and pests.

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.