Sotheby's sued over Caravaggio attribution

February 15 2013

Image of Sotheby's sued over Caravaggio attribution

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that Sotheby's is being sued over a work it sold as a copy of a Caravaggio in 2006, but which might in fact be the real thing. The vendor is apparently claiming up to £10m. The word 'might', of course, is the crucial bit here, for although the late Sir Denis Mahon said the picture was by Caravaggio, other Caravaggio scholars have said it isn't. And Sir Denis might have had a conflict of interest - he bought the picture at Sotheby's, for £50,400.

From TAN:

The claimant is Lancelot William Thwaytes, who consigned the work to auction in 2006; it was catalogued as The Cardsharps, “a 17th-century copy after Caravaggio’s original now in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth”. The painting had been in the Thwaytes family since 1962. According to the claim that was filed at the end of January, Thwaytes seeks unspecified damages, interest and costs relating to the price difference between the £42,000 the painting sold for in 2006 and “what its true open market value was in 2006”, had it been attributed to Caravaggio and to be determined by expert evidence. The filing includes the claim that Sotheby’s did not undertake the necessary research and analysis prior to the work’s sale.

In a statement, Sotheby’s says that its “view that the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio is supported by the eminent Caravaggio scholar Professor Richard Spear, as well as by several other leading experts in the field”. Other experts who have gone on the record in support of Sotheby’s view include Helen Langdon, the Italian Baroque scholar and the writer of Caravaggio’s 1998 biography, and Sebastian Schütze, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. In reference to Mahon’s The Cardsharps, Schütze writes in his 2009 catalogue of Caravaggio’s paintings that “the quality of the execution… rather suggests the painting to be a copy”.

So far, Sotheby's case would seem pretty strong, not least because it's very hard to sue an auction house if they make a mistake over attributions. The Terms and Conditions you sign when consigning a painting for sale effectively give them carte blanche to call a picture what they like. The only thing you can sue auction houses for is negligence - that is, say they didn't bother to do even the most basic research on a painting - and that is very hard to proove. In my experience, at least, the major auction houses usually are professional and diligent in how they catalogue pictures. 

However, then Sotheby's go and spoil their case by saying:

Sotheby’s adds: “Our view is also supported by the market, which gave its verdict on this painting when it set the price at £50,400 [the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium] at Sotheby’s sale in December of 2006. The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers—had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”

This is a spurious argument, and I can't believe that anybody senior at Sotheby's has signed off on it. Such logic would rule out any cheaply bought 'sleeper' ever being right. And, if the inverse is true, it must mean that when 'the market' bids way over estimate for a picture called, say, 'follower of Rubens', then not only is the market right that it is by Rubens, but the auction house must wrong in stating that it is by a follower.

The 'Caravaggio' in question here was offered at Sotheby's minor saleroom in Olympia, which is now closed. It was a pain in the bum to get to, and only the hardy and determined tended to go and view paintings there. So it would have been quite easy for the 'the world's leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' to miss the painting. It used to happen a lot, but sadly, for bottom-feeding dealers like me, doesn't so much these days; high-resolution online images mean most people can inspect pretty much everything on offer at auction, no matter where it is. But in the distant days of 2006 online images weren't as good as they are now, and the Sotheby's Olympia catalogues generally only had very small printed images. You can see the original catalogue entry here. So it's just not possible to use an auction sale price as proof of a painting's attribution. For what it's worth, I remember looking at the picture - and not having a clue that it might be by Caravaggio. The attribution is now also supported by, according to TAN:

[...] Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini; Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums; the curator and Bolognese art expert Daniele Benati; Thomas Scheider, a writer and restorer; and Ulrich Birkmaier, the chief conservator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Update - a reader asks:

A very interesting article on the Mahon 'Caravaggio' - do we know where it currently is, does it form part of the Mahon estate, which I understood was willed to the Art Fund, and on a slightly different matter, what is the news on Mahon's will, which I believe still hasn't been published?

Another reader also wonders:

Interestingly the article actually says Mahon “obtained an export licence for it that gave an estimated selling price of £10m”. 

I assume this was a temporary one for the exhibition in Trapani as I don’t recollect any case before the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art.  Unless of course there was no objection to a permanent export licence by the Committee’s expert adviser, the National Gallery, which, given the rarity of authentic Caravaggios in the UK, one would expect there to be.  

And what has happened to it since?  I notice that the Mahon pictures in the National Gallery have not yet been accessioned, they remain “On loan from the Personal Representatives of Sir Denis Mahon”.

Update II - I am reliably informed by someone whose opinion on attributions I trust entirely, that the picture is certainly not by Caravaggio.

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