Monday 2 February 2015

The Turn of a Card

As the UK begins its LGBT History Month I return to the subject of my article written to celebrate the official launch last November. That article looked at the venue chosen for the launch and its link to the lgbt community (other than the curator) through the artist Caravaggio.

The Museum of the Order of St. John in Clerkenwell hosted the launch, and it is where Caravaggio’s painting “The Cardsharps” can currently be seen. Caravaggio’s own links to the Order of St. John were given in that previous article so today I’ll look at the painting itself, because just over 2 weeks ago a court case based around the painting came to an end (appeal pending).

What the court case proved, to use a card-playing analogy, is that the value of a painting can change as quickly as the turn of a card. The card in this analogy being in the hand of Sir Denis Mahon. He was the Caravaggio expert whose identification of “The Cardsharps” as a genuine Caravaggio turned it from a work of art worth £42,000 to one worth £10 million overnight.

The painting had been owned prior to its sale by Sotheby’s in 2006 was Lancelot “Bill” Thwaites, owner of Hornby Hall in Cumbria. He had always been led to believe that “The Cardsharps” was genuine but had no authentication. When he offered the painting for sale he did ask Sotheby’s to do a proper scientific analysis to prove it one way or the other, which Sotheby’s did. Their analysis included x-ray examination but didn’t provide conclusive proof to list it in the sale catalogue as anything other than “after Caravaggio”. Several art experts examined the painting closely and they agreed.

Why did Bill Thwaytes believe “The Cardsharps” was by Caravaggio? You have to go back to its previous owner to realise why.

Bill Thwaytes inherited the painting from his father’s cousin, William Glossop Thwaytes (1889-1965), a retired Royal Navy Surgeon Captain. Capt. Thwaytes (a “lifelong bachelor”) was an avid art collector and bought “The Cardsharps” in 1962 for a meagre £142 in a Sotheby’s sale.

Capt. Thwaytes was no stranger to Caravaggio’s work. In 1947 he had bought another of his painting, “The Musicians”, from an art dealer in the Cumbrian town of Kendall. In 1952 Sir Denis Mahon examined it and declared it to be a genuine lost Caravaggio. The captain also suspected “The Cardsharps” was genuine but didn’t carry out any further research. When the painting passed to Bill Thwaytes in 1965 this suspicion passed on with it.

Re-enter Sir Denis Mahon. As I said in my previous article Sir Denis was a leading authority on Caravaggio and had also identified other Caravaggio paintings. He bought “The Cardsharps” at the 2006 Sotheby’s auction for £42,000. He, too, wanted to run tests to ascertain whether it was a Caravaggio.

Within a year Sir Denis announced suddenly that, to his satisfaction, “The Cardsharps” was indeed a long-lost genuine Caravaggio and valued it at £50 million (more recently valued at £10 million, the amount it is insured for while at the St. John Museum).

It is acknowledged that Caravaggio’s works are often difficult to attribute because his style varied over the years and often his style was easy to copy. So I can understand why it took two investigations to confirm the attribution. I can also understand why Bill Thwaytes thought that not enough investigation had been done by Sotheby’s. Unfortunately, the High Court decided a couple of weeks ago that Sotheby’s had done the reasonable amount of research that it could and Mr. Thwaytes lost the case.

If you can’t get to see “The Cardsharps” in London in person, you can see Caravaggio’s own copy of the work which is currently on display at the Kimbell Art Gallery in Forth Worth, Texas.

As I wrote in my previous article I saw the painting myself in 2013. The current curator of the museum, Tom Foakes, is to be congratulated on bringing the painting into a public gallery, and it seems that over 400 years after Caravaggio’s death his paintings can still create as much controversy and dispute as the life of the artist himself.

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