Thursday, October 15, 2009

Antiques Roadshow "Leonardo"

I'm not really an expert on the subject, but as it happens, here in the Ministry of Elegance I do speak to many of the world's leading experts on Italian painting (usually it's to ask if they have a taxi recepit for their expense-claim or something equally scintillating), and, as it happens, several of the world's most eminent experts have floated by my desk in the several days since the "new Leonardo" was announced to the world. So I raised my eyes from the expense reports and asked them directly. None of them seemed to take the claim (which apparently is not very new -- indeed a packet on the picture floated through here over a year ago) at all seriously. There was some eye-rolling and mild disparagement of "the fingerprint man." None of these experts was eager to speak publicly about the picture (as is the wont of such experts) for fear of being embroiled in pointless unprofessional controversy, or worse -- much, much worse -- litigation.

It is a pretty picture, and it does seem to have been composed by someone quite familiar with Leonardo's drawings. But one of the experts said straightaway, "It's too pretty." And this seems correct to me. Again, I'm no expert, but I do, in the course of my work, look at this stuff daily, and to my eye Leonardo paints beautiful women, not pretty ones. I see why some think this picture is 19th century; it looks more Pre-Raphaelite than Renaissance.

I see too, from the comments in the rather good version of the story at Daily Kos, that some people are really taken with the Antiques Roadshow aspect of the scoop; they really like the idea that some one can buy something for X and have it turn out to be worth 100, 000 X. Here at the Ministry we get letters all the time from people convinced they have done something similar, and asking, do we want to buy the Leonardo (Titian, Raphael, Picasso etc) they bought at a yard sale. This, I think, is what drives this story: it's just so, as the Germans say, märchenhaft.

In this rare instance I feel that I have a small direct, debunking window into the news. Today's Express (subway version of the Wa Po) summed it up this way, "Technical, stylistic and material composition evidence had experst believing that had found a da Vinci as early as last year. The discovery of the fingerprint now has them convinced." But I note that these "experts" don't include anybody from the Louvre, the National Galleries of England or the United States, nobody from the Uffizi, the Prado, the Hermitage, and so on. They don't seem to even include anybody with a name or anybody who would call a painting by the author of La Gioconda " a Leonardo" -- as scholars of the period do.

Now it's true, even real, named experts speaking on the record are sometimes wrong and it will certainly be interesting if they are in this case. But I wouldn't bet the rent.


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