Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Caravaggio copy snatched from Odessa museum

Another day, another major art heist. Once again we find ourselves pondering the lamentable museum security measures that have allowed another significant picture to sink into the slime of organised crime.

The painting above, a version of Taking of Christ of 1602 by the 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio, has been stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. Thieves availed themselves of the museum's superannuated alarm system, removed a window pane, and sliced the canvas from its frame before escaping across the roof.

Cue Pierce Brosnan lighting up a stogie as he admires the stolen painting in his Manhattan apartment.

As usual, the reality is rather more prosaic. Reuters website ran a photograph of crestfallen Ukrainean museum staff members removing the empty frame from the wall. Perhaps the thieves believed the picture to be an authentic work by Caravaggio. It is not. The original hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Dublin. But I guess the Balkan mafia don't subscribe to the Burlington Magazine.

Caravaggio's oeuvre has always been the focus of forensic connoisseurial scrutiny. In 1956, Eastern European art historians X. Malitskaja and Victor Lasareff advanced the theory that the Odessa picture was the authentic work by the artist. However, in 1993, new documentary evidence and thorough archival and technical research by the expert restorer Sergio Benedetti, one of the world's leading Caravaggio scholars, firmly established the Dublin picture as the original autograph work. (See below for a citation of relevant art historical sources.) Around a dozen copies of the Dublin picture are known.

The Dublin picture was acquired in Rome in 1802 by William Hamilton Nisbet, the father of Mary Nisbet, wife of the infamous Lord Elgin who looted the Parthenon Marbles from Athens. Nisbet bought the Caravaggio from the Italian nobleman Duke Giuseppe Mattei, a descendant of Ciriaco Mattei who commissioned it in 1602. For many years the picture hung at Biel House, the Nisbet family seat in Scotland. Some time later it found its way to Ireland.

Art theft is always a cause of sadness and consternation, particularly when the picture in question is of connoisseurial interest, as was the case with the Odessa copy. No matter that it wasn't by Caravaggio. Clearly it was sufficiently true to what we expect from Caravaggio to have become one of the best-loved and most treasured paintings in the country, indeed in the whole of Eastern Europe. It may be a copy made by a contemporary of Caravaggio, commissioned by another member of the Mattei family.

The fact that the authentic work in Dublin was, during a short time in the 18th century, believed to be a work by Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst, a member of the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti, a school of painting inspired by Caravaggio's signature brand of chiaroscuro, illustrates something of the tortuous nature of Caravaggio attribution studies.

As for the region in which the painting was snatched, Misha Glenny's recent book, McMafia, revealed how Ukraine has become a fulcrum of illicit trade in all manner of commodities since the wall came down. The Balkan mafia has been using stolen fine art as collateral in bigger drugs and arms deals since as far back as the mid-1980s.

Ukrainean museum chiefs described the 'Caravaggio' theft as "a cultural catastrophe" and "a national tragedy", one commenting, "You cannot put a price on this ... it is, in every sense, priceless." And yet, according to news reports, police have for some time been urging the Odessa Museum to update its antiquated alarm system, but the suggestion was always turned down "on financial grounds."

The real glaring anomaly is the contrast between the still soaring price of art on the open market and the ease with which determined criminals can gain access to "priceless" objects in national and regional museums across the developed world. (Bloomberg reports today that despite an 11% fall in Sotheby's share price this week, the business remains strong, driven by an "economic elite" — more here.)

Museum objects are commonly viewed as hermetically sealed off from vulgarities of economic exchange since few are likely to make it to the legitimate market (the growing trend towards deaccessioning notwithstanding). But, understandably perhaps, once a picture is stolen suddenly everyone wants to know what's written on the price ticket.

The London auction houses evidently declined to put a value on the Odessa picture (I suspect they were all desperately flicking through back-issues of The Burlington Magazine as the phones rang). In any case, whatever off-the-hip estimate they might have come up with would be virtually meaningless given the current state of the international art market.

Doubtless the real numbers are already being crunched over plum brandy in some subterranean smoke-filled bar in Transnistria.

So what's next? Well, it may not be an authentic work by the hand of the most swashbuckling painter in the history of art, but it will certainly be viewed as another juicy target by stolen art database companies and other bounty hunters chasing market-linked recovery fees.

Don't get me started on that particular breed.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a Masterpiece Rediscovered', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 731-741.

Francesca Cappelletti and Sergio Benedetti, 'The Documentary Evidence of the Early History of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 742-746.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol 137, No. 1102, (Jan. 1995), pp. 37-38.

See also, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting (left), an account of how the Dublin picture was discovered in a Jesuit monastery in Ireland and subsequently restored by Sergio Benedetti.


Irish Art said...

Great post. you are right about the lamentable levels of security at art galleries around the world. We are hearing about robberies more and more often these days.

It's funny actually, I was just talking to a friend in the states last week and we ha da disagreement: she said the original Taking of Christ by Caravaggio is located it Washington DC. I said, no! it's in Dublin.
I'm glad I'm right. I'll send her this link as proof!

Thank you


patronanejo said...

For fuck's sake, these assholes thought they were taking the real thing...and this is how they treat it?

Heaped upon their abdication of responsibility for potentially priceless artistic heritage (and significant provenance despite being most likely a copy) is their utter disregard for the effect of their rough handling on the resale value of their booty.

If morons like this can pull off such a significant heist, I might be in the wrong line of work.