The £100m/£20k Leonardo - its implications for auction attributions

March 10 2011

Image of The £100m/£20k Leonardo - its implications for auction attributions

There’s an interesting piece by Simon Hewitt in this week’s Antiques Trade Gazette on the Leonardo/not Leonardo drawing, above. The article isn’t online, so I can’t link to it. 

Christie’s sold the drawing for $19,000 in 1998, but recently Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar, said it was by the great master. If it’s ‘right’, some say the drawing would be worth £100m. If it isn’t, then the original valuation is probably right. There’s nothing in between. 

The picture is now the subject of a lawsuit between a previous owner, Jeanne Marchig, and Christie’s. Mrs Marchig claims that Christie’s were negligent in selling the drawing as ‘German School, 19th Century’, when in fact it was by Leonardo. However, Christie’s are sticking to their guns, and say that although Martin Kemp believes it is a Leonardo, many other scholars do not, and neither do they. [More below]

However, Simon Hewitt points out that so far Christie’s are winning the legal battle only because Mrs Marchig’s claim is outside New York’s six year statute of limitations. The question of is it or is it not a Leonardo has yet to be discussed in court. Mrs Marchig is appealing the latest decision, saying that the statute of limitations does not apply. In which case, as Simon Hewitt points out;

‘The case also raises the question as to whether a disclaimer in a consignment agreement (to the effect that an auction firm makes no representations or warranties as to the authenticity of an object) relieves the firm of a duty to attribute the object correctly; and whether the statute of limitations should still apply if fresh evidence comes to light, however late, that shows due diligence was not performed at the time of sale’.

In which case, all bets are off on auction attributions. 

If the case does proceed to a full trial, the precedents for a Leonardo attribution being discussed in court in New York are not good from Christie’s point of view. In 1920 the celebrated art dealer Lord Duveen lost a libel case when he stated publicly that a replica of Leonardo’s ‘La Belle Ferronniere’ was not another version by Leonardo, but a copy. The picture’s owners, the Hahns, sued Duveen, and even though the picture was universally accepted to be a copy by scholars, an emotionally swayed jury found in the Hahns' favour, who were portrayed by their lawyer as plucky Americans standing up to snobbish European 'experts'.

The Hahn picture was finally sold in 2010, as ‘Follower of Leonardo’, for $1.5m (by Sotheby’s). 


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