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Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship

30 September 2014

“Buy land”, Mark Twain advised, “they’re not making it anymore”. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries. Karl Marx, plundering English classical economists, held that all value is unlocked by human labour – but all labour does not generate equal values. In given periods and places all painters work pretty much with the same materials but their artistic transformations of those materials are various and unequal in accomplishment and merit. Such differences drive reputations and hence the market value of artists’ works but they do so in ways that are intrinsically problematic.

Artists’ reputations may or may not endure. With many surviving works the identities of authors are either not securely established or entirely unknown. In such cases paintings are appraised and then attributed to particular artists or schools. Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse. The experts who make attributions exist in professional rivalry with one another (sometimes with vehemence) and while their disagreements are signs of art critical health, a consequence is that legal guarantees for attributions are untenable and non-existent, as some buyers later discover to their costs. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and to proceed on their own judgement. With art, as we recently pointed out (see Endnote 1) it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting (- and few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.)

“Scientific” red herrings

In recent years attempts have been made to impart quasi-legal assurances to attributions by appealing to the authority of supposedly “scientifically verifiable” technical proofs. The exercise is vain and, technically, philistine: by its very nature, art is not reducible to scientifically quantifiable component parts. The technical evidence cult reflects a collapse of confidence in powers of connoisseurship on the one hand and a grab for cultural and institutional power by technocrats and bureaucrats on the other. The new hybrid discipline “Technical Art History” in which restorers, conservation scientists and curators pool expertises in attempt to arrive at professionally impregnable positions, has proved pernicious. Art-politically, this united front seeks to neutralise all charges of art critical and methodological failure with professional mystification and displacement activities – by fostering a “closed-shop” mentality and claiming that its mysteries are beyond the reach of any outsiders [2]. The new technocrats insufficiently appreciate that paintings are no more and no less than the products of artists who, working by brain, eye and hand, fix values and the relationships between values so as to produce specific and unique artistic effects that can be comprehended by others using eyes and minds in response. In the visual arts the visual should remain paramount – what you see is what it is about. Art loving viewers and professional art experts alike might be said to have duties of appropriate response to art itself and not to its shadows and encumbrances. It is the optically perceived quality of artists’ artefacts that drives reputations and market values. Understanding art is not the same thing as poking and poring over the component parts of its fabric – let alone presuming, as “restorers” (or now, “conservators”) perpetually do, to undo and redo its features at regular intervals. What matters is what you see, not what might be said or thought to lie under the surface.

Managing lapses of connoisseurship

This is not, of course, to say that technical examinations can serve no purposes. Rather, it is to say that in matters of art attribution and appreciation technical examinations of the physical composition of works might supplement informed visual appraisals but they cannot stand in lieu of them. Nor can the supposedly disinterested and neutral character of technical examinations themselves be taken at face value. In practice, with every technical investigation and its resulting “findings”, someone, some institution, some interest group, has commissioned/conducted the exercise and controlled its dissemination. Paintings in powerful institutionally-protected locations (particularly major museum) can be afforded dispensations from otherwise injurious findings [2]. It sometimes seems that just as banks are now too big to be allowed to fail, so big museum attributions cannot be allowed to fall, whatever evidence and arguments accumulate against them [3], for fear of undermining public, political and art market confidence.

Follow the money and look at the drawings

Concerning the frequency of art world upgrades, it would seem easier to grow old master drawings than paintings. Where only 250 sheets of drawings were attributed to Michelangelo in the 1960s, today that oeuvre has been expanded to over 600 sheets. Although drawings do not command the high prices of paintings they can greatly assist their attributions. In the late 1920s a firm of antiquarian dealers in Holland, R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam, sold a number of old master drawings some of which have ended in museums, and two of which concern us here (Figs. 1 and 2). Neither of these had a provenance (i.e. a proven history of previous ownership). Both had simply materialised in the dealers’ hands with old master attributions. The first sold in 1927 for 26 florins (guilders), some € 235.80 at today’s values. The second sold two years later for 750 florins, some €6,801.91 today. The first was attributed to van Dyck, the second to Veronese. Neither attribution survived and the original perplexing ratio of value between them (which approached thirty to one) has reversed dramatically.

The Veronese attribution crashed in 1984 when Richard Cocke published his catalogue raisonné Veronese’s Drawings and dismissed the drawing with the single (apt) sentence: “The heavy forceful cross-hatching in the drapery and the forms of the head and hands have nothing to do with Veronese.” That drawing sold in 1991 at Christie’s for £7,000 as “attributed to Agostino Carracci”. In contrast, the former van Dyck drawing morphed into the work that sold at Christie’s on July 10th as an autograph Rubens ink sketch for a world record Rubens drawing price of £3,218,500. The former “van Dyck” has thus enjoyed a 14,000-fold increase of value since 1927.

The extraordinary success of the van Dyck that is now a Rubens was due only in part to Christie’s masterful promotion. It was very much on the strength of its current art-historical position that the drawing was drum-rolled as the starred lot in a sale of part of the prestigious I. Q. van Regteren Altena drawings collection. Most helpfully of all, the drawing was precisely characterised as Rubens’s “first thought” preparatory ink sketch for the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting (Fig. 4). Notwithstanding its anomalous traits (see our previous post), its artistic shortcomings and its dubious provenance, the drawing remains bolstered by its crucial allotted role in a sequence of three Samson and Delilahs, two of which have been acquired by museums (Figs. 3 & 4). Although Christie’s July 10 sale realised more than twice its highest estimates and broke many records for individual artists, only one of the top ten works went to an art gallery or museum. Two were sold on to the trade. Seven, including the Samson and Delilah drawing, went to anonymous individuals.

Making four Rubens’s

Christie’s catalogue entry burnishes the drawing’s pedigree with upbeat optimism. It is said for example: “When I. Q. van Regteren Altena bought the drawing in 1927, he listed it in his inventory under its traditional attribution to Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). That attribution also accounts for an earlier owner’s inscription of the letters ‘V.D.’ in the lower left corner.” What traditional attribution? Which earlier owners? Christie’s account of the provenance begins: “with R.W.P. de Vries Amsterdam; from whom purchased by I.Q. van Regteren Altena on 20 December 1927 for 26 guilders (‘387.t. A. v. Dijck. Samson & Delilah’)”. And that is all. There had been no previous owners and no evidence exists of any “traditional” reception as a van Dyck – or anything. Any suppositions aside, all that can safely be said is that this drawing emerged from nowhere at a time when forgery was rife and the art world suffered from what Bernard Berenson [!] described as “the universal tendency to ascribe a given work of art to the greatest artist to whom wishful thinking and excited imagination can ascribe it.” (“Essays in Appreciation”, 1958, p. 95.)

Christie’s entry continues: “With the emergence of the finished painting and the connected oil sketch the drawing’s significance rapidly became apparent.” There was no rapidity and the claimed significance is mythic. The supposed second stage oil sketch or modello did not appear until 1966. The claim that, “The picture of Samson and Delilah was only rediscovered in 1929”, also misleads. The painting was not “rediscovered” as a Rubens. It had never been a Rubens. When it appeared in 1929 it was, just like the ink drawing three years earlier, without provenance and it was not judged a Rubens by its German dealers, Van Diemen and Benedict, who were offering it as a Honthorst. It was later upgraded to Rubens in a certificate of authenticity by Dr Ludwig Burchard and it then sold in 1930 to August Neurburg, a German tobacco magnate.

Burchard was a leading Rubens scholar, but today his attributions have a notoriously poor record [4]. Far from the ink drawing being corroborated as a first stage sketch by the arrival of the painting, Burchard had upgraded the painting on the authority of the drawing which he had himself upgraded to Rubens in 1926. In Christie’s catalogue the drawing’s “Literature” begins with Burchard’s attribution: “L. Burchard, ‘Die Skizzen des jungen Rubens’ in Sitzungsberichte der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 8 October 1926, p. 30, no. 2.” At that date no one had previously owned or discussed the work. Burchard thus upgraded a drawing that had never been exhibited and was in a dealer’s hands without any provenance. Notwithstanding his claims on behalf of the drawing, in 1927 both the dealer selling and the collector buying still held it to be a van Dyck.

When the modello eventually appeared in 1966 it had no provenance. Its history consisted of a hearsay account (from the anonymous lady vendor) of an ancestor said to have bought the work for a few shillings in an antique shop in York during the 1930s because she liked the frame. This supposed Rubens oil sketch had been painted on a support that is found in none of the artist’s oil sketches – on a soft, conifer wood, not on his customary oak panel. Its appearance was, for a Rubens oil sketch, disturbingly close in design and effects to those of both the ink drawing and the finished painting (see Figs. 2, 3 and 4). Its arrival completed an unicum in Rubens’ oeuvre: a suite of stages of work without evidence of development. Notwithstanding that problem, the modello on the wrong wood was given to Rubens by Christie’s themselves, to join the company of a panel painting whose back, it later emerged, had disappeared in an operation for which no one acknowledged responsibility, and a drawing whose back was concealed by being pasted onto a second sheet even though it bore drawing itself. The modello sold to a London gallery for £24,000, going to a private collector before passing through Agnews to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1972. The last of the trio to emerge, this technically problematic work-without-provenance was the first to achieve museum status. At some point, pieces of wood were removed from its sides (creating a closer compositional alignment with what is now the National Gallery painting) and, at another, the Cincinnati museum claimed the panel to be oak. Presently the wood is not identified, the work being described as on “panel”.

Why? Why? Why? Delilah?

In July 1980, the supposed third stage, the Samson and Delilah painting, was sold by Neurburg’s heirs through Christie’s to Agnews, acting on behalf of the National Gallery, for a then Rubens world record price of £2.53m. In 2002, with two parts of the Samson and Delilah trio now secure in museums and the third in a respected private collection, Sotheby’s sold a painting, The Massacre of the Innocents (see Fig. 13), as an autograph Rubens on the back of its perceived shared characteristics and collections history with the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah for £49.5m, to Lord (Kenneth) Thompson. Even though those paintings are riddled with problems (see “Is this really a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Art Review, July/August 1997, and “Is this a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Jackdaw, October 2002), and the Samson and Delilah had been challenged for over a decade [5], the price was an outright old masters’ world record. Thompson loaned the Massacre to the National Gallery and then bequeathed it to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, thereby making it publicly available and greatly enhancing its pedigree. Thus, today, three high valued well-placed but individually problematic museum Rubens’s owe their positions to a belated acceptance of Burchard’s initial attribution of what is still a privately (but now anonymously) owned ink drawing.

Who cut Samson’s toes?

The reason why all of these subsequent Rubens upgrades rest on the authority of this ink drawing is because of a glaringly anomalous feature in the National Gallery painting – the fact that the toes of Samson’s right foot are cropped by the edge of the picture. This was not because the panel had been trimmed at some point. Rather, it is because the painting simply stops disturbingly, inexplicably, at the beginning of the toes. Thus, without the drawing’s seeming testimony that Rubens had planned to crop Samson’s toes by cropping his own initial design within a precisely drawn ruled box that anticipated (even before he had executed an oil sketch) the final format of what is now the National Gallery painting, that painting could never have been attributed to him. This is so for reasons that are implicit in Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity. It read:

“The photographed painting on the other page is one of Peter Paul Rubens’ major works from the time of the master’s return from Italy. It must have been painted in 1609 or 1610. With Rubens’ agreement, Jacob Matham reproduced the painting with a copper engraving around 1615. As witnessed by the inscription of the painting, the picture at that time was in the possession of Antwerp mayor Nicolas Rockox. Indeed, the inventory of Nic. Rockox’ estate, dated 19 Dec. 1640, lists the picture as “Eene schilderne…(Annales de l’Academie d’Archaeologie de Belgique, Anvers 1881, p. 437). On pp. 143-44 in vol. I of 1886, the five-volume catalogue of Rubens’ work by Max Rooses, the painting is described in detail as number 115, based on the Matham engraving and mentioning the Rockox inventory. The picture itself remained as unknown to Rooses as to all literature since. It is further notable that a picture of an interior by Frans Francken (Pinakothek Munchen No 720), which appeared to be of mayor Rockox’s living room, showing the painting in pride of place above the mantelpiece, while in an adjoining room is the picture of the “Doubting Thomas” which we know Rubens painted for Rockox. According to S. Hartveld of Antwerp, the room with the mantelpiece exists even today in the Kaiserstraat in Antwerp where Frau Gruter-Van der Linden now lives in the Rockox house. A sketch for the Samson picture (pen, varnished, 16.4 x 16.2) is in Amsterdam in the collection of Mr J.Q. Regteren, Altena. The picture is in a remarkably good state of preservation, with even the back of the panel in its original condition.” [By courtesy of the National Gallery Archives Department.]

Note, even as Burchard asserts that this is the original painting of the subject that Rubens is known to have made shortly after 1608, he acknowledges that the original painting itself had universally been understood to have been lost since 1641. (To this day, despite detailed and sustained searches, nothing connects the present version to the original painting.) Crucially, Burchard also acknowledges that the appearance of the original Samson and Delilah had been recorded in two contemporary copies, one of which had been supervised by Rubens. Both of these copies by two artists who likely worked decades apart, testify that Samson’s original right foot had not been (improbably) cropped at the toes, as in the National Gallery version, but had originally been painted intact and set comfortably inside the composition and consistently with the artist’s known manner. See, for example, the almost contemporary, probably pendant (and near mirror-image compositional group) Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity”, at Fig. 9.

A perplexing silence

It was in defiance of such hard historical testimony that Burchard claimed his own upgraded ink drawing to be not only by Rubens but, specifically, to be his preliminary sketch for the former Honthorst painting that is now in the National Gallery. When attributing that painting to Rubens Burchard executed a sleight of hand by implying but not stating that the ink drawing (which had only recently been sold as a van Dyck) was by Rubens. The truth is this ink drawing-from-nowhere and without-history had needed to exist if the Berlin Honthorst were to be presented remotely credibly as a Rubens. Had Burchard sincerely believed that the cropped-foot drawing was Rubens’ original ink sketch, he would have felt himself the agent of a remarkable double art historical coup: first, for having identified a famous masterpiece that had been lost for 289 years; second, for having further established that both of the contemporary copies of that original Rubens’ painting (through which it had been known for centuries), had been compositionally misleading in identical manners.

Conspicuously, Burchard trumpeted neither of these “discoveries” [6]. His diffidence contrasts markedly with the reaction of the day’s leading Vermeer scholar, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who believed in 1937 that he had found an unknown Vermeer (in what was the first of a stream of Han van Meegeren fakes). Firstly, Bredius’ certificate of authenticity was ecstatically and unreservedly fulsome: “…I found it hard to contain my emotions when this masterpiece was first shown to me and many will feel the same who have the privilege of beholding it. Composition, expression, colour – all combine to an unity of the highest art, the highest beauty”. Secondly, he rushed news of his discovery onto the scholarly record via the Burlington Magazine (“A New Vermeer”, November 1937).

If Bredius betrayed credulousness as an eighty-two year old scholar, what of Burchard’s manoeuvres as a forty-four year old at the peak of his powers? It can only be said that suspicions are in order. When, shortly after the First World War, the great German scholar, Wilhelm von Bode, was reproached for having certificated an implausible Petrus Christus, he replied, “You don’t understand the intricacies of the German language. After a brief description of the subject I say ‘I have never seen a Petrus Christus like this!'” (- “The Partnership”, Colin Simpson, 1987, p. 240). One must suspect that Burchard’s twinned and circular Rubens attributions were made sotto voce out of fear that his “attributional” heist might be exposed by anyone with an alert eye who appreciated that it is surprisingly common for later copies of original works to be cruder compositionally cut-down and abridged versions – and who would, therefore, recognise the “Honthorst” as a prime member of that type.

We have found that not only are such insensitively truncated pictures frequently encountered (in Rubens twice-over with the Samson and Delilah and the Ontario Massacre, and in artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci – see opposite) but, also, that with a little effort they can in almost every instance be shown to post-date the superior models and prototypes from which they derive. As shown opposite, in copyists’ hands, no part of an original composition can be considered sacrosanct. As well as toes, dogs’ noses and cupids’ wings, even portions of dead infants have been cropped to fit pre-existing images to new supports and formats. Mistaking a copy for an absent original is one thing. Disregarding clear and contrary historical evidence, as Burchard would seem to have done, is another altogether. Knowingly elevating adulterated versions to a master’s oeuvre pollutes the well of scholarship and ultimately threatens the credibility of the field.

Such lapses of critical judgement are as common in appraisals of restorations as they are in the making of attributions. How much or little of an original surface has survived the vicissitudes of time and “conservators” attentions might seem a lesser matter but it is not. Professional art critical failures to spot the tell-tale differences between autograph and studio works are the twins of failures to recognise restoration-induced injuries. The differences of states within individual works can be as pronounced as the differences between autograph and studio works (see Figs. 28a, 28b, 29 and 30). Failures of judgement in both areas are frequently found in even the most high-ranking individual scholars.

Making two Caravaggios in one decade

Within little more than a decade the late Sir Denis Mahon upgraded two pictures to autograph Caravaggio status. This might seem unremarkable given that Mahon was a prolific finder/maker of old masters. What is remarkable is that he did so with two versions (of more than a dozen) of the same painting – Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. This Caravaggio survives in two formats, one being a truncated version of the other. Mahon managed to endorse one version of each type, doing so in the wake of two “investigative” restorations in which each team claimed revealed authenticity on the basis of its own “discoveries”. (Mahon had serious form in the double attributions stakes – we discuss opposite a painting of Annibale Carracci where he authenticated one version and later suavely switched to another, less abridged, picture. See Figs. 25-30.)

During the first restoration in 1993 in Dublin, a long-attributed Honthorst copy was found to have been made largely without revisions and it was declared the original autograph Caravaggio by Mahon precisely by virtue of its revisions-light painterly fluency. This version was of the truncated type. In Rome in 2004 Mahon conferred autograph Caravaggio status on a work from Florence (where acquired from the Sannini family) that was found to have been made with many and major revisions taken to be “serious afterthoughts as was Caravaggio’s wont”. This version was composed in the larger format and Mahon reportedly said he had “no doubt that this was now the original work”. Dublin was not best pleased and Mahon promptly rowed his position back and claimed that both versions were now original but that one was rather more so than the other. (See “New twist in the tale of two Caravaggios”, Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2004; “A dangerous business”, Michael Daley, letter, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; and, “The real Caravaggio is . . . both of them” Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2004.)

Like the two R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam drawings, the two “autograph” Mahon Caravaggios have enjoyed unequal fortunes. In 1993 the (revisions-light) Dublin Caravaggio was loaned to the National Gallery in London and then, permanently, to the National Gallery in Dublin. The later 2004 Florence/Rome Caravaggio with numerous major revisions and other “cast iron” technical proofs enjoyed no institutional protection, being still in private hands. Its cause seems to have fallen into abeyance following legal disputes over ownership. In 2005 the initial 1993 “discovery” of the now institutionally protected Dublin Caravaggio (Mahon enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the National Gallery in London, as a trustee and as a generous benefactor-in-waiting) became the subject of an illuminating, if somewhat parti pris book, “The Lost Painting”, by Jonathan Harr.

In an epilogue, Harr has described a falling-out over the ownership of the Florence/Rome version. Technical examinations of the painting were ordered by court prosecutors without the knowledge of the owners. They were carried out by Maurizio Seracini, a leading private technical diagnostician who has examined something like half of Caravaggio’s output. The pigment Naples Yellow, which contains the metal antinomy, was found. Because that pigment is presently said not to have been used on paintings before 1630 (or “from around 1620”, according to Wikipedia), and therefore twenty years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, Seracini held the painting inauthentic. Harr accepts the force of this technical testimony and, concluding that Mahon had demonstrably blundered in his support for the Rome/Florence painting, imagines that that old scholar’s long-time adversary, Roberto Longhi, might now be enjoying “a mirthless laugh” over Mahon’s discomfiture. The conclusion was hasty and perhaps too trusting of technical testimony.

It is certainly the case that the presence of a modern, manufactured pigment within the fabric of a supposedly old painting can safely be considered fatal to an attribution. However, Naples Yellow is not a product of a known and precisely dated modern manufacture – such as Prussian Blue of 1704 – it is ancient and greatly pre-dates Christ. Harr acknowledges that the pigment is found on a painting of 1615 by Orazio Gentileschi – just five years after Caravaggio’s death. Harr further reports that traces of this pigment had been found on another Caravaggio, his Martydom of St Ursula, which is owned by Banca Intesta in the Palazzo Zevallos, Naples. He reports a suggestion that the offending material might have come from an 18th century restoration that had subsequently been removed. Such hypothetical exculpation would only be necessary if claims that Naples Yellow could not have been used by anyone before 1630 were Gospel and if the painting’s attribution was insecure. Neither is the case. The Martyrdom is one of Caravaggio’s most reliably and completely documented works so there can be no question about its authenticity. Further, it was almost certainly his last work. It was recorded as still being wet in May 1610. If this painting contains antimony, and unless evidence exi