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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


The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments

“The more I read it, the more it looks probable.”

Above, Salvator Mundi, the painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold at auction in 2017 for $450 million. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images – as published on 2 April 2018 in Buffalo News

The sensational Mail Online story (“EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht”) discussed here in this News & Notices post, has been questioned or disparaged by a number of commentators but not directly challenged by Christie’s, so far as we know. On March 30 Bendor Grosvenor wrote (“Who underbid the Salvator Mundi?):

“I’m sceptical about this version of events. First, the source seems determined to prove mainly that the picture is somehow ‘not worth’ what it made – the figure of $80m is mentioned – when there were other underbidders up to the $200m level. Second, I’ve been told that the underbidder to $400m was not from the Middle East, from a source who would know.”

Had Grosvenor’s source been correct and the Mail’s story, thus, been seriously misleading, one would expect Christie’s’ lawyers to have demanded either changes to the online article or its removal. Grosvenor’s seeming partisanship on the Salvator Mundi case takes two forms. As well as knocking the knockers, he hypes his brother-auctioneers’ hype, as, on November 12 2017 (“Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ to be sold at Christie’s”):

“I love this video of people seeing Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. Christie’s say 20,000 have been to see the painting on its world tour. I’ve been impressed by how Christie’s have marketed the picture – in fact, I’d say that they’ve taken marketing Old Masters to a whole new level. A well deserved AHN pat on the back to all involved. The sale is on Wednesday 15th November. Anyone care to make a prediction?”

On November 16, the day after the $450m sale, Grosvenor was ecstatically supportive (“’Salvator Mundi’ – the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction”):

“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 congratulates them all.”

Pace Grosvenor and his sources, questions on Christie’s marketing of the Salvator Mundi persist. The whispering campaign against the Mail’s disclosures has not worked. In this weekend’s Financial Times the author Melanie Gerlis closed her art market column with the item below:

As things stand, no one has disproved the Mail’s suggestion that the (disputed) Leonardo Salvator Mundi has been swapped for a luxury yacht. In her book Art as Investment, Gerlis noted that because the “worth and price are known to only a few” in an art market that is underpinned by a lack of “verifiable and meaningful data”, those looking to art purely as a secure investment “might first consider looking elsewhere.”

With the Salvator Mundi, some 13 years after its emergence, we still do not know when, where and by whom the painting was bought. There have been many conflicting accounts on the work’s ownership (see below). In the April 6 Antiques and Arts Weekly, the New York dealer Dr Robert Simon was asked: “Can you say where you found Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’?” He replied:

“Alex and I acquired the painting at an estate auction in the United States, but we’ve never divulged the location of the auction. We were not permitted to, according to the terms of the confidentiality agreement we signed at the time we sold the painting.”

The sale was conducted privately in 2013 through Sotheby’s when it was acquired by the “Freeport King”, Yves Bouvier, who was acting as an agent for the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Did Sotheby’s insist that the origin of the picture not be disclosed? Or Bouvier? Whomever – the enforced confidentiality clause was made eight years after the claimed discovery/acquisition in 2005. However constricting the terms of the 2013 sale agreement might have been, they could hardly account for the non-disclosure of the owners’ identities for the previous eight years – including the time the picture spent in the National Gallery. When the Salvator Mundi was about to enter the Gallery’s big Leonardo show in 2011 as an autograph Leonardo, the Sunday Times reported:

“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, then, did the National Gallery agree to participate in this secrecy on the ownership of a painting whose (contested) Leonardo ascription had been supported by the gallery’s own director; by one of its curators; and, by one of its trustees?

Another of the scholar-supporters of this upgraded Leonardo is Professor Martin Kemp. In 2011 Kemp told the Sunday Times how he had been invited to view the work by the National Gallery (“there’s something it’s worth you coming in to look at”, was how Kemp put it). Kemp described entering the National Gallery’s conservation studios and joining “a little group of people, including some Leonardo scholars from Italy and America, and Robert Simon.” Robert Simon had been accompanied on that trip by the Salvator Mundi’s restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini. In 2012 Modestini would deliver a paper on the picture’s (then) two restoration campaigns at a conference held in the National Gallery.

FRESH CLAIMS

On April 6 Buffalo News reported that Dianne Modestini was to speak on April 9 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State and was about to make two new claims.

First, that she and her late husband, the restorer Mario Modestini, had entertained no doubts that this was an autograph Leonardo painting: “We were completely convinced and we felt that we could justify this to anyone without sounding like idiots.” This goes further than Modestini’s 2012 paper: “…when I first saw it I never imagined what would transpire with this lovely but damaged painting on panel…I wasn’t aware of a lost, much-copied Salvator Mundi by Leonardo and I was perplexed. I showed the painting to my then 98 year old husband, Mario…He looked at it for a long time and said, ‘It is by a very great artist, a generation after Leonardo’.”

Second, that no technical evidence had emerged to confirm authorship by Leonardo. Modestini reportedly said that what made her so sure was not “the discovery of any single clue attributable to the master’s style or any technical element of the painting that could be traced to his hand, but rather the quality of the painting”. There was “no under-drawing for example, that was Leonardo’s drawing style, or anything like that. The pigments are the pigments that any one of his contemporaries could have used, and did.” This attribution was entirely a matter of judgment: “the quality of the painting, the sort of old-fashioned connoisseurship and skills, which art historians have always used to make an attribution, were in the end the telling factor for us.”

Those present at her lecture might have learnt why a painting that had so soon revealed itself as an autograph Leonardo to two experienced restorers and in which “apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire structure, including the final scumbles and glazes” had needed a third campaign of restoration with substantial repainting of the face, some time between 2016 (when the Qataris reportedly turned down a private offer of the painting for $80m) and the spectacular $450m sale at Christie’s on 15 November 2017 amidst modern works, not old masters.

A NEW BOOK – FURTHER COMPLICATIONS

Above: left, Peter Silverman, the owner of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”; right, Professor Martin Kemp, author of the 2010 book “La Bella Principessa” – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: as published in Martin Kemp’s Living With Leonardo

Professor Martin Kemp has published a new book (Living with Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond) in which he pays a back-handed compliment to ArtWatch in his second chapter: “Theirs has been the most sustained and fully researched of the hostile polemics”. Elsewhere he launches a series of slurs against three named ArtWatch UK contributors and officers in defence of his own support for two recently attributed Leonardos, the Salvator Mundi painting, and the mixed media drawing on vellum glued onto oak, that he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. The slurs will be refuted, but we note here that Kemp has now provided a fuller, and apparently verbatim, account of the National Gallery’s invitation to him to view the Salvator Mundi:

“On 5 March 2008, my birthday, an email arrived, announcing the appearance of a new Leonardo – a painting rather than a drawing […It] came from a well known source: Nicholas Penny, then director of the National Gallery in London.

“I would like to invite you to examine a damaged old painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi which is in private hands in New York. Now it has been cleaned, Luke Syson and I, together with our colleagues in both paintings and drawings in the Met, are convinced that it is Leonardo’s original version, although some of us consider that there may be [parts? – Kemp’s parenthesis] which are by the workshop. We hope to have the painting in the National Gallery sometime later in March or in April so that it can be examined next to our version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The best preserved passages in the Salvator Mundi panel are very similar to parts of the latter painting. Would you be free to come to London at any time in this period? We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

The following observations on that stage of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo accreditation might be made:

1) The method of inviting successive select groups of scholars to see and appraise the painting in the prior knowledge of others’ support for the new attribution might be thought to have fallen short of the National Gallery’s own practices. When Nicholas Penny, as a curator at the National Gallery, proposed the Northumberland version of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks as the original painted prototype of the very many versions, he first published a thorough and well-received scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine, and later invited a group of some thirty Raphael scholars to discuss the matter during a day-long symposium at the National Gallery.

2) With this Salvator Mundi upgrade, none of the fifteen or so invited experts has published a case for the attribution. Robert Simon has yet to publish the researches to which both Modestini’s restoration report and Luke Syson’s exhibition catalogue entry were indebted. It is not clear whether Modestini was present when the painting was examined at the National Gallery. Kemp writes in his new book:

“No one in this assembly was openly expressing doubt that Leonardo was responsible for the painting, although the possibility of participation by an assistant or two was generally acknowledged. I sensed that Carmen [Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum drawings] was the most reserved about the painting’s overall quality. A general discussion followed. Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learnt was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and its restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts…”

Carmen Bambach rejected the Leonardo attribution in a 2012 Apollo review of the National Gallery exhibition and gave the painting to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio. Ironically, the Times reported on 9 April 2017 that Kemp has now demoted the Hermitage Museum’s Litta Madonna (which was included as a Leonardo in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition) from Leonardo to Boltraffio.

3) After seeing the Salvator Mundi next to the National Gallery’s version of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (which is to say, its second version), Dianne Modestini was inspired to change the appearance of the former:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching. I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti on the thumb and stole, and several other small details but, chiefly, the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks and based on fragments of the black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the complete restoration.”

Thus, Modestini had intervened radically on the painting shortly before it was included in the National Gallery’s major 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition and two years after it was appraised by selected Leonardo scholars at the National Gallery.

4) Restoration campaigns, like wars, are easy to start. In 2012 Modestini acknowledged an ambition to finish a “complete restoration”, after seeing the National Gallery’s restored Virgin of the Rocks. Permission, she recalled, was granted to strip and repaint the entire background:

“The initial cleaning [i. e. paint and varnish removal] was promising especially where the verdigris had preserved the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the ground and in some cases the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light red, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour then freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.”

5) “Restorations”, which might more accurately be described as “stripped and painted re-presentations commissioned by owners”, are rarely straightforward and unproblematic. Modestini made her decisions in the sincere belief that the London Virgin of the Rocks is an entirely autograph Leonardo painting and therefore a reliable guide to her own interventions on the Salvator Mundi. However, that Leonardo attribution has only been widely thought to be the case since the painting’s recent restoration. Kenneth Clark, when director of the National Gallery thought otherwise. In 1944 he said of the head of the picture’s angel: “This is one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair. The curls around the shoulder have exactly the same movement as Leonardo’s drawings of swirling water. Beautiful as it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter, more Gothic angel in the Paris version…” Of the head of the Virgin, Clark wrote:

“…It is uncertain how much of this replica [of the first, Louvre, Virgin of the Rocks] he [Leonardo] executed with his own hand, and this head of the Virgin is the most difficult part of the problem. It is too heavy and lifeless for Leonardo and the actual type is un-Leonardesque; yet it is painted in exactly the same technique as the angel’s head in the same picture; and that is so perfect that Leonardo must surely have had a hand in it. Both show curious marks of palm and thumb…made when the paint was wet, and no doubt covered by glazes long since removed. This perhaps is a clue to the problem. A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before the paint was dry Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous.”

Above, top: The head of the Virgin in the National Gallery’s (second) version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, as published in 1944 in Kenneth Clark’s One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery. Above, the Head of the Virgin as published in the 1990 re-issue of Clark’s “Details” book and, therefore, after its post-war restoration by Helmut Ruhemann but before its more recent re-restoration by Larry Keith (in which the mouth of the Angel was altered, on Luke Syson’s advice, as discussed here in “Something Not Quite Right About Leonardo’s Mouth ~ The Rise and Rise of Cosmetically Altered Art”).

Above, the face in the accredited Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi, as exhibited, left, in the National Gallery in 2011-12, and, right, as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017.

In 1990 the National Gallery remarked that “as a result of” the picture’s 1949 restoration “the differences between the heads are perhaps less apparent”. That being so, either one face had received new glazing or the other had lost original glazing. For Kemp, a crucial technical proof of Leonardo’s authorship of the Salvator Mundi is the fact that technical examinations had disclosed that “As is generally the case with Leonardo, infrared rays delivered the most striking results. It was good to be able to see that the artist had pressed his hand in to the tacky paint above Christ’s left eye – which we have seen to be characteristic of Leonardo’s technique.”

THE UNDERSTANDING TODAY ON THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S OWNERSHIP BETWEEN 2005 AND 2013

In his seventh chapter (“The Saviour”) Kemp twice discusses the ownership of the Salvator Mundi. He does so first with regard to the exclusion from the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition of the “La Bella Principessa” drawing (– whose Leonardo ascription he has energetically advocated):

“This episode 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’ [like the ‘La Bella Principessa’]. All I knew at this stage [2011] 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 any further.”

So, it would seem that the National Gallery had not disclosed the identity of the owner/owners to the scholars it invited to appraise the painting. Kemp continued:

“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 that he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the work was not on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit it, they were happy to accept this assurance…Might the Salvator have been less well regarded if its messy sale [in 2013, privately through Sotheby’s] to Bouvier [for $80m – $68m in cash and a Picasso valued at $12m, according to Georgina Adam in her “Dark Side of the Boom” book] and its resale [to Dimitry Rybolovlev for $127.5m] had been apparent before its public debut [at the National Gallery in 2011-12]? It has turned out to be a substantial mess. In November 2016, an article in The New York Times reported the latest developments: three ‘art traders’ (Robert Simon, Warren Adelson and Alexander Parrish) were disconcerted to find that painting was ‘flipped’ by Bouvier for $47.5m more than their selling price. Was Sotheby’s a knowing party to the the resale? The auction house claimed that it was not, taking pre-emptive legal action to block any law suit by the ‘traders’….It was however a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 at a mega-auction of celebrity works from the modern era. 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.”

Where would we be without a free and vigilant press? Where, precisely, is the $450m Salvator Mundi today?

Michael Daley, 10 April 2018


Startling disclosures on the re-re-restored Leonardo Salvator Mundi

One of the many mysteries surrounding the sale of the Modestini Leonardo Salvator Mundi that fetched $450m at Christie’s on 17 November 2017 was the identity of the under-bidder who staked $370m. The Daily Mail would seem to have the answer:

“EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht)

• Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ sold at an auction last November for a record-breaking $405.3million
• It was later revealed the painting’s buyer was Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah
• Palace insiders said the purchase was on behalf of the country’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whose regime was criticized for the purchase
• De-facto United Arab Emirates ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed also sent a representative to bid on the painting at the Christie’s New York auction
• Neither knew the other was bidding, instead they both feared losing the auction to reps from the Qatari ruling family – fierce rivals of UAE and Saudi Arabia
• Qatar’s ruling family was offered the painting just a year earlier for $80 million
• Salman’s $450 million purchase was condemned by critics of his regime
• After facing criticism, he struck a deal with his Emirati counterpart to swap the painting for a superyacht also worth $450 million”

The Mail’s remarkable account rather makes monkeys out of those cheer-leading art market commentators who took the record price achieved by Christie’s as if a confirmation of the (untenable) attribution. See the whole account here:

EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht)

The Royal Academy, having unsuccessfully requested the Dianne Dwyer Modestini Mark III Version of the painting for its (magnificent) Charles I Collection exhibition the day after the sale, may have had a close escape. Curators at the Louvre, who bagged the painting for their planned big Leonardo anniversary exhibition next year, might now be given pause for thought. The Mail article shows the $450m Salvator Mundi not as it was sold in 2017 but as it was exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery in its Modestini Mark II version. Professor Martin Kemp necessarily reproduced the Modestini Mark II version in the 2011 edition of his book Leonardo but he continues to reproduce that now obliterated version in his new memoir Living with Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond which goes on sale tomorrow.

To see the Mark II state of the painting, as in 2011, click on our: The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi . To see the Modestini Marks II and III versions together, click on: The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is. To see the extent of the changes between 2011 and 2017, click on The “Salvator Mundi” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, from the authentication in 2011/12 to the sale in 2017, on which site Dr Martin Pracher (- who first spotted the post-2011 re-restoration) shows a number of details in gif formats that will enable even the most aesthetically disadvantaged viewer to appreciate the scale of the transformation this attributed Leonardo had undergone without any acknowledgement by Christie’s before its now-legendary – if not notorious – 17 November 2017 sale.

Michael Daley, 29 March 2018


Fakes, Falsifications and Failures of Connoisseurship

2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of ArtWatch International and, today, the tenth anniversary of the death of its founder, Professor James Beck. This year, the eleventh anniversary of Beck’s From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis, will see the ninth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture (in London) and publication of the proceedings of the 2015 ArtWatch UK, LSE Law, and the Center for Art Law conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” – which examined the crises from the perspectives of artists, scholars, scientists, and lawyers.

During the early 1990s Michelangelo restoration battles we soon saw misattributions and restoration injuries as twinned failures of connoisseurship. Subsequent events confirmed that analysis and vindicated our warnings on toxic attributions [1]. Our recent protracted silence covered studies of the present fakes/connoisseurship malaise and the results will be published during the year.

Fig. 1 890
Fig. 2 2vvv

Above, Figs. 1 and 2: restoration degradations to two Klimt paintings – his Danae of 1907-08, as seen before 1956 and today; and his oil on canvas Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as seen, left in 1905 when not-yet finished and subsequently in 1911, pre-1956 and today.

The starburst of exposed fakes that brought down New York’s (unrepentant) House of Knoedler, embarrassed ancient firms like Colnaghi’s and venerable publications like the Burlington Magazine has also humiliated the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, the Van Gogh Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On 11 April the FBI warned there could be hundreds more fakes in circulation in addition to the forty the agency has identified from a single forger who donated works to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Had the FBI prosecuted the forger Ken Perenyi there might have been as many embarrassments again [2]. The problem of fakes occurs online, on land, and at sea outside of legal jurisdictions, as Anthony Amore has shown in his 2015 compendium of scams, The Art of the Con.

Fig. 3 72

Above, Fig. 3, Klimt’s 1907-08 The Kiss, (detail) as seen before 1956 (top) and today.

With fakes and restoration injuries, the latter are greatly more destructive. Misattributions can be corrected, money can be paid back. However it might be ascribed at a given moment, the work of art – the art object – remains its own prime document (insofar as restorers permit). Sometimes restoration injuries are localised within a work, sometimes they are overall and catastrophic. Successive damaging restorations compound injuries and falsifications irreversibly (as seen above with Klimt and below with Renoir, Degas and Michelangelo). Slow cumulative damages are perhaps more serious than abrupt aberrant mistreatments that draw immediate notice. Scholars who shy from considerations of condition [3] must proceed on the premise that what is today is what originally was – an untenable view given that every restorer loves to undo and redo the works of predecessors but does so at a yet further remove from the work’s original condition and artistic milieu.

RESPONSES TO THE PRESENT ATTRIBUTIONS CRISIS

Responses to the attributions crisis have ranged from panic through self-exculpation and blame-casting to denial and cheerleading assurances of future streams of discoveries from sleeper/hunters. This is not an exclusively art market problem. Its roots are deeper and wider. The market trades objects on what others claim them to be. There has been concern among leading experts over the trade’s capacities of recognition and discrimination because of a precipitate decline in hands-on objects-informed expertise within the academic and museum spheres which have traditionally underpinned market activity [4]. Where Sotheby’s swiftly refunded purchases and took technical precautions, public museums are still flaunting restoration-wrecked pictures [5] and dubious attributions [6]. Much of art historical academia absents itself, fretting over alleged “engendered gazes”, for example, while missing (or disregarding) restoration-wrecked Renoirs and Klimts.

Fig. 4 kli

Above (top), Fig. 4, Klimt’s portrait of his niece Helene in 1956 and in 2007. Above, a detail of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) of 1909, as published in 1956 (left) and in 1985 (Gustav Klimt ~ Women).

Below (left), Fig. 5, a detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen in 1921 and in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge.

Fig. 5 renoi

MUSHROOMING MARKETS

Without the cover of museums’ previously thought invincible technical authority, the mechanics of error are suddenly in plain view. To repeat our warnings, three years ago in “Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship” we wrote:

“‘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… 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… as some buyers later discover to their cost. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and proceed on their own judgement… few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.”

Eleven years ago we noted: “…The artists themselves may be dead but their works proliferate. As recently as the 1960s, 250 sheets of drawings were accepted as authentic Michelangelo. Today, over 600 sheets are. Such increases are fed not so much by forgery or the discovery of genuinely long-lost original works (both of which occur) but by a too-ready upgrading of copies, or studio works, to ‘original’ status.” [7.]

Fig. 6 letters

Three years ago we warned that buying old master paintings could be riskier than buying second-hand cars and asked for vendors to be required to disclose all that is known about a work’s provenance and restoration history (13 August 2014, letter, the TimesFig.6, above). At the time we received silence. This month the art market blogger, Marion Maneker, complained (Art Market Monitor, 2 May 2017) that:

“The Financial Times has yet another ‘How Transparent Is the Art Market?’ story written by an announced participant in an upcoming art market regulation conference revealed in the pages of the Financial Times the week before. Considering the amount of interest the FT has shown in regulating the art market, one would expect the international business newspaper to have some proposals about how to police the trade.” See Georgina Adams, “How transparent is the art market”. Where Maneker complained: “The closest the story comes to offering ideas is to compare the art market to the second-hand car market (unfavorably)” Adams had quoted two art world players who so liken the art market:

“The fundamental problem, according to the FBI’s art and antiquities special agent Meredith Savona, is the lack of records of ownership. ‘Even for cars, I can see who owned it for a certain period of time,’ she says. ‘In the art market there is nothing, no regulation. If someone will not tell you who was the previous owner there’s a reason. There needs to be a way of having records maintained for, say 20 or 30 years.’ This chimes with the stand taken by Nanne Dekking, a Dutch entrepreneur whose start-up Artory aims to bring more transparency to the market through catalogue raisonnés and provenance research – ‘In Holland there is a digital registry for second-hand cars – it’s obligatory to register, so if you buy a car you know exactly what you are getting’, he says. ‘…That’s the kind of transparency we’re after.”

In 2013 Dekking was appointed Sotheby’s Executive Vice President and Vice Chairman, Americas after eleven years with Wildenstein & Co. He is a board member of the Authentication in Art group which first welcomed and then rejected a proposed paper we had offered on the flaws of Technical Art History for a forthcoming AiA conference. We see open and freely published debate as a precondition to reforming a system that is proving unfit for purpose.

PROVENANCE RESEARCH

Georgina Adams also reported calls for a levy on art sales to fund independent bodies to establish and maintain standards in the protection of buyers but such suggestions, in our view, are unworkable. The art market is global and increasingly an arena of private/secret transactions. Taxes are levied by governments. How and by whom would levies be collected around the world, pooled and then disbursed? Who would guarantee the independence of such bodies? Would they be national or international and to whom would they be answerable? Would they charge fees to offset their own costs? Less problematic, much cheaper and perhaps more to the point would be for governments to give buyers enshrined statutory rights to be informed about what should appropriately be known when buying a work of art. Presently, vendors enjoy de facto rights not to disclose their identities; not to disclose how often and to what extent works have been made over by restorers.

CONCEALMENT OF IDENTITIES

In 1998 a pastiche Leonardo drawing was put on the market by Christie’s NY as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. When the work was claimed to be a Leonardo worth $200million (as the so-called “La Bella Principessa”) the lady concerned disclosed her identity and brought an action for damages against the auction house on what was only a claimed valuation, not a sale. Only then did we learn that the vendor was the widow of a painter/restorer (of Leonardo, among others) who had been an intimate of Bernard Berenson, helping him to conceal his collection from the Germans during the War, and the drawing’s only known owner. When the new owner, and Professor Martin Kemp, an AiA board member and a leading advocate of the Leonardo attribution, trawled the Berenson archives together in search of an earlier reference to the drawing they drew a blank. The drawing remains without history outside of the studio of the artist/restorer who is said to have restored it. Such is precisely the kind of information to which potential buyers should rightfully be privy.

THE LAW, SECRECY AND MAKING THE BONA FIDE FAKE

When the Art Newspaper examined the legal ramifications of the current crisis (“It’s time the art market got tough on fakes” 2 February 2017) it found no appetite for either external regulation or self-policing and a blithe acknowledgement that bad restorations convert bona fide pictures into effective forgeries:

“At the annual art-crime symposium held in November at New York University, participants agreed that the culprit was the market’s notorious secrecy. But discussions revealed deep divisions about what should be done. Insurers, auction houses, dealers and other players each have their own interests to protect in a market where, as one participant remarked, the ‘level of greed…is so great’.
‘Information is the currency of the art market,’ said lawyer Steven Thomas, the head of the art law practice at the Los Angeles law firm Irell & Manella. He offered an example showing how information was withheld in trying to close a sale. When one of his clients learned that an impressionist painting he was interested in had been restored so extensively it was no longer considered authentic, he confronted the dealer, a prominent New York gallerist. ‘Oh, you found out,’ was the cavalier response. Such is the attitude in a market where the burden of due diligence as a practical matter may fall on the buyer.”

ACKNOWLEDGING RESTORATION INJURIES TO SAVE AN ATTRIBUTION – AND THE PARAMOUNT IMORTANCE OF PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORDS

Secrecy on condition can tempt owners. Duncan Phillips privately admitted that his great Renoir The Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail below, Fig. 7) was so mauled by two pre-eminent restorers that it was rejected as authentic when loaned to the Louvre:

“Fortunately we were able to put them right because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film which you’re welcome to view. In it you’ll notice actual colour stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God’s sake, don’t report this tragedy. It’s too dreadful.” [8.]

Today one can see on the painting where a colour in one part was introduced into the cracks of another area – and yet Phillips’s widow, Marjorie, wrote in her 1970 memoir Duncan Phillips and his Collection “the Sheldon Kecks, outstanding restorers, operated on the Renoir successfully!” We have asked the Phillips Collection’s director several times to see the film and the painting’s restoration records but always without reply. At the National Gallery, under the directorships of Charles Saumarez-Smith and Nicholas Penny, we were given permission to examine the historic and conservation dossiers of paintings with the kind and helpful assistance of the gallery’s librarians and archivists. In contrast, when we asked to see the records of the Bellini/Titian The Feast of the Gods at the National Gallery, Washington, the conservation department refused outright. A curatorial department was more open and supplied good-quality pre and post-restoration photographs of the painting’s states which enabled us to demonstrate losses of value during the cleaning (as at Fig. 8 below). We learn that a member of the gallery’s conservation staff keeps more sensitive photographic records at home for fear that they “might fall into the wrong hands”.

Fig. 7 eliot scan0001

Above, Fig. 7: a page in the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal published in memory of James Beck who died on 26 May 2007. In the same journal we published a comparison of a detail of the Feast of the Gods, as taken before cleaning (left) and after cleaning but before repainting – see Fig. 8, below:

Fig. 8 x bellini

SPURIOUS CONSERVATION SCIENCE

Fig. 9 all renoirs

Above, top, Fig. 9: a detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning (left) and after cleaning in 1954. Below, Fig. 10, the face, after cleaning and restoring.

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It should be clear to any scholar or connoisseur of paintings that the National Gallery cleaning was injurious, that the picture’s values and relationships were degraded and deranged – and yet the technical promises underpinning the restoration were “top-of-the-range” and authoritative. Cleaning was preceded by a physical and a chemical analysis of the painting by two gallery scientists who concluded that an “extremely thin” natural resin varnish could safely be removed “by solvents of a strength well below that likely to attack the paint film, which is resistant to the solvent action of pure acetone.” The scientists offered an additional assurance: “In the hands of a competent restorer [Norman Brommelle, husband of the National Gallery’s head of science, Joyce Plesters, was chosen] there is no reason to fear that the paint layers will be disturbed in the course of cleaning. Since, in this particular picture, there is no evidence of a linoxyn film, nor the presence of any resin in the medium, there is, in our opinion, no need to adopt any special precaution.”

Brommelle reported that the varnish was removed with a 3:1 turpentine/acetone mixture containing a small percentage of diacetone alcohol and that the last traces were removed with toluene but no one explained why an extremely thin varnish layer of no great antiquity needed to be removed. The cracks seen above at Fig. 10 were products of the cleaning (some local cracking had occurred previously where the canvas vibrated against a central stretcher bar on its regular exchanges between London and Dublin. (Technical information by courtesy of the National Gallery Conservation Department.)

THE TECHNICAL AND SCHOLARLY UNDERWRITING OF A FAKE AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY

Fig. 11 OG 2 no 17 two gents together

One of the recently disclosed fakes, an “Orazio Gentileschi” (above right at Fig. 11 next to an authentic work), had been accepted by the National Gallery on a loan from its owner. When the now rejected no-history painting was withdrawn, the gallery justified its inclusion with the claim (Antiques Trade Gazette): “The gallery always undertakes due diligence research on a work coming on loan as well as a technical examination.” After this historical and technical examination, the Gallery label declared that “the poetic depiction of ‘David Contemplating the Head of Goliath’” had been produced by Gentileschi “for a collector’s cabinet” – an unsupported claim that, like “made for private devotion”, often serves as a flag of convenience for small recently-discovered old works without histories.

Fig. 12 OG 4 no 19 close ups

Above, Fig. 12, here we see a detail (top left) of the real Gentileschi David and (top right and below) the loan accepted as authentic by the National Gallery. If, instead of whatever technical and art historical examinations were carried out, the Gallery had run a few simple photo-comparative checks of the kind shown here, it should have been obvious to anyone with an alert eye that the picture in the top left had been the bona fide historical prototype for the other, markedly inferior and modern-looking, version. Qualitatively, they are not remotely co-equals: the one is a crude pastiche of the other. In every detail the chasm of quality should have identified the loan as a pastiche.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF (UNACKNOWLEDGED) RESTORATION INJURIES

Although this impostor has now been rejected from the National Gallery there is no redress for individual badly restored bona fide works – and often not even an acknowledgement of their plight. Nor is there any apparent means of stemming the swelling tide of destruction that masquerades as a conservation service while delivering incremental degradations of pictures, such as those that can be shown to have taken place in less than a century on what is now the Denver Art Museum’s Degas’ superb pastel and charcoal The Dancing Class or Dance Examination of 1880 below at Fig. 13. The first photograph in the sequence was published in 1918 (Degas, Paul Lafond) when the drawing was not yet forty and therefore likely to have been in an original or near-original state. The third photograph was published in 2002 in the catalogue to Degas and the Dance, a sponsored travelling exhibition organised by the American Federation of Arts (- the “the prime movers”), the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show was curated by the leading Degas specialists Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar.

Fig. 13 vvvv

The sequence of states at Fig. 13 above resembles a succession of an etching’s proof states in reverse: the most complete condition is seen in the oldest record and the most debilitated state is recorded most recently. If we make the most direct comparison with the earliest and the most recent records of this drawing, as at Fig. 14 below, the differences become startling and heartbreaking. What happens to one artist happens to all in turn, as was most shamefully seen to Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel – see Fig. 15 where an early Anderson photograph of a lunette is shown with its post-restoration state. By such simple comparative means we can see/demonstrate that Degas and Michelangelo have not been restored or conserved so much as subjected to a cultural pathology – an infantile revulsion at or terror of darkness and a failure to appreciate that darkness, as artists appreciate, confers brilliance and radiance. Without shadows to relieve lights there is no great vivacity – art’s life-affirming gift. Our historic cultural legacy is being made over into a blander, more homogenised arbitrary colourfulness. With so much value and vivacity already lost in the Dance Class’s first century, who, if offered the chance, would today vote for “More of the same, please” in the next? Restorers can never put the clock back. They can only offer more of the same: yet further intensifications of hue and losses of form and space-creating tones.

Fig. 14two degas exams
Fig. 15 crocetti lunette b and a

THE INCALCULABLY VALUABLE TESTIMONY OF PHOTOGRAPHS

Photographic reproductions do not have to be taken as absolutely faithful replications to have great value as record – why else would they be published and consulted in such great numbers? They are particularly eloquent as witnesses when seen in company with predecessors and successors, because the patterns that successive images make disclose the truth about present conditions. The net consequence of restorations during the last much-photographed century can be seen/shown to have been gravely damaging, effectively washing away art’s pictorial strength, disrupting the internal relationships of individual works, rendering oeuvres capriciously erratic and incoherent and, thereby, creating spaces, opportunities and, even, seeming precedents for misattributions and outright fabrications.

COLOURS V TONES

Although we do not have a colour photograph to match the black and white Durand Ruel photograph published in 1918, we can, by juxtapositions, estimate the degrees of loss today. At Fig. 16 below, the top comparison shows that the bump on the head of the woman in the upper right-hand corner was formerly a red feathery hat decoration. It now survives as a smear of colour that, tonally, is almost indistinguishable from the wall behind. We can see in the greyscale comparison at the bottom that the red decoration had originally been given a halo. On his own declared pictorial statagems, we might deduce that Degas had used the pocket of red to create a triad of local counterpointing primary colours: red feathers, ochre spots and an intense dark blue ribbon bow. Certainly, speculations aside, since that date the ineffably soft back of the standing dancer’s tutu has both hardened and become see-through. The feathered, layered back of the bending dancer’s tutu has, on some bizarre and alien tidy-minded logic, been reduced a ghostly but sharp-edged right angle. Degas is leaving us, involuntarily. He learnt and extracted much from photography. Is it too much to ask that all scholars use our very great resources of photography and historic photographic evidence to calibrate the injuries done to his oeuvre and therefore more fully appreciate and give due account of Degas’ great and supremely fresh and audacious genius?

Fig. 16 missing red

Certainly, the most urgent single reform needed in today’s crisis of connoisseurship lies in increasing the accessibility of photographic records of condition and treatments. In an age of electronically transmissible, high quality photographic images this would be easier to achieve and more instructive than ever before. There are no good reasons for institutions, owners and dealers continuing to sit on such material and thereby prevent people from seeing what’s what.

Michael Daley, 26 May 2017

Coming next: Degrading Degas and Michelangelo

ENDNOTES:

[1] We first used the term in connection with the so-called Stoclet Madonna, the Metropolitan Museum’s attributed Duccio, in “Toxic Attributions?” The Jackdaw March/April 2009.

[2] “In the end, after a five-year investigation and a mountain of evidence collected, no one, neither the two ‘conspirators’ nor I, was ever charged with a crime or indicted” – so wrote Ken Perenyi, in his 2012 memoir Caveat Emptor, p. 312.

[3] One scholar who has engaged on this territory with his pioneering book Condition:The Ageing of Art, Paul Taylor, incurred immediate wrath from some restorers who would claim monopoly rights on all discussions in the field, but a firm welcome elsewhere. Apollo noted that “There are unquestionably many art critics and even academic art historians for whom the material context of art, and particularly flat art, has become a rarefied field. That needs to change, if we are not to see total severance between those who work to preserve physical objects and those who claim to construe their meanings.”

[4] In a paper delivered at the ArtWatch UK/LSE/Centre for Art Law December 2015 conference (“Throwing the baby out with the bathwater”), Brian Allen, a former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (1992 to 2012) and Chairman of the Art Fund observed: “…increasingly, the only young connoisseurs emerging are to be found in the commercial art trade and this surely cannot be a desirable state of affairs. It might be argued that many of the best ‘eyes’ have always been in the art trade but, until recently, there was always a body of disinterested academic ‘experts’ to counterbalance commercial self-interest…” In the March 2017 Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, the paper’s Chairman and a former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, discloses that the V&A now considers the giving of opinions a drag on its curators’ time and devotes only three hours a month to it when, in the 1990s, it reserved two afternoons a week to telling the public what their heirlooms were. In the same issue of the Art Newspaper Mark Jones, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said that expertise, by which he meant “the ability to recognise and identify objects, surmise their history from their appearance, tell the genuine from the false and make judgements about quality” has become patchy, even rare, in museums. Mark Jones was the curator/organiser of the British Museum’s legendary 1990 exhibition “Fake? The Art of Deception”, the catalogue of which remains a seminal study in the field.

In response to Mark Jones the dealer Peter Nahum wrote in the April 2017 Art Newspaper (letter, “Dealers and curators should work together to spot fakes”):

“The art forger Shaun Greenhalgh and his father George visited my gallery in 1984. It was after 6pm and they offered me a painting they said was by Samuel John Peploe, for which I gave them a cheque. As soon as the banks opened at 9am the next morning I cancelled the cheque and called in the police. I was the first to report the family from Bolton for purveying a fake, 16 years before their arrest.

“When they were finally arrested, my cheque was still on their desk. I also advised Bolton Museum on the purchase of the painting by Thomas Moran and subsequently saved them from buying a fake watercolour purportedly by the same artist.

“I have long campaigned for the art and antiques trade and academics, especially those in museums, to work more closely together. Our job, as dealers, is to defend our clients against the legion of fakes and wrongly catalogued items on the market. As we are personally financially responsible for all transactions we make and advise on, we are the most vulnerable and, by necessity, the most careful. As a result we are often best placed to authenticate works.

“Academies and museums obviously have great experts on their staffs, but their prime focus is the history and provenance of objects and thus their visual skills often take a secondary position. When both professions work together, mistakes are lessened.

“I have made it my mission to track down and report those who make fake art, as they are the bane of our lives and can cost those who buy art a great deal of money. They are simply con-men extracting money from innocent people by deceit.

“As dealers, academics and collectors, we are all motivated to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and thus all of us are vulnerable to those who wish to take money under false pretences. We have to be constantly on our guard as each one of us will fall into one of the fakers’ traps sooner or later – we are all human after all.

Thus, I applaud Mark Jones’s article: scholarly research is flourishing but curators’ ability to judge an object’s quality is not (The Art Newspaper Review, March, p.13) with two main comments. The painting by Samuel John Peploe was not sold, and academics have rarely been the greatest visual judges – that is more our job than theirs. That does not mean that there are not great visual experts in academia – of course there are – it simply means it has never been their primary function.

Peter Nahum.

Peter and Renate Nahum Agency (the Leicester Galleries), London.”

[5] See “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures” and “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners” and THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM and, finally, “Now let’s murder Klimt”.

[6] The National Gallery includes one of its most dubious and controversial attributions – the Rubens Samson and Delilah – in its list of 30 “must-see” pictures. There are more than twenty secure and superior works by Rubens in the gallery including the magnificent Minerva protects Pax from Mars (‘Peace and War’). When controversy broke over the attribution in 1997 the gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, placed a statement next to the painting to explain why it looked like no other Rubens in the collection. Two special issues of the ArtWatch UK Journal have been devoted to this picture’s problems. See: “The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick” and “Art’s Toxic Assets”

The National Gallery’s highlights list also includes the restoration-wrecked Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, on which, see: “The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators

[7] “Oh Blessed Honthorst”, Michael Daley, ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21 Spring 2006 – a Rubens special issue dedicated to the National Gallery’s ascribed Rubens Samson and Delilah), p.4.

[8] As reported by Alexander Eliot, a former Time magazine art critic, in “A Conversation about Conservation”, The World and I (Volume: 15), June 2000.


The Art World’s Toxic Assets – Part III: Failures of Scrutiny

Within a couple of years of our warnings on the art world’s accumulating toxic assets of upgraded Old Master attributions, that sphere has been rocked by a spate of discovered/alleged old master forgeries that have recently deceived and embarrassed leading experts and major institutions alike.

In the midst of this turmoil, a Raphael-esque painting of insecure provenance (which is to say, of none before 1841), that relates to no known Raphael work, that is said to be good in parts and perhaps to have been a fragment of a lost unknown painting by Raphael, was launched to the world in the Guardian on October 3rd as a provisional “discovery” (“Raphael ‘copy’ once valued at £20 may be a £20m original”) to be shown on 5 October in a new three-part BBC4 series, “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” [see Figs. 1a and 1b below]. The programmes were co-presented by an art historian, Jacky Klein, and a fast rising young player in the Old Masters attributions field, Bendor Grosvenor. Formerly of the Philip Mould Gallery and the BBC “Fake or Fortune” series, Grosvenor doubles as an art market commentator on a blog site, “Art History News” and, occasionally, for the Financial Times.

no-1-a-and-1b-the-virgin-and-label

In the 8/9 October Weekend FT (“An eye for the real thing”) Dr Grosvenor held that the recently exposed failures of judgement constituted a scandal that threatens “to undermine the art world’s long established system of deducing authenticity”. He suggested that this danger stemmed from too great a reliance on the judgements of “independent, usually academic” experts who have published works on the artists they appraise, and from insufficient heed being paid to those (by implication like himself) who have not studied art history or published on artists but who, nonetheless, possess a “good eye”.

hals-1200x-1

This recommendation was advanced even as Grosvenor admitted that he, along with France’s National Centre for Research and Restoration at the Louvre; a leading Louvre curator; numerous Frans Hals scholars; the Burlington Magazine; Christies (on scholarly advice); the Weiss gallery; and, Sotheby’s (at first), had been deceived by a recently exposed fake Frans Hals [Fig. 2, above], and, that he had come within a whisker of being deceived by a Gentileschi fake that snared the Guardian art critic and blogger, Jonathan Jones, and the National Gallery which had accepted the work as authentic when it was offered on loan (“Was the National Gallery scammed with a fake Old Master painting?”).

no-3-rubens-special-cover0001

Where we held in the April 2006 ArtWatch UK Journal [Fig. 3, above] that too many in the art world were disregarding Mark Twain’s admonition to “buy land because they are not making it anymore” when buying upgraded school works as autograph masterpieces, Bendor Grosvenor often declares a state of rude good health in the old masters market. Because so many old masters have already been taken off the market and into museums, and because, by definition, old master paintings are no longer being produced, market growth increasingly depends on the discovery of “sleepers” – which is to say, of suspected hitherto unrecognised major works whose true identities will emerge during dealers’ un-monitored, sometimes radical stripping-down, repairing and retouching of paintings. (More recently we published a post that indicated means by which restorations might slide towards outright fakery in cases which, coincidentally, involved earlier “Frans Hals” paintings. See “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.) On 13 August 2014 we called in a letter to The Times for a statutory requirement for vendors to disclose all that is known on a work’s provenance and conservation history [see Fig. 4, below]

no-4-art-crime-13-08-2014-copy

On the BBC4 series “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” Bendor Grosvenor got very excited at the prospect of a distinctly Raphael-esque painting in Haddo House in Scotland being an autograph Raphael [Fig. 1a]. BBC coverage of the visual arts rarely airs dissenting voices and this programme was constructed with many narrative layers all of which sang the same encouraging tune: Although this work has little provenance we should be assured by the fact that it had been bought in the early 19th century as an autograph Raphael by the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon (1784-1860), who, in his early years and travels, was an impassioned devotee of the classical arts of Greece and Italy, and who somehow managed, despite being “flat broke”, to acquire a fine collection through a “shrewd nose for bargains”. Particular assurance was seen in the fact that the picture had been exhibited as a Raphael at the British Institution in 1841. However, an old hand-written label attached to one of two oak bars that reinforced the back of the poplar panel says, in English, “The Virgin Mary, Raffael or after Raffael” [see Fig. 1b]. As that is the only documentation (other than an indecipherable fragment of a wax seal) on the back of an assumed 500 years old panel, it would seem likely that the label was present when the painting was exhibited in 1841 as a Raphael. If it had not been present in 1841, why would its owner have added such a weakening document to his own painting?

The question of the label’s origin is the more perplexing because, as we now learn from Dr Grosvenor, the canny Scottish Fourth Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, had not bought the painting while on his early travels in Italy because he had not bought it all. Rather, he had inherited it more than a generation later from his brother, Robert Gordon, when he died in 1847 (by choking on a fish bone). The provenance thus descends entirely from Robert Gordon who was born in 1791 and would not likely have bought the painting (from whomever – for no one knows) much before 1810. Although Robert Gordon was the owner when the picture was exhibited at the British Institution, there are no family inventories listing the painting before 1867 and none thereafter lists it as a Raphael. In two entries it is priced at £80 and later at £20. On both occasions it was listed as a copy. In the television programme, the co-presenters describe seeing their perceived challenge as being to reverse a hypothecated “increasing scepticism” with which the painting was viewed after George Gordon’s death in 1860. But what if the Raphael attribution had always been appreciated within the family as being uncertain? Or, might not a contrary reading have been considered of the possibility that it only became politic for independent scholars to dissent on a claimed Raphael attribution after the death of the fourth earl who had been an extremely powerful and well-connected political figure – and one with with a sarcastic turn to boot?

Against the fragmentary picture’s distinctly weak provenance, it was claimed (- but not demonstrated) that a close fit existed with secure Raphael Madonnas. The belief that this work might be an autograph Raphael received high level scholarly and (implicit) institutional endorsement as Bendor Grosvenor is filmed ascending the grand stairs of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in the company of the Gallery’s former director, Sir Nicholas Penny. The camera catches the pair passing the monumental carved Roman Letters “RAPHAEL” [see Fig. 5, below] and jumps in a nanosecond to a painting in the Gallery’s substantial Raphael holdings – but not to one its finest, instead to the least secure, most recent, so-called Madonna of the Pinks that had been attributed to Raphael in 1992 by Nicholas Penny when a curator at the Gallery, and that was later bought by the Gallery for nearly £35millon after a public appeal. Towards the end of the film [Fig. 6, below] Nicholas Penny places the putative Grosvenor-Raphael, somewhere between “probably by Raphael” and “by Raphael” and suggests that with a little “more time and courage” he might well go the whole hog.

no-5-all-the-new-raphaels
no-6-54-12

Above, (top – and running clockwise), Figure 5: Bendor Grosvenor passes the monumental carved “RAPHAEL” in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing; the National Gallery’s (disputed) Raphael Madonna of the Pinks; the Bendor Grosvenor-proposed Haddo House Raphael Madonna, before restoration; and, the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks, as presently framed. Above, Fig. 6: Jacky Klein, Bendor Grosvenor and Nicholas Penny seen examining the Haddo House Madonna in the 5 October BBC4 “Britian’s Lost Masterpieces” programme.

Although a caveat was offered in the programme (and reported in the Guardian) with an admission that there had not been the time and money to run all appropriate tests, Grosvenor nonetheless claimed that all the evidence seemed to point in the right direction. As if to dispel any doubts, the television programme (which was produced by Tern TV and commissioned by Mark Bell, Head of Arts Commissioning, BBC, under the Executive Producer for the BBC, Emma Cahusac) carried a strong implicit message that the Grosvenor-proposed Raphael is as sound as the National Gallery’s Penny-attributed Raphael Madonna of the Pinks. We would counter that, with both pictures, such assurances were misleading and that the principal evidence on the strength of these attributions is found in the look of the pictures, which testify in different ways[ see Fig. 5] against Raphael’s authorship, as will be shown in Part IV.

We would add two points here. First, that Dr Grosvenor seems unaware of the extent to which the Madonna of the Pinks had been rejected as by Raphael in the 19th century and more recently by scholars including Professor James Beck, the founder of ArtWatch International who devoted three chapters of his last (2006) book, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, to problems with the present attribution [see Fig. 7, below]. Although Nicholas Penny is a highly respected Renaissance specialist, and his Raphael attribution had been fittingly proposed in a long, thorough scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine (“Raphael’s Madonna dei garofani” Rediscovered, 134, 1992) that had impressed Professor James Beck, the attribution itself received only majority approval from a group of specialist scholars assembled at the National Gallery. Contrary to initial Gallery press claims, there had been no firm consensus of scholarly opinion – a fifth of the invited scholars dissented from the attribution when questioned directly by Beck.

no-7-picture12

At the time, we pointed out that the then majority for support had reversed over a century’s scholarly consensus of judgement. The Penny-Raphael had been rejected as early as 1854 by Gustav Friedrich Waagen as “the small picture in the Camuccini collection which I do not consider to be original. The tone of the flesh has something insipid and heavy. The Treatment makes me suspect a Netherlandish hand.” Professor Martin Kemp rejected the Penny-Raphael Madonna on the grounds of her most disconcerting and uncharacteristic teeth-baring opened mouth: “In reality, for any Renaissance woman to be portrayed showing her teeth, American-style, is unthinkable”. (Leonardo, Oxford/New York, 2005, p. 242.)

There were structural problems with the picture, as well as stylistic incongruities. In the 2003 ArtWatch UK Journal 29, we drew attention to the disturbing fact that the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks Raphael – like the Gallery’s (challenged) Rubens Samson and Delilah painting – had lost vital physical and documentary evidence. With both paintings the original, evidence-bearing back is missing, as is also the case in the drawing that has been dubbed “La Bella Principessa” and given to Leonardo da Vinci by Martin Kemp, even after it emerged that the supposedly 500 years old work had been sold anonymously and without a shred of provenance by the widow of a restorer who was the work’s first known and sole owner. That atypical drawing on an atypical medium has been (unusually) glued down onto an oak panel, thereby preventing an appraisal of drawings known to be present on its reverse.

The Samson and Delilah panel painting had been planed down to wafer thinness and glued onto a modern sheet of blockboard in an operation of which no record exists. The back of the Madonna of the Pinks was “polished”, coated and given three wax seals in the 19th century when in the hands of its first known owners, the notorious Camuccini family
of artists, copyists, restorers, art dealers and art smugglers. We cited much else that was problematic about the Madonna of the Pinks:

“It possesses, for example, an irregular border of unpainted wood that is ‘unusual’ for Raphael. The picture’s unusually highly-wrought finish, ‘jewel-like, as Dr Ekserdjian and associates put it; made up of ‘tiny, almost invisible brushstrokes’, as the National Gallery puts it, is said to have been the result of the work’s especial execution for the close contemplation of a nun…Even if this fanciful explanation for the unusual brushwork were to be accepted, it would not also explain the picture’s atypical colour scheme [which] Dr Penny suggests, may reflect ‘a particular moment of indebtedness by Raphael to Leonardo…’ ”

We complained that “Dr Penny’s case seems to rest on the belief that the outcome of technical analysis carried out at the National Gallery somehow displaces or neutralises all accumulations of otherwise awkward evidence…A manifest weakness of Dr Penny’s case is that no technical analysis or even photographic comparison is offered on any of the picture’s forty or so rival contenders…” It was later learned that scientific analysis had identified the wood of this most unusual artefact as being, not poplar, as might have been expected, or even a fruit wood, as is the case with one large Raphael panel, but yew – a wood nowhere encountered in Raphael or, so far as we know, in any Italian Renaissance painting. As will be seen in Part IV, the proposed Grosvenor-Raphael bears many handicaps.

Michael Daley, 20 October 2016


Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts

We have received two communications on “La Bella Principessa”, which drawing some take to be by Leonardo da Vinci. One came from the work’s owner, the other from a disinterested scholar in confirmation that the work could not, for reasons of arithmetic and plain physical facts, have been made by Leonardo for inclusion in a book.

THE DRAWING

Above, Fig. 1: The full vellum sheet of the proposed Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa”.

THE DRAWING’S CLAIMED ORIGIN

This drawing was presented anonymously to the world in 1998 without authorial ascription and without an atom of provenance. When claims of autograph Leonardo authorship were made after barely a decade, it became necessary to fill a five-hundred years long void of records in order to dispel suspicions of forgery or pastiche. In 2010 Professor Martin Kemp bundled together what he held to be a “barrage of evidence – stylistic, historical or technical” that somehow provided collectively what no individual parts constituted: proof that Leonardo da Vinci was the author of what he (Kemp) dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. Thus, a collection of not-evidence was vested with quasi-evidential force on a circular, question-begging appeal to the claimed authority of a “sustained, collective sense that the portrait ‘belongs’ to Leonardo and contributes something new to the Leonardo we currently know.”

Although some scholars (chiefly Italian) were persuaded by the claims, for the consensual majority who did not see Leonardo’s hand in the drawing, Kemp’s methodological ju-ju gained no traction. His claims were advanced in a portmanteau book of collective advocacy, La Bella Principessa – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, which he co-wrote with Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology (the firm hired by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, to conduct technical research) and which carried highly supportive contributions by Peter Paul Biro, Eva Schwan, Claudio Strinati and Nicholas Turner; London, 2010 (– see pp. 187-88).

THE THREE STITCH HOLES

During Pascal Cotte’s technical analysis of the drawing it was noticed that three holes are present on the left-hand edge. Cotte took these to “prove that it originally came from a book or a manuscript” (- Kemp/Cotte 2010, p. 113). Working with Mr Cotte, Prof. Kemp proposed that the hypothetical book might well have been a collection of celebratory poems of Bianca Sforza who had died in childhood and that “La Bella Principessa” had been made as an illustration to such a book.

Above, Fig. 2: “La Bella Principessa” with Pascal Cotte’s indicated locations of the three supposed stitch holes.

Kemp’s elaborate hypothetical advocacy constituted a daisy-chain of improbabilities. This is a drawing made in the manner of a distinctive (and invariably painted) profile portrait type that is nowhere encountered in recorded Leonardos – and, indeed, this is the very type which Leonardo famously subverted with his own revolutionary plastically dynamic figural innovations. Within the rigorous constraints of the strict profile type, this drawing’s supposedly high-born subject is bereft of the customary/requisite opulence in clothing and jewellery. The eccentric iconography was made on an atypical support – vellum. It was drawn, Kemp holds, either directly from the subject in celebration of her wedding, or, as a commemorative portrayal after her death and thus made either in recollection or from some other depiction. No explanation was offered for how this single image might have resulted from two radically different circumstances of execution.

THE CLAIMED CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN THE “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA” DRAWING AND THE WARSAW SFORZIAD

On a suggestion from Professor David Wright, Kemp proposed that this from-life or post-death portrait had been made to be incorporated within a large, heavy book of the mid-1490s that is now housed in Poland, the so-called Warsaw Sforziad. In the wake of a great deal of (Kemp and Silverman-activated) archival research which found no mention of any work resembling “La Bella Principessa”, it can be seen that without this claimed Warsaw connection, the drawing would remain what it was on its 1998 debut: a stylistically untypical and unprecedented work without any history – the inclusion of which within Leonardo’s oeuvre would, in Prof. Kemp’s own advocacy, “contribute something new to the Leonardo we currently know” and “reveal a previously unknown dimension to the way in which he fulfilled his duties at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza”. (Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 188.) Without history, that is to say, other than the time it is now said to have been in the possession of the restorer/painter Giannino Marchig, the late husband of the anonymous vendor in 1998.

It has been claimed many times that a ‘match’ exists between the drawing’s holes and the book’s stitches but, aside from the small format photo-diagram at Fig. 3, this has never been demonstrated or independently corroborated. Similarly, it has been said that carbon dating tests established that the vellum sheet on which the drawing was made is of an age securely consistent with a drawing being made by Leonardo in the mid-1490s. This claim is seriously misleading, as is shown below.

THE TESTIMONY OF HOLES

Before Prof. Wright’s suggestion, in 2010 Pascal Cotte regarded the three holes on the drawing’s left-hand edge as evidence that might identify incorporation within a specific book:

“It would be interesting to use the evidence of the nature and placement of these needle holes to look for other surviving quires from the same codex, which, with other physical clues, might shed further light on the provenance and original commission.”

(Kemp/Cotte, 2010, page 113.)

Cotte’s hope was reasonable but such testimony can cut both ways. Establishing a relationship between the drawing and a particular book requires an exact correspondence between the drawing’s holes and a book’s stitches. Two separate claims were made of a discovered fit with the Warsaw Sforziad, first by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, and then jointly by Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte. Both occasions were filmed by National Geographic but only the second was broadcast. In it, Kemp expressed himself as being 80% confident. The presently claimed location of the drawing is at the front of the Sforziad. Clearly, the credibility of what is now a 200 million euro-insured drawing that is stored in the Geneva Free Port depends greatly on confidence being maintained in this claimed connection.

Above, Fig. 3: A facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” inserted into the Warsaw Sforziad with five arrows marking the
book’s stitches and three circles in which matches are claimed, but are not evident, between the drawing’s holes and
the book’s outer and central stitches. (The stitch marked by the right-hand arrow is shown in close-up below at Fig. 5.)

As previously shown, our colleague in ArtWatch, Dr Kasia Pisarek, has catalogued very many discrepancies between the drawing and the book, the most problematic being that the former has only three stitch holes, when the latter was bound with five stitches. To cope with this material/arithmetical incompatibility, Kemp and Cotte conjured two hypotheses.

The first was that the book had originally been bound with only three stitches and that at some undated point the drawing had been removed during a rebinding in which two extra stitches were added to the book. That (unsupported) contention was technically implausible: the book is too large and heavy to be supported by just three stitches – and
both of its sister volumes in London and Paris were bound with five stitches.

The second, and now preferred, hypothesis is that the book was indeed originally bound with five stitches and that, as
a part of this book, the drawing originally possessed the requisite five stitch holes, two of which had subsequently been cut off from the sheet. We demonstrated the impossibility of that claim in an earlier post. (To recap briefly: as Cotte had acknowledged in 2010, stitch holes are always made in a straight line along the crease in a group of folded sheets. Given that a central and two outer stitch holes are all present on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet, any original intermediary stitch holes would necessarily be found in alignment with the present three holes on the sheet as it is today.)

In addition to the absence of the two requisite stitch holes, the sheet itself is a mismatch in terms of colour, texture and size with the sheets in the book. Kasia Pisarek now adds a further mismatch:

“The follicles in the ‘La Bella Principessa’ vellum are tightly spaced, while those in the Sforziad vellum are widely spaced. This can be seen on the Polona website, where you can zoom in until you can see the follicles as dots. I remember seeing some pages where the dots were more apparent and they were definitely widely spaced.”

WHAT LIES BENEATH?

Yet another unaddressed difficulty concerns the back of the drawing. One of the earliest proponents of a Leonardo ascription, Dr Cristina Geddo, has described the presence on the reverse of the drawing of random lettering and an image of a dragon. Kemp and Cotte seem not to have offered an explanation for this content (which, presumably, was revealed by Cotte’s penetrative photography) even though they now claim that the back of the drawing would have faced the book’s beautiful and elaborately painted, symbolically-charged frontispiece. What conceivable iconographic function might such a melange have served in that strategic context of so important and precious a book? Dr Geddo has called for the vellum drawing to be removed from its (most unusual) oak panel support but the owner has declined to do so on grounds of safety. Some of the lettering is visible in an X-ray photograph published in the 2010 and 2012 English and Italian editions of the Kemp/Cotte joint book.

FIVE HOLES GOOD, THREE HOLES BAD

As we reported previously, with regard to the Three Holes v. Five Stitches conundrum, the problems for supporters of “La Bella Principessa” have now become insurmountable: Pisarek established on her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad in the Polish National Library that while the drawing bears only three holes, the book itself was not only bound with five stitches but that each of those stitches passed through two holes that were two or three millimetres apart (see Figs. 6, 7 and 8 below). At a stroke, the previously claimed ‘fit’ between the drawing and the book is demolished: the drawing possesses only three single stitch holes when it should have five pairs of holes making ten in total. Even if it were to be conceded that two inner stitches might once have been present, today’s three single holes should be three pairs of holes, making six holes in total, not three.

AN OWNER’S RESPONSE

When we sent our previous “La Bella Principessa” post with the newly disqualifying physical/technical evidence to the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, (13 June), he dismissed the bearers of the information by alleging lack of expertise: “I leave the attribution question to serious and highly qualified experts!!!” In support of his professional slur, Silverman copied-in two messages to us. The first had been sent to him, at his request, by a costume expert, Elisabetta Gnigera. The second Silverman had sent to Jean Penicaut, the CEO of Lumiere Technology. It was evidently written in haste and heat:

“Dear Jean
I am sorry but we, as owners of the BP, are not to be told how and with whom to talk! I understand your frustration in dealing with Artwatch and Franck but i feel that Pisareks statement must not and cannot be left unchallenged! I therefore request you to rebut each and every point in this latest statement-most importantly of all i would like to see the INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes, in a first and separate email to me! Unfortunaley Martin has made statements which can be perverted by anyone in bad faith-equivocal statements quoted in the first part of the enclosed article!!
“I would like Elisabetta to comment on the costume questions.
And i would like YOU to extensively quote from the lab results of La Veneria*, which is very helpful to our cause! [*This is a reference the conservation laboratory “La Venaria Reale” which has conducted analysis of the drawing.]
“We cannot afford to lose the high ground’ in this battle-no matter the bad faith of our ennemy.
“To avoid your corresponding with them please send the rebuttal to me. I INSIST THAT THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY!!
Best, peter

http://artwatch.org.uk/problems-with-la-bella-principessa-part-iii-dr-pisarek-responds-to-prof-kemp/

“PS-the good news is that there is a very serious party interested in acquiring a share in the BP(highly confidential) and July 1 will be a decisive day!!!”

It would seem after more than a month that Lumiere Technology has not provided the owner with indisputable evidence of a connection between the drawing and the Warsaw book that would counter Pisarek’s account. On 14 June we replied to Mr Silverman:

“Speaking of clarification and your requests, I note the various requests from the ‘owners of the BP’ to your associates
to read our current post, and your talk of a prospective part-sale of the BP. Can I take it that the potential buyer of whom you speak has been similarly advised?

“Also, perhaps you might say how you will respond if Jean Penicaut advises you, as we would predict, that he can find
no ‘INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes’ that might enable you – or he on your behalf – ‘to rebut each and every point in this latest statement [in the then current AWUK post]’”?

Concerning the La Venaria Reale laboratory reports, we asked Mr Silverman on 15 June:

“On your technical ‘proofs-of-authenticity’ and our possible viewing of your Swiss-vaulted, soon-to-be part-sold drawing, might we not deal with both by: a) your sending to us all reports and data that have been made available to you; and, b) your bringing the drawing to either Paris or London so that we might arrange a group viewing by sceptics and rejecters?”

MISINTERPRETED REPORTS

After more than a month we have received no technical reports on “La Bella Principessa”. Lumiere Technology’s
apparent silence on the conflicting number of stitch holes seems remiss. In our experience it is valuable to see the reports themselves because evidence can sometimes be interpreted and presented in ways that might mislead. For example, it has been claimed (technically-speaking correctly) that carbon dating has established a 95.4% probability
that “La Bella Principessa” had been made at some point between 1440 and 1650. On that particular technical examination and very wide range of possible ages, Pascal Cotte (2010, p. 110) has claimed a number of things in a single sentence:

“This dating confirms that the portrait could well have been made in Leonardo’s lifetime, supporting Martin Kemp’s proposed date in the mid-1490s and virtually eliminating the possibility that it is a 19th century pastiche.”

This was all quite misleading. A confirmed “could well have” remains a “could have” and does not become a confirming “was”. A “virtually eliminated possibility” remains a possibility. Taken as a whole and properly appraised, the data itself cannot reasonably be said to support Kemp’s claimed date and authorship – in fact, it does the opposite.

Cotte’s claims rest on what is only a loose and very wide overall estimation of probability. While it is true to say there is a 95.4% chance that the sheet appeared at some point between 1440 and 1650, there is not a 95.4% probability that it appeared before the mid-1490s when the Sforziad was made. Even on that loose, overall range of possibilities, it would be more accurate to say that because we know (today) that the Warsaw book was made in the 1490s (and had known in 2010 that the proposed subject of “La Bella Principessa”, Bianca Sforza, had died in 1496), it is three times more likely that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet post-dated rather than predated the book. What has not been acknowledged is that within the overall figure, the probabilities had been greatly more precisely quantified.

It was said in the report, for example, that there was a 68.2% probability that the sheet was made between 1470 and 1650 and that, within this period (see Fig. 4 below), there was only a 27.2% probability that the drawing was made between 1470 and 1530 – and this was compared against the appreciably greater probability (41.0%) that the sheet was made some time between 1550 and 1650 – which would place the sheet altogether much later than Leonardo who died in 1519. Properly read, with a proposed date for the drawing set in the mid-1490s, the data shows that there was only a 13.6% probability that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet existed when the book was made. When the general 95.4% probability of an origin anywhere between 1470 and 1650 and the 13.6% probability of an origin between 1470 and 1495 are expressed as racing odds, it is seven times more likely that the sheet was made after the book than before it. And the odds of seven to one against pertain to the vellum sheet itself, not to the possible dates of execution for the drawing. Even if this sheet had once been present in that book, such a dating would indicate only the age of the material, not the date of the drawing’s execution. On this last, we should recall that Eric Hebborn advised in his The Art Forger’s Handbook that a prime source of old materials for forged drawings is obtained from blank end papers in books. Thieves cut valuable illuminated pages from books. Forgers crave blank pages but will make use of a blank side by gluing its reverse firmly to some impenetrable material.

Above, Fig. 4: The carbon dating report on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (as published by Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 110).

FOR THE RECORD

Where Mr Silverman declines to make reports available to us, and Pascal Cotte fails to demonstrate a fit between the drawing’s three stitch holes and the book’s ten stitch holes, we now present further visual proofs and documentary confirmation of the previously claimed mismatch to demonstrate precisely why “La Bella Principessa” could never have been part of the Warsaw Sforziad.

INSTITUTIONAL CORROBORATION

On 23 June 2016 Barbara Dzierzanowska, the Head of Department of Old Prints BN at the National Library of Poland, wrote to Kasia Pisarek:

“Dear Madam,

I would like to inform you that yesterday we entered the Treasury and re-examined the Sforziad, which has confirmed that the binding stitches are double and there are 10 holes.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Dzierzanowska”

PHOTOGRAPHICALLY-RECORDED AND ELECTRONICALLY TRANSMITTED PROOF OF THE DOUBLE STITCHING OF THE WARSAW SFORZIAD

That the stitching of the Sforziad was made through double holes can be seen by eye on the book itself, as shown below at Fig. 5.

Above, Fig. 5: A stitch made through two holes, as seen on the numbered page 1 of the Warsaw Sforziad. In this photograph, the top stitch and the two flanking holes are shown but some of the other holes can also be seen on stitches below it. This stitch/holes configuration would have been evident when (as described above) a full-size facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” was inserted into the Sforziad at precisely this point. This evidence is also available online: our image was taken from the detailed record of the entire book that is carried on this site: Polona – La Sforziada.

ESTABLISHING THE TRUE DIMENSIONS

When Kasia Pisarek inspected the book for the second time, she asked that the dimensions of the pages and the relative positions of the stitch holes be marked along the edge of a piece of paper. This was done by the library’s books’ conservator in her presence and that of the chief librarian. Intervals between the stitch holes were marked in pencil along the two sides of the strip of paper and these are shown here at Figs. 6 and 7. When we marked off those measurements onto a separate sheet of paper, to prepare the diagram at Fig. 8, and then measured them on our sheet with a ruler, they were all exactly as given by Pisarek. We can be sure, therefore, that the dimensions and ratios between the stitch holes as shown below at Fig. 8 have been accurately established and physically transported to ArtWatch UK – and at practically zero-cost by means of sharp pencils and two pieces of paper.

Above, Figs. 6 (top) and 7: The strip of paper on which the book’s page size and stitch holes were recorded, as described above.

The conservator explained to Pisarek that the present positions of the stitch holes were those of the original construction of the book and that, therefore, there was no possibility that the book had once been bound with only three stitches. She made diagrams on the strip showing (at Fig. 7) different ways of executing stitching with double holes.

THE DIMENSIONS OF THE INTERVALS BETWEEN THE STITCHES IN THE BOOK – A NOTE FROM KASIA PISAREK:

1) According to Kemp and Cotte, the dimensions of the vellum pages of the Sforziad vary from 33.0 to 33.4 cm in height, while the drawing is 33 cm high.

2) I have carefully checked the dimensions with the Librarian in March 2016. All the pages are at least 33.4 cm high and more, up to 33.7 cm. The size of 33 cm would be far too small for the book.

3) The 5 holes in the book are in fact all double holes. Each of the 5 holes is two small holes, between which a string passes. The distance between the two small holes is about 3 mm. The double holes were never mentioned by Kemp or Cotte.

4) According to the conservator who was present at the time of my last visit, this is the binding that follows the original binding as there is no damage of any kind. So in total there were as many as 10 small holes, not 3 single ones as in the drawing.

5) I measured the distances between the 3 holes that Kemp and Cotte measured in La Bella Principessa. The measurements were taken from the middle of the double holes.

6) The distance between the bottom hole and the middle hole is 11.35 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.06 cm.

7) The distance between the middle hole and the top hole is 11.7 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.44 cm.

THE MISMATCHED HOLES AND STITCHES

Above Fig. 8: We took the dimensions of the Sforziad’s page and stitch holes from the strip of paper marked by the Polish National Library’s books’ conservator (as shown at Figs. 6 and 7) and drew them in black, as above, and marked “WS”. We then drew in red the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (here marked “LBP”) and its stitch holes as given above by Pisarek.
As can be seen above, it is impossible to align the drawing’s single stitch holes with their claimed counterparts in the book. If the drawing’s centre hole is aligned with the centre of the two central holes in the book (as shown on the left here), its other two holes fall short of their claimed counterparts.
If the LBP drawing’s upper hole is aligned with the centre of book’s two upper holes, its central and lower holes fall progressively further short of their claimed counterparts on the book.
In short, there is no fit or match between the book and the drawing – and which drawing in all probability post-dated the book, for reasons indicated above.

Those who would continue to give this drawing to Leonardo must now find some other means of filling a five centuries absence of provenance and of squaring intractable technical circles. We will examine next the supposed left-handed execution of “La Bella Principessa”.

Michael Daley, 21 July 2016


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

In Part I we discussed the look of the so-called “La Bella Principessa” drawing and showed that while it bears no comparison with Leonardo’s female portrait type, it sits comfortably among 20th century fakes (see Fig. 1). Here, we consider the singular campaign to have this work accepted as a Leonardo.

“LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA” AND THE (DECOROUS) COMPANY SHE BEST KEEPS

Above, Fig. 1: “La Bella Principessa” (centre) among 20th century fakes. For the drawing’s striking mismatch with secure Leonardo works – and with other bona fide associated works of the period – see Problems with “La Bella Principessa” – Part I: The Look.

A SINGULAR CAMPAIGN OF ATTRIBUTION

The nine years long campaign to have the drawing “La Bella Principessa” accepted as an autograph Leonardo da Vinci is faltering even before our series of examinations is completed. The leading proponent, Professor Martin Kemp, is said in the May 2016 Art Newspaper (Vincent Noce’s “La Bella Principessa: Still an Enigma”) to have his “reputation on the line” in the wake of our posts and an article “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of ‘La Bella Principessa’ examined”, that was published in the Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae, no. 71, 2015 (“La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”) by Dr. Kasia Pisarek, an independent art historian (and ArtWatch member). In delayed response to our January 2014 suggestion that the disputed drawing’s author might have been the painter/restorer Gianinno Marchig (see Art’s Toxic Assets – Part II), Kemp now alleges on his blog that we are making “scurrilous and unsupported” attempts to “divert the argument into claiming that Jeanne Marchig lied profusely”. This is not the first such slur against us from that quarter. When Professor Kemp reviewed the James Beck/Michael Daley book Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal in 1994 he made similarly unfounded charges which we rebutted immediately. In recent years Kemp has cast his denunciations more widely and generally against his fellow scholars. (See below.)

Notwithstanding the “La Bella Principessa” campaigners’ belligerence towards doubters, and Professor Kemp’s own publicly bullish support for the attribution, his position on “La Bella Principessa” is untenable in terms of the work’s artistic properties and its emerging circumstances – as indeed is the methodological model for attributions that he hubristically offers to fellow scholars in connection with the Leonardo upgrades that he supports (see below).

Pace Kemp’s charge of evasion, it would be evasive not to consider Marchig’s role when appraising a drawing reportedly bought by a Panamean, Jersey-based company nine years ago at a requested discount for $19,000 but which now, as a claimed Leonardo, lives in a Swiss vault and is said to be insured for $150 million. We should all consider the circumstances and nature of this particular work and the assiduous, sometimes muscular campaign to upgrade it. The old masters market is fragile. The accelerating expanionism of recent years cannot be sustained. The market cannot afford to take in too many too-hopefully upgraded Leonardos, Michelangelos, Rubens’s, Van Dycks, Caravaggios and so forth. Aside from the resulting adulteration of scholarship, markets, as we all now appreciate, lose confidence and crash when too high a proportion of toxic assets is thought to have been bundled in among the bona fide.

PROMOTING THE DRAWING THAT CAME FROM NOWHERE

What is now presented as Leonardo’s “La Bella Principessa” of c. 1496 was sold anonymously at Christie’s, New York, in 1998 for $22,850 as a work without provenance. Twelve years later, Jeanne Marchig, the widow of the artist/restorer Giannino Marchig who had worked as a restorer for Bernard Berenson (who, Kenneth Clark said, sat on a pinnacle of corruption), identified herself as the vendor. She did so not in the disinterested cause of scholarship but to claim damages after sensational but unfounded and misleading media reports that fingerprint evidence had shown the drawing to be a Leonardo.

As we reported, aside from the widow’s hearsay claims concerning the ownership of the drawing by the painter/restorer, the drawing otherwise possesses not a shred of recorded history in its supposed five centuries. On the widow’s account (as variously reported by Kemp, by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, and by a journalist selected by Silverman to promote the attribution, Simon Hewitt), Marchig, an unsuccessful artist who had grown rich and acquired a collection of valuable historic works, had declined to say even to his wife when or from whom he had acquired the framed drawing which he is said to have kept in a portfolio.

Jeanne Marchig dangled the possibility that he might have acquired it from Berenson, with whom he had grown close and for whom he had hidden paintings, photographs and documents during the war. Had he done so that would hardly dispel doubts and suspicions but even that possible lifeline to a past now seems unlikely: the drawing’s present owner and Kemp vainly trawled Berenson’s archives at I Tatti for any sign or mention of the drawing. The trail of this supposed Leonardo begins and ends with the Marchigs. Marchig, if his widow is reliable, said nowt and simply had. By coincidence, the widow was born in Warsaw where a book is housed that was later said (unpersuasively for reasons given by Dr Pisarek) to have contained the vellum sheet on which the drawing was made. Professor Kemp thinks the late Jeanne Marchig “a person of great credibility”. The journalist Simon Hewitt reported in the Huffington Post that:

“Jeanne Marchig was born Janina Paszkowska in Warsaw, into a family of doctors and lawyers. She was an only child: her father died in an accident before she was born. Her mother Elzbieta Chrostowska, an amateur wood-carver, took her to Sweden in 1939, where she grew up and married, became Janina Hama. The marriage didn’t last. She met the artist Giannino Marchig on a train between Stockholm and Florence, where he worked as a picture restorer. Berenson and Wildenstein were his top clients. Although a youthful exponent of racy nudes, Giannino was no lady’s man. He lived at home with his mother on the banks of the Arno. He was over 50. Jeanne was an art student. Their age-difference ran into decades. They married. People talked. Talked, too, about Giannino’s wealth. What had he done during the war? Helped hide Berenson’s collection from the Nazis, among other things. Did Berenson give him the Bianca portrait? Jeanne Marchig didn’t know. Or wasn’t saying. They moved to Switzerland. She morphed from a flirtatious livewire into a coquettish Miss Marple of unfluffy shrewdness. Giannino died in 1983. Jeanne published a sumptuous catalogue of her husband’s career and religiously kept the box of pastels he had used to restore the Leonardo.”

PROFESSOR KEMP’S EYE

Above, Fig. 2: The eye of “La Bella Principessa”, top left, and above left (with a superimposed diagram). Top right, an eye drawn by Leonardo (reversed). Above right, an eye featured on a sheet of eyes drawn and reproduced as aids to students and artists in a famous drawing course published in the late 1860s – and later used by the young Picasso.

THE NUB OF CONNOISSEURSHIP DISPUTES IN THE VISUAL ARTS

Martin Kemp and I have recently discussed the eye in “La Bella Principessa” (top left) vis-à-vis the eye by Leonardo (top right) and I am grateful to him for this.
He believes that both eyes are drawn by Leonardo. I (a left-handed draughtsman) hold that the “La Bella Principessa” eye, with its pronounced, almost Cubist, angular and planar construction cannot conceivably have been drawn by Leonardo. There is simply nothing like it in Leonardo’s oeuvre. It is a construct of an alien, more modern kind. Kemp now admits that the unnaturally thick and angular lower lid is problematic but writes: “With the exception of the angularity of the lower lid, which is in an area of some damage, it is consistent (above all the amazingly delicate lashes) with the attached [the eye by Leonardo, top right]. Leonardo’s works of art are not anatomical demonstrations. It’s easy to find ‘anatomical erors’. I find the seizing on such things is to divert the arguments into issues of a peripheral nature in the face of evidence of a non-arbitrary kind.” This is a helpfully clarifying statement, but the suggestion that the eye might have been repaired is new.

In the 2010 Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte book Leonardo da Vinci “La Bella Principessa” The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman, there is no indication given in Cotte’s map (Fig. 3) of repairs to “La bella Principessa” that the eye had been damaged, and Kemp, when comparing the eye with that of Leonardo’s Windsor Castle drawing Portrait of a Woman in Profile (Fig. 5), wrote of it “Even Boltraffio could not achieve this. The structure of the eyelids, the delicate flicks to create the lashes, and the translucent iris of the eye are extremely close on both portraits…” Pascal Cotte goes further, claiming a “distinct and identical logic” with the eye in Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine, Fig. 4). Making no reference to injuries or repairs, Cotte specifically points in his diagram (Fig. 4) to the “The juxtaposition of the edge of the lower eyelid with the bottom of the iris”. Speaking generally of the analysed physical evidence of the drawing, Cotte adds “There have been some diplomatic retouchings over the years, but this has not affected the expression and physiognomy of the face to a significant degree or seriously affected the overall impact of the portrait.”

THE PRIMACY OF VISUAL EVIDENCE IN THE VISUAL ARTS

What Kemp sees as a peripheral issue that lacks “non-arbitrary” evidential value, I take to be of the essence in the evaluation and critical appraisal of (visual) works of art. In traditional connoisseurship – an area which Kemp frequently disparages on quasi-scientific professional and leftist political grounds – the test is not to identify similarities (which exist in abundance between authentic works, copies and forgeries) but to discern differences, to discriminate between products of the authentic autograph hand and closely related but variant artefacts.

Of course, Leonardo did not draw every eye as an anatomical demonstration, but nor did he ever draw an eye in ignorance of that crucial feature’s anatomical construction. The eyeball, being an orb, determines the shape and forms of the surrounding soft protective tissue of the lids. Leonardo’s eyes and lids are constructed with curves, not straight lines. With the four images above at Fig. 2, a connoisseur’s ‘eye’ should recognise that even when constructing an eye with straight and not curved lines (as in the lower right demonstration drawing) it is possible to render the visible part of the eyeball conceptually if not literally spherical. That schematic drawing displays greater sculptural and anatomical acuity than does the more laboured and “finished” “La Bella Principessa”. It recognises and describes with three (faint) straight lines, what Leonardo depicts with curves: the line(s) of collision between the bulging soft flesh of the lower eyelid (when the eye is open) and the more taught flesh that is stretched over the cheekbone. In the infrared image at Fig. 6 we can see with crystal clarity how Leonardo saw the structure of the lower eyelid and how he set out this structure in preliminary drawing form. While Leonardo gave fluent anatomically-informed account of eyes, Marchig was insecure in his treatment (see Art’s Toxic Assets – Part II). Had Leonardo complied – against everything else in his output – with an irresistible court demand for a strictly profile treatment of a female subject’s head and torso, as Kemp claims in defence of La Bella Principessa, he would have had the wit and the judgement to render the eye, too, in strict profile. “La Bella Principessa’s” eye – which is smaller – is not drawn in accord with that strict out-of-perspective formal convention. Rather, it strays into looking both outwards and downwards, imparting an insecure, wary, not proud air.

MAPPING THE “RESTORATIONS” OF “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA”

Above, Fig. 3: The colour coded map that is said to show areas of restoration in “La Bella Principessa”, as published on page 133 of the 2010 Kemp/Cotte book Leonardo da Vinci “La bella Principessa” The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman. It is striking how discretely localised are the areas of “restoration”, and how fortuitously the corresponding areas of injury had fallen in the least important parts of the image.

CONFOUNDING THE SIMILAR AND THE DISSIMILAR

Above, Fig. 4: Top, the (true) right eye of The Lady with an Ermine. Above, the eye of “La Bella Principessa”. In this diagram Pascal Cotte, a brilliant engineer, sees confirmation of a common author – even at his arrowed point 2 where Leonardo’s curved demarcation between the eyeball and the lower lid is set against the form-denying straight demarcations in “La Bella Principessa”.

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the eye of Leonardo’s Windsor Castle Portrait of a Woman in Profile (reversed). Right, the smaller, more angular and more sunken eye of “La Bella Principessa”.

A common fault of copyists, pastiche-makers and forgers is to get details correct while missing the larger unified relationships which, collectively, they should constitute. The author of “La Bella Principessa” not only misses the cohering sense of the eye as a ball but even misconstrues the form and anatomical function of particular details. This error testifies to forgery rather than pastiche. We will be showing “La Bella Principessa” to be a “portmanteau work” composed from features drawn from a number of bona fide Leonardos. It can hardly seem a coincidence that the most disqualifying error of drawing in “La Bella Principessa” – the lower eyelid – occurs at the very point where damage is found in the (“prototype”) work which it is most closely said to resemble. At this point the drawing’s author has clearly been required to invent rather than copy or paraphrase. Indeed, in “La Bella Principessa’s” eye we find a progressive falling off of anatomical and artistic credibility from top to bottom: most plausible in “La Bella Principessa” is the somewhat simplifying paraphrase of the upper eyelid. Less plausible is the treatment of the more complex and elusive eyeball and iris. Least plausible of all is the fabricated lower eyelid. Martin Kemp’s claim that by drawing attention to such incompatibility we seek to divert the arguments “into issues of a peripheral nature in the face of evidence of a non-arbitrary kind” is not only unfounded – much material is in train on this attribution – it betrays a technically philistine misapprehension of sound scholarly method. Let us be clear: art, not the devil, lies in artistic detail and these details testify to authorship. We have the clearest possible understanding of how much Leonardo knew and how well he gave expression/record to what he knew/saw. It is for those who would count “La Bella Principessa” as a Leonardo to explain the disparity between its eye and that below at Figs. 7 & 8, which, on Kemp’s account, were both made at the same date.

SPOT THE ODD ONE OUT

Above, Figs. 6, 7 & 8: Top, the eye of “La Bella Principessa”; Centre, the (true) left eye of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, as seen in an infrared reflectogram by E. Lambert for C2RMF as published in Leonardo’s Technical Practice, Paris, 2014; Above, the (true) left eye of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, as seen in Pietro Marani’s Leonardo da Vinci – The Complete Paintings, New York, 2000. It is, for reasons given here, inconceivable that both of these eyes could have been produced by Leonardo at the same time – c. 1496.

There is another sense in which Kemp’s espousal of “La Bella Principessa” exposes his art historical method. By drawing attention to “La Bella Principessa’s” many points of direct correspondence with the Windsor Castle profile portrait in terms of overall effects, pentimenti, anatomical details and so forth, the scholar strains credulity. The Windsor Castle portrait is clearly of a mature woman. It was made some 15 years earlier than the supposed portrait of Bianca Sforza who died when a child of fourteen. The Windsor drawing is made in another (and single) medium – silverpoint – in which Leonardo was effortlessly, supremely fluent. “La Bella Principessa”, however, was made in an unprecedented combination of materials on a never or extremely rarely encountered-in-Leonardo support. How likely, then, is it that Leonardo would produce an elaborately finished drawing in an un-encountered mix of graphic and pictorial media and of a type nowhere else encountered in his oeuvre, of a young girl who, on Kemp’s account, was drawn either directly from life or from some other unknown record of her appearance, in commemoration after her death, some fifteen years later, that would, when reversed, produce a near perfect coincidence of proportions, features and, even, pentimenti?

It would, of course, be entirely unremarkable for a forger or pastiche-maker to engineer a similar reversed coincidence of features and traits with a bona fide Leonardo work. A canny forger who happened to be a restorer of old masters – including Leonardo, as was the case with Marchig – would well appreciate the need for evidence of one or two reassuring “campaigns of restoration” in a supposed work of five centuries of age. Marchig’s widow has reportedly claimed that he had indeed conducted restorations on the front of the drawing and on the back of the oak panel to which it was – unprecedentedly and, it is now claimed, irreversibly – glued. Kemp has not discussed, as far as we know, technical evidence that has been discussed by another Leonardo scholar – Cristina Geddo – that the back of the vellum is not blank as it would surely have been had it ever faced the the elaborately illuminated frontispiece of a major book as Kemp claims. For Dr Geddo, it is reassuring that the back of “La Bella Principessa’s” vellum support bears “superimposed numbers…like others written in pen, such as a very pale inscription visible along the upper border of the sheet and the little winged dragon – at least this is what it seems – in the lower left corner. This feature, too, counts in favour of an attribution to Leonardo, who, even though he has never to our knowledge used a parchment support in his work, was in the habit of re-using the paper on which he wrote or drew.” Of course, forgers too re-use old material.

THE AiA: AN OPEN FORUM; A PROFESSIONAL TALKING SHOP; OR, A CONSERVATION-FRIENDLY CLOSED SHOP?

Nothing can bring greater benefit to the art world than free, frank discussions and debate. The annual three-day Hague Congress is organised by a body that addresses the subject of authenticity in art and is titled AUTHENTICATION IN ART. This year’s AiA congress (11-13 May) specifically addresses the voguish museum world hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, the misapplied and anti-aesthetic scientism of which we have criticised since its earliest days (see, for example, the first post on this site The New Relativisms and the Death of “Authenticity”). Attendees at this year’s AiA congress comprise “art collectors, collection managers, directors of museums and galleries, art dealers, appraisers, connoisseurs, advisors, auctioneers, insurers, investors, lawyers, authors of catalogues raisonnés, restorers, conservators, material scientists and art historians.” This particular critic of Technical Art History will not be speaking even though our proposal for a paper was encouragingly received by a congress organiser who wrote:

“Dear Michael, Thank you. Very valuable to the whole set up of AiA 2016. Get back to you in the coming weeks.”

The proposal had opened:

“Technical Art History is presented as a multi-discipline, international museum-standard professional synthesis that eliminates error and delivers enlightenment when, in truth, it testifies to little more than the ascendency in museums of technicians over curator/connoisseurs. This putsch began with the creation of in-house museum restoration departments where staff restorers could no longer be sacked. The National Gallery in London claims pioneering authorship of the new hybrid discipline and it perfectly reflects the new pecking order.”

We were subsequently “dis-invited” through a form notification to unsuccessful applicants. Among this year’s speakers will be Professor Kemp, a member of the AiA’s advisory board, and Pascal Cotte, of Lumière Technology. Cotte was, as mentioned, co-author with Kemp of the 2010 and 2012 English and Italian editions of a book of advocacy, La Bella Principessa – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. (Kemp has been critical of Cotte’s recent, go-it-alone book Lumière on the Mona Lisa – Hidden Portraits.) A working group was set up to organise this year’s congress. It is comprised entirely of conservators or conservation scientists. Curators and connoisseurs are not represented. One member of this advisory group was David Bomford, who is presently the Chair of Conservation and Head of European Art at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Formerly, as a senior restorer, Bomford was the architect of the National Gallery’s presently stated cleaning philosophy – which we had discussed in some detail in our proposed congress paper (“…The false assurances of Clark’s aesthetics/science sleight of hand haunt and deform the National Gallery. Its official conservation guide declares restorations to rest on individual restorer’s own aesthetic inclinations…”)

PROFESSOR KEMP’S ART HISTORICAL METHOD

In his 2014 AiA congress paper (“It Doesn’t Look Like Leonardo”) Kemp discussed two other Leonardo upgrading attributions with which he is associated. Namely, the two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (one of which was restored badly, Kemp once complained, by Marchig) and the massively restored wreck of a panel painting, the Salvator Mundi. His paper’s abstract ran:

“The state of methods and protocols used in attribution is a professional disgrace. Different kinds of evidence documentation, provenance, surrounding circumstances of contexts of varied kinds, scientific analysis, and judgement by eye are used and ignored opportunistically in ways that suit each advocate (who too frequently has undeclared interests). Scientific evidence is particularly abused in this respect. The status of different kinds of evidence is generally not acknowledged, particularly with respect to falsifiability… I will attempt to bring some systematic awareness into this area, which is a necessary first step in establishing some rational protocols. The case studies will be drawn from Leonardo.”

On reading this abstract with its scattergun slurs “opportunistically”, “disgrace” and “undeclared interests”, we laughed out loud. Partly because of the grandiose title – “The 2014 Hague Congress Authentication in Art – What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…” – chosen at a time when Kemp and others had failed to achieve a consensus of support for the drawing he had portentously dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. But also because, as mentioned, two decades earlier we had experienced Kemp’s invective and sneering distaste for traditional connoisseurs whom he sees as “a self-proclaimed (and often class-based) elite whose skills are insulated from systematic scrutiny”.

In his review of the James Beck/Michael Daley book Art Restoration – The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, the authors – much as with Kemp’s peers today – were found professionally wanting and morally deficient: “…Their problem is that they seem unwilling to acknowledge the status of different kinds of evidence…The slanting of arguments, manipulation of quotations, and rigging of visual evidence may be effective journalism but it is poor history…” A more focussed barb was aimed at artists’ evaluations of conservation treatments: “Stalking throughout their book… is a very particular notion of ‘Art’ and its creators. ‘An Artist’ (ie What Beck and Daley understand as an artist in today’s terms) is adduced as the most important arbiter of the criteria for the treatment of our historical heritage. I am unclear about the identity of this archetypal beast.” Unclear indeed.

Kemp’s professional aversion to the views and judgements of artists is presented as a token of “higher”, more philosophically sophisticated notions of scholarly method and a scientist’s preference for non-judgemental, non-subjective “evidence” within it.

CRITICAL SILENCES

While some are cowed by Professor Kemp’s trademark abusive critical put-downs, others, like the blogger and art “sleeper” hunter, Bendor Grosvenor (21 April), openly admire them. We called Kemp’s bluff in a letter to the THES (2 May 1994):

“…he alleges… a misuse of historical and material evidence. Professor Kemp’s notions of misuse would seem to be singular: he complains, for example, that Professor James Beck and I accepted Charles Heath Wilson’s clear and detailed testimony that Michelangelo had extensively revised his frescoes with glue painting, ‘with unquestioning approval’. This is presented as proof of our ‘lack of discrimination’. But Wilson saw what he saw and said what he said… Does Kemp have any grounds for rejecting Wilson’s record?… Kemp is silent on this evidence. Why? The photographic evidence we supply of restoration-induced injuries is impugned by Kemp as ‘rigged’. It is nothing of the sort – most of it was provided by the restoration authorities themselves… Does Kemp wish to defend that restoration? Is he in possession of any photographs which tell a different story?”

No grounds for rejecting Wilson were offered in reply. No contra-testifying un-rigged photographs were ever produced.
For a fuller account of the spurious charges raised by art conservators and Kemp to Art Restoration, see “Why are picture restorers allergic to appraisal?”, Jackdaw, May/June 2016.

THE 2016 AUTHENTICATION-IN-ART CONGRESS AND ‘DISORDERLY’ SCHOLARSHIP

In this year’s AiA congress paper Kemp returns to his 2014 AiA congress attack on the shortcomings and abuses he perceives in the methodologies and behaviour of all other scholars in the field, albeit in muted form. Today his abstract reads:

“A speech on Technical Art History and the way he [Kemp] implements the research on Leonardo’s La Bella Principessa: the varieties of evidence and arguments, and how reactions to the attribution shed light on the disorderly nature of current methods”.

A clue to where he might be going can be found on his blogsite where he has published a “reworked” version of his 2014 paper that excludes his earlier linking remarks on other Leonardo attributions he supports – “Science and Judgement by Eye in the Historical Identification of Works of Art”.

The methodological schema Kemp outlines and censoriously offers to others seems little more than an overly complicated regurgitation of the tendentious, the self-evident and the true-by-definition. It leans heavily on and misapplies Karl Popper’s famously illuminating discussion of scientific knowledge and methods. Kemp seems to crave an aesthetic equivalent of the decisive Popperian test of scientific “falsifiability”. This is a vain, misdirected quest. Because of the profound differences between appraisal of works of art and the technical analysis of their constituent materials, Kemp is forever complicating and caveating his proposed model method. He compiles tables of hierarchies that are organised into polarising dualities. He is constantly extricating himself from fogs of his own making:

“In this and the following table, I am using the terms ‘scientific’ and ‘art historical’ in a conventional way without intending to signal that they can be isolated in the actual practice of attribution – and certainly not to suggest that the application of scientific analysis necessarily delivers more certainty than art historical evidence. In the actual practice of art history, its isolation from scientific analysis is all too common.”

Which? What? To help orientate us, Kemp devises a table of criteria that are more traditionally “art historical” with the “the most malleable [being] at the top.” But nothing ever comes to rest. Here, “I have added standard kinds of evidence relating to provenance and documentation that are highly constructive.” If baffled by the usage “constructive”, the reader must back-track to an earlier explanation that “The kinds of evidence and explanation that can be subject to various degrees of falsification can be grouped under two headings: constructive and permissive.” Thus, “By constructive I mean those that add positively and accumulatively to the case being made for a specific attribution. By permissive I am signalling those that present no obstacle to the attribution being made, i. e. they offer a nil obstat.”

JUDGEMENT BY EYE

When Picasso was asked what he thought of the philosophical discipline aesthetics, he replied: “Aesthetics is to the artist what ornithology is to birds.” In Kemp, everything is dunked in pseudo-philosophical terminology. Take the simple clear self-explanatory notion “judgement by eye” which he offers in preference to snobby, elitist, class-based etc “connoisseurship”:

“As we have seen, judgement by eye plays a key role in key scientific techniques. Although the most constructive of the kinds of art historical evidence, documentation and provenance, do not rely upon judgement by eye, it is common that this kind of evidence is not available or is less conclusive than we would wish. In many cases judgement by eye necessarily provides the actual starting point, before other kinds of investigation are undertaken. This is often the situation when a previously unknown or unrecognised work first emerges with specific claims attached to it. Let us try to formulate some propositions about judgement by eye in a somewhat Popperian manner”

Why, apart from intellectual snobbery, in a “Popperian” manner? Well, they help Kemp to conclude with the twin observations that “Judgement by eye is malleable in the light of multiple interests”, and “Judgement by eye is falsifiable only by factors outside of itself.” Kemp’s Popperian edifice is, as it were, a perniciously misleading red herring. In truth judgements by eye cannot be equated with falsifiable scientific propositions, they are a different beast – they are critical appraisals. As such they are gambits in a discussion. They can be countered by demonstrably superior, more percipient and persuasive judgements that accord better with the material circumstances and visual facts of a given work of art. Because Kemp sets the hard and “irrefutable facts” of material analysis (many of which, he acknowledges, require judgement by eye) against what he deems the “subjective”, “relative” and “malleable” act of appraisal of the (despised) connoisseur, he misrepresents what is indispensable to proper appraisals of art. Connoisseurship (the term should not frighten or repel us) cannot sensibly be treated as a natural science – properly, rigorously conducted it is an open, competitive adversarial system that is full of checks and balances wherein anything that is proposed may examined, challenged and deposed. Art world abuses certainly exist but they flourish best when legitimate criticisms and demonstrations are blocked and disqualified and critics are ruled out of court. Kemp, who despises the “class-based” connoisseur, does not respond well to criticism and prefers abuse and denigration to straightforward and healthy critical engagement. That is his loss, but also, he being a talented man, it is that of scholarship itself.

AN INTELLECTUALLY OPEN CONFERENCE

When ArtWatch UK, The Center for Art Law, and the London School of Economics Law Department, organised a conference on connoisseurship in London last December (“Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”), one of the papers, “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of ‘La Bella Principessa’ examined”, by Kasia Pisarek, presented a number of the interlocking art historical, aesthetic and technical criticisms she had recently published in the above mentioned Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae.

Because this paper was a strong and detailed rejection of the attribution, we invited Martin Kemp to give a paper. He declined. We then invited Nicholas Turner, an independent scholar and drawings expert who had championed the “La Bella Principessa” drawing before Prof. Kemp. He, also, declined to speak. To represent the restoration-pro-active, attribution-making school of art dealers, we invited Philip Mould. Mr Mould, too, declined to speak. Shortly before the conference, Kemp, Silverman and a Polish art historian, Kasia Wozniak, all lobbied for the “balancing” inclusion in our conference proceedings of the journalist Simon Hewitt who is writing a book with the owner of La Bella Principessa, Peter Silverman – who tells us that the book is on “various aspects of the art market, sometimes highlighted by others’ and my own discoveries”. Hewitt attended the conference and, from the floor, launched an assault on Pisarek’s case – but did so, we later learned, on the borrowed authority of Kemp who had “prepped” him for the occasion on objections he had framed in response to Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article. Kemp later submitted his lengthy response to Artibus et Historiae for publication but it was turned down. This article has now been posted on the AiA Congress website. Perhaps, in the interests of scholarly balance, the AiA congress will now also post the article by Dr Pisarek which Professor Kemp aims to rebut? Perhaps the Congress might also consider posting our own initially valuable-to-proceedings but later rejected paper on Technical Art History?

Michael Daley, 3 May 2016

COMING SOON: The Salvator Mundi, Giannino Marchig, Left-handedness and “La Bella Principessa”


ArtWatch and the Death of the Independent

On 26 March 2016 the printed Independent newspapers died. As Michael Daley reports, it was a poignant moment for those like himself who were in at the Great Project’s beginning in 1986 and had experienced the rush of excitement as the new newspaper’s pioneering innovations rapidly achieved commercial success and professional acclaim.

The paths of the Independent and ArtWatch were cross-linked for over two decades. The Independent was launched in 1986 as a newspaper in which much had been rethought and with firm editorial convictions that there should be no “freebies” (copy produced in exchange for free holidays or such) and no sacred cows – least of all with the royal family. At that date, twenty years after the heroic rescue operations that followed the flooding of Florence, one of the most sacrosanct received wisdoms was that art restoration was a safe and miraculous means of rejuvenating old works of art. I had left the Financial Times to work as the Independent’s principal illustrator shortly before the launch.

Above, the first issue of the Independent which was published on 7 October 1986.

A CRITICAL REVERSAL

Today, criticisms of even the grandest restorations are commonplace and no longer prompt ridicule and abuse. To the contrary, it is now restorations that attract ridicule. (See “And the World’s Worst Restoration is…”) In the brain-stretching BBC2 television quiz show Only Connect, a recent winning answer was: “They are all paintings that have been ruined by restorers”. Strictly speaking as the host, Victoria Coren, advised (on legal advice no doubt ), the correct answer was: “They are all paintings that have been controversially restored”. Controversially for sure – all had been condemned on this site: the Monkey-faced Christ; the Louvre’s botched Veronese nose jobs; the reconfigured-little that survived the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper (see below); and the “Disney-fied” repainting of an ancient Chinese mural. The Guardian now asks readers to submit photographs of the worst restorations they have witnessed: “Restoration disasters around the world: share your pictures and stories”. Auctioneers and dealers place premiums on little- or never-restored works, not vice versa. No one would dream of producing a television or radio series called “Your Hundred Best Restorations”. No one (“sleeper” hunters aside) would celebrate a many-times restored painting. How we got to this stage is a long story. The Independent’s contribution to it was crucial, honourable and is worthy of greater recognition.

NINE MEN, ONE WOMAN, AN EXECUTIVE CHAIR AND NO PROPRIETOR

On 7 October 1988, Campaign magazine observed and reported on the Independent’s workings and progress at the time of its second anniversary, by which date it had exceeded its initial target of 375,000 sales.

Above, from left to right: Jonathan Fenby, Home Editor; Chris McKane, Picture Editor; Charles Burgess, Sports Editor; Sarah Hogg, Business and City Editor; Peter Jenkins, Political Columnist; Andreas Whittam Smith, Editor; Stephen Glover, Foreign Editor; Alexander Chancellor, Magazine Editor; John Torode, Leader Writer; Tom Sutcliffe, Arts Editor. (Not present, Michael Crozier, Art Editor.)

Below, Campaign’s photographer followed Andreas Whittam Smith’s day, showing here (top) a meeting with the leader writers, Roger Berthoud and John Torode; (centre), the principal illustrator, Michael Daley, at work; and, (bottom) with the home desk editor, Jonathan Fenby.

THE LOOK OF THE PAPER

The smart and distinctive look of the Independent contributed greatly to its initial success. Much as everyone in the city and business had felt impelled to sport the pink Financial Times, so everyone in advertising, design, architecture, photography and the visual arts seemed to have taken to the Independent. The newspaper – the first to exploit digital typesetting – was printed on good white paper that had little “show-through” from adjoining pages. By editorial requirement, its photography and graphics were distinctive and of high professional quality.

INNOVATIVE CONTENT

A journalistically novel and distinctive development on the paper had been a decision to expand and elevate the non-news, “features” sections, giving each a dedicated, professionally expert editor. In consequence I worked for sections as diverse as Law, Health, Food, Books, Gardening, Music, Wine, Architecture and so forth. For a fine art-trained illustrator, working with top calibre journalists (and an art editor who gave drawings due space and air) was a privileging and highly stimulating situation. The paper’s famous high-mindedness and unashamedly high-brow arts coverage, left one free to reference anything (including past art) that might best help illustrate pieces that ranged from, say, written evocations of the tastes and smells of food; cultural anxieties over decadence felt as the end of the century approached; and, acrimonious disputes of custody that sometimes arose when lesbian couples broke up after having had children by complicated paternity arrangements. Thus, by way of example, seven images:

Above, seven drawings for the Independent, by Michael Daley.

THE GRAPHIC TECHNIQUE

If the conceptual challenges on the Independent were exhilarating, deadline pressures meant that there was rarely more than 24 hours from inception to delivery of a drawing. The ink drawing technique (which I had developed during the previous four years on the Financial Times and the Times’ educational supplements), aimed to exploit as much as possible the easy extremes of graphic art with solid blacks (quickly brushed) and pure whites (paper left bare). Between those polar graphic opposites, slow-to-realise shading was judiciously deployed with cross-hatched lines and stippled dots. To speed output, all preliminary drawing was made in pencil on the finished sheet and then directly inked over so that the sketching stage could be completely erased. I had come to recognise that a drawing for reproduction in a newspaper is not a thing-in-its-own-right but a piece of page furniture that must live variously with the “grey” of closely set print texts, the assertive blacks of headlines, and, the graphically strident clamour of advertisements.

RECOGNITION

The novelty of the Independent’s employment of an illustrator who had trained principally in sculpture and etching swiftly resulted in a press award and commissions from book publishers and advertising agencies. The sweetest and most surprising outcome was earning the respect as an illustrator of established practising fine artists. One of the most generous was Peter Blake, who sent a kind note of thanks and respect with a book of illustrations he had made for Michael Horovitz’s poem of celebration, love and homage to Frances Horovitz. Blake had surmised (correctly) that I, like he, was an admirer of Maxfield Parrish. Such recognition almost immediately took on an art political significance in an entirely unanticipated way.

THE SISTINE CHAPEL RESTORATION DISPUTE

Within a month of receiving Peter Blake’s gift, the Sunday Times Magazine published an article on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. It told of condemnation from artists and an art historian, Professor James Beck of Columbia University, New York. Against them, the art historical establishment claimed momentous restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” that were said to require nothing less than a rewriting of five centuries of art history. The profound changes that all parties conceded had been achieved by repeatedly brushed-on and washed-off applications of a ferocious solvent gel that had left Michelangelo’s painting a pale and deformed reflection of its former self (see below). Beck was being likened to the man who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for his refusal to acknowledge as a miraculous “recovery” a hitherto unsuspected and nowhere-recorded “New Michelangelo”. “We didn’t need one”, Beck had retorted, “There was nothing wrong with the old”.

To this working artist, the photographic evidence of the pre- and post-cleaned sections made it clear that the proposed art historical edifice being offered in post hoc defence of a demonstrably bungled restoration threatened a compounding falsification of history itself. Suspicion arose that because so many art historians had authorised or endorsed the restoration on which so much institutional capital and foreign sponsorship monies had been invested, none could break ranks. Further, it seemed to have been especially galling to art historians that their endorsements had been rejected on visual evidence cited by artists. (One scholar/supporter of the restoration, Professor Martin Kemp, would later complain in the Times Higher Educational Supplement: “I am unclear about the identity of this archetypal beast. Is ‘an artist’ to be identified with Andy Warhol or one of his fellow practitioners who protested during the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling?”)

COPYING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORK

It so happened that having switched to illustration from art school teaching and fine art practice in 1982, working long hours, six or seven days a week left little time for travel or even museum attendance. Partly in substitution, I had kept touch with art through books and, as an illustrator, took every opportunity to incorporate work by artists I admired. These ranged from classical Greek sculpture, through Michelangelo, to certain favourite modern artists like Gustav Klimt, the painter/sculptor Max Klinger and Picasso (on our homage to Klimt and Klinger, see “At the end of another century” above).

Above: (top) a detail of a copy of a Klimt portrait of Judith made by Michael Daley for the Independent in illustration of a Health article. Below it is a comparison of a section of the Klimt painting, as seen before (left) and after restoration(s). (For sight of the wholesale destruction of this modern artist’s work at the hand of restorers, see “The Elephant in Klimt’s Room” and “Now let’s murder Klimt”.)

APPRECIATING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORKS AND THE RELEVANCE OF COPYING TO APPRAISING RESTORATIONS

To copy the work of another artist it is necessary to look closely and attentively at it. You cannot draw what you have not analysed and understood. Indeed, drawings produced after the works of others are tests of understanding even more than of skill. Spending a working life both copying the various uses of shading made by other artists, and applying one’s own marks to paper so as to create plastically coherent and expressive tonal relationships, sharpens the eye and confers an ability to detect injuries to original tonal relationships in the works of others. This should not be considered surprising or remarkable: those who organise and dispose marks on surfaces, are perfectly placed to recognise the obverse – which is to say, the adulteration or deconstruction of artistically purposive values during so-called restorations.

Pace sneering art historians, to artists’ art practice trained eyes, spotting such injuries is as easy as it is for accountants to spot errors of arithmetic. That many art historians fail to recognise injuries to the works of the artists they study, might indeed suggest (as others have recently claimed) that something very wrong has been going on in art history education. And yet, at the end of the 1980s, when artists and rare visually discerning scholars challenged officially-sanctioned and endorsed restorations, it was they, not the visually-limited, who met with abuse. When I introduced myself to James Beck, prior to writing the 1990 Independent on Sunday article discussed below, he had been reviled in scholarly print by his peers – not least by a sister professor who served the Vatican as its art historical adviser/spokesman on the Sistine Chapel restoration. When I asked him if it might be helpful for an artist to make visual demonstrations of the injuries to Michelangelo’s work, he replied that it would be the most important thing to do, because “only artists understand these matters”. (Beck’s sister was a painter and he had studied fine art before switching to art history.)

Above, A detail shown in greyscale and in colour of a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before (left) and after cleaning in the 1980s.

THE VALUE OF DIRECT PHOTO-COMPARISONS

To identify restoration injuries it is helpful to place photographs of small sections of a restored work directly side-by-side (as in the Klimt Judith above, where the relative weakening of the spirals at the bottom, for example, should be apparent to the most untutored eye). The above detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was reproduced in the December 1988 Sunday Times article. It was immediately clear to me that the cleaning had weakened and in some places altogether erased bona fide features of shading and specific details like veins on the giant symbolic oak leaves. I asked the Independent’s arts editor if I might write a short article explaining why Prof. James Beck was right and the art historical establishment was wrong. On the face of it, this was a perfect Independent “questioning-of-authority” story. Unfortunately, the request could not be granted because the paper’s then art critic had recently visited the restorers’ scaffold in the chapel and had judged the restoration… a success. His art critical authority could not be challenged by a working artist with clear “standing” within the paper. Fortunately, when the Independent on Sunday was launched in 1990, its arts editor, Michael Church, commissioned a piece showing the damaging consequences of the restoration. Many criticisms of the restoration had previously been reported in the press but no one before had been given space in a national newspaper to set out evidence of injury. That article proved to be a game-changer.

Above, top, the Independent on Sunday magazine of 25 March 1990 which carried (above) photographs showing restoration injuries in Michael Daley’s “Michelangelo: found or lost”

ESTABLISHMENT INTIMIDATION OF THE PRESS

Newspapers are complex entities comprised of many distinct departments that speak to particular constituencies. Dedicated arts journalists must swim in the art world and negotiate with its players and institutions. For them, breaking the “rules of engagement” can incur ostracism and worse. Those who play by the rules can be rewarded with exclusive stories and material. They might receive invitations to accompany globe-trotting museum directors on blockbuster shows. They might be invited to become embedded within a conservation department so as to counter anticipated criticisms. News journalists are less constrained. They are licensed to get and follow stories; to look for bodies; to follow money; to report mishaps and so forth.

When the Independent on Sunday article on the Sistine Chapel restoration was published the news editor on the daily Independent was intrigued by the magnitude of the controversy and he commissioned the above pair of articles. Despite such strong editorial support the articles nearly failed to see the light of day. Even though I had professional “standing”, the paper’s arts correspondent, David Lister, was taken aback by the high-level hostility and abuse levelled at me and Professor Beck. He became fearful of challenging key and venerable sections of the art establishment. How could the two of us be right and all of them wrong, he asked? It was a fair and sensible question: newspapers can never afford to back losers and must always invite responses from those under attack.

By way of reassurance, I showed the catalogues to the 1969 Olivetti-sponsored Frescoes from Florence travelling exhibition to London and New York. This exhibition consisted of murals that had been detached (on grounds of conservation) from buildings in Italy and then mounted on panels as stand-alone works of art that might be flown around the world – much as restored medieval glass from cathedrals is being despatched today. Both catalogues groaned under the weight of luminaries included in the exhibition’s “Committees of Honour”. At the time the show had been a sensation on two continents but I was able to show a recent Burlington Magazine editorial which condemned the detachment of frescoes from buildings as a barbarous and now discredited practice that had injured the paintings and buildings alike, and left many frescoes mouldering like rolled-up like rugs in church and chapel basements.

The procedural obstacle was cleared and both articles were published. The sky did not fall in and although squeals were heard, thereafter, the paper had confidence and trust in my judgements and accounts, enabling me to write further on the Sistine Chapel debacle and restorations at the National Gallery – including a review (below) of a book extolling the Sistine Chapel restoration that was written by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak.

PROFESSOR BECK GETS SUED

In 1991, after surviving years of abuse over the Sistine Chapel controversy, Beck was hit with a criminal action in the Italian courts over reported criticisms he had made in Lucca Cathedral on the restoration of a marble tomb by the early Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The restorer (in fact, the head of a restoration company) had not sued the Italian newspapers that had reported Beck’s (oral) criticisms. Instead, he sued the scholar alone for aggravated criminal slander – a charge that carried a possible three years jail sentence – and for damages of 60 million Lire. By not suing those who had transmitted the criticisms (and therefore had, allegedly, harmed his reputation), the restorer ensured that Beck could receive no support from the newspapers and their lawyers and would have to bear all the risks alone. As the world authority on this early Renaissance sculptor, he felt compelled to do so. Although the trial’s ramifications might have been horrendous for scholarship generally, he received no public expressions of support from his peers. When I asked the editor of the Burlington Magazine why this was the case, she replied “Because he is going to lose”. The public needed to be alerted to the case. Once again, the Independent came through. On 8 November 1991, David Lister reported the imminent trial:

Below, part of David Lister’s 8 November 1991 article.

Below, a book Beck had produced on the Lucca Cathedral monument

THE TRIAL AND THE PROFESSIONAL SILENCE

Like the editor of the Burlington Magazine, the judge at Beck’s trial in Florence knew that he was going to lose. Indeed, he declared an intention to find him guilty to the prosecuting lawyer, as they left the court together discussing the case at lunchtime after the trial’s first morning session. “Eh, but I shall find him guilty” he said. Fortunately, he was overheard by an off-duty policeman who was working as an intern for Beck’s lawyer. When challenged, the judge refused to recuse himself but eventually he disappeared and Beck, under a new judge, was soon acquitted.

REPORTING THE TRIAL OUTCOME

At the time we were able by courtesy once more of the Independent (22 November 1991) to raise a cheer for Beck and for the blow he had struck for the free expression of scholarly judgements on matters of artistic welfare and integrity. But this had been an extremely close call and, while contemplating a possible jail sentence, Beck decided that a dedicated international organisation was needed to speak for the interests of the world’s great and insufficiently protected works of art. A year later ArtWatch International was founded in New York.

On the day of publication of the Independent’s 22 November article, Grant McIntyre, an editor at the venerable and (then) still independent publishing house John Murray, telephoned to ask if there might be a book on the trial and on matters of restoration. There was and, following its initial publication in 1993, it ran to many subsequent editions (see below).

THE BOOK’S RECEPTION

The book soon faced a formidable hurdle: it was to be reviewed in the New York Review of Books by a formidable Renaissance scholar, Professor Charles Hope, a supporter of the Sistine Chapel restoration. In the event, Prof. Hope was persuaded by the art historical and technical proofs of injury we had amassed. Moreover, he held that Beck had performed an admirable and brave service to scholars and scholarship alike. He also pointed that while many scholars of his acquaintance had initially supported the restoration enthusiastically, many had recently fallen silent on the subject.

After the trial turmoil and the creation of ArtWatch International, I continued to draw the art I loved and to criticise restorations in the Independent.

DENIAL AT THE VATICAN

After the horrors on the ceiling, we later witnessed the injuries to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. There are still institutionally ensconced scholars and administrators who are in denial on the injuries at the Sistine Chapel and insist against all evidence – such as is found in the contemporary painted copy of the “Last Judgement” by Marcelo Venusti shown above – that Michelangelo had painted in today’s vapid tones and hues. In part this New Pallor is not only the product of the last restoration but also of the quarter of a century since in which the interactions of tourism-induced airborne pollution and chemical residues of the cleaning have been devouring the fresco surfaces. So great has been the debilitation that, in addition to a new air-conditioning system, thousands of colour-enhancing LED lights have been installed on the ceiling.

THE INDEPENDENT AND A CHANGED CRITICAL CLIMATE

The Independent gave fair and generous voice to previously unheard criticisms. By doing so it made an invaluable contribution to artistic health – not only directly but indirectly by opening up the rich, hitherto unexamined field to the rest of the press. The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and others all saw the importance of the subject and recognised that “news” is that which somebody, somewhere, would prefer not to see published. The importance of newspapers in this regard cannot be exaggerated – our colleagues in the United States and France cannot believe that newspapers can be so challenging to entrenched authorities in the arts. The vigour of the British press can also be seen by comparison with our broadcast media which remains perpetually asleep on the job, treating the visual arts as little more than a gifted succession of diverting, institution-promoting “Good News” stories.

ARTS BROADCASTING PAP

When the Beck/Daley art restoration book was published in 1993 a number of independent television companies rightly saw the potential for a televisual “public affairs” type of treatment. All of these proceded well until they reached the top of their commissioning chains. Once, the head of music and arts at the BBC went so far as to offer a whole arts programme, reassuring us that although the BBC and the National Gallery were commercial partners “that shouldn’t create a problem”. But it did: the almost-commissioned independent meticulously even-handed examination of the pros and cons of picture restoration was swiftly killed off. In its place the BBC permitted the National Gallery to make its own effective tele-promotional “selfie” (with gallery staff using left-in-place BBC cameras) of its mangled, falsifying restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. On 29 January 2000 the Independent carried a letter from ArtWatch UK entitled “‘Virtual reality’ art”:

“…When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous anamorphic skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer generated distortion of a photograph of a real skull. This Bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ into an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer more ‘scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s original image had been generated. The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual, cracks.”

It is a tragedy that the lights should have gone out on a newspaper that had caused justifable discomfort in so many art world recesses. As described above, it is a measure of the success of the campaigning that first gained exposure in the Independent that we now enjoy a quite different and healthily expanded art critical universe. We thank the Independent for good times past and wish it all good fortune in its new streamlined format with global outreach at The Independent.

Below (top): The last Independent coverage of ArtWatch UK by Dalya Alberge on 14 March 2012. (On the restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, see: A different Leonardo and, The Law of Diminishing Returns ); below (bottom) the last editions of the Independent on Sunday and the Independent.

Michael Daley, 30 March 2016


Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.

24 February 2014

On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.

In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:

“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”

Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.

Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”

However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):

“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures. As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”

History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”

In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.

The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.

Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .

In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:

“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”

Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.

While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:

“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”

There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?

The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911” which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910” (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).
An entire programme in the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series was spent examining the technical composition and the provenance of the fake version (which, incredibly, was dispatched to the Chagall Committee in Paris which not only declared the work a dud but threatens to have it destroyed) when a single glance at the two works should have been sufficient to establish that both cannot be by the same artist. Where that of 1911 displays a boldly deconstructing and reconstructing treatment of forms and spaces that is expansive and pictorially dynamic (as well as being massively indebted to Picasso’s then recent and revolutionary cubist works), the other is manifestly derivative and feebly handled, leaving the picture’s subject looking not so much set in a specially re-ordered non-Euclidian space, as pasted onto a monotonously and repetitively drawn and coloured theatrical back-cloth.
Above, Fig. 2: a detail of a Turner water-colour in the British Museum which had been protected from light damage at the left edge by the frame. (See plate 5 in the “Museum Environment”, 1986, Butterworth-Heinemann.)
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers the St. George militia company”, showing a strip of original green glazing that had been protected from restorers solvents by the frame.
Above, Fig. 4: the much reproduced Renoir, “Madame Léon Clapisson” (here as on the BBC) showing the painting in its present condition at the Chicago Art Institute on the left, and in an attempted digital reconstruction of its original (1883) condition on the right.
Above, Figs. 5, 6 and 7: details, top and centre, of “Madame Léon Clapisson” as found today, showing along the picture’s top edge a surving strip of an originally pink background achieved with a glaze of carmine lake, or cochineal, pigment. Scientists have used the investigative method known as “Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” in an attempt (above, at Fig. 7) to recreate the picture’s original appearance.
There has been no mention in any reports on this attempted reconstitution of some consideration having been given to changes in the painting that had occurred not as a result of exposure to light but as a result of exposure to restorers’ solvents, swabs and scalpels.
The painting itself and the virtual reconstruction is presently on exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition was supported by research funding provided by the Getty Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is said that with “this new knowledge and new technologies such as nanotechnology, laser light, and advanced image processing software, the conservation department has been able to reconstruct the work’s original colors in a full-scale digital reproduction.”
A PIONEERING DIGITAL ATTEMPT TO RECOVER A PICTURE’S ORIGINAL CONDITION AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY (LONDON)
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” attributed to Pedro Campaña.
Above, Fig. 9: The near contemporary copy of the National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” that was made by Luca Longhi and is presently in the Villa Borghese Collection, Rome.
The National Gallery claims credit for pioneering the new collective discipline known as Technical Art History. A key weapon in its long, proselytizing campaign has been the publication since 1977 of an annual report dedicated to conservation activities – its Technical Bulletin. The issue of 2001 (Vol 22) carried an article “Colour change in The Conversion of the Magdalen attributed to Pedro Campaña” that was jointly authored by Marika Spring, Nicholas Penny, Raymond White and Martin Wyld. Spring and White were members the science department, Penny was a curator, and Wyld was the head of conservation. It was thus a textbook collaborative effort made under the rules of Technical Art History.
The combined expertises were brought to bear on a striking problem with the painting’s physical and optical conditions: there had been severe deteriorations in the colours of many of the draperies, not least in those of Christ. Many draperies were now brown or yellow-brown, where once they had been blue, green or red.
Microscopic samples were taken from some of the figures and analysed in an attempt to identify their pigments and to “investigate whether there was any peculiarity in the technique and the materials that could have caused such serious degradation.” Highly detailed examinations established that the blue pigment – smalt – had deteriorated; that a red lake pigment (likely containing dyestuff from the cochineal insect) had faded; and that green glazes containing copper had turned brown. None of these changes were remarkable in themselves, except, perhaps, in their extent.
What was remarkable was that an attempt was made to reconstruct the “altered colours by digital imaging”. It was explained that the changes which had destroyed the picture’s balance of colours had to be accepted as irreversible. Nonetheless, the attempt was made to gain some impression of the original appearance by manipulating a digital image of the painting – specifically, “by applying image-processing techniques”. Clearly, in such an exercise, the nature and type of image-processing software used would be of crucial methodological significance – how and in what manner was the base digital reproduction of the picture to be manipulated?
Explanation seemed to be to hand in a footnote [27]. Alas, it read flatly as follows: “The technical details of the process of reconstruction of the colours by image processing on the digital image will be described elsewhere.” No less disturbing than having to take the means and manner of the manipulations on trust, the account that followed of the factors of consideration suggested a Technical Art Historical methodology more Heath Robinson Contraption than Hi-Tech Sophistication.
Because the original colours no longer exist on the painting, some simulacrum of each had to be produced to feed into the image-manipulating software. Thus, “colourimetric measurements on painted-out samples matching the pigment mixtures and the layer structures were used as a reference.” Clearly, achieving a reliable point of colour reference was vital to the integrity of the exercise. But how reliable were the painted-out samples? Not very, it seemed on the authors’ own account:
“For the smalt and red lake pigments this posed some problems. Smalt manufactured to a nineteenth-century recipe is available today, but contains a higher percentage of cobalt than than smalt in sixteenth-century paintings and none of the impurities that are commonly found in the glass.” Notwithstanding these departures from the original materials used on the painting, this smalt was used for the base references. Because the modern smalt is much stronger in colour than that of the sixteenth-century, an attempt was made to correct (lessen) its force by adulterating it with “finely ground alumina” in attempt to “to try to simulate the colour of the sixteenth century smalt”. Confidence in this adjustment was not high because “this is a difficult judgement to make, since in paintings of the period smalt has always degraded.” Had the painting been a seventeenth-century work the exercise would have been easier because by then the smalt was commonly mixed with lead white pigment, which afforded some protection. Even though this work was not of the seventeenth-century, samples from that period were used a guide reference in the digital manipulations.
Establishing a reference point for the original lake pigments was no less problematic: “Comparison with the deep shadows on Christ’s red robe, which retain their red colour, made it clear that the hue of the test plate was more purple than the red lake in the painting…” And what of the outcome of this, at best, approximate method?
Above, left, Fig. 10a: the computer-manipulated attempt to recover the original colours of Christ’s draperies.
Above, right, Fig. 10b: a detail of the Borghese Villa copy shown above at Fig. 9.
It probably goes without saying that the figure of Christ seen at Fig. 10a seems a most implausible reconstruction. It is claimed by the authors, however, that: “The deeply saturated colours which replace the deteriorated brown, although rather flat because of the loss of the modelling which cannot be reconstructed, balance well with the well-preserved draperies painted with vermilion and ultramarine.” Given that, on the authors’ own admission, the simulated blues and reds are significantly different and more intense pigments, how credible can this claimed correspondence of colours seem?
The article concludes on an assertive note of self-satisfaction: “The detailed technical examination of the ‘Conversion of the Magdalen’, and the process of reconstruction of the colours in the digital image, has produced some deeper insight into how the deterioration of pigments has affected the colours in the painting.”
This was followed by a claim that is quite remarkably at odds with the visual evidence presented (see Figs. 10a and 10b): “Although the strong and deep colours of the reconstruction initially seemed rather startling, they receive strong support from comparison with the Borghese version of the painting [shown here at Figs. 9 and 10b] – which is especially gratifying since the reconstruction was made before the transparency of the Borghese version was available to us.” Given that the Borghese version is on all accounts markedly better preserved that the London picture, what might explain the former’s richer, warmer red drapery and darker, more sombre blue drapery?
Although the authors express themselves as being satisfied with the accuracy of the reconstructed colours, they do concede other problems: “The reconstruction is not, of course, an accurate portrayal of the original appearance of the painting – the lost modelling in some of the draperies cannot be recreated…”
Thus, we see that this exercise has been directed at a single component part of the painting – its self-contained areas of local colours – and that, in the execution, that part has been wrenched from any relationship with the picture’s tones, shading and modelling. This severance is painfully evident in the comparison at Figs. 10a and 10b. It would beggar belief that the National Gallery’s experts could see any sort of vindication for their efforts in the Borghese version were it not for that institution’s by now too-deeply ingrained to be recognised tradition of pursuing autonomously bright colours during restorations at the expense of form and pictorial coherence. Not only are the colours of the Borghese drapery more sombre and chromatically integrated – and jointly more skilfully integrated with the plastic values – but we see also in the National Gallery picture a characteristic debilitating weakness of modelling in the too-brightly scrubbed surfaces of the flesh areas. (It is depressing beyond belief that our national pictorial vice should recently have crossed the English Channel and now be menacing Leonardos at the Louvre.)
It might be contended that we are not comparing like with like. As the authors point out, the one work is a not an altogether strict copy of the other. Moreover, the Borghese version is acknowledged to be in superior condition: “the better condition of areas painted in red lake in the Borghese painting is strong evidence that it has not been subjected to such harsh environmental conditions as the National Gallery painting…The Borghese picture has spent almost all its life in two collections in the same city, whereas, the National Gallery’s picture has belonged to at least half a dozen collections and has passed on at least three occasions through the art trade, but too little is known about the conservation history of these paintings, and the conditions in which they have been kept, to explain the difference in preservation.” The euphemistic use of the term “environmental” in lieu of “restorational” and the sly allusion to possible bad restoration experiences at the hands of the “art trade” cannot gainsay the fact that there is abundant evidence of works held at and restored within the National Gallery suffering catastrophic losses in the course of a single in-house restoration – as the before restoration (left) and after restoration (right) comparative details of Rubens’ portrait of Susannah Lunden (shown below at Figs. 11a and 11b) testify.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


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