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Fakes, Falsifications and Failures of Connoisseurship

2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of ArtWatch International and, today, the tenth anniversary of the death of its founder, Professor James Beck. This year, the eleventh anniversary of Beck’s From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis, will see the ninth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture (in London) and publication of the proceedings of the 2015 ArtWatch UK, LSE Law, and the Center for Art Law conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” – which examined the crises from the perspectives of artists, scholars, scientists, and lawyers.

During the early 1990s Michelangelo restoration battles we soon saw misattributions and restoration injuries as twinned failures of connoisseurship. Subsequent events confirmed that analysis and vindicated our warnings on toxic attributions [1]. Our recent protracted silence covered studies of the present fakes/connoisseurship malaise and the results will be published during the year.

Fig. 1 890
Fig. 2 2vvv

Above, Figs. 1 and 2: restoration degradations to two Klimt paintings – his Danae of 1907-08, as seen before 1956 and today; and his oil on canvas Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as seen, left in 1905 when not-yet finished and subsequently in 1911, pre-1956 and today.

The starburst of exposed fakes that brought down New York’s (unrepentant) House of Knoedler, embarrassed ancient firms like Colnaghi’s and venerable publications like the Burlington Magazine has also humiliated the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, the Van Gogh Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On 11 April the FBI warned there could be hundreds more fakes in circulation in addition to the forty the agency has identified from a single forger who donated works to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Had the FBI prosecuted the forger Ken Perenyi there might have been as many embarrassments again [2]. The problem of fakes occurs online, on land, and at sea outside of legal jurisdictions, as Anthony Amore has shown in his 2015 compendium of scams, The Art of the Con.

Fig. 3 72

Above, Fig. 3, Klimt’s 1907-08 The Kiss, (detail) as seen before 1956 (top) and today.

With fakes and restoration injuries, the latter are greatly more destructive. Misattributions can be corrected, money can be paid back. However it might be ascribed at a given moment, the work of art – the art object – remains its own prime document (insofar as restorers permit). Sometimes restoration injuries are localised within a work, sometimes they are overall and catastrophic. Successive damaging restorations compound injuries and falsifications irreversibly (as seen above with Klimt and below with Renoir, Degas and Michelangelo). Slow cumulative damages are perhaps more serious than abrupt aberrant mistreatments that draw immediate notice. Scholars who shy from considerations of condition [3] must proceed on the premise that what is today is what originally was – an untenable view given that every restorer loves to undo and redo the works of predecessors but does so at a yet further remove from the work’s original condition and artistic milieu.


Responses to the attributions crisis have ranged from panic through self-exculpation and blame-casting to denial and cheerleading assurances of future streams of discoveries from sleeper/hunters. This is not an exclusively art market problem. Its roots are deeper and wider. The market trades objects on what others claim them to be. There has been concern among leading experts over the trade’s capacities of recognition and discrimination because of a precipitate decline in hands-on objects-informed expertise within the academic and museum spheres which have traditionally underpinned market activity [4]. Where Sotheby’s swiftly refunded purchases and took technical precautions, public museums are still flaunting restoration-wrecked pictures [5] and dubious attributions [6]. Much of art historical academia absents itself, fretting over alleged “engendered gazes”, for example, while missing (or disregarding) restoration-wrecked Renoirs and Klimts.

Fig. 4 kli

Above (top), Fig. 4, Klimt’s portrait of his niece Helene in 1956 and in 2007. Above, a detail of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) of 1909, as published in 1956 (left) and in 1985 (Gustav Klimt ~ Women).

Below (left), Fig. 5, a detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen in 1921 and in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge.

Fig. 5 renoi


Without the cover of museums’ previously thought invincible technical authority, the mechanics of error are suddenly in plain view. To repeat our warnings, three years ago in “Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship” we wrote:

“‘Buy land’, Mark Twain advised, ‘they’re not making it anymore’. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries… Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse… as some buyers later discover to their cost. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and proceed on their own judgement… few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.”

Eleven years ago we noted: “…The artists themselves may be dead but their works proliferate. As recently as the 1960s, 250 sheets of drawings were accepted as authentic Michelangelo. Today, over 600 sheets are. Such increases are fed not so much by forgery or the discovery of genuinely long-lost original works (both of which occur) but by a too-ready upgrading of copies, or studio works, to ‘original’ status.” [7.]

Fig. 6 letters

Three years ago we warned that buying old master paintings could be riskier than buying second-hand cars and asked for vendors to be required to disclose all that is known about a work’s provenance and restoration history (13 August 2014, letter, the TimesFig.6, above). At the time we received silence. This month the art market blogger, Marion Maneker, complained (Art Market Monitor, 2 May 2017) that:

“The Financial Times has yet another ‘How Transparent Is the Art Market?’ story written by an announced participant in an upcoming art market regulation conference revealed in the pages of the Financial Times the week before. Considering the amount of interest the FT has shown in regulating the art market, one would expect the international business newspaper to have some proposals about how to police the trade.” See Georgina Adams, “How transparent is the art market”. Where Maneker complained: “The closest the story comes to offering ideas is to compare the art market to the second-hand car market (unfavorably)” Adams had quoted two art world players who so liken the art market:

“The fundamental problem, according to the FBI’s art and antiquities special agent Meredith Savona, is the lack of records of ownership. ‘Even for cars, I can see who owned it for a certain period of time,’ she says. ‘In the art market there is nothing, no regulation. If someone will not tell you who was the previous owner there’s a reason. There needs to be a way of having records maintained for, say 20 or 30 years.’ This chimes with the stand taken by Nanne Dekking, a Dutch entrepreneur whose start-up Artory aims to bring more transparency to the market through catalogue raisonnés and provenance research – ‘In Holland there is a digital registry for second-hand cars – it’s obligatory to register, so if you buy a car you know exactly what you are getting’, he says. ‘…That’s the kind of transparency we’re after.”

In 2013 Dekking was appointed Sotheby’s Executive Vice President and Vice Chairman, Americas after eleven years with Wildenstein & Co. He is a board member of the Authentication in Art group which first welcomed and then rejected a proposed paper we had offered on the flaws of Technical Art History for a forthcoming AiA conference. We see open and freely published debate as a precondition to reforming a system that is proving unfit for purpose.


Georgina Adams also reported calls for a levy on art sales to fund independent bodies to establish and maintain standards in the protection of buyers but such suggestions, in our view, are unworkable. The art market is global and increasingly an arena of private/secret transactions. Taxes are levied by governments. How and by whom would levies be collected around the world, pooled and then disbursed? Who would guarantee the independence of such bodies? Would they be national or international and to whom would they be answerable? Would they charge fees to offset their own costs? Less problematic, much cheaper and perhaps more to the point would be for governments to give buyers enshrined statutory rights to be informed about what should appropriately be known when buying a work of art. Presently, vendors enjoy de facto rights not to disclose their identities; not to disclose how often and to what extent works have been made over by restorers.


In 1998 a pastiche Leonardo drawing was put on the market by Christie’s NY as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. When the work was claimed to be a Leonardo worth $200million (as the so-called “La Bella Principessa”) the lady concerned disclosed her identity and brought an action for damages against the auction house on what was only a claimed valuation, not a sale. Only then did we learn that the vendor was the widow of a painter/restorer (of Leonardo, among others) who had been an intimate of Bernard Berenson, helping him to conceal his collection from the Germans during the War, and the drawing’s only known owner. When the new owner, and Professor Martin Kemp, an AiA board member and a leading advocate of the Leonardo attribution, trawled the Berenson archives together in search of an earlier reference to the drawing they drew a blank. The drawing remains without history outside of the studio of the artist/restorer who is said to have restored it. Such is precisely the kind of information to which potential buyers should rightfully be privy.


When the Art Newspaper examined the legal ramifications of the current crisis (“It’s time the art market got tough on fakes” 2 February 2017) it found no appetite for either external regulation or self-policing and a blithe acknowledgement that bad restorations convert bona fide pictures into effective forgeries:

“At the annual art-crime symposium held in November at New York University, participants agreed that the culprit was the market’s notorious secrecy. But discussions revealed deep divisions about what should be done. Insurers, auction houses, dealers and other players each have their own interests to protect in a market where, as one participant remarked, the ‘level of greed…is so great’.
‘Information is the currency of the art market,’ said lawyer Steven Thomas, the head of the art law practice at the Los Angeles law firm Irell & Manella. He offered an example showing how information was withheld in trying to close a sale. When one of his clients learned that an impressionist painting he was interested in had been restored so extensively it was no longer considered authentic, he confronted the dealer, a prominent New York gallerist. ‘Oh, you found out,’ was the cavalier response. Such is the attitude in a market where the burden of due diligence as a practical matter may fall on the buyer.”


Secrecy on condition can tempt owners. Duncan Phillips privately admitted that his great Renoir The Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail below, Fig. 7) was so mauled by two pre-eminent restorers that it was rejected as authentic when loaned to the Louvre:

“Fortunately we were able to put them right because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film which you’re welcome to view. In it you’ll notice actual colour stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God’s sake, don’t report this tragedy. It’s too dreadful.” [8.]

Today one can see on the painting where a colour in one part was introduced into the cracks of another area – and yet Phillips’s widow, Marjorie, wrote in her 1970 memoir Duncan Phillips and his Collection “the Sheldon Kecks, outstanding restorers, operated on the Renoir successfully!” We have asked the Phillips Collection’s director several times to see the film and the painting’s restoration records but always without reply. At the National Gallery, under the directorships of Charles Saumarez-Smith and Nicholas Penny, we were given permission to examine the historic and conservation dossiers of paintings with the kind and helpful assistance of the gallery’s librarians and archivists. In contrast, when we asked to see the records of the Bellini/Titian The Feast of the Gods at the National Gallery, Washington, the conservation department refused outright. A curatorial department was more open and supplied good-quality pre and post-restoration photographs of the painting’s states which enabled us to demonstrate losses of value during the cleaning (as at Fig. 8 below). We learn that a member of the gallery’s conservation staff keeps more sensitive photographic records at home for fear that they “might fall into the wrong hands”.

Fig. 7 eliot scan0001

Above, Fig. 7: a page in the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal published in memory of James Beck who died on 26 May 2007. In the same journal we published a comparison of a detail of the Feast of the Gods, as taken before cleaning (left) and after cleaning but before repainting – see Fig. 8, below:

Fig. 8 x bellini


Fig. 9 all renoirs

Above, top, Fig. 9: a detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning (left) and after cleaning in 1954. Below, Fig. 10, the face, after cleaning and restoring.

Fig. 10 scan0002

It should be clear to any scholar or connoisseur of paintings that the National Gallery cleaning was injurious, that the picture’s values and relationships were degraded and deranged – and yet the technical promises underpinning the restoration were “top-of-the-range” and authoritative. Cleaning was preceded by a physical and a chemical analysis of the painting by two gallery scientists who concluded that an “extremely thin” natural resin varnish could safely be removed “by solvents of a strength well below that likely to attack the paint film, which is resistant to the solvent action of pure acetone.” The scientists offered an additional assurance: “In the hands of a competent restorer [Norman Brommelle, husband of the National Gallery’s head of science, Joyce Plesters, was chosen] there is no reason to fear that the paint layers will be disturbed in the course of cleaning. Since, in this particular picture, there is no evidence of a linoxyn film, nor the presence of any resin in the medium, there is, in our opinion, no need to adopt any special precaution.”

Brommelle reported that the varnish was removed with a 3:1 turpentine/acetone mixture containing a small percentage of diacetone alcohol and that the last traces were removed with toluene but no one explained why an extremely thin varnish layer of no great antiquity needed to be removed. The cracks seen above at Fig. 10 were products of the cleaning (some local cracking had occurred previously where the canvas vibrated against a central stretcher bar on its regular exchanges between London and Dublin. (Technical information by courtesy of the National Gallery Conservation Department.)


Fig. 11 OG 2 no 17 two gents together

One of the recently disclosed fakes, an “Orazio Gentileschi” (above right at Fig. 11 next to an authentic work), had been accepted by the National Gallery on a loan from its owner. When the now rejected no-history painting was withdrawn, the gallery justified its inclusion with the claim (Antiques Trade Gazette): “The gallery always undertakes due diligence research on a work coming on loan as well as a technical examination.” After this historical and technical examination, the Gallery label declared that “the poetic depiction of ‘David Contemplating the Head of Goliath’” had been produced by Gentileschi “for a collector’s cabinet” – an unsupported claim that, like “made for private devotion”, often serves as a flag of convenience for small recently-discovered old works without histories.

Fig. 12 OG 4 no 19 close ups

Above, Fig. 12, here we see a detail (top left) of the real Gentileschi David and (top right and below) the loan accepted as authentic by the National Gallery. If, instead of whatever technical and art historical examinations were carried out, the Gallery had run a few simple photo-comparative checks of the kind shown here, it should have been obvious to anyone with an alert eye that the picture in the top left had been the bona fide historical prototype for the other, markedly inferior and modern-looking, version. Qualitatively, they are not remotely co-equals: the one is a crude pastiche of the other. In every detail the chasm of quality should have identified the loan as a pastiche.


Although this impostor has now been rejected from the National Gallery there is no redress for individual badly restored bona fide works – and often not even an acknowledgement of their plight. Nor is there any apparent means of stemming the swelling tide of destruction that masquerades as a conservation service while delivering incremental degradations of pictures, such as those that can be shown to have taken place in less than a century on what is now the Denver Art Museum’s Degas’ superb pastel and charcoal The Dancing Class or Dance Examination of 1880 below at Fig. 13. The first photograph in the sequence was published in 1918 (Degas, Paul Lafond) when the drawing was not yet forty and therefore likely to have been in an original or near-original state. The third photograph was published in 2002 in the catalogue to Degas and the Dance, a sponsored travelling exhibition organised by the American Federation of Arts (- the “the prime movers”), the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show was curated by the leading Degas specialists Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar.

Fig. 13 vvvv

The sequence of states at Fig. 13 above resembles a succession of an etching’s proof states in reverse: the most complete condition is seen in the oldest record and the most debilitated state is recorded most recently. If we make the most direct comparison with the earliest and the most recent records of this drawing, as at Fig. 14 below, the differences become startling and heartbreaking. What happens to one artist happens to all in turn, as was most shamefully seen to Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel – see Fig. 15 where an early Anderson photograph of a lunette is shown with its post-restoration state. By such simple comparative means we can see/demonstrate that Degas and Michelangelo have not been restored or conserved so much as subjected to a cultural pathology – an infantile revulsion at or terror of darkness and a failure to appreciate that darkness, as artists appreciate, confers brilliance and radiance. Without shadows to relieve lights there is no great vivacity – art’s life-affirming gift. Our historic cultural legacy is being made over into a blander, more homogenised arbitrary colourfulness. With so much value and vivacity already lost in the Dance Class’s first century, who, if offered the chance, would today vote for “More of the same, please” in the next? Restorers can never put the clock back. They can only offer more of the same: yet further intensifications of hue and losses of form and space-creating tones.

Fig. 14two degas exams
Fig. 15 crocetti lunette b and a


Photographic reproductions do not have to be taken as absolutely faithful replications to have great value as record – why else would they be published and consulted in such great numbers? They are particularly eloquent as witnesses when seen in company with predecessors and successors, because the patterns that successive images make disclose the truth about present conditions. The net consequence of restorations during the last much-photographed century can be seen/shown to have been gravely damaging, effectively washing away art’s pictorial strength, disrupting the internal relationships of individual works, rendering oeuvres capriciously erratic and incoherent and, thereby, creating spaces, opportunities and, even, seeming precedents for misattributions and outright fabrications.


Although we do not have a colour photograph to match the black and white Durand Ruel photograph published in 1918, we can, by juxtapositions, estimate the degrees of loss today. At Fig. 16 below, the top comparison shows that the bump on the head of the woman in the upper right-hand corner was formerly a red feathery hat decoration. It now survives as a smear of colour that, tonally, is almost indistinguishable from the wall behind. We can see in the greyscale comparison at the bottom that the red decoration had originally been given a halo. On his own declared pictorial statagems, we might deduce that Degas had used the pocket of red to create a triad of local counterpointing primary colours: red feathers, ochre spots and an intense dark blue ribbon bow. Certainly, speculations aside, since that date the ineffably soft back of the standing dancer’s tutu has both hardened and become see-through. The feathered, layered back of the bending dancer’s tutu has, on some bizarre and alien tidy-minded logic, been reduced a ghostly but sharp-edged right angle. Degas is leaving us, involuntarily. He learnt and extracted much from photography. Is it too much to ask that all scholars use our very great resources of photography and historic photographic evidence to calibrate the injuries done to his oeuvre and therefore more fully appreciate and give due account of Degas’ great and supremely fresh and audacious genius?

Fig. 16 missing red

Certainly, the most urgent single reform needed in today’s crisis of connoisseurship lies in increasing the accessibility of photographic records of condition and treatments. In an age of electronically transmissible, high quality photographic images this would be easier to achieve and more instructive than ever before. There are no good reasons for institutions, owners and dealers continuing to sit on such material and thereby prevent people from seeing what’s what.

Michael Daley, 26 May 2017

Coming next: Degrading Degas and Michelangelo


[1] We first used the term in connection with the so-called Stoclet Madonna, the Metropolitan Museum’s attributed Duccio, in “Toxic Attributions?” The Jackdaw March/April 2009.

[2] “In the end, after a five-year investigation and a mountain of evidence collected, no one, neither the two ‘conspirators’ nor I, was ever charged with a crime or indicted” – so wrote Ken Perenyi, in his 2012 memoir Caveat Emptor, p. 312.

[3] One scholar who has engaged on this territory with his pioneering book Condition:The Ageing of Art, Paul Taylor, incurred immediate wrath from some restorers who would claim monopoly rights on all discussions in the field, but a firm welcome elsewhere. Apollo noted that “There are unquestionably many art critics and even academic art historians for whom the material context of art, and particularly flat art, has become a rarefied field. That needs to change, if we are not to see total severance between those who work to preserve physical objects and those who claim to construe their meanings.”

[4] In a paper delivered at the ArtWatch UK/LSE/Centre for Art Law December 2015 conference (“Throwing the baby out with the bathwater”), Brian Allen, a former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (1992 to 2012) and Chairman of the Art Fund observed: “…increasingly, the only young connoisseurs emerging are to be found in the commercial art trade and this surely cannot be a desirable state of affairs. It might be argued that many of the best ‘eyes’ have always been in the art trade but, until recently, there was always a body of disinterested academic ‘experts’ to counterbalance commercial self-interest…” In the March 2017 Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, the paper’s Chairman and a former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, discloses that the V&A now considers the giving of opinions a drag on its curators’ time and devotes only three hours a month to it when, in the 1990s, it reserved two afternoons a week to telling the public what their heirlooms were. In the same issue of the Art Newspaper Mark Jones, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said that expertise, by which he meant “the ability to recognise and identify objects, surmise their history from their appearance, tell the genuine from the false and make judgements about quality” has become patchy, even rare, in museums. Mark Jones was the curator/organiser of the British Museum’s legendary 1990 exhibition “Fake? The Art of Deception”, the catalogue of which remains a seminal study in the field.

In response to Mark Jones the dealer Peter Nahum wrote in the April 2017 Art Newspaper (letter, “Dealers and curators should work together to spot fakes”):

“The art forger Shaun Greenhalgh and his father George visited my gallery in 1984. It was after 6pm and they offered me a painting they said was by Samuel John Peploe, for which I gave them a cheque. As soon as the banks opened at 9am the next morning I cancelled the cheque and called in the police. I was the first to report the family from Bolton for purveying a fake, 16 years before their arrest.

“When they were finally arrested, my cheque was still on their desk. I also advised Bolton Museum on the purchase of the painting by Thomas Moran and subsequently saved them from buying a fake watercolour purportedly by the same artist.

“I have long campaigned for the art and antiques trade and academics, especially those in museums, to work more closely together. Our job, as dealers, is to defend our clients against the legion of fakes and wrongly catalogued items on the market. As we are personally financially responsible for all transactions we make and advise on, we are the most vulnerable and, by necessity, the most careful. As a result we are often best placed to authenticate works.

“Academies and museums obviously have great experts on their staffs, but their prime focus is the history and provenance of objects and thus their visual skills often take a secondary position. When both professions work together, mistakes are lessened.

“I have made it my mission to track down and report those who make fake art, as they are the bane of our lives and can cost those who buy art a great deal of money. They are simply con-men extracting money from innocent people by deceit.

“As dealers, academics and collectors, we are all motivated to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and thus all of us are vulnerable to those who wish to take money under false pretences. We have to be constantly on our guard as each one of us will fall into one of the fakers’ traps sooner or later – we are all human after all.

Thus, I applaud Mark Jones’s article: scholarly research is flourishing but curators’ ability to judge an object’s quality is not (The Art Newspaper Review, March, p.13) with two main comments. The painting by Samuel John Peploe was not sold, and academics have rarely been the greatest visual judges – that is more our job than theirs. That does not mean that there are not great visual experts in academia – of course there are – it simply means it has never been their primary function.

Peter Nahum.

Peter and Renate Nahum Agency (the Leicester Galleries), London.”

[5] See “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures” and “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners” and THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM and, finally, “Now let’s murder Klimt”.

[6] The National Gallery includes one of its most dubious and controversial attributions – the Rubens Samson and Delilah – in its list of 30 “must-see” pictures. There are more than twenty secure and superior works by Rubens in the gallery including the magnificent Minerva protects Pax from Mars (‘Peace and War’). When controversy broke over the attribution in 1997 the gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, placed a statement next to the painting to explain why it looked like no other Rubens in the collection. Two special issues of the ArtWatch UK Journal have been devoted to this picture’s problems. See: “The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick” and “Art’s Toxic Assets”

The National Gallery’s highlights list also includes the restoration-wrecked Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, on which, see: “The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators

[7] “Oh Blessed Honthorst”, Michael Daley, ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21 Spring 2006 – a Rubens special issue dedicated to the National Gallery’s ascribed Rubens Samson and Delilah), p.4.

[8] As reported by Alexander Eliot, a former Time magazine art critic, in “A Conversation about Conservation”, The World and I (Volume: 15), June 2000.

Leonardo and the Growing Sleeper Crisis

Another day, another new Leonardo drawing – this time a St. Sebastian with a mismatched verso and recto, with as many legs as a millipede, and lashed in a gale-force wind to a tree set in a landscape of icebergs…


Above, Fig. 1. A newly proposed Leonardo whose problems will be the subject of our next post. See Scott Reyburn’s “An Artistic Discovery Makes a Curator’s Heart Pound”, the New York Times, 11 December 2016.

The old masters world is bursting with Leonardo “discoveries” that flaunt their five-century no-histories. (See Problems with “La Bella Principessa”~ Parts I, II and III; and, “Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts”. “Problems with La Bella Principessa ~ Part I: The Look”.) At the same time there is a near meltdown over a spate of recent high quality exposed fake “sleepers” and “discoveries”. Sotheby’s has hired its own in-house technical analyst to spot inappropriate materials in new-to-the-scene old masters so as to “help make the art market a safer place” (“FBI expert to head up Sotheby’s new anti-forgery unit”, 6 December 2016, the Daily Telegraph). This is no bad thing and the appointment has been universally welcomed when, following the fake Frans Hals affair, it is reportedly feared that 25 forgeries sold for up to £200million are on the walls of unsuspecting owners, and when the new Sotheby’s appointee had himself single-handedly unmasked 40 supposed modern masterpieces sold for £47million at the now deservedly gone Knoedler Gallery, New York.

The real crisis, however, is the product of failures of judgements even more than failures to carry out due diligence checks on the material components of works. It remains the case that aside from works instantly disbarred by technical diagnosis, identifying authorship and establishing authenticity will necessarily and inescapably continue to be a matter of professional judgement. (We hold that here is systemic methodological flaw in appraisals that has yet to be addressed.) Meanwhile, dealers, critics, scholars and collectors embarrassed by suspected fakes are left agonising: should they concede error and take a hit on credibility but thereby limit damage, or should they stand firm and double the risks?

Even professional sleeper-hunters are falling out in acrimonious fashion over rival BBC television platforms – sorry, programmes – with one said to believe the other jealous of his good looks and success: “It’s a copy: Fake or Fortune? Stars try to halt rival show”, Richard Brooks, Sunday Times, 4 December 2016.

One auctioneer shouts you’ve ruined my sale at a musical scholar on Radio4. “Sotheby’s view is shared by the majority of world renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally”, the Sotheby’s man insists when characterising a scholar’s refusal to come in to view the manuscript as “irresponsible” (“Sotheby’s give Beethoven expert an earful after copied manuscript row scuppers sale”, The Times, 30 November 2016.)

The charge is a red herring, we say: if errors in the manuscript are visible in an auction house’s high quality photographs, coming in to touch the paper will not make them go away. If the auction house’s (anonymous) world authority musical experts think there are no errors, we add, they should come forward and say so. A Cambridge professor of musical theory did step forward to affirm his endorsement of the manuscript but he also admitted having been bothered by an anomaly (“Sotheby’s expert admits doubts over Beethoven script”, The Times, 3 December 2016.) To Sotheby’s likely mortification, it was revealed that arch-rival Christie’s had refused to sell the score last year, after being unable to confirm its authenticity – “Beethoven manuscript row remains unfinished”, the Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2016: “There was some good news for Sotheby’s however as the auction house succeeded in breaking a new auction world record for another musical manuscript…Gustav Mahler’s complete Second Symphony (the ‘Resurrection’), written in the composer’s own hand…went for £4,546,250.”

“Sotheby’s catalogue was an artful dodge, claims Russian billionaire” – the Times, which reported on 8 December: “Mr Ivanov said that honest mistakes were understandable. The problem is at Sotheby’s the fakes are listed as the top lots and are published”. With experts in as much disarray as auction houses and dealer/broadcasters, what perfect timing, then, for the appearance of a new, cool and calm legal anatomy of the sleeper phenomenon and its associated problems of authentication.


Above, Fig. 2. In “The Sale of Misattributed Artworks at Antiques at Auction” by Anne Laure Bandle of the London School of Economics and a director of the Art Law Foundation (Geneva), we encounter a book greatly richer and more urgently required than what is simply “said on its tin”. This work, the product of a PhD at the LSE, deftly turns over the law with regard to art market workings as encountered and applied under three key (for the art market) systems of law, those of Swizterland, England and the United States. Under all three it is shown how the auctioneer’s primary duty is to the seller (the consignor) not the buyer. It follows therefore that failing to identify the proper status of a work of a work when conferring an attribution can/should carry penalties of compensation to the consignor. However, in response to this duty/financial danger, auctioneers insert massive disclaimers of liability into their contracts and attributions. These disclaimers are also widely appreciated in terms of warnings to buyers of a need to satisfy themselves of the validity, accuracy and reliability of any catalogue description before buying. Such self-protective clauses have consequences that can bite hard on those who apply them. For one thing, we would add, forgers have not been slow to notice them.


Above, Fig. 3. The American Ken Perenyi, cheekily called his 2012 Forger’s Memoir Caveat Emptor – The Secret Life of an American Forger. With little interest in consignors’ rights – he being both the knowing maker and the eager consignor of forgeries – Perenyi, after first studying the terminology of attributions in London auction house catalogues (“Attributed to; Signed; Studio of; Circle of; Manner of…”) swiftly moved to “Conditions of Business”; “Limited Warranty”; and thence “Terms and Conditions”. He reported (pp. 228-247) that when in London he noted that:

“In what can only be described as a masterpiece of duplicity, the terms and conditions made it clear (that is, if one has a law degree) that they warranted and guaranteed absolutely nothing. However, farther down, a paragraph entitled ‘Guarantee’ made it plain for even the most thickheaded. It stated: ‘Subject to the obligations accepted by Christie’s under this condition. Neither the seller Christie’s, its employees, or agents is responsible for the correctness of any statement as to the authorship, origin, date, age, size medium, attribution, genuiness, or provenance of any lot.’”

On return to the United States he then examined New York auction house catalogues: “Again and again we saw the phrase neither Christie’s nor the consignor make any representations as to the authorship or authenticity of any lot offered in this catalogue. ‘Hell, they don’t guarantee anything [over] here either!’ I said.”

After reading a paragraph on forgeries stating that if within five years of a sale the buyer could establish “scientifically” that a purchased painting was a fake, the “Sole Remedy” would be a refund of monies paid [- But for a cautionary case-in-point today, see UPDATE , below] Perenyi concluded the following: “A) Virtually nothing sold here was guaranteed to be what it claimed to be, B) Neither the auction house nor the seller assumed any responsibility whatsoever, C) Even if a buyer discovered a painting to be an outright fake, all he could do was ask for a refund, I came to the conclusion that this was an engraved invitation to do business.”

His late partner, José, concluded “Well, maybe we could save people the trouble of going to London and sell them [Perenyi’s forgeries] right here!”


In her new book, Dr Bandle carries the full terms and conditions of three auction houses (Christie’s, Koller Auctionen’s and Sotheby’s) as an appendix. She notes that notwithstanding disclaimers, such is the volume and reach of art sales that many art market players take auction house catalogues as reference points on the identification and evaluation of art and antiques and do so particularly with regard to attributions, confidence in which confers authority and engenders trust. In this regard the “sleeper”, as an under-identified and therefore under-valued work, is a special problem. A (conceptually subtle and fascinating) chapter is devoted to the sleeper’s elusive and problematic character. In fact, a delight of this book is its constant precision, economy and deftness of language in what is a perpetually shifting and re-forming arena where the market structures have both democratised and globalised the ownership of art but where buyers gathered from around the globe must compete in heated races to acquire multi-million valued art in spectacular shows of competitive bidding that are over in minutes. In a recent double television celebration of Christies-in-the-World, the term “buyer’s remorse” was heard in counterbalance to auctioneers’ seductively whispered advice to “think how terrible you will feel tomorrow if you don’t get this”.

A “sleeper” is first identified as being not a legal term but a figurative illustration of a legal problem. It is one that fleshes the notion that an artwork can remain a “dormant treasure” until it is properly identified. If not so identified, it stands dangerously (to auctioneers, and expensively to consignors) as a work that has been “undervalued and mislabelled due to an expert’s oversight and consequently undersold”. Sleepers are products of three types of error and each receives its own section. The extent to which restorations aiming and claiming to recover original conditions may alter objects and mislead authenticators is examined.

(But for our specialised concerns, recognition of the inherently problematic nature of restoration’s role in the identification and subsequent elevation of authenticity is a rare instance of under-examination in this book. Stripping off later materials does not in itself recover original states. It may disclose little more than badly damaged remains of an earlier, more “authentic” state. How much repainting, or “retouching” as it is euphemised, should be considered permissible before a worked-over sleeper approaches a forged recovery of authenticity? – See “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.
It should be said that sensitivity in this arena is not an art market-confined problem: the Frick Museum does not publish the photograph below – Fig. 6 – of a stripped-down, not-yet repainted Vermeer that the Getty Institute holds and makes freely available – and many museums, in our experience, sit on photographs of their own restoration-wrecked paintings.)


Dr Bandle’s section on the relationship between sleepers and fakes or forgeries, between the unrecognised and the counterfeit, is adroitly introduced: “sleepers are the negative reflection of counterfeits: both are held as something that they are not.” Fine distinctions are drawn between a fake and a forgery. Both are characterised “negative concepts, referring, as they do, not to qualities but to their absences.” Before considering the legal status of sleepers, a fascinating examination is made of the tools and methods of attribution. So examined, too, are the hoped-for instruments of probity, the best-practice and ethical codes for authentication and dealing. Like auction house terms and conditions, ethical codes are shown carry their own disclaimers: “Similarly, the Swiss Association of Dealers in Antiques and Art contains a disclaimer of the attribution and appraisal’s accuracy.” (One hears a Perenyi expletive of delight here.) As for auction houses, while they “issue attributions in sale catalogues, they are not considered to be formal authentication reports”, whatever weight they might carry in the market and for buyers.

The section on the “Essence of Attribution” might be considered essential reading for all art market players and commentators, not least because the art market “greatly relies on scholarship”, and such expert appraisal is uniquely challenged “by the peculiarities of the art world” – one of which is that however long debates rage, scholars themselves “may very well never achieve a consensus”, in which case, the circularity is complete: “scholarship cannot halt during the art object’s identification process by establishing an attribution, not even temporarily”. Like painting the Forth Bridge, attributing an art object can be “an ongoing undertaking that never settles”. Existing attributions are constantly subject to challenge or revision.

The law itself can seem helpless or exasperated in the face of art world processes. Elusive notions of authenticity tax judges as well as scholars. With regard to establishing the merit or applicability of warranties of authenticity or the diligence of experts, even the admission of testimony is problematic within both Swiss civil law and the English and United States traditions of common law. Swiss courts can commission reports and instruct experts to answer set questions. Under common law conflicting parties support their rival positions by calling rival and conflicting experts. Courts may confine these adversarial jousts to “that which is reasonably required”. Under US Federal rules courts may exclude what they consider “unreliable expert testimony” and even when testimony is based on scientific principles it may be held acceptable only when these principles have “gained general acceptance”.

Under Swiss, English and United States jurisdictions alike, contractual relationships governing art auction sales are not clearly defined by law and are subject to scholarly debate (which, as mentioned, is a never-ending process). Further complications arise from the dual and conflicted position of the auctioneer. Does he really serve the buyer’s or the seller’s interest – or, somehow, both? In practice, we might think, he should/must aim to serve both since different people must always be persuaded any moment that it is a “good time” to sell and a “good time” to buy. Failures to recognise “sleepers” are the mirror image of failures to recognise fakes or forgeries: the one injures consignors’ interests, the other those of the buyer. But how to stay out of trouble as an auctioneer when case law results in unclear and unreliable notions of liability – and while there is a requirement to perform diligently but not one to produce to specific results?

By increments the law emerges as unfit for its presently allotted purpose in resolving sleeper disputes. Auctioneers are judged by standards predicated on what is little more than a fiction. Standards of performance must be interpreted on a case-by-case basis but these provide no benchmark in cases of sleepers sold at auctions. Aside from these problems, judges generally lack connoisseurship in art and art auction sales and may have difficulty in assessing authenticity and in reconstructing the attribution process – and while this is understandable because art connoisseurship and art market mechanisms are both highly sensitive and influential forces, judges, no matter how well educated and competent in other areas of the law, will struggle to redress a present structural imbalance between the interests of (favoured) buyers and (disfavoured) consignors.

Can applications of the law be made to work in this arena? Are alternatives to the law presently or potentially available? For answers to these questions it is necessary to read the concluding section of a timely book that will commend itself to Art’s players and watchers alike.

The Sale of Misattributed Artworks and Antiques at Auction, Anne Laure Bandle. ISBN: 978 1 78643 100 4 Price £100 or Web: £90

Michael Daley, 15 December 2016

UPDATE 17 December 2016

In the 17/18 December Financial Times “The Art Market”, Melanie Gerlis writes:

Art is notoriously a ‘buyer beware’ market, but even prolific professionals can get caught out. Micky Tiroche, a private dealer in London and co-founder of the Tiroche auction house in Israel, bought ‘Sun and Stars’, a gouache attributed to Alexander Calder, for £28,000 (with fees) at Bonhams, London in 2007. The purchase was made through his dealing company, Thomas Holdings, which has about 160 works on paper by Calder.

“In 2013, the gouache was submitted, along with other works, to the Calder Foundation in New York, which doesn’t officially authenticate the artist’s works but gives them an inventory number (known as an ‘A-number’ because the digits are prefixed with the letter A). ‘Sun and Stars’ was not given an A-number, making it effectively unsellable.

“Christie’s, Sotheby’s and now Bonhams will not sell Calder works that do not have an A-number.

“Tiroche, who buys frequently at Bonhams as well as elsewhere, says that he asked the auction house for a refund and was refused. He has suggested alternative, less visible ways of refunding (such as deducting its value from other works) and legal letters have been exchanged, but to no avail.

“A spokesman for Bonhams said: ‘It is [the auction house’s policy] not to discuss individual cases, beyond saying that we are in communication with Mr Tiroche’s company about the situation.”

Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.

24 February 2014

On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.

In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:

“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”

Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.

Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”

However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):

“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures. As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”

History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”

In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.

The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.

Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .

In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:

“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”

Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.

While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:

“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”

There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?

The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.

Michael Daley

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Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911” which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910” (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).
An entire programme in the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series was spent examining the technical composition and the provenance of the fake version (which, incredibly, was dispatched to the Chagall Committee in Paris which not only declared the work a dud but threatens to have it destroyed) when a single glance at the two works should have been sufficient to establish that both cannot be by the same artist. Where that of 1911 displays a boldly deconstructing and reconstructing treatment of forms and spaces that is expansive and pictorially dynamic (as well as being massively indebted to Picasso’s then recent and revolutionary cubist works), the other is manifestly derivative and feebly handled, leaving the picture’s subject looking not so much set in a specially re-ordered non-Euclidian space, as pasted onto a monotonously and repetitively drawn and coloured theatrical back-cloth.
Above, Fig. 2: a detail of a Turner water-colour in the British Museum which had been protected from light damage at the left edge by the frame. (See plate 5 in the “Museum Environment”, 1986, Butterworth-Heinemann.)
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers the St. George militia company”, showing a strip of original green glazing that had been protected from restorers solvents by the frame.
Above, Fig. 4: the much reproduced Renoir, “Madame Léon Clapisson” (here as on the BBC) showing the painting in its present condition at the Chicago Art Institute on the left, and in an attempted digital reconstruction of its original (1883) condition on the right.
Above, Figs. 5, 6 and 7: details, top and centre, of “Madame Léon Clapisson” as found today, showing along the picture’s top edge a surving strip of an originally pink background achieved with a glaze of carmine lake, or cochineal, pigment. Scientists have used the investigative method known as “Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” in an attempt (above, at Fig. 7) to recreate the picture’s original appearance.
There has been no mention in any reports on this attempted reconstitution of some consideration having been given to changes in the painting that had occurred not as a result of exposure to light but as a result of exposure to restorers’ solvents, swabs and scalpels.
The painting itself and the virtual reconstruction is presently on exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition was supported by research funding provided by the Getty Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is said that with “this new knowledge and new technologies such as nanotechnology, laser light, and advanced image processing software, the conservation department has been able to reconstruct the work’s original colors in a full-scale digital reproduction.”
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” attributed to Pedro Campaña.
Above, Fig. 9: The near contemporary copy of the National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” that was made by Luca Longhi and is presently in the Villa Borghese Collection, Rome.
The National Gallery claims credit for pioneering the new collective discipline known as Technical Art History. A key weapon in its long, proselytizing campaign has been the publication since 1977 of an annual report dedicated to conservation activities – its Technical Bulletin. The issue of 2001 (Vol 22) carried an article “Colour change in The Conversion of the Magdalen attributed to Pedro Campaña” that was jointly authored by Marika Spring, Nicholas Penny, Raymond White and Martin Wyld. Spring and White were members the science department, Penny was a curator, and Wyld was the head of conservation. It was thus a textbook collaborative effort made under the rules of Technical Art History.
The combined expertises were brought to bear on a striking problem with the painting’s physical and optical conditions: there had been severe deteriorations in the colours of many of the draperies, not least in those of Christ. Many draperies were now brown or yellow-brown, where once they had been blue, green or red.
Microscopic samples were taken from some of the figures and analysed in an attempt to identify their pigments and to “investigate whether there was any peculiarity in the technique and the materials that could have caused such serious degradation.” Highly detailed examinations established that the blue pigment – smalt – had deteriorated; that a red lake pigment (likely containing dyestuff from the cochineal insect) had faded; and that green glazes containing copper had turned brown. None of these changes were remarkable in themselves, except, perhaps, in their extent.
What was remarkable was that an attempt was made to reconstruct the “altered colours by digital imaging”. It was explained that the changes which had destroyed the picture’s balance of colours had to be accepted as irreversible. Nonetheless, the attempt was made to gain some impression of the original appearance by manipulating a digital image of the painting – specifically, “by applying image-processing techniques”. Clearly, in such an exercise, the nature and type of image-processing software used would be of crucial methodological significance – how and in what manner was the base digital reproduction of the picture to be manipulated?
Explanation seemed to be to hand in a footnote [27]. Alas, it read flatly as follows: “The technical details of the process of reconstruction of the colours by image processing on the digital image will be described elsewhere.” No less disturbing than having to take the means and manner of the manipulations on trust, the account that followed of the factors of consideration suggested a Technical Art Historical methodology more Heath Robinson Contraption than Hi-Tech Sophistication.
Because the original colours no longer exist on the painting, some simulacrum of each had to be produced to feed into the image-manipulating software. Thus, “colourimetric measurements on painted-out samples matching the pigment mixtures and the layer structures were used as a reference.” Clearly, achieving a reliable point of colour reference was vital to the integrity of the exercise. But how reliable were the painted-out samples? Not very, it seemed on the authors’ own account:
“For the smalt and red lake pigments this posed some problems. Smalt manufactured to a nineteenth-century recipe is available today, but contains a higher percentage of cobalt than than smalt in sixteenth-century paintings and none of the impurities that are commonly found in the glass.” Notwithstanding these departures from the original materials used on the painting, this smalt was used for the base references. Because the modern smalt is much stronger in colour than that of the sixteenth-century, an attempt was made to correct (lessen) its force by adulterating it with “finely ground alumina” in attempt to “to try to simulate the colour of the sixteenth century smalt”. Confidence in this adjustment was not high because “this is a difficult judgement to make, since in paintings of the period smalt has always degraded.” Had the painting been a seventeenth-century work the exercise would have been easier because by then the smalt was commonly mixed with lead white pigment, which afforded some protection. Even though this work was not of the seventeenth-century, samples from that period were used a guide reference in the digital manipulations.
Establishing a reference point for the original lake pigments was no less problematic: “Comparison with the deep shadows on Christ’s red robe, which retain their red colour, made it clear that the hue of the test plate was more purple than the red lake in the painting…” And what of the outcome of this, at best, approximate method?
Above, left, Fig. 10a: the computer-manipulated attempt to recover the original colours of Christ’s draperies.
Above, right, Fig. 10b: a detail of the Borghese Villa copy shown above at Fig. 9.
It probably goes without saying that the figure of Christ seen at Fig. 10a seems a most implausible reconstruction. It is claimed by the authors, however, that: “The deeply saturated colours which replace the deteriorated brown, although rather flat because of the loss of the modelling which cannot be reconstructed, balance well with the well-preserved draperies painted with vermilion and ultramarine.” Given that, on the authors’ own admission, the simulated blues and reds are significantly different and more intense pigments, how credible can this claimed correspondence of colours seem?
The article concludes on an assertive note of self-satisfaction: “The detailed technical examination of the ‘Conversion of the Magdalen’, and the process of reconstruction of the colours in the digital image, has produced some deeper insight into how the deterioration of pigments has affected the colours in the painting.”
This was followed by a claim that is quite remarkably at odds with the visual evidence presented (see Figs. 10a and 10b): “Although the strong and deep colours of the reconstruction initially seemed rather startling, they receive strong support from comparison with the Borghese version of the painting [shown here at Figs. 9 and 10b] – which is especially gratifying since the reconstruction was made before the transparency of the Borghese version was available to us.” Given that the Borghese version is on all accounts markedly better preserved that the London picture, what might explain the former’s richer, warmer red drapery and darker, more sombre blue drapery?
Although the authors express themselves as being satisfied with the accuracy of the reconstructed colours, they do concede other problems: “The reconstruction is not, of course, an accurate portrayal of the original appearance of the painting – the lost modelling in some of the draperies cannot be recreated…”
Thus, we see that this exercise has been directed at a single component part of the painting – its self-contained areas of local colours – and that, in the execution, that part has been wrenched from any relationship with the picture’s tones, shading and modelling. This severance is painfully evident in the comparison at Figs. 10a and 10b. It would beggar belief that the National Gallery’s experts could see any sort of vindication for their efforts in the Borghese version were it not for that institution’s by now too-deeply ingrained to be recognised tradition of pursuing autonomously bright colours during restorations at the expense of form and pictorial coherence. Not only are the colours of the Borghese drapery more sombre and chromatically integrated – and jointly more skilfully integrated with the plastic values – but we see also in the National Gallery picture a characteristic debilitating weakness of modelling in the too-brightly scrubbed surfaces of the flesh areas. (It is depressing beyond belief that our national pictorial vice should recently have crossed the English Channel and now be menacing Leonardos at the Louvre.)
It might be contended that we are not comparing like with like. As the authors point out, the one work is a not an altogether strict copy of the other. Moreover, the Borghese version is acknowledged to be in superior condition: “the better condition of areas painted in red lake in the Borghese painting is strong evidence that it has not been subjected to such harsh environmental conditions as the National Gallery painting…The Borghese picture has spent almost all its life in two collections in the same city, whereas, the National Gallery’s picture has belonged to at least half a dozen collections and has passed on at least three occasions through the art trade, but too little is known about the conservation history of these paintings, and the conditions in which they have been kept, to explain the difference in preservation.” The euphemistic use of the term “environmental” in lieu of “restorational” and the sly allusion to possible bad restoration experiences at the hands of the “art trade” cannot gainsay the fact that there is abundant evidence of works held at and restored within the National Gallery suffering catastrophic losses in the course of a single in-house restoration – as the before restoration (left) and after restoration (right) comparative details of Rubens’ portrait of Susannah Lunden (shown below at Figs. 11a and 11b) testify.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

A Poor Day of Remembrance for Burrell

11 November 2013

In June ArtWatch UK was invited (as “campaigners for the protection of works of art”) to give evidence at a hearing at the Scottish Parliament on a private bill to overturn the prohibition on foreign loans from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The experience was both heartening and depressing.

The transparency of the Scottish Parliament’s procedures could not be faulted and we have rarely enjoyed such courtesy and assistance in making our case, or of proceeding with such comprehensive documentation to hand. Our written submissions to the committee and a number of items of additional information were readily accepted into consideration (as were those of colleagues in Donor Watch and Barnes Watch) and made available online. The witness hearings have been televised and their transcripts published online. The testimonies given at the hearing of 9 September are discussed below by Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch. Those given on 19 September are discussed opposite. (The filmed record of the latter can be seen on YouTube.) The record of what was said by whom of which interest group is there for all to see.

We were impressed, too, by the vigour and vigilance of the Scottish press. The Sunday Times (Scotland) journalist, Mark Macaskill, for example, had done what the Scottish Parliament, the Glasgow Council’s many tiers of cultural agencies, and – shamefully – the Burrell trustees themselves, had all failed to do – locate and heed (6 November 2013) the views of one of Sir William Burrell’s descendants: “Mona Dickinson, who lives in Evedon, Lincolnshire, said neither she, nor the wider family, had been consulted by the council or the trustees of the Burrell Collection. ‘I rather suspect they have tried to smuggle this through’, she said yesterday.” This intervention would not have been lost on the Art Fund’s director of development, Amy Ross, who argued in October’s Museums Journal that where no family members survive who might agree to renegotiate a bequest’s terms, existing arrangements should stand, for fear of clear breaches of trust dissuading others from making future bequests. Ms Dickinson’s opposition to the proposed overturning of Burrell’s terms of her ancestor’s bequest could not have been firmer or clearer: “Glasgow Council obviously thinks it can get the bill ratified this time. I’m sure it thinks sending some of the collection overseas will make money and attract publicity. But this debate was thoroughly rehearsed in 1997. Experts warned then, as now, that every time you wrap and unwrap a tapestry, some sort of damage can occur. It is inevitable.”

The hearing in which we gave evidence took place on 19 September under the committee set up to scrutinise the BURRELL COLLECTION (LENDING AND BORROWING) (SCOTLAND) BILL. We had assumed that consideration was being given to a proposal to over-ride the terms of Sir William Burrell’s bequest but learned, rather, that concrete arrangements were already underway to lend the collection’s works to a succession of venues within Britain and abroad even though this operation (known as “The Tour”) expressly ran against Burrell’s clear wishes and instructions, as set out in both his will and an agreement with the City of Glasgow. It began to seem as if the Scottish Parliament (which the comedian Billy Connolly dubbed a “Wee pretendy parliament”) was in danger of being bounced by an invitation from a big city council not to thwart a linked series of major and mutually dependent projects already set in train and fronted by a co-opted assembly of influential art world players in a new organisation – “Burrell Renaissance” – created to drive the not-authorised plans along.

It had not been reassuring that on the day of the 9 September hearing, the Convener of the scrutinising committee, Joan McAlpine, (SNP), a journalist on The Daily Record, had told The Scotsman that plans were already in motion through Glasgow Life (which she sees as “the arms-length organisation which manages the Burrell”) to send part of the Burrell Collection to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and that these provided “an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland”. Nonetheless, she assured the newspaper, her committee had an “open mind”. It certainly appeared that, under the committee members’ interrogations, the case for the (prospective) enterprise had repeatedly fallen apart. The public discomfitting of the enigmatic Glaswegian director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, drew from him both an insistence on an earlier “neutrality” that had escaped some commentators and an impassioned espousal of the present attempt – to which he is party as a co-opted adviser – to overturn Burrell’s terms.

It became apparent during the hearings of 9 September, for example, that the sums being sought (£15m here, £15m there) had the precision of little more than a bureaucrat’s back-of-an-envelope wish list. It had further emerged that in little over a decade there had been a tenfold increase in the claimed cost of remedying the Burrell Collection’s leaky building. The fact that rectifying the Council’s long-standing neglect of the building (the roof of which had leaked from virtually its first days) was said to require such huge and rounded sums – as well as the closure of the collection for no less than four years – was itself presented as a justification for breaching Burrell’s terms and sending his works abroad as revenue-raisers and civic/national flag-wavers. In 2001 the estimated bill for repairing the roof was put at £1.75 million. With further sums allotted to upgrade the museum’s plant, retail and display and exhibition areas, the total was said to be “likely in the region of £4 to £5 million.” Today, the latter is put at between £40 and £45 million. No explanation was given for this staggering inflation.

Because of the clarity and force of Burrell’s explicit wishes and terms of bequest, it had been conceded that no possibility exists of their being overturned or “re-interpreted” in the courts: “As there is no legal remedy which would allow all the restrictions on lending and borrowing to be relaxed, Glasgow City Council must pursue a private bill in order to achieve this end”. If successful, the Council and its cultural satellites would not only breach Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans but also those against loans within Britain of entire categories of vulnerable works, thereby creating not just a precedent for further general subversions of benefactors’ wishes and terms, but also a potentially lethal one for benefactors’ attempts to protect their art from being subjected to needless risks.

The extent to which, as previously described, all of the arts and sport have been brought under firm political control in Glasgow is remarkable and might be thought unfortunate. The two spheres are administered by an entity known as “Glasgow Life”, which is both a charity and a company with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council – and its chair is the deputy leader of Glasgow City Council, Councillor Archie Graham. Glasgow City Council manages all of the City’s museums and galleries through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Burrell Renaissance has been created with a chairman who is also a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. At the bottom of this interlocking edifice is to be found the seemingly ineffectual Trustees of the bequeathed collection (- playing a “long-stop” role, in the chairman’s words). As for the Collection’s curators, when we attempted (through Glasgow Life) to meet them at the museum on September 18th we were met instead by three Glasgow Life officers.

Now we know better: the Committee is today recommending that Burrell’s prohibition be over-turned and that Glasgow Council’s wishes be met in full. The locked-in cash value of a fabulous artistic inheritance gifted to the people of Glasgow may now be harvested internationally by an administration that has brought the collection’s home to a shameful level of dereliction as it indulged itself elsewhere with expensive “Grand Projects”. Yet another tranche of hitherto well-preserved works will be consigned to the unvirtuous conservation cycle as works get “conserved” so as to be made “fit-to-travel” and then “re-conserved” to put them right on their return from their ordeals – if they return, that is, and are not filched en route (see right). The Committee has placed its faith in assurances given by the over-turners. We cannot share it.


The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP). The Witnesses: Alan Eccles LLP; Cllr Archie Graham (Glasgow City Council Deputy Leader and Glasgow Life Chairperson); Sir Angus Grossart (Glasgow Life, Independent Director); Dr Bridget McConnell (Glasgow Life, Chief Executive); Hon. Christopher McLaren (Samuel Courtauld Trust, Chairman); Ben Thompson (National Galleries of Scotland, Chairman of Trustees); Jeremy Warren (Wallace Collection, Collections and Academic Director).


The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP) (not present). The Witnesses:Michael Daley (ArtWatch UK); Prof. Hope Gretton (University of Edinburgh); Sir Peter Hutchison (Charirman, Burrell Trustees); Frances Lennard (Centre for Textile Conservation and technical Art History); Robert Taylor (Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co); Peter Wilkinson (Constantine).

Secrecy, Transparency and Equivocations

Dr Whittingham discusses the September 9th hearing:

Ben Thomson for the National Galleries of Scotland on the subject of wills typifies those who want to have their cake and eat it. They profess fidelity to them to encourage future donors, but in practice think that they need not (sometimes/always) be followed. This contradiction is squared by arguing that the donor, if alive, would (mirabile dictu!) be someone of entirely the same opinions as the curator and would not only agree to the changes, but heartily advocate them! (So here Sir Angus Grossart on Burrell, 19; Hon. Christopher McLaren on Lord Lee of Fareham, 60-1).

Thomson’s equivocations are hard to understand, as he says that the NG of S adheres to conditions which they think are either absurd (their former Director, Sir Tim Clifford, derisively listed some in a radio programme in which I took part) or outdated – the latter in the case of the Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours, an example which must be awkward for advocates of the Burrell Bill.

The Hon. Christopher McLaren for the Samuel Courtauld Trust/Courtauld Gallery is much more gung-ho about lending and about overturning wills, admitting that they have done this in the case of the Seilern Bequest with the consent of the Charity Commission (47,60). He claims that no one has objected, but I did and I remember that Prof. Michael Hirst did.

In fact hard evidence is not given for many of the assertions and aims of those supporting the Bill. The financial benefits of tours are dubious. Whether they attract more visitors to the lending city is also unclear. The benefits to research are also debatable. The supporters say that loans promote it, whereas Jeremy Warren says that they take up curatorial time. When I first arrived at Manchester City Art Gallery, the committee chairman complained to me that the latter was the case.

Grossart says that the fact that Burrell lent to the 1901 Glasgow International exhibition shows that he was internationally minded (Grossart, 17). But that exhibition attracted visitors from abroad to Glasgow, just the opposite of what Grossart is advocating. The Chairperson of Glasgow Life (Cllr Archie Graham) states that Burrell was determined that his collection “should benefit the people of Glasgow” (14), whereas, Grossart says that “from a museums point of view, collections are left for the benefit of humanity” (17). No evidence is produced that this was Burrell’s aim or that it trumped his wish to benefit Glasgow. Of course supporters of the Bill argue that reciprocal inward loans benefit Glasgow, but again no evidence is produced that that was what Burrell wished. The promoters have conducted polls which show a majority is not opposed to the proposed change. But how was the question framed and how far did the respondents appreciate all the factors?

The Convener says that in the past Neil MacGregor opposed changing the will (33). But he has supported just the opposite. True, David Lister reported in The Independent (13.10.1997) that MacGregor, while maintaining “the need to respect the wishes of benefactors once they have been agreed by trustees”, was going to tell the Burrell Commission next day that the Museums & Galleries Act 1992 allowed some national Museums to ignore those wishes after 50 years. In fact he had stated that in the evidence submitted to the Commission on 1.8.1997. I can only imagine that he felt obliged to enunciate a general (and in practice meaningless) support for donors’ wishes as Director of the National Gallery, while in his heart having little sympathy with that. I remember attending a lecture at the Courtauld Institute years earlier in which he derided donors. Then in 1997-8 it was while he was Director that the National Gallery tried to persuade the Wallace to lend a Rubens contrary to the terms of the Wallace bequest. If he is now reluctant to give oral evidence to the committee, that would not be surprising. When I tried to tackle him in person on the subject of donors’ wills (at the AGM of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution), he made a quick exit.

As for the 1992 Act, it was a reiteration of those of 1883 and 1954. In 1883 The NG was acutely short of space and had an unbalanced and partly unwelcome collection. It was at a high tide of extreme Liberalism. The responsible Minister, George Shaw Lefevre, was “on the radical wing of the Liberal party” and was following the policy of a predecessor, Acton Smee Ayrton, “a former Treasury apparatchik recklessly determined on cost cutting” (Simon Thurley, Men from the Ministry, 2013, pp.31, 40). Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1882-4, Leonard Courtney, was another radical, who in 1916 supported the abortive Bill allowing the National Gallery to sell pictures. (In that debate he explained the variation in 25 and 50 year terms after which wills could be breached, something which puzzles people to-day; House of Lords, 21.11.1916 ). Both the 1883 Act (passed after virtually no debate and uncritically copied since) and the 1916 Bill had the same aim – of ridding the National Gallery of part of the Turner Bequest. As such they have no relevance to the Burrell question.

Numbers of works in collections are adduced as an argument for lending, on the grounds that there is not space to show most. Thus the Burrell can only display 2,000 out of 9,000 items (25). The National Galleries of Scotland have 100,000 items (44). These figures are meaningless unless broken down into those for works (a) which cannot usually be shown for conservation reasons (b) which are of little interest (c) which are the key ones. It is of course the last that foreigners want to borrow, and which (if not on loan) attract visitors to the home museum. For 150 years the figure of 30,000 or so works has been used by those wanting to argue for splitting up and loaning the Turner Bequest, a wholly misleading and nonsensical figure when one comes to exhibiting it and realises that there are only 20-40 key works that can be shown constantly.

Jeremy Warren admirably puts the case against undoing Burrell’s lending conditions (48-52). On the Wallace’s own record, he refers to the refusal to lend its Rubens landscape to the National Gallery in 1998 despite the pressure to do so from the latter. Warren’s evidence should be accorded great weight also because the Wallace Collection is the museum among those cited most analogous to the Burrell Collection.

The Hon. Christopher McLaren says that he and Warren, contrary to appearances, don’t really disagree, as he has recruited Dame Rosalind Savill to the Samuel Courtauld Trust (56). That begs the question of how far Warren and Savill agree (her somewhat nuanced views were briefly reported by David Lister in The Independent, 16.4.1997). It was under Savill that the Wallace held the Freud and Hirst exhibitions. Was she overpowered by Freud’s charm and forcefulness or did she really believe in her heart that showing his work in the midst of Wallace’s was compatible with the spirit of Lady Wallace’s stipulation that the collection be kept unmixed?

McLaren argues that what matters is the spirit and not the detail (47). Of course disregarding the letter for the spirit conveniently allows the woolly subjectivism which is so often employed to overturn donors’ stipulations. In the case of the Lane Bequest, the National Gallery stuck like a limpet to the letter of the law in disregard of what a House of Commons committee judged was Lane’s actual intention. Ironically it was said that under Scottish rather than English law Lane’s un-witnessed codicil giving his collection to Dublin rather than to London would have been legally valid. MacGregor naturally favoured the National Gallery view, supported by a false understanding of the history, which I had to correct in the columns of the Museums Journal.

McLaren’s view of Lord Lee (60-61) is hard to reconcile with Lee’s opposition in the House of Lords and The Times in 1930 to the British Museum & National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill. Lee’s opposition nearly provoked a physical attack on him in the Lords by the proponent of the Bill, Lord d’Abernon! His statement of the risks of travel was reported at length in The Times (16-17.12.1930) and would surely have influenced the views of Burrell. The Bill was opposed by the BM, for which Lord Hanworth, Master of the Rolls, spoke. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, another BM trustee, gave three reasons for opposition: 1. Disturbance of study. 2. Danger of damage. 3. Difficulty of resisting pressure to lend. The BM was dropped from inclusion when the National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill was introduced in 1935. This and the exclusion of the BM from subsequent Bills constitutes an awkward fact for Neil MacGregor. The 27th Earl of Crawford found fault with the 1935 as with the 1930 Bill. He argued that, if the object was to promote Britain abroad, that should be done by British art, leaving the restrictions on lending foreign art, which was what was agreed. Mention has been made of art as a tool of diplomacy. Of course art has been used for that from time immemorial, but as gifts. No doubt international relations have a part to play today, but only when other considerations do not militate against lending.

Attempts having failed in 1930 and 1935 to allow the loan abroad of foreign art, in 1953 the 28th Earl of Crawford told the House of Lords that the Treasury was “asking you for the third time to change your minds” (24 November 1953, 466), though again only for the National Gallery and Tate. Again examples of damage done to works when on loan were cited – this time by MPs as well. The debates stretched into a whole year and raised questions about various wills such as Sir Hugh Lane’s. Like other donors Lane changed his provisions over time, as did Burrell, who according to his secretary, Mrs Shiel in 1997, once thought of locating his museum in London. This has been used as an argument for not regarding donors’ final wishes as binding for ever on the reasoning that if they had lived longer they might have changed again. However donors such as Lane, Turner and Burrell had laid their plans over many years and settled on their final one after much thought, perhaps sometimes more thought than that given to the matter by those who wish to change their provisions. The advocates of changing wills might come to change their minds too.

Today’s wish to “liberate” collections (Grossart, 16), the belief that what matters is “getting the works out and about” (McLaren, 56) may in the future seem to be just a fashion, the consequences of which come to be regretted, in some cases too late. McLaren says that the modification of Seilern’s conditions did not remove his one against lending paintings on panel, which the Courtauld would have adhered to anyway (McLaren, 48). This is tantamount to saying that a donor’s wishes should only hold when they concur with those of the curators and trustees for the time being. It should be clear that the main advocates of this Bill in fact do not believe that donors should control their collections from beyond the grave except perhaps for a short time after their deaths, whether or not the collection had been accepted on that basis. Is retrospective legislation desirable?

McLaren says that no one has objected to the changes made by the Courtauld. But the general public will not be aware of such changes. I cannot think of any recent museum catalogue or guide which states the donor’s conditions, much less any changes made to them by the museum. The old catalogues of the Wallace Collection, reprinted in successive editions over many decades, did, but that was unique. The V&A went further in setting up boards giving the conditions of gifts such as that of Sheepshanks, but it is hard now to discover the terms under which many of its main bequests were given. When I suggested some time ago that it would be easy to give these on the museum’s website, I was told that that would be too much trouble. That trouble would arise from the public knowing too much was clearly the unstated thought. The art world in general is shrouded in secrecy. Moves to greater transparency such as the Tate’s publishing the minutes of its board meetings online end in farce when one sees how much is deleted first. Dr Penny has asked for his submission to this committee to be removed from the website and has said that he will reveal details of damage to works of which he knows only under the cloak of the greatest secrecy. In such a state of affairs one cannot have much faith in museum assertions about damage or anything else unless these are closely challenged. Meanwhile curators commenting on a report on the Burrell hearings in the Museums Journal find it advisable to do so anonymously.

Statistics are also sometimes dubious. Thus Ben Thomson states that the Burrell exhibition at the Piers Art Centre at Stromness was visited by 80% of local residents (54). How local? Did they pay or get in free and in the latter case how were they counted? Is he talking about the total number of visitors or of visits?

Reference is made to maintaining or increasing the reputation of museums. In the case of Warren reputation among potential donors seems to be what is meant (49). In the case of the others the reputation of the curators among their colleagues round the world. It is doubtful if the wider public is much influenced by these considerations. A museum’s reputation may be damaged more directly when visitors go to it and are disappointed in their expectation of seeing key works which turn out to be out on loan. Again this may affect only a minority. Mention is made of the Cluny Museum in Paris, which has started lending abroad (Grossart, 22-3). That has lent its famed Unicorn tapestries to Japan. When I checked the first 50 (out of 800) visitors’ comments on the museum on TripAdvisor’s website many mention their absence, but only three thought their visit ruined thereby. Even so, is that an acceptable percentage?

Though I think the Bill makes an unnecessary and undesirable change, I am not wholly out of sympathy with its promoters. Julian Spalding, who initiated the move when he was Director of Glasgow museums, in May gave us a very stimulating talk, most of which I strongly agreed with and which consisted of suggestions probably too radical for many of the Bill’s supporters! When I was a curator at Manchester, I was frustrated by the “squirrelists” (Grossart, 22) and took the conservation concerns too lightly. Long thought about the issues has, I hope, made me wiser. Truly liberal views will take into account the dead and unborn as well as the living and current fashions. J.S. Mill recognised that opinions differ, which is why the peculiarities of donors’ provisions are to be cherished rather than dismissed. Otherwise museums will lose their individuality. Of the Burrell it is said that “the asset and unique selling point … is the imagination and vision of the man who created this incredible collection – that in itself is an amazing story” (McConnell 29) and that it constitutes a union of collection and building (McConnell 20).

I also have sympathy with Sir William Burrell’s Trustees. They opposed change in 1997 but now back it under the pressure of those who urge the dire necessity of raising money for the building (as their Chairman stated in the September 19 hearing). The same much contested argument was used to overturn the wishes of Dr Barnes, resulting in an even more fundamental departure from the donor’s ideas. The Trustees argue that they will have the final say in what should be lent abroad and some say in what should be lent in the UK. However they will be under the pressure to lend which Lords Crawford and others thought could be intolerable. Parts of the lending code are flabby (39-40). An object, it says, should not be lent for 5 years after it has returned from exhibition unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. Any circumstance can be exceptional for those bent on circumventing restrictions. Objects, it adds, shall not be on loan for longer than 3 years except for a tour longer than 3 years. That is no real restriction at all.

If the Committee is minded to back the Bill, the Code should be tightened up and the Trustees given final say in all cases. If a long tour is contemplated, the Bill should limit that to a one-off and thereafter strictly definite restrictions on time, repetition, material etc. should apply.

Selby Whittingham

Selby Whittingham is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society.

UPDATE 19-11-13:

Restoration Damages Market Value

Philip Hook, a director and senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s, has given further “from-inside-the-art trade” confirmation that restorations can damage the value of paintings. Writing in the Guardian (“Got anything in the red”, Arts, 19.11.13) on the present art market disconnect between sheer artistic quality and realised top prices, Hook gives good account of the Bling Factors driving markets fuelled by super-rich aesthetic chumps seeking instantly recognisable works above better but less familiar ones. He well describes the effects of atists’ biographical back-stories and the assistance given to prices by appealing subject matter: pretty women; animals that are depicted alive and not dead, and so forth. In discussing negative market forces, Mr Hook also cites the effects of picture restoration: “Condition is a factor. Paintings suffer and age over time, some more than others. Like human beings, some are subjected to cosmetic surgery. Where this has been too extensive, the price of a painting will be affected.” It is precisely for this reason that accidents suffered by loaned and borrowed works are so little reported. If paintings were required to be accompanied by log books which listed and described all known previous “conservation treatments”, owners might think twice about agreeing to take risks by lending works to travelling exhibitions.

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Above, top, Fig 1: Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery (1987-2002).
Above, Fig. 2: Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery (since 2008).
1) A Director’s Thrust…
Item: On 15 September the Evening Standard Londoner’s Diary reported:
Don your armour. The British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor has unsheathed an antique sword and is pointing it at National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. “At stake is whether a Glasgow gallery can lend out its collection, but it pertains to both institutions’ policies of moving art around. When William Burrell left his art collection to Glasgow in 1944, he stipulated it shouldn’t be moved. It was housed outside the city but the building now needs renovating and its trustees have asked permission of the Scottish Parliament to change the terms of the bequest to allow the works to tour. “Penny wrote a letter to the Scottish Parliament, objecting, adding darkly that there were many incidents of galleries damaging works of art while moving them and he was prepared to describe them in confidence to a ‘single trustworthy individual nominated by Scottish Government [sic]’. The letter went up on the Scottish Parliament website but was then removed . “Now MacGregor has also submitted evidence. The British Museum has offered to help with transportation and MacGregor cites prior examples of successful moves by, er, the National Gallery. “‘The National Gallery in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition,’ he notes. ‘In return, we lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre, confident it could responsibly move it, exhibit it there, and then bring it safely home.’ “Next year’s Rembrandt exhibition opens at the National Gallery. It has borrowed Man in Armour from Kelvingrove, the Burrell’s sister gallery in Glasgow. Borrowing okay, but lending not?”
It seemed unlikely that Nicholas Penny, who had attempted to give his evidence in confidence to the Burrell Committee, had been the journalistic source for this item. The charge of hypocrisy had been made in the Scottish parliamentary committee hearing on 9 September by Dr Bridget McConnell of Glasgow Life and the Chief Executive of Culture & Sport Glasgow. She declared herself: “surprised to hear that view from Dr Penny, not least of all because we loan items from our museums collection to him. Indeed he has asked for a Rembrandt from Kelvingrove museum – probably our most valuable item – for a major exhibition next year”. At the same hearing, Sir Angus Grossart (he also being of Glasgow Life and the chair of Burrell Renaissance on which Neil Macgregor serves as an adviser), held Penny’s views “inconsistent with his own practice”. Those views were put to ArtWatch UK’s director Michael Daley at the 19 September parliamentary hearing by the committee’s convener, Joan McAlpine (SNP), to which he replied:
That is perfectly true. As director of the National Gallery, Dr Penny is clearly in an awkward position – after all, the The National Gallery has loan policies – but from the beginning he has made clear his general disapproval of loans. He thinks that far too many loans are made at far too much risk and has sought to introduce new types of exhibitions at the National Gallery in which the need to draw in works from abroad is greatly reduced. Moreover, he thinks that many blockbuster exhibitions are, in fact, quite naked revenue raisers that serve little or no academic scholarly purpose and he personally is very keen and committed to developing exhibitions that are more thoughtful and more helpful to the public and in which the borrowings, in so far as they are made, are of less famous and well-known artworks.”
Item: Nicholas Penny had received support during the hearings of 9 September. In his testimony, Jeremy Warren, the Collections and Academic Director of the Wallace Collection, said: “On Dr Penny’s views, although his head is organising Vermeer and Vienna secession exhibitions – because he has to and it is part of what is expected of museums these days – his heart is probably saying some of the things that I have said. Actually, there is a risk whenever an object is moved. Even if an object is moved within a museum, it is affected in however miniscule a way. We have been through an age of exhibitions having become almost like medieval pilgrimages, but that might change in years to come, and there might be more focus on the integrity of collections…”
Item: Nicholas Penny might have been aware that his predecessor as director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, was reportedly taunted during a Board meeting by its chairman on the low visitor numbers for his special exhibitions. Such pressures are immense in today’s museum world. When serving as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Alan Borg, was chided by Alan Williams MP: “When you have one of the highest grants-in-aid per head per visitor, you have a duty to the taxpayer to try and get more people through your doors. The idea is to get people into the museums…Your blockbusters do not bust many blocks, do they?”
Item: In The Times of 27 February 2008, Dalya Alberge reported that “Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, said yesterday that the 184-year-old institution had a duty to display art with which the public was unfamiliar rather than yet another parade of an artist’s greatest hits….What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public…I have a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the direction they are taking.”
Item: The Stifling of Museum Officials’ Anxieties. In his preface to Francis Haskell’s last book The Ephemeral Museum, Penny addressed the charge of hypocrisy…as it had earlier been levelled against Prof. Haskell:
…And he was also accused of hypocrisy because he was, and indeed continued to be, on advisory committees for exhibitions. Francis’s position was never the simple one of objecting to all exhibitions, though it was always a principle with him to refuse to be associated with pressure on directors who were reluctant to lend. [In any event] No public rebuttal was attempted of the case he made, since it would only have brought to public notice the near accidents of recent years and might have prompted public statements from other senior figures. At least one other eminent art historian – Sir Ernst Gombrich – has expressed misgivings about the transportation of great masterpieces. But museum officials are obliged to stifle their anxieties…”
Item: On 30 December 1995 Sir Ernst Gombrich wrote (letter to Michael Daley):
…When I was in Vienna in October, the Kunsthistorisches Museum was under enormous pressure to lend Vermeer’s Artist in his Studio, indeed in the end the Queen of the Netherlands rang the President of Austria (who had no idea what she was talking about!) So the Museum called in ‘experts’ including a restorer from Germany who all said that the picture was not in a condition to travel. So even restorers can do some good!”
(On 21 July 1995 Sir Ernst had written: “I need hardly tell you that I have much sympathy for the aims of ArtWatch”.)
Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders. The director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Thomas P. Campbell, said in 2007, when serving as the museum’s curator of tapestry: “I do have the potential to organize exhibitions on a level that other museums simply don’t have. I mean no one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestry we had here a few years ago, where there were forty-five tapestries on show. The politics involved, the financing involved, the leverage, and the expertise involved: No one else had that. We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe, of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British royal collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just absolute masterpieces.” (“Museum ~ Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, Viking.)
Item: Above, the National Gallery’s 16th century wood panel painting, Beccafumi’s Marcia, which was dropped and smashed on January 21st 2008 during the de-installation of the exhibition Renaissance Siena: Art for a City. After the accident it was said by the gallery (Report, 13 March 2008) that the panel is “fragile” and will “never be allowed to go out on loan.” The panel is one of two Beccafumis owned by the National Gallery. They had been removed from their customary place in the gallery’s high-ceilinged, naturally lit Renaissance galleries for the special, temporary exhibition in the artificially lit basement galleries. There, they had been united with a third panel of the original Beccafumi series, and all three were mounted together in a special showcase. The people who ‘dismounted’ the special showcase had not fully appreciated its complicated manner of construction, and in the process one of the three panels slipped and smashed on the floor. The odds had been two to one against the borrowed panel being the victim in this accident. An international incident had been narrowly avoided. Because the damaged panel belonged to the National Gallery itself, it was immediately repaired before even the Trustees had seen its condition. After repair, the damaged panel and her sister were both placed in the National Gallery’s badly and entirely artificially lit, cramped reserve collection (which is open the public for only a few hours each week). No press release was issued announcing the accident but brief mention of it was later contained in an online report of the Board’s minutes. When ArtWatch UK commented on the accident in its Journal, the press picked up the story. The then new director at the gallery, Nicholas Penny, gave ArtWatch UK hard copy photographs of the smashed panel and a copy of an independent report of the accident commissioned by the gallery. [“Report on the Circumstances behind the Accidental damage to NG 6369 Domenico Beccafumi’s Marcia“, by Tadeusz J. A. Glazbus, Head of Internal Audit, the British Museum.] A striking feature of that report was evidence of the chaotic circumstances that can arise when large exhibitions are dismounted. Once exhibitions are over owners seek to have their works packed and returned as quickly as possible. As a result floor space rapidly fills with packing cases and materials, couriers and conservators, around whom in-house curators and visiting scholars step with guests who are eager to study the backs of works as they are removed from the walls. One Trustee of the gallery told us that it “had been pandemonium on the day”.
Item: In The Times of 19 January 2013, Magnus Linklater reported that the priceless contents of the Burrell Museum are to be taken abroad on tour, despite the specific wishes of its creator, Sir William Burrell that they should never leave the country. The decision that they should do so had been taken collectively by Glasgow Council, Glasgow Life and and the Burrell Trustees even though it would “require a bill to be presented to the Scottish Parliament in order to amend the strict terms of Burrell’s bequest”. [Our emphasis – we would have thought that getting a bill passed by the Scottish Parliament was a more appropriate term.]
Item: On 6 September 2013, Phil Miller in The Herald reported:
“One of the art world’s leading figures has raised serious concerns over Glasgow’s attempt to tour the treasures of its famous Burrell Collection abroad, saying there is a “deplorable tendency” to deny the risks of transporting art around the world.
“In a candid submission to the Scottish Parliament committee considering The Burrell Collection (Lending And Borrowing) Bill, Dr Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says moving works of art has led to several major accidents, incidents and damage to works, many of which have not come to public attention:
“‘What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible (if not always immediate) benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past;
“‘The financial benefits of touring art collections are also greatly exaggerated and do not lead to any significant increase in visitors to the galleries touring the works;
“‘While there has always been much talk of profile-raising to palliate the mercenary motives or to compensate for disappointing fees, the interests of those brokering or encouraging touring exhibitions may not always be very obvious but should be examined very severely.'”
Item: On 23 January 2013, The Herald reported that the British Museum had been lined up for the first stop of an ambitious world tour of the Burrell Collection: “The British Museum, whose director is Glasgow-born Neil MacGregor, is planning a show of of at least six months if Glasgow City Council’s bid to change the rules governing Sir William Burrell’s bequest…is successful…”
Item: On 25 April 2013 The Herald reported that Burrell Renaissance, led by financier Sir Angus Grossart, will be driving the plans for the Burrell Collection which were expected to cost more than the Kelvingrove museum’s £35m facelift. The newly instituted group included Dr Bridget McConnell, the CEO of Glasgow Life, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former ambassador to the US and head of the Foreign Office, and Neil MacGregor, “the Scottish director of the British Museum” who was to be a special adviser. MacGregor listed among potential venues for The Tour the British Museum itself, Europe, North America and Asia.
At the September 9 hearing the following exchange occurred: The Convener: Is it correct that the tour is being organised in collaboration with the British Museum? Dr McConnell: Yes. We spoke to Neil MacGregor last week about this. As you can imagine, given that the British Museum lends 4,000 items a year, it has an extensive touring department. We are talking about contracting the British Museum not to deliver the tour but to mentor our staff, because we want some of the skills to transfer here and we want to build awareness and knowledge. We have some of that, but we want to augment it by either working through his staff or contracting some of his staff to work here in Glasgow. An arts agency – I have forgotten its name, but we can get it for you – co-ordinated the Kelvingrove tour in North America on our behalf. It took all the insurance risks and made all the preparations for opening events and so on. It has indicated that it would be interested in doing that again in North America this time and our staff are exploring with the British Museum any similar opportunities with similar agencies. The Convener: We have invited the British Museum to give evidence, but unfortunately it has not been able to accommodate us. What benefit will the tour bring to the British Museum? Dr McConnell: Without putting words in Neil MacGregor’s mouth, I know that he would be delighted to provide written evidence if the committee wants it. Sir Angus Grossart: He has been on holiday. Dr McConnell: He has been abroad on business and then he is off on holiday, so he is out of the country… The Convener: Neil MacGregor said on record in the past that he was against changing the will, so it would be interesting to receive from him written evidence that tells us why he has changed his mind. Around the time when the Burrell Renaissance was being formed and Neil MacGregor from the British Museum was invited to be a consultant to it, a story appeared in a newspaper – I believe it was The Scotsman – saying that the British Museum would be centrally involved. Could a conflict of interest be perceived in Mr MacGregor’s role in Burrell Renaissance? Were other partners considered? Sir Angus Grossart: Many international options were considered. Neil MacGregor is a pre-eminent figure. He was not chosen out of deference to the British Museum; he was invited to be an adviser on his merits. If we were to show any part of the collection in London, that museum would be the most fitting and matching destination [Over the much better temporary exhibition accomodation of the Royal Academy? – Ed.] I do not think any preference was given. I doubt whether there was any intent to give Neil MacGregor, who was previously the director of the National Gallery in London, a preference. I would not have been party to anything like that. The Convener: The collection could be shown in London without changing the will? Councillor Graham: Yes. Dr McConnell: Yes.
Item 1: Concerning Mr MacGregor’s 1997 “neutrality” Mr MacGregor submitted to the current Parliamentary Committee a transcript of his earlier views, as submitted to the House of Lords on 1 August 1997 when consideration was being given to the restrictions on international lending at the Burrell Collection. Specifically, MacGregor had then been invited to give evidence on: “the practice of inter-gallery lending in both the domestic and the international context in terms of its prevalence, its purposes, its effects and its risks”. Mr MacGregor stated that although he had been called as a witness “by the Promoters”, [Glasgow Council] he wished it to be made clear that, at that date, he had taken the position in which: “I neither support nor oppose the specific proposal that Glasgow City Council should be allowed to lend abroad objects from the Burrell Collection. On that my position is one of neutrality.” Mr MacGregor further stated that: “The passage from the wall to the packing case is widely considered to be the most dangerous stage of art transport.” Although he did not say so, we would assume that, at that date, Mr MacGregor accepted that sending works abroad on multi-venue tours necessarily and inescapably increased the risks to which all loaned works are exposed. Professional art insurers have assessed the risk of loaning a work to another venue as being six times greater than when the work is left hanging in a museum and gallery. That being so, it would follow that works being sent on a six-venues world tour would be placed at six times six more risk.
Item: In the Spring 2008 ArtWatch UK Journal No. 23, we ran the following report:
‘Museums now have to do blockbuster shows to get the people in’, Paul Williamson, of the art transporting firm Constantine, said on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight [on 5 November 2007], adding ‘They’re under financial pressure to tour the exhibitions: so various exhibitions may undertake a five, ten or fifteen-venue tour around the world.’ On the same programme, a spokesman for the art insurers Hiscox disclosed that a large claim was filed when a forklift truck driver at Heathrow drove his forks through a very well-known painting that was very lovely.”
NB – The identity of the painting was not disclosed. This is common procedure with accidents – no owner, whether private or institutional, lightly discloses news of an accident and the subsequent covering of traces by a restorer. For this reason, private owners whose work is damaged when on loan to a large institution will usually prefer to have the in-house restorers make a no-charge repair rather than submit an insurance claim for privately commissioned restoration repairs.
Item: Concealing travel injuries. The role of restorers (aka conservators) in concealing injuries is abhorrent to us but often welcomed by arts bureaucrats. As we reported in posts of 2 February 2011 (Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?) and 8 February 2011 (The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around), the European Union sees its objective of generating smart, sustainable and inclusive growth at a time when many of its industries are in decline, as being most realisable in the cultural sphere. To create jobs, the Commission exhorts more museums to loan more works and to be prepared to take more risks with their holdings. A specific European suggestion is that lenders should: “not insure works while they [are] at the exhibition venue”. This ignores the fact that (as Neil MacGregor and many others acknowledge) most injuries occur during the time of the exhibitions – and especially at moments of handling: mounting/dismounting, unpacking/repacking. In addition to those principally human hazards, environmental stress and risks can prove higher during exhibitions than during the travelling time. This occurs because when well-publicised exhibitions draw the crowds they seek, the atmospheric “micro-environments” of galleries can fluctuate at alarming and hazardous rates as heat and humidity levels soar and then decline at the end of each day at rates with which air-conditioning units cannot cope. ArtWatch knows of many panics that have been triggered among museums’ curatorial and conservation staffs by the phenomenon of heat/humidity surges. In attempt to avoid this problem, the National Gallery greatly restricted the number of potential visits (and hence income) to the recent Leonardo exhibition, but not all institutions share such scruples. Notoriously, and perhaps least scrupulously of all, the Vatican continues to pack visitors in their tens of thousand each day into the confines of the Sistine Chapel, even though the last (artistically disastrous) restoration had, by stripping off Michelangelo’s final layer of glue-based painting, exposed the bare fresco surfaces to the ravages of modern Roman environmental pollution for the first time, and even though it has been admitted that the present air-conditioning is not fit for purpose. For its part, the EU urges both that greater risks should be taken with security (by reducing the role of couriers) and that the depreciation of value which results from works being injured and then repaired should be discounted because “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are”.
Item 2: Concerning Earlier Misunderstandings of Mr MacGregor’s Position:
1. I have been invited to comment on the application to vary the terms of the Will of Sir William Burrell in order to allow objects from the Burrell Collection to be lent for exhibition outside of the United Kingdom. I am sorry that I was unable to attend the the committee’s earlier meeting. “2. I note that in the proceedings of the committee of 9 September 2013, column 33, the Convener asserts that I ‘said on the record in the past that [I] was against changing the will’. I fear the Convener is mistaken. In previous discussions of the topic, in 1997, I explicitly state that my position was one of neutrality. That is clearly recorded in the formal precognition dated 15th August 1997 and the report of the of proceedings at the public enquiry page 1272 section A dated 14th October 1997. My [then] position was accurately and unequivocally reported in the Glasgow Herald of 15th october 1997. “3. I have no idea why Tom [sic] Dalyell in his obituary of Colin Donald wrongly suggested that I was opposed to a change in the Will – I was not; nor do I know why David Lister (Independent 13th October), writing before I had spoken to the commission on 15th October, mistakenly assumed that I would argue that the wishes of benefactors should always be paramount.”
Item: Tam Dalyell’s 27 October 2006 obituary in the Independent on Colin Donald, Burrell Collection trustee:
When in 1997 the Director of Glasgow Museums, supported by Glasgow City Council, mounted a legal challenge to the terms of the will of one of their greatest benefactors, there was outrage among museum staff nationwide. Julian Spalding sought to lend out items from the Burrell Collection, contrary to the specified wishes of the collector and ship owner, Sir William Burrell, who died in 1958. Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, among many others, deplored the challenge, but it was left to Colin Donald to fight it…As senior trustee he was absolute in defence of of the interests of Sir William Burrell’s Trust. ‘The Trustees’, he wrote in a letter to the Independent in 1997, have been obliged to oppose [the Spalding challenge] formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell…”
Item: “Protect works of art from moving” ~ Colin Donald’s letter to the Independent, 28 April 1997:
Sir: David Lister (“When treasure becomes a burden”, 16 April) is free to draw his own conclusions about the Burrell Collection from the facts, but it is important that these facts are correct. “It is not the trustees who have ‘called in the parliamentary commissioners’. The draft provisional order has been promoted by the City of Glasgow. The trustees have been obliged to oppose it formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell. “In any event, the widened lending powers being sought will bring no benefit to the collection, although I suppose they might have a spin-off for Glasgow in tourism terms, but even that is arguable. The trustees have seen no evidence that Glasgow has ‘lost out’ on any exhibitions because of the restrictions on lending items from the Burrell Collection abroad. In any event, there are many items in the rest of Glasgow’s excellent collection which can be loaned without restriction. “The changes which the City seeks to make amount to somewhat more than ‘dots and commas’. The draft provisional order seeks powers to lend items from the collection for exhibition in any public gallery or other public place in any part of the world, without being responsible for any damage or injury thereto or for any loss or depreciation thereof … with such arrangements (if any) for insurance as the Council may decide. They thus want to sweep away the carefully negotiated lending terms inserted by Sir William in the memorandum of agreement and the will.”
NB – The present Burrell Trustees’ seeming abandonment of their primary duty to respect and enforce the wishes of the benefactor is striking. At the 19 September Parliamentary Committee hearing, the Chairman of the Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, spoke in a manner indistinguishable from that of Glasgow Life officers: notwithstanding what he described as “the problems of overseas lending”, he welcomed the sending of Burrell Collection works overseas on what he referred to as “the tour”; he expressed confidence that if he were to hold an imaginary conversation between his own and Sir William’s consciences, that the latter, 55 years after his death, might react favourably if asked to trust his [present] trustees; he cited as a kind of authority for the proposed overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the fact that the trustees of the Barnes foundation had recently performed a similar manoeuvre; most disturbingly of all he seemed to show a distinct deference to the wishes and abilities of the municipally over-arching body that is Glasgow Life. He used an unfortunate cricketing analogy: henceforth, although the trustees would assume a new role in monitoring loans in general (- which was to say, loans at home and abroad) their position would be not that of a wicketkeeper but that of the fielding position long-stop (i.e. the hapless role seen in schoolboy cricket of a fielder placed behind the wicketkeeper on the boundary in hope of stopping all of the missed balls from scoring four runs). The reason for this self-diminishing role would seem to be that the trustees will now be working closely with Glasgow Life, which body already directs the lending policy of the city’s museums generally. In effect, Sir Peter was accepting what he might well have felt to be a politically inevitable homogenisation of museums and galleries within the city. We note that in 1997, when Julian Spalding was pushing for an overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the position of Keeper at the Burrell Collection had recently been axed. As mentioned above, opposite, we were unable to discover if anyone might be employed in that capacity today. It seems extraordinary to us that such a fabulous collection should be bereft of both strong and independent curatorial leadership and strongly supportive trustees.
Mr MacGregor’s September 18 Reply to the Burrell Committee, continued:
5. It was suggested by the Convener on 9th September (column 33) that as the British Museum might be involved in helping organise the logistics of a possible loan, and as works from the Burrell Collection might be shown at the British Museum, I might find myself in a position of conflict of interest. I think I can assure the Convenor that this is not so. The British Museum would not profit financially from either aspect of such co-operation with our Glasgow colleagues…” NB That absence of any financial benefit to the British Museum would only be so if visitors throughout the proposed six-months exhibition were not charged, and if they were to spend no money in the museum’s shops and cafes.

Item: How Future Loan Exhibitions Might Help Fund the Urgently Needed Repairs of the Burrell Museum and the Proposed Refurbishments of the Building.

It is not clear how, without entrance charges, lending works to the British Museum might offset in part the estimated high costs of putting the Burrell Museum to rights during the period between 2016 and 2020 when its building is scheduled to be closed for already urgently needed repairs. During the 9 September Hearing, the Committee’s members showed distinct concerns about what might be termed “the business model” of The Tour. In fact, the revenue-raising capacity of The Tour seemed to disappear in a single question/answer exchange:

The Convener: Paragraph 25 of the promoter’s memorandum suggests that lending the collection will provide a revenue stream to support the [Burrell building’s] remedial works. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and about how much you stand to gain financially from lending to put towards the cost of refurbishment? Dr McConnell: Touring does not in itself make money. If it washes its face and make a small profit, it is doing pretty well.”
Mr MacGregor’s September 18 2013 submitted view on the nature of loan risks:
…10. The question of the risk of damage to objects lent is a very important one, and has been much discussed. I attach an appendix to this statement detailing the procedures followed by the British Museum to minimise such risk. Clearly there are some objects which which are not fit to travel. But the best argument on this point seems to me to be the the practice of all the world’s great museums. They are all committed to the safety of their collections. All lend valuable and fragile objects, because they believe there is an overall public benefit in doing so. To cite but one item: the works of Leonardo da Vinci are among the most precious and vulnerable objects in all European art. The National Gallery in London in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition – and they did. And in return, the National gallery lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to Louvre, confident that could responsibly move it, exhibit it there and then bring it safely home. We take Mr MacGregor’s reference to the loan of Leonardo’s supremely fragile “Cartoon” to the Louvre to be a sarcasm (re his spat with the present director of the National Gallery) and not an expression of confidence on his own part that that highly fragile, shotgun blasted and “restored”, ancient drawing really had suffered no deleterious consequences on its journeys (- by lorry and train through the Channel Tunnel?) How might he know such a thing? The effects of vibration on old fragile paintings have been little studied. How might they be? Would any responsible curator permit an old master painting to be fixed inside a container and shaken variously and erratically for hours on end like an IKEA chair on a test bed? The truth is that Mr MacGregor’s writ on the safety of travel today does not and cannot run throughout the world. On 12 July 2001, when bringing ten panels from Massacio’s Pisa Altarpiece to the National Gallery in London, he claimed that it had become safe at some point in “the past five to ten years” to jet works of art around the world because little gadgets in modern packing cases alert handlers to “any movement in the container”. What then? Mr MacGregor did not explain what a handler might do if so alerted in mid-flight. In the real world, in 2000, pages of the Book of Kells were damaged by vibration when the precious illuminated manuscript was flown from Ireland to Australia. In 2004 a Raphael was found, on arrival for the National Gallery’s “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome” show, to have suffered “a raised crack” in transit. And so on and so forth… 12. Of course there is some risk in any showing of any work to the public. It is the duty of those responsible for collections to strike the reasonable balance between public benefit and the likely danger of damage. In the field of loans, this balance has, thanks to advances in transport and conservation, changed greatly in the last 40 years. Yes, indeed, there is always risk when sending art out into the world, but the notion of “reasonable balance” is weaselish. Trusting to the “likely” when putting irreplaceable works needlessly or lightly in potential harm’s way is not to perform a reasonable action. 13. I can speak with confidence only of the experience of the British Museum. Between 2003 and 2013, the Trustees of the British Museum have lent around 30,000 objects* (many very fragile) to venues within the U.K. and abroad. In those ten years, there have been eight recorded instances of damage – in all cases minor, and repaired by the Museum’s conservation team. While deploring and regretting these eight cases of damage, the Trustees believe the balance of public benefit has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that the recipients of these loans, among them museums across Scotland, would agree.”
Item: While Mr MacGregor appeals to the authority of a Universal Practice among all the Great Museums, in December 2010 ArtWatch UK received an appeal for assistance from leading art historians and restorers in Krakow to help oppose a planned loan (for a substantial fee that was paid by the exhibition’s sponsors) of the many-times loaned Leonardo da Vinci panel painting Lady with an Ermine to the special exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011-2012 to which Neil MacGregor has referred. See “An Appeal from Poland” and our post of 29 December 2010. For an account of our objections to that Leonardo exhibition, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration” and “Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow”. On July 14, 2011 it was reported that, as a consequence of the protests and “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,” Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, has approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.
Item: Concerning Mr MacGregor’s appeal to the authority of his own museum’s performance we note that there are good grounds for treating such accounts with a degree of scepticism: In 1993 the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, addressed the problem of self-censorship within museums (- to which Nicholas Penny referred, as cited above, in his introduction to Prof. Haskell’s book): “no museum, either as lender or borrower, wants the taint of irresponsibility or carelessness. Although conservators, curators and directors privately raise doubts all the time about fragile and important works of art being moved around by other institutions, they virtually never speak out. When they do, it is as one chorus: nothing goes wrong where they are.” A further inducement towards scepticism is the public record of the British Museum’s own art handlers. As we reported on 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”), in 2006, the British Museum sent 251 Assyrian objects – including its entire, incalculably important, fragile, wall-mounted Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings in foam filled wooden crates in two cargo jets to Shanghai for the “Assyria: Art and Empire” exhibition. Mr MacGregor claimed that: “It’s easier to transport these big valuable objects now – but it’s just as important to be certain they’ll be safe at the other end.”
The other end can be a long way away. The only flight capable of transporting all of the massive carvings to Shanghai left from Luxembourg to where the crated objects had to be moved by lorry/ferry/lorry. The planes stopped in Azerbaijan during their 16 hours flights – giving a total of four landings and four take-offs each on the round trip. On arrival in Shanghai, it was discovered that the recipient museum’s low doorways and inadequate lifts required that the crates with the largest carvings be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”. So said Darrel Day, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler. “Even then we had to unpack three of the crates to get a bit more clearance…[one carving] was still too tall, so we had knock a bit off”. No! – we jest of course, that should read: we had to “lay him down on his side”. When the collection was finally unpacked (delay had occurred because a replacement had to be found for the Chinese museum’s ancient unsafe forklift truck), it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done” and that a support had broken off one of the carved reliefs. Nic Lee, head of the Museum’s Stone, Wall Paintings and Mosaics Conservation Section, reportedly said: “that was a bit of nineteenth-century restoration that I’d been wanting to get rid of for ages, anyway”. So that breakage was alright, then? A restorer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that within the museum world there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” when considering works for loans. There would certainly now seem to be a systemic tolerance of failures in the movement of great art works. Forward planning seems an art yet to be achieved by many travel-happy museums (- a wider use of tape measures might help). An incoming Morgan Stanley sponsored exhibition of Chinese terracotta figures at the British Museum produced another art-handling pantomime. The more than two dozen wooden crates required were delayed for two days in Beijing because they would not fit into the holds of the two chartered cargo planes. When they finally arrived at the British Museum, they would not pass through the door of the round Reading Room (from which Paul Hamlyn’s gifted library had been evicted for the six months duration of the show). Even after the Reading Room’s main door frame had been removed, the largest crates still could not enter the temporary exhibition space built above the famous circular desks of the library, and had to be unpacked outside the exhibition space in the Great Court. The difficulties loan arrangements can generate were discussed by one of Mr MacGregor’s predecessors, David Wilson, in his “The British Museum: A History”, (The British Museum Press, 2002 – pp 334-336, “Exhibitions – A Vicious Circle?”). Sir David admitted, for example, that objects occasionally get damaged and sometimes even “go missing”. As indeed they sometimes do: Every year, more than £2bn of art is stolen, some of which is art on the move. In November 2006, the Toledo Museum’s Goya, Children with a Cart was stolen en route for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1994 the Tate Gallery loaned two Turner paintings insured for £24m to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. “We will not be sending a courier”, Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, told the museum, “but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/depalletisation of the cases at Frankfurt [airport] and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle”. In what was clearly an “inside job” the pictures were stolen from the Frankfurt museum and only returned to the Tate in December 2002 after payment of a £3m+ ransom to the thieves in 2000. In December 2010 thieves broke into a warehouse and drove off with a van filled with £5m-worth of works by Picasso, Botero and Eduardo Chillida being returned to Spain from a loan to Germany. Police said that the robbery had all the hallmarks of “an inside job”. Police/Museum/Criminal relationships are a vexed subject. In the February 2001 Art Newspaper, it was reported that Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General had claimed that the German police had infiltrated the gang (“a group of particularly nasty Serbs”) that had stolen the two Tate Turners, but had “then loused up on the recovery operation”. There are grounds for suspecting a de facto going-rate “reward” of ten or fifteen per cent of a work’s insurance value in order to effect a recovery and avoid a full pay-out.
* This number of cases had been omitted when the post was first published. [With apologies, M. D., 17 November 2013.]