Tuesday, January 12, 2010

History Vindicates Berenson and Duveen, Even if Only Inadvertently

One of my favorite stories in Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, S.N. Berman's somewhat sensationalized biography of the quintessential picture seller, Sir Joseph Duveen (for a more sober portrait, try Duveen: A Life in Art by Meryle Secrest) revolves around one his few failures in the business. OK, so, like any art dealer, he had multiple failures, but one in particular was truly spectacular. It revealed how powerful Duveen mistakenly thought he was, and cost him dearly, even though history would eventually prove him to have been (inadvertently) correct. The incident involved a painting (seen at right) that is now coming back up at auction. Carol Vogel has the details in today's New York Times:
[This] story of ...the painting...begins in 1919 with the marriage of a car salesman from the Midwest named Harry Hahn to a young Frenchwoman, Andrée Lardoux.

Mrs. Hahn’s godmother, Louise de Montaut, gave the painting to the couple as a wedding present. At the time the work was thought to have been by Leonardo [Da Vinci]. Even so, the couple soon decided to sell it to the Kansas City Art Institute for at least $250,000.

When a reporter from The New York World got wind of the transaction, he telephoned Duveen. It was 1 in the morning, and a sleepy Duveen answered. When asked what he thought of the portrait, he instantly pronounced it a fake. His hasty response set off a much-publicized legal battle between the Hahns and Duveen.

“The whole saga is unbelievably strange but it’s true,” said John Brewer, author of “The American Leonardo,” a book that was published last year and chronicles the history of the painting.

The case went to trial in New York Supreme Court on Feb. 6, 1929, and according to “The American Leonardo,” it was a media zoo, with reporters and members of the public lining up each morning to get into the courtroom. On Duveen’s side were experts who argued that the painting was a fake, while the dealer himself said his opinion “was formed by my study of all the great pictures of the world.” The Hahns tried to prove their point with their own battery of experts and with what scientific tools were available at the time. But the case ended in a hung jury, and Duveen finally settled out of court, paying the Hahns $60,000 in damages.
Years later, too late to benefit Duveen, scholars agree that “Portrait of a Woman Called ‘La Belle Ferronnière,’" is not by Leonardo, but rather a copy of another (also disputed DaVinci) that hangs in the Louvre (more or less what Duveen explained in his early morning groggy condition). The evidence that contradicts the Hahns' expert witnesses today includes:
[W]hile the Louvre painting [mostly assumed to be by DaVinci] is on panel, this painting was on canvas. Poplar panel was a typical material for late 14th-century Florentine portraits like this one was thought to have been, while canvas was a material that became more common later. Studies also showed that the canvas was primed with a double red pigment that was typical of French paintings from the late 17th century to the late 19th century. Pigment analysis also revealed the use of lead-tin yellow, a color employed in the 17th century that reappeared again only in paintings dating from the mid-20th century.
In addition to the hit his reputation took (wrongly, it turns out), the financial consequences of the trial to Duveen turned out to be unfair as well, as artinfo.com explains:
Duveen finally settled out of court, paying $60,000 to the owners for damages resulting from his comments, a sum that, adjusted for inflation over the previous 80 years, is equal to almost $750,000, or 50 percent more than the high estimate of the painting itself.
Not only Sir Joseph got ripped off in this trial, though. Perhaps the person who lost the most was Duveen's long-time connoisseur-on-call, Bernard Berenson:
In 1923, Berenson was called to give expert witness in [the] case brought by Andrée Hahn against Duveen. [...] In 1923 Hahn's painting was brought to Paris to be compared with the Louvre version. Duveen mustered Berenson's and other experts' support for his opinion, dismissing Hahn's painting as a copy. At the trial in New York in 1929, where the expert witnesses did not appear, the jury was not convinced by Berenson's Paris testimony, in part because, while under cross-examination there, he had been unable to recall the medium on which the picture was painted. It was also revealed that Berenson, as well as other experts who had testified in Paris, such as Roger Fry and Sir Charles Holmes, had previously provided paid expertises to Duveen. While Duveen, after a split verdict, ended up settling out of court with Hahn, the whole story damaged Berenson's reputation.
Mind you, both Berenson and Duveen thought far more of their own expertise than advances in Renaissance scholarship would now support, but in this case it seems both were correct.

Labels: art appreciation, art auctions, art history


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