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Did Sotheby’s mis-attribute a Caravaggio?

February 16, 2013
The newly-discovered version of The Card Sharps by Caravaggio, was bought for just £50,400 last December

This version of The Card Sharps was bought for £50,400 in December 2006

Did Sotheby’s blow it and downgrade an actual Caravaggio painting to being the work of a “follower”? That’s the subject of a new lawsuit according to The Art Newspaper:

Sotheby’s is being sued for damages over a work it attributed to a “follower” of Caravaggio that sold at auction in London to the late collector and scholar Denis Mahon in 2006, for a hammer price of £42,000. Mahon subsequently identified the painting as a work “by the hand of Caravaggio” and obtained an export licence for it that gave an estimated selling price of £10m, according to a claim filed at London’s High Court of Justice.

In December 2007, the Telegraph ran an article headlined: Caravaggio worth £50m discovered, and reported:  “Sir Denis, who has authenticated three other Caravaggios, decided that the painting was an early work by the Renaissance master himself, and dated it to 1595.” The article later noted: “Sir Denis, a prolific and scholarly art collector, said that the painting was a predecessor of the The Card Sharps that hangs in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.”

It’s understandable that the claimant, Lancelot William Thwaytes, whose family had owned the painting since 1962, would be upset.  However, the attribution is disputed by several scholars – from The Art Newspaper:

In a statement, Sotheby’s says that its “view that the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio is supported by the eminent Caravaggio scholar Richard Spear, as well as by several other leading experts in the field”. Other experts who have gone on the record in support of Sotheby’s view include Helen Langdon, the Italian Baroque scholar and the writer of Caravaggio’s 1998 biography, and Sebastian Schütze, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. In reference to Mahon’s The Cardsharps, Schütze writes in his 2009 catalogue of Caravaggio’s paintings that “the quality of the execution… rather suggests the painting to be a copy”.

The claim filed by the Thwaytes lists scholars who support the attribution:

The claim lists the experts in support of Mahon’s attribution as the Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini; Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums; the curator and Bolognese art expert Daniele Benati; Thomas Scheider, a writer and restorer; and Ulrich Birkmaier, the chief conservator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

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