Italy relaxes export laws for post-war art

Italy relaxes export laws for post-war art

After almost two years of debate, Italy has approved a new law relaxing the country’s notably stringent art export regulations.

The market and competition legislation, passed by Italian parliament earlier this month and effective as of 29 August, extends the window during which private owners of works by deceased artists may self-certify them for export from Italy without a licence, from 50 to 70 years after they were made. The law further streamlines Italy’s bureaucratic licensing process by introducing a minimum value threshold of £13,500, although this excludes archaeological artefacts, manuscripts and incunabula. The ministry of culture may also intervene in cases of suspected fraud or national cultural interest. Five-year “passports” to ease the movement of works of art across Italian borders are also planned.

Although the 20-year extension falls short of the 100-year limit proposed in 2015 by a lobby of art dealers and auction houses, it was welcomed as a boost to the trade in post-war Italian art. Luigi Mazzoleni, the director of Mazzoleni London, says it will “invigorate” the market as previously “works made in the 1950s and early 1960s were not easily exportable”, keeping “the local market artificially low”. He also thinks it will enable international museums to expand post-war Italian collections. 

Works from the 1950s and early 60s, by artists such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Paolo Scheggi, are particularly desirable internationally in today’s market – the auction record for post-war Italian art stands at $29.1m (including fees), for Concetto spaziale, La Fine di Dio (1964) at Christie’s New York in 2015.

Benedict Tomlinson, director of Robilant + Voena, which has galleries in London and Milan, thinks the move does not go far enough. “The 20-year extension seems arbitrary, why not extend it to Old Masters? To say a 1950s work is less important than one made in the 1940s is ridiculous. That boundary will keep moving each year, and soon Fontanas will be over 100 years old. What happens then?”

But there is opposition as well. In an open letter to the Italian president Sergio Mattarella, the heritage group Italia Nostra and the scholar Salvatore Settis warned against “a serious and baseless loss caused by a law introduced with the sole aim of favouring art dealers”.

In a victory for art historians, the legislation also makes it possible for users of Italy’s state archives and libraries to freely photograph documents and books for personal and scholarly use (subject to copyright and without flash, tripods or physical contact with the page). Such “legitimately acquired images of cultural objects” can be published and distributed “in any medium” for non-commercial purposes. Until now, researchers had to request permission and pay licensing fees to take their own photographs. The shift, which is in line with the policies of the UK and French national archives, was supported by a petition of almost 4,500 Italian academics, including the late Umberto Eco.

Object lessons: a poetic take on decay, a goddess drawn by a cult favorite and a rare study by Peter Blake

Object lessons: a poetic take on decay, a goddess drawn by a cult favorite and a rare study by Peter Blake

Galerie Forsblom at Chart Art Fair
1-3 September

Heavy (2017) by Toni R. Toivonen

Not for the squeamish, the young Finnish artist Toni R. Toivonen (b. 1987) creates ethereal works from grotesque means. He leaves the carcass of an animal – a raccoon, mouse, dog, horses or cow, which died of natural causes – on a brass plate and as it decomposes, the animal etches a ghostly, vaguely discernible gesture of its form on the oxidised metal. The results are a form of vanitas, a meditation on the transience of life. For this work, Heavy, in brass, resin, plexiglass and “original substances of a dead animal”, Toivonen used a horse.The Helsinki-based Galerie Forsblom will devote their entire stand to the artist’s macabre works at Copenhagen’s Chart Art Fair, the Nordic-focused contemporary art fair in its fifth edition.

Gaia (1964) by Austin Osman Spare

5-6 September: Fine art featuring jewellery and silver, paintings and Modern sculpture
Gaia (1946) by Austin Osman Spare
Est £4,000-£5,000

Although unknown to most, the Outsider artist Austin Osman-Spare has a cult following. Born in Smithfield in 1886, the precociously talented Osman Spare became something of a rakish celebrity in Edwardian London. Osman-Spare was an occultist, interested in theosophy and spiritualism, and was an early experimenter with automatic drawing. But, refusing to change his style to conform to modernist tastes, he fell out of fashion and into obscurity, dying a penniless recluse in 1956. A collection of four works on paper by Osman Spare has been consigned to the south London auction house Roseberys, including this typically enigmatic signed pencil and watercolour of the Greek earth goddess Gaia, dating to 1946. Osman Spare was particularly interested in these early goddesses, and depicted Gaia on several occasions in different guises.

Study (1996) by Peter Blake

Study (1996) by Peter Blake

Ely, UK
5 September: Antiques, fine art and decorative furnishings
Study (1996) by Peter Blake
Est £30,000-£50,000

This delicate study by Peter Blake of a painting in London’s National Gallery was consigned by a local man out of the blue to the Cambridgeshire, UK, auction house Rowley’s in Ely. The oil on canvas panel work is inscribed on a label to the verso, in what is believed to be Blake’s hand, “Study for ‘A Black Woman’ after a French 19th century painting. This painting was made while I was Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London 1996”. Blake was associate artist at the National Gallery from 1994 to 1996 and made a few fully worked paintings during his time there, such as Madonna of Venice Beach (After Corregio’s The Madonna of the Basket) (1995). The consignor acquired this work in an unconventional manner, as part payment in a property deal brokered by Savills in 2008 with Niall Haigh, previously an art dealer based in London’s Cork Street. The original work, inventory number NG3250, was part of the Sir Hugh Lane bequest to the National Gallery in 1917 and is unattributed, although in the past has variously been ascribed to Eugène Delacroix, Eugène Fromentin and Marie-Guillemine Benoist.

Berkshire Museum board turns down $1m to pause art sale

Berkshire Museum board turns down $1m to pause art sale

A $1m offer from an anonymous group of donors to pause the Berkshire Museums planned sale of art from its collection has been turned down by the board of trustees, the Berkshire Eagle reports. The cash came with the stipulation that the museum hold off for at least a year on auctioning 40 works of art, including two original paintings by Norman Rockwell. The sales would raise money for a $40m endowment and an ambitious $20m reinvention that would turn the 114-year-old curio cabinet-style natural history and art museum into a cutting-edge interdisciplinary institution. Although we must decline, we are grateful for the offer, Elizabeth McGraw, the president of the museums board of trustees, said in a statement.

The museums administration says the art sale and overhaul are necessary to help shore up a precarious financial situation, including an annual deficit of around $1.2m for the past ten years. The anonymous donors hoped that a years delay would allow them to assemble an outside panel to look at the institutions financial situation and come up with a solution that would allow the art to remain at the museum.

In a letter to the community posted on the museums website, McGraw says that the board has spent two years exploring other options, including a merger with the nearby Hancock Shaker Village, and has reached out to hundreds of residents for their input. Some individuals are frustrated because they think that a pause in the sale would lead to a different financial path somehow changing this harsh reality, McGraw writes. However, the consequence of a delay with the auction could be that the museum may close even sooner.

Where does the Berkshire Museum go from here?

Where does the Berkshire Museum go from here?

The charming, quiet Berkshire Museum is suddenly tempest tossed. Following its announcement of a new mission, a jamboree of pious finger-wagging ensued. National arts organisations clamour in protest, but their buildings are in good shape. They dont have to worry from month to month whether staff salaries get paid. Yes, the Berkshire Museum endured long periods of bad management, but Pittsfields economy tanked when its core industries left. With them exited much of the museums donor base. Its financial model was never a good one: it relied on a few old Pittsfield families and the wealth generated by its General Electric factories. The citys poor; the museum competes for local money with dozens of other arts and culture not-for-profits, and also hospitals, schools and churches. Berkshire County is both Americas premier cultural resort and Appalachia.

Clearly, the trustees are free to change the Berkshire Museums mission. If it wants to be a science museum or a childrens museum, fine. Few in the Berkshires think of it as an art museum anyway. Its audience visits for a fine aquarium, a remarkably dashing mummy named Prahat, fur snow suits belonging to North Pole explorers, an impressive meteorite, and shows such as its current survey of the history of the guitar.

Its fair to say that most of the Pittsfield community sees the changes as good ones. Some think theyre horrible but most think about what their families will use and enjoy. They see the art as so many gold bricks locked in a vault.

Still, the museum is a not-for-profit built through a century of philanthropy to serve the public, so the public is entitled to answers to key questions. Even in the staid museum world, Watergates Deep Throat offers wise advice: follow the money.

How much are the trustees personally pledging to finance the museums new strategy? I think everyone would agree that selling capital is a last resort. It comes long after dedicated trustees have given what is reasonable for people who, at the end of the day, run the place and should be its biggest boosters and funders. Why should anyone write a check if trustees liquidate capital as a substitute for their own giving?

What will Sothebys earn through the sale of the museums art? Lets say the museum sells $30m of art at auction. The standard buyers fee is 20%, or $6m, paid to the auction house on top of the hammer price. The standard sellers fee is 10%, or $3m. This is big money. The museum is its client, to be sure, but not its friendits goal is getting the consignment. It has much incentive to lavish the new mission with praise. Board members need to realise this.

Who are the museums consultants? How much is the museum paying them? Are their fees for the feasibility phase separate from future fees pegged to the cost of implementing the plan? The trustees are caring and conscientious people. All want Pittsfield to thrive. Consultants often beget more consultancy, though. They need to make a living, after all. Its important to know their credentials and track records, too.

The board has promised money from the sale of art will first fund an endowment big enough to support its transformed mission. Will this happen? Of course it wont. Everyone will get giddy and most of the money will get spent. If were lucky, the board will address all the museums infrastructure needs, though these needs, inasmuch as they often involve mechanics we cant see, are the least sexy parts of a new mission. More likely, the razzle dazzle will get pride of place, estimates of paying audience will be inflated, and future operating costs will be underestimated.

This isnt guile; its irrational exuberance. An education and exhibition programme as tech reliant as the plan envisages has to look new and improved, and we cant know what the latest bells and whistles will cost. A meteorite just needs an occasional dusting. A mummy doesnt even need a new tube of lipstick.

Venerable institutions tend to develop their own DNA. As if guided by the gods, theyll repeat old patterns of operation, for better or for worse. This is a powerful impulse, and at the core of the Berkshire Museums historic DNA is impoverishment. But its only an impulse. Lets hope a full airing of these questions will help put the museum on solid footing and keep it there.

Objections to Ai Weiwei installation: much ado about nothing?

Objections to Ai Weiwei installation: much ado about nothing?

A site-specific installation by Ai Weiwei for the passageway of the 1892 Washington Square Arch in New York, part of the artists upcoming city-wide exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (24 October-11 February 2018), seems to have ruffled some neighbors feathers. On 25 August, the president of the Washington Square Association community group, Trevor Sumner, addressed an open letter to the Public Art Fund, which is organising the show, to raise its objections to the planned installation. The letter alleges among other complaints that the work would interrupt annual holiday celebrations and that [t]he project was not built with the collaboration of the neighborhood. But according to a statement by the Public Art Funds president Susan Freedman, the non-profit has been in close dialogue with [Sumner] to ensure that the tradition of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony moves ahead without interruption, and has also met with community boards and neighbourhood groups throughout the planning process, including the Washington Square Park Association. (Freedman also says that Sumner expressed excitement about the project.) The Public Art Fund also plans to speak with residents at a Community Board meeting next week. Perhaps the groups can rally around the Christmas tree come December and share some neighbourly love.