Hey now, hey now, my bunting’s back! You can take it to the bank(sy)

21 02 2013

Banksy’s bunting boy soon after installation (image: Barcroft Media via dailymail.co.uk)

Alternatively, just take the Banksy. Either way, I think someone’s been taking some creative licence with the disappearing Banksy that has just reappeared on an auctioneer’s rostrum in Miami.

Fascinated as I am about the transformation of street art to commodity, I’ve written about Banksy and his compadres a number of times before… here, and here. So my attention was piqued when I heard about the chunk of wall removed in London’s Turnpike Lane and transported to Fine Art Auctions Miami (FAAM). Of course, the otherwise unremarkable concrete render was embellished with a 2012 Banksy, an artwork that now has a title: Slave Labor (Bunting Boy). Given the non-Anglicised spelling of ‘Labor’ (vs. ‘Labour’), I suspect the title was conjured up by the American auction house rather than bestowed upon the work of art by its British creator. It also has a lot number and an eye-wateringly high estimate – $500,000-700,000 – for its appearance at FAAM (link to catalogue entry… here).

But that’s not the end of the story.


Banksy’s bunting-less boy, still in London. (image: Tolga Akmen/LNP via dailymail.co.uk)

I notice that when it was installed, the stencil incorporated actual Union Jack bunting (see the image at the very top of the post). But according to an article in the Mail Online, soon after it appeared, someone nicked the bunting. And so it remained. Until very recently. Compare the photos. The one immediately above shows the stencil in situ in London after the bunting went AWOL. Note: no bunting. And the image below, from the FAAM catalogue? Oh, look! Bunting. Who was responsible for that? It seems highly unlikely that Banksy had anything to do with the ‘restoration’ of the work. If he was not consulted, which given his famous reluctance to even authenticate his works, seems unlikely to me, surely this represents fairly blatant disregard for his moral rights. Not that he would care too much, I wouldn’t imagine. But, really. Naughty, naughty. Whoever you are. Unless, of course, the auction house used a file image to illustrate the catalogue, which would also be very misleading. And it also means someone will need to whack in a string of bunting prior to the sale anyway to match the catalogue illustration.


Hey now, hey now, my bunting’s back! (Image via http://www.faamiami.com)

The stencil appeared in London in May 2012. General consensus was that it was a comment on the use of child labour (I remain a stickler for British spelling) in the production of memorabilia for QEII’s Diamond Jubilee. The choice of location was significant. The shop Banksy chose to grace with one of his stencils, Poundland, was at the centre of a scandal in recent years when it was revealed that children as young as seven worked in the Indian factory that produced some of the things being flogged in the store.

It probably shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that someone has decided it would be best transformed into cold, hard folding stuff, rather than enriching the community. The wall now…


Gone to the bank(sy). (image: Reuters, via theage.com.au)


When too many cooks don’t necessarily spoil the broth…

21 02 2013

ImageQuick post today with a link to a great article by a board member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dr Luther Brady, in which he compares art authentication with the approaches used for medical science.

It struck a chord with me. I’ve been thinking about similar things myself recently. In an email response to a query from a friend recently, I wrote the following: 

My overall response to all your questions is that painting authentication is an inexact science. Given the number of people making a living out of playing the system and doing a good job of making forgeries that include all of the things that experts use to authenticate works of art, it is impossible for anyone to be 100% right 100% of the time. It all comes down to terminology – if the term ‘authentication’ is used, there is an assumption that an objective and scientific rigour has been applied to assessing authorship.
Taking a different perspective – let’s think about it in the context of medical science. You have a sore gut and go to your GP. The GP offers an expert opinion about what may be wrong with you and provides suitable remedies and prescriptions. A week later, you’re still unwell, so you return – ie: your GP was wrong. GP sends you to a specialist, who also offers an opinion. Another week later, still sick (ie: your specialist was also wrong in the expert opinion she formed), you head back to the specialist, who recommends a biopsy. In the lab, what’s really bothering you is identified and a course of treatment plotted out. Lesson from this, as in the art world – no expert is ever 100% right 100% of the time. But the art world is particularly tricky as you have unscrupulous people setting things up to also fool the scientists in the lab, as well as fabricating ‘symptoms’ (provenance etc) to deliberately fool experts.
The most effective way to authenticate a painting is to combine all three approaches – connoisseurship (expert knowledge of an artist’s ‘hand’), scholarship (examination of the historical record) and scientific examination. If all three boxes are ticked, there’s a better-than-most chance that the work of art is OK. But it’s still not 100%. There are too many variables.

Are the days of the artrepreneur numbered?

8 02 2013

Image via forbes.com

Interesting question arrived in my inbox today via Michael Mocksim. “You think the Frank Dunphy style era is over?”

Frank Dunphy, of course, was Damien Hirst’s manager – of sorts. According to his entry on the always reliable Wikipedia (note – tongue wedged firmly in cheek there) Dunphy is a ‘business manager, accountant and entrepreneur’. His coup de grâce was organising Hirst’s ‘straight to auction’ sale of new artworks at Sotheby’s in 2008 – the so-called ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever‘.  $200 million worth of art sold over two days. Not bad. Not bad at all.

No idea what commission rate Sotheby’s gave him. It’s not unheard of for the big auction houses to give clients 0% commission – they may have been happy to make do with the buyers’ premium they raked in on the day. A single vendor and the associated massively reduced costs in admin and customer service that come with it, not to mention the avalanche of publicity the event generated for the auction house? I’d do it for 0% from the vendor and 20% or so from the buyers. Yep. Not too shabby. So, let’s be generous and presume a 0% commission rate for Mr. Hirst. That means 10% of total sales to Frank Dunphy. 10% of $200 million. Yeah. Them’s big biscuits.

So, have we seen the last of the Dunphy-esque art entrepreneurial management style? I believe that people like Frank Dunphy appear on the scene when a market is being driven by speculative bubbles, regardless of the industry. Then they retreat once the bubbles start bursting – or are sidelined by the same people who were happy to exploit their entrepreneurial talents while things were going well. But when the cash stops flowing in? Why pay a sizeable percentage of your hard-earned dollars to someone who no longer manifests the alchemical gifts he or she seemed to harness during the boom-time.

The smell of money brings them out of the woodwork. Don’t worry. They’ll be back.

When is a fake not a fake?

18 01 2013

Sounds like a philosophical conundrum along the lines of “when a tree falls in a distant forest etc”, doesn’t it? But the answer is quite straight-forward. Context –  I was having a conversation with a very well-connected art-world friend yesterday, and we were bemoaning the misuse of terminology when people refer to questionable works of art.

It’s really simple.

‘Forgery’: a work of art made to deceive.

‘Fake’: a work of art which has been identified as misattributed (credited to the wrong artist), but not in a way that was deliberately intended to deceive.

So the terminology is very simple to grasp.


Wolfgang Beltracchi with the forged Heinrich Campendonk painting sold at auction in 2006 for $3.6 million. (Image via Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com)

Example of a forgery: the paintings made by German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi in the manner of modern masters including Léger and Ernst. He fabricated two bogus collections – the ‘Knops’ and ‘Jägers’ – to give his forgeries a provenance and managed to dupe many prominent experts and collectors including comedian and writer, Steve Martin. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison in October 2011 for forging fourteen paintings worth $45 million (the whole messy saga is documented in an extensive article in Vanity Fair, which you can find… here.)

No question at all that the paintings Beltracchi made – and it’s suspected that he may have made many thousands that have yet to be (and most likely will never be) detected – were forgeries.


Gerard Vaughan, former Director of the NGV, with the Gallery’s fake Van Gogh painting. (Image via http://www.theage.com.au)

Example of a fake: I’m always pulling this one out as an example, but it’s so clear-cut it’s hard to resist. The National Gallery of Victoria’s painting-formally-known-as-Van-Gogh. It had been in the NGV collection as a work by the Dutch master since 1940, but in 2007, the Van Gogh Museum questioned its attribution, and declared it to have been made by hands other than Van Gogh’s. It was determined that it was made by one of his contemporaries, but that there was no intention to deceive by the misattribution. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. 

Sounds easy, right? Sadly, as is often the case in the art world, there are so many – certainly more than fifty! – shades of grey. Ponder the following:

  • The Picasso print I have seen that is an original. No doubt. But at some point in its history, some turkey has decided it needed a signature and edition number to make it more marketable (for that, read ‘more valuable’). So the print, which was issued without a signature or edition number, is, and remains authentic. But the pencil signature and edition number? Forged. What does that mean for the authenticity of the work of art as a whole? 
  • The lovely little unsigned ink drawing that passed through Leonard Joel’s weekly auction room while I was running the art department that may (or may not) have been an original Charles Blackman. But in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the vendor’s unwillingness to spend any time or money researching further, we had to give it the very wishy-washy, but safe, attribution ‘Australian School’. The drawing sold. Then reappeared a year and a half later. With the initials ‘C.B.’ inscribed on it in pencil. So we have what may – may – have been an original artwork, with a signature that was forged. What do you do with something like thImageat?
  • What about the very common practice of restoring or repairing a work of art, or completing an unfinished work? How much is too much when it comes to ‘fixing’ an existing work of art? Rumours abound in the Australian art world about frequent and startlingly audacious ‘reworkings’ of paintings by some of the country’s best-known artists. But this practice is nothing new. Dealer Joseph Duveen, who was one of the grand-daddies of the modern art market, was notorious for ‘touching up’ the Old Master paintings he sold to his American clients. He did so to ‘prettify’ them and make them more appealing to late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sensibilities. Witness the image here – Sebastiano Mainardi’s Portrait of a lady. On the right is the original image as crafted by Mainardi. The image on the left shows the painting as it appeared when sold to Andrew Mellon. Original/authentic or not?

I could go on ad infinitum. But I shan’t. I’ve bored you enough already. Suffice it to say it is a very, very fraught area.




Portrait of Dorian Gray?

12 01 2013

Princess Catherine, by Paul Emsley. (Image via bbc.co.uk)

Oh dear.

No doubt about it. Portrait painting is an utterly thankless task.

William Dobell found this out the hard way when his controversial painting of artist Joshua Smith won Australia’s foremost portrait prize, the Archibald, in 1943. The decision caused two Royal Art Society members, Joshua Wolinski and Mary Edwards, to take legal action against Dobell and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Trustees, alleging that the painting was a ‘distorted and caricatured form’ and should not have qualified as a ‘portrait’.

Dobell declared that his approach was not to “copy” something, but “to create something”. He declared: “To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation.” Photography initiated a revolution in the visual arts. With the rise of a technology that meant a true physical likeness could be captured and preserved for time immemorial, it opened the playing field for visual artists who could play around with physical representation and look beyond and beneath a subject’s surface.


William Dobell, ‘Portrait of an Artist’ (Image via australia.gov.au)

Consider for a moment that this was well before abstract expressionism got an airing here in Australia. It was almost a decade before the landmark exhibition, French Painting Today, brought the work of Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall and Matisse to our shores. In that climate, Dobell’s Portrait of an Artist, as innocuous as it looks today, caused an absolute uproar. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s prize, observing that although the painting was “characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… (it) nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject.”

Speaking of ‘distortion’, what does any of this mean for the larger-than-life-size official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London? Well, there’s certainly nothing controversial about the method or approach the artist has taken. Hell, the first thing that sprang to mind as a point of comparison is the nauseatingly saccharine portrait of myself at the age of 14 with my younger sister drawn in St Mark’s Square in Venice by a pavement artist. A charcoal sketch that I would like to make clear is currently rolled up in a tube in my father’s wardrobe. It is not framed. Or hanging in public. Nor shall it ever be. We just keep it for laughs.

What of the depiction of Catherine? The Duchess declared the portrait to be “just amazing”. Damned by faint praise, perhaps?

Maybe they decided to commission a portrait that would last for a couple of decades. Catherine at the age of 50. Won’t need updating anytime soon, anyway.

What a pisser! Lazy post. Sorry.

7 01 2013

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’. Image via tate.org.

More to come on more things. Soon. I promise. In the meantime, here’s a link to an article I wrote for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Expertise Goes Down the Drain’. Hope it’s good for what ails ye. Highlight for me? It gave the editors an excuse to publish a gigantic urinal across two pages in the Insight section of the paper.

… And the fug of irony hung thick in the air.

28 12 2012

William Hogarth, ‘The Bench’. (image via wikigallery.org)


No rest for the wicked.

 The last few days have passed in a veritable whirr as I tried to weave whatever magic I still have in my tired old typing fingers to bang out an article to be published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald tomorrow – notwithstanding an earth shattering event that causes my bit to be shunted off the page.

Funny side of it all? The article looks at the crisis facing the art world as experts and connoisseurs become increasingly reluctant to voice an opinion about authenticity for fear of litigation. The biggest problem I faced as I attempted to gather some quotes was not, as I expected, the fact that art world stalwarts were all very wisely sleeping off the excesses of the silly season.

No. People who are extremely well-qualified to comment on certain matters were very wary about doing so on the record. For fear of litigation. That’s right. People didn’t want to discuss certain things on the record in an article about the fear of litigation, for fear of litigation.

Ho ho ho.