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Art

As Sotheby’s London goes to court to defend their authentication processes and due diligence practices against a claim that they missed a Caravaggio,(1) in the international arena Christie’s London and Christie’s New York appear to be battling an in-house contest. Christie’s New York recently catalogued a portrait of a man in a ruff as a copy, a painting London later published as a Van Dyck.
(SOURCE MUTUALART.COM)

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In January 2010 Christie’s New York (Sale 2282 Old Master and Nineteenth Century Paintings Lot 177) auctioned a Portrait of a Gentleman, bust length as a Follower of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (by implication a work by an unknown artist deriving from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century). The guide price was $7,000 - $10,000. The sale was not anonymous. It is a deaccessioned work from a well-established public collection in America, the St Louis Art Museum. In other words, in the past the painting had previously been considered an original.

Yet only a few years later this same painting has been re-sold as a “Van Dyck” by the London dealer who bought it for $35,000 at that New York auction in 2010. And in contradiction to their New York colleagues Christie’s London have supported the reattribution of this work to the artist. In a recent sale’s catalogue (Tuesday 8 July Evening Sale, p.62 under the notes for Lot 18) they refer to the painting as a third preliminary head study in a series Van Dyck was supposed to have executed for a now lost large-scale painting of Brussels magistrates.

Lining up on one side are experts called by the St Louis Art Museum, among them the recently deceased world authority and Van Dyck scholar Horst Vey, as well as experienced staff at St Louis and Christie’s New York, who say the painting is not Van Dyck. On the other side are London dealer Fergus Hall, other Van Dyck experts including Susan Barnes , Christopher Brown (ex Ashmolean), and curator Malcolm Rogers (Boston), together with, it would appear, Christie’s London, who say it is. The only difference between 2010 and now, cited by Fergus Hall on his website,(2) is a more invasive cleaning than any sanctioned by St Louis in the past, evidenced by the removal of what he calls “a later and pedestrian hand” that somehow made it impossible to see that this painting was by Van Dyck (or a study).

However, there is no evidence that what was removed was not just common excessive retouching, where a previous restorer misunderstood or misinterpreted the seemingly unfinished areas. Side-by-side nothing of what an expert might be looking for (particularly in the execution of the head) has changed, and indeed, the face has also subsequently lost most of its warmth.

Philanthropy, art and economy

When Sydney Schoenberg, a descendent of the departmental stores and philanthropic German-Jewish-American Schoenbergs, donated this painting to the St Louis Art Museum in 1952 it was considered a Van Dyck. Van Dyck scholar Gustav Glück (1931: 286) thought so, and listed it in his catalogue of the artist, as later did Eric Larsen (1988: 300). Although the circumstances are not disclosed, it must nevertheless be considered a generous gift. What prompted a public museum to even think about deaccessioning such a work? Certainly the painting’s descent into anonymity, even revolt against it, appears to have been slow and tortuous, but the committee that eventually decided to more-or-less give the painting away must have been unanimous in their decision. Such steps are not lightly taken, and if there was even a hair’s breath of a whisper that the painting could be worth many hundreds of thousands more than assumed, then surely they would have at least held onto it? However, some time during the 1990s scholarship started to see this work as nothing more than a nineteenth-century copy of a lost original, or a copy invented from an autograph (and also lost) Van Dyck tronie, or head study. Sources close to the museum were convinced it was either eighteenth or nineteenth century, and probably British. It therefore went under the hammer, although not totally without interest, as it returned three times its high guide price.

It is reported that this painting is now a Van Dyck “rediscovered,” a work which will soon (again) be publicly exhibited. This event is scheduled for next year at the Frick Museum in New York, right under the nose of the auction house that dismissed the painting as a copy. Did Christie’s New York, and SLAM, do enough to ascertain that this painting is not a Van Dyck?

Private sources indicate that Horst Vey actually thought this was a nice painting and an interesting problem. He cautioned against deaccessioning it, although he did not recant taking it from the Van Dyck canon. Reducing the problem to “it is …” or “it isn’t a Van Dyck” has resulted in the experts drifting from what could have been other solutions. This highlights a fundamental flaw with this type of attribution process, one driven by economic motive. Scholarship is closed down. Opinion is outcomes-focused.

A source close to this research confirms that Horst Vey saw this painting, more than once, and in more than one condition. It was not a case of a doddery old professor stuck in the rut of a lifetime studying only a grainy black-and-white photo at his sunlight-dappled desk, where the only scholarly hope for this work was vested in his eventually dying (so that a supposedly misattributed painting could be rescued from the beyond). We cannot “beg to differ” here either … in other words leave it at “I think it is and you think it isn’t,” especially as a closer reading of this work, and the works related to it, could yield scholarly profit. Horst Vey called for patience and more research into the historicity of this work. Couple that with a more rigorous forensic analysis and a more incontrovertible truth might unfold.

WANTED: dead or alive

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Curiously, gallerist Fergus Hall (see his website) enthuses that we can now see, in this newly restored painting, that the artist was in such an apparent artistic trance, working with such “speed and dexterity,” that he finished on a high note by absently cleaning his brush on the canvas (see lower left of the painting as it is now). Was Van Dyck in the habit of cleaning his brushes on the canvasIt may well be that this painting had darkened considerably over time (how much time still to be ascertained), and that it was originally intended to look more unfinished. But how unfinished? The head is little changed, except the removal of glazes and varnish, making the consumptive cheeks even more noticeably anachronistic. On close inspection, however, the work appears to be the fruitful labour of a very polished professional, and it does not present as a sketch (hasty), although it is sketchy (leaving bare the processes of construction and therefore quite Modern). The painting appears to be built up in careful layers and curiosity is again aroused by the suspicion that parts appear to have been done with a palette knife.

The painting was much larger when on display at St Louis, and added strips of (papered) canvas have been removed. It is back to its original dimensions,(3) and virtually identical, so it is claimed, to three other canvases identified as being “Van Dyck sketches” for the group of Brussels’s magistrates (making four). Among these proposed works is also Lot 18 of the July sale at Christie’s London, and two portraits now in the Ashmolean. However, not one of these canvases has a provenance securely dated before the nineteenth century, and they are not all exactly the same size. The colours appear to vary, although not having been photographed at the same time and in the same circumstances, this cannot be taken as fact. From detailed study of available photographic evidence the canvas supports also appear to be different.

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ASHMOLEAN MAN IN A RUFF; LEFT OF CENTRE, EX-SAINT LOUIS MAN IN A

RUFF (NOW IN A PRIVATE COLLECTION): RIGHT OF CENTRE, BBC ROAD SHOW MAN

IN RUFF (PRIVATE COLLECTION), AND FAR RIGHT MAN IN A FALLING 

  

The proposal of a relationship between the work under discussion and the modello for the lost Brussels painting (4) is not novel. Horst Vey (Barnes et al 2004: 416) considered it. Sources also confirm that so too did the eminent Netherlandish scholar Michael Jaffe, who, by the way, also thought this painting was a Van Dyck original (before it was cleaned of that pedantic second hand that masked the fact that it was a Van Dyck, according to Fergus Hall). Both Jaffe and Vey thought that this “study” referred to the second magistrate from the left, in the modello, although Vey thought it was a copy of a lost stud

Follower on

To reduce an artist’s raison d'être to simply copying Van Dyck or not copying Van Dyck, is reductionist. The concept that artists must perform within an historical vacuum, inside of their own heads, is certainly a postmodern one. Rubens painted sixteenth-century nobles as if he was bringing them back to life, making a fresh interpretation. Van Dyck dressed his sitters in fancy dress. There might have been many reasons for an eighteenth or nineteenth century artist to dress his own contemporary offering as if the sitter was Jacobean. It is also questionable whether magistrates would still be wearing millstone ruffs, or that they were still in fashion in Brussels in 1635, a Spanish territory. The King of Spain specifically banned these types of overblown ruffs from court in 1623. I’m not overly convinced that the artist had ever seen a real-life ruff or can figure out exactly how it works. It is an area of the portrait with the least confident brushstrokes. Further, in contrast to the seventeenth-century ruff the sitter is sporting a “Beau Brummel” hairstyle, which could satisfactorily date him to a brief period of the revival of this so-called Brutus cut, being the turn of the nineteenth century (think Jane Austen, and Colin Firth in a wet shirt).

(http:// janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/mens-hair-styles-at- the-turn-of-the19th-century/)

In seeking out only that expert advice required to say “it is …” or “it isn’t a Van Dyck” is to close down scholarship both for current and future generations. Surely the first question we should ask is: “is the painting any good?” … and thereafter to probe what does the work mean, what is the work’s relationship to other works, and what contribution might this work have made to the cultural mileu, both of the time and in the future. Thereafter, we might have more luck in naming the artist, and placing it into the correct century and school. Certainly in this particular case it is a foregone conclusion that sooner or later this work will no longer be a Van Dyck, as it will likely fail in the eyes of later experts with different Van Dyckian memory archives to those of today.

This type of connoisseurship tends towards the constant reinvention of the wheel. Those that now say this painting is Van Dyck are not listening to those who said it wasn’t, particularly with reference to its coming into being in a later century than Van Dyck’s. Would we profit from trying to understand whom among later artists this could have been? Were there eighteenth- and/or nineteenth-century artists good enough to fool the experts into thinking their work Van Dyck’s? Could it be ascertained if one of them might have been the author of this work? If we begin with the professional hunch that this painting is eighteenth or nineteenth century, and probably British, then that is a good place to start looking.

Indeed, it is well documented that Gainsborough copied Van Dyck, and many such works have been identified, even recently. Of course, even though a copy, a Gainsborough is a Gainsborough and will fetch Gainsborough prices. Zoffany painted George III in Van Dyck dress , and his technique and palette developed into something very closely aligned with those preferred by the seventeenth-century Flemish masters. The range of pigments he used differed little, except for obvious newer ones such as Prussian blue, and he seems to have preferred a double ground, white or off-white and light grey with an animal size between. Occasionally he also used a brown ground (in a portrait of Gainsborough, for example). (David 2012: 167–74.) Zoffany specialized in small works, we might even consider some of them miniature, with concomitant small brush work, but where he did do full-size portraits the brush work is very similar to this “newly rediscovered” Van Dyck. The supposed early self portrait in the London National Portrait Gallery has a similar white highlight trailing down the nose unevenly to a blob, with licks of pearly white paint alternating with browns and shadows, building up fully three-dimensional eyeballs and sockets, with translucent light-grey irises.

Links for further reading and illustrations

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Thomas_Gainsborough

http://www.historytoday.com/kate -retford/johan-zoffany-and-king%E2%80%99s-new-clothes

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/zoffany-thomas- gainsborough-n01487

http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/ portrait/mw07007/Johann-Joseph-Zoffany

Johan Zoffany (1733–1810) Two Sketches of David Garrick as Abel Drugger in 'The Alchymist', oil on canvas, 33 x 38 cm. (Source: Oxford, Ashmolean Museum.) In this small oil sketch Zoffany appears to have cleaned his brushes on the canvas. Both this painting and the supposed Ashmolean Van Dycks of men in ruffs, were donated to the museum by Chambers Hall in 1855.

Provenance

The provenance of the ex-St Louis painting remains unclear before 1927. Vey noted an inscription (on an old lining?) referring to the collection of the Duc de Tallard (1652–1728), but this is not confirmed, as the work is not found in the sale’s catalogue of this collection. The presence of this painting in the collections of the Earls of Aldborough also appears to remain suppositional. The earliest positive record of this painting is when it was advertised for sale in The Art News, and acquired by T. Sabin of London. (See Barnes et al 2004: 416.)

Due diligence

Most auction houses do not charge for assessing a potential work for sale. The process is relatively simple and will begin inhouse with relevant experienced staff within the field of enquiry deciding whether the object is of any interest. Where due diligence can break down is the procedures that follow after an expert rejection of a work. Claiming that a painting is a “follower of Van Dyck” means absolutely nothing, so much so that one hardly needs to be qualified to say it. It is the flimsiest of guarantees, like saying “This is a painting”. Further, with no guarantees or further enquiry about what an object represents or who executed it, it is difficult to defend a negative statement about what it isn’t, except by default to the procedures that arrived at that conclusion in the first place. Thereafter the “due diligence” used to support the (re)attribution to Van Dyck is exactly the same as the “due diligence” used by the auction house that rejected it. The only thing that has changed is the group of experts. It is all based on these experts’ experience, gut instincts, feelings, even intuitions, in short, on subjectivity. Perhaps one or the other group is right, but we have no real way of trusting it. Should St Louis have deaccessioned this painting? It must have been disappointing to find out Van Dyck might not have executed it, and all museums need to make space for genuine objects. This is one aspect. However, the painting was a gift, and this is another debate altogether.

Further Reading

St. Louis Art Museum Receives $50 Million Gift From Prominent Local Family

4 November, 2014

http://news. stlpublicradio.org/post/st-louis-art-museum-receives-50-million-gift- prominent-local-family

Notes

1. “Sotheby’s sued over ‘misattributed’ Caravaggio claim,” BBC News Entertainment and Arts, 27 October 2014 (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-29798049)

2. Fergus Hall Master Paintings http://www.hallmasterpaintings.com/View/68/Sir-Anthony-Van-Dyck-A- Study-for-the-Head-of-a-Magistrate-of-Brussels?artist

3. The painting is now 52 x 42 cm, and was previously 63 x 49.8 cm when deaccessioned. Christie’s catalogue confirms these extensions, and notes they were “paper”.

4. As stated elsewhere, this modello also has a provenance only back to the mid-nineteenth century, and differs from eye-witness accounts of before the Van Dyck painting was destroyed.

Dr. Susan Grundy

About the Author

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy, D Litt et Phil, University of South Africa   Susan Grundy is an independent Art Investigation Consultant, patron and collector of fine art, specializing in Seventeenth Century ...
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