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Shedding archival records at the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum

28 February 2012

A disturbing account in the Guardian of abuses of archival records within the museum world (“Tate’s national photographic archive ‘rescued from a skip’ after internal tipoff”, 24 February 2012 ) disclosed how the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, received a call from a Tate employee who said “you might like the curatorial photo archive because we’re about to throw it on to a skip” (- or, in American usage, throw it into a dumpster). Shocking as this report was, it came as no surprise to us because in recent years the Tate has shown a notoriously cavalier way with its artistic holdings and its archival material (see right). More surprising was the Guardian’s revelation that an archive of black and white photographs of almost every item held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and grouped by subject, had also been dumped by the curator in charge.

This dual elimination of black and white photographs echoes the destruction of old black and white television programmes that routinely took place at the BBC until 1978. A further destruction of archival property within British cultural bodies in recent years included that of newspaper collections held by the British Library. Sometimes a justification offered for archival vandalism is that essential “content” has been preserved by transfer to other media. The speciousness of such claims and the frequent destructiveness of such practices were searingly established in Nicholson Baker’s 2001 book “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper”.

Following our reported comments in the Guardian article, we received a note of sympathy and an invitation to read the “Florence Declaration” from the director of the Photographic Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz (the Max-Plank Institut), Costanza Caraffa. We are indebted: it seems that there is a wider threat to photo archives. The Florence Declaration is a call for the integration within photo archives and libraries of photographs in both analogue format and digital format. Their dual preservation is rightly taken as being essential to preserve the photographic heritage for future studies.

The Florence institute’s own photo library was founded in 1897 and today comprises more than 600,000 photographs of Italian art from late antiquity to the modern era. Like many photo libraries, the institute has recently engaged in transferring photographic images to the new digital media to aid electronic cataloguing and greater accessibility. There can be no quarrel with such exercises, but, paradoxically, by virtue of the editorial decisions that are inherent in any major transfer of material to new systems of storage and dissemination, the Institute has become the more conscious of the unique and irreplaceable nature of its general physical historic compilation; of the value of its illuminating bequeathed collections-within-the-collection; and, of the unique testimonial potency of its individual “hard copy” historic photographs. (Needless to say, this combination of visual acuity and heightened sense of patrimonial responsibility is one with which ArtWatch is in great sympathy.)

For our own rather specialised primary purposes the value of photographs lies not so much in their individual intrinsic qualities, as in their relationships to other, earlier or later photographs. The accumulated sequences of images (of paintings, drawings, prints, architecture, sculpture, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, wall paintings and textiles) held in the Courtauld Institute’s Witt and Conway photo libraries, and the photographs of paintings held in the National Gallery’s curatorial and conservation dossiers, greatly facilitate the identification and demonstration of injuries to works of art through restoration “treatments” (see right, Fig. 4).

The great value of photographic collections is, however, multifarious not singular. For some researchers, the self-same images might assist in making specific attributions of authorship, or in establishing chronological relationships within an oeuvre or period. For others still, the images can inform more general scholarly, thematic, historical, artistic or even sociological studies. In truth, all such focussed collections facilitate and trigger infinite lines of inquiry and speculation – and their benefits can neither be quantified nor anticipated in advance. Digitalised versions of photo collections – immensely useful as they are – cannot replicate or replace the ultimate benefits of “hands-on” studies of hard copy photographs, each of which is a physically and historically unique record made at a certain time, in a particular way, of a certain object, under a particular lighting condition. The ability to compare, juxtapose and read such various, culturally-expressive living historical records, in real space and real light, one against another, freely and without the physical and visual fatigue that attends a prolonged relationship with a fixed electronic screen (see right), is a methodological luxury and necessity. A photograph is a thing; a digital version is a virtual simulacrum of a thing. Although it is technically possible to track every manipulation of a digital photograph’s raw data, in practice, a photograph-as-object is more trustworthy, carries its traits and its history about its person, as it were. A most moving evocation of the multiplicity of uses within hard-copy photo collections – and of their great vulnerability in a philistine, cost-cutting world – was brilliantly captured by Stephen Poliakoff in his 1999 award-winning television drama, “Shooting the Past”.

We have long suspected that the inescapably destructive impulse of restorers constantly to undo and redo the material fabric and the artistic character of works of art through restoration/conservation “treatments” is a manifestation of a wider, history-hating cultural pathology; a narcissistic and hubristic desire of succeeding generations to remake history in their own image rather than to learn from it. The evidently assumed similar right of curators to undo and discard the historic record itself – even when held it is held in public trust by supposedly dedicated, culturally and fiscally privileged institutions like the Tate and the Victorian and Albert Museum – and even though that record possesses the power to hold to account as well as to illuminate, is a dangerous new, hitherto unimaginable, cultural low.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The ArtWatch UK Journal showing the demeaning treatment of the Tate’s Rodin marble sculpture, The Kiss, which had been bought for the Nation by public subscription. The strings had been added by the “conceptual” artist Cornelia Parker. Parker was paid £50,000 by the Victoria and Albert Museum for a work that consisted of crushed musical instruments. The work was exhibited at the V&A. Parker said of it that “A vibrant working class tradition has been brought into the British Galleries [of the V&A] in the guise of a heraldic ceiling rose. I wanted to create something that would explore the ideas of duality: light/dark, silence/noise, upper class/lower class, the North/South divide, black cloud/silver lining, death/resurrection. I see the work as a ghostly last gasp of the British Empire.” She denied that by crushing a band-full of brass instruments she was denying working class children the opportunity to play them. An artist who was affronted by Parker’s purloining of the Rodin, liberated the sculpture by cutting off the strings. He was arrested on a charge of “suspicion of causing criminal damage.” A curator at the Tate (where Parker had been a Turner Prize nominee) said of her stringed additions to the Rodin, she had created a work that is: “suggestive of the constrictions of relationships, the caughtupness and complications… [the] desire to drag new life out of dead things.”
Above, Fig. 2: The Tate’s director since 1988, Sir Nicholas Serota, as shown in the Jackdaw No 5, February 2001 (“Serota Dangerous Dictator?”), when he had been in place for thirteen years. When Cornelia Parker asked to use lining canvases removed from Turner paintings at the Tate for an exhibition of her own work, conservators at the gallery protested against the misuse of technical archival material. They were over-ruled by Serota. When a small municipal German gallery that shared premises with a music college and had no perimeter defences, requested the loan of two important Turner paintings, Serota agreed to lend, instructing the German gallery to collect the paintings from the airport as they would not be being courrier-ed by the Tate. When the paintings were susequently stolen by Serbian gangsters, the Tate paid a £3.1m ransom. It could easily afford to do so because, earlier, with the intervention of a Government Treasury minister, the Paymaster General, Sir Geoffrey Robinson, the Tate had shaken a £22m windfall out of the insurance underwriters of the stolen Turners. The money had been urgently needed, Robinson said, to complete Tate Modern. Serota is reported in the March 2012 The Art Newspaper to have defended the decision to shed two highly respected curators who are specialists in British art of the 16th-19th centuries. This is not a cost-cutting exercise, a Tate spokeswoman has said, but an attempt to bring new blood and younger curators into the Gallery. Even though the modern collection was moved out of the Tate Gallery on the completion of Tate Modern, the entire pre-19th century part of the British collection remains effectively confined to a single room.
Above, Fig. 3: the back cover of ArtWatch UK Journal 20.
Above, Fig. 4: Two photographs (by courtesy of the National Gallery) showing details of the Rubens school The Triumph of Silenus. The left photograph records a pre-cleaning state, the overlapping, right photograph shows the post-cleaning state. Because the pronounced and various changes of value that can be seen within the two photographs cannot be accounted for in terms of differences of photography and processing, it must be concluded that they arise from the intervening restoration.
Below, Fig. 5: The Photographic Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz (the Max-Plank Institut).
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Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners

July 11th 2011

In a doomed attempt to persuade us that, if properly looked at, black can be white at the Tate Gallery, Sandy Nairne has performed a considerable public service. His forthcoming book “Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners” (which we review in the September/October Jackdaw magazine) will prove an important, landmark work. Ironically, had the Tate’s long-serving director, Nicholas Serota, not passed over his loyal deputy, Nairne, when appointing the first head of Tate Modern, the book would not have been written and we would not have gained so electrifying a glimpse into the workings of the Tate’s controversial management culture. In Nairne’s remarkably frank and informative account of his own central, eight years-long role in the recovery of the Tate Turner paintings which had been stolen in 1994 from a German museum (on the day when they had been dispatched without a Tate courier – see Figs. 2 & 5), we learn, for example, of “Nick” [Serota’s] confession that most of the Tate’s “positive” press stories are not real news but what he himself admits to be “merely promotional material”. On their recovery, the theft of the Turners was seen as an ill wind that might serve some institutional good – and not just because Tate had managed to possess both the works themselves and most of their insurance money.

We see how, in hope of achieving for once a Genuinely-Real-Good-News-Story on the recovered Turners, attempt was made to thwart journalists who might spoil the party by pressing questions about the “recovery operation” which had already generated open scepticism and suspicion. It was felt that the museum’s press/public relations offices might need reinforcement to cope with a forthcoming barrage of criticisms and, “On Nick’s advice”, a formidable press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired. She and the Tate’s press team groomed the gallery’s executive top brass (see Fig. 5) on how to answer or deflect journalistic probing by providing specimen questions and optimal, easily remembered answers.

We learn that the requisite answer to the first of eight dangerous questions (“How much has this operation cost Tate?”) was thought to be:

The combined costs over eight and a half years including insurance, travel, legal fees and investigative expensive expenses [sic] accounts amounts to just over three and a half million pounds. Tate took on the additional costs for the investigation when it acquired the title of the two works in 1998.

This cost breakdown has already met with fresh expressions of journalistic incredulity in recent interviews Mr Nairne has given in connection with his pending book. On June 26th in the Sunday Times’ Magazine (“Curator of the Lost Art”), the paper’s art critic, Waldermar Januszczak, published the following exchange with Nairne on the large sums of Tate insurance monies that had been demanded by the criminals holding the stolen Turners and which had been given to their German lawyer by the Tate, expressly, to hand over to them in full (- the lawyer being remunerated separately by the Tate for his go-between services):

This money was not a ransom, insists Sandy. It was ‘a fee for information leading to the recovery of the picture’. Sandy is extra careful to spell this out to me. Did you get that Waldemar? ‘A fee for information.’ Not a ransom. Well yes, I get it. But I don’t buy it. It’s legal. But it’s a grey area, right? ‘No. It’s grey as you go into it, but you have to find a way out of it that becomes clear’.

Januszczak’s account failed to convince Dr Selby Whittingham of The Independent Turner Society. In a letter to the Sunday Times (“Recovery of stolen Turners was mishandled”, July 3rd) he wrote:

In his account of the theft and recovery of two Turners, Waldemar Januszczak misses the key issues, dodged no doubt by Sandy Nairne, the author of a book about them. The pictures should never have been lent to Frankfurt in the first place in contravention of Turner’s wish for them to be part of a permanent display in London. When lent, more consideration should have been given by the Tate to the security issues, and the insurance money paid out for them to the Tate should have been used for Turneresque purposes, as the Charity Commission originally opined, subsequently changing its mind after confidential exchanges between itself and the Tate. These remain secret in disregard of the requirement that justice should be seen to be done, and the fact that the Turner bequest is the property of the public and not the Tate or the National Gallery.

In an interview Nairne gave to Martin Bailey (“My life as an undercover negotiator”, The Art Newspaper, July/August, 2011), the reporter proved more outspoken than the Sunday Times’ art critic, saying, of a Tate press release carrying the Tate director’s outright denial that one of the two pictures had been recovered (when it had been recovered and was being concealed not only from the public and the press but even from most of the Tate’s trustees – see Fig. 2), that “This was simply untrue”. The untruth was, as it was intended to be, highly effective and it killed off a threatened Sunday newspaper article – which the Tate thought likely to have been informed by a senior Scotland Yard officer. With this throttling of a story, Nairne’s “fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’, receded”.

To the anticipated question 2 (“Did you pay a ransom or a reward?”) a flat one-word denial – “No” – was advised. This, too, was untrue. Nairne (fairly) acknowledges that:

Following the recovery of the Turner paintings, Michael Daley of ArtWatch, and some members of the Turner Society, felt that questions went unanswered when the two paintings were put back on display on 7 January 2003. In the background was a potential lack of trust in the governance and management of the Tate, although the specific question was whether it had pursued the paintings in the right way. Was active pursuit even the right course of action? This writer and the Tate, contends that there was an institutional as well as a moral duty to use all means available to get the paintings back – but questions about methods and means were inevitable.

Well, questions do indeed become inevitable in museum cultures where officers feel morally licenced to use “all means available”. Nairne, again fairly, acknowledges the anxieties of others such as Vernon Rapley, the Head of the Art and Antiques Squad until 2010, who explained:

As a police officer I have a very clear view – if you offer a reward for the return with no questions asked, effectively you are available for a buy-back of the commodity, and you will fuel further crime.

Nairne cites our own letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 November 2005, which read:

“You reported (November 5th) that, in the BBC programme Underworld Art Deal, the man who supervised the Tate’s recovery of its two stolen Turners, Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), admits: ‘We knew in all the different stages of the investigation that a reward would be necessary, that a reward would be involved, that a reward initially offered by the insurers might need to be enhanced. I think that was clear from very early on.’ Not clear to the Tate’s Board of trustees, it would seem. In January we asked the present chairman, Paul Myners, to say ‘by what means, if any,’ Tate trustees had been assured that ‘no part of the £3.5 million payments might fall into the pockets of the thieves’. In reply, he wrote: ‘You will appreciate that details around the recovery operation have to remain confidential. However I can confirm that the Tate did not pay a ransom or a reward.’ The leap from the £180,000 for ‘intelligence’ originally offered by the insurers to the now reported £3.3 million reward to underworld figures is indeed a worthy subject for investigation. How shaming it is to the arts that such an investigation is carried out by a television company.

When we had put directly to the Tate’s chairman Paul (now Lord) Myners (see Figs. 3 & 4) the discrepancy between his own and Nairne’s comments on the very large reward paid to criminals holding the Turners, he responded through the Tate’s “Head of Legal”, Jacqueline Hill, in a letter of 10 May 2006 which comprised yet another set of questions and answers, the questions being repetitions of mine to Myners. Thus, in answer to my question to the Tate’s chairman:

You have continued to insist – even after Sandy Nairne’s disclosure that a reward had been paid – that no reward had been paid. You say that you do so on your own ‘reading of the [Tate’s Court] file.’ Perhaps you and I have been reading different files. I cannot, on the material I have read, imagine what might have caused you to draw such a conclusion. On what grounds do you discount the testimony of Mr Nairne, who headed Tate’s recovery operations from start to finish?

there came dissembling pedantry, evasion and repetitious assertion from the Tate’s Head of Legal:

Mr Nairne gave an interview for a television programme, he did not give a ‘testimony’. We consider that his words have been taken out of context. As stated above, the DM10m payment was neither a ransom nor a reward.

To my question to the chairman:

Are you not aware that the Court File makes clear that all parties privy to the payments, understood that a special dedicated account was set up into which DM10m was to be deposited by the Tate, precisely in advance payment for the (hoped for) ‘hand over’ of the paintings?

the Tate’s Head of Legal countered:

The Court File makes clear that Tate’s actions were sanction [sic] by the relevant British and German authorities and the Tate acted as it was entitled to do.”

To our question:

Are you not aware that Mr Liebrucks [the lawyer acting for the criminals holding the paintings] was expressly given to understand that he was to be playing no part in a law enforcement operation – that, to the contrary: 1) he had been given immunity from prosecution by the German police authorities; 2) that he need make and did make no disclosure of the thieves’ identity, and, 3) that as Mr Nairne disclosed in his April 2000 affidavit to the High Court, the police authorities themselves were endeavouring along with the Tate’s officers to ‘establish a degree of trust’ with Liebrucks and his (claimed) clients?

the Tate’s Head of Legal replied:

Mr Myners is aware of this. The information is in the Court files.

The criminals were never caught despite their eminently traceable links to the lawyer who received their money. If this might seem like negligence of the part of the Frankfurt police, it should be said that Nairne reveals that the Frankfurt police had been kept in the dark about the money/paintings transfers by the German prosecutors with the knowledge and support of the British police authorities:

Keeping the final stage confidential remained paramount. The Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to keep the Frankfurt police away from the detailed arrangements, while Scotland Yard officers remained involved as advisers.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Sandy Nairne, now director of the National Portrait Gallery, surveys the Tate’s recovered Turners in the Sunday Times magazine’s photo-portrait (detail) by Manuel Vazquez.
Above, Fig. 2: An examination of Nicholas Serota’s regime at the Tate. In November 2000, the Tate’s director (pictured above, right) issued the following statement:
Turner Paintings
There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of the two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the the Tate.
Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.”
As described, left, this statement served to kill off an imminent newspaper story that would have disclosed the recovery of the first stolen Turner.
When asked by the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt for the loan of the two Turner paintings, “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” and “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis” for an exhibition “Goethe and the Visual Arts”, Nicholas Serota replied in a letter of 13 December 1993:
…I am delighted to confirm that we will be able to lend both works…We will not send a courier, but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/de-palletisation of the cases at the airport in Frankfurt and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle. We will arrange for the delivery of the cases to the airport in London to be supervised. All overland transport must be in vehicles with air-ride suspension and temperature control…”
On 26 April 1994, a registrar at the Tate arranging “all risks” and “nail to nail” insurance cover, at £12 million for each of the two paintings being loaned to Franfurt, wrote “Courier: works will be escorted to the airport, and thence by a British Museum courier. Agents will provide personal supervision throughout.” When we asked the British Museum’s courier of works (on paper) to the Frankfurt exhibition, if he had accompanied the Tate paintings from the airport in Frankfurt, he replied that he could not recall having done so but, he added, that did not mean that he “might not have done”.
Above, Fig. 3: The Evening Standard Magazine of 23 March 2009 reported that: “Lady Myners threw a Gothic extravaganza for the Contemporary Art Society, of which she is chairman. Lord Myners’ inamorata led her victims, sorry, guests down to the Shunt Vaults by London Bridge for a banquet of lamb and a goblet of Perrier-Jouët…and Lord Myners, himself smooth in plum velvet and black satin, enjoyed the auction, raising £180,000 despite the no-show of Fred the Shred who clearly has other things to spend his pension on…
Above, Fig. 4: a report in the Daily Telegraph of 27 February 2009. In ArtWatch UK Journal 26 we reported that the former Tate chairman, Lord Myners, who had given close to £10,000 to Gordon Brown’s campaign to become Prime Minister, was one of two businessman ennobled by the late Labour Government and dropped into office – in Myner’s case as City Minister. (See also “Lord Myners Watch”, ArtWatch UK Journal 25.) When the much-mocked Myners was chairman at the Tate, 23% of the gallery’s total investment fund of £27m was placed in hedge funds. As the Evening Standard reported (“Tate invites trouble by putting all its nest-eggs in one hedge”, 14 January 2010), experts in charity fund management advise clients to hold no more 8% in hedge funds and most charities have no holdings in such risky ventures. The outcome of the Tate’s hedge fund dabbling was a £1m loss – plus a £1.5m loss in the charity’s share portfolio.
Above, Fig. 5: Tate players, Sandy Nairne, left, Nicholas Serota, centre, and Stephen Deuchar, right, announcing the recovery of the stolen Turners at a press conference in December 2002.
David Verey, Lord Myners’ predecessor (until March 26 2004) as Tate Chairman, also had a bumpy transition into a post-Tate afterlife. On immediately becoming the Chairman of the Art Fund, Verey authorised a large payment (£75,000) that breached the Fund’s own rules, to the Tate. It served to reduce the Tate’s own proportion of its embarrassing purchase cost of a (discounted £600,000) work by a sitting Tate Trustee, Chris Ofili – which very action Verey had commended to Serota while he was still the chairman of trustees at the Tate. The £75,000 payment, which should not have been made because the Ofili work had already been bought under Verey’s Tate chairmanship, was imprecisely described in Art Fund accounts as a “Discounted Museum Purchase”. The Tate connections with the Art Fund have continued to grow: David Barrie, the Fund’s highly regarded director of 17 years, resigned over differences with his new chairman Verey in 2009. He was replaced by Tate Britain’s departing director Stephen Deuchar (above right) who promptly declared “I have ideas for taking the Art Fund [previously known as the National Art Collections Fund] in new directions” – one being “investing in people [e.g. museum curators], alongside objects”. This last, depressingly recalls the performance of the Arts Council which discovered some years ago that it could give its grants to salaried and superannuated arts administrators as easily as to freelance artists and performers. At Deuchar’s leaving party at the Tate, Nicholas Serota (whose offer to return the improperly obtained £75,000 to the Art Fund had been declined by the Art Fund under Verey’s chairmanship but at a meeting which he had not attended) said to Deuchar: “We feel that our friendship to you will be amply repaid.” In January 2010, the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins noted: “ the gallery has just announced that it has been able to buy eight beautiful (if disturbing) William Blake works on paper… with the help of a £141,000 grant from the Art Fund, now run by Stephen Deuchar [who] stepped down as director of Tate Britain in December, with Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, quipping that they expected to be the happy recipients of the charity’s largesse. And so, reader it has come to pass – just a little bit quicker than expected.”
Above, Fig. 6: Tate staff shown hanging the recovered Turners (Guardian photograph) in December 2002. A Tate press release announced: “Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered. Tate is pleased to announce that two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen from an exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, on 28 July 1994, have both been recovered and will go on show at Tate britain from 8 January…’Shade and Darkness’ was recovered on 19 July but no announcement was made for fear it might jeopardise the recovery of the second painting . ‘Light and Colour’ was recovered on 16 december 2002 and returned to this country on 18 December 2002…”
Above, Fig. 7: Sandy Nairne explains to The Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey, how, when asked by Tate director Nicholas Serota to head the gallery’s attempt to recover two stolen Turners, he had been “thrown into a situation I knew nothing about. But it was an extreme example of what we do as curators. We need to be incredibly discreet about those who offer us loans. The mix of working with artists, dealers and collectors can sometimes be pretty complex…
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