French police seize Liechtenstein Cranach

March 4 2016

Image of French police seize Liechtenstein Cranach

Picture: TAN

Vincent Noce in The Art Newspaper reports on the extraordinary news that police in France have seized a painting by Cranach (above, detail) belonging to the Prince of Liechtenstein, after doubts have apparently been raised over its authenticity and provenance. From TAN:

The work came on to the market in 2012 and was sold in good faith to the Prince in 2013 by Colnaghi Gallery in London. According to information provided to The Art Newspaper, the gallery bought the painting from the manager of an American investment fund for €3.2m and sold it to the Prince for €7m.

The gallery says the painting was discovered “in a Belgian collection, wh ere it had been held since the middle of the 19th century”. The gallery could not provide any further details about this collection and would not comment on the seizure. The authorities are now investigating this provenance, reviving doubts doubts over the work’s authenticity that were raised when the panel first appeared on the market. According to documents, the work had been offered for sale to Christie’s, Sotheby’s and other galleries, and was declined.

Colnaghi says that three leading specialists—Werner Schade, Bodo Brinkmann and Dieter Koepplin—have attributed the painting to Cranach. However other experts have expressed reservations over the condition of the paint, the signature and the winged dragon from Cranach’s family seal next to it, as well as the state of the wooden panel.

A laboratory report, commissioned by Christie’s in advance of its 2012 Old Master auction found six “concerns” that required “further research”. The first of these is the “rather coarse nature” of azurite pigment in the pearls Venus wears in the painting, mixed with titanium white, which was not available until the 20th century. This anomaly could be explained by later restorations, however, the author of the report said. Other concerns include “the manner in which the surface paint is cracked and delaminating from the panel, the nature of the panel itself and the blackish appearance within these cracks”.

The Liechtenstein collection have no doubts as to the painting's authenticity:

The director of the Prince’s collection, Johann Kräftner, says: “We still believe in the authenticity of the painting and are not willing to respond to anonymous gossip.”

You can see the picture in detail on the Colnaghi website here. I am no Cranach expert, and I have not seen the painting in the flesh, so cannot reliably comment on the attribution.

But the point is, would the French police seize a painting that was just thought to be an optimistic attribution, say a picture that was really 'Workshop of Cranach' being upgraded to 'Cranach', especially not if the owner was happy about it? Since when id the French police ever care so deeply about art history? It seems to me, though the article in TAN doesn't make it explicit, that the French police might only be involved in this if there was some suggestion the picture was an out and out modern fake. And they must have some more substantive evidence, one would imagine, before making this bold move to seize the Prince's picture. Is it connected to the existing German police investigation into a claimed forger of Cranach (as covered on AHN here)?

I have, I must say, been aware of some rumours about this painting (and others) for a while. But the art world thrives on this sort of chatter, so it was hard to know whether to take it seriously, and to be honest in this case I didn't. I hadn't heard about Christie's and others rejecting the Colnaghi picture, and nor about the existence of any scientific report. I did hear a tale that some allegedly questionable paintings all came from the same source. But I don't know who that person was, with whom they were dealing, or what pictures they were involved with. Certainly, I have never heard anything about an American fund manager, as mentioned above. So I'm puzzled by this, and at first sight find it hard to believe that there's anything really serious going on.

But all I can say is that if some clever faker really is making fakes of the quality perhaps alleged, then they are the best faker there has ever been. Regular readers will know that on a few occasions I have raised an eyebrow, shall we say, about some new 'discoveries' that have been publicly offered at auction. But if the Liechtenstein Cranach is proved to be a wrong 'un (a massive 'if' at this stage) then we're talking about a whole different level. Of course, if the French Police's investigation widens and develops, then it could end up rocking the very foundations of the art world. Brace yourselves...

Update - Le Figaro reports that the investigation was begun after an anonymous complaint to police about the attribution. I cannot possibly think of any reason why the French police would get involved in a simple case of Old Master attribution. Only two scenarios spring to mind. First, as I suggested above, there is something more sinister going on, and the French police think it might be a case of fakery. Or is it possibly something to do with the curious system in French law whereby a vendor can unravel a sale if they sold something that was misdescribed? Ie, someone sold it as not a Cranach, for a relative trifle, and now wants a greater slice of the action. Maybe Belgian law is similar to French law in this area? 

As you can see, speculation in such cases is pretty pointless; though of course we all do it.

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