Tuesday, 25 July 2017

It's all about context: assessing the old master market


The old master auctions that I wrote about recently did ... OK. Sold percentage was high, but the major Turner that I didn't care for just squeaked by at £18.5m. Some wonderful Northern pictures did deservedly well, a portrait of Anne of Hungary's court fool (above) that they gave to Jan Sanders van Hemessen making £2.2m against an upper estimate of £600k. A marvellous Murillo made £2.7m, a little less than it made in 2005, adjusted for inflation. Conventional wisdom is that the market doesn't like 'stale' pictures, but twelve years is enough of a gap for a new generation of collectors to come through. And whilst novelty doubtless has some inherent value, there are other reasons for recent returns to do poorly at auction. The person willing to bid highest last time has dropped out - because they're selling it. The last auction established an anchor price, so it's easier to offer around the market than something with uncertain value. Auction might be the last resort. And they might be selling because it wasn't as good as they hoped, after cleaning and research. Finally the market is inherently volatile. There just aren't that many people chasing after each lot, and indeed some pictures returning to auction do very well indeed, from this to this.

Art market reports tend to read to much into each auction. It's a small sample, and it's mostly noise rather than signal. The July sales were solid, but not spectacular, so people tended to read into them what they wanted. Some old master dealers are too keen on talking up their market. Short term fluctuations are market volatility are literally their living, but sometimes being too close to the action means missing the context. Just because some dealers might be making a killing doesn't mean the market is in splendid good health. So I find myself again in disagreement with Art History News.

Supply of old masters fluctuates a bit, but not by as much as you might think. Great things do still come to market, and there’s a fairly steady stream of material. But they’re not making any more, so it is a finite market. The key change is demand. Art and antiques are bought by the affluent and the rich. And their ranks have been multiplying. There’s been a massive growth of global wealth, and a particularly striking growth in the super-rich. The potential market has been growing.

If a population increases and grows richer, a car manufacturer with static sales shouldn’t get too excited. There are more potential customers, but they’re not buying cars. If it turns out that all the other manufacturers are selling more and more cars, as you’d expect in a growing market, our manufacturer ought to get a bit worried. That's the situation in the old masters market; other sectors in the art market are booming.

Bendor Grosvenor references a lightweight report by Arts Economics. It’s hard to assess the report because there are so few references. The lack of caveats (uncertainty about size of market given different definitions and different sales channels) makes it look more like a marketing brochure than serious research. But it’s still hard to read as an endorsement of the old master market. Old masters are ‘best performing’ in the UK market only in the context of relative increase (of 16%). But that’s against a decline of 50% the year before ($438m to $219m). Of course that’s partly driven by decisions about where to sell, but it shows the danger of cherry-picking data.

The report confuses regions and hubs, and is padded out with unsubstantiated claims about the “knowledge-intensive and gender-balanced” jobs that are provided (what is a ‘gender-balanced’ job?). But it does show that the old master market is almost the smallest segment of the fine art market: 45% post-war and contemporary, 30% modern, 12% impressionist and post-impressionist and just 13% old master. So the market post-war and contemporary – just a few generations – is nearly as large as the seven previous centuries.

Billionaires' net worth has increased roughly fivefold since 1995. Globalisation has created a vast new upper middle class in developing countries who are able to afford works of art. The boom in contemporary art isn't surprising. The remarkable thing is that so few rich people are spending their wealth on old masters.

It’s not a slight on old masters, or on the people who market them for a living, to say that the market is weak. I see it more as an indictment of the taste of the rich, but we shouldn’t take rich people’s taste too seriously. If you have even a little spare money you can buy pictures that really ought to be out of your league. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Summer auctions: Old Master Week in London

Auction viewings are under-rated. Collectors and dealers go, but the interested public neglects these rare chances to see things that might not be on public display again for a generation. It's not just the museum-quality masterpieces that are worth seeing. Seeing lots of mundane pictures helps develop a feel for relative quality and gives a sense of art history's mountains, as well as the peaks that museums select for us. I started going to viewings as a teenager and I still love them.

Old masters are even more under-rated than auction viewings. It's just inexplicable to me that they are so cheap in a world that's so rich. Whenever a particular picture or auction marginally exceeds expectations there are boosters ready to jump in with stories about market take-off, but in context the market is still in the gutter. You can get an absolute masterpiece for a tenth the cost of a Basquiat, a significant museum-quality picture for a tenth the cost of a central London townhouse, and a pretty good entry-level picture for no more than the price of an annual travelcard in London. Head to Sotheby's and Christie's this week for bargains galore!

Sotheby's sale is strong, with some splendid Northern portraits that are much to my taste and a beautiful Murillo Ecce Homo (£2m-3m). But my favourites were a couple of Italian baroque pictures. The strong artistic culture of that time maintained extraordinarily high standards, taking for granted the technical achievements of the Renaissance and trying to get ahead in swagger and bombast. There's a wonderful little mythological picture of Bacchus and Ariadne by Francisco Solimena at Sotheby's estimated at just £300k-£400k. It's a virtuoso little showpiece and I love it. But my favourite is Castiglione's Pagan Sacrifice (£400k-£600k), an incredible picture that I've wanted to see in the flesh ever since I came across it in an old catalogue years ago. It didn't disappoint; one his best pictures. Castiglione can be sloppy, but this one is controlled and the colouration is fabulous.

Christie's has got pobably the most significant work of art in André Beauneveu's marble Lions ('estimate on request'), a remarkable rediscovery from the tomb of Charles V. My favourite of their pictures is a triptych by the Master of the Antwerp Adoration (£600k-£800k), a delightfully inventive creation with wonderful monkey-like faces. Dutch pictures are thin on the ground this year, but I liked this superior Jan Steen Boors playing a game of beugelen (£800k-£1.2m). There's a bargain basement still life, too: a flower piece from the studio of Ambrosius Bosschaert I (£80k-£100k). It's fine quality, and if it was just enough better to lose the 'studio' attribution it would be ten times as much.

The drawings viewings are the biggest draw for me. Museums can't keep old master drawings on display, so you have to grab every chance you can to see them. Sotheby's has an exceptional Canaletto. I get a bit jaded by vedute, but this drawing has it all. Well worth the £2.5m-£3.5m estimate. Prices fall away rapidly below the very first rank. There's an intriguing and wonderful  drawing from Rubens's workshop that's been reworked by the man himself estimated at just 1% of the Canaletto, and a beautiful small Poppi St John the Baptist and a young standing man (£20k-£30k).

Sometimes estimates don't give you much clue, and old master drawings are especially hard to predict. Christie's has taken a cautious approach. I hate it when the tease me into thinking even I can afford something fabulous. The opening lot, Timoteo Viti's The Massacre of the Innocents is surely in a higher league than its £25k-£35k estimate. A wonderful Ribera, above, is estimated at £80k-£120k. It's interesting to compare to Goya, who would be worth ten to twenty times as much. There's a lot to like in a strong sale, including particularly good English drawings. I loved the well-preserved Romneys. But my absolute favourite is Giuseppe Cades's Portrait of the princes Camillo and Francesco Borghese as young boys (below). The £20k-£30k estimate is no guide to its quality, and possibly not much guide to its value either.

If some things are relatively under-rated, I ought to tell you what I think's over-rated too. I heartily disliked the Frans Hals Two Fisherboys (Christie's, £1m-£1.5m). My first thought was Norman Rockwell. Technical analysis shows that it really is old, and Claus Grimm - whose scholarship I revere - thinks it's right. I think it's an awful picture, even if it's an awful picture by Frans Hals. The estimate is too high for a wrong 'un, but surely far too low for an authentic Hals. We'll see. I don't believe the Christie's 'attributed to Rembrandt', either. It's 'estimate on request', but I thought it a weak picture that doesn't rise above any number of competent portraits in his late style.

Turner's Ehrenbreitstein at Sotheby's is unquestionably 'important' (£15m-£25m), but it leaves me cold. I don't care for Turner's figures, and there are too many here. I can admire it, but can't love it.

I'll say more about the day sales next week when I write up the results, but lots of minor treasures there too. Let me end on a high note, with a masterpiece from the start of the Western artistic tradition. This attic red-figured pelike is attributed to the Carpenter Painter, one of the best painters from the best period of Greek vase painting. It's reconstucted from fragments, but the main painted areas seem to be original. Can you believe it's estimated at just £80k-£120k?


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' at the National Gallery


Michelangelo & Sebastiano National Gallery London to 25 June

Sebastiano del Piombo’s great fortune was to be taken under Michelangelo’s wing. But that was his great misfortune too, for he has lingered in Michelangelo's shadow. This scholarly and delightful exhibition traces their relationship, showing the confluence of Michelangelo's genius for composition and Sebastiano's mastery of colour and quirky inventiveness, Michelangelo's supreme command of anatomy and Sebastiano's talents as portraitist.

In the early Judgment of Solomon you get a sense of Sebastiano's soaring ambition, a large complex composition that he couldn’t quite resolve and abandoned unfinished. His encounter with Michelangelo in Rome was fortuitous. Sebastiano got compositional ideas from Michelangelo, Michelangelo got his ideals taken forward in the intensely competitive marketplace that Raphael was starting to dominate. 

The mix of sublime masterpieces and sometimes faltering trials is compelling. Sometimes you get both together. The Viterbo Pieta (top) is an inventive and moving masterpiece, but who can believe in that masculine mother? A friend said you expect chest hairs to sprout from her robe. The walnut frame was specially made for the exhibition by the National Gallery's Head of Framing, Peter Schade. He also made the new and spectacular frame for the NG's 'first' picture, the great Raising of Lazarus, below in its new frame.



For me the sculptures were the high point and the low point. The plaster cast of Michelangelo's Pieta gives a better feeling for it than the original in Rome, hidden behind inches of glass. The two versions of The Risen Christ, one a cast, are intensely moving, and seen together with Michelangelo's drawings is an unforgettably powerful visual experience. The low point is seeing the Royal Academy's Taddei Tondo imprisoned in a box (below). It's an utterly unsympathetic and depressing display. Better if it weren't there at all.


The selection and display is surprising. Artists' letters are interesting for content rather than form, but this show includes original missives taking space that could have been given to drawings. Sebastiano's portraits have least connection to Michelangelo, but there are some fine examples included. It's wonderful to see them, and the Clement VII is a masterpiece, but they confuse the focus of the exhibition. Worst of all, the National Gallery has been hornswoggled into showing  a purported portrait of Michelangelo that might be an outright fake. It's a recent attribution shown as 'Probably by Sebastiano' (what's wrong with the word 'attributed'?). The condition is poor, and so is the anatomy. There's a better Sebastiano on loan from Longford Castle in the main galleries, in a little focus exhibition of works related to the exhibition. Discoveries seem new and exciting, but selection should be driven by quality rather than celebrity.

Both artists benefited from collaboration, which this exhibition shows brilliantly. But who can stand comparison to a genius like Michelangelo? Inevitably Sebastiano is diminished by juxtaposition. Sebastiano was a wonderful draughtsman, but he seems almost feeble set against some of Michelangelo’s greatest hits. A show that ought to have rehabilitated Sebastiano has pushed him further into the shadows. And that is my main reservation about this exhibition. Conceiving of the show as ‘Michelangelo & Sebastiano’ keys into our worst expectations of exhibitions: ‘unmissable’ blockbuster (‘Michelangelo – so famous he was even a Ninja Turtle!), or else as competition (who’s the best? As if that could be in doubt).

If you know anything about Sebastiano, it's that he was Michelangelo's ally against Raphael. I just wish the exhibition had been oriented more explicitly to the wider context. La Madonna del Velo is an obvious response to Raphael, as the catalogue notes, and the portraits seem indebted to Raphael too. It wasn't simply a time of Renaissance rivalry. Personal rivalries make compelling stories, but in the long run the creative mix of ideas was more important. And beneath that unbelievable triad of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael were dozens of lesser artists who deserve more attention. Some are distinctive and well understood, like Sebastiano, but others are still hard to isolate like Gianfrancesco Penni. 

Commercial reality and cultural expectations conspire to push museums towards simple formulae. A lot of critics have failed to grasp the show, seemingly disappointed that Michelangelo is encumbered by the little guy. But museums of the National Gallery's stature ought to be able to take more risks. How wonderful it would be to see the little guys together, to see how the second tier drew on the breakthroughs of the High Renaissance and try to get closer to some of mysterious students and followers. In the meantime we just have to make the effort to appreciate Sebastiano in his own terms, as well as enjoying some of the absolute pinnacles of human culture in this show.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

At the British Museum: French Portrait Drawings

Portrait of an old man; head and shoulders of a bearded old man turned slightly to r, looking to front, wearing a simple cap with curls of hair protruding beneath, full beard and moustache, wearing an open shirt Black and red chalk, with blue-grey wash
French Portrait Drawings: From Clouet to Courbet British Museum to 29 January, free

This exquisite exhibition shows the evolution of portrait drawing in France, but it's also about the development of the British Museum's collection. It shows some smart recent acquisitions, and some obscure drawings that deserve more attention.

The British Museum's collection of drawings is arguably the greatest in the world, but its backbone is a handful of old private collections whose idiosyncrasies persist. The Italian old masters are broad and deep, but other schools are more patchy. They have a wonderful group of Watteau drawings, but other French artists were collected inconsistently. A database search reveals just three drawings by the prolific draughtsman Jacques-Louis David, and their first Vouet was acquired just last year. Many fine drawings in this show have been acquired quite recently, including a superb Isabey (2007) and Labadye (2001). All the recent acquisitions were excellent choices. I was also surprised by how many superb drawings I'd never seen or heard of, like the wonderful image illustrated above, attributed to Pierre Biard II on the basis of the inscription. More information on the attribution can be found on the BM's catalogue entry.

Neil Jeffares complains of the lack of Louis XV drawings, and of great draughtsmen who are unrepresented. I do not recognise that problem. An exhibition of French portrait drawings shouldn't be a microcosm of the development of drawing in France. More balanced representation of French draughtsmanship would have meant some combination of a larger show, a more diffuse theme or less representation of recently acquired nineteenth century drawings. I thought the show varied and interesting, and its theme is coherent. It asks what makes a portrait drawing different from a figure study. One drawing is of hands, but it is clearly intended as a portrait. A Watteau drawing was used for a figure in one of his pictures at the Wallace Collection, but it is such a distinct character that it clearly qualifies as a portrait drawing. Some portrait drawings are made as cheaper versions of painted portraits, but others are more personal and intimate. I thought the drawing attributed to Perroneau weak, and there were four too many Carmontelles for my taste, but the overall quality and interest was outstanding.

In other words, there is more to this show than just an assemblage of stuff from the vaults, and that is why a catalogue would have been so welcome. I share Neil Jeffares's lament at its absence. Evidence from second hand bookshops is that cheap little catalogues used to be produced regularly for small museum shows, but today there are either grand glossy books or else nothing at all. A catalogue need not be a definitive scholarly account, but reproductions of the drawings with some background information would have been welcome. I surmise that the biggest barrier is bureaucratic rather than financial, and the internal approvals needed are now too onerous. Helpfully the wall text is available online.

The BM bureaucracy has treated Prints & Drawings brutally. It has become much less accessible since its opening hours were curtailed and walk-in visits banned. I went to see some German drawings when I visited the exhibition, and I have never seen the print room so quiet. For much of the time there were no other visitors, and only a couple of other people visited the morning I was there. It used to be possible to request drawings as you go along, but now everything must be ordered in advance, reducing flexibility and militating against serendipity. I'd booked a full day, but left at lunchtime as I didn't dare try to request anything else. It is an absolute scandal that such a great collection has become so inaccessible and is so little used. The sight of the study room filled with visitors ranging from wizened scholars classifying the Carracci to casual visitors wanting to see Dürer's Rhinoceros was heartwarming, and the contrast with the emptiness last week was just tragic. It's time to resurrect the old proposal to move the entire department to the National Gallery, whose collection it complements. The Prints & Drawings department would be better loved, it would add impetus to acquire drawings related to the NG's paintings, and it would encourage better integration of graphic art into NG exhibitions. It was absurd that their Veronese exhibition didn't include any drawings. The emptiness of the study room shows that something must be done differently.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Brian Sewell Sale

Image result for sewell hockney christie's kirton
A large part of Brian Sewell's private collection was sold at Christie's this week, and it has come in for quite a battering from envious (and often ignorant) critics. The New Statesman even asserts that he didn't own a Hockney. He did, and it's pictured above. Edward Lucie-Smith says it "looks like the drearier sort of fairly competent, totally conservative semi-amateur painting that might just about scrape into an R.A. Summer exhibition today". On the contrary, it's far too good for today's R.A. summer show. It's a beautiful and surprising picture with a marvelous sense of colour; you can't appreciate those subtle pinks in reproduction. It was well bought for just £32,500, which would barely cover the artist resale rights on one of his recent monstrosities.

The sale made over £3.7m. That should impress Lucie-Smith, who seems to think that you judge an art collection by its monetary appreciation, as if it's all about guessing future monied taste. I was more impressed by its personal quality. He wasn't curating a memorial to himself, or playing the market. This is a man who requested a pauper's burial for himself. He bought widely, and supported artists of his own generation like Craxton and Minton who remain cheap, but were often rather good. He had a particular affinity for Eliot Hodgkin's beautiful still lifes, which I adore too. These pictures were bought for Sewell's own enjoyment. They weren't meant to impress other critics, and not all of them impressed me. But there were many lovely 'minor' pictures that were really well chosen: a charming picture of an orange tree, a fabulous picture of a building destroyed in battle, and a striking twentieth century interior, maybe by Malcolm Drummond.
Image result for sewell mervyn peake christie's
He did have some remarkable masterpieces, too. The fabulous Daniele da Volterra drawing of Dido sold to a museum (the Met?) for £797k against an upper estimate of £150k. My personal favourite was this design by Peruzzi, which I thought cheap at £353k. Two Stomers were unsold. I confess that I didn't care for them. I find him the least satisfying of the Dutch Caravaggists, and a lot of his pictures have been on the market recently. But the superb oil sketch by Andrea Sacchi (above) sold for £233k against an upper estimate of £80k. I'd love it to have gone to the National Gallery.
Image result for sewell mervyn peake christie's
It was a long sale with quite disparate works, and there were bargains along the way. Some things might have done better in specialist sales. Perhaps this wonderful Mervyn Peake drawing (above) would have sold better in a literature sale. Less than five grand for such an emotive and beautiful drawing by an important writer and illustrator, created at a key moment in World War II seems a steal. But it was a joy to see Brian Sewell's things as a group, and get a new insight into this brilliant critic and connoisseur.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Auction previews: summer old masters at Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's


Take a moment to look at the image above. Better still, follow this link and zoom in on the Christie's website. It's not the sort of thing to open a blog post, or put on Instagram. It's not an immediately powerful picture, especially in this dirty and worn state. But it's a real highlight of the Christie's old master sale on Thursday. It's Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot by Donato Creti, a scarce and underrated artist. At first impression it compares unfavourably to Poussin; similar subject matter and composition, but without his scintillating orchestration of colours and dramatic integration of figures by rhyming gestures. Closer up, you see a beauty in the figures and groups that exceeds even Poussin, whose intellectualism could get the better of him. It's not a painting for our times. Its compelling beauty is readily recongnised when we take time to look, but the impact isn't immediate and there's not recognisable stylistic brand.

Good doesn't mean valuable, and just because I think it's under-appreciated doesn't mean it's under-estimated. I really do think it will sell above the enticing estimate of £250k-£350k, but I don't think it will take its rightful place at the pinnacle of the market. This summer's old master sales are especially strong, with some consummate masterpieces. But for me the real reward of viewing is finding hidden gems like this.

This week the picture at the pinnacle is Rubens's Lot and His Daughters , also at Christie's ('estimate on request', was £20m-£30m even before Brexit). It's a magnificent picture, one of the best I've seen in the London salerooms. Do read the excellent catalogue essay, though I was irritated by the bit at the end making it 'relevant' by reference to Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Picasso, which was a bit of a stretch. And what a perversion that the estimate wouldn't get you even a second-rate Francis Bacon!

It's unusual for a portrait where neither artist nor sitter is known to be included in the evening sale, but this (probably) Dutch picture is a worthy exception. Estimate of £100k-£150k is well below what a picture of this quality with a secure attribution would make. It's another picture that's harder to appreciate in reproduction, but it really shone at the viewing.

Christie's has the stronger sale this time, but Sotheby's has some fine things. I can get jaded by Dutch still lives, but there are two exceptional ones being sold this week. A large Jan Brueghel the Elder flower still life, recently restituted to Rothschild heirs, is an extraordinary masterpiece of a popular type of early flower still life, larger and better than most (est. £3m-£5m). Good to see in the context of the current small show at the National Gallery, and it surpasses most there. A still life by Pieter Claesz (above, £1.8m-£2.5m) is typical, but utterly brilliant. The play of light is acutely observed. Italian renaissance artists are credited as universal geniuses for their interest in science, whereas the Dutch are often seen as talented painters alone. The Dutch golden age had a more developed division of labour, but urban communities were still small and tightly knit. Surely there would be some crossover between scientists like Van Leeuwenhoek and artists like Claesz. This picture is a fascinating tour de force.

Do have a look at their Jan Steen, an infuriatingly inconsistent artist. This raucous scene is just what we want in a Steen. It's estimated at £120k-£180k, which is about right for a mediocre Steen, but I think this one is better than that. At one point a jug had been painted in to disguise the urinating boy in the foreground! Teutonic portraits are unfashionable unless by Cranach or Holbein, which is the only way I can explain an estimate of just £60k-£80k for this Beham Portrait of Ludwig X, Duke of Bavaria. I also like this cheap Coecke van Aelst, with some studio participation as usual, but beautifully preserved and a bargain at £60k-£80k. Finally this Niccolò di ser Sozzo Crucifixion is a new discovery, and I thought the best of the gold ground pictures being sold this week (£150k-£200k).

Christie's Old Master Drawings sale includes a stunningly beautiful Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Head of a Boy (above, £200k-£300k). But as always, there are many much more modestly estimated things of real quality. I liked this Sebald Beham Winged Putto (£18k-£25k) and Giulio Romano Roman officer with mounted musicians (£15k-£20k).


Sotheby's has a strong sale of old master drawings, as usual starting at modest prices.

I particularly like this tiny Veronese (above), which is cheaply estimated at £80k-£120k. Veronese's drawings have always been highly prized, his rapid sketches giving a window to his creativity. The combination of rapid compositional sketches and wash study of hands is particularly attractive in this one. Veronese's drawings have always been ardently collected, but the sale is headed by an artist much less well known as a great draughtsman. This outstanding Lely self-portrait compares with the best of his continental peers and deserves its £600k-£800k estimate. The Veronese is a working sketch whose beauty is accidental, whereas the Lely is a self-conscious manifesto of the artist's genius. Both drawings have rich provenances. The Lely has passed down directly to his descendants; this is the first time it's been sold. The Veronese was owned by Jonathan Richardson senior and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and is now being sold from the last part of the collection of the great connoisseur Paul Oppé, whose British drawings are now at the Tate.

The Oppé section also features a magnificent group of caricatures by Stefano della Bella estimated at around £10k each, and one of the finest Claude landscapes I've seen. Sotheby's also has an album of drawings after paintings in the nineteenth century collection of Dawson Turner, who owned the Bellini now in Birmingham. It's attractive in its own right, but also an important document in the history of collecting. I'd love it to go to a public collection, and it's surely affordable even in these cash-strapped times, at an estimated £7k-£10k.

A final choice is Fragonard's The Inspiration of the Artist. Fragonard was one of the greatest draughtsman, and prolific. His drawings turn up often, but this one is quite exceptional. The perfect rococo subject, and in perfect condition; many are sadly faded, but here you can appreciate the range of tones as he intended. Estimate of £100k-£150k is modest for this.
Sotheby's and Christie's both have decorative art sales on view alongside the paintings and drawings sales, and these Italian renaissance cassone at Sotheby's stood out. Once highly prized, many fakes were made and genuine examples are rare. These are particularly fine, and seem incredibly cheap at the estimated £120k-£180k.

Bonham's has some good things, including a fine Claude landscape. Most intriguing was this unattributed St Ambrose of high quality, but estimated at just £10k-£15k. A number of lots at Bonham's carry low estimates to entice bidders; I'm sure this will go much higher. 


Monday, 23 May 2016

Let her go

Picture: The Art Fund
The Art Fund has launched an appeal to buy this picture for £16 million for the National Maritime Museum. It might be the prime version of a famous picture of a famous queen, but there are two others. One is at the National Portrait Gallery, which is just seven miles from the National Maritime Museum. Its importance is 'iconic', as The Art Fund press release says, rather than artistic. And we already have this icon in London. It's too much money for a picture that's essentially a duplicate, and of meager artistic quality.

The sellers have timed the offer well. The old master market is in the doldrums, but early English portraits are selling astonishingly well. Them seem merely clumsy to me, but their mix of 'merrie England' naivety and Tudor bling appeals to some of today's rich. I don't blame the sellers for timing the market. But Britain's public collections tend to mistime acquisitions perfectly, competing with the mega-rich for the most expensive pictures of the day and ignoring unfashionable bargains. The Art Fund has always known that this picture was in a British private collection. But they never seem to think strategically; did they try to buy it previously? And which unfashionable pictures are they trying to buy cheaply today?

And is this really a £16m picture? Portraits of Henry VIII from Holbein's workshop recently sold for £821k and £965k. They're not prime versions, but they're artistically better than the Armada Portrait, and equally iconic. I can accept that the likely prime version of the Armada Portrait is more valuable than studio replicas of Holbein's Henry VIII, but twenty times more seems a stretch. That money could buy a Titian or Rembrandt. For less than half the price (£7.3m) we could have had the fantastic Le Brun portrait bought by the Met, which is a great picture from a school poorly represented in UK collections. With the change we could have bought portraits by Scipione Pulzone, Ludovico Carraci and Girolamo da Carpi. Or for £14m we could have bought a great Poussin, an incomparably better picture. None of these are big names, and they're not especially fashionable. But we should be buying pictures based on quality and importance rather than choosing pictures that lend themselves most easily to publicity campaigns. Art collecting is being driven by public relations, which generally means pictures with some patriotic story behind them, because The Art Fund's PR department only has that one script.

If private donors think the Armada Portrait is good value, and really want to keep this picture in Britain, I won't stand in their way. I'll even agree that it would be a nice acquisition for the National Maritime Museum. But it's not just private donors. The Art Fund is largely subsidised by the taxpayer, in that its members receive free or reduced admission to publicly funded museums and exhibitions. That's a large part of why most people join, and that money funneled to The Art Fund comes straight out of the pockets of public museums. It's effectively a way of moving money from general expenditure to acquisition spending, but at immense bureaucratic cost. And The Art Fund seems especially unskilled at identifying the best things to buy.

There's another big subsidy in that £6m in tax will be remitted. I'm delighted by a £6m subsidy for the arts. But this is an arbitrary £6m subsidy, available only to specific works that are already in the UK. Effectively the government is paying full face value for a gift token that can be used only for one work of art, instead of just giving the money directly so that museums can choose the pictures they want.

The Art Fund has recently called for a review of the system of export licenses. I call for the whole rotten process to be abolished. If a foreign buyer is willing to pay £16m for this, let them have it. And let our museums compete to buy pictures from abroad, rather than having to go after the latest picture that The Art Funds wants to 'save'.