An interesting case concerning one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings – “The Cardsharps” has recently been filed in the High Court of Justice in London.

Sotheby’s is being sued for damages for failing to identify this work as being a work by the Master rather than merely by a follower of Caravaggio. This difference in value is very significant.

The original painting is in Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. It’s a glorious and dramatic painting of a fair and well bred youth being duped by ruthless cardsharps. A young boy and an older accomplice trick him into parting with his money. The older man sneaks a peak at the cards and signals to his young accomplice. It’s a powerful painting that looks like a stage set, showing the oldest trick in the book and strikes out at the merky, double dealing Roman world Caravaggio hailed from. His own life marred or scarred with violence, debauchery and intrigue.  

The claimant is Mr Lancelot William Thwaytes who consigned the painting to Sotheby’s for an auction sale in 2006 in London. The hammer price was £42,000.

The painting was bought by the late collector Mr Dennis Mahon. Mr Mahon believed the painting to be by the hand of Caravaggio and acquired an export licence for the painting that valued the painting at £10 Million.

Mr Thwaytes now claims that Sotheby’s had not undertaken proper research and checks prior to the sale. He seeks damages, interest and costs relating to the difference between the £42,000 and “what its true open market value was in 2006”, had it been properly attributed to Caravaggio.

How this case will play out will be very interesting and is likely to turn on the Caravaggio experts.

Both parties rely on a number of reputable experts in the field, and according to The Art Newspaper:

“In a statement, Sotheby’s says that its “view that the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio is supported by the eminent Caravaggio scholar Richard Spear, as well as by several other leading experts in the field”. Other experts who have gone on the record in support of Sotheby’s view include Helen Langdon, the Italian Baroque scholar and the writer of Caravaggio’s 1998 biography, and Sebastian Schütze, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. In reference to Mahon’s The Cardsharps, Schütze writes in his 2009 catalogue of Caravaggio’s paintings that “the quality of the execution… rather suggests the painting to be a copy”.

The claim lists the experts in support of Mahon’s attribution as the Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini; Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums; the curator and Bolognese art expert Daniele Benati; Thomas Scheider, a writer and restorer; and Ulrich Birkmaier, the chief conservator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.”

Rather interestingly Sotheby’s also relies on how the painting was viewed by the market at the time.  

“Sotheby’s adds: “Our view is also supported by the market, which gave its verdict on this painting when it set the price at £50,400 [the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium] at Sotheby’s sale in December of 2006. The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers—had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”

Can Sotheby’s fall back on external opinion of the artwork at the time? Surely they cannot obfuscate their own duties of providing a professional opinion based on proper research?

Most fascinating is how you can have a split body of recognised expert opinion that falls down on both sides. How will the court decide?

For Caravaggio’s painting to be embroiled in this saga is somewhat ironic and would no doubt make the old villain laugh. Is someone being fooled?

Jessica Franses