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20 January 2014

THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT:
1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art;
2) The British Museum;
3) The National Museum of Kolkata;
4) The Academy of Art in Perugia;
And, the Burrell Collection next?

STOP PRESS: On Tuesday January 21st the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) was passed in the Scottish Parliament without a vote. Barely half a dozen MSPs attended. They unanimously supported the Bill (although one called for some published account of the proposed £45m development plan). There is no minimum number of votes necessary for a bill to gain approval.

Neil MacGregor and Thomas Campbell, the directors respectively of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will now be able to make arrangements for the first two stops in the planned international tour of plum Burrell works to help raise £45m to repair and refurbish the Burrell Collection building, the roof of which has been left leaking for decades. The desultory non-debate took place during an international spate of damaged sculptures.

Accident at Perugia

As we reported on 14 October 2013, when Canova’s sculpture The Killing of Priam was being detached from the wall of the Academy of Art in Perugia to be shipped to an exhibition at Assisi, just 24 kilometres away, it was dropped and smashed beyond repair (as Tomaso Montanari had recently disclosed). The removal operation was headed by the shipping company Alessandro Maggi di Pietrasanta.

Accident at Kolkata

On 14 January this year, the Art Newspaper reported another catastrophic accident, this time at the National Museum of Kolkata where a rare 2,000 years old carved lion was dropped and smashed when being moved within the museum during renovation (see Figs. 1 and 2). The Art Newspaper was quick to claim that the accident “highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums” but many major well-resourced and staffed western museums have proved accident-prone in their treatment of sculptures in recent years – and in one respect, as discussed below, the Kolkata museum procedures would seem superior.

Accidents at the British Museum

Consider first the record of the British Museum. In the 2007 book “The Museum: Behind the scenes at the British Museum” (written to accompany a fawning ten-part BBC television series), it is said that:

“Sending precious ancient objects around the world is all very well in theory, but in reality it’s a massive operation fraught with practical and official difficulties. Before any loan is considered, the British Museum has to be certain that the destination museum can provide the right conditions and security. ‘We can only lend responsibly’, says Neil MacGregor. ‘The museums we’re sending to have to be able to ensure their safety. Beijing now has a museum that can accept international loans: it’s new, and it reaches international standards, and it’s very pleasing that they chose to open it with an exhibition of British Museum treasures. Shanghai, being a more cosmopolitan city, has had a good museum for a long time – and there are places opening up in the Chinese provinces that we’ll be happy to work with. It’s easier and safer to transport these big, valuable objects now but it’s just as important to be certain that they’ll be safe at the other end.’”

With regard to safety, as we reported on 6-8 September, when, in 2006, the British Museum packed the peerless and desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings (see Figs. 8 and 9) and sent them all by lorry to Luxembourg from where they were flown to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 11 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s doorways were too low. No one, it seems, had thought to measure either the doors or the packing cases.

It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door”. This meant “that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs. Even then we had to unpack three of the modules to get a bit more clearance”, said the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day, in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes (see “The Museum”, BBC2, 2007).

When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” The injuries have not been identified and no photographs of them have been published. When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they in turn would not pass through the door of the reading room – even when the door’s frame was removed.

Accidents at the Metropolitan Museum

As for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Burrell Trustees will have further grounds for qualms when considering authorisation of loan requests to that venue. In 2008 an Andrea della Robbia terra cotta, St. Michael the Archangel, fell from the walls and smashed (see Fig. 4). So far as we know, it has not yet been repaired and returned to view.

Six years earlier, in 2002, a much larger and art historically more important sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s life-sized carved marble Adam (Fig. 6) – the first monumental, classically inspired nude of the Renaissance – also fell to the ground and smashed into many pieces (see Fig. 7). It did so when its stand collapsed. We must assume that like the Andrea della Robbia, this work, too, has still not been repaired and returned to the gallery. On 28 January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times that neither of the Met’s smashed Renaissance sculptures were back on view (“Despite Assurances, Met Finds Artworks Aren’t restored Overnight”). The Museum’s press office has not responded to either of our inquiries last week on the present condition and whereabouts of the two Renaissance sculptures. At the time of its collapse in 2002, the Met said that the Lombardo would be back on display in two years time. Fortunately, both of these accidents occurred after hours and when no visitors were present. In both cases no museum staff witnessed the accidents.

Unlike the Kolkata Museum (and the National Gallery in London, which supplied ArtWatch with photographs of the painted panel by Beccafumi which was dropped and smashed when being dismounted from a temporary exhibition within the gallery), the Met permitted no photographs to be taken of the Tullio Lombardo sculpture, which witnesses reported to have been smashed into hundreds of pieces.

The Met defends both that original suppression of evidence and the continuing secrecy surrounding the two restorations. In January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported that the unusual seclusion in which the Lombardo restoration was being carried out had generated suspicions that the sculpture is beyond repair. This lack of institutional transparency was defended by the chairman of the museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Ian Wardropper, on the grounds that seeing images of broken sculptures would be “detrimental to museumgoers’ ability to appreciate such pieces once repaired”. Mr Wardropper suggested on that occasion that the work was probably three years from re-emerging and he attributed the increasing length of time to an original decision to restore the statue “in the most meticulous and durable way possible.”

The Met believes itself to have been hampered in its goal, Mr Kennedy reported, because “few pristine life-size museum marbles like the Adam have ever shattered, so reliable technical information about restoring one is limited.” Nonetheless, Mr Wardropper was bullish about the significance of the protracted restoration. A large insurance pay-out had been made (the size of which the Met also declines to disclose), and it was decided to use this money for a monumental restoration research project on the best means of repairing smashed carvings.

It has been promised that at the restoration’s end, the repaired and cleaned work will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a special exhibition to be housed in a new gallery dedicated to the Venetian Renaissance. That the work itself is of great art historical and artistic significance is not in dispute (see comments at Fig. 6). At the same time, consideration might be given to the artful propagandistic means by which museums can contrive to present the eventual recovery of needlessly or carelessly lost or damaged works as Public Relations Triumphs – see “Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”.

In January 2010 the Met’s then new director, Thomas P. Campbell, said that after initial doubts he fully supported the lengthy restoration: “The sculpture is 500 years old. Whether it’s off display for eight years rather than five is insignificant.” The sculpture is now at least 521 years old and has been off display for twelve years. We are told that research carried out on the safest means of pinning fragments of marble together has established that the most commonly used material – stainless steel – has the great disadvantage of having greatly more tensile strength than the marble itself. It is not clear why this “discovery” required such lengthy and expensive research: it has long been recognised that the iron pins used to re-assemble the Parthenon during its 1930s restoration had resulted in fractures of the marble, either as a result of earth tremors or the expansion of the iron through rusting (the restorers had not followed the ancient Greek practice of encasing the iron in lead to prevent corrosion). The consequence of using steel (or titanium, as is now being used on the Parthenon) for pinning today, is that when sculptures are next dropped or severely shaken, the pins can shatter the marble from within, introducing many more and greatly more serious injuries. It should, therefore, go without saying that moving stone works that have been repaired with metal pins inescapably compounds the risks.

Even if the vote in the Scottish Parliament should go in favour of Glasgow Life’s attempt to overturn Burrell’s wishes and binding instructions against foreign travels, the trustees of his collection might nonetheless, when considering authorising a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflect on the fact that the Lombardo sculpture was smashed only because (as we had reported in the ArtWatch UK Journal 17 in 2002) it had been removed in 2000 from the cherry-wood pedestal on which it had (presumably) stood since its 1936 acquisition by the Met, and placed on a modern conservation-standard base and shallow plinth constructed with MDO (Medium Density Overlay Plywood). At that time, the then director, Philippe de Montebello, promised that, after an anticipated two years restoration, “The figure will stand again on a solid pedestal and, frankly, only the cognoscenti will know.” A dozen years on, that claim has yet to be tested. What can be said, is that the sculptures at the Burrell Collection presently stand securely on wonderfully stable stone bases (see Figs. 11 and 12) and, as ArtWatch pointed out to the Scottish Parliamentary hearing on September 19th, they would remain safely so if “as we most strongly urge, the Parliament rejects the request to overturn Burrell’s still perfectly well-founded prohibition on foreign travels for works in collection.”

Michael Daley

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Smashed at the National Museum of Kolkata
Above, Figs. 1 and 2: A 2,000 years old carved Rampurva Lion Capital that was smashed when being moved during renovations at the Kolkata (“Calcutta”) museum. Photos by courtesy of http://www.ndtv.com
Smashed at the Academy of Art in Perugia
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Canova’s plaster maquette of The Killing of Priam, a Homeric episode which together with other famous scenes of classic literature inspired Canova in one of his most famous series of bas-reliefs.
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 4: Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terra-cotta relief, Saint Michael the Archangel, which fell from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and smashed (fortunately, overnight when the museum was free of visitors). As Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times of 2 July 2008, the work appeared to have flipped and landed on its back sparing absolutely catastrophic damage and leaving what a museum spokesman described as “eminently restorable” fragments.
The museum issued a statement claiming that:
“while the Metropolitan routinely and thoroughly inspects its pedestals and wall mounts to reconfirm their structural integrity, it will initiate a reinvigorated museumwide examination as expeditiously as possible in the days that follow this unfortunate accident.” (The Met has not answered our inquiry as to the present condition and whereabouts of the sculpture.)
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the dust-wrapper on Patricia Fortini Brown’s 1996 and 1999 book Venice & Antiquity – which work, the author writes, was a response to a challenge posed by “the issues raised in David Lowenthal’s stimulating and unabashedly eclectic book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985)…”
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 6: Tullio Lombardo’s carved Adam from the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin which was built in 1488-93. Professor Brown says of this figure:
“Tullio’s work represents a new level of engagement with the Latin past. Not only is he the most classical of any Venetian artist to date, but he directs his archaeological tendencies towards highly original solutions…”
Still in “restoration” after twelve years
Above, Figs. 7 and 8: From left, Tullio Lombardo’s “Adam” before it was damaged in the Metropolitan Museum, and virtual images (Ron Street/Metropolitan Museum of Art) of restoration and of degrees of stress.
Requiring that “a few little conservation things” be done at the British Museum
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Top, the Assyrian Nimrud Palace wall reliefs gallery at the British Museum which was stripped down and sent to Shanghai; above, a Nimrud Palace carving of a winged genius.
It is hard to see the removal of those reliefs from that gallery as constituting any other than a trauma. As the museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day describes it:
“The Nimrud Palace wall reliefs are mounted on brackets that are fixed to the wall, then the brackets are covered over with plaster for display purposes. So first of all we have to cut away the plaster, then extract the reliefs from the wall, remove the brackets and get the objects on to a forklift truck. They go straight on to what we call a module – an L-shape stand made of MDF and pine – that holds and supports them , so you can forklift them without actually touching them. The reliefs are made of alabaster which scratches very easily, so you need to minimize the amount of handling…”
Above: Figs. 11 and 12, classical antiquities (presently) safe and secure at the Burrell Collection Museum.
TURNERS STOLEN FROM THE TATE WHEN ON LOAN TO A PROVINCIAL MUSEUM IN GERMANY
A “Genuine” Tate Good News Story
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Top, Nicholas Serota (centre) and his two (now departed) lieutenants, Sandy Nairne (left) and Stephen Deuchar (right) at a press conference in December 2002 celebrating the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners after the payment of a ransom of over £3m; above, a report in the Daily Telegraph of the role played by the Tate’s chairman of trustees, Lord Myners, in the recovery of the two Turners that had been stolen when loaned in 1994.
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18th July 2012

L. O. L. It’s Peeping Tom Time at the National Gallery!

A little over a decade ago we were requested to move away from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by a member of the National Gallery’s education department who was about to give a talk. Her narrative thrust on this great canvas (which had been glued by restorers on to a sheet of “Sundeala” board) proved more sociological than artistic or art historical. It had a villain – the original patron – who, the audience learned, had been a rich dirty old man who supplied extravagantly expensive pigments for an ostentatiously sexy depiction of a victim – an abused mythical woman – who would provide literary cover for his private delectation within his own apartment.

If the Gallery had then hit a low with such travestying philistine cant, we now find that in its drive to increase visitor numbers and extend social constituencies, it has jettisoned the very distinction between Art and Life. Pictures acquired at immense expense in the name of the Public Good are no longer treated as self-sufficient imaginatively crafted works that merit reciprocally reflective attention from the viewer but as pretexts for real-life events of a titillating, humanly exploitative and degrading nature.

Thus, in the bureaucratised stew that is the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival, the National Gallery has permitted Titian’s great poesies to serve as springboards to three “edgy” artists. In 2001, in a drawing for Jackdaw (see Fig. 4), we had already marked one of this triumverate, Mark Wallinger, as a clown ripe for elevation to the National Gallery Pantheon, and today, with few honourable exceptions, the newspaper art critics have duly fawned over his efforts:

Inspired by the voyeurism that Ovid loved to describe, Wallinger has created a live peep show featuring a naked woman taking a shower. Locked away in a black wooden box, the showering woman can be spied upon, in the round, through four openings…”, said Waldemar Januszczak, in The Sunday Times.
Where Januszczak (who recently attacked the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) aptly dismissed Wallenger’s degrading stunt as “exhibition bait to draw the crowds” and likened it to “those ads you see in lads’ mags that use naked girls to sell a car”, in the Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston saw Wallinger’s wheeze as “atmospheric”.
Ben Luke, in the Evening Standard, takes Wallinger as a spell-casting magician:
Wallinger casts us as Actaeon, the voyeur.”
In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager had “laughed out loud”, noting that “In a typical piece of Wallinger democratic wit”, the artist had “advertised for performers called Diana to pose naked, reclining in a bath, washing, looking in a mirror; each does so in turn for two hours.” Like Luke, Wullschlager thrills at the artist’s magically manipulative powers: “We, like Actaeon, are peeping Toms arrived at an unfamiliar place…We queue to gawp, not knowing what to expect, and are ridiculed as voyeurs”.

We are so cast only if we choose to play the chump-role that is offered as a legitimately “performative” (to use Sir Nicholas Serota’s term-of-the-moment) contribution to art. We do not have to do so. We do not have to be complicit with museum educators’ perverse cultural de-constructions. Rather, we might ask them why they do not consider this particular use of real people – women hired-in for the duration – to be a form of “sexploitation”. We might also ask them, as public educators, to explain the connection that they believe Wallinger’s stunt has with Ovid’s stories and Titian’s depictions of them. Even if Wallinger cannot see that Acteon was the very opposite of a voyeur – a man who had had the great misfortune accidentally to intrude upon a bathing goddess – might we not ask why no one at the National Gallery felt able to disabuse him.

Michael Daley

Ruined Renoirs

Our examination of the fate of more than twenty Clark Art Institute Renoirs now showing at the Royal Academy will follow in the next post.

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Above, Fig. 1: Left, Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon”, as currently on display at the National Gallery (Detail, photograph by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images); right, the same painting in 1993 before its second restoration at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Above, Fig. 2: Press coverage in the Daily Mail (July 16th 2012) of the responses to the National Gallery’s offer to gawp for free at naked women bathing.
Above, Fig. 3: A National Gallery invitation to the Credit Suisse-sponsored naked women bathing event which reads:
“Start your weekend with an evening experience at the National Gallery. With live music, a pop-up bar, Lates guided tours and special Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 events, the National Gallery is the perfect place to meet and make friends or lose yourself in the collection.”
Above, Fig. 4: The author’s depiction of Mark Wallinger.
Below, Fig. 5: Quentin Lett’s coverage (Daily Mail, 14th July 2012) of our 11 July post “Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone”.
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28 February 2012

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

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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5th October 2011

Sir’s not always right

Sir Simon Jenkins says a Tate Gallery restorer’s repainting of one third of John Martin’s flood-damaged “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” (from a Photoshop composite of an old photograph and another version of Martin’s painting) is brilliant. He says that the ruins of Pompeii itself, having been largely destroyed when bombed by the RAF “as part of its casual assault on European civilisation” should now be reconstructed according to our idea of how they might have been originally. He says that we should no longer fret about making mistakes when reconstructing the past because “seeking to re-interpet, even reconstruct, some works of the past no longer need attract jeers of ‘Disneyfication’, and that too is preferable to terminal decay.” Given that Sir Simon is chairman of the National Trust, these sentiments are alarming as well as wrong-headed: the past, or what remains of it, is not ours to remake on modern prejudices and fancies – and with an eye on the tourist trade. There have been signs enough that the commercial exploitation of history and its surviving artefacts is gaining the upperhand over an appropriate respect for the integrity and authenticity of what has survived – not to mention evidence of a declining recognition of our own cultural limitations in these matters.

Michael Daley

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Above: Sir Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.
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17th July 2011

Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow

There have been extremely dramatic developments this week in connection with two of our campaigns. On 13 December 2010 we supported an appeal (see Fig. 2) from scholars and conservators in Poland who opposed the lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to a forthcoming blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in November 2010 to February 2012. (We published a photograph of a National Galley painting that was recently dropped and smashed when being taken down from a special exhibition at the National Gallery – see Fig. 3. Today, the Observer reports the vandalism of a Poussin painting yesterday at the National Gallery – see Fig. 4. The Poussin was attacked at the gallery in 1978. The National Gallery, we understand, is presently considering reducing the number of its warders.) That appeal from Poland and our support for it, was reported in the Observer of 12 December 2010. We were subsequently attacked in personal and organisational terms by Count Adam Zamoyski, the board chairman of the Czartoryski Museum, which owns the Leonardo. To those attacks (and almost identical ones made by the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones) we responded in a post of 29 December 2010.

On Thursday this week (14 July 2011) it was reported that, “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.

Last Monday (11 July 2011) we reported the electrifying disclosures contained in Sandy Nairne’s forthcoming book on the recovery of two stolen Turners (“Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners”). Today, the Independent on Sunday examines the deal by the Tate and the insurers of its stolen Turners that was brokered by the then Labour Government’s Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson (“The stolen Turners, the Serbian underworld, and a £24m insurance job”). As the paper’s Matthew Bell writes, the deal was one “in which the Tate received a £24m payout but then kept most of the money” when the paintings were recovered, in order to help the funding of Tate Modern.

It is further reported that the insurer, Robert Hiscox, describes that payout (a “£22 million bonanza” according to Geoffrey Robinson) as having been a “good deal for the country, but a terrible deal for us”. Admitting that he had acted out of his love of art and a wish to help the Tate, Mr Hiscox (quite sensationally) claims that at the time the help was given, “We knew who had the paintings”. Can that be the case?

Mr Hiscox has explained that although this knowledge had been gained, the insurers had believed that the paintings “would be in a rotten condition by now” when, in fact, as a Tate press release of 20 December 2002 (“Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered”) put it, both paintings were “in good condition” when recovered.

In his forthcoming book Sandy Nairne claims or implies that Geoffrey Robinson had been in error to contend that the two Turners were known to been stolen by “a group of particularly nasty Serbs”, and to have “misleadingly (indeed mistakenly)” stated that the insurance money had been needed for building Tate Modern. This would seem to be another very finely nuanced grey zone because, on Nairne’s own forthcoming account, the Tate (on the initiative of its Director of Finance and Adminstration, Alex Beard) had sought to unlock the “dormant” stolen Turners’ insurance £24m payout, precisely so as to “enable building projects to proceed in connection with Tate Modern and the galleries at Tate Millbank.”

As the Independent on Sunday reports, Mr Nairne publishes a press statement drafted in November 2000 when one of the paintings had already been recovered. It read:

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, the Tate has always been interested in 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 Tate. – Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.

Matthew Bell writes “Sir Nicholas’s office denies that he had misled journalists, adding that the draft statement was never released to the press.” The Tate director’s office explained that:“At the time this statement was drafted the recovery was at a critical stage, which is why the wording in this draft was deliberately obscure”; and added, “As with all press statements it would have been reviewed and revised in response to specific questions received from a Journalist.”

A spokesman for Mr Nairne is reported to have said yesterday:

After eight years of not being able to talk about the operation to recover the Turners, Sandy just really wanted to get it off his chest.”

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th century “Lady with an Ermine” which has been loaned abroad many times (for fees) by the Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.
Above, Fig. 2: the Appeal to ArtWatch UK from the President of the Krakow Division of the Association of Art Historians. A leading conservator in Krakow warned that “If you transport a picture panel such as ‘The Lady with an Ermine’, even the most ideal methods in the form of modern environmental chambers or special anti-shock frames are not able sufficiently protect the work against a variety of vibrations, shocks or changes of pressure.” Furthermore, “By allowing the painting to travel we create yet another serious threat, greatly extending the area of possible human error, while increasing the likelihood of the impact of the so-called independent factors.
Above, Fig. 3: The National Gallery’s 16th century wood panel, 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.”
Above, Fig. 4: a photograph by Steven Dear which is published in today’s Observer, accompanying the report by Cherry Wilson of an attack made yesterday on Poussin’s “The Adoration of the Golden Calf” at the National Gallery, allegedly by a 57-year-old man.
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July 11th 2011

Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners

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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ArtWatchUK_11_7_11_Tate_stolen_turners.pdf

 

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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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