Saturday, February 06, 2010

Laughingstocks In Los Angeles

One of the most important artists of the German Renaissance was Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62), a Hans Holbein disciple who practiced his craft primarily in Nuremberg and Augsburg. After his study with Holbein, Amberger traveled for two years in Italy, where he acquired a mastery of Italian painting techniques. Upon his return to Germany, Amberger became one of the most celebrated painters in Central Europe.

Amberger was, above all, renowned as a portrait painter, especially favored by the merchant families of Augsburg, including the Fugger family, the wealthiest and most influential family of merchant bankers in Europe during the 16th Century. Amberger paintings are highly coveted, on permanent display in the very finest art museums of Europe.

While we were in Munich in August, we viewed the Amberger paintings owned by the Alte Pinakothek, which has the world’s most distinguished collection of German Renaissance paintings.

One particularly notable Alte Pinakothek painting by Amberger is a portrait of Christoph Fugger of the Fugger family. The painting is one of the most famous of all Amberger works.

Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62)
Christoph Fugger
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Panel
38 3/4 Inches By 32 Inches

Amberger paintings are prized by connoisseurs everywhere.

The Alte Pinakothek, for instance, generally keeps three Amberger paintings on display at all times. The Kunsthistorisches in Vienna owns nine Amberger works, with eight of the nine paintings on display in active rotation. The Uffizi Gallery owns only one Amberger painting, but it is always on view.

American museums own very, very few artworks of the German Renaissance. Amberger paintings are almost unknown here. The neglect of art of the German Renaissance is one of the critical weaknesses of American art institutions, including even The Metropolitan Museum Of Art and The National Gallery Of Art, neither of which owns an admirable—or even important—collection of German paintings from the period (and neither of which owns an Amberger).

I was, consequently, astonished to read that the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art sold its only Amberger painting last week at a Sotheby’s auction of Old Master Paintings. The sale was purportedly engineered “to benefit future acquisitions” for LACMA.

What could the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art acquire that could possibly be more important—or more rare—than an Amberger painting? And an Amberger Fugger painting, no less?

The Los Angeles Amberger painting bears many similarities to Munich’s famed Amberger painting: both paintings derive from 1541; both canvases are of the same size; both feature prominent figures from the Fugger family, exquisitely attired and posed before green drapery; and both paintings have a long and distinguished ownership history. Indeed, the sitter for the Los Angeles Amberger painting, Hans Jakob Fugger, was the brother of Christoph Fugger, the sitter for the Munich Amberger painting.

Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62)
Hans Jakob Fugger
Formerly Owned By The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, Los Angeles

Oil On Panel
37 3/4 Inches By 31 1/4 Inches

Long studied by scholars, the Los Angeles Amberger painting has an extensive and distinguished monographic record. In fact, it has twice been featured in LACMA-published monographs discussing the crown jewels of the LACMA collection.

Since 1968, when LACMA acquired the painting through gift, the Los Angeles Amberger has been in demand for loan worldwide, traveling to Europe several times for inclusion in various European exhibitions.

Why has LACMA abandoned one of its most important artworks? And who at LACMA made the boneheaded decision to sell such a rare work of art, practically unique in the United States?

The blame may be placed on Patrice Marandel, LACMA’s Chief Curator Of Painting, who stated, publicly, that the Amberger painting “had sat in storage in recent years because [it] no longer conform[ed] with LACMA’s goals for its exhibition program”. Marandel’s statement may constitute the single most stupid public utterance ever made by an American museum official.

The Los Angeles Amberger, the only Amberger painting in an American public collection so far as I can ascertain, should have enjoyed a prominent—and permanent—place in LACMA’s galleries. It was one of LACMA’s most important paintings, a standout in an otherwise undistinguished if not mediocre collection.

Anyone not convinced of the importance of the Los Angeles Amberger painting need only read the Sotheby’s Catalog:

In 1968, Alfred Strange described this portrait as "one of the most beautiful works of the full-blown Renaissance in Germany". It was painted in 1541 by Christoph Amberger, the leading painter in Augsburg at the time, and it almost certainly represents Hans Jakob Fugger, eldest son of Raimond Fugger and a member of the richest family in the Holy Roman Empire.

The portrait's success lies in its fusion of German Renaissance and Italian Mannerist ideals, rising out of the tradition of Holbein and Dürer's great portraits of the early decades of the 16th century while looking, too, at the stylized aristocratic portraiture being developed by Pontormo and Bronzino who, at about the same time, were court painters in Florence to the Fuggers' great rivals, the Medici.

Here, Fugger is depicted as the epitome of Renaissance man, impeccably dressed in a dark jacket in the Spanish style that was the height of fashion circa 1540, his hand resting above the hilt of his beautifully molded sword, and looking confidently, perhaps even arrogantly, into the distance.

In the same year Amberger painted the portrait of Hans Jakob's younger brother, Christoph (1520-1579), in similar guise, at the age of twenty, on a panel of near-identical dimensions (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). In this latter, Christoph does indeed appear a few years younger than Hans Jakob in the present portrait and he shares with him a great physiognomic likeness. Christoph's portrait can be traced with certainty back to the Fugger family collection at Babenhausen and it seems very likely that these two portraits thus constituted a joint commission from Amberger to paint the two brothers in 1541.

Any American museum that would sell an Amberger painting—let alone an important Amberger painting—is, by definition, a laughingstock. That The Los Angeles Times has not been providing extensive and critical coverage of this shameful sale signifies that that city’s primary newspaper and its art reporters are laughingstocks as well.

The Board Of Trustees Of The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art needs to conduct an inquiry, immediately, investigating the circumstances of the deaccession of its Amberger masterpiece. All persons involved in approving the sale of this rarest of paintings, including the Museum Director, Michael Govan, should be removed, immediately, from their positions.

Of course, such will never happen, as the Board Of Trustees of LACMA has itself been a laughingstock for years. The museum has been embroiled in controversy since the day it opened its doors; the list of prominent art patrons that have retracted promised gifts to LACMA is the longest of any American art institution.

LACMA being a lost cause, the question remains: who bought the Los Angeles Amberger last week?

The identity of the buyer has not been made public, but rumor is that two American museums were bidders for the painting. Since both the Kimbell Museum and The National Gallery have been trying to improve their German collections in recent years, I suspect that one of those two institutions may have acquired the painting.

Sotheby’s anticipated that the Amberger would command a price between $200,000 and $300,000, an absurdly-low figure for a rare German Renaissance painting. Happily, the painting sold for several times its pre-sale estimate: $1,202,500 was the final hammer price.

Nonetheless, the painting is worth twenty times that sum.

Of the many Old Master Paintings offered at last week’s auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, only the Amberger painting sold for several times its pre-sale estimate.

This proves that someone has been paying attention, even if morons at LACMA and The Los Angeles Times remain clueless.


  1. Fantastic blog post. I especially liked you pointing out LACMA stating that "[it] no longer conform[ed] with LACMA’s goals for its exhibition program." I've been surprised with a lot of their deaccessions, including a gorgeous Ferdinand Bol self-portrait. It's great that the institution can purchase things like the Avercamp winter skating scene, but why toss out the baby with the bath water?

  2. The ongoing deaccessions in Los Angeles have been dumbfounding. Equally dumbfounding has been the local press's failure to address this very troubling issue.

    LACMA has become more of a joke than ever before.

  3. How about this for a design for a wall painting, in the tried-and-true Art Nouveau style?:, by the famous English artist, Audrey Beardsley himself. You can also order a canvas print of the picture from