Thought-Pourri: Mergers and Acquisitions Edition

Very exciting times at the Fortress of Solitude of late, since I’ve recently acquired several new works for my art hoard and one of them I believe to be…if not by an actual Old Master whom we can name, at least a piece dating from the mid- to late-17th century. The interesting part is going to be having it cleaned, as it is absolutely filthy from years of dirt, grease, smoke, and who knows what else. However this is the only teaser you’re getting so far, gentle reader, as I’ll probably write up the experience of the reveal for The Federalist if all goes well. Now to find an art restorer who doesn’t charge me museum-level cleaning costs…

In the meantime, on to the art news we go.

Seeing Santander

The massive HQ of Banco Santander, located in the Spanish city which gave it its name, will soon become a major new private museum. The bank, which is the largest in Spain and has become far more visible internationally (including in this country) in recent years due to a number of significant mergers and acquisitions, was founded in 1851; its leadership has called the rather grandiose Pereda Building along the city’s waterfront promenade home for about a century. The financial giant is now moving into a new building, where it will consolidate many of its operations, and turn the older HQ and a neighboring building into a museum and cultural center.

British architect David Chipperfield recently won the competition for the museum portion of the project, although no estimated completion date has yet been announced. Over time, Banco Santander has accumulated a massive art collection of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings include pictures by El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Van Gogh, among many others, as well as sculpture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and other decorative arts. Most of these are currently held at an exhibition location maintained by the bank in suburban Madrid, which to be honest I had never heard of until this press announcement.

Once completed, the museum will certainly become a major stop on any cultural tour of Northern Spain. While somewhat uneven, as institutional rather than personal collections tend to be, there are some real gems here, particularly of turn-of-the-century art being produced in Barcelona and Madrid around the same time. One examples is this 1899 portrait of an unknown gentleman by the great Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Current scholarship suggests that this is the lawyer, art historian, and one-time mayor of Madrid Manuel Escrivá de Romaní, Marques of Alginet and Count of Casal, since Sorolla inscribed the painting, “A mi amigo Manolo”, and “Manolo” is a nickname for Manuel.


Found Fountain

More than 70 years after it ended, the Nazi looting of Europe for art treasures continues to yield bizarre stories of loss and recovery for art historians, governments, and individuals to wrangle over. This lengthy, fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the creation, fame, disappearance, and rediscovery of a major work of German Art Nouveau sculpture, “Drei tanzende Mädchen” (“Three Dancing Maidens”), created by Walter Schott (1861-1938). It won the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, and copies were acquired by several cities and institutions; in fact, one is located in Central Park in Manhattan. The fate of the original, as you will see, is a bit murky, and the article does not resolve the question of its fate.


Getty Grief

The deep pockets of the Getty Museum and its mandate to study, inter alia, classical Greek and Roman art continue to cause problems for the Los Angeles institution. Recently, the Getty acquired the magnificent 2nd century AD bust of an unknown Roman, possibly one of the Antonine emperors, such as Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, an Italian judge has recently issued a decision against the Getty involving a long-standing dispute over the museum’s famous Ancient Greek bronze “Victorious Youth”, which may have been created by Lysippus, personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.

The Getty has always claimed that because the piece was recovered from international waters, the fishermen had every legal right to sell it. However the Italian government has successfully persuaded the courts up to now that, because the piece was brought to shore in Italy, and was first sold there by its finders without an export license and without notice to the Italian government of their treasure find, the Getty must return the sculpture. It seems that Italy is arguing that the Getty has possession but no title, which any of my readers who are fellow lawyers will recognize is a classic problem in tort law with respect to tangible property ownership. Appeals are expected to continue for some time, as this will be a fight to the death, given the exceptional importance of this sculpture to art history.

Victorious Youth (Greek, 300-100 BC) - detail





Thought-Pourri: Back To Work Edition

Having had a terrific vacation in Spain, full of art, architecture, and yes, IG photos of what I ate, it’s time to get back to writing. There will likely be a few posts to come out of this trip, but as I’m still slightly jetlagged, it seemed best to start with an art news roundup. As you get older it becomes more difficult to bounce bag from that time zone shift, or so I find.

Anyway, on to some news.

Wrecked Repin

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) is possibly my favorite Russian artist; he specialized in historical pictures, and without question his most famous work depicts the aftermath of a moment of great violence, in which the infamous Tsar Ivan the Terrible is depicted with a powerful expression of utter horror and remorse after having killed his son Ivan in a fit of rage. In a way it reminds me of Goya’s famous “Saturn Devouring His Son” (c.1820-1823), now in The Prado, but I don’t know whether Repin was familiar with it. In a different moment of rage, a drunken visitor to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow recently attacked the 1885 picture with a metal pole, causing serious damage to both the canvas and the frame, but mercifully not harming the figures themselves. The assailant’s motives remain somewhat murky, although he told police that he had been drinking in the museum bar prior to his vandalism. After restoration, the painting will be put back on display in the museum again – but from now on, under bulletproof glass.


Catalan Comings (And Goings)

In Catalonia, the good news is that a stolen copy of Columbus’ letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel announcing the discovery of America has been located by U.S. officials and is returning home. One of 16 copies printed by the explorer, the letter had been in the collection of the National Library of Catalonia for about a century but was only missed in 2012 when, as part of their investigation, U.S. investigators visited the Barcelona-based library and determined that the copy in its collection was a facsimile of the original, substituted by thieves at some unknown point in time. The bad news, at least as far as Catalan museums are concerned, is that the main painting from the high altar at the Royal Monastery of Sijena, which the museum wanted for its collection, has been sold by a Madrid gallery to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which has (arguably) the most important collection of Spanish works of art in the U.S. The painting, which depicts the Adoration of the Magi, was created sometime between 1510 and 1521 by an artist whose identity is currently a matter for scholarly debate, but it is believed that the youngest of the three kings in the altarpiece may be a youthful portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who became King of Spain in 1516.


Discovered Digit

The Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 AD-337 AD) commissioned a number of colossal statues of himself, remnants of which are found in a number of museums in Rome and elsewhere. One of the lesser-known examples was a giant bronze, fragments of which are located in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Following some interesting detective work, The Louvre has recently discovered that a colossal Roman bronze digit, originally believed to be a toe, was in fact one of the bronze’s index fingers. When a copy of the piece was taken to Rome for comparison, experts were surprised and pleased to discover that it was an exact fit to the hand currently in the Capitoline’s collection.


Thought-Pourri: Fickle Finger of Fate Edition

Fate has a way of making you realize that you might have stepped in something without realizing it.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last several days when it comes to the upper end of the art market, which is in a bit of a tizzy just now about a situation that it created all by itself over the past few decades. If you follow the news at all, you’ll know that art prices have become increasingly insane in recent years, thanks to a concerted charm offensive on the part of dealers, auctioneers, banks, the press, and even museums to persuade the very wealthy to buy Modern and Contemporary art for investment purposes. After all, not only is it (well, in some cases) nicer to look at than a stock certificate, art is also easier to transport and turn into liquidity than many other convertible assets, particularly if you’re trying to keep ex-wife #4 from getting her manicured claws on your hedge fund winnings.

Now however, both the US and the EU are working on increased regulation of the art market from a financial services perspective, in order to address issues such as buying art as part of a money laundering scheme. The art world is up in arms over this, naturally enough, because the livelihood of many who work in that arena depend on the artificially inflated market bubble for atrociously awful art. If the super-rich no longer see art investment as a safe haven, they fear, that money will be shifted elsewhere, and prices for such commodities will collapse. Forgive me if I don’t feel particularly sorry for these people.

Disappearing Digit

First there was the “brah” incident at the Franklin Institute, in which an idiot broke off the thumb of one of China’s legendary Terracotta Warrior to keep as a souvenir. Now it appears that, during the reinstallation of Bernini’s “Saint Bibiana” (1626) above the high altar, following its return from an exhibition at the Borghese to its eponymous church in Rome, someone has broken off one of the statue’s fingers. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest of all Italian Baroque sculptors and architects, and either directly or through his influence had an enormous impact not just on the art and architecture of the city of Rome, but of the entire world. As noted in the Italian press, this was the first time the sculpture had ever been lent out in its 400-year history. I rather doubt that it will be lent out again.


Purging Poland

Ah, the vicissitudes of history. While American cities are dismantling, altering, or otherwise arguing over the issue of historical monuments which may or may not be controversial – personally I think that most monuments to Confederate leaders should be sealed in concrete and thrown into the sea – in Poland a similar cultural battle over art of a comparatively more recent vintage is being waged. Like many countries behind the Iron Curtain, Poland was filled with art depicting Communist propaganda, as part of an effort to erase both Catholicism and Polish historical memory: fortunately, neither effort succeeded. While to those of us who have never had to live under Communism, it might seem only logical to remove monuments dedicated to Marxist oppression once the country reverted to democracy, there are still those in Poland who want to keep such things, and are fighting the ongoing government effort to remove them. Should they be destroyed, or should they be placed in some kind of museum? And if the latter, who should be responsible for maintaining such things? It’s an interesting question, and one which I leave to the Poles.


Bologna Bonanza

Some good news from the world of art crime for a change: Italian police have recently recovered three Early Renaissance paintings stolen from museums in and around the city of Bologna, including a 14th century painting of St. Ambrose brazenly taken from the National Pinacoteca in the city during regular opening hours. It appears as though the alleged thief was spotted using digital analysis of surveillance camera footage, and caught when he was seen “acting suspiciously” around another art museum in the city. The Carabinieri tailed him and eventually were able to search his home, where they found the missing art. A happy ending to an all-too-common problem in Italian cities, where the theft of art and antiquities is a perpetual headache for police forces.