A highly contentious dispute has some of the world’s most prominent Caravaggio experts lining up to take sides in high court; due to an argument over a painting bought for £140 some five decades ago.
Sotheby’s is being sued over claims that the auctioneer misattributed a work titled ‘The Cardsharps’ to a follower of Caravaggio instead of the Italian painter himself – a decision that apparently cost the seller of the work many millions of pounds when it was sold through the auction house in 2006 by a descendant of a Royal Navy surgeon who first acquired it in 1962. Sir Denis Mahon, a British collector, secured the painting for £42,000. The collector then had the work declared to be an original and had it valued at £10 million.
The seller of the painting Lancelot Thwaytes, claims that the auction house did not consult a sufficient number of experts or thoroughly test the painting before the sale. This claim is stated in papers filed with the high court.
Mr Thwaytes has cited experts including Mina Gregori, who is an author of several books on Caravaggio, and has claimed to have solved a centuries-old puzzle by identifying a previously unknown work in a private collection as a Caravaggio. Other experts Mr Thwaytes claims have backed the work as a genuine Caravaggio. These backers of the contentious work include the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.
The auction has has responded by stating that the work is “clearly inferior” in quality to the original painting in the Texas gallery. In the 2006 sale catalogue, Sotheby’s listed it as being by a “follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio” – Sotheby’s is strongly countering the claims regarding the version.
The auctioneer has also cited Helen Langdon, the British biographer of Caravaggio, and other top scholars including the American art historian Richard Spear to support Sotheby’s defence that the painting was indeed a copy.
“The Kimbell Cardsharps was painted by Caravaggio with the striking virtuosity and realism for which his early works are famous, the quality of execution on display in the painting falls far short of the Kimbell original.” According to papers filed by Sotheby’s.
Paintings by Caravaggio, who died aged 38 in 1610, rarely go up at auction, and on the great painter’s death, only 50 were actually attributed to the artist.