Despite the billions sloshing around the art market, old-fashioned connoisseurship still reigns supreme
By JAMES TARMY
The arcane world of art-historical attribution had a rare moment in the spotlight last November when a painting by Leonardo da Vinci was sold at auction for US$450 million (RM1.8 billion).
It wasn’t just the price that drew attention.
In contrast with the near-unanimous judgement of actual experts, numerous critics who were deeply unfamiliar with the world of old masters sowed doubt about the painting’s authenticity. The divide illustrated the chasm between the mainstream art world, which relies heavily on money and fashion, and academic scholarship, which is (mostly) subject to very different pressures.
One of the few people to bridge this divide is Philippe Costamagna, the director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Ajaccio, Corsica, and a self-described “Eye”.
“The task of what I call the ‘Eye’ is to establish the authorship of paintings by sight alone,” Costamagna writes in his forthcoming book “The Eye: An Insider’s Memoir of Masterpieces, Money and the Magnetism of Art” (August 2018, New Vessel Press).
While such a claim might sound outlandish, Costamagna has made a name for himself as a go-to expert for 16th century Italian painting. Using a combination of scholarship, historical documentation, formal analysis and intuition, he’s regularly asked to pass judgement on artwork whose attribution is ambiguous.
(There are often questions surrounding a painting’s authorship; over the centuries, many works have been touched up, modified, or even had their canvases cut and reshaped, making attribution difficult at best.)
Most surprisingly, Costamagna provides his services for free.
“Obviously!” Costamagna says in a phone interview. “That way it’s very easy to be honest and say exactly what you think. If you think a painting’s not by the artist they want, it’s easy to tell them ‘No’. And I don’t care about money.”
He might not care about the money, but as is evidenced by the recent blockbuster success of the “rediscovered” Leonardo, which was originally bought, pre-restoration, at a regional auction house for virtually pennies, there are many, many other people who do.
The Surprise Judgements
Costamagna’s book is filled with examples of his judgement — corroborated by other experts, he assures us — elevating some artworks and demolishing the valuation of many more.
“Very often, people hate me,” he says. “But they respect me.”
There’s the example of his stumbling across a painting hanging in the Musée des Beaux- Arts in Nice, France, and realising it was Bronzino’s Christ on the Cross, “a work long since lost and vainly sought by connoisseurs of Florentine art of the period”.
In another instance, a group of Spanish collectors showed him a painting. After examining it, he writes, “I looked up, and saw the shock spread across the faces of the three waiting figures as I announce, without preamble, ‘Gentlemen, this is a Bronzino.’”
But all too often, Costamagna says, art dealers who are desperate to believe that they’re in possession of a hidden masterpiece become angry, even belligerent, when he disabuses them of that fantasy.
“People always hope that they have a masterpiece,” he says. “Because masterpieces are more expensive.”
Just as often, he writes, dealers and collectors — willfully ignorant or otherwise — will ask him to authenticate an obvious forgery.
“Whenever I am confronted with a fake, I know it immediately,” he says. “One day, in a darkened room on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a foreign dealer-collector active in Paris asked me to authenticate, in front of two potential buyers, an obvious fake.”
Attribution, he continues, can be tricky. Forgeries are straightforward. “A fake always leaves an unpleasant impression,” he explains. “A feeling of discomfort.”
What makes Costamagna’s profession particularly interesting is that he seamlessly moves between the worlds of art dealers, art collectors and art historians. If nothing else, his memoir is a passionate, if inadvertent, argument that the only thing that truly matters in the art world is expertise and genuine appreciation.
He writes dismissively of most collectors who seek him out: “Even today, I wonder if certain purchasers really see what it is that I authenticate for them,” he writes. “I have reached the fairly simple conclusion that they don’t see much at all beyond their displays of wealth and social prestige.”
He’s similarly scornful of curators who rely on scientific methodology.
“In the English speaking world”, he writes, “some museum curators think that the laboratory will compensate for their lack of eye, and this will permit them to attribute effectively.” That, Costamagna continues, is dangerously incorrect. “Such scientific studies only ever really give them commonplace information that they tend to make much of.”
Bronzino and Pontormo, for instance, both used the same type of blue paint. So “pigment analysis has nothing definitive to say on the subject”.
While Costamagna’s book could be taken with a healthy grain of salt — it’s as much a defence of his profession as it is a personal memoir — the results of his analysis speak for themselves. He’s spotted overlooked masterworks (visiting a church in Corsica, he spotted an unattributed painting by Giorgio Vasari) and disappointed countless more collectors who hope they’ve stumbled across a long-lost treasure.
Scholarship and his reputation, he says, are his motivation. Although he will accept a glass of Champagne, if offered.
“Or you can invite me to lunch at the Four Seasons in New York,” he says. “But I don’t care who I’m doing it for, rich or poor. I’ll be very happy to come and see you, if you want an opinion.” — Bloomberg