Posted by: Nancy | February 20, 2010

Art, egos and stories

Less than a month ago, a famous painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s. It was expected to be sold for $300,000 to $500,000. It actually went for $1.5 million.

While this isn’t terribly surprising, it’s notable for the story that goes along with the painting and the sale.  It’s a Kansas City story, and in many ways, a tale of American identity and attitudes.

The painting is sometimes called the American Leonardo. It’s formal name is  “La Belle Ferronniere” or Portrait of a Woman done in the style of Leonardo DaVinci.

John Brewer, author of a new book The American Leonardo — A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money, was in Kansas City recently. He gave a vivid retelling during a talk at the Kansas City Public Library.

The story begins with a young couple in love in 1919. It’s Harry Hahn, a mechanic from Kansas, who marries a French girl Andree. A favorite aunt, Louise DuMont, gives the couple the old painting, believed to be a DaVinci — it had been authenticated as such by a French dealer.

The young couple comes to the US, where Harry opens a car dealership in Junction City. They intend to sell the painting to launch their fortunes in the US.

In 1920, Kansas City didn’t even have an art museum. The Nelson wouldn’t exist until 1927, and in the whole of the US, there were not a single museum with a DaVinci. For Kansas City, with big city aspirations, this would be a coup and could help change it’s cowtown image.

One of Kansas City’s best-known business leaders, J.C. Nichols, heads up a consortium to raise funds to buy the work. Quite exiting, until a reporter happens to seek a comment from Sir Joseph Duveen, who was a famous (and famously arrogant) art critic and dealer. Duveen might have been the most influential dealer at the time, having developed art collections for all the major American industrial giants — Mellon, Rockefeller, JP Morgan.

Duveen proclaimed the work a fake. Never mind that he’d never seen it firsthand.

Oh, the uproar! The deal to sell the painting in Kansas City falls through and Hahn decides to sue Duveen for slander and damages.

Now the egos really get inflamed. Duveen enjoys the publicity of the lawsuit at first, and hires European art masters to back him up in court. More egos, this time with a tinge of old world snobbery and intellectual superiority of intuitive judgment. They can “sense” the legitimacy of a work.

In the trial, Hahn’s attorney focuses on scientific evidence and plays up the contrast between American values (Show Me) and European snobbery. The jury is pretty solidly in Hahn’s camp, and Duveen settles out of court with Hahn in 1929.

Back to Kansas City. The Nelson has opened and is on an acquisition spree for great art. The city needs the best dealer money can buy and they hire … Duveen! He is the guest of honor at the Museum’s opening.

There are many other twists to the tale of the painting, which is mostly locked away in a bank vault over the ensuing decades.

Hahn later divorces and bitterly attacks what he calls the “art racket.” He writes a book, with support of Thomas Hart Benton, the Kansas City artist, and Frank Glenn, a rare book dealer. The book tells the story of the little man fighting against the art monopolist, but the book may have had its own ulterior motives in reigniting the controversy.

Now, with the January 2010 sale of the painting, we prepare for a new chapter.

Recent evaluators estimate that the painting dates from the 17th century, and they note that it contains pigments consistent with those Leonardo DaVinci would have used — perhaps even more consistent than a never-doubted DaVinci in the Louvre.

Meanwhile, we don’t know who the new owner is — only that it is an American in the entertainment industry. Another new character, another mystery.

This industrialist now owns a beautiful painting and it hardly matters if the painting is an authentic DaVinci or not.

Perhaps the true value is the story itself, the artwork as a foil for a study of human nature, greed, ego, cultural biases, the tension between art and profit.

Maybe this fascinating painting will again be the subject of critical assessment and scientific review, and maybe, just maybe, there’s a new ending to the tale.

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