How the V&A secured Wolsey's Angels

February 27 2015

Image of How the V&A secured Wolsey's Angels

Pictures: BG

I recently went to see the V&A's splendid new purchase, the four c.1524-9 bronze angels by Benedetto da Rovezzano. The angels were originally designed to go on Cardinal Wolsey's planned tomb in Westminster Abbey - but the tomb was never built after he was charged with treason.

In the Antiques Trade Gazette, Roland Arkell has the full story about how the angels were discovered, and how the V&A was able to acquire them.

First, the discovery:

The first suggestion of the existence of the angels emerged in the early 2000s. Italian scholar Francesco Caglioti chanced on a pair of bronzes owned or part-owned by the Parisian works of art dealer Guy Ladrière. The world authority on Benedetto, Caglioti compared the sculptures with those catalogued in an inventory of Wolsey's possessions in 1530, and the details matched exactly.

The V&A became aware of the discovery, but it was not until 2008, when a second pair of angels was tracked down at Harrowden Hall, a country house in Northamptonshire, that the case became more compelling.

It was a remarkable discovery and offered the unexpected opportunity to reunite four works of sculpture so intimately connected with the course of British history.

What a great piece of scholarship and connoisseurship from Francesco Caglioti. Amazing.

But - as Arkell writes:

[...] there was a problem.

It emerged that Harrowden Hall, owned since the 1970s by the Wellingborough Golf Club, had displayed all four sculptures from the tops of gateposts until as recently as 1988 when two were stolen. [...]

The remaining pair had been taken down from their prominent display for safer keeping inside the hall.

It emerged that the stolen pair had resurfaced six years later at an unwitting Sotheby's when, unillustrated and catalogued simply as being 'in Italian Renaissance style', they sold for just £12,000. Guy Ladrière (now of Galerie Ratton-Ladrière), acquired them soon afterwards in good faith and oversaw their repatination with a coat of 'bronze' coloured wax.

So what to do?

As soon as the club learned of the angels' provenance, they lent their pair to the V&A and were keen to monetise their asset. But any transaction would be far from straightforward.

The club were unable to sell their pair at auction because they formed part of the Grade I listing at Harrowden Hall.

Under English law the club also retained title to the stolen pair - but how would their claim stand up in France where Ladrière had acquired them in good faith and years had passed since the statute of limitations had expired?

Ultimately, a pragmatic compromise was reached, with the club ceding their claim to the stolen pair on the understanding that a syndicate created for the purpose would offer all four statues for sale on behalf of both the club and Ladrière. The resulting windfall should bring the club more than £2.5m to secure their future.

This raises some interesting points. First, it seems to me that the club have blundered by ceding so easily their title. The two angels were stolen, pure and simple. It should matter not a jot that someone subsequently bought them 'in good faith'. They're stolen goods. If we were dealing with two items that had provably been looted from, say, a jewish family by the Nazis, there would be no question of returning the works. 

Second, I'd be interested to know how the V&A has gotten around the question of the grade 1 listing. The ATG piece states that this would have prevented the items being 'sold at auction' - but as I understand it, the listing means they shouldn't be removed at all. 

And finally, the re-patination. I hope the V&A takes the newly applied 'bronze' wax off. It's ghastly, as you can perhaps see in the photo at the top. The angels look like cheap chocolates. They look infinitely better in their original state (above). 

Update - here's Hilary Mantel on the origin of the angels. 

Update II - a reader sends this helpful clarification:

I think the issue with the Angels is conflict of law - under English law, the golf club has title. Under French law, the new owner has title. It's unlikely a French court would accept jurisdiction of English law, so the golf club's claim is probably unenforceable in France. But it means they could sue for resitution if they're ever moved abroad, so their value is diminished. There was a similar case recently with the Marquis de Sade's papers, which were illegally exported from France to Switzerland. In that case the Swiss owners had title under local law, so a financial settlement was agreed there too.

I wonder what the value of two knowingly stolen works by Benedetto da Rovezzano would be in France alone? Ie, works that a new owner would know they could never export outside France? Not very much I shouldn't think. If the golf club settled for anything less than the great majority of the total £5m figure, they were (in my view) poorly advised.

Update III - a sculptor writes:

'I also enjoyed seeing  'Wolsey's Angels' the other day at the V&A. Unfortunately the wings which would have fitted into the slots on the shoulders are missing and would have mader them even  more splendid (see drawing). Concerning the original patination, I am sure Wolsey and Revezzano the sculptor would  have wanted them gilded like the angels on Torrigiano's tomb for Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, then recently completed, which surely would have been a great influence.

The nice green patina, originally on two of the angels which are now a brown colour , would probably have been sandblasted to remove the green patina before being re-patinated the brown colour. This is standard foundry practice. So reverting to the green colour, caused simply by being exposed to the weather for a long time would mean a complex re-patination process.

To save time in sculpting, and to maximise his profit, I speculate that Revezanno, like Torrigiano before him would made a left and a right handed angel- rather than four different sculptures. Two sets of each would have been replicated in wax in only two moulds, and worked on with added details to make them slightly different from their twins. All four would then have been cast by the 'lost wax' process.'

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