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Not So Grand Illusion

In 1929, Hilaire Belloc published, both in England and in America, a novel entitled The Missing Masterpiece, with illustrations by G.K. Chesterton. This forgotten potboiler concerns a highly successful, pompous, unprincipled art dealer in London named Sir Henry Bessington, who is confronted with two versions of a “Symbolist” painting called Âme BourgeoiseMiddle-Class Soul. (The humor throughout the book is at that English public school level.) Eventually, after a prolonged series of unlikely events involving each of the paintings, the owners of them go to court to determine which is the authentic picture, with arguments made to a jury distinguished by its ignorance.

At the trial, which is the climactic moment of the novel, the chief expert witness is the “Curator of the Oil Paintings Department in the Imperial Museum,” Dr. Edward Mowlem, who is described as possessing “a reputation and a bundle of facts so considerable that he was already in the first rank of the profession.” But Mowlem’s claims to expertise are called into serious question when he is forced to admit that he has never actually laid eyes on the version he adamantly claims is the original. The jury’s verdict decrees that both pictures are the original, that both owners had behaved badly, and that each should be fined £20,000. Shortly thereafter, a third copy of the painting is discovered, which of course adds to the general confusion at the novel’s end.

Belloc wrote his novel to capitalize on the widespread interest in a real trial, held in New York City that same year, which became one of the most celebrated trials in the history of art—a trial in which two paintings were compared for authenticity and where the validity of experts’ claims was recurrently questioned. The enlightened reader in 1929 would quickly have discerned that Belloc’s book was actually a sort of roman à clef, in which Sir Henry Bessington is a thinly disguised Sir Joseph Duveen and Edward Mowlem is based on Bernard Berenson, both of whom played major roles in the 1929 New York trial over two versions of a picture called La Belle Ferronnière, one of which may or may not have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

The central figure in the New York trial, the fabled art dealer Joseph Duveen, was a flamboyant figure who continues to fascinate the public. In 1952, S.N. Behrman published a highly successful portrait of Duveen based on articles he had written for The New Yorker, and as recently as 2004, Simon Gray wrote The Old Masters, his last play, which Harold Pinter directed in London. The play is not about the Belle Ferronnière controversy but depicts the later confrontation between Duveen and Berenson over the so-called Allendale Nativity, which ultimately led to their conclusive parting of the ways, Berenson insisting it was a Titian, when Duveen wanted it labeled a (more valuable) Giorgione.

John Brewer, a historian of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England teaching at Caltech who has now written the most recent, most thorough account of the people and events surrounding the New York trial, doesn’t refer to Belloc’s novel but says that there was a revue in Paris in 1924 about La Belle Ferronnière with the title Oh the Pretty Girls; in 1993 there was also a documentary on BBC2, directed by Christopher Spencer and entitled Every Picture Tells a Story: The Two Belles. Why is the story of such continuing interest? Chiefly, I suspect, it’s because of the enormous sums of money involved, but also the central characters themselves are intriguing—powerful, foolish, pretentious. At the heart of the story, however, there are serious, engrossing issues about how we perceive works of art.

Harry Hahn, a poor boy from Kansas and the litigious protagonist of Brewer’s tale, seems to have been stricken early on with delusions of grandeur, and the information he provided about himself in later years appears to be as unreliable as much of the other “factual” evidence in this affair. On different occasions, he claimed to have been born in different towns in Kansas; in 1917 he enlisted in the army, serving first in Texas and then in France; and although he boasted that he was a highly decorated captain and an aviator, there is reason to suppose he was actually a sergeant and a mechanic. In 1919 he married a French girl named Andrée Ladoux, who lived not with her parents but with her so-called (but not actual) godmother, Josephine Massot, a milliner, in Dinard.

One of Josephine’s friends was an eccentric woman of dubious aristocracy named Louise de Montaut, whom Andrée came to call her aunt, even though they weren’t related. Mme de Montaut possessed (although it is not clear it was rightfully hers) a painting that she had always been told was by Leonardo da Vinci, and when Andrée and Harry Hahn got married on July 12, 1919, she—amazingly—gave them this picture of potentially immense value as a wedding present, because, as she loftily explained later, one doesn’t sell one’s inherited family possessions, one gives them away. There is, however, some reason to doubt that she ever actually gave it to the Hahns as a gift.

This painting, La Belle Ferronnière, was brought to America, not by the Hahns when they returned to Junction City, Kansas, in 1919, where Harry became a car salesman, but by Mme de Montaut, who arrived in New York in June 1920. Later, when they were concerned to confer drama on their undertakings, the Hahns claimed that to get it successfully out of France the painting had first been smuggled by Josephine Massot into Belgium, Falstaff-like, in a basket of laundry.

Even before they had left France, however, Harry and Andrée Hahn had begun to make efforts to sell the painting in America. Only three days after Mme de Montaut and the painting arrived in America, Joseph Duveen received a phone call from a reporter at the New York World, who asked his opinion of the version of La Belle Ferronnière that had been offered to the Kansas City Art Institute for something on the order of $250,000. Although he had never seen the Hahn picture, Duveen did not hesitate to declare it a fake, pointing out that the original was, after all, in the Louvre, and hence this could only be a copy.

The painting in Paris Duveen referred to is a late-fifteenth-century portrait of a woman recognizable as being from the court of Milan—perhaps, it is thought, Lucrezia Crivelli, who was the mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, or possibly his wife, Beatrice d’Este. (Another of his mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani, is depicted by Leonardo as the Lady with an Ermine, now in Kraków.) The painting apparently entered the French royal collection at the end of the fifteenth century during the reign of Louis XII and subsequently passed to François I, who brought Leonardo to France for the last three years of his life. From very early on, the picture was known as La Belle Ferronnière, whether because it was mistakenly confused with another portrait of the wife of a man named Le Ferron (who was the mistress of François I) or because the band with a jewel that adorns the subject’s forehead was called a ferronnière. The Louvre painting most recently made an appearance at the beginning of the film The Da Vinci Code.1

The Hahns engaged a lawyer with the aromatic name of Hyacinthe Ringrose, who brought suit against Duveen in New York, asking the inconceivably large sum, in those days, of $500,000 in compensation for his “slander of title.” Very quickly, Duveen assembled eight experts, including Harvard professor Edward Forbes and Princeton professor Frank Jewett Mather, to examine the picture in Ringrose’s office; two of them were undecided, but the rest judged against it. Duveen, however, not content with this victory, proceeded to have a number of photographs taken of the painting, which he then sent to some of the outstanding experts in Europe, including Sir Charles Holmes (the director of the National Gallery in London), Wilhelm von Bode (the director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin), Roger Fry, Salomon Reinach, Adolfo Venturi, and Bernard Berenson. They unanimously rejected the attribution to Leonardo.

At that point, unable to leave well enough alone, Duveen decided, with the consent of the Hahns, to place the two paintings side by side in the Louvre so that experts could compare them without resorting to photographs. On September 15, 1923, a group comprised of Holmes, Fry, Venturi, and several other experts including Arthur Pillans Laurie, a professor of chemistry who had studied painters and paintings from his scientific perspective, as well as Duveen, Mrs. Hahn, Ringrose, and a few others, assembled to compare the two paintings. Berenson, shy of the publicity involved, had done so privately a few days before.

With the exception of Laurie, who reserved judgment, the experts all agreed that the Hahn picture was not by Leonardo and that the Louvre one was. Prior to that, however, most of them had in fact expressed doubts about Leonardo as the painter of the Louvre picture. As Duveen himself had written to a prominent lawyer in Kansas City:

The Louvre picture is not passed by the most eminent connoisseurs as having been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and I may say that I am in accord with their opinion. It is suggested that the Louvre picture is very close to Leonardo da Vinci, but is not by his hand—probably it was painted by [Leonardo’s pupil] Boltraffio.

He was soon to regret ever having made such a statement; for when the “eminent connoisseurs” in Paris all changed their minds and agreed that the Louvre picture was by Leonardo, it looked to Hahn and his lawyers suspiciously like collusion.

After some delay, the Hahn case was brought to trial in New York City on February 6, 1929, before a jury that knew almost nothing about art, art history, or the art market. Duveen’s arrogant testimony assured the jurors of his vast experience (“my study of all the great pictures of the world”) and expertise (“I do not recall ever making [a] mistake in the authorship of a picture”).

He lectured condescendingly to the jury, instructing them about connoisseurship and contemptuously denigrating the Hahn picture. The trial went on for some three weeks, during which the Hahns’ attorney attempted to discredit Duveen, and Duveen’s lawyers attempted to discredit the Hahn painting.

One side argued that Duveen had maliciously ruined the Hahns’ chances of selling their Leonardo; the other side maintained that the painting couldn’t be sold because it was only a worthless copy. After fourteen hours of deliberation, however, the jury, which was required to deliver a unanimous verdict, found itself unable to, nine members voting in favor of Hahn and three in favor of Duveen; so the judge was obliged to order a retrial. But that second trial never took place, because Duveen, fatigued by it all and not wishing to have the matter prolonged, settled with the Hahns out of court, paying them $60,000 but nonetheless insisting that their painting was not by Leonardo.

  1. 1

    For a full discussion of the complex matter of the provenance and name of the Louvre painting, see Janet Cox-Rearick, The Collection of Francis I: Royal Treasures (Fonds Mercator/Abrams, 1996), pp. 145–146.

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