Vintage view: Lost masterpieces

The Taking of Christ — Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was wrongly attributed to the Dutch master Gerard Van Honthorst (1592-1656) until it raised the suspicions of Sergio Benedetti, senior conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Kya deLongchamps takes us through some moments in the fascinating history of lost masterpieces.

AMONG the dozens of boot sale variety acts and infuriatingly silly collecting shows on TV, there is at least one genuinely nervejangling entertainer with enough scholarship to have caught the attention of the wider world of art and antiques.

Fake or Fortune hosted by BBC personality Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould, has just completed its fourth season to high ratings and the praise showered on the programme is well deserved. 

The duo seek out the provenance and attribution of paintings submitted to the show. The results have in many cases proved astonishing.

Last year a disgraced painting supposed to be a Marc Chagall ‘Nude 1909-1910’ owned by a Yorkshire man was ordered to be burned in the presence of a French magistrate, by the primary authority on the painter’s work, the Chagall Committee, with the backing of Chagall’s own descendants.

The team has stared down the most terrifying body in European Art, the Wildenstein Institute based in Paris, over several pictures, including a Monet in 2011, which was thrown aside as not worthy of the artist’s catalogue raissoné (an accepted register of all of an artist’s known works).

JMW Turner’s the Beacon Light, recovered its standing as a genuine work in the hands of the National Museum of Wales as a result of the programme’s intense research. 

Gainsboroughs, Lowrys — even a Van Dyck ‘sleeper’, were all legitimised by techniques from the trail of photographs, ephemera, bills of sale, picture labels, gallery and museum records, to new scientific techniques of scanning and paint analysis.

What comes out very strongly is that no matter how strong the evidence, how bulletproof the provenance, authentication at this high level is a human process of the eye, of feel, and in some cases — of prejudice and politics.

There may well be great works that through sheer bad luck and a lack of paperwork will carry the stigma of reproduction, copy or fake, despite a good chance of their being genuine works. How do such paintings by such highly recognised names go astray in the first place?

La Bella Principessa, a beautiful Renaissance portrait (possibly an illustration for the Warsaw copy of the Sforziad c 1496), is in play right now as potentially a lost work by daVinci. 

Life is full of unexpected crevasses, and as people and institutions are swallowed up by unexpected events, sometimes their material assets, even fabulous material assets are separated from their history and former prestige.

For example, The Taking of Christ, a painting we now know to be by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610), created about 1602 and hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland, had been commissioned for the Mattei family in Rome. 

It hung in their home until 1802. For some reason, the oral history in the family had diminished the painting from an original Caravaggio to the Dutch master Gerard Van Honthorst (1592-1656) and somewhere it picked up a label declaring this, but teasingly emblazoned with the wrong date for Honthorst’s death.

Losing a full century of its actual age and believed to be by Honthorst who painted in the master’s style, it was sold onto a collector in Scotland and was bought by paediatrician Marie Lea-Wilson for £8.

Having had it hanging in her house in Fitzwilliam Place for some years, Mrs Lea-Wilson made a gift of the painting to the Jesuit Fathers in Dublin in the 1930s for their kindness following the violent death of her husband Perceval, a district inspector with the RIC.

So, for almost two centuries, The Taking of Christ had drifted from its true identity. The murder of Perceval Lea-Wilson, Marie’s husband led directly led to the presentation of the painting in a very public area of the Jesuit house. 

It might have stayed there for another century, or rattled on through a salesroom to who knows where, but for the keen instincts of Sergio Benedetti, senior conservator at the National Gallery who was struck by the technical brilliance of the picture struggling beneath a porridge of varnish and dirt. 

Further detection, plus a surviving account book of Caravaggio detailing the sale of the painting to the family of Mattei, sealed the matter.

Fr Noel Barber SJ, in a lecture at the National Gallery earlier this year, reminded us that Caravaggio was not popular for at least 200 years. Is it possible that the painting was attributed to Honthorst because he stood higher in the esteem of the cognoscenti?

Despite learned figures drifting through the Jesuit house, including a Jesuit chairperson of the Arts Council, the painting was ignored for over 60 years.

Paintings are not made by the yard. In the teeming world of studios, agents, exhibitions, war and human tragedy we rely on rare individuals such as Benedetti, seeing something others miss in a lost painting or work of art to bring it back fully into the light.

Provenance (chronology of the ownership, custody or location), is crucial in antiques and fine art. When you buy or inherit a valuable work, ensure the paper trail offered is recorded and stored safely.

Even armed with paperwork from the gallery or dealer, it’s worth finding out everything you can about the artist to add certainty to your provenance.

If there are labels on the back of the board or canvas do not remove them. Photograph the back of the picture when you make up your insurance records.


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