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|Old Master Tales
by Paul Jeromack
|"Arnold Lehman hated the picture. He thought Buffy was a moron to want it. He tried to dissuade her from buying it."
This is the real story of the reuniting of the 14th century altarpiece by Nardo di Cione, now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Unlike the powers that be at the Brooklyn Museum, I'm a subscriber to the Antiques Trade Gazette, the excellent weekly British newspaper that features illustrated previews of regional British auctions. Every dealer I know scours these pages, as every so often a photo of something intriguing or misattributed turns up. While going through the Mar. 4 issue, I stopped on page 29. On the top of the ad for the Mar. 9 sale at Henry Duke & Son, Dorset, was a gold ground panel of Christ Blessing called "Italian School, 13th-14th century (?)."
This looks very familiar, I thought, and got my copy of a Metropolitan Museum Bulletin from 1982 devoted to 14th-century Italian altarpieces, written by curator Keith Christiansen. On page 32 was a 19th-century engraving of the picture at Duke's. It was by the important 14th-century Florentine master Nardo di Cione, and formed the pinnacle to an altarpiece by Nardo of The Madonna and Child with Saints, ca. 1356, that was then on loan to the Met from the New-York Historical Society.
Both the Christ and the Madonna had belonged to the pioneering French collector of early Italian painting, Alexis-Francois Artaud de Montour (1772-1849) whose collection had been auctioned in Paris in 1851. The two panels had been sold separately -- the Madonna was bought by the American collector Thomas Jefferson Bryan, who donated it to the Historical Society in 1867, while the Christ had vanished. In 1995, the Brooklyn Museum purchased the Madonna for $354,500 in the Historical Society's deacessioning fire-sale of the Bryan collection. (The Met, by the way, spent $2 million in the same sale on Bryan's Birthplate of Lorenzo de' Medici.)
But Nardo's Christ was still at large.
I called a dealer friend of mine in London. "Have you gotten your Antiques Trade Gazette?" "No, why?" "Guess what's coming up in Dorset? A long-lost Nardo di Cione -- a pinnacle of Christ -- it completes an altarpiece in Brooklyn!"
My friend instantly called Duke's -- but called me back a few minutes later. "Thanks for the call, Paul, but they've been tipped off. The only way I'd be able to get it was if no one else could identify it. The auction house may not have known what it was when they put the ad in, but they sure know it now!"
Though Duke's did not tell my friend who told them, I later found out it was Dillian Gordon, curator of 14th-century Italian paintings at the National Gallery, London, who also made the connection between painting and engraving.
But neither the auction house nor Gordon informed the Brooklyn Museum -- the place where the panel should rightfully go.
I have several friends who work at the Brooklyn Museum, but I did not know Elizabeth "Buffy" Easton, curator of European paintings. After my conversation with my dejected London friend, I called Buffy and told her secretary that in a small English sale later that week was a painting of extreme importance to the Brooklyn Museum, and that it was urgent that she call me as soon as possible. Easton called me back, and all the information I gave her made her very excited. "Can you fax me all that information, Paul? I'm seeing Arnold [Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum] later today, and I need to show him all that." I quickly sent her everything I had -- the Christiansen references and engraving and Duke's ad. I heard nothing.
After the sale, I called both the auction house and Easton. The picture had sold for £66,000 pounds -- Brooklyn's bid was just under £40,000. London dealer Simon Dickinson, acting for Brooklyn via phone, had been outbid -- but acting for himself he had reentered the bidding and won it.
"Lots of people were rooting for us, " said Easton. "Agnew's and Hazlitt's called us and said they would not bid against us. I hope we can eventually get it," she added dejectedly.
What Easton did not say -- and what I subsequently found out -- was that Lehman, still not free of the stench of the costly and damaging legal battles of the controversial Charles Saatchi-dictated "Sensation" exhibition, was dead set against the Nardo. "He thought it was a stupid picture," said a good friend of mine close to the source. "He did not understand why it would be such a smart purchase on two accounts -- the reuniting of an important altarpiece and fantastic PR move after the Chris Ofili debacle." It could be perfect -- a 14th-century panel of Christ, wiping clean the memory of the "elephant dung" Madonna!
Buffy couldn't understand Lehman's reticence, but she did the smart thing -- she went over his head and directly approached the board, whose members were enthusiastic. But Easton still needed extra help. "Why don't you call, Arnold?" she asked. "He listens to the press. If you tell him what good PR it is, he may come around." Easton gave me Lehman's direct line. I called his secretary and gave the reasons while I was calling. I never heard back. So much for that line of reasoning!
But Lehman had been outmaneuvered by his curator, trustees and acquisition committee, who were anxious to sanitize the "Sensation" mess. Lehman eventually agreed to buy the Nardo, which Dickinson had graciously offered to Brooklyn for just ten percent over his purchase price.
I subsequently heard from friends of mine in the trade that Brooklyn was indeed very lucky to have gotten it at all. "My Antiques Trade Gazette came late that week, so I only saw the illustration after the sale" said Richard Feigen. "That Nardo would have fit into my collection perfectly! If my paper had come on time, they wouldn't have gotten it!" But in the end, Brooklyn was going to stretch and buy it after all.
"We heard about it from contacts at the National Gallery in London," said Lehman in the New York Times. I was reminded of the 50-year-long official obfuscation of the rightful ownership of looted Nazi pictures, and how it only took a month for the Brooklyn Museum to distort the truth.
As of this writing, the two sections of the altarpiece are not reunited.
PAUL JEROMACK writes on Old Masters and the art market.