The great Bendor Grosvenor has an excellent post on the Sotheby’s Caravaggio case. Besides detailing the cost to the unsuccessful plaintiff, Grosvenor quotes from the judge’s opinion revealing the nature of authentication and its reliance upon the hermetic opinions of experts.
If that were not enough, Grosvenor gives us this story of how the auction house’s own insistence upon the primacy of connoisseurship can backfire. Here’s Sotheby’s Alex Bell explaining why Sir Denis Mahon—the final owner of the Caravaggio in question and the one whose opinion of its authenticity sparked the lawsuit—was not to be relied upon in his advanced age. Bell is describing a painting called St. John at the Well that was brought to Mahon for his opinion.
The painting came to Sotheby’s with the potential to be a late Caravaggio. The question was whether it was a hitherto ‘lost’ full-length picture of which there were copies around but also a possible autograph smaller painting just of the head and shoulders of the figure. Sotheby’s sent transparencies of the painting to Professor Gregori because she had published an article stating that the smaller head and shoulders painting was an autograph work. Photographs were also shown to Sir Denis. Both Professor Gregori and Sir Denis were emphatic in their view that the painting was not by Caravaggio. Other scholars also expressed the same view. The painting was then cleaned and sold to a third party as ‘circle of Caravaggio’. Subsequently Professor Gregori and Sir Denis saw the painting in its cleaned state and changed their minds. They both stated emphatically that they now did believe that the painting was the lost work by Caravaggio. There is a contemporary file note for Sotheby’s prepared by Mr Bell recording this incident, from which his irritation at the turn of events is clear. He notes that Sir Denis did not seem to recall that he had previously given a negative opinion or to know that Professor Gregori had also previously given a detailed negative assessment of the painting. As I understand it, the painting of St John at the Well has not been sold since so it is not known whether anyone would be prepared to pay for it the price that a Caravaggio would command on the strength of Sir Denis’ and Professor Gregori’s changed view.
Caravaggio’s lost ‘Card Sharps’? (ctd.) (Art History News)