The oil painting, which Sotheby’s has declared ‘a modern forgery‘ this month, is one of a handful of works embroiled in the latest counterfeit scandal to rock the art world. It was sold by collector Giulano Ruffini to London dealer Mark Weiss for a reported US$3million (£2.5 million) in 2010. Weiss went on to sell it for about US$10million (£8.24 million) in a private treaty deal brokered by Sotheby’s New York in 2011. When French authorities seized another painting linked to Ruffini in March this year over authenticity concerns, the portrait was thrust into the limelight.
Now it has been revealed that Christie’s auction house had expressed doubts about the authenticity of the portrait when Ruffini asked Christie’s Paris to examine the painting in 2008.
When Christie’s applied for a license to export the work to its London headquarters for closer technical examination a temporary export bar was placed on the painting. The French state declared it a national treasure and the Louvre Museum sought to acquire the piece for the nation. The ink on the sales contract was not yet dry when according to a Christie’s spokeswoman the auction house began to have ‘doubts on provenance and attribution‘.
Christie’s sought to obtain a guarantee from Ruffini over the work’s attribution but he declined. According to his lawyer “he didn’t want to guarantee anything… It’s not his job“. By that time specialists including the Louvre’s chief curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings, Blaire Ducos, and senior curator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Quentin Buvelot, had examined the painting. It was even submitted for X-ray, infrared and ultraviolet imaging by the French Museums Restoration and Research Center although a pigment analysis was not undertaken. In the end, the 2008 sales contract with the Louvre fell through for reasons which remain unknown.
In a statement emailed to artnet News Christie’s spokeswoman Belinda Bowring wrote ‘As is Christie’s policy, we entered into a contract that allowed us to carry out research on the painting in question… When we could not satisfy ourselves in terms of provenance and attribution we withdrew from the process and had no further involvement with the work‘.
How a painting seen by so many expert eyes could eventually be declared ‘undoubtedly a forgery‘ has left the art world thunderstruck. As yet, no charges have been made against Ruffini but there are fears that several other Old Masters which have passed through his hands including a Saint Jerome by Parmigianino may soon be declared fakes.