Previous Posts: October 2014

Happy Halloween!

October 31 2014

Image of Happy Halloween!

Picture: via @hclaytonwright

Remember 'Fresco Jesus'? Seems he's back, as a Halloween mask...

'Show us what you've got' - the scandal of great art in store

October 31 2014

Image of 'Show us what you've got' - the scandal of great art in store


My latest piece for the Financial Times, which you can listen to as a podcast here and read here, looks at the sometimes staggering amount of good paintings our leading museums keep in storage. Would you believe that out of Tate's 50 oil paintings by John Constable, just three are on show at Tate?

And by chance Jonathan Jones has also touched on the same question over in The Guardian. He went to Tate Britain recently to see some of their William Hogarths:

So I got to Tate Britain and headed for its 18th-century gallery. But where was Hogarth’s self-portrait? Where were Tate’s other terrific examples of his art? Nowhere. I hate to moan (no really, I do) but I have to ask why the man who invented British art is so glaringly absent from Tate Britain’s “Walk Through British Art”.

Actually, I think this is a subject well worth moaning about.

Finally, over on Tribune de l'Art, Didier Ryckner reports that the Louvre's plans to build a new €60m storage depot 200km outside Paris have caused uproar amongst the Louvre's curators. They fear, quite rightly I'd have thought, that once so many pictures are so far away, there won't be much rotation of art works at the Louvre itself. That said, at the moment, even with the storage in the Louvre's basements (where there is a risk of flooding of course, being next to the Seine), one regularly sees long-standing gaps on the walls when pictures are taken off on loan or for conservation.

Update - a reader writes to point out that Jones just missed out on a cache of Hogarths because of Tate's new 'spotlight' exhibition on Hogarth portraits, which opened on 27th October. In my experience, such a turn of events is, however, very much the exception. And it still seems to me a shame that as great an artist as Hogarth has to wait for his turn in the spotlight. He should be permanently in the limelight.

I remember looking at the number of Hogarths Tate's website said was on display some months ago (I've had this article in mind for some time), and I recall it was something very low like two or three.

Update II - another reader writes:

The National Gallery used to boast that all its paintings were on display, but this was in the halcyon days of Neil MacGregor's directorship (before you were born); and meant that the zweite garnitur was hung hugger-mugger, cheek by jowl, in the lower ground floor. Successive trustees and directors of the National Gallery have steadily weakened their commitment to ensuring that everything is on display, to the extent that the reopening of the lower ground floor this (?last) year, with only a small percentage of the lesser pictures, was hailed as a major advance. The Tate, on the other hand, has never been embarrassed about the huge extent of the iceberg below display. What is needed is a clear commitment to the permanent collections, even if this comes at the (literal) expense of exhibitions; but it would need trustees much more courageous than any appointed in recent years to acknowledge that the public has a right to see what it owns, immediately, and not by appointment or in an exhibition several years hence.

Which is why I should immediately be made a trustee of everything.

Update III - another reader writes, from the US, with this sad note:

Some storage items are never seen as they may be stored from the day they are donated to the day they are sold, as happened to my mother's gift.

Update IV - another US reader writes:

Hang paintings in the nineteenth century manner as at the Barnes Foundatoin [below] and you can show the entire collection.

Indeed. The Wallace Collection is another example of this hanging style, and I've always thought it works well. 

Update V - a reader writes:

Worth adding that four of the Tate's Constables are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in their Constable exhibition?

Even if all four of these go back on display at Tate, that still leaves 43 in storage...

Update VI - a reader who has held senior curatorial positions in both regional and London galleries writes:

Many, perhaps most regional galleries, have large numbers of pictures in store (as BBC Your Paintings shows). There are wonderful exceptions but, sadly, many can't cope with their existing collections. It's a matter of staffing and resources. There is no point in redistributing art unless the resources go with the redistribution. But I agree about being more relaxed about lending and moving.

Which is true, though I would add that to resources we might, in some cases need to add gumption. Some regional curators and directors are much more active and enthusiastic than others when it comes to acquiring, displaying and borrowing. The late Brian Stewart, for example, ran Falmouth Art Gallery on a shoestring, but managed to put on the most extraordinary displays. 

Also, it's undeniably the case that many of the pictures in regional museum's stores are hardly top line. My main point is that some London galleries have pictures which they might not feel are quite good enough for permanent display in a limited hanging space; but for smaller galleries they would be handsome additions to any hang.

Update VII - a reader makes this perceptive point:

With regards to Tate Britain, I wish the director or curators could have the imagination to stage a grand rehang in classical style for the vast Duveen Halls, along the lines of the Koch gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. That would be splendid way to showcase some of the grand 18th and 19th Century paintings, and maximize the wallspace of this much under-used central space.

I've mentioned this before, in relation to the fine hang in a similar space at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

Update VIII - a reader recently tried to borrow one of the stored Constables; 'we're too busy', was Tate's response. Tate also require, I'm told, nine months notice for a loan request. Most galleries are happy with six, though since museum world bureacracy moves at a famously glacial pace, it's obviously better to get your request in long before that.

Richard Wilson catalogue raisonné online

October 31 2014

Image of Richard Wilson catalogue raisonné online

Picture: PMC

The new catalogue raisonné of Richard Wilson's paintings has gone online.

Just marvel, AHN-ers, at the rarity of such a sentence. How often do we get to see the words 'new', 'catalogue raisonné' and 'online' all together? So all hail please the great endeavours of Dr Paul Spencer-Longhurst, who has compiled the catalogue, and the Paul Mellon Centre in London for supporting it. It looks like a fine model for all such future ventures. 

Sleeper alert?

October 30 2014

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above 'Circle of Rubens' made £128,500 today at Christie's mid-season Old Master sale in London, against an estimate of £20,000-£30,000. It's a copy (at least, so we presume) of a picture in the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon, which you can see here. The Waddesdon picture is called 'After Rubens', but I remember when I saw it a long time ago that I thought it was pretty good. The Rubens scholar Peter C. Sutton apparently thinks the Waddesdon picture is by Rubens. You can see an undoubted version by Rubens of the subject, the Garden of Love, in the Prado here

Update - I think we can safely say this is a case of 'optimism alert'.

The new Picasso Museum

October 30 2014

Image of The new Picasso Museum

Picture: NYTimes

In the Sunday Times, Waldemar loved it. He says that following the recent sacking of the museum's director, Anne Baldassari, he was:

[...] expecting to encounter an unhinged institution trapped in a cycle of recrimination and chaos. Instead, I found a gloriously rethought Picasso experience in which his story is excitingly and inventively told, and his artistic genius forensically clear. The old Musée Picasso was a marvellous place to visit. This one is better.

Apparently, Baldassari was let back in to complete the opening hang. This, then, is her handiwork. Mercifully, and unexpectedly, the journey she has created for us is essentially chronological. As the inventors of the circuitous theme hang, French curators have much to answer for in modern museum history, but here we start at the beginning and end at the end, with just a handful of enlargements along the way. [...]

With so much that is new on show, the enlarged and reimagined spaces have gained an archival air that appears initially to dispel some of the raw power of Picasso’s art. The old museum was a mess, but the disorder seemed to suit it. Everything now is white and pristine, carefully considered and positioned. However, once some of this glaring new whiteness has faded, the power will surely loom again.

And you can certainly see where the money went — on achieving perfection. I imagine that is where the time went, as well. It is no more than Picasso deserves. All in all, a magnificent achievement. Instead of sacking Baldassari, they should have given her the Légion d’Honneur.

But in the New York Times, Holland Cotter was less convinced about some aspects:

Given such richly personal material, it’s too bad the new presentation at the Picasso Museum — officially the Musée Picasso Paris — isn’t telling that story more persuasively. Architecture is part of the problem. The museum’s 17th-century home, the Hôtel Salé, in the historic Marais district, with its garden, courtyard and two-story, sculpture-encrusted entrance hall, has never been ideal for showing art.

The interior is choppy, with smallish spaces, dead ends, and illogical connections. The original 1980s renovation laid a white-walled Corbusian gloss over this without achieving a sense of unity. The new design, by the architect Jean-François Bodin, is basically a magnified version of the old plan. There’s more space — four floors of galleries, including a vaulted basement and loftlike attic with exposed beams and views of surrounding rooftops — but their order is still hard to navigate.

An impression of discontinuity is compounded by the idiosyncratic arrangement of art devised by Ms. Baldassari, who stayed on the job just long enough to organize the inaugural show. The main installation, on the first and second floors, begins with a few paintings by the adolescent Picasso in Spain, where he was born in 1881, and others from his first stay in Paris when he was barely out of his teens. The shift is dramatic: Murillo-style realism one year, the equivalent of psychedelia the next.

'Inside Picasso's Camera'

October 30 2014

Video: New York Times

The above video shows Sir John Richardson, Picasso's biographer (he knew the artist well) talking about Picasso's love of photography. You can read more about Sir John's new exhibition on Picasso's photos here.

Marvel, though, at the extraordinary fact that Sir John's grandfather was born in 1817, when King George III was on the throne. I love it when history is so tangibly close to us.


Moving Leonardo's 'Self-Portrait' drawing

October 30 2014

Video: Euronews

The abovenews clip is narrated by a (spookily good) automated English voice, but it's worth watching to see the zippy new case built for Leonadro's (alleged) self-portrait drawing, which is going on display in Turin for the first time in many years. Despite all the protective gizmos, however, they seem not to be too concerned about the light levels...

For more on the exhibition, and the latest views on whether the drawing is or is not by and of Leonardo, see this piece here on the BBC. 

Turin Shroud debunked (again)

October 30 2014

Image of Turin Shroud debunked (again)

Picture: Antonio Calanni/AP

British scholar Charles Freeman has written perhaps the most comprehensive debunking of the Turin Shroud legend in the latest History Today. It's well worth reading the article in full, but here, from the Guardian, is his case in a nutshell:

Freeman, the author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, studied early descriptions and illustrations of the shroud. None predates 1355, the year of its first documented appearance in a chapel in Lirey near Troyes in France, before it was acquired by the House of Savoy in 1453 and “converted into a high-prestige relic” to shore up the power base of the insecure Alpine dukedom.

In particular, he turned up a little-known engraving by Antonio Tempesta, an artist attached to the Savoyard court, who made a meticulously detailed image of one of the ceremonial displays of the cloth to pilgrims in 1613.

“Astonishingly,” he writes, “few researchers appear to have grasped that the shroud looked very different in the 16th and 17th centuries from the object we see today.”

The Tempesta engraving, as well as a number of 15th- and 16th-century first-hand descriptions, emphasise a feature that is much less obvious now – that the figure was covered in blood and scourge marks, relating to Christ’s flagellation. These extensive markings can be explicitly related, argues Freeman, to a focus on blood in depictions of the crucifixion that emerged in the 14th century – a “dramatic” change in iconography that sharply differentiates depictions of the crucified Christ from those of earlier centuries, and which reflects revelations of a bloody, wounded Christ reported by mystics such as Julian of Norwich in the 14th century.

The original purpose of the shroud, argues Freeman, is likely to have been as a prop in a kind of medieval, theatrical ceremony that took place at Easter – the Quem quaeritis? or “whom do you seek?”

“On Easter morning the gospel accounts of the resurrection would be re-enacted with ‘disciples’ acting out a presentation in which they would enter a makeshift tomb and bring out the grave clothes to show that Christ had indeed risen,” he said.

Freeman’s idea was shored up by his study of the earliest illustration of the shroud – on a pilgrim badge of the 1350s found in the Seine in 1855. On it, two clerics hold up the shroud, and beneath is an empty tomb.


For an example of the tenacity of the Shroud's supporters, see this rebuttal in The Catholic Herald.

New LED lighting for the Sistine Chapel

October 30 2014

Video: BBC

Blingier than ever. More details here

Andrew Wilton on 'Mr Turner'

October 30 2014

Image of Andrew Wilton on 'Mr Turner'

Picture: Film4

Andrew Wilton is one of the leading Turner scholars, and has written this interesting take on the new 'Mr Turner' film.

Dobson's self portrait at Osterley Park

October 30 2014

Video: ZCZ films

The Great Waldemar has made a short film about the return of William Dobson's self-portrait to Osterley Park, where it used to hang (when that house belonged to the Earls of Jersey) alongside Van Dyck's late English self-portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery.

The Dobson still belongs to the present Lord Jersey, who has generously lent the Dobson to Osterley (now a National Trust house) for ten years. You can see from the close-ups in this film just how much of a homage Dobson was paying to Van Dyck in the painting, not only in the composition but also in terms of the technique; it's about as Van Dyck-ian as Dobson gets.

The film also reminds me that the Dobson is in better condition than the Van Dyck, possibly on account of Dobson's slightly thicker painting style. Some of the glazes in the Van Dyck have become a little abraded, and the background has become substantially darker over time; its original colour is quite a bit lighter.  

Waldemar is also as obessed with Dobson as I am about Van Dyck. I'm hoping that's him singing at the beginning. But I doubt it.


October 29 2014

I'm writing my article for the FT, so not much blogging today I'm afraid...

New Constable for the Ashmolean

October 28 2014

Image of New Constable for the Ashmolean

Picture: Ashmolean

The above painting by John Constable, Willy Lott's House from the Stour, has been acquired by the Ashmolean Museum through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Surprisingly, it's the Ashmolean's first finished Constable. And equally surprisingly it was once (it is thought) the first Constable to ever enter a US collection - it was later sold by the New York Public Library, and returned to the UK in 1956. More details here

Update - the below photo on the Ashmolean's website is a classic of one of our favourite genres here on AHN; The Spurious White Glove Shot. Here, we name and shame Senior Curator of European Art, Colin Harrison (on the right), for 'holding' a painting that is already firmly attached to the wall. But top marks to the Ashmolean for not falling for the other photo-op beloved of the press; The Long-Legged Woman Walking Blurrily In Front of the Paintings Shot (for a previous example see here). 

Update II - I'm told the picture had been hanging in that spot for 18 months!

Update III - a reader would like to point out:

Besides the acquisition of a John Constable painting the Ashmolean Museum has recently announced the donation by Elizabeth and Micheál Fellers of the 61 items of historical needlework recently on show in their "Eye of the Needle" exhibition. The pieces are seventeenth-century embroideries which include dramatic pictorial panels, samplers, domestic items and costume pieces. The donation is being made to the Museum in honour of Professor Christopher Brown CBE who retired as Director of the Ashmolean on 30 September.

Professor Brown says: I am profoundly grateful to Micheál and Elizabeth Feller for this gift. The collection has been built, over many years, through Micheál and Elizabeth’s passion and dedication; and the gift to the Museum, where the embroideries can be enjoyed by thousands of visitors, is an act of enormous generosity. 

I hope this is worthy of at least a mention on your Art History News website. Textile artists are interested in what is happening in the painting and sculpture world even though those worlds do not seem very interested in textiles alas.

Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' - opening arguments

October 28 2014

Image of Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' - opening arguments

Picture: TAN

Today's Telegraph reports some of the opening arguments from the Caravaggio/Not Caravaggio 'Card Sharps' case I mentioned yesterday. It reveals two things: first that the vendor's case is that Sotheby's didn't do all the tests he says he asked them to; and secondly, that Sotheby's PR people have come up with the daftest line of defence.

First, here's the outline of the vendor's (Lancelot Thwaytes) case:

In documents now submitted to the High Court hearing, Mr Thwaytes' lawyers criticised the auction house for negligence and claimed they failed to carry out proper tests and consult experts. [...]

Henry Legge QC, representing Mr Thwaytes, told the court the case was a “very simple story”, alleging Sotheby’s did not do the tests the owner had requested.

"They came back to him and said they had done the X-rays on the painting and said it wasn't Caravaggio, but they didn't do infrared imaging,” he said.

"When it was sold the new owner had it cleaned and submitted it to the tests, including infrared and it was subsequently attributed to Caravaggio.

"At the core this is a negligence case, it is about Sotheby's actions and not attribution."

Mr Legge said: "Believing that the painting had been thoroughly and exhaustively researched and was definitely not by Caravaggio, Mr Thwaytes decided to sell it through Sotheby's." [...]

In the written argument Mr Thwaytes' lawyers said: "Mr Thwaytes maintains that Sotheby's failed in its duty to research and advise upon the painting.

"Proper research would have resulted in Sotheby's consulting with experienced conservators and soliciting the opinions of Caravaggio scholars... which would thereby have established... the painting as being by the hand of Caravaggio."

Here we see one of the main weaknesses in Mr. Thwaytes' case. It is not enough for him to prove that Sotheby's were wrong on the attribution, and that the picture is indeed by Caravaggio. The standard auctioneer's terms and conditions agreed to by Mr Thwaytes when he consigned the picture for sale gives Sotheby's considerable scope to get things like attribution wrong, and not be liable for any damages. Instead, he has to show that Sotheby's were negligent - that they screwed up in a spectacular way by not doing even the basics properly. This negligence test has been well established through previous case law, and the bar is quite high.

I have to say it seems to me, at this stage, that Sotheby's were not negligent, especially if they did an X-ray, which is not at all standard procedure when cataloguing Old Master paintings for auction. An x-ray suggests to me that they in fact took the picture more seriously than other comparable cases. Frankly, it's pretty irrelevant whether an infra-red was done too. For many people outside the art world, things like 'Infra-Red' seem far more important and useful than they really are. But it very often doesn't tell you much at all, and I strongly doubt (though we'll have to see) that in this case IR alone proves that the picture is by Caravaggio. I think it almost certain that Sir Denis Mahon made his attribution on the basis of his connoisseurial view; after all, he didn't do IR before the sale.

We also see mention of Sir Denis having the picture cleaned. Well, most people will know that cleaning a picture can reveal a great deal about a work. But it is far from standard practice that a picture is cleaned before being put into a sale. It's a task that can cost many thousands of pounds, and costs pretty much the same whether the picture is a masterpiece or a dud. So it's often a waste of money. One might ask why Mr Thwaytes, if he was so keen to find out whether the picture was by Caravaggio or not, didn't get the picture cleaned himself. Or perhaps at least conduct some cleaning tests.

All this would be much more straightforward if we could be certain that the picture was by Caravaggio. But that is far from the case, given the experts Sotheby's can produce to say it is not by him. I can't see, at this stage, how Sotheby's can reasonably lose the case. 

And now for Sotheby's daft defence. From The Telegraph again:

Sotheby’s denies any accusation of “negligence, causation and loss”, insisting its experts assessed the painting correctly and that “all due skill and diligence” had been applied.

It will argue the painting is “clearly” a replica, citing a range of Caravaggio scholars who support its view.

A spokesman for Sotheby's said: “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.”

Phooey. There's a number of points to make here. The picture was in a minor, Sotheby's 'Olympia' sale. These were mid-season sales, so not held during the main Old Master sales in July and December, when many people in the trade and museum world come to London to see what's being sold. The Olympia catalogues were also cursory affairs, with sometimes thumbnail sized images, and hardly any explanatory text. Also, in those days, the online images weren't always that good. Sotheby's don't have their Olympia saleroom any more, mainly because it was a pain in the arse to get to, and few bothered to make the trek out to Hammersmith. In other words, while it's possible that some of the world's 'leading dealers' may have gone there to sniff out a bargain, it's not true to say that 'the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' were all poised to spot the mis-attribution in the catalogue. 

And in any case, what sort of a defence is that? Are Sotheby's really saying, well, it's all right if we mess up; your picture will always fetch its true value, because 'the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' all pore over every painting they sell? Clearly not. And regular readers will know that sometimes even the most spectacular discoveries can be found hiding in plain sight, and bought for comparatively little. Even at Sotheby's.

Update - a reader rightly notes:

One would think that Sotheby's defense would include the fact that they didn't benefit from the attribution as a copy, and would have benefited from an attribution as an original, but that they have a greater duty to avoid false positives which would mislead a potential buyer than a false negative. Their investment in the painting shouldn't exceed their anticipated revenue from its sale. 

If they catalogued the painting as a Caravaggio they are certifying it to some extent which even the current attribution debate won't support according to the news reports.

Update II - another reader writes:

I fail to see the logic of the plaintiff's argument that the case is not about attribution. The plaintiff can only succeed in a negligence action if he proves he has suffered loss. Mere negligence without loss would not give rise to damages. The loss in this case would presumably be the difference in price between the actual sale price and the price if it were a genuine Caravaggio. Proof that the painting is on a balance of probabilities by Caravaggio would therefore be essential.

Exclusive clip from 'Mr Turner'

October 27 2014

Video: Film 4, Focus Features International

We're all greatly looking forward to seeing the new Mike Leigh/Timothy Spall film, Mr Turner. Though with a new baby, I think I'll have to wait till it comes out on DVD.

Anyway, here's a little clip-ette from the film, which apparently is 'exclusive' to AHN. It's the moment Turner meets Mrs Booth, his future 'companion'. Fans of 'Fake or Fortune?' may remember that we explored this relationship in our episode on Turner (which is naughtily available on YouTube here).

Vatican Museums in 3D

October 27 2014

Video: Vatican Museums/Sky Arts

A new film promises to bring art lovers new, 3D, high-definition images of the Vatican's greatest art treasures, all with a Da Vinci Code style soundtrack. More details here

New Spanish Old Master gallery in County Durham

October 27 2014

Image of New Spanish Old Master gallery in County Durham

Picture: BBC

That's a headline you might not expect to see in these days of cut backs and austerity... 

The financier and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who recently acquired the set of Zurbaran's Apostle paintings in Auckland Castle in County Durham (and Auckland Castle too), is to partly fund the creation of a new gallery in Bishop Auckland specialising in 17th Century Spanish art. The gallery will open in an old Barclay's Bank, above.

The idea is to build on the happy accident that County Durham has a wealth of Spanish 17th Century art, with institutions such as the Bowes Museum, Rokeby Hall, and Raby Castle all having strong collections from that period. Ruffer also wants overseas institutions like the Prado to lend works from their reserve collections too. It seems, wonderfully, that the Prado is keen to do so. So well done Mr Ruffer (and somebody give that man a knighthood). More details here

Re-Lining Le Brun's Jabach portrait

October 27 2014

Image of Re-Lining Le Brun's Jabach portrait

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

I've been covering (see here) the Met's restoration of Le Brun's magnificent portrait of the collector Everhard Jabach and his family (recently, sadly for us Brits, acquired from a UK private collection). Now, the picture is cleaned, as you can see above, and it is time to even out the distortions in the canvas caused by the picture having once been folded over. You can see some excellent videos of the process here

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

October 27 2014

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

Picture: The Art Newspaper

As the old saying goes, Caravaggio attribution stories are like London buses...

Hot on the heels of last week's news that Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has, she claims, found Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene', we have today another Caravaggio attribution case, this time in the High Court in London.

Regular readers will probably be familiar with the tale of a disputed version of Caravaggio's 'Card Sharps', (above) which sold at Sotheby's in London for £42,000 in 2006 as 'Follower of Caravaggio'. It was bought by the renowned collector and Caravaggio scholar, the late Sir Denis Mahon, who promptly declared that it was in fact by Caravaggio himself, being an autograph replica of a picture in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. As such, it would be worth in the region of £10m. Mahon's opinion was endorsed by Mina Gregori.

Sotheby's, however, stuck to their guns, and said that the picture absolutely wasn't by Caravaggio, and cited their own experts. Vested interests all round, I hear you say...

Today, a long-threatened court case about the picture begins in the High Court. The vendor in 2006, Lancelot Thwaytes, is suing Sotheby's, claiming that they should have spotted the fact that it was by Caravaggio. He wants compensation to reflect the fact that he did in fact own a Caravaggio.

The case promises to be a battle of the experts, reports the Independent:

Sotheby’s has robustly countered the claims and said that the version it sold was “clearly inferior” in quality to the original painting in the Texas gallery. In the 2006 sale catalogue, Sotheby’s listed it as being by a “follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio”.

“The Kimbell Cardsharps was painted by Caravaggio with the striking virtuosity and realism for which his early works are famous,” according to papers filed by the auction house. “The quality of execution on display in the painting falls far short of the Kimbell original.”


It said that it would not have consulted any of the experts cited by Mr Thwaytes as leading Caravaggio scholars and said that its own team was competent to judge that it was a copy.

The experts cited by Mr Thwaytes included Mina Gregori, an author of several books on Caravaggio, who claimed last week to have solved a centuries-old mystery by identifying a previously unknown work in a private collection as a Caravaggio. Other experts Mr Thwaytes claims have backed the painting as a genuine Caravaggio include the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.

So who is right? If the court decides against the attribution, should we view this as context for Mina Gregori's recent Magdalene discovery? If Sotheby's loses, what does it mean for their reputation?

Either way, I feel rather sorry for the judges. Attribution is a notoriously difficult thing to prove in a court of law, for judges and juries are of often wholly unfamiliar with the rubric of art history, to say nothing of connoisseurship.* Other factors can come to the fore. For example, some readers may be familiar with the story of Joseph Duveen losing a libel case in the United States, when he said that a copy of Leonardo's 'La Belle Ferroniere' was not by Leonardo, despite the fact that he was absolutely right. It seems the jury's decision was influenced by a stuffy English art dealer criticising the plucky US owner. 

Anyway, this particular case throws up all sorts of related questions. For example, when Sir Denis Mahon died, his Card Sharps must have posed all difficulties for his heir, since for inheritance tax purposes it was 'worth' millions. And yet, having potentially paid millions in tax, it is likely that the heir might have found the picture impossible to sell, for it may be that 'the market's' view would be that the picture is not by Caravaggio. Indeed, is it possible that fellow scholars endorsed Mahon's attribution largely out of feelings of friendship? Mahon was a giant of the art world, but also at that time an aged collector who, it turns out, was asset rich (in terms of the pictures he had very generously promised to bequeath to the National Gallery and other institutions) but cash poor. And so on and so forth. 

By the way, if readers detect an unusual reticence in any of the above, it's mainly because I don't want to be called as a witness...

*At this point, of course, critics of connoisseurship say - 'Aha! Attribution by connoisseurship is always impossible to prove'. To which the answer is... well, I haven't got time.

Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'

October 24 2014

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'


In Italy, La Repubblica reports that noted Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has identified the above picture as Caravaggio's lost Penitent Magdalene, previously only known through copies. He is thought to have painted it shortly before he died. It's now in an Italian private collection. More details here (in Italian).

Update - the story has now made it into the English language press. Here's the Guardian.

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