For the second time in a century, a high-profile case in the New York courts is set to turn on the question, “How can you tell an authentic Leonardo da Vinci?”
It’s a more delicate matter than you might imagine. Jeanne Marchig, the previous owner of a drawing that went under the hammer at Christie’s International, New York, in January 1998, is suing the auction house for “negligent misattribution.”
“Christie’s strongly disagrees with these claims and believes they are without merit,” a spokesman for the London- based company stated to Bloomberg News on July 26. “The continuing debate surrounding this work has seen a significant number of the world’s leading academics and critics continue to cast doubt on the alleged attribution to Leonardo.” Cataloged as “German, 19th century,” the work sold for $21,850 and was resold in 2007 for about $20,000, according to the suit.
Since 1998, a number of leading authorities -- notably Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University -- have identified it as a hitherto unknown masterpiece by Leonardo. It has been estimated that, as a Leonardo, the work is worth $150 million.
That estimate, given by Otto Naumann, a New York dealer in Old Masters, to Milton Esterow in the January issue of the magazine Art News, was “contingent upon uncontested attribution.” That’s hard to achieve in cases like this. Look out for fireworks when expert witnesses take the stand.
For example, counts of authentic Michelangelo drawings by renowned scholars vary from a conservative 30-40 to more than 700. What makes the difference? Evidence, of course, comes into it -- type of pen stroke, methods of shading -- but it also comes down in the end to opinion: the “eye” of the expert.
It’s the same in the case of the disputed Leonardo, dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Kemp. There are scientific findings. The vellum -- or treated animal skin -- on which it’s drawn is from 1440-1650 according to carbon dating. The drawing is by a left-handed artist, which Leonardo was. A partial fingerprint on it is a match for another on a more definite Leonardo.
In the end, though, it comes down to judgment of quality and style. That is, whether the work -- which has been restored in the past more than once -- is drawn in the way that Leonardo drew. And secondly, whether it’s good enough to be by him.
Those are both subjective calls. Kemp answers a firm yes to both. He has, he writes in a book on the subject (“La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci,” Hodder & Stoughton), “not the slightest doubt” that this is “a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.” Others are not so sure. Off the record, many in the art world express doubt about the Principessa.
The last big Leonardo case in New York was in 1929. Then the plaintiffs were Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hahn, Franco-American owners, they claimed, of the authentic version of Leonardo’s portrait known as “La Belle Ferronniere.” Questioned by a New York journalist, the Old Master dealer Joseph Duveen flatly stated that the authentic painting was the one in the Louvre and that this was a copy. The owners sued for $500,000.
Duveen marshaled batteries of experts, who fared badly when cross-examined in the witness box. Statements such as “the impression produced on my mind is that it is not by Leonardo” did not impress the court, the jury was hung, and Duveen eventually agreed to pay $60,000.
More than 80 years later, there’s still no complete agreement about “La Belle Ferronniere.” Most scholars believe the Louvre work is a genuine Leonardo, with perhaps a little help from assistants. Some still have doubts even about that (the Louvre picture will be included in an exhibition of Leonardo paintings at the National Gallery, London, in 2011- 12).
Meanwhile, the other version, once disdained by Duveen, sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction in January for $1.5 million -- not much for a genuine Leonardo, quite a lot for something that isn’t. The case of “La Bella Principessa” could run and run.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.