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 …

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