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11.9.03

Now How Much Would You Pay?

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna with the YarnwinderThe blogosphere had the August 27 story of a stolen Leonardo painting covered, so I did not post anything about it. As readers surely recall, the Madonna with the Yarnwinder (see images at left and below) was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle (on the Queensberry Estate, near Dumfries, Scotland), one of the homes of the Duke of Buccleuch. The latest theory put forward by the police focuses on an Irish gang that may have had no idea of the painting's possible value (see the post and update from Cronaca). At the time, several news articles made some obscure references to doubts about the painting's authenticity. For example, the article in The Telegraph (Castle Gang Snatches £25m Leonardo, August 28) quotes art critic Brian Sewell as saying that "the work had an 'unpleasant surface' that was not by Leonardo, but was probably finished in the master's studio by an assistant." Again as quoted by Cronaca, a report from the London Times (subscription required) cited art historian Martin Kemp of the University of Oxford who "confirmed that following recent x-ray research, he believed [the] Madonna with the Yarnwinder was a 'prime original'."

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna with the Yarnwinder, in frameAs it turns out, the London Times published another article ("Stolen Leonardo 'is really a cheap and clumsy copy'," September 10, available only to subscribers) claiming that "the thieves who thought they had stolen a Leonardo last month from a castle in Scotland may instead have the work of a minor artist." The information in that article was reported by Agence France-Presse and carried by Le Monde (Le Léonard de Vinci volé en Ecosse serait une copie selon des experts, September 10). (The London Times story was also covered by CBC News and The Australian.) Contrary to the assertions of Professor Kemp from Oxford, Renaissance specialist Jacques Franck at UCLA (I don't find him listed among the faculty of the Art History Department at UCLA; I believe he is a consultant with the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies, which is associated with UCLA), states, "The anatomy is bad, the composition is bad, the proportion of the limbs is bad." Rather than being worth 50 million euros, Professor Franck alleges that the painting is one of many copies of Leonardo's work done in the 16th century and should be valued at only 140,000 euros: "There are many errors in anatomy and execution: a master like Leonardo would not even accept the work of such a bad student." Professor James Beck of the University of California also expressed "serious doubts" (I think this may actually be the James Beck at Columbia). Prof. Dr. Frank Zöllner, director of the Institut für Kunstgeschichte at the University of Leipzig, emphasized the differences between this Madonna and paintings with 100% secure attributions to Leonardo: "This painting was not made by the hand of an expert in oil painting." Scholars of art history (and music history) are used to the presence of unresolved conflicts in attribution, situations in which respected authorities cling to opposing positions. Can the world of people who buy and sell valuable historical art handle it? If the Duke recovers his painting, will he still consider it to be the pride of his gallery?

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