Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Rare early German picture at Christie's (psst! museums!)

Picture: MS
This is an extraordinary and really rare picture, a small (32 by 41 inches overall) Thuringian altarpiece from around 1400, which will be sold at Christie's Renaissance Sale in New York on 28 January. The estimate is just $1.2m - $1.8m. I saw it at the preview in London this week, and it's spectacular. These early pictures have a naive quality that many disdain in favour of the achievements of Renaissance and later art (hence the cheap estimate), but I adore their folksy charm, which this altarpiece has in abundance. Here are the soldiers playing dice in the corner:
Picture: MS
It's so rare that almost no museums are able to show this kind of art, let alone such a great example.  I think it needs to be shown in the right context, in a museum that already has complementary holdings of early German art, but would benefit from a major acquisition in that area. Who should buy it? Here are some of the places I'd like to see it.

London's National Gallery has some great early German pictures, but it's an area of relative weakness (especially from this early date). This would add a new dimension to their collection, and complement their current holdings of early German and early Italian pictures in the Sainsbury Wing. London's NG is one of the world's greatest comprehensive collections, but this would add a new dimension. It would also fit the Courtauld's collection, just down the road, if they're inclined to go after a big acquisition. It would fit nicely alongside the early Italian and Netherlandish pictures in their ground floor gallery. 

The Met in New York has relative strength in early German and early Netherlandish art, and has bought important early Italian gold ground pictures recently (Duccio and Lorenzetti). This would be a great acquisition for them. It might even go in the Cloisters, alongside their strong holdings of medieval art, and a great early Netherlandish triptych by Robert Campin.

Cleveland has a tremendous collection of medieval art including great holdings of early German pictures. They are relatively wealthy and still buy important things. This would fit really well; they haven't bought much in that area since the 1970s, largely because so little comes onto the market. 

The Getty has some fine early German pictures including a Schongauer and a picture by the Master of St Bartholemew. They can afford it, and it would look fantastic in their medieval and early renaissance galleries. The other US museum that should consider it is the National Gallery in Washington, which has a comprehensive collection of European art, but early German painting was somewhat neglected by its founding collectors, with the exception of Durer and Holbein. They have since acquired some good things, but this would really add a new dimension to their collection. 

The Louvre is in much the same position as the National Gallery in London, with a fabulously comprehensive collection but relatively few top-notch early German pictures. It's an obvious picture for them to go for. 

It's an enormously desirably picture for so many museum collections. But I wonder if they will actually go for it. In practice museums are often incredibly conservative. I can see trustees being put off by the archaism of this picture,making it difficult for American museums in particular. In the UK (and to some extent France) fundraising efforts are too often directed towards 'saving' things that we'd be better off without rather than going after pictures we really should be acquiring. This wonderful rarity really belongs in a great museum collection. I do hope it finds the right home. 

1 comment:

  1. Looking at this 1400 AD thuringian painting and comparing its charming shortcomings with the great masterpieces of the Master of St. Bartolemew Altar I am wondering if the use of “evolution” is really right. Sure- eighty years passed between them, but does that explain why Master of St. Bart is so infinitely better? Evolution? I don’t believe so.For the art historian it probably seems neat, orderly to invent something like unbroken string of continuous progression and then hang on it paintings that follow that imaginatory progression.History of painting ,seems to me should not be mimicking history of electrical technology or history of computation.So-there is a mystery about that.