Monday, May 10, 2010

Christie's face lawsuit over 'misattributed' Leonardo drawing

The picture illustrated left is not a work by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. But if you could get the right people to say it is, it could be worth...ooh... think of a number and add six or seven noughts.

Christie's sold the picture in New York in 1998 for $21,850 (£11,400), when it was catalogued as by a relatively minor 19th century German artist. Shortly afterwards, a leading Leonardo scholar reattributed it to Leonardo and wrote a book about it. Abracadabra! $150 million!

Now the original vendor, Jeanne Marchig, is suing Christie's for negligence.

Given the monstrous prices changing hands at the top of the art market (cf this week's Picasso in New York), it's not surprising that 'La Bella Principessa', as she is now known, is suddenly at the centre of a multi-million dollar legal action. But quite how Ms Marchig can have a case against Christie's when a bullet-proof attribution to Leonardo hasn't been made (and probably never will be) is a moot point.

There are legal precedents regarding an auctioneer's duty of care, most notably the Court of Appeal's decision in 1990 over Luxmoore-May v Messenger May Baverstock.

This concerned an English provincial auction house, Messenger May Baverstock, which sold two seemingly anonymous sporting paintings in 1985 for £840. A few months later the paintings were offered at Sotheby's as works by George Stubbs, where they fetched £88,000. The original vendor, a Mrs Luxmoore-May, sued Messenger May Baverstock for the difference, claiming that the auctioneers should have known the works were by Stubbs.

The court found in favour of Messenger May Baverstock on the grounds that a distinction needed to be drawn between a provincial auctioneer, who could be described as a general practitioner, and a London firm, who could be expected to show specialist knowledge. Within the parameters of their professional function, Messenger May Baverstock merely expressed an opinion and thus were not negligent, the court ruled.

But the case of the 'Leonardo' involves Christie's, who one can reasonably assume qualify as specialists, if not connoisseurs (a critical distinction). Moreover, not everything in the art market can be definitively researched. Pictures often present greater difficulties than objets d'art, although that realm can be a quagmire too, as the case of the Islamic rock crystal ewer at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury in 2008 vividly illustrated.

True connoisseurship is now a moribund skill, having long ago been replaced by the vulgar imperatives of the art market whose ever-widening maw now sucks in not only Wall Street speculators but academics and "freelance art consultants", all bewitched by the siren chime of the cash register. Brush strokes, fingerprints, chemical analysis, carbon-dating...bring 'em on!

The Leonardo market stinks like a Cinquecento latrine.

Back in December 2009, London Old Masters dealer Simon Dickinson was at the centre of a legal wrangle after allegedly taking a commission of more than £600,000 for selling a Leonardo da Vinci drawing to an American client.

According to the Daily Mail, the drawing had been consigned to Dickinson by private art consultant Daniella Luxembourg, who in turn had been instructed to sell it on behalf of a mysterious Liechtenstein-based foundation called Accidia. 

The Mail reported the subject of the drawing as "the Madonna and Child with St Anne and a lamb," and yet the three or four known documented Leonardo drawings of that subject are all in national museum collections. Had another authentic Leonardo drawing of that subject been found it would have been major art market news and worth a lot more than three or four million. So what was the drawing Dickinson sold?

For the most informative piece on the La Bella Principessa reattribution controversy, see Richard Dorment's excellent piece for the Telegraph here and for the recent news of the impending court action, see Dalya Alberge's summary for The Times here.

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