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Posts tagged “Leonardo Salvator Mundi

The Demise of the National Gallery’s “made just like Rubens” Samson and Delilah with inexplicably cropped toes

Michael Daley writes: In a bombshell article (Observer, 26 September 2021), Dalya Alberge reported on a series of Artificial Intelligence comparisons of the Samson and Delilah’s brushwork with that on 148 uncontested Rubens paintings. The exercise had produced a negative result of such magnitude that the Swiss company, Art Recognition, disbelieved its own findings and ran the tests a second time. The results were identical: an unprecedentedly crushing 91% probability that the picture was not painted by Rubens:

“…Critics have long suggested that the painting is not by Rubens. And now a series of scientific tests employing groundbreaking AI technology have concluded that the 17th-century Flemish master could never have painted it. ‘The results are quite astonishing’, Dr Carina Popavici, the scientist who carried out the study, told the Observer… ‘I was so shocked…Every patch, every single square came out as fake, with more than 90% probability.’”

ArtWatch UK was cited as observing that “coming so soon after its ill-advised espousal of the now-rejected and disappeared $450m Salvator Mundi, these results are a calamity for the National Gallery” [see POSTSCRIPT, below]. A spokesman said: “The gallery always takes note of new research. We await its publication in full so that any evidence can be properly assessed. Until such time it will not be possible to comment further.” That was a far cry from its response in the 21 May 2000 Independent on Sunday: “We have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity of the picture and nor do most experts on Rubens”.

Doubts or not, the Samson and Delilah, which is promoted by the gallery as one its top thirty stars – and therefore as the best of its twenty odd Rubens’ paintings – is now a three-times disabled attribution: it had no provenance as a Rubens before a notoriously unreliable scholar’s 1929 upgrade; stylistically, it has long been shown to be untenable as a Rubens and to be compositionally incompatible with the copies made of the lost original Rubens Samson and Delilah ; and now, on multiple close technical comparisons, its brushwork finds no match with that in secure Rubens’ pictures. How the gallery comes to terms with this latest source of disqualification will test the mettle of its director and trustees, none of whom was party to the picture’s 1980 acquisition.

AN ATTACK ON THE MESSAGE

Alberge’s disclosure has been greeted by a thunderous silence of the Rubens experts – but the art history blogger, auctioneer and film-maker, Bendor Grosvenor, tweeted an immediate blanket dismissal of the findings:

“The only thing this tale should tell us is that computers still don’t understand how artists worked. And probably never will.” And “If you like a bit of science with your art history, it’s still hard to beat the National Gallery’s 1983 technical bulletin for showing the picture is indeed by Rubens.”

Grosvenor’s unsupported assertion bolstered by an appeal to the authority of an old and profoundly unsatisfactory National Gallery report gained tweeted support from the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. In crucial respects the erratic art critical volatility of this pair of commentators (who conduct joint “Waldy and Bendy” podcasts on Januszczak’s ZCZFilms website), exacerbates the National Gallery’s now perilously exposed position. Holding Plesters’ report aloft as a standard may have been thought unhelpful by the gallery – the link Grosvenor provided to it now produces this message: “Page not found – Sorry, the page you requested has been removed or the link was incorrect.”

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the National Gallery’s attributed Rubens Samson and Delilah; second left, the Grosvenor-attributed fragmentary “Raphael” of a Madonna at Haddo House, Scotland; third left, the disappeared and demoted “Leonardo” Salvator Mundi; right, a Colin Wheeler cartoon.

Grosvenor’s appeal to the authority of National Gallery expertise was rich: when, after long examinations, that gallery’s experts recently judged his would-be “Raphael” painted fragment of a Madonna in an all’antica cross-over dress (Figs. 1 and 3) to be no more than a “possible 18th century work” he crossly rejected their findings and called for yet further tests. Where Januszczak now supports the Samson and Delilah’s Rubens attribution he does so in flat repudiation of his 1997 younger self’s rumbustious denouncement of it (Fig. 2). With their joint appeal to the authority of the National Gallery conservation staff’s record, Grosvenor and Januszczak have opened the door to the gallery’s skeleton cupboard.

Above, Fig. 2: The cover of the 5 October 1997 Sunday Times Culture Magazine which trailed Waldemar Januszczak’s article “A Rubens or a costly copy”

Above, Fig. 3: Top, BBC4 Factual Report, 03. 10, 2016: “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces discovers hidden painting believed to be by Raphael. ‘Finding a potential Raphael is about as exciting as it gets. At first I couldn’t quite believe it might be possible, but gradually the evidence began to all point in the right direction.’ Dr Bendor Grosvenor”. So reported the art-credulous BBC with a photograph (top) of the programme’s co-presenters, art historian Jacky Klein and Bendor Grosvenor, with the putative Haddo House Raphael; above, the presenters consider the “Raphael” on the Lost Masterpieces programme with the former director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny.

Invited to pass judgement on the attempted upgrade, Sir Nicholas (whose proselytising on behalf of the $450m Salvator Mundi had been defended by Grosvenor in the 9 October 2011 Sunday Times – “They are taking a risk and I can’t applaud them enough for it”) said that he would place the painting somewhere between “probably by Raphael” and “by Raphael” and that with a “little more time and courage” he might well go the whole hog. That stylishly diplomatic locution was of limited utility – rather like informing a woman that she is somewhere between probably pregnant and pregnant. The pity is that aside from his defences of National Gallery restorations and championing of a not-Raphael and a not-Leonardo, Penny proved the gallery’s most unapologetically serious scholar/director in recent times – as instanced in an excellent Financial Times interview.

ROLL UP

In another Financial Times interview, Simon Gillespie, the restorer who works with Grosvenor on the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces programme, disclosed that he, too, believes that he might own yet another Raphael. Gillespie is believed to be the owner of a claimed Lely copy of the £10m “Last Van Dyck Self-portrait” that was sold by the Mould Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery for £10m on 1 May 2014.

DEFENDING INSTITUTIONS AND ATTACKING JOURNALISTIC MESSENGERS

Grosvenor frequently tilts at journalists whose stories embarrass art institutions. In a February 2019 Art History News blog post (“Salvator Mundi & the Louvre”) he berated Sunday Telegraph and Mailonline reports that the Louvre would not be showing the $450m supposed-Leonardo Salvator Mundi in a forthcoming Leonardo exhibition. That story, he sniffed, “is based on the opinion of one Jacques Franck.” It was. Franck’s judgements as the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique have institutional clout (- and often the ear of French presidents). Franck’s prediction proved precisely correct: the Salvator Mundi was not included in the Louvre exhibition, and it was described in the exhibition catalogue as what it is and what it has remained despite successive restoration makeovers and intense global marketing razzamatazz (- which marketing Grosvenor lauded as the best ever seen) namely, the Leonardo studio work that entered the Cook Collection in 1900, viz: “Salvator Mundi, version Cook, vers 1505-1515″. (See “The Louvre Museum’s bizarre charge of “fake information” on the $450 million Salvator Mundi”.) The Art Newspaper has reported (November 2021, “Prado downgrades $450m Leonardo Salvator Mundi”) that the Prado, too, has demoted the Salvator Mundi to its original standing as the Cook version: “The Prado curator Ana Gonzáles Mozo comments in her catalogue essay that ‘some specialists consider that there was a lost prototype [of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi] while others think that the much debated Cook version is the original’ However, she suggests ‘there is no painted prototype by Leonardo’.”

(For the latest observations on the $450m Salvator Mundi, see Jacques Franck’s “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection” and ArtWatch UK’s “The Disappeared Salvator Mundi’s endgame: Part I – Altered States and a Disappeared Book”. For ArtWatch UK’s first objections to the Salvator Mundi upgrade, ahead of Christie’s November 2017 $450m sale, see: Dalya Alberge, 19 October 2017: “Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting” and, “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”.)

THE RAMIFICATIONS

The Rubens and the Leonardo attributions are items of considerable public policy interest. Both works achieved world record prices. Both received major and controversial modifications at the hands of restorers. Both upgrades have now collapsed. Both had been championed by National Gallery directors – Michael Levey with the Samson and Delilah and Nicholas Penny with the Salvator Mundi. While Waldy and Bendy both now support the Samson and Delilah, Waldy rejected the Salvator Mundi (which Bendy supports) because: “It resembles nothing else Leonardo painted”; and, because Christie’s claimed resemblance of it to the Mona Lisa “had me laughing out loud”.

THE NATIONAL GALLEY’S WOBBLY DEFENCES

The Art Recognition findings are not, as Grosvenor would imply, off-the-wall. In June 1997 the National Gallery issued a notice claiming that the reason why the Samson and Delilah looked like no other Rubens in the gallery was because it had been painted at a special and very brief moment when Rubens had just returned from Italy and was keen to show off newly acquired Caravaggist traits. That apologia was not credible.

In a pioneering 1992 report, the scholar/painter Euphrosyne Doxiadis and the painters Stephen Harvey and Siân Hopkinson, conducted a focussed survey of six Rubens paintings of 1609 and 1610 and demonstrated that “All these display a consistency and quality of style which is not shared by the Samson and Delilah”. That report – “Delilah cut off Samson’s hair, but who cut off his toes? The case against the National Gallery’s ‘Rubens’ Samson and Delilah – was placed in the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah dossiers and is published on the dedicated In Rubens Name website.

THE ART RECOGNITION REPORT

We are very pleased to publish here the full Art Recognition report on the Samson and Delilah, as below, and would urge all to study it along with the pioneering, methodologically exemplary Doxiadis/Harvey/Hopkinson report.

REPORT_Samson_Delilah_Rubens_encr

With no match to be found for the picture among a score of National Gallery Rubens paintings or among six bona fide Rubens’ works of the precise (claimed) historical moment, why should it come as an affronting surprise that none was found by Art Recognition among 148 secure paintings? Just as Grosvenor demanded more tests on his wannabe Raphael, so he would seem to want the Samson and Delilah compared with every single picture in the oeuvre. On September 30th he complained: “To claim a judgement on the Samson & Delilah based only on scans of 400 [sic] works (and at what resolution? We are not told) out of an oeuvre of over 1000 works seems to me optimistic.” Rather than pressing for every work in the oeuvre to be tested, he might prefer to cite and photographically demonstrate a single other painting with brushstrokes that, to his eye, match those of the Samson and Delilah.

The National Gallery has long been unable to cite a single report or record that shows the Samson and Delilah to have been planed-down and mounted on blockboard before it was bought for a world record Rubens price in 1980. In place of evidence, the gallery, too, falls back on appeals to authority, claiming, for example, in a 23 May 2000 press statement, that “…a large number of distinguished scholars who have devoted their careers to the study of Rubens unanimously agreed that the painting was one of the artist’s masterpieces”.

Such appeals cut little ice: every restoration or attribution ArtWatch has challenged in the last thirty years had been supported by a bevy of art historical bigwigs – from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the recent so-called Leonardo “Male Mona Lisa” (Fig. 1 above). Moreover, of all scholarship, that on Rubens remains the most problematic and herd-like, its key players being uniquely obligated by a family bequest to defer to the scholarship and judgements of the long deceased (and now discredited) scholar Ludwig Burchard.

ARTISTS KNOW

The challenge to that art historical authority has come principally from artist/scholars who are freer agents and arrive armed with hands-on knowledge of art’s practices – knowing, for example, how to put brush to paint and paint to surface. A quarter of a century ago Euphrosyne Doxiadis neatly encapsulated the now technically confirmed deficiencies of the picture’s brushwork in an interview:

“This picture is betrayed by brush strokes which are almost staccato and broken up, rather than having been done with one stroke of the wrist, which you see in all Rubenses. There is an absence of Rubens’ vibrant, pulsating-with-life strokes. In actual Rubenses, each stroke is a tour-de-force. This is clumsy and awkward.” (Dalya Alberge, “Expert denounces National Gallery’s Rubens”, The Times, 25 November 1996.)

Above, Fig. 4: Top, details of the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah; above, Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross, Antwerp Cathedral. Where the former is claimed to be a lost picture Rubens painted in 1609-10, the latter was indisputably made by Rubens between 1610-11. Such pronounced differences in brushwork are inconceivable as that of two autograph paintings made at the same moment in Rubens’ oeuvre. Who, looking at this photo-comparison, could believe that Rubens had flitted between the ugly angular Cubist faceted feet in the Samson and Delilah statue (– try counting the toes and note the Art Deco zigzagging hem), and the superb fluency, grace and anatomical fidelity seen in the Raising of the Cross?

THE TESTIMONY OF NATIONAL GALLERY TECHNICAL BULLETINS

When Tweeting support for Grosvenor, Waldemar Januszczak, had seemingly forgotten his own 5 October 1997 Sunday Times article headed: “One of the World’s most valuable paintings hangs in the National Gallery. But Samson and Delilah, widely assumed to be by Rubens, is not by him but is a copy, argues Waldemar Januszczak. Who then did paint it?” Januszczak had ended with this ringing declaration: “The one thing we doubters all agree on is that the painting bought by the gallery for a staggering sum in 1980 is not by Rubens.” What has changed to un-doubt Januszczak? Under challenge on Twitter, Grosvenor admitted that he too had once entertained doubts about the Rubens ascription.

Joyce Plesters’ 1983 Technical Bulletin account was tendentious and error prone. She had counted six planks in the Samson and Delilah panel when the picture’s restorer, David Bomford, made it five and the gallery’s panel specialist, Anthony Reeve, counted seven – as would a dendrochronologist in 1996. Plesters thought the National Gallery’s attributed Michelangelo Entombment of Christ had been painted on a single giant plank when the panel is comprised of three butterfly-keyed planks. The senior curator, Christopher Brown, accepted Plesters’ six planks in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 1983 “Acquisition in Focus” celebratory exhibition of the restored Samson and Delilah. In 1997 Januszczak poked fun at the conservation department’s shambolic technical reporting:

“I am shown these authoritative-looking documents and, on the first page, the information that the Samson is painted on five planks has been crossed out and changed to seven planks. In the published technical report we are told there are six planks. A conservation report that cannot count the number of bits of wood the gallery’s most expensive painting was done on hardly inspires confidence.”

One of the painting dossiers that I later I examined at the National Gallery (under the directorships of Charles Saumarez Smith and Nicholas Penny) disclosed that a large and important picture had been mounted on “Sundeala” boards with a honeycomb paper core. The disclosure had not been made in the report itself but had been written on an attached yellow post-it note. Plesters’ haplessness was more than arithmetical. The year before Januszczak’s tease she had suffered a mortifying professional reverse. In the 1960s, when scholars like Ernst Gombrich and Otto Kurz warned Gallery restorers against removing all-over tinted varnishes from Renaissance paintings, she insisted that the entire documented technical history of art showed “no convincing case” for any artist having emulated Apelles’ legendary dark varnishes and that the famous passage from Pliny was of “academic rather than practical importance”. She even offered to “sift” and “throw light upon” on any future historical material that Professor Gombrich might uncover.

A BURIED INCONVENIENT TRUTH

In 1977, in the National Gallery’s first Technical Bulletin, Joyce Plesters had mused complacently “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics.” In that year the scarcely less complacent former National Gallery director Kenneth (Lord) Clark pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won”. A third of a century after the original controversy, the practical import of Pliny’s testimony emerged in a 1996 Technical Bulletin disclosure that a Leonardo assistant, Giampietrino, had toned down his colours with a final dark “varnish” layer of oil with black and warm earth pigments.

Had those pigments been bound in a resin it would have been deemed an earlier restorer’s attempt to impart a spurious “old masters’ glow” and removed. However, Giampietrino’s dark overall toning was identical to the oil medium of the painting itself and any solvent that would dissolve the one would dissolve the other. The gallery had to leave the coating in place. Shamefully, it stifled any acknowledgement of its momentous art historical significance – and it even neglected to inform Gombrich of the corroboration of his earlier claims, despite the fact that the gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, held the 1960s dispute to have been “one of the most celebrated jousts” in modern art history.

When ArtWatch UK informed Gombrich of his vindication he was approaching his 87th birthday and responded: “I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t see the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale Gardens…)” Two years later he observed: “I believe it was Francis Bacon who said that ‘knowledge is power’. I had to learn the hard way that power can also masquerade as knowledge, and since there are very few people able to judge these issues, they very easily get away with it.” (See “How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich”.)

THE MISSING BACK, A LEGAL CHALLENGE, AND OTHER SAMSON AND DELILAH PROBLEMS

Above, Fig. 5: Two special issues of the ArtWatch UK Journal that examined the Samson and Deliah’s credentials as a Rubens.

In Journal No. 21, Kasia Pisarek wrote:

“I am in possession of a privately printed pamphlet entitled The Biggest Scandal since the Fake Vermeer written in 1960 by a well-known French art dealer Jean Neger. In it, he openly denounced Dr. Ludwig Burchard as being a dishonest man writing a certificate of authenticity for a painting that he knew was a copy. The picture in question was Diana departing for the Hunt, a large oil on canvas, sold in 1960 as a Rubens for a huge amount of money to the Cleveland Museum in America. It first appeared in an Amsterdam sale (Valkenier family) in 1796, in fact as late as 180 years after its supposed creation c.1615. Neger accused Burchard of ‘defrauding the American state of 550.000 dollars’.

“In his highly dramatic pamphlet he declared that Dr. Burchard wrote the certificate of authenticity in 1958, even though he knew that another, nearly identical version (his own) of the painting existed, and had a considerably better provenance, going back to 1655 and the prestigious Spanish collection of the marquis de Leganes, a friend of Rubens. This was the most important collection in Spain, aside from that of the King Philip IV. Leganes probably owned more paintings attributed to Rubens than any other aristocratic collector in Spain, with the possible exception of Gaspar de Haro. After researching his painting, Neger discovered that the number 214 in white paint present on his canvas was the corresponding Leganes inventory number. Moreover, his version of Diana had a lot of pentimenti visible even to the naked eye, which would indicate that it was an original, not a copy.

“According to Neger, Burchard has tried to avoid him on many occasions and has refused to see or to certify his version because he had already certified the other one as the original. When approached, he tried to ‘compromise’ by saying that he would state that Neger’s version was the first one, which Rubens had sketched and abandoned, and that he had then painted a second version, the one from Cleveland. Later, he took up Neger’s picture again, corrected it and completed it. That solution was satisfactory to Neger and yet, Dr. Burchard changed his mind again, and refused to certify Neger’s painting at all. Subsequently, he chose not to reply to Neger’s allegations which appeared to be his usual attitude in such situations.”

Dr. Pisarek concluded:

“I verified most of Neger’s statements, which on the whole appear to be true. I traced both pictures: one is in the Cleveland Museum, effectively considered to be the original by Rubens; the other is in The Getty Museum in Malibu, as ‘a workshop copy’. And yet, the Getty picture (ex-Neger’s) has better chances of being the original: it is the larger of the two versions; it has a superior and older provenance (1655 as compared to 1796); it agrees in most details (presence of sandals, lack of birds in the sky, missing tiger’s skin, background landscape) with an old copy in Cassel which provenance (1756) predates that of the alleged Cleveland’s ‘original’.”

Pisarek discussed the merits of these two pictures in the third chapter – “The two versions of Rubens’s Diana Departing for the Hunt: an American cause célèbre” – of her doctoral thesis, Rubens and Connoisseurship. On the problems of attribution and rediscovery in British and American collections, University of Warsaw, 2009, and there concluded that both the Cleveland and Getty pictures are mostly products of Rubens’s workshop.

DEFENDING MUSEUM FAKES I

On 4 March 1929, the year that Ludwig Burchard found and upgraded the Honthorst painting then owned by van Diemen and Benedict (who had bought it, Doxiadis disclosed, from a painter/restorer) and that is today the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, Rene Gimpel, author of the 1996 Diary of an art dealer, wrote:

“The Italians have sold Americans $2m worth of marbles done by Dossena (a faker). A laughable sum compared with the amounts obtained by means of certificates given daily by German experts to German dealers. Just as there were paper marks, so there are paper canvases, an easy way of bringing dollars into Germany. I went this morning to the Van Diemen gallery, which has an exhibition of sixteen Venetians. Three pictures are good, apart from the Guardis and perhaps the Longhi. Last Sunday’s Times devoted an entire page reproducing this scandalous exhibition, which gives only a faint idea of what is brought in. Bode, the director of the Berlin Museum died two or three days ago. The king is dead long live the king! The Mayers, the Gronau will replace him. The German title of Doktor impresses the Americans. The museums are even more intent than the collectors on defending their fakes or their mistaken attributions.”

WHAT LIES BEHIND

Above, Fig. 6: A spread of pages from ArtWatch UK Journal No. 11 contrasting the Samson and Delilah’s present back with the labelled and cradled backs of comparable period panel paintings.

Above, Fig. 7: Illustrations of the back of the Samson Delilah picture as supplied by the National Gallery and as published in the June 2000 Art Review (“The Back is Where It’s At”) where we showed the back of the Samson and Delilah and its attachments, as recorded in 1997. Our detailed technical and art historical case against the Rubens attribution in the Art Review ran, in full, as follows:

“Last month I referred to a National Gallery picture which lacks a back or a record of a back but on the back of which an incomplete provenance depends. This bizarre, paradoxical case arose as follows.

“On 11 July 1980, the National Gallery paid £2.53m (through Agnew’s at a Christie’s auction) for a large picture, Samson and Delilah, that was said to be an ‘entirely autograph’ Rubens, probably in its original frame. The price was a world record for the artist and, at the time, the second highest for any painting bought at auction. The acquisition was presented to the world with great fanfare, orchestrated as much by the gallery as by the auctioneers. In 1982 the picture was cleaned, restored and reframed in preparation for a special ‘Acquisition in Focus’ exhibition to be held the following year. So far, so straightforward.

“In 1983, two accounts of the restoration were published in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin by David Bomford, restorer, and Joyce Plesters, head of science. At this point the painting, which hitherto had always been described as a panel, begins to be described in different terms. Namely, as a planed-down sliver of a panel mounted on a modern laminate sheet of blockboard. As Bomford put it, ‘the large panel on which Samson and Delilah is painted must originally have been substantially thicker than it is now. At some point, probably during the present century, the panel was planed down to a thickness of less than 3 mm and subsequently glued on to a sheet of blockboard.’ This seems in strict, factual terms to be correct, but the word ‘probably’ later came to be questionable.

“Plesters’ account was seriously misleading. She claimed that the planed-down panel had been set not onto but ‘into’ (which it had not) the sheet of blockboard, which supposed placement prevented its edges from being examined for tree-ring dating purposes – which it did not. She insisted that this phantom relationship was of no consequence because ‘the date and provenance of the painting are not in doubt.’ Which claim, as will be shown, was not the case. Plesters admitted that the planing, on an unidentified occasion ‘before the picture was acquired by the Gallery’, might well have destroyed, among other evidence, a branded or carved panel-maker’s mark – a far from trivial matter because such a mark might have sunk the attribution to Rubens. The original Samson and Delilah is dated 1609, sometimes 1610; its engraved and painted copies to c. 1613 and 1615 [sic – 1625-35] respectively. Very few panel-makers marks were made before 1617 when they first became a guild requirement; after this date they can help with datings. Michiel Vrient, whose mark is most commonly found on the back of Rubens’ later panels, only qualified in 1615. His mark on the Samson and Delilah would have been fatal.

“Clearly, establishing when, by whom, and for what purpose a planing was carried out – and what records were kept of the original back – would under any circumstance be a matter of urgency and a test of propriety. In this instance it became greatly more so when, in 1997, a number of eye witnesses reported to ArtWatch UK that the picture had retained its original, label-bearing and ‘cradled’ back immediately prior to and during its auction at Christie’s in 1980. When informed of this, Neil MacGregor, the gallery’s director, dismissed the testimony as ‘mistaken’ (letter 7 April 1997). He later said (9 April) ‘the National Gallery does not have any record, photographic or written, of the back of this picture before it was planed down.’

“This year [2000], in compliance with its ‘Code of Openness’, adopted in anticipation of Government legislation on freedom of information, the gallery reversed an eight-year-old decision and allowed me to examine the dossiers held on the picture and its treatments. I have been assured that the dossiers were complete and that no material was withheld. I am forced to report that the records are therefore lamentably incomplete. This is the more disturbing because, contrary to assurances, the picture’s provenance is extremely insecure. It is not to the gallery’s credit that it took six years of assiduous research by three painters – Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Stephen Harvey and Siân Hopkinson – between 1986 and 1992 – for this embarrassing reality to be brought to light. They demonstrated that the picture is not compositionally consistent with contemporaneous engraved and painted copies of the original picture. Their examination drew from Christopher Brown, the curator responsible for the acquisition, the admission that ‘there are gaps at the beginning and the end of the Liechtenstein provenance which makes it impossible to be 100 per cent certain that this is the picture painted for Rockox.’

“The provenance as presented by Christie’s in their sale catalogue was a daisy-chain of speculations pegged on disconnected and not always accurate citations. It was claimed in the first instance that the picture was ‘probably’ the one known to have been painted in 1609-10 for Nicolaas Rockox’s house. It was said to have ‘perhaps’ been in the possession of the painter Jeremias Wildens (albeit only as a ‘Samson’ and not as Samson and Delilah) before 1653. It was further said to have ‘perhaps’ been in the possession of a ‘Guill Potteau’ before 1692. It was then said to have passed into the hands of the Prince of Liechtenstein on 30 May 1700. The second, third and fourth suggestions are all dependent on an event having taken place for which there is no evidence whatsoever: that the original painting left Rockox’s house at his death in 1640.

“As Euphrosyne Doxiadis established (and as Dalya Alberge reported in The Times of 25 November 1996), the records show that Rockox’s collection remained in his house until its sale in 1714 after the death of Rockox’s last descendant in 1712. The house in Antwerp survives and was restored in 1977 as a museum to Rockox. A booklet produced that year by the museum acknowledged with regret that it had been impossible to reassemble the whole of the original collection which had been dispersed by a public auction in 1715. Knowledge of this sequence of events seems rapidly to have slipped from official art historical consciousness

“By coincidence, the National Gallery’s picture (then in a private German collection) was exhibited in Antwerp in 1977 in a large exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rubens’ birth. In the catalogue Frans Baudoin described it as a ‘panel’. In the same year, in his book Nicolaas Rockox: ‘Friend and Patron’ of Peter Paul Rubens, Baudoin said the panel was ‘excellently preserved’. He also reported that the picture had been ‘rediscovered’ (when owned by a dealer as a Gerit van Honthorst) in 1929 by Ludwig Burchard, on whose advice, the German magnate August Neuerburg bought it in 1930 (along with another Burchard ‘Rubens’, since de-attributed).

“Burchard’s ‘rediscovery’ closed the second gap in the provenance to which Christopher Brown referred. Samson and Delilah is said to have disappeared after being sold by the Liechtenstein collection in 1880. In addition to the ‘gaps’ of 60 and 50 years at either end of the Liechtenstein provenance there are two further problems. First, the Samson and Delilah was described in every Liechtenstein inventory as a copy. Even the dealers who sold it to the collection thought it not to be by Rubens and to be greatly inferior to a work by Van Dyck. Second, every painting in the Liechtenstein collection was marked with a seal on its front or back. The National Gallery’s picture has no seal on the front. If it had one on its back, what happened to it? What possible reason could there be for removing and destroying such an important feature of a picture’s pedigree?

“When pressed on such specifics, the National Gallery summons the fogs of time. Bomford thought the planing might have taken place in the 19th century. His director, MacGregor, suggested that it was ‘possibly done this century, perhaps when the painting was in the hands of the art trade in the 1920s’ (Letter 9 April 1997.) This really will not do. The dossiers contain, I discovered, an undated sheet of typescript by Burchard (which the gallery’s archivist tells me is part of a letter dated 8 April 1930, but which contains a handwritten postscript referring to an article of 1942) which not only describes the picture as being ‘in a remarkably good state of preservation’ but, crucially, testifies that ‘even the back of the panel is still in its original condition.’ Given Burchard’s testimony, and bearing in mind that Christopher Brown made a special study of Burchard’s manuscript notes on the painting (which we have not been allowed to see) prior to the 1983 ‘Acquisition in Focus’ exhibition, how could the gallery have believed that the planing might have taken place before the last [the 20th] century or when the picture was in French hands?

“These questions are the more perplexing because, after Burchard’s testimony, every single reference to the picture describes it as a ‘panel’ in good – or better – condition. A further document in the [National Gallery] dossier that throws light on the picture’s condition also seems to have been overlooked. Christopher Norris, a benefactor of the gallery, sent a letter of congratulations to Michael Levey, the director, the day after the sale at Christie’s. Norris attributed the picture’s still ‘amazing condition’ to the fact that the German owners [between 1930 and 1980] had not touched it. It still retained, he noted, the varnish applied during its stay in France in 1929. The only change that had occurred during Norris’s forty-seven years’ acquaintance with the picture was that the varnish had toned down. (In 1983 Bomford cited the picture’s ‘thick, considerably yellowed varnish’ as the ‘principal reason’ for cleaning.)

“In 1977, Gregory Martin, the author of Christie’s catalogue entry, reviewed the Antwerp Rubens exhibition. He observed with relief that the Samson and Delilah was one of two ‘great works…on panel’ that were ‘none the worse for their journeys’ to Antwerp. (In 1982, the picture was described in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin as one of only three well-made and untroublesome panels in the collection.) Three years later the picture again left Germany when it was sent, on offer of sale, to a Belgian museum. On its arrival, a condition report (dated 4 March 1980) was prepared by a leading Rubens expert. He described the picture as a ‘panel…in good shape’ with painting in a condition ‘which can be called excellent’. The panel remained for several months at the museum before being dispatched directly to Christie’s. During its stay at the museum, the picture was seen to be an old, thick, somewhat bowed, label-bearing and cross-battened panel. Brian Sewell (who had discovered the Samson and Delilah modello some years earlier at Christie’s) recalls that the picture, when at Christie’s, was an intact, cross-battened panel with a blackish painted back on which the Christie’s number [as given to every work on arrival] was stencilled in white paint.

“On 27 May 1997, Neil MacGregor sent me photographs of the picture’s back ‘as it is now’. He drew attention to the Christie’s number (chalked and stencilled in black paint) and to ‘two labels attached to the back of the blockboard’ (see illustrations). One, he said, is from the Antwerp exhibition of 1977, the other ‘rather older, from the Neuerburg Collection’. It was, he said, ‘hard to imagine any of these being put on after the picture left Christie’s.’ It is not. Neither document – only one of which appears to be a label – would seem to be glued or pasted to the blockboard. Both appear to be held in place, identically, with cellophane fixed by clean masking tape. Both documents are clearly proud of the surface and are seen to cast shadows on it. The 1977 Antwerp label shows clear signs of having been attacked with a scraper. Why? When? And by whom? After receiving these photographs, I asked to see the back on an occasion when the picture had been removed from its frame. So far, I have not been permitted to do so, and two requests to government ministers for an inquiry have been turned down.”

THE DIFFERENCE A MISPLACED HISTORICAL WORD CAN MAKE IN AN AUCTION CATALOGUE

Today, given the Samson and Delilah’s recent further disqualification on a technical analysis of its brushwork, the National Gallery’s continuing claim of a Rubens authorship runs increased risks.

First: That espousal continues to fly in the face of historical documentary evidence that the picture cannot safely be ascribed to Rubens – evidence that had emerged and was published twenty-five years ago by Dalya Alberge (“Artists raise fresh doubts on gallery’s Rubens masterpiece” 26 September 1996, the Times”):

“ARTISTS challenging the attribution of Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery believe that evidence presented in an auction house’s catalogue was mistaken. The artists also allege that the gallery refuses to acknowledge historical facts that cast doubt on the picture being by the 17th-century master. The National Gallery acquired the painting from Christie’s in 1980 for £2.5 million, equivalent to £6 million today. The auction catalogue referred to a 1653 inventory which described the painting as ‘Eenen Samson van Rubens’, which would mean ‘by Mr Rubens’. But a Flemish genealogist who has studied the inventory said that it read ‘Eenen Samson naer Rubens’: ‘naer’ is translated as ‘made just like Rubens’ or ‘after Mr Rubens’. Another inventory, dated 1692, lists it as ‘copye’ – a copy.

“Euphrosyne Doxiadis, an artist and scholar, and the painters Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson believe that the genealogist’s finding backs the stylistic evidence against the picture being by Rubens… It was only as recently as 1929 that the painting was hailed as a long-lost Rubens. For 180 years it was in the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein and inventories in 1767, 1780 and 1873 attributed it to a minor hand, Jan Van Den Hoecke…”

THE SHIFTING TESTIMONY OF LUDWIG BURCHARD

Second: With this picture never having been thought an autograph Rubens before Burchard’s 1929 upgrade, everything rests on that scholar’s tarnished standing. Aside from the Neger scandal, Pisarek noted in the Spring 2006 ArtWatch UK Journal (No. 21, “The ‘Samson and Delilah’ – a question of attribution”) that over 60 pictures, albeit mainly small works, attributed by Burchard to Rubens had been down-graded in Corpus Rubenianum to studio works, copies or imitations. In a 1950 letter to a fellow art historian, Burchard had said of a painting now in the North Carolina Museum of Art: “The Rubens-like painting was once shown to me. I missed the transparency of the shadows, which one would expect at least in places. The picture seemed to me like a compilation by a contemporary of Rubens.” However, in 1954 he had said of the same painting in a certificate of 28 May addressed to the D. M. Koetser Gallery, London: “the vigour of the design, the brilliance of the vivid colours, the concentration of movement are comparable in several details to the painter’s Defeat of Sennacherib c. 1612…”

THE FIXED TESTIMONY OF PAINTWORK

Third: As mentioned, the 1992 Doxiadis/Harvey/Hopkinson Report had anticipated and thereby now effectively corroborates the Art Recognition findings in its section on Rubens’ painterly technique:

“We have now studied the technical deficiencies in the execution of the National Gallery Painting; we have collected a very comprehensive catalogue of faults which are demonstrated by comparison with works of that period. This can be done when visual material is included…

“It is totally out of character for Rubens to use what the National Gallery calls ‘bold’ handling over the entire surface of a painting. In all his other works, areas of beautiful and infinitely detailed work appear, in addition to areas which have been handled boldly – a woman’s jewellery, for instance, the lace on a ruff, or a flower in the foreground. On the whole, the great downfall of the National Gallery’s picture is the crudeness with which it has been painted. Quite apart from the unsubtle transitions from tone to tone and from colour to colour (look for example on the Venus statue in the background [here, Fig. 4, above], or at Samson’s ear [Fig. 24, below], compared with his own ear in the self portrait of Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower painted in the same year) there are two enormous drips of paint on the surface of the work, which no painter with even the most basic training would have allowed himself to do at that period….

“Looking closely at Samson and Delilah one misses the vibrant, twisting nature of the brushstrokes themselves. The shapeless, unanimated strokes in this painting seem flat and unexciting when compared with Rubens’ usual virtuosity.”

SO, ONCE AGAIN, WHO PLANED THE BACK OFF THE SAMSON AND DELILAH PANEL?

Fourth: The Samson and Delilah picture retains an abiding technical mystery: at what date and by whom was the panel planed down and attached to a modern laminate sheet of blockboard?

It should always be appreciated that no reference had ever been made to a planing and a blockboard backing before the Plesters/Bomford accounts of 1983, and that the National Gallery’s accounts are inconsistent, shifting and full of holes. As seen, some have said the planing may have occurred in the 19th century or early 20th century, others that it took place between 1930 and 1980. The gallery claims to have kept no records of the picture’s state in 1980 when purchased and, even, to have prepared no reports for its trustees when seeking authorisation to make a then massive purchase that would consume most of the gallery’s annual purchases grant. A director, Neil MacGregor, expressly admitted (in a 1997 letter to ArtWatch UK) that “The National Gallery does not have any record, photographic or written, of the back of this picture before it was planed down” – which, as indicated above and as is further shown below, was not the case.

When the senior curator at the time of the 1980 acquisition, Christopher Brown, and his successor, David Jaffé, both held that it was planed down when in the collection of the German magnate, August Neuerberg, between 1930 and 1980, they did so against the testimony of the National Gallery benefactor (who had gifted a Poussin), Christopher Norris. As first mentioned in the 2000 Art Review, Norris testified in a letter to the director in 1980, Michael Levey, that between 1929 and 1980, no change of condition had occurred in the painting, other than a toning down in its 1929 varnish, because the owners had not touched it. Thus, because we know, on Burchard’s (written) testimony held by the National Gallery, that the panel was intact in 1929 when sold to Neuerburg and, on Norris’s (written) testimony, held by the National Gallery, that the owner had never touched the picture, the only parties who might have planed-off the back are Christie’s and the National Gallery. Christie’s, who described and sold the picture as a panel – not as a reduced or marouflaged panel – are hardly likely to have so-transformed someone else’s property – or even to have had the time and means of doing so. On currently available records, the National Gallery, becomes, willy-nilly, the sole candidate, having itself never once described the picture as a planed-down panel before 1983 – and because its own published records testify that the work was an intact panel up to 1982.

REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM: THE CASE OF A TOTALLY DISAPPEARED NATIONAL GALLERY ALTARPIECE PANEL

Above, Fig. 8: Top, the National Gallery’s 1504 altarpiece The Incredulity of S. Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, as seen before and after an utterly transforming campaign of restoration in which a modern synthetic composite support was substituted for the original giant poplar panel and a new frame was built to replace the gallery’s own 19th century frame; above, a 1978 pen and ink drawing, “The Ages of Woman”, by the author.

As can be seen above, top, the cleaning and subsequent retouching of the picture surface left a tonally and perspectivally altered appearance: what had been dark and tonally relieving (the back wall) became lighter; what had been contrasted became equalised (the wall and ceiling); what had been dramatically central and axially assertive (the “spotlighted” figure of Christ) became quietened and subsumed within a group. The reduced ornamentation on the new frame left two architecturally assertive raised circles that now vie for attention with the picture’s own depicted half-round windows – which features, the lightening of the wall has brought closer to the picture plane and, therefore, closer also to the new more abstractly assertive frame. The net effect of the physical and pictorial transformations this altarpiece underwent was to leave a painted image surface that is now as flat, de-natured and ahistorical as a giclée print. Above, to a draughtsman (who necessarily commences work on a sheet of – initially – “no-values” to a gradually built-up and considered disposition of “values”, the alterations that are routinely made by restorers during “cleanings” and “restorations” to other artists’ works are as un-missable as they are perplexing and artistically impoverishing.

Above, Fig. 9: Left, the back of the altarpiece panel which was totally removed (i. e. destroyed) and replaced by a multi-layered fibreglass and aluminium board – the long-term stability of which is unknown – during restoration. Right, the diagram of the new, entirely synthetic glass fibre and aluminium support in cross-section, as published in the gallery’s 1985 Technical Bulletin.

Above, Fig. 10: The Cima altarpiece, as published in the 1986 Technical Bulletin with the caption: “The picture after cleaning and transfer, before restoration.”

A MASTERFUL JOB

When Waldemar Januszczak was in art critically doubting mode on the Samson and Delilah’s attribution in October 1997, he addressed the persisting Whodunnit Mystery of the Disappeared Back:

“I put this to the gallery’s chief conservator, Martin Wyld, who quips cheerfully that he was rather proud of having been accused; planing a 17th-century oak panel to wafer thinness and attaching it perfectly to blockboard while leaving its surface in pristine condition, is an exceptional feat of restoration. Nobody would or should do it today. Whoever did it earlier did a masterful job. Why did they do it at all? If a painting is in exceptionally good condition, why was there any need to hazard the transfer to blockboard? A question neither the chief conservator nor MacGregor can answer. All I got them from both is the National Gallery version of: it wasn’t us, guv.”

If stunned by Januszczak’s question, Wyld and MacGregor can hardly have been caught unawares. In a then recent letter in the Daily Telegraph (“Doubts about gallery’s Rubens”, 16 August 1997) we had written on that very question:

“…More disturbingly, crucial technical and documentary evidence concerning the picture’s weak provenance was destroyed when the back of its oak panel was planed away in a mysterious intervention for which no one accepts responsibility and during which no records were kept. The National Gallery claims the planing took place before the picture was bought at Christie’s for a record £2.5 million in 1980. If this was so, two questions arise. Why did the gallery’s trustees authorise the acquisition of a picture with no back (the planed-down remains having been glued on to a sheet of blockboard) and with no documented history of a back? And why did the gallery not ask the vendors, who had owned the painting for 50 years, for an account of the planing and a record of the pre-planed back?… Answers to all these questions lie in the reports that were prepared by the gallery staff for the trustees prior to the 1980 purchase and prior to the gallery’s 1982 cleaning and restoration of the picture. The gallery has not responded to requests that these reports be made available for inspection. Nor is it prepared to produce photographs of the picture’s back, as taken by Christie’s staff before the sale, or by gallery staff before the restoration.”

Unable to answer those questions, the head restorer had clearly been ‘avin a larf when he suggested to the Sunday Times’ art critic that planing a panel down to 3 mm and gluing it onto a sheet of block board was an exceptional feat far beyond anyone’s capacities at the National Gallery. Back then in 1997, a reading of recent National Gallery Technical Bulletins would soon have disclosed the gallery’s great pride in its radical substitutions of modern synthetic composite backings for old pictures’ historic (wood or canvas) supports. We had complained in the 1993 and 1996 James Beck and Michael Daley book Art Restoration: The Culture; the Business and the Scandal of the gallery’s use of the compressed paper “Sundeala” boards on to which Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Seurat’s The Bathers and Sebastiano’s The Raising of Lazarus had been affixed.

The spectacularly gung-ho treatment of the latter picture – the largest in the Gallery’s collection – epitomised the artistic presumption and techno-adventurism of the gallery’s restorers. The deleterious consequences of that intervention began to be conceded by the gallery’s restorers in its 2009 Technical Bulletin:

“…eventually it was decided to brush on multiple thin layers of warm wax-resin dissolved in white spirit, embedding a layer of inert terylene net fabric [-“Terylene is a specific form of polyester, more specifically polyethylene terephthalate. It is created via the extraction and mixing of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. When turned into a fiber with dyes and other treatments, it becomes a great synthetic with a lot of potential in different sectors” ] within the layers as they solidified. Although the discoloured varnishes had yet to be removed from the paint surface, the appearance of the picture was considered to be darker than intended as a result of lack of reflectance from the ground and so titanium white (titanium dioxide) was added to the wax cement…Once the wax and titanium white layers had been built up to a sufficient thickness the painting could then be mounted on a solid new support. This had previously been coated with wax-resin allowing a bond to be achieved by ironing with a thermostatically controlled iron to soften the wax-resin layers which then fused as they cooled. Although it is unlikely that these methods and materials would be used nowadays, the treatment can be judged a success in that there has been no further flaking of the paint layers. Unfortunately, the work took place before the introduction of lightweight and stable panels made from glass fibre with aluminium honeycomb cores. The painting is mounted, therefore, on a support constructed with a sundeala’ composite board outer faces and a core of paper honeycomb. In spite of its wooden edges and an internal wooden framework this panel is now showing signs of instability, with a tendency to flex and twist when the painting is moved, an operation which is therefore avoided as far as possible.” Emphasis added.

Above, Fig. 11: Staff in the National Gallery’s restoration studio at work on the remains of Cima da Conegliano’s altarpiece, The Incredulity of S. Thomas, after the complete removal of its giant poplar panel and before its transfer onto a multi-layered synthetic support – as shown in the NG’s 1985 Technical Bulletin.

A reading of the 1985 and 1986 Technical Bulletins would have disclosed how gallery restorers had chiselled away the entire wood panel of seven giant planks just under two metres long of Cima’s altarpiece The Incredulity of St Thomas (Figs. 8-10). In the first stage, the panel was reduced “from c. 5 cm to 1 cm.” In the second, the remaining 1 cm of wood was chiselled away entirely until the back of the original gesso coatings was exposed. In the 1985 Technical Bulletin, Martin Wyld described the means and the tools of that perilous operation:

“The removal of the wood then commenced. The techniques used were entirely manual. Though mechanical routers and planes are often used with success in transfer, there is a danger of a power tool, however carefully handled, snagging on knots in the wood or on the bent nails which are mysteriously but commonly found in old panels, and ripping up far more wood than is intended. Semi-circular 15 mm gouges were pushed along the grain, cutting channels 6-7 mm deep, and the ridges left between the channels were then cut down. Each plank was reduced by a similar amount, and the process repeated until the panel had been reduced from c 5 cm to 1 cm in thickness. Many nails were found embedded in the panel and several knots were also cut out.

“The removal of the first layers of wood is usually the easiest part of a transfer [of a paint film to a new support]. The removal of the final layer of wood was complicated by several factors. Many different blister-laying adhesives had been used on the Cima, often in very large quantities. Fig. 6 shows a detail of the Apostles’ heads on the right; the lines of white dots are holes of a syringe in order to inject animal glue under the gesso. Much of this glue, which must have been considerably diluted with water in order to be used in a syringe, had run into the worm channels and soaked into the wood, making the panel surface more brittle…Areas where wax had been used for blister-laying presented less difficulty.

“Experience during earlier transfers had shown that the safest method of removing the last layer of wood was to cut a very shallow slope at a slight angle to the direction of the grain and to shave away the tapered edge of the wood with a small fish-tail chisel. The method proved to be impractical on the Cima. The parts of the panel affected by thick animal glue (of the consistency of carpenter’s glue) or putty filling the worm channels, by knots and by later or original inserts of wood obviously needed individual treatment. However, the remainder of the wood was so insecurely attached to the gesso that it was impossible to cut a shallow slope because strips broke away along the grain no matter how carefully the chisel was used. Strips of wood 10-12 cm long and 3-4 cm wide would become completely detached, but usually with a few small fragments of paint and gesso stuck to them. These fragments were laboriously cut off the wood and replaced… It was found that the safest method of removing the last layer of wood in the very loose areas was to cut it away at an angle of 30 ? to the gesso, instead of across at the very shallow angle normally used, and to cut across rather than along the grain…”

Above, Fig. 12: Top, the director, Michael Levey, and the head restorer, Martin Wyld (top left), watching four restorers in the National Gallery’s basement restoration studios attaching the pictorial remains of Cima da Conegliano’s altarpiece, The Incredulity of S. Thomas, to a linen interleaf on the hot-table after the complete removal of its giant poplar panel and before its transfer onto a multi-layered synthetic support – as shown in the NG’s 1985 Technical Bulletin. Above, the exposed and buckled gesso months after the Cima panel had been chiselled away entirely and the air-conditioning system had malfunctioned.

AN OVERNIGHT MALFUNCTION

Note Wyld’s own account of the “conservation treatment” of the Cima altarpiece:

“Fig. 13 [here, “Fig. 12, above”] shows the arched top of the picture, where the removal of the final layer of wood had started. The panel and gesso had been carefully covered with Melinex and heavy rubber mats all through the transfer, but the gesso had absorbed some moisture from the atmosphere and swollen slightly. An air-conditioning malfunction, which produced RH of 100% for several hours one night, led to pronounced swelling and buckling of the gesso [and the paint layers attached to it] which can be seen in this photograph taken months later.”

Wyld further reported:

“Fig. 13 shows the severe buckling of the top of the picture due to the gesso having absorbed moisture from the atmosphere. Less pronounced buckling had affected some of the lower half of the picture as well. The facing layers had moved with the gesso, and were still secure. The picture was detached from the temporary support and slid face-down onto the Melinex covered hot-table, sealed with a membrane and heated to 40 ? C at a pressure of 15 mbar (1.5 kPa) for an hour. The buckling slowly reduced until the picture was almost flat and relaxed, and the same low pressure, which prevented any alteration of the surface texture, was maintained while the hot-table cooled.”

ALAS, POOR HOLBEIN

The apogee of the white heat of technically transforming restorations was eventually reached in Wyld’s luxuriously long, Esso-sponsored, BBC-televised 1993-96 swank-restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. There, the gallery’s head of restoration produced the world’s first painted insinuation of “virtual reality” into an old master painting by reconstructing the picture’s famous (but damaged) anamorphic skull not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been constructed but from a gallery-generated computer manipulation of a photograph of a medical model of a skull. That operation was defended by the then director, Neil MacGregor on the grounds that “We believe it is our duty to try to present to the public, as much as we can, what the artist intended them to see.” Wyld went further, re-painting a section of the rug to a new design on the authority of a rug expert and painting false and camouflaging “age cracks” onto his own new painting.

And yet, notwithstanding Wyld’s publicly paraded technical expertise, he would have had Waldemar Januszczak believe that the National Gallery’s restorers lacked the wherewithal to reduce a panel to a thickness of c 3 mm and glue it onto a sheet of blockboard.

In the absence of any prior record of a planing, the National Gallery’s last resort defence against suspicions of having carried out the operation has rested on what might seem to be a confession of exceptional negligence – rather as if saying: “With this picture, which we considered a pre-eminent masterpiece within Rubens’ oeuvre and for which we had paid a fortune, we failed to follow our customary procedures and safeguards. We made no records; we took no photographs, neither when we bought it for a world record Rubens price nor earlier, ahead of the sale at Christie’s, when we had borrowed it and were seeking our trustees’ permission to buy it”.

AN OPEN GOAL?

Januszczak might have pressed his point harder. On the absence of records, we had recently reported (“Is this really a Rubens?” The Art Review, July/August 1997) that:

“In the 1980/81 Annual Report the then director, Michael Levey, thanked Christie’s for ‘allowing the trustees to see this painting in the gallery before the sale.’ A trustee at the time has disclosed that in all such purchases curators present a case for the purchase to the trustees who then examine the work ‘in the flesh’. A former Keeper and Deputy Director, Allan Braham, has disclosed that reports on the desirability and condition are prepared by curatorial and conservation staffs for the director before any major purchase…”

A TALE OF TWO OLD PANELS BOUGHT BY THE NATIONAL GALLERY IN 1980

The Gallery’s seeming failure to record and investigate this single work is the more perplexing because the director, Michael Levey, had truly nailed his professional and managerial colours to the painting. He had announced in 1979 that, having reassessed the National Gallery’s holdings of Rubens, he had concluded that it lacked a monumental figurative composition and that he intended to pass this information on to the Trustees at their next Meeting with a recommendation that they should look to acquiring one at the first opportunity. He did not have long to wait for the emergence at Christie’s of the Burchard Samson and Delilah – which might have seemed like a prayer answered. Notwithstanding the eventual very high cost, Levey’s enthusiasm for the picture seemed unbounded. In his foreword to the 1983 “Acquisition in Focus” exhibition, he wrote:

“When on Friday 11th July 1980 the National Gallery acquired at auction in London a Rubens painting of Samson and Delilah – at a cost of over two million pounds – some people might have asked why the nation needed another Rubens. In the Collection at Trafalgar Square there were already twenty paintings by the artist.

“This exhibition, the second in our ‘Acquisition in Focus’ series, will serve as a striking demonstration, I believe, that the painting was indeed needed and will confirm that a crude numbers game in matters of great painters and great paintings is no less obtuse than asking how a piece of canvas [?] can ‘be worth’ so many million pounds. An odd aspect of such questions is that they are rarely directed to areas of national expenditure outside the arts.

“Rubens’ Samson and Delilah is a large scale, early and entirely autograph painting of a kind the National Gallery previously lacked. Its splendid colour and vigorous handling of paint can all the better be appreciated now that it appears cleaned in this exhibition…”

ATTRIBUTIONAL TURBULENCE

If a whiff of defensiveness about the cost of the acquisition might be sensed, it would be understandable: a ferocious dispute was running in the early 1980s between Rubens scholars over the famous paper cartoons-for-tapestries that had been bought for the National Museum Cardiff as by Rubens – and Levey was in the thick of it, having sided with Julius Held who had dissed his arch rival Michael Jaffé’s attribution of the cartoons to Rubens. This would have been the very worst of times for another museum to have been thought to have acquired a dud “Rubens” – and, indeed, for Levey to have been its principal begetter.

In that context, it must be said that the self-declared failure to keep customary (if not statutory) records on the Samson and Delilah stands in bewilderingly sharp contrast with the abundance of prior investigations and records kept and published on another old panel picture bought by the gallery in 1980, (for an undisclosed sum made with contributions from The Art Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund) – namely, Altdorfer’s Christ taking Leave of His Mother. That purchase was also discussed in the 1983 Technical Bulletin. In Wyld’s report on the treatment of that picture, the first note is headed “The condition on acquisition”. It begins:

“Altdorfer’s Christ taking Leave of his Mother (No. 6463) was examined by the National Gallery Conservation Department before its acquisition in October 1980. As is customary, X-radiographs and infra-red photographs were taken and the picture was studied with infra-red vidicon system and under ultra-violet light…” By those and other examinations it was established ahead of the purchase that the panel was composed of six planks joined vertically and that these had been planed-down to about 6 – 8 mm and cradled. In a section on the subsequent treatment of the panel, Wyld notes of one photograph, “Fig. 5 shows the back of the panel as it was on acquisition…” (Emphasis added.) No such photograph has ever been produced of the Samson and Delilah.

LOOP OF SILENCE

When, on 6 April 2002 (letter), we asked the National Gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, whether Dr. Brown had been aware in 1982 of Burchard’s 1930 testimony on the condition of the Samson and Delilah, he replied (letter, 9 April 2002): “As I am sure you know, Christopher Brown left the National Gallery some years ago…I suggest you pursue the matter with him.” When Brown was asked (December 2005) by the US magazine, Salon to comment on his past involvement in the controversy surrounding Samson and Delilah, he replied: “I am sorry but I don’t want to do this. Please address your questions to the National Gallery.” And so, a great silence fell.

On re-visiting the Technical Bulletins today, the mystery of the disappeared picture back deepens. Not only had no one ever spoken of a planing and mounting on blockboard before the picture was acquired in 1980 but no one at the gallery had done so in the two years before the 1983 Plesters/Bomford report. Quite to the contrary, in the 1982 Technical Bulletin, Christopher Brown, Martin Wyld and the gallery’s (now deceased) timber specialist, Anthony Reeve (who was described by Mr MacGregor as the “supreme practitioner of his generation”), wrote on the cleaning and restoration of Rubens’ The Watering Place. In discussing the highly problematic construction of many Rubens’ panels, Reeve wrote:

“Of all the pictures in the National Gallery, Rubens’ panels have been of greater concern, because of their condition, than any other part of the collection. The reason for this is well-known. Rubens frequently found it necessary to enlarge his pictures after he had started painting…Rubens’ oak panels, often enlarged in several different stages, are amongst the most inherently unstable supports used by any artist.”

However, Reeve drew a distinction between “the oak supports which, although made up of many planks joined together, were not enlarged during the painting process, and those which were added to.” On that former, unproblematic, type, Reeve cited just three examples:

The Rape of the Sabine Women (No. 38) (1.699 x 2.362 m), The Judgement of Paris (No. 6379) (1.339 x 1.1.74 m); Samson and Delilah (No 6461) (1.85 x 2.05 m), the panels of which are made up of six, five and seven oak planks respectively. The grain of every plank, and hence the joins, are horizontal and all the planks are roughly the same width.”

In consequence, Reeve continued, although “these large panels are sensitive to changes in relative humidity (RH), they provide a sound and permanent support if kept in a controlled environment and not exposed to sudden changes in RH.” Conspicuously, he made no mention of the Samson and Delilah as being then a radically reduced panel that had been glued onto a larger blockboard support (Doxiadis reported seeing something like a four inches wide surround of pinkish blockboard when the picture was out of its frame and flat on its back). Of those three fortunate panels Reeve wrote:

Wood expands and contracts across rather than along its grain. The effect of wood shrinkage of the exposed back [emphasis added] when all the planks are parallel is for the front to become convex, and perhaps slightly corrugated. This shrinkage may cause the joins between the planks to open, or splits to form at the end grain, but treatment and stabilisation are usually straightforward.”

In other words, although all three pictures had been well and favourably constructed, all three were at potential risk of injury through their exposed backs in the event of atmospheric fluctuations – not to mention air-conditioning malfunctions. That was said in 1982. Had the Samson and Delilah already been planed-down to 3 mm and glued or cemented to a larger blockboard panel at that date, a timber craftsman so expert and informed as Reeve could not have bracketed the three panels as being at equal risk of atmospheric changes through their exposed backs.

The planed-down and mounted-on-panel Samson and Delilah artefact described by Plesters and Bomford in 1983 was no longer exposed to fluctuations of humidity: its front was protected by priming, painting and varnish; its back was sealed by its fixture to the blockboard; even its slender 3 mm edges were sealed and protected by putty. Indeed, as Bomford put it in 1983: “Although the nature of this treatment would not find favour today, Samson and Delilah, fortunately, had been treated skilfully. The joins and splits are still secure, the panel is firmly attached to blockboard in all areas and the overall warp (which one might expect to be considerable in a picture of this size) is minimal”. Bomford noted, “no further support treatment is necessary.”

How to account for the two restorers’ discrepancies of accounts between 1982 and 1983? Mr MacGregor once suggested that Burchard might have mistaken a planed-down panel laid on blockboard for an original and intact early 17th century oak panel, but after three decades of removing cradles and reducing panels, Reeve was even less likely to have mistaken a modern blockboard for a 17th century oak panel. He knew the differences well and had noted in the 1981 Technical Bulletin that:

A very large number of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italian panels made of poplar have been planed-down and cradled before they came to the National Gallery collection. This form of panel treatment seems to have been very common in England in the 19th century. The problems caused by the planing-down and cradling vary from panel to panel, but it leaves almost all the panels vulnerable in that they are liable to splitting. Thirty years of experience removing cradles, rejoining splits in the panels and securing them by the method described above has shown that, providing the pictures are then kept in a reasonably well-controlled environment, the panels will remain stable.”

If Burchard truly had mistaken a planed-down panel on blockboard for an original early 17th century, it was a mistake made by everyone else who ever encountered the panel up until the moment it was restored at the National Gallery. Proceeding on the testimony of all the available records, the question might now sensibly be narrowed: who, between 1982 and 1983, planed down the panel and mounted it on blockboard – and who authorised the action?

THE MUTE, ELOQUENT TESTIMONY OF PHOTOGRAPHED BRUSHWORK

While past and present National Gallery players have yet to comment on the Art Recognition findings, eloquent witnesses remain in the Samson and Delilah’s own brushstrokes. Grosvenor’s snap dismissal that computers do not and cannot understand art mis-states the issue: computer programmes do not have to possess all human capacities and levels of understanding to perform otherwise immensely laborious but valuable visual tasks with unerring reliability. To give a commonplace example: for graphic artists who work on A3 or larger sheets, it is prohibitively expensive and space consuming to acquire scanners of corresponding size and capacity; in practice, it not necessary to have such equipment because there are now many computer programmes capable of seamlessly “stitching” overlapping part-scans of large images – as was done with this author’s drawing below at Fig. 13.

Above, Fig. 13: The author’s drawing of Donald Trump’s Relationship with the Republican Party, as published in The Conservative, September 2017.

The earlier revolution of photographic reproduction facilitated all manner of handmade graphic inventions by collage and montage but absolutely seamless conjoining was not possible – the sharpest scalpel cutting through paper cannot do other than leave a trace of its actions. It has taken digitalised computer power to accomplish seamless and effortless manipulations of images and, even, with the advent of AI, of videos. Just as it is not necessary to understand the programming means by which part-images can be invisibly joined, so it is not necessary to envisage the mechanisms whereby a programme might successfully identify distinguishing traits within individual artists’ brushstrokes. Pace Grosvenor, such a programme cannot be deemed theoretically inconceivable for the simple reason that we can already see for ourselves precisely such autographically distinguishing characteristics in paintings – were they not already present and discernible, how would any connoisseur identify any work’s author by eye?

THE NEGLECT OF PHOTOGRAPHIC AIDS TO CONNOISSEURSHIP

Far from being an incredible prospect, the study and evaluation of distinctive brushwork through magnified photographic examination has been around as a diagnostic aid for nearly a century. Despite their proven and demonstrable usefulness, the studies in question and their potential applications have been greatly and perhaps wilfully neglected in subsequent art world practices which have favoured the technical analysis of art’s material components rather than the patterns of artistry which are realised through them.

Above, Fig. 14: An image reproduced in our Journal No. 21 with the following caption:

This illustration is a photomicrograph of the highlight on the shoulder of [Rembrandt’s] Woman Bathing, National Gallery, No. 54. The patch is pasted on from a photomicrograph of a picture whose attribution had to be tested. It will be seen that the brushwork is identical in both cases. It is possible for a skilful forger to imitate a signature, but it is quite impossible to combine the quality of the paint, the nature of the brush, and the handling of the paint by the painter, so as to reproduce this complete identity.”

So said A. P. Laurie, Professor of Chemistry to the Royal Academy of Arts, in his 1949 book The Techniques of the Great Painters. Would anyone, looking at the above photographic splicing of two brushstrokes from two paintings doubt that both brushstrokes were products of the same author? Professor Laurie was also the author of the invaluable pioneering The Brushwork of Rembrandt and his School (1932), New Light on Old Masters (1935), and, The Painter’s Methods and Materials (1960). Fascinated by scientific means of examining art, Laurie was firm in his conviction that we cannot separate the history of style from the history of artistic technique. Unfortunately, the lesson of Laurie’s penetrating and helpfully clarifying studies were displaced by more clamorous and institutionally self-serving appliances of science – and photography – and in Britain the principal villain had been an earlier director of the National Gallery.

THE PURPORTED SCIENCE OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY

As a very young (and Lord Duveen-engineered) director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, whose picture cleanings produced fury among artists, set up a scientific department so as, as he put it in his 1977 autobiography, to “have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken [by the gallery’s restorers and curators].” In pronounced contrast, Laurie’s impeccably disinterested and transparent method was conducted in good faith.

First, he explained, by magnifying details of paintings: “…we isolate the drawing with the brush: we magnify the individual strokes, and, owing to the dark varnish lying in the hollows of the paint, reveal every stroke of the brush with the utmost definiteness.” Second, “If we now proceed to take silver prints of the magnified photographs of two pictures, one known and the other unknown, and cutting up the one, put a portion of the other print so adjusted that the strokes of the brush follow on, we have an infallible method of identification.”

Thus, Laurie appreciated, the marks of brushes left in paint can be as “forensically” helpful as the rifling marks on a bullet. Unlike Plesters, Laurie combined technical ingenuity with artistic perspicacity. On his schema, great precision of identifications of authorship might indeed be attained by almost anyone – and therein may lie the rub and an explanation of institutional resistance and exclusion: his method demystified the mumbo-jumbo of pseudo-scientific museum world “conservation”.

On the certainly pertinent and potential tripwire question “Can we be sure that artists brushstrokes do not evolve to the point of transformation?” Laurie answered in the affirmative: “As in writing, once a painter has formed his style of brushwork, it is curiously persistent. His pictures may alter with the years: they may develop a greater depth of meaning and a richer quality, as we find with Rembrandt, but the brushwork remains the same.” Laurie, who claimed nothing that he was unable to demonstrate for all to see, continued: “Now take a jump from 1633 to about 1660 and examine through a lens the impasto of the portrait of himself (No. 221 in the National Gallery). You will recognise the same impasto, though with a more stiffly ground paint. Or again, the lens will reveal same impasto as in the portrait of Titus in the Wallace Collection. [See Fig. 15 below] A study of these three painters, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Frans Hals will soon convince the reader of the truth of what has been said above. If then we can emphasise this characteristic, we have a powerful weapon to assist in the attribution of painters.”

Above, Fig. 15: Top, in this juxtaposition of the eye in the Wallace Collection portrait of Titus, (the condition of which Laurie described as above in his ground-breaking 1932 study of Rembrandt’s brushwork) and, above, the eye in the National Gallery self-portrait (of which picture’s condition Laurie noted “This, except for the coarse repairs in the corner of the eye and on the upper lip, is in excellent condition and is the best example of his latest manner I have seen which has not been injured by the restorer”), it can be seen that Rembrandt’s brushwork could swish without change through time.

The test of Laurie was truly in the looking: he published comparative details of artists brushwork in which authorial differences were manifest and indisputable – see Figs. 16-19 below. He squarely addressed all potential practical/theoretical/methodological difficulties: “In order to apply this method in a thorough way it is necessary to study a painter through his whole career, and also to study the work of his pupils and imitators, so as to prepare a complete dossier for reference. I have been able to make some approach to doing this for Rembrandt and his school, for which thanks are due to the Duke of Westminster, and the results of the inquiry have been published as The Brushwork of Rembrandt and his School.” As is perfectly demonstrated at the photo-comparison at Fig. 15 above, the signature brushwork patterns of Rembrandt do indeed straddle his early and late works with complete consistency and a seeming interchangeability.

Above, Fig. 16: Laurie’s photomicrograph of the moustache in the Frans Hals portrait of Verdonck (National Gallery of Scotland).

Above, Fig. 17: Laurie’s photomicrograph of the eye in the Frans Hals portrait of Verdonck (National Gallery of Scotland).

Above, Fig. 18: Left, a photomicrograph of a bow in the Frans Hals Portrait of a Lady (National Gallery of Scotland); right, a detail of the tassel on the shoulder of Rembrandt’s Saskia Laughing, Dresden Gallery. On such a photo-comparison, a child of six would be unlikely to confound the one author with the other.

If perceived in some quarters to constitute a professional threat to vested interests, Laurie acknowledged a personal indebtedness to the London art trade, reporting that his own interests had been aroused by the late Mr Vicars of Bond Street:

“We were all engaged in the famous Romney trial and he took me to see a perfect gallery of the English portrait school belonging to a well-known London banker. ‘We dealers’, he told me, ‘go by brushwork, that is the artist’s true signature which nobody can forge.’ Going up to a Reynolds he said, ‘Do you see how Reynolds has put in that touch there?’ ‘Now come here and see how Romney does it; this is Gainsborough’s touch.’ After we had studied the English portrait school from this point of view, I said to him, ‘I have learnt more from you than from all the art connoisseurs’. He turned to me and said, ‘My boy, we’ve got to know, we risk our money on it!’”

DEFENDING MUSEUM FAKES II

Above, Fig. 19: Top, Laurie’s detail of the Hals moustache; above, a section of a half-page detail of the National Gallery’s du Jardin Portrait of a Young Man, as published in the Technical Bulletin of 1982.

The caption to the Technical Bulletin photograph reads:

“Detail after cleaning, before restoration. The unusually large pigment particles, including those from the lower layer of the ground, can be seen. The paint film is slightly worn so that small areas of grey priming have been exposed, especially to the right of the mouth.”

Thus, as can be seen with this detail of du Jardin’s Portrait of a Young Man, the National Gallery certainly had the means in 1982 to provide Laurie-style detailed photo-comparisons that might have shown, for example, the consequences of its cleaning methods (see Fig. 8 above), or the stylistic correspondences or otherwise between works attributed to a given author. The Gallery had accepted Laurie’s comparative photo-demonstration (as at Fig. 14) that a challenged work was an autograph Rembrandt, but it has commissioned no detailed photo-comparisons of the Samson and Delilah brushwork with that of its own uncontested Rubens pictures (see Fig. 22). Instead of better studying the creative handiwork of artists, the gallery has photographed a million microscopically minute samples of paint ground down so as to reveal paint in stratigraphic cross-sections. In the 1993, 1996 Art Restoration, we complained that the National Gallery’s restorers and scientists were more interested to learn of the chemical constituents of paint than to understand the artistic uses to which artists put their paint, viz:

“…the green earth pigment consisted of ‘glauconite and celadonite [which] have closely similar constitutions, although their primary origins differ: the former is present in certain marine sedimentary deposits, while the latter occurs as inclusions in igneous rocks such as basalt. They are difficult to distinguish by XRD. Both types are layered silicate materials containing FE(II) and FE(III); also characteristic is a content of aluminium, silicon, potassium and sometimes magnesium…” Does this have a point, we asked, or is it swank? Was Rubens handicapped when painting in ignorance of such chemical constituencies?

Laurie encountered hostility from institutions wishing to defend their attributions. He warned: “I suggest a voyage of discovery to some young student with a magnifying camera through the galleries of Europe, but he must be careful to conceal his real object or he will never return alive. I have never forgotten the rage of the Director of a famous continental gallery when he thought I was suggesting that one of his pictures was not by Rembrandt. ‘Nonsense, nonsense’ he shouted, ‘one of the finest Rembrandts in the world’. I hurried to explain that I was referring to a Rembrandt in another Gallery, he smiled sweetly and said, ‘You are probably quite right’.”

TIMES CHANGE

In conclusion, and in Laurie’s inquiring spirit, we consider some close photographic comparisons of the National Gallery’s version of the 1609-10 Samson and Delilah with a bona fide Rubens painting which has retained its back – Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross of 1609-11, Antwerp Cathedral. As with that comparison at Fig. 4, above, the successive comparative details from Fig. 20 to Fig. 25 below are of two works of the same supposed historical moment and stage of development within the oeuvre. Great differences of brushwork might hardly, therefore, be expected. Matches are not to be found.

“SMOOTHLY BRUSHED, THINLY APPLIED”

Above, Fig. 20: Top, a section of Delilah’s flesh; above; a detail from Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross.

The astonishing contrast above, is of an apparently phenomenally well-preserved smoothness and absence of age cracks in the Delilah, and the entirely characteristic four centuries old painting of flesh on The Raising of the Cross. Plesters, convinced of the picture’s authenticity, perceived no stylistic discrepancies and remarked on the Samson and Delilah’s seemingly youthful paint: “The flesh of Delilah was in such perfect condition that no small damage could be found from which to take a [microscopically tiny] sample, but viewed under the stereoscopic binocular microscope at low magnification the pale parts of the flesh appear to consist of lead white tinted with a little vermilion, a mixture which results in a clear rosy pink. The transition between the white, pinkish and more creamy tones (probably lead white with a little yellow earth colour) are smoothly brushed apparently in a single paint layer.” Moreover, “Apart from the strongest highlights the flesh paint is quite thin, so much so that in parts the striped pattern of the yellowish imprimatura below is visible lending a pearly translucent effect which Rubens may have calculated…”

As if inoculated against all visual anomalies, Plesters deemed it interesting to find that “in the full-scale version of Samson and Delilah the striped imprimatura, so characteristic of his preparatory and exploratory oil sketches on panel, has been used.” Without her conviction that what she was examining what was unquestionably Rubens’ handiwork, Plesters might have found the exposed imprimatura in a major painting, commissioned by a friend and patron, surprising and incongruous. Perhaps she did sense danger: “…it could of course, in this case, be the accidental result of [unusual] speed and boldness in painting.”

Above, Fig. 21: Two faces of the Rubens “beautiful young blond woman” type. Again, the same striking differences of paint film properties are apparent (thick v. thin; smooth v. textured) but note also how in the secure Rubens picture the “drawing” of the subject’s profile has been realised by modelling the features (brow, nose, lips and chin) over a darker background. In the National Gallery picture the drawing of the profile is weaker, sharper, anatomically inferior and has been realised principally by the encroachment of a superimposed dark background which, at the nose, results in flat, angular edges like cut-out paper that bear no relation to the form of the nose (which, anyway, is itself plastically and anatomically ill-conceived) and with no illusion of aerial recession beyond the figure.

Above, Fig. 22: Top, in the Samson and Delilah the forms of the lips are chaotically and messily unresolved. The upper lip is drawn as if from a three-quarters and above viewpoint, but the lower lip is drawn as if seen sideways on and with no hint of interconnecting flesh. By comparison, in the proper-Rubens head all the surfaces turn, move, and cohere convincingly, as if placed on a piece of sculpture.

Above, Fig. 23: In these portrayals of hands, the superbly realised expressive resolutions within the one, disqualify the crass and clumsy shorthand treatments seen in the other.

Above, Fig. 24: In these two details on the Burchard/National Gallery painting, the scant, near-void-like treatment of the background is accompanied by a flabby musculature in Samson’s back. The enlarged detail of the ear discloses an angular, almost Cubist treatment of the forms laid hastily over the stripy sketch-like imprimatura.

A TRIPLE COMPARISON AND A SECOND, “TWINNED” RUBENS UPGRADE

Above, Fig. 25: In this comparison we show three very different treatments of female hands which pose the question: Did Rubens paint female hands so variously in 1609-11?

On the left, we see that encountered in the secure Raising of the Cross in Antwerp cathedral. In the centre we see the Delilah hand from the National Gallery. On the right, we see a hand from the (presently) most-expensive “Rubens” painting, The Massacre of the Innocents which realised £49.5m at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002. The latter, like the Samson and Delilah, had been regarded as a follower’s copy for centuries. Where our eyes can only tell us that these three hands were executed by different artists, the official Rubens Art Scholarship World insists that all three had been painted almost simultaneously by Rubens. The hand in the centre is an anaemic semblance of a Rubens hand. That on the right is a stridently caricatured – almost comic book-like – derivative.

GROWING OEUVRES DESPITE THE EVIDENCE OF TREE RINGS

When misattributed works are accepted within oeuvres, they immediately exert a toxic influence – if “X Mark I”, then why not also a matching “X Mark II”? And so on, ad infinitum…until an inevitable eventual crisis of confidence arises.

Up to December 2001 the Massacre (Fig. 30, below), like the Samson and Delilah, had for centuries been regarded as a follower’s copy. The upgrading was said to have been made by five experts, only three of whom were named – Paul Huvenne, Arnout Balis and Elizabeth McGrath (the other two were believed to be National Gallery staffers). In the 2006 AWUK Journal No. 21 we reported that Dr. McGrath had corresponded with the National Gallery about Jan van den Hoecke, whom she believed had worked with Rubens in his studio and had possibly collaborated with him on a Rubens temporarily loaned to the National Gallery. She had expressed a fear to the Gallery that if her material were to be passed to the press, she might be thought to be propounding her own theories.

Some of the five experts thought the Massacre had been painted before the Samson and Delilah, some, after it. Of all Rubens paintings of the period under consideration – 1609-11, the National Gallery picture – and not, for example, the absolutely secure Raising of the Cross – was taken by Sotheby’s and the experts to be the “benchmark” picture in making this new Rubens ascription even though both the Samson and Delilah and the Massacre had spent many years together in the Liechtenstein Collection not as Rubens’s but as Jan van den Hoecke copies of Rubens pictures. The Massacre had Liechtenstein seals on the back and front of its panel which, just like the Samson and Delilah in 1929, was said to be original and in excellent condition.

BURYING REPORTS

Sotheby’s had commissioned detailed technical reports which were not carried in the sale catalogue but which were there said to be available on request in a separate volume. The reports carried much material that was injurious to the Rubens ascription, as we reported in the October 2002 Jackdaw (“Is this £49.5 million painting by Rubens?”). The Independent’s financial correspondent William Kay, had advised on 20 July 2002 (“A little detective work can pay off”): “Don’t look at a company’s profits-and-loss account – start at the back of the accounts, where the notes are, not at the front where the chairman puts a gloss on the numbers.”

Turning quickly from the first page of Sotheby’s commissioned reports on the Massacre (- which page carried the disclaimer “The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders’ information only and without warranty by Sotheby’s or the seller”) to the very last page, I discovered that the two last lines of a dendrochronological report by Peter Klein on the picture’s oak panel (dated 2 April 2002) read:

“Under an assumption of a median of 15 sapwood rings and 2 years for seasoning a creation is plausible from 1615 upwards.”

That meant the Massacre’s proposed Rubens upgrade as “a just-returned-from-Italy” work of 1609-11 was toast. On the tree ring evidence, this panel could only be considered to have been painted at least four years afters after its claimed date of execution. When Dr Klein examined the wood of the Samson and Delilah in 1996 his technical findings were said by the National Gallery to have corroborated the claimed 1609-10 date of execution. That claim, however, had rested not on the data but on the authority of a Klein covering letter which stated: “The felling date [of the tree] corresponds very well with the art historian attribution” and that a date of execution for the painting “is plausible from 1605 upwards”.

Two British dendrochronologists held that Klein’s summary characterisation of tree ring data was misleading. One said: “it is unsafe to say 1609 is any more likely than a later date of 1620.” Another observed “All Klein should be saying is that the range is 1597 to 1630”. The forces that were desirous of the Massacre being taken as a bona fide Rubens were unmoved by the earlier Samson and Delilah controversy and warnings – and the marketing enterprise rolled on despite the presence of much other disqualifying evidence in the volume of reports. As we reported in the Jackdaw:

Preliminaries studies failed to link the Massacre’s wood with that found in any of Rubens’ panel. As well as being too late, the Massacre contains the wrong materials. A pigment, orpiment, that is found in no Rubens painting is present here. A second pigment, smalt, said to have been in use ‘mainly in the mid-seventeenth century’ and which seems only to be found in Rubens’ later works is also present. The orpiment yellow is anomalous not only in its presence but in its manner of application – it is mixed with lead tin yellow. Such a combination is said to be “unusual since it was considered unstable” and, even, to be a practice ‘not encountered in 17th century works’…Speaking of Rubens’ debt to classical sources, the anonymous author of the catalogue entry correctly concedes, ‘one of the background figures appears to derive from the Borghese Gladiator…[which] was not excavated until late in 1611’…”

The absence of under-drawing and pentimenti has been remarked in both works. No less anomalous is that both also betrayed an uncharacteristically stinting use of lead white pigment. Plesters, convinced at every turn that a Rubens ascription was beyond question, noted: “The striking feature of the composite X-radiograph is how comparatively sparingly and how subtly Rubens has used lead white, reserving the strongest touches for the brightest highlights and tapering the thickness of the white highlight to almost nothing. This system of painting which uses the light-coloured ground showing through thin translucent paint layers for the middle tones, particularly of flesh, is similar to that used by early Netherlandish painters who also used a chalk ground on oak panel.”

Where Plesters had attempted to explain the absence of underdrawing on the Samson and Delilah by claiming there had been no need to make any because the (anomalously complete) oil sketch for the painting had resolved all matters, in Sotheby’s reports it was more frankly acknowledged that such absences of under-drawing and pentimenti in the Massacre are consistent with pictures originating in Rubens’ workshop:

“…we can identify the use of minor but significant applications of paint to modify the outline and define the shape of the elements in the composition. These can be seen as strongly contrasting additions, frequently following the line of a limb or suchlike. Wadum [J] has effectively argued that these features represent Rubens’ studio control, and that he was in the habit of inspecting works before they left the workshop and making corrections.”

Clearly, had Rubens painted the Massacre with his customary perpetual revisions (as are to be seen on the Raising of the Cross), he would not have needed to make last-minute corrections with ‘brushstrokes of paint containing carbon black’ to his own work.

SCHOLARLY ACCOUNTABILITY

We asked in the 2002 Jackdaw: “Can it be right that we are all asked to take this leap of faith when the [five] experts, displaying a seeming ignorance of – or disregard for – so much germane material evidence, have yet to publish accounts of their verbal endorsements.”

Above, Fig. 26: The two copies made respectively of the original (and subsequently lost) Rubens Samson and Delilah in 1625-35 by Frans Francken (left), and in 1613 by Jacob Mathan (right) in both of which Rubens can be seen to have painted the whole of Samson’s right foot and space beyond.

Above, Fig. 27: Left, detail of the Frans Francken painting showing the original Rubens’ Samson and Delilah; right, the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, as exhibited in 1983 in its then new, post-restoration, frame and above a mock-up of the grand fireplace in Nicolaas Rockox’s house. The recorded positioning of Samson’s right foot in the Franken copy testifies to a compositionally taught bisecting of the picture on a descending diagonal. In contrast, the foot is not only cropped in the National Gallery picture, but it first wanders up the edge of the painting leaving a broken-looking leg.

Above, Fig. 28: The whole of Frans Francken’s copy of the original Rubens Samson Delilah enjoying pride of place in Nicolaas Rockox’s house.

Above, Fig. 29: Top left, detail of feet on Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross; top right, the cropped foot in the National Gallery Samson and Delilah; above, a Rubens chalk figure study for The Raising of the Cross showing how Rubens drew separately on the sheet a cropped leg.

The most visibly disturbing disqualification in the National Gallery picture – as Doxiadis, Harvey and Hopkinson immediately flagged in their 1992 Report – was the fact that the toes of Samson had been cut off at the edge of the painted area on the panel when both copyists of the original painting in Rockox’s house had recorded an intact foot set well away from the edge of the painting in a more reassuringly “Rubensesque” treatment.

The cropping in the National Gallery version is itself disqualifying on two counts. First, few painters have been more attentive to their depicted subjects’ digits than Rubens. When a foot was not included in a large swiftly drawn figure study, as above at Fig. 29, Rubens drew it separately on the sheet so as to have a record of the entire figure. Second, as we have examined previously, copyists frequently produce truncated versions of master works and the £49.5 million Massacre of the Innocents which is now in the Ontaria Museum is – just like the Samson and Delilah – a compositionally cut-down version of a larger composition that is found in a School of Rubens Massacre in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Belgium as seen below in Figs. 30 and 31.

Above, Fig. 30: Left, a detail of a Rubens School work in the Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium; centre, the former Jan van den Hoecke copy that became the £49.5 million Massacre of the Innocents and now lives in the Ontario Museum; right, the Francken copy of the (lost) original Rubens Samson and Delilah.

Above, Fig. 31: The left-hand sections showing the pair of murdered babies in the bottom left corner of two versions of Rubens’ Massacre – that in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium version, left, and, right, that in the cropped £49.5m Ontario Museum, former Jan van den Hoeke version.

On the fact of the 1980 and 2002 upgrades, must we now believe that Rubens had cropped the compositions and subjects in both his Samson and Delilah and his Massacre of the Innocents pictures so disturbingly as to prompt copyists of both works to expand the pictures to more comfortably and characteristically Rubens-like compositions?

How many allowances may be made, how many disqualifications disregarded, to uphold a single troubled attribution? In our experience, it is very often the case that when one thing is wrong with an attribution, everything else is.

Michael Daley, Director, 5 November 2021

POSTSCRIPT: On 12 November 2021, Eric Biétry-Rivierre reported in LE FIGARO (“A Salvator Mundi still record but less and less credible”):

For the Prado Museum, the most expensive painting in the world is not by Leonardo da Vinci. Rather, it is the work of an assistant or follower.
In the catalogue of this exhibition running until 23 January 2022 and relating to an old copy of The Mona Lisa which it preserves, the Prado does not attribute to Leonardo da Vinci the Salvator Mundi of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. According to the Madrid Museum, this version called “Cook” (named after a former owner because there are no fewer than 22 paintings in the world in the Leonardesque style and representing Christ in the manner of a God the Father) belongs to a close assistant or follower. This further darkens the episode of the highly marketed and hypermediatized sale, organized by Christie’s New York in 2017. And it justifies less the $ 450.3 million disbursed by Mohammed Bin Salman.
The curator Ana Gonzalez Mozo even suggests that a prototype made by the master may never have existed. As for which would be the oldest version, she leans towards another Salvator Mundi: the so-called “Ganay” version, also in private hands. Its pedigree, admittedly incomplete, being much less incomplete. It was already this oil painting that, although less beautiful and less well restored, had the preference of the specialists of the Louvre during the retrospective organized at the end of 2019 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the death of the master.
After much debate, hesitation, and even the publication of a scientific brochure validating the “Cook” was finally discarded, the “Ganay” completed its exceptional journey. And this not only because the Gulf panel painting was missing (MBS would have conditioned his loan to a hanging near Mona Lisa, which would, de facto, have “consecrated” the work as an authentic Leonardo).
The “Cook” version was also weakened by a recent documentary by Antoine Vitkine. In his Salvator Mundi: the astonishing case of the last Vinci, the main supporter among international “Leonardologists”, the Englishman Martin Kemp, appears less affirmative. As for Luke Syson, the present director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, who in 2011 was the unconditionally supportive curator/architect of the first public presentation of the work at the London National Gallery, he is more and more among peers who denounce his recklessness.
Bernd Lindemann is one of them. In another documentary on the Salvator Mundi, by Andreas Koefoed, Lindemann, director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, says: “It’s not the role of serious museums to present such a controversial painting.” Thus is the reputation of the great British museum damaged. This is bad at a time when its Samson and Delilah, bought at a golden price for a Rubens forty years ago is seriously questioned.

On 14 November 2021 The Times of Israel reported that the $450m Salvator Mundi has been deemed not a Leonardo:

“Sold for $450m to Saudi prince, ‘Salvator Mundi’”

“The Prado catalogue also contains an opening essay by Vincent Delieuvin curator of Paris’s Musée du Louvre’s 2019 retrospective of works by the artist. He discusses the Saudi-owned painting, referring to ‘details of surprisingly poor quality’. Delieuvin concluded, ‘It is to be hoped that a future permanent display of the work will allow it to be reanalyzed with greater objectivity’…”

The initial near-universal hyperbolic analysis has indeed been found wanting but Waldy and Bendy are not the only fleet of foot art critics. As Jacques Franck notes:

“This is interesting news indeed, but it is not how the real story ran when it started in 2016. Delieuvin, no less than Penny and Syson at the National Gallery, had been convinced all along that the Cook Salvator Mundi was by Leonardo, there can be no possible doubt about that. Aside from the strong support Delieuvin gave the painting on the occasion of the Leonardo exhibition he curated at the Italian Embassy in Paris in September 2016, he had long planned to include the work as the guest star in the blockbuster Leonardo show which he co-organised with curator Louis Frank at the Louvre in October 2019. This is testified by the first version of the catalogue which reproduced the Cook Salvator Mundi on the front cover, wherein one could read that it was attributed to Leonardo himself and had been listed as such at no. 157 in the show. That first version was junked for undisclosed reasons and the whole catalogue was reprinted. What is known is that the loan of the Saudi picture was not granted by the owner; that the picture was not exhibited; and, that the non-appearing picture was simply reproduced in the new catalogue as “Salvator Mundi version Cook”, fig. 103 bis, p. 303 thus meaning “studio work”. (See Fig. 32 below.) In December 2019, six weeks after the late October opening of the above-mentioned Leonardo exhibition, a book titled Léonard de Vinci. Le Salvator Mundi by Vincent Delieuvin (Louvre curator), Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud (both Louvre laboratory scientists) was put on sale in the Louvre’s bookshop and swiftly withdrawn. However, some copies or photocopies of the latter book have nevertheless circulated around the world and are now in the hands of many Leonardo scholars, like me. In that notoriously disappeared book, the authors concluded enthusiastically (p. 14) that the work had been shown by “decisive scientific tests” in 2018 to be by Leonardo. That is the true story and there exists no other”.

In the December 2021 Art Newspaper, Bendor Grosvenor, over-looking the annual Apollo magazine awards, complained of an absence of art world annual awards and launched a self-styled “Diary of an Art Historian awards”. Two especially rich items caught the eye. His book of the year award was given not to a book but to an online catalogue raisonné, which he contends “might not yet have the kudos of a book published by Yale priced at £150, but it will have a thousand times more readers, and just as impressive a legacy. (Readers might recall Grosvenor’s own recent unsuccessful joint bid with the dealer Philip Mould (who has a degree in art history) to replace the four specialist scholars-authored, Yale-published, 2004 catalogue raisonné Van Dyck A Complete catalogue of the Paintings – see Art-Trading, Connoisseurship and the Van Dyck Bonanza.) Richer still, perhaps, was Grosvenor’s award for “Auction Consignment of the Year to whoever had the imagination to capitalise on Leonardo-mania by buying a humdrum 20th-century copy of the Mona Lisa on eBay for £2,750 and swiftly consigning it to Sotheby’s Old Master Sale in London, where it made £378,000″ – a small beer hike compared with the conversion of a recent, repeatedly restored, one thousand-dollar wreck into the $450m pretendy and now-disappeared Leonardo Salvator Mundi. On the night of that notorious Christie’s, New York, sale Grosvenor swooned: “Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off – the best piece of marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN [Art History News] congratulates them all.”


Situating “La Bella Principessa’s” Eye

In today’s rolling connoisseurship crisis, the credibility stakes are higher with the unsold claimed Leonardo “La Bella Principessa” drawing than with the spectacularly sold but immediately disappeared $450 million Salvator Mundi painting.

Turning a $1,175 Salvator of 2005 into a record-breaking $450 million in 2017 was achieved with a work that is of its claimed Renaissance period and that is of Leonardo’s school. At issue is whether an unpublished badly damaged, much- restored school work with a couple of good passages (two folded fingers and a section of trompe l’oeil knot pattern) is an autograph Leonardo painting that served as a finished prototype for all other Leonardo school Salvator Mundi paintings.

With “La Bella Principessa” an upgrade is being attempted on a work that first emerged in 1998 without provenance and that was presented anonymously as 19th century German by Christie’s, New York, and sold for $22,850 to a dealer who divested it in 2007 for $19,000 to an art collector who reportedly keeps it in a Swiss Freeport. We propose below that “La Bella” bears the stamp of a singular 19th century school of academic art practice.

WHO DREW “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA”?

Above, Fig. 1: top, the eye of “La Bella Principessa”; centre, eyes drawn by Picasso, aged eleven; bottom, eyes drawn c. 1860 by Bernard-Romain Julien (1802-1871).

THE DISCOVERY OF THE SOLE PRE-1998 OWNER

In 2010 “La Bella’s” 1998 vendor, Jeanne Marchig, stepped from the shadows to sue Christie’s following press reports that fingerprint evidence had established Leonardo authorship and a value of $100/150 million. That claim was later discredited and dropped. Despite twelve years of assiduous searches by journalistic and art historical advocates, no record of the work predates its only known owner, Jeanne Marchig’s deceased artist/restorer husband, Giannino Marchig (1897–1983). Notwithstanding “La Bella’s” five-century provenance gap and stylistic incongruity advocates have declared it a 1496 portrait of Bianca Sforza. (See “Books on No-Hope Art Attributions”.)

“La Bella Principessa’s” stylistic disqualifications (above, Fig. 2, bottom right) coalesce in the drawing of the eye (above, top left) and against a bona fide Leonardo eye drawing (bottom left). That is, “La Bella’s” eye is constructed by straight-edged planar surfaces when every Leonardo eye was constructed with curves and curving surfaces in accord with anatomically-dictated surface shifts at the eye/cheek intersection (see Fig. 3 below).

Where “La Bella’s” eye could never have been drawn by Leonardo, it could have been made by many skilful artists trained during the late 19th or early 20th centuries when an emphatically linear/planar manner of drawing was widely imposed. Giannino Marchig’s (above) self-portrait and etched profile of a lady betray such stylistic indebtedness. As well as being “La Bella’s” only known/claimed owner – and one who reportedly declined to disclose to his wife from whom or when the drawing had been obtained – Marchig fits the classic forger’s profile by being a talented well-trained artist who after initial successes found himself professionally unfashionable; became a close friend of Bernard Berenson; worked as a restorer; grew inexplicably rich…

As previously noted, “La Bella’s” eye bears stylistic affinities with Cubist artists like Juan Gris (Fig. 3, above, left) and is anatomically incompatible with Leonardo’s drawn and painted eyes as instanced (above, centre) in La belle ferronnière in an infra-red image that discloses the preparatory drawing for the curving, thin lower eyelid; as painted by Leonardo; and, as copied in pencil by Ingres. The chronological sequence of Leonardo eyes above right (the Lady with an Ermine, La belle ferronnière, the Mona Lisa, and the St. John) shows Leonardo striving for an ever-greater softness of effect and nowhere constructing eyes with short straight lines and flat planes.

A NOTE ON THE FAILED-ARTISTS, RESTORERS AND ART FORGERS’ FRATERNITY:

Following the recent publication of Giannino Marchig’s self-portrait, a self-portrait, Fig. 4 above, left, has been attributed to Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), the forger and highly skilled author of the drawn illustration, above right. As Susan Grundy discussed here in 2016 (“A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”), van Meegeren took a discarded copy by an unknown artist and, by careful restoration and creative additions, turned it into an autograph “Frans Hals” which sold handsomely. Eric Hebborn trained as a medals-winning painter at the Royal Academy Schools in the 1950s before working in London’s West End as a restorer specialising in repairing large paint losses with seemingly continuous old and cracked paint. In his 1997 memoir Confessions of a Master Forger, Hebborn discloses that under the tutelage of his restorer-employer he so improved his knowledge of old techniques, materials and styles as to “become able to ‘restore’ a whole painting – from nothing at all.”

GIANNINO MARCHIG

Above, Fig. 5, details of van Meegeren’s and Marchig’s self portraits. Although Marchig seems to have left no memoir, he did restore a Leonardo school painting and his wife reportedly sold many other works through Christies, New York, presumably also anonymously. It is possible that Marchig made no forgeries. It is possible that he had, as has been claimed since 2010, bought the drawing in the 1950s when forged Renaissance Ladies-in-Profile were commonplace. It is possible that having so bought, he came to doubt the drawing’s authenticity (- on Jeanne Marchig’s testimony, he “restored” the drawing with his own pastels). It is possible that he had made the drawing on a piece of old vellum with “lettering and a little dragon” on the side that has been glued onto an old oak panel, not to sell but to assure himself as a classically trained artist and teacher at the Florence Academy that, had modernism not swept the board, he “could have been a contender”.

THE ROOTS OF A DISTINCTIVE CULT OF DEPICTION BY FRAGMENTARY SURFACE PLANES

Because Marchig’s ownership rests on unsupported and shifting hearsay, anything might be the case with “La Bella Principessa” but, as is stylistically evident in the two self-portrait details above, Marchig and van Meegeren adhered to straight-edged, planar analyses of form.

In the self-portrait details of ears at Fig. 6 above, we see a common predilection for planes and edges and the eschewing of curved lines and surfaces. In van Meegeren (left), three intersecting straight lines confer two sharp points on the lower ear, precisely in the manner of the two diagrammatic ears above that are encountered below at Fig. 8 on the instruction sheet for artists drawn by Charles Bargue in May 1878.

To this draughtsman, the human ear (as drawn for the above 2001 Independent profile portrait of the then President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe) presents an engaging formal/plastic challenge of complexly turning convexities and concavities in which straight lines and points of intersection make no appearance.

As mentioned, the pointy-eared diagrams at Fig. 6 are found on one of nearly two hundred sheets of dawn aids for art students from 1868 onwards that have been gathered in an invaluable 2003-2011 book above at Fig. 8 by Gerald M. Ackerman (in collaboration with the artist Graydon Parrish). It was felt in France during the late 1800s that shortcomings in art training might be corrected by placing better “models” of art before students who would then improve their drawing techniques and imbibe artistic good taste by copying exemplary lithographic drawings of sculptural casts, works of art and life drawings of male models. The national and international influence of the Charles Bargue (1826/27–1883) Jean-Léon Gèrôme Drawing Course (Cours de dessin) was immense. It spread to England and Spain. Van Gogh worked repeatedly through the plates and Picasso famously copied them.

CASTS’ WARS: EVALUATING THE JULIEN v BARGUE LEGACIES

There are two principal components of drawing: shapes and shading. Shape is best and most expeditiously made by line. Line is the principal agent of design being the most precise, accurate and swift tool in the graphic box. Shading is located within a design and can serve many roles. It can mimic the tonal values of colours. It can make surfaces advance or recede optically. Above all, by making gradations of tone from light to dark it can indicate depth and volume in forms or figures. (See Fig. 15.)

The Bargue-Gérôme drawing course was largely executed by Bargue (he drew the lithographs if not all of the prior charcoal drawings of casts) but it was not the first of its kind. A course had been published around 1860 by Bernard-Romain Julien (1802-1871), whose method is shown above left at Fig. 9, against the slightly later Bargue method, above right. Here we have a direct means of comparison in drawings of the same cast classical sculpture and, below, of the successive stages between line and line-with-shading.

Julien seizes the bull by the horns and fixes the shapes of forms immediately with curves and precision. Bargue splits the process into two conceptually discrete stages by depicting the cast first as a straight-edged mapping of “key” points and angles as at centre right, above. By so “abstracting complicated curvilinear outlines into straight lines and angles”, Bargue, as Gerald Ackerman puts it, is “making it something measurable”. Today’s key champions of Bargue (artists who adhere to the practice of accurately measured “sight-size” drawings) hold that an understanding of form will arise from such accurate and checkable (map-like) plotting of successive points and angles. While true to a degree, the practice generates an impoverished understanding of form – impoverished because it derives from an essentially pictorial exercise on a flat surface that is conducted from a rigorously fixed point in relation to the “model” when form exists in the round and offers infinitely changing aspects to a mobile viewer.

Bargue’s corpus is massively impressive and graphically brilliant but it confers an air of accuracy that may be spurious and it sometimes spawns slackly curvaceous outlines and lazily rounded shading that says little of internal structures (- see Fig. 22 below). Sometimes Bargue contrives a still-angular, facetted outline in his second-stage drawings and these impart a “cut-out photograph” quality, as on the entirely shaded life-cast of a young woman’s head as at Fig. 9, bottom.

On the Bargue v. Julien dichotomy, Ackerman holds: “In both, the drawing is excellent, tight and accurate. However, the proliferation of hatching in Julien’s example confuses the relationships of the various volumes of the face. Bargue works tonally, logically progressing from light to dark. The result is a greater range of value from black to white, providing more drama, unity and volume. It’s almost as if Julien were emphasizing the decorative aspects of the antique bust as opposed to Bargue’s stress on the sculptural qualities.” We take issue with this last claim.

Above, Fig. 10, Bargue’s sheet of a cast sculpture, “Faustine” (the Roman empress Faustina), here mirrored in alignment with the eye of “La Bella”, top left. Before addressing Ackerman’s reading, consider the relationships of the eyes of “La Bella” and van Megeeren’s self-portrait, top right, and with Bargue’s sketch and final shaded stage. By comparison with van Megeeren’s graphic subtlety, fluidity and richness, the author of “La Bella’s” eye seems trapped within the preliminary sketching vocabulary – as at bottom left in the first Bargue “plate of instruction”. Against Bargue’s second stage eye rendering, “La Bella” not only lacks tonal fluidity and coherence, it looks superimposed upon the uncertain forms of “La Bella’s” head.

The lower line and line/shaded sequence above at Fig. 11 by Julien is also of the Faustine cast, albeit from a different view and not showing the whole head. Ackerman suspects that Julien’s refined, linear neo-classical style incurred official disfavour and that its more elaborate stylized refinement might have been considered to make impractical models for the teaching of basic drawing skills. While such judgements may well have been the case we take Julien’s graphic qualities and legacy to have been significantly underestimated – and perhaps especially so with Picasso, as discussed below.

In general terms and with regard to working artists’ methods, it is a moot point whether prior sketching with exclusively straight lines is a necessary or helpful step towards the imperative end of drawing accurately with curved lines and contours. Why delay engagement with an essential skill by erecting a conceptually complicating two-stage graphic means, like a music teacher who advises pupils to get the notes right first and then put the expression in later? Bargue’s two-stage pedagogic model is nowhere found in working artists’ practices and we should not be intimidated by the sheer beauty and descriptive power of Julien’s Faustina. His subtle precisely curving lines confer not only great elegance of drawing and design but hard, precise, well-organised information and great sculptural clarity.

The three photo-inserts, above at Fig. 12, highlight the incompatibility of “La Bella’s” slightly wayward, downcast, sideways glancing, thick angular-lidded eye with either a true classical portrait’s eye, or those drawn by Leonardo.

At Fig. 13 above we see, left, Bargue’s second stage depiction of a cast of The Capitoline Ariadne, left, and Julien’s Faustina, right. This is a prime example of Bargue’s forceful graphic combination of crisply decisive shapes and a rich tonal spectrum of shading. In depicting the forms of the hair, Bargue seems to luxuriate in tonal variety for reasons more painterly than sculptural. His decoratively shaped discrete tonal values resemble Vermeer’s treatments of drapery, as above left. In contrast, Julien’s account of the hair is sculpturally pellucid. His shading escalates gently to a degree that supplements, not obscures, the precise linear description. Although only part-drawn, his head seems as crisply carved as a classical sculpture and as plastically coherent as a column capital through his scrupulously observed face and neck articulation. Julien’s lighter tonal notations perfectly capture the neck’s anatomical forms where Bargue’s heavier more uniform tones evoke an unfortunate rounded softness of a pig’s trotter.

PICASSO’S DUAL ENGAGEMENT

At Fig. 1, we contrasted “La Bella’s” masonry-like forms with two Julien sheet eyes copied by the eleven year-old Pablo Picasso and attached to that drawing a pair of Julien eyes that might have been taken as the young artist’s models were it not for the smooth transition from nose to eyebrow in the right-hand drawing where that transition was shown furrowed by Picasso. Further searching (- see Fig. 15 below) revealed that the particular Julien sheet Picasso had copied contained three line drawings of a woman’s left eye as seen in profile, in three-quarters view and head-on (and with three shaded versions of the same). Here above at Fig. 14 we place the eleven-year old’s eyes above a mirrored detail of the forty-year old Picasso’s pastel Head of a Woman made at Fontainebleu with superimposed details of Picasso’s 1921 pastel, Two Women with Hats and a 1683 engraving by Gerard Audran of Features of the Pythian Apollo.

Picasso had copied the Julien eyes under the guidance of his father at the Instituto da Guarda in La Coruña. His copy of the two eyes is, as Joan P. Uraneck noted in the August 2003 Burlington Magazine, (“Picasso’s ‘Two views of a left eye’, of 1892-93: a recent discovery”) one of seven surviving sheets the eleven-year old made – with four from Bargue. Uraneck sees a “remarkable resemblance” between Picasso’s juvenile copy of Julien eyes and his neo-classical work of the 1920s, and she reproduces one of the studies (above Fig. 15, top left) for Picasso’s Three women at the fountain. The main top image here is an ink transcription (made by this author as part of a suite of classical heads from antiquity onwards) of another of the Fontainebleu Picasso pastels, the Head of a Woman, Fondation Beyeler, Basel, which starred in the Frick Collection’s 2011 “Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921 exhibition”. At the time of drawing I had known nothing of Julien’s work but had been struck by the opacity in the eyes of Head of a Woman and especially so in comparison with eyes of a Graeco-Egyptian encaustic portrait a woman as below at Fig. 16. Today, that opacity is the more intriguing when we know of the astonishing vivacity of Julien’s eyes – as above and as in the bottom detail at Fig. 16. What we do not know is how many Julien sheets Picasso had seen and copied but given that he was being taught by his artist father we might safely assume that he had seen and produced appreciably more than seven such copies.

Uraneck’s discovery is intriguing: could Picasso have summoned the suite of monumental heads seen below (Fig. 17) in the Pushkin Museum’s invaluable photograph of Olga Picasso in the studio at Fontainebleu in 1921 without exposure to Julien’s fastidious intelligent studies? By the same token, had copying Bargue’s “analytical” first sketches (as with his Homer below) implanted a conceptual schema or template for a Cubist deconstruction/reconstruction of figures? Or, even: had Picasso’s simultaneous exposure to two powerful conflicted pedagogical programmes at a tender, highly susceptible age left him artistically like a dog between two bones – never fully able to decide which kind of artistic voice to adopt?

In Fig. 18 above, it might look at a casual glance as if the same drawing has been reproduced twice on differently coloured grounds. In fact, that on the left is Bargue’s second stage study of an antique torso and that on the right is a copy made by Picasso when only twelve. This drawing is sometimes cited as a proof that the young Picasso was able to draw as well as Raphael and had needed to learn how to throw off his classical manacles. Although Picasso has replicated Bargue’s disposition of dark, mid and light tones with great precocity and therefore seemingly succeeded in producing a striking copy of the “model” drawing before him, the drawing contains elementary errors.

Despite having the two states of Bargue before him, Picasso greatly exaggerated every subtle movement and shift of direction in the torso’s right-hand contour. In Fig 20 above we subject the two versions to identical simple checks on proportion and alignment and soon discover an accumulation of egregious errors. Picasso was not attentive to the “architecture” of the design or to the placement of the cast’s torso on the rectangular plinth which Bargue set on a slight diagonal that runs away from the viewer. Projecting the bottom left and top right edges of Bargue’s base (as with the blue lines) imparts a perspective in which the vanishing point gives a horizon line that crosses the torso at about one third of its height. Projecting the same edges in the Picasso copy sets the horizon at chest height. The dotted red central vertical line in the Bargue version shows subtle counter sways in the upper and lower parts of the torso that are broadly balanced and give a securely composed symmetry within the figure. Picasso, seemingly mesmerised by the seductively dramatic powers of shading, loses sight of the torso’s taught musculature and allows his own reading of too-large and too-soft forms to sway precariously to (our and his) right – and to bulge at the left hip. Michelangelo said that his compasses were in the eye. If at any stage Picasso had dropped a plumb-line in his mind’s eye from the point where the right arm parts company with the torso down towards the cast’s base he would have seen immediately how badly his figure was listing.

BENCHMARK DRAWINGS

Bargue had not invented the schema of a strongly outlined figure with one side brightly lit and the other heavily shaded. At Fig. 20 below stands one of the most graphically and sculpturally masterful combinations of line and tones ever to be dropped onto a sheet of paper – Benvenuto Cellini’s awesome Juno.

In 1980, some years after first encountering Cellini’s Juno, I paid homage to his graphic/sculptural dispositions in a section of a pen and ink drawing (“Male Chauvinist Pig and the Object of His Desire”) as above right at Fig. 21, albeit establishing the lit side not with a line but with a tonal distinction. In 1996 David Lee, then editor of the Art Review, challenged six people (John Ward RA; Michael Kenny RA; Timothy Clifford, then Director, National Galleries of Scotland; Oliver Berggruen, old master drawings dealer; Michael Daley, AWUK, and Leonard McComb RA, then Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools) to say in under two hundred words each of what Good Drawing consists. I pitched for technical drawing in part as a polemical antidote to then current art school practices (see below) on the firm conviction that participation in a short crash course in technical drawing would do more to improve standards of drawing than anything else. Technical drawings have to be clear, comprehensible, coherent and unambiguous because they trade in objectively verifiable facts. Such is their precision and authority that they can – and often do – form part of legal contracts.

Fast forward a century from the competing talents of Bargue and Julien to State art schools in Britain. By this time, insofar as drawing was encouraged or permitted, it was under the empty rubric “Mark Making” and its brain-dead twinned invitation to “Explore Marks” – as, for example, in this sadly characteristic art school directive:

“At the end of this project the student will be involved in drawing in a creative way and not consider it as a mechanical function carried out somewhere at the end of his hand. In this studio the project is devised to increase the student’s experience of drawn marks and of drawing techniques. To do this a varied selection of drawing implements are used, e. g. sponge, sticks, stones, finger, hand, hair, glass marbles, string, pencil, pen, brush, etc…e. g. Drawing with a glove on – with the glove filled with small stones – with the glove having two fingers knotted – with the glove filled with sand – with various kinds of gloves e. g. industrial gloves to supple cricket gloves…e. g. Drawing on a sheet placed on a board which is suspended from the ceiling by rope. Trying to draw a controlled mark on this swinging surface. Using the same board but having two students drawing, one on each side influencing each other’s marks…e. g. Drawing through visual restrictions: through glasses, glasses with dots painted on them – through smoked glass – with one eye covered – wearing a gas mask – with strings obstructing vision – with moving strings doing the same (using a hair dryer to blow the strings). Drawing in a dark room. Drawing with hand under water…e. g. Physical restrictions: with one arm tied to the shoulder using the mouth to hold the implement…etc. etc.”

Above, Fig. 22, one of Bargue’s weaker, more slackly drawn sheets.

In London, from the beginning of the Second World War, The Studio magazine published an extensive series of “How to draw…” books that channelled lessons derived from Bargue–Gèrôme, Julien and others in the simplest, most direct manner. In Fig. 23, above, a suite of introductory drawings is shown from Leonard W. Sharpe’s 1945 How to Draw Merchant Ships. Sharpe begins with a sermon on the marriage of technical necessities and poetry in ships: you must know the what and the why before you can appreciate ships and hope to draw them successfully. Sharpe’s first lesson was to understand the sheer (the curvature in side elevation) of a ship’s hull. To aid buoyancy in driving seas, the forward sheer needs to be greater than that of the after sheer – less lift is required against a sea that is following a vessel. The creation of this vital seaworthiness is not just a matter of maritime efficacy: “A good designer arranges the design of his ship…handsomely so as to ‘take the eye’…the hull is a combination of exceedingly graceful curves which could very well be described as ‘poetry in steel’, particularly when seen from the bow or quarter.” Sharpe, like Julien, assumes a novice draughtsman’s willingness to master curves. Until recently every ship in the world had been an orchestration of curves. To the sheer is added the flare at the bow “so that heaving waves are flung outwards instead of cascading in full force onto the deck”.

CLOTH EYES AND SCHOLARLY CLOSED SHOPS

Sharpe’s comments were underpinned by his drawn sketch demonstrations. As seen in Fig. 23 above, top, he made two drawings of a nominal hull to illustrate different types of shading. No one looking at the pair would likely suspect that Sharpe had been the author of only one of the drawings. Looking at the above two details of ink sketches that carry a bent female arm, how many would feel just as confidently that these are the work of the same artist (Rubens) working at the same time (c. 1610 and c. 1608-12, respectively) in the same medium (pen, ink, paper)? Both drawings were included as autograph in Julius Held’s canonical 1959 work Rubens – Selected Drawings. We catalogued a stream of alarm calls in September 2014 (“Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship”):

The arm on the left belongs to a supposed Rubens ink sketch for the painting of Samson and Delilah that is given to Rubens by the National Gallery even though a director of the gallery admitted that it does not look like any other of the many Rubens’s held. If by Rubens, this ink sketch would be the only one framed on the paper by an ink box that severs part of one of Samson’s feet – an anomaly in Rubens that is also found in the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting. Like “La Bella Principessa”, this drawing (which bears the inked initials “V.D.”) emerged only in the 20th century – 1926 – from a Dutch firm of antiquaries (a family member of whom was a graphic artist) when it was sold as a van Dyck. Contemporary copies of the (long-lost) original Rubens Samson and Delilah painting showed that Samson’s toes had not been cropped at the edge of the painting. The ink sketch had been authenticated by the esteemed Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard very shortly before he also authenticated the then recently discovered Samson and Delilah painting that is now in the National Gallery and is there paraded on the website as one of the Gallery’s “not-to-be-missed” paintings. In his 1930 certificate of authenticity for this painting, Burchard said the picture was in excellent condition and even retained its panel’s original back. Following a restoration at the National Gallery it was reported that the original back had disappeared sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century when the panel had been planed down to wafer thinness and glued onto a sheet of blockboard. As reported in our 2006 Journal No. 21, over sixty Burchard attributions had subsequently been down-graded in Corpus Rubenianum.

The second stage of the Bargue course consisted of his copies of exemplary, taste-conferring models found among great artists’ drawings. The stunning drawing above (detail) at Fig. 24 is by Bargue after a (now lost) drawing by Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905). Ackermann congratulates Bargue for replicating the character and manner of a great variety of artists. Of this (near-profile) drawing entitled A Roman Woman (Femme romaine) he observes:

“It is a wonder, displaying a marvellous balance between the observation of a realist and the ideals of a classicist. Bouguereau is more concerned with anatomy than some of the other masters. The bony appearance of her nose, the sunken eyes and cheeks, and the thickness of her neck are qualities he describes so accurately that it places the woman in her late forties, at not quite overripe maturity. The outline is elegantly, sensitively drawn by means of a line that continually changes its thickness or emphasis as it gives sensitivity to the nose and lips, strength to the chin, and fullness to the neck. The hair is complex without being detailed. In this drawing Bouguereau is an absolute master of the Academic realist drawing technique, a mixture of observation, knowledge and ideals.”

As with “La Bella”, in this (near-) profile portrait the eye has a downward cast, sideways glancing eye with a thick and facetted lower lid. Is it conceivable that Leonardo, in a single out-of-character work, should have anticipated a means of drawing encountered in one 19th century artist’s copy of another 19th century artist’s work?

HIGH STAKES

In our view, if the scholars who still hold that Leonardo made both of the eyes and both of the faces above (and at the same art historical moments) were to prevail, the parameters of the artist’s oeuvre would be so greatly elasticised as to undermine international art market credibility, which credibility has already been rocked by the recent spate of exposed fake modern and fake old master paintings.

Michael Daley, Director, 18 January 2020


Books on No-Hope Art Attributions

The latest addition to the fast-growing but least-estimable art book publishing genre – The Book of Art Attribution Advocacy – has finally arrived. It comes eight years late and on the second anniversary of Christie’s, New York, 15 November 2017 sale of the formerly attributed-Leonardo, Salvator Mundi picture – which disappeared the following day.

Fig. 1: The above book,Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi & the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts, constitutes the first official published account in support of the Salvator Mundi painting that was exhibited as an autograph Leonardo painting at the National Gallery in the 2011-12 exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” (see Fig. 10) and that was sold at Christie’s two years ago for $450 million. The authors are: Margaret Dalivalle, a provenance specialist; Martin Kemp, Professor Emeritus and Leonardo specialist; and, Robert Simon, a New York art dealer and one of the two original buyers of the Salvator Mundi in 2005. The book contains no contributions by those who examined the painting technically and worked on its successive restorations. In their introduction and in defence of these startling omissions, the authors liken their book to a three-act opera: “However it is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject. As with an opera having a grand and intricate plot, this book will consider three facets of the story, each in depth, while necessarily bypassing many ancillary issues.”

There is no mention of the catcalls it has elicited. A glance at the illustrations shows the book to carry a new mystery: there would now seem to have been an undisclosed restoration.

Above, Fig. 2: In this photo-spread, the first image shows the painting as illustrated by the auctioneers in 2005. The second image is said to show the picture as acquired by Robert Simon (and one other) at the auction. The restorer chosen by the new owners was Dianne Dwyer Modestini who worked on the painting in a number of restorations between 2005 and 2017. She has recalled (see Fig. 4) that when the painting was taken to her home in 2005 its surface was still sticky. The painting would thus seem to have been restored at some point after the sale catalogue was prepared and before it was taken to Modestini.

Above, Fig. 3: Simon Hewitt’s long-promised and compendious 2019 book (pp.352), Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom, is written in support of the attributing to Leonardo of a mixed media drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Martin Kemp – and which remains unsold in a Swiss freeport. Now said by Hewitt to have been drawn by Leonardo in 1496 from Bianca Sforza, the illegitimate daughter of “Il Moro”, the 7th Duke of Milan, this book demonstrates – but does not expressly acknowledge – that no record of such a drawing exists before its sale at Christie’s, New York, in 1998 when it was sold as early 19th century German for $22,850 to a New York dealer who sold it on to Peter Silverman in 2007 for $19,000. In 2008 Silverman introduced himself to Hewitt by jumping into his cab saying: “May have a story for you one day! I’ll let you know.” In 2009 Silverman summoned Hewitt to Paris and a facsimile of “La Bella Principessa”. Having taken it at first sight to be early 19th century German, Hewitt produced an article for the Antiques Trade Gazette headed “Is this the greatest art market discovery of the century”.

Above, Fig. 4: Although Dianne Dwyer Modestini’s 2018 memoir, Masterpieces, is not strictly-speaking a book of art attribution advocacy, it contains as an epilogue, a chapter on the Salvator Mundi. In it, Modestini reproduces the photograph of the Salvator Mundi as shown in Fig. 2 above, right, and she describes it as being “as I first saw it in 2005”. We report in the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 32 (p. 47) how Modestini further commented on the picture in Masterpieces:

“When the Salvator Mundi returned to New York in July 2017 ahead of Christie’s November 2017 sale…having been instructed ‘not to inform anyone’ when the painting was ‘delivered to the Conservation Center [of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where Modestini works as Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress program in Paintings Conservation] under guard and in great secrecy.’ Modestini writes approvingly of the fact that a deal brokered by Christie’s ahead of the sale whereby the vendor would receive at least $100million ‘was successfully kept under wraps’.”

For that late-stage re-restoration work in 2017, see Dalya Alberge, Mailonline, 22 December 2017, (“Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo da Vinci painting which became the world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in the last five years.”)

Above, Fig. 5: Although Martin Kemp’s 2018 Living with Leonardo is a professional lifetime memoir, he too includes chapters in support of the two Leonardo attributions he has championed – those of the Salvator Mundi and the mixed media drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa” that is owned by Peter Silverman – as seen above right. Kemp, like Hewitt, devotes much of his advocacy to attacking critics of the two attributions – including ArtWatch UK’s officers and associates.

Above, Fig.6: Kemp’s publishers, Thames and Hudson, asked to reproduce a four-part graphic (top) which we had published on 3 May 2016 (“Problems with “La Bella Principessa” – Part II: Authentication Crisis”) precisely to demonstrate why, on stylistic grounds, the eye of “La Bella Principessa” could not possibly have been drawn by Leonardo. A crucial part of our cross-linked visual comparisons was an eye from a 19th century sheet of demonstrations to art students on how best to sketch eyes with short, straight lines. When Kemp’s book was published it carried a three-part diagram as shown above and as if it were the four-part one we had published. In Kemp’s reduced graphic, the embarrassing testimony of the guide to students had been omitted.

Above, Figs. 7 and 8: In the top image we show the sheet that had carried the eye which Kemp dropped. In the second image above we show (top) instructions in one of the “How to draw…” books, a guide to students on the relative merits of drawing ducks with curving lines or straight lines. Below it we show an eye drawn by Leonardo, with curving lines, and the eye of “La Bella Principessa”, drawn with straight lines. (As it happens, the eye that Kemp declined to publish is used as the logo for a drawing school – Sight-Size.)

Above, Fig. 9: This book of 2012 is something of a rarity within the genre of advocacy books in that it is written not by a professional art historian or art critic but by the work’s owner. It makes a fascinating and instructive read. We learn from the horse’s mouth, exactly who approached whom and when in the attempted formation of a sufficiency of experts to constitute an art-market “consensus of support”. We learn how Silverman planned his own media campaign to introduce both the work and its assembled supporters to the world. Such inside disclosures and resulting cross-linked accounts of the campaigning, can become sources of friction. In his 2018 memoir Kemp takes Silverman to task in a number of respects. Firstly (p.152), in terms of how the championing of the attribution should best have been managed:

“I had already written an extended report for Peter Silverman – longer than a standard academic article, shorter than a book. What I had seen and what I was gleaning from my continuing research persuaded me to write a book with Pascal [Cotte of Lumière Technology – see Fig. 11]…We also decided to include a short chapter by fingerprint specialist Paul Biro, who compared the inky fingertip with likely Leonardo prints. Ideally, nothing more should have appeared before our book [Kemp and Cotte’s, at Fig. 11] was launched. I was very concerned that the piecemeal, erratic and sensationalized release of incomplete stories was proving prejudicial. Early in 2009 I circulated a strategy to Peter and his supporters proposing that the drawing should be ‘exposed to a wholly non-commercial venue at the same time as all the research data had been released in full.’ I emphasized that all the material in the planned book should be embargoed before its publication. This placed considerable demands on Peter’s uneven reserves of discretion and patience…”

With so much cross-linking of players mishaps can arise. Members of tightly-knit groups of advocates can come collectively to see all opposition not as differing viewpoints but as quasi-pathological manifestations of “hostility” from rival “gangs”. For example, Hewitt reports:

“On July 1 Peter Paul Biro alerted Kemp and Cotte that the next edition of the New Yorker would be running a ‘potentially prejudiced and cherry-picked article about me, my work and the drawing.’ The New Yorker, he pointed out, was ‘owned by Condé Nast, which in turn is owned by Si Newhouse – a major client of Christie’s.’ ‘Christie’s and their friends are getting as much as they can in the public domain rubbishing the portrait and those who have worked on it’ replied Kemp – who had assured the New Yorker that Biro’s work on the [“La Bella”] portrait was exemplary.’ David Grann’s 16,000 word article on July 12th implied Biro was sleazy and incompetent. When Biro [unsuccessfully] sued the New Yorker for libel, a Federal judge paid implicit tribute to Grann’s verbal craftiness – declaring that his article did not make express accusations against Biro, or suggest concrete conclusions about whether or not he is a fraud.” Kemp, too, discusses Biro in his memoir:

“The strategy I had outlined fell apart when the fingerprint became the explosive subject of international attention before our book was published. Paul Biro, working from his studio in Montreal, compared Pascal’s amplified image of the fingerprint with prints in Leonardo’s unfinished St Jerome in the Vatican. Paul identified a print in the St Jerome which he saw as showing eight points of resemblance with that on the vellum. The most characteristic part of a fingerprint is the complex whorl at the centre of each fleshy pad. This was not apparent [– was not present?] in the print on the portrait which was made by the very tip of a finger. Paul’s ‘eight characteristics’ would not have been enough to secure a criminal conviction, but they were suggestive [of what?] and supportive. I could more or less see what he was seeing, if I tried hard, and I was happy to accept that he possessed a more expert eye for such things. [And besides:] The fingerprint evidence was a small part of the total fabric of evidence I was building up. But a ‘Leonardo fingerprint’ is news; it has a ‘cops and robbers’ dimension. The story was broken in the Antiques Trade Gazette by Simon Hewitt, a journalist with whom Peter had developed a trusting relationship. On 12 October 2009 the Gazette announced:

“‘ATG correspondent SIMON HEWITT gains exclusive access to the evidence used to unveil what the world’s leading scholars say is the first major Leonardo da Vinci find for 100 years…ATG have had exclusive access to that scientific evidence and can reveal that it literally reveals the hand – and fingerprint –of the artist in the work. The fingerprint is ‘highly comparable’ with one in the Vatican’.”

Kemp went on to say: “David Grann threw a lot of unpleasant mud at Paul Biro.” He then threw some of his own: “The source of much of the mud was Theresa Franks, founder of the Fine Art Registry, who had developed a reputation as an effective and litigious polemicist about the vagaries of the art world…The New Yorker piece was hugely damaging for Paul – and for the portrait, because our limited use of his evidence was used to taint the whole of the case we were making.”

Kemp’s remarks on Hewitt’s journalistic prowess might have disappointed the journalist/author whose book begins:

“INTRODUCTION

Is this the greatest art discovery of the century?’

“That was the front-page headline [he reproduces the front-page] in Antiques Trade Gazette on 17 October 2009, placed above my story about the portrait…It was one of the biggest stories of my career and, in terms of internet hits, the biggest story ever covered by the respected, if slightly fusty, art market weekly I had served on as Paris correspondent since 1985…”

Another attribution, another “gang” of opponents… Hewitt adds: “What Kemp dubbed ‘the New York gang’ were ‘almost bound to be hostile in an act of closing ranks, since they all missed it.’” Yet another is the “Polish gang”. Under a heading “POLES APART” Hewitt writes:

“Soon after Leonardo’s portrait of Bianca Sforza had gone on show in Monza, Katarzyna Pisarek [books editor of the AWUK Journal] published a 17,000-word article in Artibus & Historiae – a twice yearly journal edited by her Polish compatriot Józef Grabski, whose advisory committee included the Metropolitan Museum’s Everett Fahy (cited by Richard Dorment as a ‘vehement opponent of the Leonardo attribution’)…Pisarek was aping her Communist-era compatriot Bogdan Horodski, a former director of the Polish National Library…Pisarek harped on about Peter Paul Biro’s ‘dubious’ fingerprint evidence, omitting to mention that this had been removed as inconclusive from the second edition of the Kemp Cotte book…”

Hewitt seemed not to grasp the full import of the fact that an entire chapter of the Kemp/Cotte book had been excised. He pursued his Polish Conspiracy slur: “ ‘Why was Pisarek ‘suddenly so concerned to address this portrait when she had no record as a Leonardo scholar?’ wondered Martin Kemp. He presumed it ‘resulted from a kind of Polish solidarity’…On November 29 Waldemar Januszczak [Sunday Times art critic and TV broadcaster] – born in England to Polish parents…” and so on. Kemp/Cotte had had very good professional reasons to disassociate themselves from Biro. Kemp puts it with some delicacy in his memoir but the urgency is clear: “It transpired that Paul had previously achieved some notoriety in the detection of a purported Jackson Pollock discovered by a truck driver in a thrift shop. This discovery had been chronicled in a 2006 TV documentary, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? Grann went on to tell a complex tale of Biro’s engagements with other Pollock authentications, in which the artist’s fingerprints appeared on paintings that were subsequently rejected by important Pollock scholars. It was alleged that Biro forged the Pollock fingerprints.”

In the first edition of the Kemp/Cotte book, the authors described the partial fingerprint as a full fingerprint in their introduction: “Following Lumière Technology’s discovery of a fingerprint and a handprint on the portrait, the authors turned to Peter Paul Biro, Director of Forensic Studies, Art and Access & Research, Montreal, to analyse this evidence in the context of what was known of Leonardo’s work…” And Kemp wrote (in his concluding chapter headed: “What constitutes proof?”): “…We have been able to detect extensive left-handed execution, not least in the layers below those we can see with our naked eye. Finger- and hand-prints have come to light in the way we have come to recognize as characteristic of Leonardo’s working methods. Indeed the isolated fingerprint near the left margin has strong if not conclusive evidential value that Leonardo himself touched the vellum.”

Above, Fig. 10: The catalogue to the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”. Normally such a scholarly publication would not become ensnared in attribution controversies because public galleries do not, on principle, include privately owned, unpublished and un-attributed works without provenances that are on the market, but it did so with the Salvator Mundi – even though the identity of the picture’s by-then three owners (one of whom had bought-in with a $10 million stake) was undisclosed. Also undisclosed was: the venue at which the picture had been bought; the price at which it had been purchased; the identities of the leading scholars who were supposed to have endorsed the Leonardo attribution. Crucially, the supporters included the National Gallery’s director, one of its trustees and the curator and organiser of the Leonardo exhibition. The catalogue entry described the work as an autograph Leonardo painted prototype for the many similar Leonardo school Salvators that exist. Its author, Luke Syson, wrote: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be presented in a forthcoming book.”

As mentioned above, that book has finally been published over eight years after the opening of the National Gallery exhibition and we now see that there are only three authors of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi & the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts: Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp and Robert Simon. Modestini and Gutman-Rieppi have been dropped. In Living with Leonardo, Martin Kemp discusses the failure of Peter Silverman to get “La Bella Principessa” included in the National Gallery exhibition – on the organisation of which he (Kemp) had, at one point, been under consideration as co-curator:

“Looking back over the different fortunes of the attribution of the Salvator Mundi and the portrait of Bianca Sforza, there are some clear lessons to be drawn. The first concerns how a work of art enters the scholarly and public domains. Robert quietly introduced the Salvator Mundi to a judicious selection of experts, who – remarkably, given the usual leakiness of the art world kept their counsel for three years. By the time the painting emerged in public, there was a critical mass of influential voices who would speak in the painting’s favour. By contrast a series of incontinent leaks to the press, as happened with the Bianca prejudices a work in the eyes of specialist commentators. I regret that I did not have more influence on when and how La Bella Principessa emerged…

“Ownership also plays its role. The owners of the Salvator played their hand cleverly, fostering the idea that they wanted to do right by Leonardo’s masterpiece and were interested in it entering a public collection. Peter Silverman, on the other hand, has become a conspicuous presence in the art world…he has what is conventionally called ‘a good eye’. I believe that his intuition about the portrait of Bianca Sforza will be vindicated in the longer term, but unfortunately his variable declarations about its ownership, even if well-intentioned, did not induce trust and made him vulnerable to media criticism.”

This was in pointed contrast to Kemp’s view of Robert Simon:

“…Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learnt learned was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts…All of the witnesses in the [National] gallery’s conservation studio were sworn to confidentiality, and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming ‘a Leonardo’.”

Above, Fig. 11: The 2010 edition of Leonardo da Vinci, “La Bella Principessa” The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman. Since 2014 we have reviewed this work in the following posts:

“Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper (sometimes photographic) Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye”

“Problems with ‘La Bella Principessa’ – Part I: The Look”

“Problems with ‘La Bella Principessa’ – Part II: Authentication Crisis”

“Problems with ‘La Bella Principessa’ – Part III: Dr. Pisarek responds to Prof. Kemp”

“Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts”

The day before the subsequently disappeared Salvator Mundi painting was sold at Christie’s, New York, we published a post explaining why the attribution was unsound and the provenance implausible:

“Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”

Weeks before the sale and before criticisms of the Salvator Mundi erupted in New York, we had spoken against the attribution in a Guardian interview – “Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting”

Michael Daley, Director, 15 November 2019


The non-appearing, disappeared, $450million, now officially not-Leonardo, Salvator Mundi

Where history is generally held to be the handiwork of victors, in the art world, losers are often quickest off the block to re-write official narratives. No sooner had the catastrophic restoration losses on the Sistine Chapel ceiling become apparent than Vatican Museum officials declared that art history would have to be re-written in light of their chemically-excavated discoveries. The art historical establishment that had underwritten the restoration’s untested technical radicalism obligingly rewrote Michelangelo (as a long-unsuspected brilliant colourist) in a score of learned articles. In Italy today that exercise might seem to have succeeded: every Italian school child now learns of the “Glorious Restoration”.

Rachel Spence, the Financial Times’ reviewer of the newly opened Louvre “not-a-blockbuster” blockbuster “Léonard de Vinci” exhibition, advised (26/27 October 2019): “Forget all the brouhaha around the ‘Salvator Mundi’ (it’s not here and shows no sign of arriving)…” How sweet that invitation not-to-address must have sounded to the Louvre authorities who had asked the day after the November 2017 sale at Christie’s, New York, to borrow the by then greatly-transformed work for their long-planned 2019 Leonardo anniversary extravaganza. That request was accompanied by one from the Royal Academy craving to include the work in their great Charles I Collection blockbuster exhibition. The 2017 sale’s outcome was taken by many of the Salvator Mundi’s advocates as an absolute validation of its post-2011 upgraded ascription.

Christie’s “unusually broad consensus” of scholarly support included Vincent Delieuvin, the co-author of the present Louvre “Léonard de Vinci” exhibition. In the 2016 catalogue to the exhibition “Leonardo in Francia – Léonard en France, 1516-2016” (Figs. 2 and 3 above), held at the Italian Embassy in Paris in September/November 2016, Delieuvin wrote, p. 286: “The composition [of Salai’s Christ in the Ambrosiana, Milan] is strikingly close to Salvator Mundi, whose autograph version seems retrieved now, unfortunately in very bad condition”. Thus, in their fig. 1 reference to the restored Cook version (shown at our Fig. 1, above right, in both its 2011-12 state at the National Gallery and its 2017 Christie’s sale state) the Louvre presented the picture as the supposedly “long-lost” autograph prototype painting for the many other Salvator Mundi versions – just as it had been claimed to be by the National Gallery, in the catalogue entry for its 2011-12 Leonardo blockbuster “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan”.

In the catalogue of the present Louvre Museum Leonardo exhibition, the (absent) Salvator Mundi is no longer attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, it is simply listed as: “Fig. 103 bis, Salvator Mundi, the Cook version, c. 1505-1515”. It is reproduced in colour (p, 305) but with no catalogue entry. A chapter (pp. 302-313) by Delieuvin is devoted to a Salvator Mundi composition that has traditionally been attributed to Leonardo, though unsupported by any contemporary archival document. In other words, the New York/Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi has reverted to being one anonymous Leonardesque painting among many “with no decisive arguments which could have let a consensus emerge [regarding the attribution to Leonardo] from the concerned specialists”. Christie’s once-vaunted “unusually broad consensus” is now no consensus at all!

Some today hold that the “brouhaha” was triggered not by the substantial and various opposition to the picture’s upgrading but by the startling auction price it achieved in 2017 ($450million). At the time of the sale, many held that the attributed picture’s astronomical sale price had crushed the work’s critics and few more so than the sometime old masters art dealer and auctioneer, Bendor Grosvenor, who gushed support for Christie’s decision to pull the Salvator Mundi away from the old masters’ sale so as to thwart the depressing effect of informed art trade “nay-sayers”:

“It’s 1 a m here in the UK and I’ve just witnessed the most extraordinary moment of auction drama at Christie’s New York (via Facebook live). Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi has sold for £400m hammer, or $450m with fees.

“The lot was first announced as ‘selling’ at $80m, which I presume represents the level of the guarantee. Bidding was then brisk to the high $100ms, before, to audible gasps in the room, the picture broke through the $200m mark. Thereafter it was a battle between two phone bidders. The winning bidder kept making unilateral bids way above the usual bidding increments. Their final gambit was to announce, with the bidding at $370m, that their next bid was $400m. This finally knocked the competition out, and – after 19 minutes – the hammer came down. Whoever it was evidently has some serious cash to burn.

“And so an Old Master painting has become the most expensive artwork ever sold. It will have completely overshadowed everything else in the sale. The next lot, a Basquiat (usually a high point for contemporary sales) bought in as the room buzzed with Leonardo chatter. Will the sale prompt people to now look anew at Old Masters? Maybe. It will surely end for good now the tired cliché that the Old Master market is dead.

“Some immediate thoughts. First, the guarantor has made a few quid, and deserves it – guaranteeing that picture at this stage in its history (post rediscovery, and in the midst of an ugly legal battle between the vendor and his agent) was quite a risk. Second, the vendor – Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev – has made about $180m. He’s in the midst of a legal battle with the person he bought the picture from, an art agent called Yves Bouvier, alleging that he was over-charged (it has been reported that Bouvier bought it from Sotheby’s for about $80m, and sold it to Rybolovlev for about $125m – allegedly). I’m not sure how that over-charging allegation plays out now.

“Third, Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly – the best piece of art marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN [Grosvenor’s Art History News website] congratulates them all.

“Finally, despite the fact that this picture enjoyed near universal endorsement from Leonardo scholars, and had a weight of other technical and historical evidence behind it, there was a tendency in many quarters to be sniffy about it. I found this puzzling – not just because (for what it’s worth) I believed in the picture myself – since the determination amongst some to criticise the picture was in inverse proportion to their art historical expertise. It sometimes seems that the more famous the artist, the more people assume they are an expert in them. And with Leonardo being the most famous of them all, the armchair connoisseurs have been having a field day these last few weeks.

“Anyway, I’m going to bed. What a ride. I was sure the picture would sell, but never imagined it would make this much. We must all now wonder where the picture is going to end up next.”

Two years later, when we, the Louvre, and everyone else, were still wondering where the picture might be, Grosvenor, in or out of his arm chair, suffered a reverse when his earlier television-launched Great Raphael Discovery bit the dust after professional examination at the National Gallery – as we observed in the 19 August 2019 Daily Telegraph:

In 2018 Professor Martin Kemp, a key member of the Scholarly Consensus was cooler on Christie’s choice of sale in his memoir Living with Leonardo:

“It was, however, a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 in a mega-auction of celebrity works of art from the modern era. [Some saw that as being apt in view of the picture’s extensive repainting.] The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.

“The price inched upwards from less than $100 million to $450 million, shattering the world record for a work of art. The result was cheered to the rafters. I was besieged by media requests for comment. Three weeks later reports that it had been purchased by one of two Saudi princes began to circulate, prompting Christie’s to announce that it had been acquired by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the remarkable new ‘world museum’, where it will join Leonardo’s La belle Ferronnière. A public home at last, I hope.”

The brouhaha should not be brushed aside. Too many urgent issues have arisen concerning, for example, the singular debate and scrutiny-avoiding means by which the supposedly solid consensus was assembled (- and, on this, see Ben Lewis’s The Last Leonardo), and the top-secret restoration work that was carried out at the Conservation Center of New York University’s prestigious Institute of Fine Arts, during which covert operation the drapery at the (true) left shoulder of Christ was transformed and simplified (Figs. 1 above and 7 below) immediately ahead of the pre-sale world marketing tour – as revealed in “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo da Vinci painting which became the world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for $340m has been retouched in the last five years”. While in truth we still don’t know the whole story or even the post-sale whereabouts of the picture, much of the recent ground is covered in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No 32, as sampled in Figs. 5-8 below. [AWUK Journals are distributed free to members. New members receive the previous two issues – presently as shown at Fig. 1 above. For membership application details please write to Membership at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com ]

Michael Daley, Director, 28 October 2019


The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Not “Pear-shaped” – Dead in the water

The attribution of the world’s most expensive painting – the $450 million Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi – has collapsed under the combined weights of two scholars’ findings and the picture’s own artistic and art historical implausibility. Having disappeared immediately after its world-record sale at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017, this Leonardo-in-hiding is also mired in allegations of a joint involvement in the sale by presidents Trump and Putin. The toxic proximity of those two heads of state is a matter of intense national political concern in the United States where high-level official investigations are underway – as are a number of legal actions concerning auction house buyer/seller conflicts of interest. As those disputes play out, we consider the workings of today’s art historical and art market interface.

THE ART CRITICAL CONTEXT

In the 1990s we claimed common failures of connoisseurship in bad restorations and misattributions but thought the latter less serious because potentially correctable. That distinction is dissolving as increasingly many upgrading attributions are made on the back of “improving” restoration transformations. Generally speaking, connoisseurship shortcomings are evident in failures to detect outright fake old masters and in too-ready acceptances of elevated restoration-enhanced school works. Purpose-made fakes are closely related in their fabrications to the painted “recoveries” of supposedly original authentic appearances on stripped-down pictures. (See “A Restorer’s Aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.) The fakery of artificially distressed new paint and false painted craquelure is common to routine restorations; to restoration-assisted upgrades; and, to outright fakes. On the additional, extraordinary rise of the “painted-in” insinuation of computer-generated virtual reality into old master pictures, see “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’” and Fig. 4 below.

Above, Fig. 2: Top row, the Metropolitan Museum’s Duccio Madonna and Child, as seen in 1904 and in 2004 (when sold for c. $50 million); above, the Leonardo Salvator Mundi as seen in c. 2005 and in 2017 (when sold for $450 million).

Above, Fig. 3: Top row, the present Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting as seen in 1912 and when sold in November 2017. Bottom row: as at the same dates but showing some intermediary restoration states.

Attributions, like restorations, are made in socio-cultural contexts. Here, we examine the marketing of the upgraded Salvator Mundi with reference to the marketing of a picture that had received a spectacular upgrading a century earlier – the Metropolitan Museum’s 2004 acquisition of a tiny Duccio Madonna and Child. In both cases we see elevations of studio works that had first emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and were converted through restorations into claimed major autograph works. In both cases, when viewed dispassionately and art critically, the upgraded works are seen to stand anomalous within their allotted oeuvres. In both cases, the elevations thwarted the articulation of potentially more fruitful and better informed art historical narratives.

In studying the two cases we encounter errors of connoisseurship that rest on plain failures to look; failures to discern; and failures to make use of the sharpest art critical tool in the connoisseur’s tool box – the humble photo-comparison. This methodological abstemiousness can seem wilful and perverse as much as neglectful – some disavow photo-testimony outright as a critical tool. In the visual arts, and with today’s greatly enhanced photographic means of reproduction and transmission, there can no excuse for advocates’ declining to provide visual demonstrations of claims made in support of attributions or restorations.

THE PROBLEMS OF SCHOLARLY ADVOCACY ON THE MARKET

Where once a respected scholar might have proposed an attribution in an academic journal or forum in anticipation of critical responses, today, at the high end of the art market, teams of professional supporters are assembled one-by-one behind the scenes prior to some Big Media Announcement of a “discovered” masterpiece. Within such procedures, successive scholars’ invitations to appraise works are inescapably compromised by awareness of already committed supporters. At a certain point of accumulated critical mass it can be felt a) tempting to join and/or b) professionally unwise to dissent openly. A sense can grow that nothing will be permitted to count as evidence against that which has been collectively endorsed, and that any opposition will incur a risk of being dubbed a “hostile” party. At the low end, the trade euphemism for the many restoration-enhanced upgrades is “a sleeper”.

RECENT ARTWATCH WARNINGS AND ENGAGEMENTS

ArtWatch warnings on the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo attribution: 1) On 11 November 2011 we pointed out (letter, the Times, Fig. 5 above) that the Salvator Mundi painting then on exhibition as a Leonardo at the National Gallery, and that is now the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture, lacked a sophisticated optical effect copied in 1650 by Wenceslaus Hollar from a painting then thought to be a Leonardo. 2) On 19 October 2017, nearly a month ahead of the 15 November sale of the Salvator Mundi at Christie’s, New York, we objected (in the Guardian) that the painting was inconsistent with Leonardo’s depictions of figures; that it lacked the sophisticated optical effects copied by Hollar; and, that there was insufficient evidence to support a Leonardo attribution. 3) On 14 November 2017, the day before the Salvator Mundi sale at Christie’s, New York, we warned that the provenances compiled by the National Gallery in 2011 and Christie’s in 2017 were unsupported, inflated and overly-reliant on then (and still) unpublished researches of one of the work’s first owners – see “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”.

CHRISTIE’S MARKETING OF A SALVATOR MUNDI AS A “MALE MONA LISA” AND AN EARLIER CASE

Above, top, Fig. 6: Left, Loïc Gouzer, co-chairman of Americas post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s stands next to “Untitled” by Jean-Michel Basquiat during a Christie’s, New York, press preview; right, the Salvator Mundi when sold as a Leonardo at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017 – the last time it was publicly seen. (It is presently rumoured to be in a Freeport storage depot in Switzerland.)

Gouzer, who is leaving Christie’s, had claimed: “Young people look at Leonardo the same way they look at Basquiat.”

The day after Christie’s 15 November 2017 sale of the $450million Salvator Mundi, Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observed that the “eye-popping” price was no surprise in a market where “speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value”.

Todd Levin, an art adviser, told the New York Times: “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.” (See “How Salvator Mundi became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction”.)

George Goldner, former chairman of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum, has said the allure of the Salvator Mundi “has nothing to do with art and everything to do with money,” and that “If you were to spend $450m on a rare car or diamond and put it on display, a lot of people would come to see it. If the Salvator Mundi had sold for $20m, nobody would go. Any painting that sells for $450m will attract crowds for a while. Then, all of a sudden, people won’t care anymore”.

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM DUCCIO MADONNA AND CHILD

Above, Fig. 7: Three views of the Metropolitan Museum’s Duccio Madonna and Child

Goldner is right of course – who queues now to see the Met’s famous “Duccio” (Fig. 7, above) which, like the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, emerged at the beginning of the 20th century with no history? The then recently restored Duccio had been launched by Berenson’s wife (Mary Logan) and a protégé (Frederick Mason Perkins) in 1904 at a time when Florence was “a factory of forgers”, according to Federico Zeri, and with modern wire nails embedded under its ancient and battered gilded gesso. By further coincidence, both pictures arrived at the beginning of this century after long absences (1949 to 2004 for the Met Duccio, 1958 to 2005 for what is now the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi-in-storage.)

In hindsight, the sale of the $50 million Duccio in 2004 served Christie’s as a model for that of the Salvator Mundi. The task in both cases was to market as an absolutely secure blue chip autograph old master, a work that had arrived very late in the historical day, without provenance, and from within a large group of related but artistically diverse pictures. Both works were successfully presented by Christie’s, on substantial expert authority, when, on a full art critical and documentary interrogation, neither can safely be so regarded.

Although we still cannot examine the Salvator Mundi’s unpublished technical literature, with the Duccio we can (thanks to earlier generous assistance from Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at the Met) examine that picture’s part-published technical literature and the under-reported means by which it had emerged from an antiques shop a century earlier and was, after restoration, instantly attributed to Duccio by its owner. As with the Salvator Mundi, there is no record of such a work having been produced by Duccio and no attempt has been made either to demonstrate that the Met picture was an original prototype for the many other versions of the type or to acknowledge the many historic variants themselves. Instead, five modern forgeries of the Berenson-upgraded Duccio are cited by Christiansen on grounds that they “testify to its prestige.”

THE MET DUCCIO CONTROVERSY LITERATURE:

The case for the Metropolitan Duccio has been put principally by Keith Christiansen in: the Fall 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (“Recent acquisitions”, p. 15 – “among the most important single acquisitions of the last two decades”); an October 2007 Apollo article, “The Metropolitan’s Duccio” – which was described as “the first full account”; the Summer 2008 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin – “Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting”; also in 2008, a special Met re-printed publication, Duccio and the Origins of Western Paintings.

The case against was put by Professor James Beck in the last chapter of his 2006 book From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, and by Michael Daley who, after corresponding with Christiansen over the attribution, published three articles in the Jackdaw magazine between November 2008 and March 2009: “GOOD BUY DUCCIO?”; “BUYER BEWARE”; “TOXIC ATTRIBUTIONS?”

FURTHER SALVATOR MUNDI AND MET DUCCIO CONNECTIONS: MARKETING THE ATTRIBUTIONS

As with the Salvator Mundi, Christie’s marketed the painting as a “Last Chance to Buy a Duccio”. Christiansen is listed by Christie’s as one of the Salvator Mundi’s supporters, as also is the Met’s chief picture restorer, Michael Gallagher, and as was Christiansen’s predecessor as paintings’ chairman, the late Everett Fahy.

When purchased, the Met Duccio had never been technically analysed. This long out-of-sight work was only subjected to technical analysis by the Met after acquisition and after challenges to its authenticity had been made by Beck and other scholars. As with the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, the subsequent technical examination reports were not published or made available to independent scholars.

GUSH, ACQUISITIONS, SUSCEPTIBLE VIEWERS, SYCOPHANCY AND ABSENCES OF “STYLE CRITICISM”

Like Robert Simon on the Salvator Mundi, Keith Christiansen is a life-long devotee of the artist in question. His accounts of the Met Duccio have inclined towards the rhapsodic while eschewing direct engagement with style criticism. He recalls being struck on his first (2004) encounter with the Duccio at Christie’s, London, that “Like a poem or a piece of music, a great work of art – even a very small one – it has the power to cast a spell over susceptible viewers, to draw them into the world of its creator. For a few moments we were silent, each of us registering our impressions… Ever since, almost forty years ago, I first stood before the Maestà in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena, I have been haunted by Duccio’s singular gift for suggesting an ineffable, sacred presence in his depictions of the Virgin and Child, and it is this quality that first struck me – except that in this small picture there is an intimacy in the relation of mother to child that is quite different from what one finds in the artist’s public altarpieces, and the face of the Virgin is touched by a haunting melancholy even more poignant than I remembered from his larger public paintings…I knew the picture from old black and white photographs in books on Sienese painting and the two principle monographs on Duccio and his followers…There are few works of art I longed to see more than this small but astonishing picture…[which] would have been at the top of anyone’s wish list for acquisition…”

With big acquisitions museums take hyperbole and heroising gush to be in institutional order. The Met Duccio was by far the museum’s costliest ever and for a while it sparked an ecstatically uncritical hysteria. A New York restorer/dealer, Marco Grassi, for example, likened the picture’s emergence to the discovery of a manuscript score for a Mozart quartet. The world had earlier missed the chance to see it, he wrote (New Criterion, February 2005), because it was “on its way to London to be offered for sale, privately, through Christie’s.” But then, the happiest of endings:

“The Stoclet Duccio – we can now proudly call it ‘the Metropolitan Duccio’ – is an astonishing achievement…the artist places the Virgin at a slight angle to the viewer, behind a fictive parapet. She gazes away from the Child into the distance while He playfully grasps at Her veil. One must appreciate that every aspect of this composition represents a departure from pre-existing convention. With these subtle changes, Duccio consciously developed an image of sublime tenderness and poignant humanity, almost an echo of the spiritual renewal that St. Francis of Assissi had wrought only a few decades earlier…If, adding ‘strength to strength’ is a judicious policy in building collections, then, with the addition of the Duccio, its rewards will be particularly bountiful for the Metropolitan…And so, the Metropolitan’s recent arrival now rules supreme in this exalted company, and surely this could not have happened were it not for the outstanding quality of the museum’s curatorial resources. Chief Curator Everett Fahy and Associate Curator Keith Christiansen of the Department of European Paintings, in addition to Laurence Kanter, Curator of the Lehman Collection, constitute, together, a particularly prestigious concentration of scholarly expertise in the field in earlier Italian painting. No other museum can boast of a more distinguished team. One suspects that they, more forcefully and convincingly than anyone, made the case for the Metropolitan’s prodigious expenditure, and their advocacy merits our gratitude and applause…”

The celebration of “every aspect a departure” within an oeuvre is an inherently problematic and art-critically dangerous intoxication.

HOW A DREAM WISH MATERIALISED

Above, Fig. 8: Left, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello contemplating the museum’s Duccio Madonna and Child (after its acquisition); centre, a fragment of an infra-red image of the painting, as published in Apollo in 2007; right, an x-ray of the framed Metropolitan Duccio panel, also as published in Apollo and showing the modern wire nails that no one had noticed or acknowledged.

Christiansen described how the Duccio picture was drawn to his attention in Danny Danziger’s (endlessly fascinating) 2007 Museum – Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“Nicholas Hall of Christie’s, with whom I have been friends for many years, phoned me up and said ‘I would like you to have lunch with me; there is something I’d like to show you.’ During the meal he slipped me a transparency, and I looked at it. It was a painting that had not been seen by any of the major Duccio specialists for fifty years…”

What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, Christiansen clearly thought: “…it had been in the Stoclet family and out of circulation. ‘Fantastic, how about the price? I asked. He told me. OK, I said, ‘I will deal with that later.’ And then we finished lunch.” Note, re frequently disparaging art world dismissals of photo-testimony, first, a curator had committed to the cause of a work he had never seen on sight of a single photograph; second, the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, would also become hooked on the painting through that photograph; third, that for over half a century, professionally-speaking, the picture’s Berenson-made attribution had been sustained on photo-testimony alone. Christiansen would later put it like this: “In 1949, [the then owner of the Duccio, the financier Adolfe] Stoclet and his wife died within a short time of each other. The collection was divided among their children, but access to it was increasingly difficult and there was even uncertainty as to whether the Duccio had been sold. The result was that a generation of scholars had to formulate their opinions on the basis of photographs, of which, fortunately, extremely good ones had long been available.”

THE CIRCUMSTANCES CONCERNING THE WITHDRAWAL FROM THE 2003 SIENA EXHIBITION

In Calvin Tomkins’ 11 July 2005 New Yorker article “The Missing Madonna”, it is said that the Met’s then head of European paintings, the late Everett Fahy, visited the Stoclets’ house in Brussels in 2002 to negotiate with of one the relatives for the Duccio’s loan (later rescinded) to the 2003 exhibition in Siena. Fahy may possibly have been the first scholar to see the painting in over fifty years. Tomkins reports Fahy saying that the picture “still hung then where it had always had, in Adolphe Stoclet’s private studio”. Christiansen later reported (Apollo 2007) that “Stoclet did not hang his gold ground pictures in this modern [Josef Hoffmann-designed house] setting but kept them in a large cupboard, taking them out, one by one, on Sunday afternoons or on the occasion of a visit of a guest such as Berenson.” Kenneth Clark had been the source of the cupboard storage claim. Fahy noted, “Everything the Stoclets collected was something you could put in your hand, small and precious”. Small, but not always precious. As Frances Vieta established (and Beck acknowledged in his 2006 connoisseurship book), Stoclet had owned two little Duccios, one of which proved to be a modern forgery in 1989. It, too, had been attributed to Duccio by Berenson’s protégé, Frederick Mason Perkins, who, along with Berenson’s wife, Mary Logan, had also upgraded the Met Duccio Madonna and Child, and two hugely expensive sculptures bought by Helen Frick that were also subsequently exposed as modern forgeries. Berenson himself had been taken in by half a dozen or so modern forgeries. The Cleveland Museum had been taken, too, but recovered when it identified modern wire nails and paints in a “Sano di Pietro” and declared it a fake. Before the Met picture had been first upgraded to Duccio by its owner, some had thought it a Sano di Pietro. The Cleveland Museum downgraded another Sano di Pietro to a school work when it – like the Met picture – was found to contain azurite not ultramarine. “With attributions”, Fahy held, “it’s not the number of people who agree with you, it’s the quality of their judgments.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi had, reportedly, been unsuccessfully offered to Christie’s in 2005.

The Met picture, having narrowly missed a public viewing in the 2003 Siena exhibition for Duccio and his followers, suffered further non-visibility when Christie’s put the newly-emerged work into a private sale among just three major museums: the dollar-rich Getty Museum, which had balked at the asking price; the Louvre, which was said to be working on getting the money for the (then and still not-disclosed) asking price; and the Metropolitan Museum. Under this private sale arrangement it is possible that barely more than a dozen experts had seen the painting before it was sold to the Met and thereafter was trumpeted as an unquestionably autograph seminal and revolutionary work in the history of Western painting – and all this, as mentioned, ahead of a technical examination. The avoidance of public scrutiny during the sale seems to have occurred by design, not accident. Calvin Tomkins, whose New Yorker disclosures have not, so far as we know, been challenged, added:

“Although the ‘Madonna and Child’ was well-known in art-historical circles as the only one of Duccio’s dozen or so surviving paintings to remain in private hands, its whereabouts had been uncertain since the death, in 1949, of its last registered owner, the Belgian collector Adolphe Stoclet. In fact the picture never left the Stoclet House in Brussels. Stoclet and his wife… had willed the house to their son, Jacques, whose widow held onto it until her death in 2001. Soon after that, her heirs, (four daughters) who are very high on anonymity, agreed to lend it to an important exhibition in Siena, Duccio and his school…a few weeks before the opening in 2003, the painting was withdrawn. This coincided with rumours of an impending sale, which turned out to be true.

“Although everyone involved in the transaction is bound by omertà, it is known that both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the principal auction houses, engaged in lengthy and fiercely competitive negotiations with the heirs, and Christie’s eventually won the prize. ‘The family was very keen that the painting go to a public museum or institution,’ according to Nicholas Hall, international director of Christie’s Old Masters department. This was one reason that the family decided upon a private ‘treaty’ sale, in which the auction house and the seller determine the price and then offer the work to selected potential buyers, rather than letting it take its chances at public auction; another reason was that a private sale is more private. ‘We got it by putting a significantly higher valuation on the painting than anyone else – by multiples – based on its being the last Duccio in private hands and its being so impeccably preserved,’ Hall told me. Hall himself never met the sellers. ‘The contract document must have been four inches thick, and it was the most rigidly controlled transaction I’ve ever been involved in,’ he said…”

CHRISTIE’S LAVISH PRESENTATION LITERATURE

Tomkins reported that, in addition to the transparency, Nicholas Hall had given Christiansen the “lavish presentation booklet that Christie’s had prepared for prospective buyers”. On whose imprimatur or on what scholarly authority had that booklet been prepared? How many people got to see it? When Christie’s auctioned the Salvator Mundi, the publicly-disseminated provenance was frankly acknowledged to have derived from the National Gallery’s 2011 catalogue entry; the restorer’s 2012 report; and, through their declared joint indebtedness, to the (still today) unpublished researches of one of the original 2005-2012 consortium of dealer/owners.

A COURTIER FLATTERS?

When Christiansen left his lunch with his old friend at Christies, he wondered what to do next about the tiny work he considered “probably the most important early Italian picture that could ever come on the market”. Should he call his director who was on vacation in Canada? He decided to wait: “and then I went into his office and said, ‘I am duty bound to show you this,’ and then I showed him the transparency. I casually said to him, ‘You know, Philippe, you deserve this picture. Tom Hoving had his [1970 $5.5 million Velazquez] Juan de Pareja, Rorimer had his Rembrandt [“Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for $2.3 million in 1961]; I don’t see why you shouldn’t have this towards the end of your career’.”

Christiansen continued (to Danziger): “My director fortunately is a person who loves old master paintings, who grew up with old master paintings and worked as a curator in this department and does not need to be told much. He was completely riveted by it. He asked me the price while he kept looking at it, and then he said, ‘I don’t see how we can get it…’ But that, I imagine, was also when the wheels began to turn in his head, because when I left, I thought there was a real possibility.” In the heady post-acquisition days of November 2004 Christiansen recalled to Carol Vogel in the New York Times that when the director was first shown the photograph “it took him about 30 seconds to say ‘We really have to have this’”.

At the same time, Tomkins had made clear why de Montebello might have gagged on the price. The Getty Museum (which has been bitten by fakes) had already turned it down: “reportedly, because of the price. This struck Christiansen as ironic because the price was so clearly predicated on the fifty-five million dollars that the Getty had agreed to pay, two years earlier, for Raphael’s small, perfectly preserved Madonna of the Pinks.” That little Raphael in the mint of condition had, like the even littler Met Duccio, lost its original back when, for some reason it was polished by its artist/restorer/dealer/smuggler owners. When the cradle was removed from the back of the by-then Met Duccio, it was found to have been scraped down to the bare wood, on which was written an ascription to…a member of Duccio’s school. Like the Salvator Mundi, the little Raphael was one of many versions of the subject – there are over fifty-five Madonna of the Pinks. James Beck remarked in his 2006 connoisseurship book: “I find it appropriate to claim, given the situation as has already been sketched, there is no chance whatever that the Northumberland painting is an original Raphael.” But for sure, within a couple of weeks of seeing the photograph, de Montebello, Christiansen and the Met’s chief restorer, Dorothy Mahon, flew to London to see the Madonna and Child armed with a magnifier and a UVF lamp to spot retouches.

BUY FIRST LOOK AFTERWARDS

The next morning, after a couple of hours of inspection at Christie’s in London with Christiansen and Mahon, de Montebello made a quick and high offer (without Board authorisation). It was immediately accepted by Christie’s but under the terms of this “private treaty sale” the picture could not be removed from Christie’s to undergo examinations at the Met and be presented to the Board’s Acquisitions Committee for appraisal and possible approval, as was customary. This was because, as Christiansen put it, “the picture wasn’t leaving Christie’s until the whole deal was finished”. Why so – and why accepted by the Met when such a huge sum was at stake? Had this condition been stipulated by owners who seemingly had developed cold feet about the picture being seen for the first time in over half a century in the context of a show on Duccio and his followers?

In his 1993 memoir Making the Mummies Dance Thomas Hoving recalled that when he went to Christie’s in London in 1970 (with the then head of restoration, Hubert von Sonnenberg, Everett Fahy, and a Board member, Ted Rousseau), the chairman of the auction house, Sir Peter Chance – “the very symbol of upper-class culture neatly folded around commerce” – explained “The condition’s perfect…the picture will not be cleaned up for the sale. Lord Radnor forbids it. He is also against anyone…examining it…scientifically. But no matter, we all matriculated into connoisseurs without all these fashionable instruments, if I may say so, Dr. von Sonnenberg.” (Hoving was bemused when Sir Peter put the price at “approaching the two million guinea mark” – a guinea being a pound, plus a shilling: “While Sotheby’s always conducted their sales in pounds, Christie’s favoured the more pretentious guinea.” In those days the joke was that at Christie’s gentlemen pretended to be salesmen while at Sotheby’s salesmen pretended to be gentlemen. In today’s globalised ownership-fluxing art world it might prove impossible to slide a cigarette paper between them.)

That Velazquez painting truly was one of the greatest portraits ever to come to market – and, in some part it was so because it had probably not been touched in a century and a half. When the Met staffers revisited the next day, von Sonnenberg held the picture against the window when the guard left the room and discovered that it had never been lined – hence the extraordinary vigour and sparkle of the brush work. As soon as Hoving and von Sonnenberg took possession it was sent secretly to Wildenstein’s – not to the Met itself – and there it went straight under the conservation chemical cosh on a claim of dirty varnish-removal but, in reality, in conformity with the museum’s imperious proprietary and aesthetic imperatives. (See “Discovered Predictions: Secrecy and Unaccountability at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York” and “Why is the Metropolitan Museum of Art afraid of public disclosures on its picture restorers’ cleaning materials?”) Even before it might become “The Metropolitan Velazquez” the portrait became a Met-treated painting and no one else at the museum, let alone its paying public, ever got to see the great masterpiece in its unadulterated state. To his credit Rorimer had earlier confessed (privately) to Alexander Eliot that the Met’s restorers had ruined its Rembrandts – and those poor paintings were not alone:

Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Details of the Met’s Goya portrait of the young Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga who died before he was eight years old. As seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).

In July 2005 Philippe de Montebello explained to Calvin Tomkins (New Yorker): “It’s the single most important purchase during my twenty-eight years as director – It’s my ‘Juan de Pareja’, it’s my ‘Aristotle.’” De Montebello later explained in the Summer 2008 Met Bulletin that he had moved so fast on an unexamined work because he felt authorised by:

“the assurance that comes from the trust I have learned to place in the curators and conservators of this great institution…As I held the picture in my hands, enraptured by its wonderful quality…I was treated all the while to Keith’s impassioned scholarship…it was particularly Keith’s precise and learned assessment of the picture that allowed me to consider the acquisition an imperative.”

(For a fuller account of de Montebello’s decision to buy, see CODA below.)

Immediately after spending nearly $50million on the unexamined Duccio at Christie’s in London, Christiansen, de Montebello and Mahon went to see the National Gallery’s Duccio triptych The Virgin and Child with Saints. Christiansen recalled (as reported in Danziger, 2007): “After about two hours at Christie’s we all walked down to the National Gallery where they have a very rare and beautiful Duccio triptych, which is simply marvellous – a touchstone of Duccio’s work – and we all felt that ‘ours’ was every bit as fine and in certain respects, more intimate and direct.” The following year, in a foreword to the 2008 Summer Met. Bulletin Christiansen elaborated:

“…we decided to walk the few blocks to the National Gallery, which owns a portable triptych by Duccio that has long been a cornerstone of its superb collection of early Italian paintings. The triptych is a work of extraordinary beauty and impeccable craftsmanship. Duccio struck a slightly different key than in the picture we had been examining, placing greater emphasis on the regal bearing of the Virgin. The motif of the Child playing with his mother’s veil is further developed, so that Christ unfurls a rich cascade of folds. But these enhancements came at the expense of the simple dignity and touching humanity of the small panel we had seen at Christie’s. In short, we felt that we had before us the opportunity of acquiring a painting that was on a par with one of Duccio’s most admired and best-preserved works, a painting that represented the artist at the very height of his powers.”

Michael Daley, Director, 6 February 2019

In Part II we consider why the Met team might have been advised to view the National Gallery Duccio triptych (and its dossiers) before visiting Christie’s and buying on the spot.

CODA:

Martin Gayford accompanied Philippe de Montebello on a walk around the Metropolitan Museum, as recorded in his 2014 book RENDEZ-VOUS WITH ART. In his chapter “The Case of the Duccio Madonna”, Gayford wrote: “We ended up sitting on a bench near perhaps Philippe’s most celebrated acquisition: a small exquisite Madonna and Child by the 14th century Sienese master, Duccio. It remains the most expensive single object ever purchased by the museum. So how, I asked, did he make the momentous decision to buy it?” De Montebello replied:

“When the Duccio was on offer, I had, as Director, to decide whether the picture was worth the huge sum I would have to raise to acquire it. To arrive at this decision, I had to wear several hats all at once: one of these was that of an informed art lover, the French ‘amateur’, and in that role focus on the seductive and lyrical lines, the harmony of the colours, the felicitous choreography of the hands and feet, the wonder of the human contact coincident with a certain respectful detachment in the depiction of figures, that are, after all divine. I also had to don my art historian’s hat and note that this Duccio was one of the very first pictures that mark the transition from medieval to Renaissance image making. It represented a key moment, a break from hieratic Byzantine models to a more gentle humanity.

“To be more specific, and it is more than just a recondite detail, look at how the parapet at the bottom connects the fictive, sacred world of the painting with temporal one of the viewer. This important observation – among others – was made by the curator Keith Christiansen as we were examining the picture in London. This led him to conclude that Duccio must have seen the Giotto frescoes in Assisi depicting the life of St. Fancis, where the illusionistic framework, including the parapet, relates the narrative scenes to the architecture of the church.

But Martin, you want to know the truth? All those considerations were largely irrelevant when the time came to decide whether to spend in the region of $45 million on the work. For this, I needed my museum director’s hat. The quantitative assessment had to be based on different criteria. First and foremost were the old-fashioned notions of quality, craft and skill. Did the work sing? Did it stop me in my tracks and did it then hold my attention? Was I reluctant to turn away from it too quickly?

“However, in my mind, the question of relative importance and quality was always pushing itself forward. That the work was beautiful and admirably well painted was not enough. It needed also to be very important, exceptional in every way, and extremely rare. If there had been three or four others similar to this one it would have meant that this picture should command a lower price.

“Then there was the question of what the price of this panel should be in comparison with one of the missing predella panels from Duccio’s Maestà in Siena were it to come up for sale. This is because the Madonna was and is a self-contained, independent and devotional image; it doesn’t belong to a larger work, the wholeness of it is part of its beauty and impact. The entire story is there in that one painting. That, too, added to its value.

“Then, as curators, we also needed to be concerned with the physicality of the work. After all, this object, which can be held in the hand, has weight and a certain thickness, and is vulnerable to the vagaries of time. Part of what drove me to buy the Duccio was the fact that for close to an hour I did hold it in my hands, that I did turn it around, looking at the back, sensing its weight, measuring its thickness. It had a corporeal reality that was almost, to use a paradox, mystical.

“No longer bound by image alone, as one would be when looking at a photograph – or even from a distance – I then focussed on the deep burn marks at the bottom of the frame, obviously made by votive candles, confirming that this was indeed a devotional picture. Just a few additional details resulted from close examination, not the least of which was that the picture was in impeccable condition, a rare thing when it comes to Trecento gold ground pictures, as most works have suffered greatly over time, mostly I’m afraid at the hands of restorers.

If you are a student of art, just think of the Jarves collection at Yale, where many of the pictures, early renaissance works, are now a near total ruin. We were also able to confirm that this was indeed not an incomplete work, a wing of a Diptych for example, there is a hole at the top indicating that the picture was hung from a hook.

“Then, of course, came the issues of the provenance or ownership history, an important preoccupation of art historians, for what it may reveal about the work. While it obviously began life as a devotional picture, made for an unknown patron, it eventually ended up in the hands of two major European collectors: Count Grigory Stroganoff at the end of the 19th century, and later the Belgian financier Adolphe Stoclet, in his Brussels house, which is a masterpiece of the Wiener Werkstätte. Also, the Duccio had been lent to the great Sienese exhibition of 1904 where it was highly praised; indeed one art historian Mary Logan (Bernard Berenson’s wife), deemed it the single finest work in the exhibition.

In addition, and not a minor factor in gauging the price, was the knowledge that there would most probably never be another Duccio for sale, as this was the only work of his known to exist outside of a museum. I also knew – which is why I made a quick and high offer – that the Louvre, the other major museum that did not have a Duccio, was after it as well and was going to make a real effort to buy it.

“So some competitive nerve was struck, and thus the need for pre-emptive action. While it may not have been conscious, I think that there is no question that a part of me wanted my institution to own that Duccio – over and above its importance to the proper representation of the development of Sienese art in the Trecento – simply to have it as yet another major work that would confirm the stature of the Met.

“At this point, the sum of all the above, which occurred in a rush of sensory and intellectual responses, led to an important psychological factor, which should not be underestimated in such cases: it is that of the curator/acquisitor experiencing what is a quasi-libidinal charge (you might even call it lust, albeit of a high order); the irrepressible need to win; to have taken the object of desire. You can’t get away from that. We are all human beings. Institutions are not just made of stone, glass and steel, they are run by people. It is absurd to try to maintain and project total objectivity.

“As a result of all these considerations, these thoughts, observations, calculations and feelings, as well as the confidence I gained from learned colleagues, the Met boasts this masterpiece of Trecento painting, while the Louvre, with its outstanding collection of Italian paintings, is still, and may forever be, lacking a Duccio. This actually saddens me, and I hope that a fine Duccio does turn up someday, from somewhere, and they can get it.”


How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-nowhere

If it’s not over in opera until the fat lady sings, it’s not over in art attributions until the paint dries and the provenance settles. In art historical disputes over the origins (provenances) or conditions (restorations) of art, the weight of academic study and curatorial politics has assumed a greater importance than the dwindling creative/technical expertise of living artists. That this imbalanced dynamic is culturally destabilising, can perfectly be seen in the Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga. Following a scholar’s recent re-attribution of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi to Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, dedicated supporters of the $450million painting are re-writing its provenance in the wake of a second scholar’s newly discovered documents. The painting itself has not been seen since it was sold at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017 and it is not clear when it might be seen again – the Louvre Abu Dhabi indefinitely postponed its planned launch of the painting a day ahead of a visit by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to mark the announcement of the museum’s programme of events for the next year.

The first question here is stark: Is the picture that was sold for nearly half a billion dollars an entirely autograph painting by Leonardo or a dressed-up school work? The second question is: Had a proper art historical case been made for this painting before it was exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery as a Leonardo? In our view, the latter had not happened, partly because no attempt had been made, and partly because on a reading of the available historical evidence, the Leonardo case could not be made. On the former question, the Vienna Times reported scholarly concerns on 17 September 2018 (“What Happened With the 450 Million Dollars Painting”):

“Is there anything wrong with the painting that was auctioned at the Christie’s New York in November 2017 for the world record price of 450 million dollars? Experts suspect that the image of Christ had been doctored before sale. When it was exhibited at the National Gallery London in 2011, there were some doubts: the pedantic Leonardo would never have painted the folds of the robe behind the glass ball, ignoring the refraction of the light. At the 2017 auction, the wrinkles suddenly looked ‘right’. In the magazine ‘Art’ the German specialist Prof. Frank Zöllner (62) [The author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings] wrote about Leonardo: ‘The question arises whether the restorers responded with a modification of the folds to the objections of the critics.’ So, a manipulation to seduce connoisseurs and drive up the price? Zöllner: ‘An absurdity, if that happened.'”

On the pre-sale re-restoration, see Dalya Alberge – “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years” – and our: “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

From the first this work has been soaked in mystery. Professor Martin Kemp discloses in his latest book Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond that it: “crossed Robert’s [Robert Simon] path in 2005 when it came up for sale at a regional auction house in Louisiana. Robert and his fellow New York art dealer Alexander Parrish, who had also noticed it, thought it might be a bit better than it superficially looked – without imagining that it might be the original. They decided to bid by proxy, and met with success, apparently acquiring it for less than $10,000, which at the time would have seemed like quite a high price.” “Apparently”? For how much? How had it been listed? Who sold it? When? Where? Many have searched and no one has found answers but this serially redone as-if-from-nowhere work has been sold twice already – with a different face of Christ each time – for a total of over half a billion dollars, first in a private sale by Sotheby’s in 2013, reportedly for $75-80 million to the owner of a string of free ports who immediately sold it on to a Russian oligarch for $127 million, and then, famously, by Christie’s, New York, for $450million in 2017. Did that initial opacity pass freely through the National Gallery and into the art market food chain? It might seem so: when the painting was taken to the National Gallery for a private viewing by a select group of experts, “All of the witnesses were sworn to confidentiality”, Kemp has disclosed, “and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming a Leonardo.” The invitation to view, appraise and perhaps authenticate flattered: “We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

Kemp believes that the National Gallery had not included another Leonardo attributed work he supports (the so-called “La Bella Principessa” drawing) in the 2011 Leonardo show because the curators did not accept its attribution and he now feels that that rejection had highlighted: “the rationale for the inclusion of the Salvator Mundi. Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’. All I knew at this stage was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not inquire further. I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to its ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership; and I assumed he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the painting was not actively on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit, they were happy to accept this assurance.”

Above, Fig. 1: Part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting (as shown on television) when it arrived in 2005 (still sticky from a previous restoration) at the New York studio of the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the screen grab of the 2005 state; centre, the picture as exhibited as an autograph Leonardo painting in 2011-12 at the National Gallery ; right, the picture as sold at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017 after further and recent restoration repainting.

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the head as in 2011-12 when at the National Gallery; right, the head in 2017 when sold at Christie’s, New York.

Above, Fig. 4: Left, the face as in 2011-12 at the National Gallery; right, the face as sold st Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Above, Fig. 5: Top, the eyes after cleaning but before any repainting; left, the face, as in 2011-12; right, the face, as in 2017.

Above, Fig. 6: Far left, the face, as in 2005; left, the face as 2007 after the panel had been repaired and cleaned; centre, the painting in 2008 when taken to London for a private viewing at the National Gallery; right, the face as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12; far right, the face as when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

GROWING THE PROVENANCE

We had warned ahead of the picture’s 15 November 2017 sale that the provenances compiled by the National Gallery in 2011 and Christie’s, New York, in 2017, were inflated and overly-reliant on the unpublished researches of one of the first consortium of owners (see “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”):

“…this work, now unequivocally described as a fully autograph Leonardo painting that is the artistic equal of the Mona Lisa, first materialised in 1900 when bought as by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini (- it was later taken to be a copy after Boltraffio). That purchase, and what followed immediately afterwards remained in the realm of verifiable facts until the painting went missing [after 1958] before reappearing in 2005. What was suggested to have happened before 1900 is speculation and/or contention. The first reference to such a Leonardo subject is in 1651. Christie’s provides the following provenance:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to
Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649), Greenwich;
Commonwealth Sale, as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30- 00- 00’, presented, 23 October 1651, as part of the Sixth Dividend to
Captain John Stone (1620-1667), leader of the Sixth Dividend of creditors, until 1660, when it was returned with other works upon the Restoration to
King Charles II of England (1630-1685), Whitehall, and probably by inheritance to his brother King James II of England (1633-1701), Whitehall, from which probably removed by
Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), or her future son-in-law, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721), and probably by descent to his illegitimate son
Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, 1st Bt. (c. 1706-1774); John Prestage, London, 24 February 1763, lot 53, as ‘L. Da. Vinci A head of our Saviour’ (£2.10).
Sir [John] Charles Robinson (1824-1913), as Bernardino Luini; by whom sold in 1900 to
Sir Francis Cook, 1st Bt. (1817-1901), Doughty House, Richmond, and by descent through
Sir Frederick [Lucas] Cook, 2nd Bt. (1844-1920), Doughty House, Richmond, and
Sir Herbert [Frederick] Cook, 3rd Bt. (1868-1939), Doughty House, Richmond, as ‘Free copy after Boltraffio’ and later ‘Milanese School’, to
Sir Francis [Ferdinand Maurice] Cook, 4th Bt. (1907-1978); his sale, Sotheby’s, London, 25 June 1958, lot 40, as ‘Boltraffio’ (£45 to Kuntz).
Private collection, United States.
Robert Simon, New York.
Private sale, Sotheby’s, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Pre-Lot Text
Property from a Private European Collection

“Thus, from a claimed execution either before or after 1500 (the supporters are divided on a possible position within Leonardo’s oeuvre) it is said to have passed through four centuries via a ‘(Possibly) Commissioned’; ‘Possibly by descent’; ‘by whom possibly brought to England’; ‘probably by inheritance’; ‘from which probably removed’; ‘and probably by descent’ to 1900. It then took a further 111 years for this work to gain accreditation as a Leonardo when it was included in the National Gallery’s special exhibition Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan after a long and highly problematic restoration.” Emphases added.

On 2 February 2018, in “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is”, we held the National Gallery’s 2011 provenance to have been similarly problematic:

“This Leonardo ascription has been made on almost no published scholarship. It rests on a largely unstated and, therefore, unexamined art critical case. Apart from the restorer’s report and the National Gallery exhibition catalogue’s entry by its curator, Luke Syson, almost nothing, so far as we know, has been published in support of this Leonardo. Christie’s lot essay appealed to the authority of the unpublished researches of one of the original owners, Dr Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, and to [the restorer] Diane Dwyer Modestini’s and Syson’s accounts when they, too, both acknowledged indebtedness to the researches of Simon. After twelve years, serial restorations and two sales at a combined total of over half a billion dollars, those researches have yet to be published… Luke Syson writes:

“‘The re-emergence of this picture, cleaned and restored to reveal an autograph work by Leonardo, therefore comes as an extraordinary surprise’ but, he adds, of Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraved testimony: ‘None of this, of course, is evidence for the picture’s autograph status. After all, the pictures by pupils copying Leonardo’s design may sometimes have been rather good, and one such might easily have been owned by Henrietta Maria.’ Quite so, and in view of Jacques Franck’s account [that Leonardo had not painted a prototype Salvator Mundi because he was otherwise engaged and devolving painting to his studio – see below] … that very possibility, as advanced by Ludwig Heydenreich, is the first mountain that any autograph Leonardo Salvator Mundi aspirant must be seen to have scaled. It is now six years since Syson alerted us that ‘This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others’ but he gave little indication of any corroborative evidence being to hand. It would sometimes seem that Simon’s researches on the New York candidate echo or adapt the extensive researches earlier conducted by Joanne Snow-Smith in her support of the unsuccessful Paris candidate, the so-called de Ganay Salvator Mundi. If Syson should prove to have been a dutiful student of Simon we might be in for a daisy-chain of hypotheses in which awkward and peculiar features are advanced as material corroborations with rhetorical flourishes. Syson ends his account thusly:

“’Snow-Smith has shown that King Louis XII and his consort, Anne of Brittany, were particularly devoted to Christ as Salvator Mundi, and that they could connect this cult with the Mandylion of Edessa twice-over we now see. Given the date – around 1500 – of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings [only two sheets of drapery studies, one of which is thought not to be entirely autograph], the style of the picture and its association with a French princess [Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria], Louis and Anne become the most likely patrons for Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, probably commissioning the work soon after the conquest of Milan and Genoa. This would therefore be one of the French commissions mentioned by Fra Pietro da Novellara. And it was perhaps to accommodate their wishes that Leonardo based Christ’s features, the set of the eyes, the heavy lower lids, and especially his smoothly arched eyebrows [sic] down into a long nose, on the Christ of the Mandylion of Edessa.’”

“How can you extract a ‘would therefore be’ from a ‘could’, a ‘most likely’, and a ‘probably’? In lieu of a single hard shiny fact, we are offered a forest of fancies, maybes, perhaps’s and scholarly borrowings.” Emphases added.

THE FRA PIETRO DA NOVELLARA CONNECTION

When Luke Syson claimed that the now-Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi had “therefore been” one of the French commissions by King Louis XII and his consort mentioned by Fra Pietro da Novellara he risked readers confounding his “therefore” with a proof rather than a contention. In a footnote, Syson cites paintings (of only recent provenances) that “must also” have derived from this Royal commission. One, the Young Christ by Marco d’Oggiono in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, is discussed below at Fig. 14. On the precise testimony of Fra Pietro da Novellara, see Jacques Franck, below.

ALL CHANGE

When the Leonardo scholar Matthew Landrus recently contended that most of the upgraded Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini (the very artist under whose name the secure provenance began in 1900 – see “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting” and “Salvator Mundi: Why Bernardinino Luini should be back in the frame”) he was disparaged by his former teacher, Martin Kemp, at the Edinburgh Festival, and on CNN, who reported:

“Others are in less doubt. Curator of Italian Paintings at London’s National Gallery [sic], Martin Kemp, sent the following statement to CNN Style by email: ‘The book I am publishing in 2019 with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle (…) will present a conclusive body of evidence that the Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece by Leonardo. In the meantime I am not addressing ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price.’”

Kemp’s disinclination to address “ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price” marked a change of policy and showed a touch of humbug. Last year, immediately ahead of the sale that produced the astronomical price of the Salvator Mundi, Kemp engaged polemically with those who rejected the picture’s Leonardo attribution: “I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.” As for the long-forthcoming Book That Will Answer All Doubters, its co-authors failed to meet a Yale University Press deadline to publish in time for the 2011-12 National Gallery Leonardo show, in part, Kemp now discloses, because “I was unconvinced that all the authors actually had anything to say.”

THE JEREMY WOOD WALPOLE SOCIETY FINDINGS

Certain discoveries in Jeremy Wood’s Walpole Society article “Buying and Selling Art in Venice, London and Antwerp… c.1637-52” have thrown the earlier Salvator Mundi provenances of the National Gallery and Christie’s, New York, into question. Because so much credence is (rightly) attached to documentation, the sudden discovery of a parallel never-seen but documented ghost painting has undermined official accounts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture’s history. Within a single country at the same historical moment there are now two records of a Leonardo painting in the Collection of Charles I and two records of a Leonardo Salvator Mundi painting in the (nearby) Hamilton collection. With the Charles I collection, the first record is in the 1649 inventory of Charles I’s possessions drawn up in the year of his death. It is not of a Christ as Salvator Mundi but was recorded simply as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo’ when sold in 1651. It tells us that Charles I had had a painting of that description but not when or how it had been acquired. The second and later record of 1666, as disclosed in Martin Kemp’s new book, is a work in the numbered list of the “King’s Closet” in Whitehall and “featured as number 311: ‘Leonard De Vince O.r Savio.r w.th a gloabe in one hand & holding up y.e other’.” Today, thanks to Wood’s researches those two records are balanced by the discovery that a ‘Christ with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’ was in the Chelsea home of James, 3rd Marquis, later 1st Duke of Hamilton, between 1638 and 1641. A second record further testifies to a Salvator Mundi in the Hamilton collection in 1643, as is discussed below.

The four records of two Salvator Mundis attributed to Leonardo in two important collections might be taken to show that two Leonardo Salvator Mundis co-existed in England at that time. But records of two Leonardo Christs cannot safely be taken to confirm that two Leonardo paintings of Christ were present in England. Nor need it mean that one painting was a Leonardo and the other not – they might both have been misattributed. Max Friedlander warned that “The inventories of princely galleries – such as those of Margaret of Austria, Vicereine of the Netherlands, or of King Charles I of England…are to be utilized sceptically and to be taken seriously only to the extent that facts derived from style criticism do not contradict them.”

LEONARDO HAD NO TIME TO PAINT

In part the destabilisation stems from an emerging contrast between the unexpected abundance of records in mid-seventeenth century England of an attributed Leonardo picture and the complete absence in early sixteenth century Italy of any record or mention of a Leonardo Salvator Mundi. Not only is there no documentary record of Leonardo ever having painted a Salvator Mundi prototype, in material/visual terms, there are no characteristically faithful copies of the kind executed from such autograph Leonardo paintings as the Mona Lisa and The Virgin and St. Anne. The day before the 15 November 2017 sale at Christie’s, New York, we contrasted that marked absence of copies with the plethora of variants (more than twenty) of a Leonardesque Salvator Mundi – all of which seemingly derive from little more than a couple of drapery studies that have been attributed to Leonardo. This might all indicate, as Heydenreich had concluded after a most exhaustive study, that while Leonardo – a notoriously fastidious and slow artist – had made drawings for his school, he had not painted a Salvator Mundi. We reported then that Jacques Franck, the expert of Leonardo’s painting techniques and a restoration adviser to the Louvre, had noted that the logistics of Leonardo’s life at the time were known to have made painting all but impossible:

“By 1500 onwards, the period in which the painted panel is said to have been executed, for want of time Leonardo produced few works. Fra Pietro da Novellara, who visited his studio in April 1501, reported: ‘His mathematical researches have so much distracted him that he can’t stand the brush’, and, he added, ‘Two of his pupils make copies to which he adds some touches from time to time’. In 1501, he was commissioned to produce a ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ by Florimond Robertet (the French King Louis XII’s secretary) at the time when he was already creating both the major group ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’ and the phenomenally accomplished ‘Mona Lisa’. Both panels were seen during their executions in October 1503 by Agostino Vespucci, an assistant of Machiavelli at the Signoria in Florence but he, too, made no reference to a Salvator Mundi. Giorgio Vasari says of the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ execution that Leonardo, as a meticulous and slow-working painter had ‘toiled over it for four years’. Between May and August 1502 until early 1503 Leonardo was committed with Cesare Borgia as an architect and general engineer in the Marches and Romagna. He was then fully employed by the City of Florence during the Summer of 1503 as a military architect and, two or three months later, he worked fully on the commission of a huge mural (the now destroyed ‘Battle of Anghiari’) until late May 1506, before travelling between Florence and Milan up to mid 1508, because of his appointment as painter and engineer to the French King while serving Charles II d’Amboise, the new governor of Milan. Because of such taxing commitments – and all of the above were in addition to his intense scientific researches and literary activities – Leonardo increasingly resorted to workshop productions from 1500 onwards. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ must, of necessity, be thought to be one of those works and, given the preceding it is very likely that a fully original version never existed.”

That was then. Franck was speaking from memory. He has now revisited the source and adds:

“Novellara’s text says (letter to Isabella d’Este of 14 April 1501): “…if he could free himself from his obligation to His Majesty the King of France without disgrace, as he hopes to do within a month at the most, he would be ever so ready to serve your Excellency more than anyone else in the world” (“…se si potea spiccare da la maestà del Re di Franza senza sua disgrazia, como sperava, a la più longa fra meso uno, servirebbe più presto Vostra Excellentia che persona al mondo”). In the two letters written by Fra Pietro to Isabella on the 3rd and 14th April 1501, this is the only mention regarding Leonardo’s commitment with the French King. No mention that the “obligation to the King” in question is a painting. The other French commission described very precisely by Isabella’s emissary in Florence is the small devotional Madonna painted for Florimond Robertet, the King’s secretary (the Madonna of the Yarnwinder). But it wasn’t a royal commission. Another painting described in this famous correspondence is the Saint Anne in its preliminary graphic stage (cartoon): Novellara does not say who commissioned it. In other words, no hint about a Salvator Mundi, even as a possibility, to be connected to Louis XII and Anne of Brittany in Novellara’s above-mentioned letters.”

AN ATTEMPTED PROVENANCE SWITCH

The response of the supporters of the Abu Dhabi painting to Jeremy Wood’s disclosure of twin records of a rival candidate painting of a Christ with a globe in the Hamilton collection is concerning. Margaret Dalivalle, a former Martin Kemp student who has been conducting provenance research for some years on the Abu Dhabi picture, seems to have been the first properly to spot the potentially game-changing significance of Wood’s research findings. Alison Cole, the editor of the Art Newspaper, reported on 30 August (- “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi: expert uncovers ‘exciting’ new evidence”) that Dalivalle finds Wood’s discovery of the Hamilton picture “exciting” and says “I immediately recognised the significance of one item hanging in the Lower Gallery: ‘Christ: with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’”.

However, before any open scholarly discussions and evaluations of the two now-rival recorded candidates have taken place, Dalivalle has placed this reading on that most significant finding:

“The painting was in a collection closely, almost incestuously, related to the Royal Collection; the king, according to a document of 18 October 1638, expressly wished to have the pick of paintings bought by Hamilton in Venice, threatening the imposition of customs duty, and the king and queen’s predilection for Leonardo is documented. Therefore, I consider there is a strong possibility that this painting was seen at Chelsea House and chosen by the king at some point between 1638 and 1641, finding its way to the queen’s apartments at Greenwich.”

Thus, the Hamilton picture would now find itself located in the royal collection as an earlier incarnation of what is held to be the Abu Dhabi Leonardo picture. In the absence of any visual records such a switch might be thought plausible on circumstantial grounds but the suggestion is made against the testimony of another Wood document that makes clear that the painting could not have been purloined by Charles I between 1638 and 1641.

THE WOOD/HAMILTON DOCUMENTS

Pace Dalivalle’s reading of the earlier document, Wood discloses that in 1643 Hamilton’s collection was crated in order to be sent to Scotland. The move was blocked in Parliament but one case contained a “Christ Holding up his two fingers.” A Christ with two fingers held up in blessing testifies no less to a Christ as Salvator Mundi than does a Christ with a globe. That the picture was in Hamilton’s possession as late as 1643 makes a subsequent transfer to the royal collection greatly less likely: the following year the Queen (Henrietta Maria) and the copyist Wenceslaus Hollar both fled to Antwerp. Was Charles I seizing paintings at that turbulent moment – even assuming that the Hamilton pictures had been un-crated? In any event, we have a doubly confirmed Hamilton Salvator Mundi in 1643 – just six years before the first record of a Leonardo in the Charles I collection. Either two attributed Leonardos ran in parallel or the Hamilton picture was snatched for the royal collection shortly before the execution of Charles I. Because there is no record of a switch between 1643 and 1649 does not, of course, mean that it could not have taken place but much hangs on the question.

While leaving the question open, Alison Cole has pointed out (re Hollar’s 1650 copy of a Salvator Mundi) that there is another possibility:

“Wood and Dalivalle have also discussed other possible hypotheses… After James Hamilton’s execution in 1649, his brother, the 2nd Duke, transported a large portion of his collection to the Netherlands to be sold. Could Hamilton’s Salvator Mundi have been part of this consignment, and could this explain the “how and the why” Hollar etched it “from the original” in Antwerp at that precise time? (Indeed, in 1649 and 1650, Hollar made a number of etchings after Italian paintings that were available to him in the original.)”

That would be to say: the twice-recorded Hamilton Salvator Mundi then stayed in the collection after 1643 until it was sent to Antwerp to be sold in 1649, the year of Charles I’s execution. This possibility is being dismissed: Cole further reports that Dalivalle places this hypothesis among what she terms the “red herrings” to be addressed in her contribution to the long-forthcoming (now Oxford University Press book) Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts that she is co-authoring with Robert Simon and Martin Kemp. That dismissal is premature and question-begging. It also offers a degree of protection to the now-challenged claim that the Abu Dhabi picture had been copied in 1650 by Wenceslaus Hollar – see below.

THE END OF THE FRENCH ROYAL CONNECTIONS IN THE SALVATOR MUNDI PROVENANCE

For the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture’s supporters, situating the Hamilton picture within the royal collection would compensate for the loss of the painting’s supposed French royal origins in the official provenances. Margaret Dalivalle, in talking to the Art Newspaper , has now disclosed that:

“I have found no evidence that the Salvator Mundi was brought by Henrietta Maria from France; it belonged to her [only] by dint of the fact that it was recorded in a property of her jointure in 1649.”

As seen, it has not been established that the Hamilton Salvator Mundi had entered the royal collection at all. The previously suggested arrival of the painting at court with Henrietta Maria in 1625 had comprised the lynchpin of the Abu Dhabi painting’s 2011 and 2017 provenances – those supposed initial double royal connections were flaunted in Christie’s 2017 global marketing pitch (see – The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments).

In the 2011-12 National Gallery exhibition catalogue Luke Syson said (of the copyist Wenceslaus Hollar) “The several connections with the Queen suggest that the Salvator Mundi is likely to have come to England when she married Charles in 1625, and was originally the property of the French Royal family; several of the best copies have a French provenance.” Emphases added. There were multiple problems with that account. First, the above described absences of records in Italy. Second, the nature of the visual testimony of the Hollar copy, as discussed below. Third, the now Dalivalle-confirmed absence of any evidence that Henrietta Maria had previously owned and brought a Leonardo Salvator Mundi with her from France when she married Charles I in 1625. In consequence, the opening sequence of Christie’s 2017 provenance below evaporates:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649)…

Without the previously implied royal pedigree the open question of when or whether the Hamilton painting entered the royal collection becomes pressing, because, as Martin Kemp ackowledges, despite all Dalivalle’s researches, nothing links the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting to anything beyond the painting’s entry into the Cook collection in 1900:

“We could not be absolutely sure that Charles’s Leonardo was the same as ‘Robert’s’ [Robert Simon and others’] Leonardo, rather than one of the copies, but it seemed highly likely. Margaret was subsequently able to track the picture back to the beautiful Queen’s House in Greenwich, where it was in one of the ‘closets’ of Queen Henrieta Maria…she was also able to track its later history though not yet as far as the Cook collection.”

The Greenwich record was dated 1666 when Henrieta Maria had fled England in 1644. Whichever picture was then present, it could not have been copied by Hollar in his 1650 etching because he and Henrietta Maria were then in Antwerp (and perhaps later, on one account, in France), and for reasons given it was unlikely to have been the Abu Dhabi picture. In truth, we have no idea which of several possible paintings was recorded by Hollar.

Without a secure Hollar connection, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi’s provenance begins only at 1900, four centuries after its supposed execution. The pre-1900 history which Dalivalle has failed to establish is itself highly problematic. It is not known from whom, where or when the picture had been acquired by Sir Charles Robinson who bought the work as a Bernardino Luino for the Cook Collection. We have been informed (as has Robert Simon) that an English fossil-hunter, Thomas Hawkins (1810-89), seems to have donated a “Leonardo Salvator Mundi” in 1848 to a church in Birmingham. That church was closed down in 1895, at which date its collection was presumably disbursed. Had Robinson bought the Abu Dhabi picture from that church? Or, were there two claimed Leonardo Salvator Mundi versions then at large in England? Or three – the whereabouts of a third version formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collections is presently unknown…

The Cook collection picture’s provenance ran into the ground in 1958 when sold by Sotheby’s for £45. Between 1900 and 1958 no one thought the New York, now Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi to be a Leonardo. Christie’s 2017 sale provenance ended: “Kuntz, Private Collection USA”. Kemp suggests that this might have been a punning play on the German word for art, and Sotheby’s have no additional information on Kuntz. That trail should not be given up lightly.

Wiki has an entry on a US artist Roger Edward Kuntz, a talented painter who wavered between abstraction and representation and died in 1975. In the early 50s he and his wife travelled for four months in Europe so that he could visit museums. They had a daughter in 1951. If Kuntz, an artist with a “pensive, thoughtfully naturalistic sensibility” made another European trip in 1958, might he have had £45 (at that date about a month’s wage for an unskilled worker in Britain) to spare on an old Italian painting? Roger Kuntz died in 1975 but was succeeded by his wife and daughter. If not that particular Kuntz family, what of others in the United States? As previously reported, our colleague Alexa Tzarnas has identified a Kuntz family in Louisiana who used to be avid collectors of paintings, antiques and historical documents. Rosemund E. and Emile Kuntz had two sons, one of whom donated a majority of their collection to Tulane University in New Orleans. Given that we do not know the identity of the 2005 vendor or the venue of the sale and given the still sticky varnish then present on the New York/Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, it could be useful to establish the identity of the previous owner who might well have information on previous restorations and photo-records of the painting from 1958 onwards.

THE WENCESLAUS HOLLAR 1650 ETCHING OF THE LEONARDO SALVATOR MUNDI – AND THREE PROPOSED PAINTINGS THAT MIGHT HAVE PROVIDED THE MODEL

Above, Fig. 7: The Wenceslaus Hollar etching which carries in (Latin) the following inscription: “Leonardo da Vinci painted the original from which Wenceslaus Hollar etched [this copy] in 1650 Anno Domini”

The Hollar copy (above) is being treated today as if unquestionably a record of the painting in the collection of Charles I but certain difficulties with this assumed relationship were acknowledged by Luke Syson:

“Hollar must have made a drawing of Leonardo’s painting while he was still in England, when it still belonged to the King and Queen. This drawing then formed the basis of the print, an image that had come to have additional associations for the Catholic Henrietta Maria.” Emphases added.

Against Syson’s suggestion that Hollar had made a drawing before 1644 and taken it with him to Antwerp, keeping it for at least six years before making an etching from it in 1650, we return to the Alison Cole/Jeremy Wood hypothesis that the Hamilton Salvator Mundi had been among the large proportion of the collection sent to Antwerp to be sold in 1649. On this proposed account Hollar would have had no need to work from a six or more years old drawing at a time when he was making copies of other Italian paintings in Antwerp. The inscription on the etching itself suggests that it was made from the painting itself rather than from memory and an old drawing:

Leonardo da Vinci painted the original from which Wenceslaus Hollar etched [this copy] in 1650 Anno Domini”.

Before looking at the etching itself in relation to rival paintings with a view to formulating some “style criticisms”, there is a third candidate Salvator Mundi painting to be considered. That is the so-called “de Ganay Salvator Mundi” which painting was presented in 1978 and 1982 as the original Leonardo Salvator Mundi by the art historian Joanne Snow-Smith (with, it was posthumously stated, the endorsement of Ludwig Heydenreich). Its claims merit consideration if for no other reason than that aspects of Snow-Smith’s account have been incorporated in the Simon/Syson/Christie’s/Kemp accounts – and most especially her claim of French royal origins for the painting. Moreover, the de Ganay and the Abu Dhabi versions are the two Salvator Mundi paintings that offer the most credible “fits” with the 1650 image produced by the accomplished draughtsman/copyist Wenceslaus Hollar. As will be seen, neither version achieves a full match but they depart from the Hollar record in different ways.

In support of her attribution Joanne Snow-Smith suggested this chronology:

“1506 – Leonardo’s second Milanese period begins upon return to Milan at invitation of Louis XII. Active at the court of Charles d’Amboise, the French governor of Milan;
1507 – Louis XII in Milan with Jean Perréal, his court painter. Leonardo appointed painter and engineer to the King;
c. 1507-08 – Commission for the Salvator Mundi given to Leonardo by Louis XII;
c. 1510 – Preliminary drawings in red chalk on red-prepared paper for a Salvator Mundi, now at Windsor Royal Library, begun;
1510-13 – Salvator Mundi in Leonardo’s studio in Milan. Copies made by pupils in various stages of completion;
1513, Spring – Salvator Mundi completed by Leonardo by order of Louis XII. Given to French general for delivery to Louis XII in France;
[…] 1514 – January 9, Anne of Brittany, beloved wife of Louis XII, dies at Blois. The King presents Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi to a Franciscan convent of the Order of Saint Claire in Nantes as votive funerary offering for her soul. Painting remains cloistered until late 19th-early 20th century…”

In support of her claim of a French-owned painting as the subject of Hollar’s etching, Snow-Smith imagined a trip along the Loire by Henrietta Maria:

“There were along the course of the Loire convents of the Order…and making such a trip may well have been suggested to Henrietta Maria by…further impetus for a journey to Nantes would have been supplied by the fact that her mother, Marie de’ Medici, had in 1626 laid the cornerstone of the convent there. It is suggested that Henrietta Maria requested Hollar to accompany her in the role of court etcher. There is no question but that his sense of duty to the family he loved so well would have induced his acceptance. Whether they stayed in Nantes in the convent of the Visitation or of the Calvairiennes need not concern us. Suffice it to say that in either place she would have heard of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo cloistered in the Clairician convent in that city…and it would certainly be understandable that she…would have wished Hollar to copy for her a painting in which the kindness and love of the ultimate justice were expressed with such strength, tenderness and pathos…” Emphases added.

Even if we discount Snow-Smith’s imaginary journey, Hollar’s presence in France in 1650 is credible – his etchings were published in Paris. Given Hollar’s close connections with Henrietta there are thus two locations in which he might have etched the Salvator Mundi – Antwerp or Nantes. In Antwerp, he might conceivably, on Syson’s account, have made it from a drawing made in London six or more years earlier if a salvator Mundi had entered the royal collection before 1644, or from the Hamilton Salvator Mundi; or, in Nantes from the de Ganay Salvator Mundi.

With the Abu Dhabi Leonardo attribution the etching’s testimony is double edged: there are, for sure, clear general correspondences – as there are with the de Ganay version – but Hollar’s 1650 recording of painting of a Christ as Salvator Mundi is different in significant stylistic respects from the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture. Greatly compounding the problem today of plausibly attaching rival documentary records and accounts to the sole etched copy, is the fact that the Abu Dhabi painting has itself borne rival appearances since it emerged in 2005 – and has existed in two distinct states in the last five years. As seen at Fig. 6 above, those appearances are: the painting as it was when it first appeared in 2005 still sticky from some previous treatment; as it was in 2007 after being cleaned and repaired; as it was in 2008 when part-restored and first taken to London for appraisal by a select group of Leonardo experts; as it was when further repainted and taken back to London in 2011 to be included in the National Gallery Leonardo exhibition; and, as it was when yet further restored by Christie’s ahead of the November 2017 sale.

This shifting appearance poses an acute problem for supporters: with which state/version of the Abu Dhabi picture might the Hollar etching be considered to show a better correspondence? Is it that seen when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, as below left at Fig. 8? Or is it that seen at Christie’s, New York, in 2017, as below right at Fig. 8? If the latter, had Christie’s requested the original restorer to work further on the painting to that end?

“STYLE CRITICISMS” AND CERTAIN VISUAL DISPROOFS

Above, Fig. 8: Top, Leonardo’s face of St. Anne (on the Louvre’s The Virgin and St Anne with Child), before cleaning, left; after cleaning, right; above the Louvre Abu Dhabi face of Christ, left, as exibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, and, right, as when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017

In the double comparison above we see the destructive and reconstructive faces of picture restoration. At the top, pictoral values are depleted by cleaning (“abraded” is the commonly encountered official euphemism). In the before and after comparison of the Salvator Mundi we see the superimposition of a more marketable state by repainting (officially, “retouching”) an earlier National Gallery endorsed appearance. The extent of this pictorial transformation is only demonstrable because the long 2007-2017 restoration was temporarily halted to allow the painting to rub shoulders with Leonardo and others at the National Gallery in 2011-12.

Above, Fig. 9: Left, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi; centre, the Wenceslaus Hollar etched copy; right, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi.

While both above paintings depart from the Hollar copy, they do so differently. Such variations speak against the Abu Dhabi painting being an original autograph prototype for all others. In one respect, Hollar comes close to recording a unique feature of the Abu Dhabi picture – the closely cropped composition around the hand holding the orb in the bottom right-hand corner of the composition – see Fig. 11. Against that local similarity, the Abu Dhabi picture departs from Hollar (and all other painted versions) with its aberrantly wide, chipmunk-like face. In every other version, Christ has a long narrow face that tapers downward from the widest point at about the level of the eyes. Uniquely, the Abu Dhabi face is widest at a level a little above the mouth. It also lacks the pronounced beard that was recorded by Hollar and is widely encountered among the variants. Such icongraphic deviations make it inconceivable that the Abu Dhabi picture was recorded by Hollar in 1650.

Above, Fig. 10: Top, left, the 1650 Hollar etching; top, right the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, as it was when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12. Above, left, a portrait of Henrietta Maria by van Dyck; above right, a copy by Hollar of a similar van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria.

When comparing etchings to paintings allowances have to be made for restoration injuries and falsifications to the latter and for the fact that copyists do not make “photographically” accurate facsimiles. Nonetheless, claims that Hollar’s copy was made from the Abu Dhabi painting are insupportable. In his 2011 catalogue entry, Luke Syson acknowledged that “the fit” between the print and the painting was not a complete one:

“It has always seemed likely that Leonardo painted a picture of Christ as the Saviour of the World. In 1650 the celebrated printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar signed an etching of Christ raising his right hand in blessing, holding a transparent orb in his left, with a nimbus of light behind his head: the image was taken he states, from a painting by Leonardo. Though Hollar was generally well-informed, this would not be enough on its own to prove that an autograph picture by Leonardo had once existed…Though Hollar’s Christ is very slightly stouter and broader, the two images coincide almost exactly. The draperies are just a little simplified and there is no glow of light around Christ’s head. Otherwise the newly discovered painting has the same…etc.”

Hollar recorded three sources of light in the picture he copied, not the single ineffectual one encountered in the Abu Dhabi painting. Hollar’s overall disposition of tonal values is greatly more vivacious and lucid. Light falling on Christ from above left creates a consistent shift from the (viewer’s) brightly lit left side of Christ to his shaded right side. Variations of shading on the drapery at Christ’s left shoulder cause the figure to turn away from the viewer and recede into shadow. Christ, emits his own illumination. So does the globe as light accumulates around its circumference. The inner fold on the drapery of Christ’s raised arm casts a shadow on the tunic’s folds. In Hollar a clear, plastically expressive distinction exists between the arm’s draperies and the tunic. Throughout, Hollar recorded a progressive disposition of lights and darks to establish form and space. Although the above Hollar van Dyck copy is not taken from the adjacent van Dyck painting it demonstrates how faithfully Hollar captured Henrietta Maria’s mouth’s upturned corners. Had he made his copy from the Abu Dhabi picture, would he have turned the corners of Christ’s mouth upwards? On the superiority of the print over the painting in 2011, see below. But first, hear Leonardo on his lights and shades:

“The primary purpose of the painter is to make a plane surface display a body in relief, detached from the plane, and he who in that art most surpasses others deserves most praise, and this concern, which is the crown of the science of painting, comes about from the use of shadows and lights, or, if you wish, brightness and darkness. Therefore whoever avoids shadows avoids what is the glory of the art for noble minds, but gains glory with the ignorant public, who want nothing in painting but the beauty of colour, altogether forgetting the beauty and marvel of depicting a relief on what in reality is a plane surface.”

Above, Fig. 11: Left, a detail of Hollar’s 1650 etching; right, a detail of the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi as it was when offered for sale by Christie’s, New York, in November 2017.

It strikes again how greatly more vivacious and lucid is the etched copy than the Abu Dhabi painting. It might be objected that painters work on a larger scale and have greatly more pictorial weapons at their disposal than the tones of etchers who must say everything with monochromatic drawing and shading. But, as seen, Leonardo embraced such pictorial self-restraint as the most precious tool in the painter’s box.

We mentioned the coincidence of design and composition in this section of the painting: the knuckles of the hand rest in both cases on the bottom of the composition and the protruding thumb seems equally constrained. Those coincidences notwithstanding, even in this section the differences are legion. In the painting the thumb is cropped at the picture’s edge – and not because the picture was trimmed. The panel had been set in its frame and only then prepared for painting, as a build-up of priming and paint along the edge testifies. Whoever painted this picture was careless with its design. It is possible that the artist had transferred a cartoon onto a too-small painting and ran out of space along the right-hand edge. This Salvator Mundi figure is not just cropped above the waist as are a number of Leonardo figures, it is also severely cropped on both sides. Such a design would not be shocking in our age of photography but it was unprecedented in Leonardo’s own finished work. While there are similarities in this corner, they are confined to the design alone and not to the content within.

Uniquely, in Abu Dhabi picture the visible palm of the globe-supporting hand is massive and anatomically indeterminate. Professor Kemp holds that this unclarity is a pentimento and, hence, a token of authenticity. But the hand was drawn differently in all other versions, including Hollar’s. Everywhere else it is optically compressed towards the circumference of the globe. Why would every school work have thus made Leonardo’s clumsily drawn effort more optically sophisticated? Why did everyone else “correct” the drawing of the thumb by placing it on a diagonal, not horizontal, axis? The prevalent top left down lighting caused three reflections in a diagonal row on the surface of the globe Hollar copied. The globe itself (necessarily one of glass on that scale, not of polished rock crystal, as Kemp insists) is radiant in Hollar: dark at its centre and with light accumulating around its circumference. Kemp remarks that he has “been asked on more than one occasion why the drapery behind the sphere is so little affected by what is in effect a large magnifying lens.” He answers that Leonardo would not have concerned himself with such natural phenomena out of respect for “decorum – that is to say pictorial good manners”. It is a stylish answer but it ignores a point I had made when the National Gallery exhibition opened (“Leonardo viewed in a curious light”, letter, The Times, 12 November 2011). Namely, that in Hollar’s copy “the folds of the drapery on Christ’s left shoulder are shown to be bent when viewed through the glass sphere.” Kemp’s ex cathedra pronouncement collides with the artistic/material facts of a work of art. This is not a question of what Leonardo would or would not have done. It is a question of what Hollar did when copying a painting he believed to be a Leonardo. As previously published and shown below, in Hollar the sweeping curve of a fold on the shoulder drapery is seen to be deflected inside the globe – and a shift of direction in a drawn image cannot be gainsaid: if a convex fold of drapery becomes concave while seen through a glass orb, that is a graphic fact, not a possibly, a perhaps, a likely or maybe. If Hollar had been copying the Abu Dhabi painting, why would he have rendered a sophisticated optical phenomenon that was not present in the painting before him?

Above, Fig. 12: Left, an illustration of a rock crystal sphere in Martin Kemp’s book Living with Leonardo; right, the globe in the now lost Salvator Mundi that was formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collections, England.

Kemp writes that the most satisfactory facet of his own research concerned his hunch the globe was made of rock crystal. He looked at specimens of crystal spheres – all small – and realised that large crystal spheres would “exhibit both inclusions and jagged cleavage planes, compromising the ‘purity’ for which the best crystal is prized.” On the abnormally large hand seen through the globe, he writes:

“I had toyed with the idea that the double image of the of the heel of Christ’s right hand [sic] visible through the sphere might be the result of the double refraction characteristic of rock crystal; but the optics would not work. The apparent doubling is almost certainly another pentimento.”

The above crystal sphere Kemp examined at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History was under two inches wide and therefore “quite large as such spheres go”. Reproducing the lighting direction in the Abu Dhabi picture had confirmed that there should have been (as there is in Hollar) a shiny highlight in the upper left:

“He is unlikely to have left this out, and it seemed likely that the raised area of white pigment had been abraded off at some point in the painting’s chequered history.”

Above, Fig. 13: In the top row diagrams we see, left, how, in Hollar, the globe’s reflected lights are aligned with the directional lighting and not as found in the 2017 state of the Abu Dhabi picture on the right. We see on the left (black dotted line) how the sweeping curved fold of drapery is deflected when viewed through the globe. While Kemp says that the original properly placed highlight on the globe must have been abraded off, he offers no explanation for the three randomly placed, unaligned “reflections” that emerged during the cleaning. If they were not added during the past restoration they must have been painted out previously. As seen in the television screen-grab at Fig. 1, there was no trace left in place of any impastoed white reflections when the painting was presented for restoration in 2005. One correspondent (Dr. Stefaan Missinne) has suggested that the three present lights were a depiction of a cluster of stars seen in the Southern hemisphere that had been noted in Italy in 1503. If these now miraculously recovered lights had been integral to the Abu Dhabi painting all along, they too would indicate that Hollar had made his 1650 copy from some other painting. Curiously, an alignment of lights like that seen in Hollar is present in the now lost Salvator Mundi that was formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collection in England (as seen above at Fig. 12).

Our glass sphere shown above is also no more than two inches in diameter. In the lower image above it rests on the photocopied sheet of diagrams that is shown here above, top. The white space between the two copied images on the sheet appears as two curving lines when viewed through the globe. We can see here how the differing degrees of refraction depend on the position within the globe. The curvature is least pronounced at the globe’s centre and increases as it approaches the circumference. The deflection on the drapery that was recorded in Hollar’s etching is consistent the distortions in evidence in the glass sphere above.

Above, Fig. 14: Left and centre, The Young Christ by Marco d’Oggiono in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, as seen before and after restoration; right, Marco d’Oggiono’s The Young Christ in the Fundación Lázaro Galdianiano, Madrid.

Luke Syson cites the Galleria Borghese picture above left and centre as a work of about 1500 that is clearly derived from the Abu Dhabi painting. The Madrid Young Christ picture, above right, was included in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo in Milan exhibition as a newly attributed work of Marco d’Oggiono. Unlike the Abu Dhabi picture, its whereabouts in the 20th century are known. Indeed, its history is confined to that century. A work in oils on beech, its literature begins in 1910 as “circle of Leonardo” (Meier-Graef) and in 1932 it was elevated to Ambrogio de Predis by Berenson. More recently, in 1981, it was moved to “pseudo-Boltraffio” by Romano. In 1985 the “pseudo-” was dropped by Ballarin. In 1985 Marani (who has been said to support the Abu Dhabi picture) re-attached the “pseudo-”. In 1990 Baudequin gave it to Marco d’Oggiono but the following year Brown preferred Ambrogio de Predis and was supported in this by Ruiz Manero in 1996 and by Fiorio in 2000. In 2004 Saguar Quer gave it unreservedly to Boltraffio – and with “a detailed provenance” which, presumably, had not gone further back than 1910. In 2005-6 Marani suggested “a Milanese artist close to Leonardo”. In 2006-07 Danieli settled for “a Lombard painter close to Boltraffio”. (In art historical circles, “Pseudo-“ is sometimes used as polite way of saying “not kosher”.)

In the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition catalogue this work is dated to c. 1490-01 and assigned to Marco d’Oggiono by Antonio Mazzotta who notes that “this is a [Leonardo] pupil’s skilful combination of workshop models and techniques, with such a commitment to ‘academic’ rules and his master’s ideas, that the pupil here seems to be acting, in the words of William Suida, ‘as Leonardo’s right hand’.” Mazzotta points out that this work has previously been given to Boltraffio – “a hypothesis explicable in the light of its high quality and of Marco’s close working relationship with him in the 1490s. Indeed, there are many features here that evoke Boltraffio’s work: the lighting and structure of the head, hair and neck are similar to his Madonna of the Rose; the swathe of drapery over the shoulder and concertina folds of the shirt recall his early drapery studies…”

Mazzotta is somewhat back-handed in his support: while Marco’s “greyish skin tones” are similar to Boltraffio’s, the latter is more elegant and controlled. “The rather too prominent eyes are typical of Marco d’Oggiono: the sfumato modelling is applied like make-up, though the eyelids remain both flat and puffy. As a result, Marco loses control of Christ’s expression, which is at the same time melancholic and slightly gormless, an expression that strongly resembles that of the sitter for the Archinto Portrait…” The latter, a National Gallery painting in oil on walnut, was included in the 2011-12 exhibition as Marco d’Oggiono. Its literature began with Morelli in 1880 – “inadvertently by Amrogio de Predis” and at the same time “as by Bernardino dei Conti”, the latter ascription being re-affirmed by Morelli five years later…The literature ended with Syson in 2004 as “attributed to the Master of the Pala Sforzesca”.

Within this moveable feast of attribution, Marco d’Oggiono’s Madrid and Rome “Young Christs” might yet be taken as a benchmark indication of the painterly skills found in Leonardo’s studio between c. 1490 and c. 1500. Both of these school works (or pseudo-school works) reflect Leonardo’s own long-standing aversion to frontal or profile figures. Leonardo was an arch repudiator of archaistic (and, in anticipation, 20th century Modernist) affirmations of the picture plane within a painting. The planar picture surface was no more than a necessary convenience for Leonardo’s compulsion to display bodies in relief and detached from the plane. That he must have been party to the plethora of archaistic Salvator Mundis is not disputed and many see his hand in parts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi painting. Had he gone so far as to have painted an entire fully-realised autograph departure from his very hard won accomplishments it would have constituted a pictorial reversal of noteworthy surprise. Not only has there been no whisper of such an upheaval, nothing survives of any contribution other than the two sheets of drawn studies shown below.

Above, Fig. 15: The two sheets of drapery studies attributed to Leonardo and taken as preparatory studies for the Leonardesque Salvator Mundis. The main study for the costume seems taken from a garment suspended on a hanger, not worn by a person. That flattening arrangement seems to have transported itself to the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. In the Hollar copy the concertina folds form groups that swell and catch the light accordingly. It is striking that greater variation of lighting is present in the studio work shown at Fig. 16, below, than in the now much-restored Louvre Abu Dhabi painting.

Above, Fig. 16: Top, a detail of the c. 1490 Spanish “Young Christ” of Marco d’Oggiono; above, a comparable detail from the Abu Dhabi painting.

Martin Kemp, who has championed both of recently attributed works in which Leonardo is claimed to have embraced the picture plane (- the Abu Dhabi painting and the profile drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”), suggests that the Salvator Mundi appealed to its first buyer, the Russian oligarch Dimitry Rybolovlev, because “he had earlier collected Eastern Orthodox icons, and it is not difficult to see how the typically hieratic, frontal presentation of holy figures in Russian devotional images would have resonated powerfully with the traditional composition and spiritual power of the Salvator Mundi.” When addressing the painting’s spatially disjointed parts, he offers a quasi-photographic rationale:

“I wondered why Christ’s soft-focus features contrasted so strongly with the precise definition of his right hand. Was it simply a question of condition? It was true that the face was quite abraded; but even the best-preserved parts, such as his left eye, seemed blurred. Or was it was photographers call the depth of field problem? If a camera lens is physically or digitally focussed on a form at a certain depth in a scene, objects closer or further away will be out of sharp focus – increasingly so as they are more distant from the focussed zone.

“Depth of field is in photography is an anachronistic concept when looking at a Renaissance painting. However… [Leonardo] explored the reasons why vision worked less than perfectly under different circumstances. He stated that something would not be seen well if much too close, and it would lose clarity as it moved further away (though he did not have any sense that the lens of the eye focuses our vision). He realized that there was an optimum distance at which some something would be seen most sharply. Christ’s hands are at that distance. The softening of Christ’s more distant facial features works to define depth in an image that is otherwise very shallow, and serves brilliantly to evoke the otherness of Christ’s gaze.”

Kemp, presumably, is talking about the painting as when sold last year, not as it was when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011. His “vari-focal” thesis addresses neither the evidence of Hollar’s copy nor the transformation by restoration the painting underwent from 2006 to 2017. On Kemp’s schema the tip of the nose would be in sharper focus than any other part of the face. In truth the most obtrusively sharp distinction encountered on this inconsistently rendered face remains the emphatic and anatomically ill-drawn crease above the true left eyelid at the brow. Where Kemp talks of the “softened” “otherness” of Christ’s gaze, he does not address the fact that the irises in Hollar eyes were not dreamily forward-looking but cast rightwards almost as if looking over his raised blessing fingers. There is no hint of an overhanging upper lip in Hollar, his lower lip protrudes. Throughout the etching, light falls even-handedly so as to illuminate by light and shade the three-dimensional forms of the figure. A full range of tones renders the blessing hand “emphatic” but it is no more so than the forms of the face. In fact there is a parity of graphic force between the hand, the face and the orb and the only retiring passage falls between, in the treatment of the costume. But even in that recorded quiet zone if we look at the Leonardesque concertina folds in the two comparative details above, who would say that the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays superior artistry?

Above, Fig. 17: Top, a detail, of Leonardo’s La belle ferronnière of about 1493-1494; above, a detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi which is generally dated by its supporters as c. 1500. For Kemp it is taken as c. 1504-1507, having been painted between the Mona Lisa of c. 1503-1516 and the St. John the Baptist of 1513-1516. Viewing drapery seen in the earlier Leonardo La belle ferronnière, could anyone hold that the Salvator Mundi drapery above showed superior painting technique or a more vividly tangible body?

Above, Fig. 18: Top, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi detail; above, a detail of the Mona Lisa. Quality aside, what would explain the manifest differences of age in the two details? Why has the paint cracked so markedly in one work and retained such a youthful bloom in the other?

Above, Fig. 19: A detail, top, of a copy of Leonardo’s (then-unfinished) Mona Lisa that has been attributed to his assistant Salai; above the detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. Although the flesh passages in the two works are comparably smooth, bland and unblemished, could anyone claim that the handling of the hair, the knot patterning and the drapery folds in the Salvator Mundi is superior to that seen in the copy above?

More detailed examinations of parts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting will be carried in future posts.
Past posts, in chronological order, were:

23 October 2017 – Leonardo, Salvator Mundi, and an “unusual lapse”
14 November 2017 – Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation
02 February 2018 – The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is
12 February 2018 – A day in the life of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s pricey new Leonardo Salvator Mundi
27 February 2018 – Nouveau riche? Welcome to the Club!
11 March 2018 – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Michael Daley, 18 September 2018


“Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”

Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian that a Leonardo scholar, Matthew Landrus, believes most of the upgraded Salvator Mundi was painted by a Leonardo assistant, Bernardino Luini.

THE LUINI CONNECTION

In her Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”, Dalya Alberge further reports that the upgraded version of the Salvator Mundi that Matthew Landrus has de-attributed to Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini, is the very painting that was attributed to Luini in 1900, when acquired by Sir Charles Robinson for the Cook collection.

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the Salvator Mundi that was bought for $450m as a Leonardo for the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 as it was seen in 2007 when only part-repainted and about to be taken to the National Gallery, London, for a viewing by a small group of Leonardo scholars who are said to have been sworn to secrecy. (For the many subsequent changes to the painting see our “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is” and Figs. 4 to 6 below.) Above, right: A detail of the National Gallery’s Luini Christ among the Doctors.

BIG CLAIMS ON INCOMPLETE EVIDENCE

Even after being sold twice (in 2013 and 2017) for a total of more than half a billion dollars, the painting’s 118 year long journey from a Luini to a Leonardo and now back to Luini again, remains a mystery: no one has disclosed when, from whom and where the painting is said to have been bought in 2005. Professor Martin Kemp recently disclosed that the work was bought for the original consortium of owners “by proxy”. Long-promised technical reports and accounts of the provenance have yet to appear and keep receding into the future. These lacunae notwithstanding, the painting is scheduled to be launched at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September, and also to be included in a major Leonardo exhibition at the Paris Louvre in 2019.

THE ROLE OF LEONARDO’S ASSISTANTS IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

As Dalya Alberge reports, a number of Leonardo scholars have contested the present Leonardo attribution and held the work to be largely a studio production that was only part-painted by Leonardo himself. Frank Zöllner, a German art historian at the University of Leipzig and author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings, believes it to be either the work of a later Leonardo follower or a “high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop”. Carmen Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holds it to have been largely the work of Leonardo’s assistant Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. One scholar, Jacques Franck, suggested in a 29 November 2011 interview in the Journal des Arts that an attribution to either Luini or Leonardo’s late assistant (and effective ‘office manager’) Gian Giacomo Caprotti, called Salai or Salaino seemed plausible and persuasive. More recently, in January 2018, he tipped to Salai as the author because of strong similarities revealed by penetrating technical imaging examinations – see Figs. 2 and 3 below and “Salvator Mundi LES DESSOUS DE LA VENTE DU SIECLE”.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, an infra-red reflectogram of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi; above, right, an infra-red reflectogram of Salai’s Head of Christ, signed and dated 1511, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Milan).

Above, Fig. 3: An infra-red reflectogram detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. Jacques Franck writes: “This close-up view of the Fig. 2, left, document, reveals in the Saviour’s face, neck and head, the same typical underlying sketching-out technique using very thick dark lines to define the preliminary contours and modelling that are seen in Fig. 2, right. None of this underlying graphic/roughing out process is ever encountered in original Leonardo painting where the graphic/painterly stages are more subtle.”

CHANGING FACES: FOUR STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

ABOVE, FIG.4: From the left, Face 1 – The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi when presented in 2005 (– when still “sticky” from a recent restoration) to the New York restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini.
Face 2: The former Cook collection painting after the panel had been repaired and the painting had been stripped down.
Face 3: The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi after several stages of repainting and as exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition.
Face 4: The face after yet further (- and initially undisclosed) repainting by Dianne Dwyer Modestini at Christie’s, New York, ahead of the 2017 sale – as was first published by Dalya Alberge in her Mail Online revelation: “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years”.

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the former Cook collection painting’s face as in 2005; right, the face, as transformed over twelve years by Modestini, when presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017.

Alberge’s current Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting” has gone viral – see for example: CNN’s “Leonardo’s $450M painting may not be all Leonardo’s, says scholar”, and the ABC (Spain) “Crecen las dudas sobre la autoría del «Salvator Mundi» de Leonardo”.

In the CNN report, it is said that:

“Others are in less doubt. Curator of Italian Paintings at London’s National Gallery, Martin Kemp, sent the following statement to CNN Style by email: ‘The book I am publishing in 2019 with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle (…) will present a conclusive body of evidence that the Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece by Leonardo. In the meantime I am not addressing ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price.’”

We make the following observations. Although Professor Martin Kemp is not a curator at the National Gallery he does seem to have been considered at one point as a possible co-curator of the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition, which, in the event, was curated solely by the Gallery’s own then curator, Luke Syson, who is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Syson drew heavily for his 2011 catalogue entry on the painting on the researches of one of the owners of the Salvator Mundi, the New York art dealer, Robert Simon: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be presented in a forthcoming book.” That book has now been coming for some time. First promised by the National Gallery in 2011, it was more recently promised for 2017, and then for this year, and now, for next year – and possibly in time for inclusion in the catalogue of the Paris Louvre’s planned major 2019 Leonardo exhibition?

Professor Kemp also promised a conclusive body of evidence for his attribution to Leonardo of the drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. In his 2012 book Leonardo’s Lost Princess, Peter Silverman, the owner of “La Bella Principessa”, wrote: “Martin believed that the fingerprints [compiled by the now discredited fingerprints expert Peter Paul Biro], though not conclusive on their own, added an important piece to the puzzle. He wrote to me, ‘This is yet one more component in what is as consistent a body of evidence as I have ever seen. I will be happy to emphasize that we have something as close to an open and shut case as is ever likely with an attribution of a previously unknown work to a major master. As you know, I was hugely skeptical at first, as one needs to be in the Leonardo jungle, but now I have not the slightest flicker of doubt that we are a dealing with a work of great beauty and originality that contributes something special to Leonardo’s oeuvre. It deserves to be in the public domain.’” In the event, the “La Bella Principessa” drawing did not enter the public domain. Unlike the Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450m, it was not included in the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition and it presently remains, so far as we know, unsold, in a Swiss free port.

Kemp’s present lofty disinclination to address “ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price” marks a change of policy. Last year, immediately ahead of the sale that produced the astronomical price of the Salvator Mundi, Kemp was happy to engage polemically with those who rejected the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo attribution. As he has recently disclosed: “I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

SCHOLARS’ NEED FOR FULL AND DETAILED REPORTS AND FOR OPEN DEBATES

Above, Fig. 6: Left, the small-scale published (infra-red) technical image of the Salvator Mundi; centre, the painting as exhibited in 2011-2012 as a Leonardo at the National Gallery; right, the painting as presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Much remains to be examined with this restoration-transformed but still, effectively, unpublished work where the promised reports on technical examinations and provenance seem perpetually trapped in the post like Billy Bunter’s postal order. Note in Fig. 6 above, for example, the radical changes made to the true left shoulder draperies; to the orb and the sole of the hand that holds it; and, above all, to the face. We must hope that the painting’s new owners will encourage the old 2005 consortium of owners to publish their privately commissioned researches as soon as possible. In general terms, it would be a much better thing if new and elevating attributions were once more published by single scholars, taking full responsibility in a scholarly publication, so that the case for a work’s re-attribution might be examined widely and discussed openly on a fully informative account and presentation of technical evidence and history of provenance. The recent tendency for owners to hold and selectively part-release researches during promotional campaigns of advocacy is not conducive to best scholarly practice.

Michael Daley, Director, 9 August 2018

Coming next:
Professor Martin Kemp and ArtWatch – Part 1: Twenty-four years of abuse on photo-testimony


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: No. 3 [11 March 2018] – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Mounting concerns over transparency in art world deals are throwing back-dated light on the Salvator Mundi’s reception in its first-restored incarnation when included in the 2011 National Gallery exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S FIRST PUBLIC OUTING IN 2011

Above, top, the Sunday Times magazine cover of 9 October 2011. Above, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen after repainting in 2011, left; above, right, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen in November 2017 after further repainting between 2012 and 2017.

In the 9 October 2011 Sunday Times (“LEONARDO? CONVINCE ME”), Kathy Brewis wrote:

“For a few weeks in London you will be able to see the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) up close. It might be your only chance. Much of the painting’s history remains obscure. Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’. Why all the secrecy? ‘It’s just privacy and security’, says Simon, ‘One doesn’t want people knocking on the door.’

“…He showed it to Mina Gregori, a retired professor at Florence University, who was stunned: ‘I believe it’s by Leonardo.’ Then he showed it to Nick Penny, who had just been appointed director of the National Gallery. ‘He understood it in a nanosecond. He said that one of his ambitions was for the gallery to be a venue for scholarly inquiry and research and that he’d like the painting to be brought to London so it could be compared with the Virgin of the Rocks.’ It was Penny who told him [Simon]: ‘You need a consensus…’

“Since Robert Simon went public with the discovery, he has received many emails from Leonardo fanatics. ‘There’s the serious obsession and there’s the lunatic one – people for whom Leonardo is a source of fantasy. The paintings are not knowable,’ he muses. ‘Every one of them presents a problem and a challenge.’ Even at this stage? ‘Art historians are a prickly, competitive lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone stuck their hand up and said “I don’t believe it”’. Could the experts be wrong? ‘They could be wrong about anything. But as much as I believe anything in this world, I believe this is by Leonardo.’”

Above, and top left, the Salvator Mundi as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery’s big Leonardo exhibition.

Kathy Brewis continued:

“…Frank Zöllner of Leipzig University [- and author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné] is a rare dissenter: he thinks the proportions of the nose (‘too long’ for such a perfectionist as Leonardo) make it more likely to have been painted by a talented follower. The rest are convinced, if a little jealous that they didn’t unearth it themselves. ‘People in the art world get sniffy about dealers,’ says Bendor Grosvenor, director of the London fine-art dealership Philip Mould. ‘But if it wasn’t for the trade, discoveries like this wouldn’t be made. Specialist dealers are the ones who are prepared to buy a dirty picture, roll their sleeves up and get stuck in to seeing what it is.’

“Is it wise for the National Gallery to put it on show so soon after its authentication? ‘They are taking a risk,’ says Grosvenor, ‘and I can’t applaud them enough for it. Connoisseurship is a nebulous discipline. There can never be absolute 100% proof. You have to accept there’s an element of doubt and go with it.’”

Note – On 5 March 2018 Grosvenor declared himself an ex-dealer on his blog Art History News: “Now, portraiture can be a hard sell – I know this from having spent over a decade actually selling portraits, in my former life as a dealer.” This did not come as an absolute bolt out of the blue: although he remains a director of the Scottish auctioneers Lyon and Turnbull Limited, last year Grosvenor briefly closed down his website following certain professional criticisms, commenting as he did so: “at the same time AHN also makes me a significant number of, well, ‘enemies’ is not too strong a term. Every walk of life has its Salieris, but in the art market there are an awful lot of them.”

Kathy Brewis continued with a discussion on the Salvator Mundi’s owners:

“Luke Syson, the show’s curator is one of the few people who know who owns the picture. ‘We couldn’t exhibit it otherwise. It’s not being wafted to us in a brown envelope.’”

Ben Hoyle reported the Salvator Mundi’s owners’ plans in the Times of 12 November 2011 (“It’s kind of scary – I wrapped it in a bin liner and jumped into a taxi with it”):

“‘Everyone involved recognises the importance of it as a work of art. Doing the right thing has been very important and will continue to be,’ Mr Simon says. If that means selling it for half the price they could attract, to ensure that it stays on public view, then they would prefer to do that.”

In the event the picture was sold privately by Sotheby’s in 2013 to a Swiss businessman, Yves Bouvier, who is known as the “Freeport King” (and who, among many commercial interests, owns an art conservation and authentication service), for appreciably less than the sums of $150-200m being talked about in 2011 (when the owners reportedly had turned down a $100m offer). The original consortium and Robert Simon received $80m for the Salvator Mundi from Bouvier who resold it for $127.5m to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

To this day we do not know who owned the Salvator Mundi before 2005 or between 2005 and 2013. From whomever and by whomever it was bought in 2005, the painting’s reception as an attributed Leonardo in 2011 was very far from uniformly rapturous. In addition to the dissenting scholars we cited on 14 November 2017 (see THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI), a number of newspaper art critics were un-persuaded.

In the 13 November 2011 Sunday Telegraph (“The genius of Leonardo”), Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote:

“…The picture is certainly Leonardesque. But is it by Leonardo? That is the considerably-more-than-million-dollar question for the consortium of art dealers who acquired the work a few years ago for an undisclosed sum. If the attribution holds up they can expect to reap £125m as a reward for their good judgement.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is a breathtaking and truly remarkable exhibition which brings together around half of the surviving 15 or so surviving paintings by the famously dilatory artist of the Italian Renaissance…Two works in particular appear destined to come under scholarly fire.

“Although it gets the thumbs up from the National Gallery’s curator, [Luke] Syson, there will certainly be those who question the new Christ. The picture undeniably displays a number of the painter’s characteristic devices and mannerisms, but there are other aspects of it that seem foreign to Leonardo himself.

“He was prized by his contemporaries as one of the most innovative and forceful painters of emotion, yet the face of this Christ seems peculiarly inert. Taken individually, its elements are convincing enough, but viewed as a whole its expression seems to lack a certain subtle Leonardo magic: the spark of inner life and feeling…”

Even after the picture had been re-done-over by the restorer, Diane Modestini, ahead of the 15 November 2017 sale, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, responded with less tact than Graham-Dixon (“The Miracle of da Vinci: Turning a £45 Oddity into a £341m Old Master”, 19 November 2017):

“…To call the Salvator Mundi untypical is massively to understate the case. It resembles nothing else Leonardo painted

“The claim by Loic Gouzer, chairman of contemporary art at Christie’s in New York, that the record-breaking Jesus bears ‘a patent compositional likeness’ to the Mona Lisa had me laughing out loud. Yes, it shows the upper half of a figure in a frame. But that is the only compositional likeness the Salvator Mundi shares with the Mona Lisa

“The next time I saw the painting was in 2011 when the big Leonardo exhibition was opened in London. Full of magnificent loans – the Lady With an Ermine, from Poland; the Virgin of the Rocks from the Louvre – it really was a once-in-a-lifetime event. And there on the wall was the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi looking just as strange and sci-fi as I remembered it.

“At the time it was owned by a consortium of art dealers who had bought it in an American estate sale for $10,000 as a work by a follower of Leonardo. The dealers had it comprehensively cleaned and repainted. The National Gallery, eager to give its show a boost, announced it as the first new Leonardo discovered in 100 years. Wow…

“Soon after its London unveiling it was sold on to the Russian Billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for a reputed £98m. It was Rybolovlev who sold it again in New York last week.

“How did Leonardo’s sci-fi Christ, who looks as if he belongs on the cover on one of L Ron Hubbard’s scientology textbooks, end up costing all those shekels? It was mostly due to the wicked brilliance of Christie’s.

“Not only did the auction house tour the picture noisily to Hong Kong, and London before the New York sale, drumming up interest among the newly rich, but its hype department was also in full swing on this one. Finding a new Leonardo, boomed Gouzer, ‘is rarer than finding a new planet’. It’s ‘the greatest discovery of the century’ repeated the Christie’s chorus.

Above, Patrick Chappatte’s take on the Salvator Mundi sale/attribution for the New York Times. Below, Patrick Blower’s incorporation of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for the Daily Telegraph:

Waldemar Januszczak continued:

“In recent years modern art has been where the money goes. A new generation of mega-rich collectors who know a lot about luxury brands but not much about art, have piled into the market and sent prices soaring.

“Earlier this year a quickly splattered Jean-Michel Basquiat of a face shaped like a skull sold in New York for an astonishing £85m. By putting the Leonardo in such a context, Christie’s circumnavigated the knowledgeable world of the Old Master collector and headed straight for the dumb f**** with the money.

“There are various ways to understand events in New York on Wednesday night [of 15 November 2017].

“You can see them as evidence of Leonardo’s treasured and mythic status in art. You can see them as testimony to the power of attribution. Or you can see them as proof that we live in a mad world that has lost sense of true value and in which obscenely rich people waste obscene amounts of money on the obscene acquisition of trophy art. Going, going, gone.”

SUPPORT AND DISSENT

It so happens that the scholar who first attributed the Salvator Mundi to Leonardo, Professor Mina Gregori, was also the first scholar to attribute the proposed Leonardo drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Professor Martin Kemp. However, “La Bella Principessa” was not included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition and, seven years later, it remains unsold. Although we know precisely why the dissenting scholars rejected the Salvator Mundi attribution (- they published their views in the scholarly press), we have virtually no information of who said what and in what order among the consensus of scholars listed by Christie’s (see Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation).

SECRET DEALS – AND THE ARTS CLUB

Since we began warning on this site in 2014 of the threat to market confidence posed by the art world’s toxic attributions and specifically called for increased transparency through a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art (“As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” – “Art crime”, ArtWatch UK letter, the Times, 13 August 2014), secret deals have come under increasingly intense investigation. In her 2017 book Dark Side of the Art Boom, Georgina Adam wrote:

“At its base, the Bouvier/Rybolovlev dispute was about the nature of their business conducted within a market that has always thrived on secret backroom deals. By keeping vendors and buyers apart – they may never know who the other is – and insisting on discretion, agents, dealers, advisors can use this anonymity to their advantage. Various reasons can be put forward, from the need for security to the desire to avoid family quarrels or the taxman, to the risk of someone else bagging the work for sale. In the Bouvier/Rybolovlev case, one of Bouvier’s emails about a Magritte, said: ‘I must carry out this [negotiation] with the greatest discretion to avoid drawing attention to the painting and its owner; the risk is that we could lose it at auction.”

In this weekend’s Financial Times (10/11 March 2018 – “Laundering Picasso: British dealer among accused in $50m case”), Melanie Gerlis cites the emergence of another highly embarrassing series of documents:

“Potential shenanigans involving art are in the spotlight once again. London art dealer Matthew Green is among defendants in the case against Beaufort Securities, three other corporations and five other individuals, accused by the US Department of Justice of a multiyear $50m-plus securities fraud and scheme to launder money, partly through the sale of a £6.7m painting by Picasso.

“The indictment alleges that Green, described as the owner of Mayfair Fine Art Limited, met last month with an investment manager from Beaufort Securities (now declared insolvent), as well as a property developer and an undercover federal agent masquerading as a client of the brokerage firm. At this meeting held around February 5, the court papers say that the agent-client was told he could ‘purchase a painting from Green using the proceeds of the stock manipulation deals and later sell the painting to “clean the money”’…The papers describe the art business as ‘the only market that is unregulated’”.

“The papers also say that Green – who had allegedly asked for a 5 per cent profit on the transaction, ‘so that he would not be asked why he was in the money laundering business’”. [Green] sent a message via What’sApp to the Beaufort Securities manager that read: ‘[O]bviously because of the nature of this transaction we need to preserve a certain amount of anonymity which [the undercover agent] and I discussed and clarified at the Arts Club!’”

UNDERCHARGING FOR CURRENT MARKET PRACTICES

The Art Market Monitor blogger, Marion Manneker, made this observation in his (5 March) comments on the trial:

“Green doesn’t seem to know that the price for laundering money is much higher than 5% which definitely isn’t worth the risk if it gets you indicted after being in business all of three months. Worse still, Green and his partners don’t seem to be the swiftest criminals. They boasted that the art market is unregulated but then created a scheme that seems to have had little to do with the art market itself.

“The art sale is only one of several money-laundering venues that the person was offered. Offshore banks and real estate deals figure prominently in the indictment. What’s more, Green’s scheme could have been conducted in just about any commercial transaction. And, since the payment for the Picasso was due March 6, 2018, we’ll never know if Green was actually capable of pulling off the sale at the price he claims or would have survived any kind of audit.”

OLD HABITS DIE HARD?

Manneker’s comments on the cut-price scale of Matthew Green’s alleged laundering service charges recalls certain comments of Kenneth Clark who recognized that his appointment as director of the National Gallery at a very tender age owed much to the fact, as he wrote in his 1977 memoir Another Part of the Wood, that:

“[T]he ideal candidate for the post was disqualified. This was a Finnish art-historian named Tancred Borenius. He was a good scholar, a pleasant companion and a passionate upholder of the concept of the monarchy. He would have made an ideal courtier. Unfortunately, he was known to have followed the continental practice, described above, of taking payments for certificates of authenticity; and what was worse, quite small payments (known as ‘smackers under the table’); if he had taken large payments like a few scholars on the continent, no one would have objected.”

Michael Daley, 11 March 2018

UPDATE, 12 March 2018. On 11 March, a Sunday Telegraph supplement (“Arts, Antiques and Collectibles”) carried a “Promotional feature” – “Managing Risk When Buying and Selling Art” – for the law firm Constantine / Cannon. In offering the firm’s services, the article began:

“TRADING IN ART has traditionally been done on a handshake, but this is changing. You would not buy or sell a house without relying on a lawyer to prepare the contract, would you? The same goes with art, and now buyers and sellers are increasingly turning to lawyers to help them manage the risks associated with expensive works. The art market used to function like a club of like-minded people, but that’s no longer the case. The market now is truly global, and it has become less transparent in the process…”


Nouveau riche? Welcome to the Club!

Our previous news/notice – “A day in the life of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s pricey new Leonardo Salvator Mundi” – was pegged on Georgina Adam’s Financial Times interview with Christie’s CEO, Guillame Cerutti.

In today’s Art Market Monitor blog, Marion Maneker defends Georgina Adam’s book, The Dark side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century, against a review in The New Republic:

“Unfortunately, [Rachel] Wetzler’s idea of a critique is to somehow fault Adam for not belabouring the obvious context of her book:

‘But while Adams paints a detailed and convincingly dire picture of the art world’s excesses, she never fully probes its implications. Perhaps ironically, its central weakness is her narrow focus on the activities of the art market itself: Her book largely brackets an exploration of the art market from the broader context of rising income inequality, economic exploitation, and staggering concentrations of wealth in the hands of the very few, all of which have enabled activity at the its upper reaches to continue unabated despite global downturns in other financial sectors. According to the sociologist Olav Velthuis, the art market ultimately benefits from an unequal distribution of wealth, as newly minted billionaires turn to blockbuster art purchases as a means of announcing their arrival…’”

Maneker dismisses the general charge as “both obvious and silly” but sows confusion with a claim that the rich “have many ways to announce their arrival” other than by social climbing. While that, too, may be self-evident it distracts from the force and precision of Adam’s analysis of certain shortcomings within the art market’s own institutions. When speaking of an apparent art world unwillingness to eliminate decades-long fraudulent practices – even after the most revelatory scandals – Georgina Adam (p. 191-2) pinpoints specific failures:

“What is surprising is the lack of impact the art market scandals have actually had, as lawyer Donn Zaretsky told me:

‘I haven’t seen much change after Knoedler [’s great Fakes Scandal]…I still see people doing deals on a handshake. The fact is the art market is a market but also a social world. If people are buying Tribeca real estate they will do the necessary research, bring in the lawyers, stitch up the contracts, and yet if they buy a picture for $3m they will hardly do anything.

‘It’s all part of this social world, meeting the artist, going to the parties. And buying art is an entrée to this world. You need to understand this in order to understand why these things happen, and why the art market will be so hard to regulate.’”

Marion Maneker’s Art Market Monitor blog of 22 February linked to a discussion between Glenn Fuhrmann and Lary Gagosian and noted that: “in this interview, one can see some indications of how deeply Gagosian’s success is tied to his ability to create among his clientele the sense of belonging to an exclusive club.”

There exist further three-way relationships between dealers, auction houses and collectors. Gagosian reportedly underwrote the recent $450m sale at Christie’s of the Salvator Mundi with a $100m guarantee to buy. This is said to have been in exchange for a $60m guarantee from the Salvator Mundi’s vendor to buy – in the very same auction of modern art – a Gagosian-owned Warhol of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Michael Daley, 27 February 2018


wibble!