Why it pays to look twice at works of art

Judith beheading Holofernes © Getty Images
Judith beheading Holofernes: is it by Caravaggio?

Works of art that have been attributed to great artists can fool even the experts, says Chris Carter.

Last month, thieves in Italy made off with what they thought was a painting by the Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Younger from a church in Castelnuovo Magra, Liguria. But the piece they made off with was, in fact, worth almost nothing. The police had switched the paintings having learned in advance of the audacious plot. The robbers can console themselves with knowing that, when it comes to identifying and attributing great works of art, even the experts can get it wrong.

In 2016, Jan Six XI, an art dealer in Amsterdam, realised something wasn’t right when he saw a portrait attributed to Rembrandt’s circle going up for auction with Christie’s in London. Six believed that the way in which the subject’s lace collar was painted, and the fact that Rembrandt at the time of the painting didn’t yet have a circle, meant that the painting was by the master himself. He acted on his suspicions to buy the painting for £137,000. An argument has since erupted over who spotted what first (a recent article by Russell Shorto in The New York Times Magazine delves into the detail). And there are still those with doubts. Yet “the attribution to Rembrandt is the hypothesis to beat”, art historian Gary Schwartz tells Shorto, meaning the £20,000 high estimate was more than a tad conservative.

Indeed, a “hypothesis to beat” can still translate into tens of millions of pounds. In 2014, auctioneer Marc Labarbe was rummaging around in an attic in Toulouse when he made a startling discovery. Stashed under the rafters – and ignored by burglars who had robbed the house – was a large painting depicting the Biblical spectacle of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes (pictured). The canvas has since been examined by art scholars and scientists and the masterpiece, dated to around 1607, is believed to have been created by none other than Caravaggio.

“But it is a compelling case rather than a categorical one and that presents a dilemma,” says Mark Brown in The Guardian. “The poor buyer of this picture will not enjoy it,” agrees Eric Turquin, a Paris-based expert. “He will have to have a special mailbox for all the emails.” That and the €100m-€150m the painting is expected to fetch when it goes up for auction on 27 June in Toulouse – note, interestingly, without a reserve price. Note, too, that the French government initially slapped an export ban on it, but the Louvre passed up the chance to buy it (although there are other reasons beside doubt for this). Still, the buyer will have to have considerable faith in the “hypothesis to beat” before they part with upwards of €100m.

Lastly, if you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more lost Leonardos out there following the media sensation that was the sale of the contentious Salvator Mundi in 2017, think again. A 16th-century charcoal drawing of a woman, known as the Monna Vanna (and the “Naked Mona Lisa” by the press), has been declared to be mostly from the hand of the master himself following careful analysis. It’s not definitive – but that won’t overly bother the Condé museum in Chantilly, northern France, which owns the drawing.


What goes up…

Canaletto painting

What can be reevaluated up in value, can also be devalued by the art detectives. That was the unfortunate experience of St Mary’s church in Hadleigh, Suffolk, in the 1950s. The church had long believed itself to be the owner of a valuable painting (pictured) by Canaletto – a gift from the artist resulting from a visit to Hadleigh. In the mid-1700s, Canaletto had stayed with the rector of St Mary’s, Thomas Tanner, who was also a wealthy patron of the arts. But the local legend was dispelled last century, when art historian WG Constable visited the church, and declared the work to be not by Canaletto. He said it was worth just £100.

Constable was half right, it turns out. In 2015, art appraiser James Glennie’s suspicions about the painting were roused during a routine insurance assessment. He called on Charles Beddington, a Savile Row dealer specialising in Venetian painting, to take a look. Last month Beddington confirmed that the painting is indeed not by Canaletto – but rather by his esteemed contemporary, Michele Marieschi. It has been valued at around £500,000.

That was enough for Father Jo Delfgou of St Mary’s Church, who told The Daily Telegraph: “It’s very exciting to discover that what we had been told was pretty worthless is in fact of significant value and will allow us to carry out repairs we so desperately need. We’re not used to having this kind of money.”


Auctions

Going…

George Daniels Grand Complication watchThe George Daniels Grand Complication watch (pictured) is up for auction as part of the Geneva Watch Auction: Nine sale, held by Phillips on 11 and 12 May. The gold watch is “a proper masterpiece”, says Jon Bues on Hodinkee. British watchmaker George Daniels “helped to shape” modern horology, inventing the co-axial escapement (a time-keeping mechanism) in 1975, considered to be “one of the most important advancements in modern watchmaking”. The watch was handmade by Daniels, who died in 2010. It fetched £914,850 at Sotheby’s in 2012.

Gone…

The Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Friedrich von Hayek in 1974 sold for £1,155,000 during a Sotheby’s online auction last week. A number of the influential Austrian-born economist’s belongings sold for well above their estimates, including his personal copy of The Wealth of Nations, which sold for £150,000. The sale also featured his Companion of Honour medal, presented by the Queen in 1984 (£35,000); and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to Hayek in 1991 by then-US president George HW Bush.It fetched £112,500.