The so-called “Caravaggio in the attic” — an imposing painting of “Judith and Holofernes” (c1607) which was found in 2014 in a house near Toulouse — has been released from its French export ban and will be offered at auction at LaBarbe in Toulouse on June 27 for between €100m and €150m (no reserve).
Since its discovery it has been in the hands of Old Masters expert Eric Turquin, who has been working on proving its authorship; the work vanished from records around 1619.
There is no hard evidence that the painting is a Caravaggio, though Turquin believes “it cannot be by anybody else”. His research has focused on matching the attic work to a 1607 description by the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus and to a known copy of the lost painting, attributed to the artist and dealer Louis Finson (1580-1617). Scientific analysis has revealed several underdrawings in “Judith and Holofernes”, visible to the naked eye since cleaning. These, Turquin says, make it highly unlikely that the attic painting is a copy. Experts who support his attribution include Keith Christiansen, the chair of European paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The work was kept in France for 30 months, in part to give the country’s museums the opportunity to own it. Specialists at the Louvre analysed the work, but Turquin says, “its value is 15 times their annual acquisition budget”.
“Judith and Holofernes” came to London this week and is on view at Colnaghi in Mayfair until March 9.
This week’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist auctions in London should have belonged to Monet but instead were dominated by Magritte. A total of 11 works by the Belgian surrealist all sold across two evenings, including “L’étoile du matin” (1938) for £4.5m (£5.3m with fees, Sotheby’s) and “Le lieu commun” (1964) for £16m (£18.4m with fees) among a strong selection at Christie’s.
Monet proved both the biggest winner of the week — top lot was his “Le Palais Ducal” (1908), which went for £24m (£27.5m with fees, Sotheby’s) — and the biggest loser. His huge “Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas” (1916-19), estimated at £40m at Christie’s, failed to find a buyer. Two lots later, his “Iris” (1924-25) also went unsold (est £4m-£6m). Both were among a Boston collection of 21 works that made a hugely disappointing total of £43.4m (£50.5m with fees, est £98.8m-£119.2m).
Overall, discerning buyers sought value this season. In total, Sotheby’s made a within estimate £72.3m (£87.7m with fees), while Christie’s came in below expectations at £140.9m (£165.4m with fees).
London’s plush, multi-category Masterpiece fair is to launch a mini-version in Hong Kong, within the existing Fine Art Asia event that will run in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre October 4-7. Called “The Masterpiece Pavilion”, the tie-up will see about 25 Masterpiece exhibitors, in a dedicated space, join forces with about 100 of Fine Art Asia’s galleries.
It’s a markedly different, and welcome, approach to art fair expansion. Most fairs branching out to new territories do so as standalone projects, often sabotaging, rather than collaborating with, the potential competition. Lucie Kitchener, managing director of Masterpiece, says this new strategy partly reflects today’s congested market. “We thought this was the most additive opportunity,” she says.
The move is also an acknowledgment of Fine Art Asia’s experienced team, founded and led by the local antiques dealer Andy Hei since 2006. “We needed a partner who understands the market,” Kitchener adds. The fairs have collaborated before — back in 2013 each offered a handful of objects through the other — but only for one year. This time, Kitchener says, “is not a one-off”; Fine Art Asia will also have a presence at the London fair.
The new deal has taken some time to pull together. Since MCH Group bought a 67.5 per cent stake in Masterpiece in 2017, the fair’s organisers made it clear that they wanted to branch out internationally. Since then, the parent company has embarked on a global cost-cutting exercise, though Kitchener says this has not affected the process. “Masterpiece has always had a considered approach,” she says.
The Art Newspaper has revealed legal wrangles between the Dutch fair organiser Tefaf NL, which opens its fair in Maastricht on March 16, and Artvest Partners, the advisory firm owned by Michael Plummer and Jeff Rabin that has a 49 per cent ownership of Tefaf’s two US art fairs.
In March 2018, Tefaf sought a declaratory judgment that it was “under no legal obligation to continue to employ or compensate Artvest” for its management services, once the terms of their fee clause in the joint venture agreement expired after two years, on June 30 2018. This clause stipulated that Artvest was paid an annual rate of $400,000. An identical clause covered fees paid to Tefaf NL during the same period.
In April 2018, Artvest sought an injunction partly to prevent Tefaf terminating its management role, recording in its counterclaim that it had helped create “a lucrative marketplace” and that “demand to exhibit at the fairs is at an all-time high”. The following month, Judge Andrea Masley denied Artvest its temporary relief. Artvest appealed against the decision in June, saying that its business would be “irreparably harmed by the deprivation of its bargained-for management and ownership rights”.
Some of the evidence presented to the New York Supreme Court, including emails, reveals a terse relationship between the parties, particularly around the time of the initial October 2016 fair. Tefaf says that its management is now committed to solving the situation amicably; Jeff Rabin of Artvest says, “We remain hopeful that future litigation is not necessary.”
Get alerts on Collecting when a new story is published