For just over a month, all the specialists and curators in old masters questioned the paternity of a painting sold by Sotheby's Olympia (London) in December 2006. The debate focuses on the author of the painting and therefore its value: £50,000 or £10 million.
Let us revisit origins and consequences of this case now in the hands of the London High Court of Justice.
In December 2006, Sotheby's Olympia, famous international auction house, sold an oil on canvas entitled "Cardsharps" and described in the catalog by a follower of Caravaggio. Indeed, it is a copy of an artist's work now in the Kimbell Art Museum (USA).
Estimated between £20 to 30,000, the painting was sold for £50,000 to Sir Denis Mahon, one of the leading specialists in old masters painting, known to have reassigned many paintings.
In 2007, the buyer has the certainty of the originality of this painting and requested the export license for an exhibition in Italy with an insurance value of £10 million.
In the hand of the justice
In the light of this change in author and value, the seller of 2006 launched a law suit against Sotheby’s.
Sotheby's response to this complaint pointing out that it turned to several internationally renowned specialists of Caravaggio and the selling price reflected the feeling of amateurs, curators, collectors and dealers.
Judges are now facing a panel of experts that should last several years. It is difficult to predict which side will win.
Sotheby's position is somewhat paradoxical. The painting was purchased for a reasonable amount; therefore the auction house believes that the market agreed with Sotheby’s point of view.
This argument, however, poses a problem since taken in reverse implies that it is impossible to make a discovery in an auction and if you buy cheaply a treasure you are mistaken.
In the field of old masters painting, attribution problems are common and during the last 20 years many paintings (including museums) are either out of anonymity or on the contrary entered into anonymity.
So everything is expert opinion and if modern art and contemporary works are signed, it remains quite exceptional for old masters paintings.
The seller requests compensation for the financial loss he suffered in 2006 but the real question remains who is really the author of the painting. Is it possible that Caravaggio executed two paintings identical and if so for what purpose? Otherwise, we can also examine which of these two paintings is the original.
Many questions which the judges will have to look before considering compensate the seller.
Cédric Henon, fine art specialist