New Donatello discovery

January 20 2016

Image of New Donatello discovery

Picture: NYT

In the New York Times, Scott Reyburn draws our attention to a newly attributed work by Donatello (above). It was recently sold in New York for a figure reported to be between $8m-$11m. It was identified and sold by the New York dealer and scholar Andrew Butterfield. Reyburn writes:

Mr. Butterfield had acquired the 2-foot-8-inch tall putto, or “spiritello,” in 2012 from the estate of a Turin art dealer, Giancarlo Gallino, for an undisclosed amount. The piece was not unknown, but it was not thought to be by Donatello, the pre-eminent sculptor of the early Renaissance in Italy.

When Mr. Butterfield bought the sculpture, it was described simply as “Florentine 15th century.” Believing there was more to the story, he consulted several art historians, including Francesco Caglioti, a leading Italian scholar of Renaissance art.

Initial study identified the work as the twin to one in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that was listed as “Italian (possibly Florence), possibly mid-15th century.” Other factors, including the putto’s tiptoe stance, appeared to strengthen the connection to Donatello.

Mr. Butterfield exhibited the statue this fall at Moretti Fine Art in New York. In an accompanying catalog, Mr. Caglioti wrote that “we can safely attribute to Donatello not only the invention and design” of both sculptures “but also the personal responsibility for their execution in his workshop and directly under his eyes, for a decorative project he devised and followed through to its completion.” 

Reyburn then goes onto detail another Donatello find* by Mr. Caglioti:

Such a concern has not deterred Mr. Caglioti from announcing that he has discovered yet another Donatello.

In November, he argued in a 97-page article in the art journal Prospettiva that a terracotta bust of San Lorenzo that had been cataloged as “19th century” in the collection of the princes of Liechtenstein — and sold by them at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam in 2003 for about 2,000 euros, or about $2,175 — was a long-lost Donatello made for the facade of a church near Florence.Time will tell if this latest Donatello “discovery” — never historically documented and regarded, at best, as being by the artist’s circle — is accepted by other scholars, or indeed the market.

Reyburn begins the article with the premise that such discoveries are needed in the Old Master world because:

One of the problems for a billionaire wanting to put together a trophy collection of old master art is that the supply of documented works by the most illustrious sculptors and painters has all but dried up.

As a result, millions can be made if a work hitherto attributed to a minor or unknown artist can be upgraded to a famous name.

Such an introduction appears to perpetuate two Old Master myths. First, that works by great names aren't available any more. And second that art history mostly already knows who painted what, and that attribution is something of a settled thing.

To deal with the first, just take a look at some of the works available at Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sales, which include a documented and signed Raphael no less. Each Old Master season usually brings forth a major work that sells for tens of millions of dollars. There have been nine Rembrandts at auction since 2000 (and more sold privately). Take a more prolific artist like Rubens, and the numbers soon escalate. Certainly, the truly greatest Old Master paintings avilable for sale are rare. But I'm not sure there was ever a golden age of art auctions dripping with major works by the major names. Collections such as the Louvre and the British Royal Collection accounted for large numbers of the most important Old Masters from centuries ago.

And on the discovery point - well, regular readers will know my views on this. Art history, as a discipline of sorting out who painted what, has been all over the place for some time now. Connoisseurship fell away as a valued skill from the late 1970s onwards. Before then, there were indeed many excellent connoisseurs, but it was still a discipline in its infancy, dependent largely on black and white photos, and with no recourse to all the technical analysis we can do today. In other words, although the oeuvres of the great painters are indeed mostly settled, there is still significant blurring around the edges.

To take Van Dyck - an artist I know a little about - we had in the 1980s a useless catalogue raisonné by Prof. Erik Larsen, which included just about any picture that looked vaguely Flemish and 17th Century. For at least a decade, Van Dyck attributions were wildly out, for Larsen was seen as the authority by many auction houses and dealers. Then, thankfully, along came Yale with their much more disciplined catalogue in 2004. And yet I think it's not unfair to say that, in the light of Larsen's 'inclusionism', the 2004 catalogue was perhaps a little too exclusionist. Barely more than 20 head studies were included, for example, and yet we know that Van Dyck's working practice would have required the use of a far larger number. In other words, there is still much more discovering to be done, not least because connoisseurs (those that are left) have so many more tools at their disposal: digital imagery, paint analysis, high resolution x-rays, infra-red, and so on. 

*In my initial publication of this article I made a bish which appeared to suggest that Scott's "time will tell" line referred to the first mentioned Donatello discovery, not the second one. My apologies to both Scott and the New York Times!

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