Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Cheapest Caravaggio: Sotheby's sued by former client

Sotheby's is being sued in the High Court by a former client over a painting attribution, the Art Newspaper reported last week.

The painting in question is very similar to Caravaggio's The Cardsharps, on display in the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas. But Sotheby's considered it to be of lower quality than the Kimbell version and, when it sold the painting in 2006, the auction house described it as being the work of a "follower" of Caravaggio. Imagine the chagrin of its former owner Lancelot Thwaytes when it was bought for a measly £50,400 by eminent scholar and collector Sir Denis Mahon, who then announced it to be a genuine Caravaggio worth an estimated £10m for export licence purposes. Some reports even estimate its worth at up to £50m. Why, Thwaytes must have asked himself, did Sotheby's not realise that my painting was the real thing, thus leaving me over £9.9m out of pocket? It is perhaps understandable that father thinking the matter over in the intervening years, he has decided to sue for damages which, given the discrepancy between even the modest valuation for a Caravaggio and the price Mahon actually paid, could be substantial. 

The attribution of a painting is often a matter of expert opinion rather than fact. The identity of an artist may be impossible to prove or disprove. In this case there are Caravaggio experts on both sides of the argument. Sotheby's itself sticks to its original view that "the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio". Thwyates on the other hand is arguing that the auction house did not carry our adequate research to back this position up, and his claim lists several art experts who like Mahon believe the painting to be an original Caravaggio. 

The case is one of several in recent years which demonstrate the potential dangers of offering a professional view on the attribution of artworks. "Auction houses have pages of small print and teams of lawyers," the Art Newspaper said in its article The Law vs Scholarship on scholars who fear giving opinions on attribution. "None of this has prevented  number of high profile lawsuits". 

Whether the painting is a Caravaggio or not, and whether Sotheby's had adequate reason to say it was the work only of a follower in 2006, are not necessarily the same questions.However it may be that the court is required to answer both the latter question when considering liability, and the former questioned determining damages (if liability is established). As always when a court is required to judge the status of an artwork,  will be very interesting to see the approach taken when answering both questions. 

Read the Art Newspaper's report here

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