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Madonna of the Pinks
National Gallery, London
England in the Pink
by Joe La Placa

Was it suicidal despair that drove the staff at London's National Gallery to climb ladders in the lobby two weeks ago?

Did Raphael expert Professor James Beck's statement to the New York Times, claiming the National had just paid 22 million for a fake version of Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, push the staff over the edge?

Quite the contrary! Staff members were actually celebrating, climbing the ladders to slap on "Saved" stickers onto posters for the country-wide appeal for funds to keep the Madonna of the Pinks in England. The National had won a long, bloody battle.

Jubilant director Charles Saumarez Smith had just publicly announced that the National Gallery had persuaded the estate of the Duke of Northumberland to accept the museum's offer of 22 million, despite the Duke's prior arrangement with the deep-pocketed Getty Museum of Los Angeles for the more substantial sum of 35 million.

The purchase agreement was reportedly cinched by a last minute donation of an additional 1 million by philanthropist Sir Christopher Ondaatje. The 22-million price tag includes 11.5 million from England's Heritage Lottery Fund. To date, it is the largest sum the organization has ever granted for a work of art.

A joint statement issued by the Duke and Saumarez Smith insisted the agreement was "entirely amicable," despite the fact that up until their recent breakthrough lunch, the two men hadn't come face to face for 18 months.

It seems the hours of tortuous wrangling about taxes may have caused the Duke to accept the National's offer -- out of sheer exhaustion!

The British government is equally relieved, as it no longer has to suffer the embarrassment of explaining the mysterious "repeated delays" in granting the Getty Museum's export license. The temporary bar imposed by the export review committee had expired last autumn. Questions were being asked at high levels.

"I'm delighted that the issue has resolved so amicably and so successfully," announced arts minister Estelle Morris.

But after overcoming every conceivable obstacle and raising 22 million to keep Raphael's Madonna in England, professor Beck decided to spoil the elation by posing a challenge to the painting's authenticity.

The Columbia University art historian and president of the gadfly preservationist group Art Watch International claimed to Times reporter Dalya Alberge that the gallery had paid "a record price for a fake."

"It's a disgrace," said Beck. "They haven't even bothered to look at any of the other versions," referring to the other 40 known copies of the Madonna.

Before its purchase in Paris around 1810 by painter, copyist and dealer Vincenzo Camuccini, we have few details about the Madonna of the Pinks whereabouts.

The inventory list of the Camuccini collection from the early 1850s states that the painting was made for "Maddalena degli Oddi, a nun from Perugia, from whose heirs a Frenchman acquired it in 1636, taking it to France."

The notion of a Perugian patron is perfectly plausible. In 1507-08, when the Madonna was painted, Raphael was in Perugia designing an altarpiece for the Borghese Entombment.

The Madonna of the Pinks was first deemed an original Raphael in Longhena's 1829 book about the artist. But six years later, Longhena's verdict was overturned by the greatest 19th-century authority on Raphael, Johann David Passavant. He saw the picture in Rome in 1835 and declared it to be the best of a number of painted copies.

So when the painting was purchased in 1853 by the 4th Duke of Northumberland for Alnwick Castle, it had long been considered a copy.

In 1991, National Gallery curator Nicholas Penny examined the picture and hailed it as a rediscovered masterpiece in an article published in Burlington Magazine the same year.

Since then, over 20 of the world's authorities on Raphael have examined the painting and deemed it an original Raphael.

Beck is not convinced. His research led him to believe the painting was actually made in 1827 by none other than Vincenzo Camuccini himself.

But according to a press release issued by the National on Feb. 20, 2004, the professor's research is flawed.

The National points out that the exceptionally free and creative under-drawing, revealed by infrared reflectography, uses the same techniques employed by Raphael in many other of his works.

Also revealed are differences in design between the Virgin's costume in the visible painting and in the under-drawing, which would be almost impossible to explain in a copy.

Furthermore, the National claims, chemical analysis shows the painting material is highly characteristic of Florentine and Umbrian painting of the first part of the 16th century, making it nearly impossible for the work to have been made in the 19th century.

Considering the evidence, Beck's claim that the Madonna of the Pinks is a fake should make him turn red -- not with anger, but with embarrassment.

JOE LA PLACA is Artnet's London representative.