Hunch pays for dinner and lunch

Artbeat column no 464 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, January 4, 2010
Young-Fiancee-da-Vinci.jpgArt is full of surprises but once in a very long while there is one which truly staggers expectation. By the time you read this Christmas will have passed but it’s the sort of story which seems appropriate for the time of year.

In 1998 a man saw a portrait offered for sale at Christie’s in New York. It showed a young woman in profile and was not attributed to any specific artist but described as German of the early 19thC. The woman’s costume was of a much earlier time but there are many historicising works, so that isn’t always much of a clue to the date that something was made. The portrait was in chalk, pen and wash on vellum and very attractive. The man who was looking at it thought there was something rather special about it but as the bidding rose he dropped out before it sold for $US21,850. Not everyone has money like that to throw around. This man felt he had gone as far as he dared.

Ten years later and again in New York, the same man was with a friend from Switzerland who went into a dealer gallery and came back out saying there was something he thought our hero should see. So the latter went in and there he saw the same portrait he had missed at the auction nine years earlier. It was still priced around $US20,000 and had the same attribution. This time he had the courage of his convictions, or his friend’s, and bought the picture on the understanding the Swiss man would pay for it and become the new owner.

He then made enquiries and ultimately the work was tested at a Canadian laboratory. He had thought, and you can understand why he rather quailed at the audacity of this idea, that it was in fact a portrait of the time of the sitter’s costume – the Italian Renaissance – and that it was by a very famous artist indeed. He marshalled a number of reasons which are convincing but what clinched the case forensically - what really put it beyond much doubt for many people - was the Canadian laboratory’s identification of a partial fingerprint on the work. This was “highly comparable” to one found on a painting undoubtedly by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and considered to be that of the master himself.

The portrait on vellum has been accepted as a work by Leonardo by Martin Kemp, a prominent da Vinci scholar. It has been hailed as “the first major work” by the Florentine Maestro  “to be identified for 100 years”. (The Guardian 13/10/09). It certainly is bidding fair to be accepted into the very small canon of such works, perhaps the first since the Benois Madonna. It is now speculated the portrait is worth $US165 million.

The man who identified the fingerprint is Peter Paul Biro. The sharp-eyed connoisseur is Peter Silverman, a Canadian collector. The New York dealer was Kate Ganz. Mr Silverman bought it for his Swiss friend on the understanding Silverman would do the footwork and that if he ever discovered something important the Swiss would buy him dinner and lunch. Mr Silverman said “I think he’s going to buy me dinner and lunch for the rest of my life.” (The Globe and Mail (Toronto) 14/10/09.)

Professor Kemp has written a book identifying the sitter as Bianca Sforza, the daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, by his mistress Bernardina de Corradis. Bianca was then about 13 or 14, in 1496, and married to Galeazzo Sanseverino, one of the Duke’s captains and a patron of Leonardo’s. She died a few months later, perhaps of an ectopic pregnancy. The portrait may have been the frontispiece of a dedicatory book of poems. It’s a sad story and the portrait is very beautiful.

It is a nice question exactly when the last major Leonardo was discovered. The Benois Madonna was still controversial when it was exhibited as such in 1909. It was sold to the Hermitage in St Petersburg in 1914 and is now generally accepted. While others have made a similar transition between discovery in the late 18th and middle 19th centuries the Benois Madonna is probably the last.

Wilhelm von Bode, a famous German museum director, asserted in 1909 that a bust of Flora was by Leonardo, but that was hotly disputed. Evidence was produced it was wholly or partly the work of a Victorian British sculptor, Richard Cockle Lucas. It has been re-examined more recently and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin which owns it ascribes it to Leonardo’s circle. It is possible to make mistakes and difficult to persuade all the authorities, but this portrait seems a good candidate to win acceptance.  It will be exhibited in March 2010 in Gotheburg in Sweden.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times