The first time I met Nicholas Penny, around ten years ago, the first thing I asked him was, “Are you the man who discovered the Raphael?” “I’m glad you remembered that,” said Penny. “That was almost a year ago and people are already beginning to forget.” But it is the kind of story that sticks in the mind, and if, like me, you are bedeviled by fantasies of discovering overlooked masterpieces, why then it is the kind of story about which you want to learn more. Penny found the Raphael in a corridor in Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland. It was not, as it soon became in the retelling, a darkened corridor. Nor was it in the attic. It was a reasonably well-lit corridor near the private breakfast room on the piano nobile of the castle.

Penny, who was then Clore Curator of Renaissance Art at the National Gallery in London (he is now Curator of Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), had been visiting Alnwick in order to study the paintings. He had been treated well—wined and dined, put up for the night, allowed to examine everything that interested him—and was in a good mood. After lunch on the second day, he felt, on rising from the table, a sense that he ought, perhaps, to do something to show his appreciation. He had indeed been lucky. Other informants tell me that the food at Alnwick Castle was always notoriously foul, even by the standards of the English country house—so foul that the family themselves could never wait to get away from the table.

He stood up, with the vague sense that there might be some pleasant, polite gesture he might make. He strolled out into the corridor and he paused in front of a picture. It was in a very well carved nineteenth-century gilt boxwood frame. Along the top of the frame was its title, Madonna dei Garofani (the Madonna of the Carnations, or Pinks). On the base was the name of the artist, “Raphael.” Penny (who had coauthored a book on Raphael1 ) paused and thought: “That must have been a very expensive frame to make.” And this thought, which for most of us would have been inconsequential, led on to other thoughts.

I ought here to explain that Penny is an expert on frames, as on many aspects of the decorative arts. For the National Gallery in London he has written a pocket guide on the subject.2 The other day in New York he astonished a dealer friend of mine by identifying, on the basis of its frame, the collection a painting had once belonged to. What impressed my friend was the fact that they were not even in the same room as the painting in question—it was something Penny had glimpsed in the distance. And this was only one of many fruitful observations made in a short visit.

Penny looked at the frame on the “Raphael” and thought it must have been expensive, and if it had been expensive that might well mean that the painting had once been highly valued. And if it had once been highly valued, it would be worth asking why. The composition of the picture, in which the Madonna holds a bunch of pinks in one hand, while the Child, on a cushion on her lap, examines two more of the flowers, was well known to Penny through its numerous copies—it was one of Raphael’s popular works, long thought missing. And yet this version seemed of high quality. What is more, there was a visible pentimento, an artist’s correction, in the little landscape at the back. Penny suggested that it might be a good idea to send the picture to the National Gallery for further study.

It arrived in London, carefully packed in white tissue paper, in a clear plastic carrier bag, without its frame—a small fruitwood panel of 11.4 by 9.1 inches. Jill Dunkerton, who unwrapped it in the conservation department, can still remember the moment vividly, since she had been told to expect not a Raphael but only a rather interesting painting. Yet when she placed the panel on a stand, under a good light, its quality was immediately obvious. Furthermore, when the work was examined with a vidicon machine, it was revealed to have a vigorous and beautiful underdrawing—not typical of all of Raphael’s underdrawings, but well comparable to some, such as that of the painting in Washington known as The Small Cowper Madonna.

Experts were brought in, and those who were not immediately convinced by the quality of the painting itself were soon converted by the sight of the underdrawing. Penny attributed it to Raphael and, in the ten years since its publication, this attribution seems never to have received any serious, scholarly challenge. This does not mean that there are no connoisseurs who deny the authenticity of the painting—there are indeed some. But the overwhelming consensus has been in favor of Penny’s attribution. And this degree of unanimity is hardly to be counted on in the world of the art historian. (That is one reason why the Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased the picture from the duke for some $50 million.)


At the very least, Penny’s original surmise proved correct: the painting had, at the time the frame was made for it, been highly valued, for it had been bought as a Raphael, in Rome in 1853, as part of the Camuccini Collection. The purchaser was the fourth Duke of Northumberland, who spent 125,000 Roman scudi (£27,589 8s 6d) on what was the last great bulk purchase for export of Italian paintings: seventy-four of them, including Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (now in Washington). The Raphael was valued at £2,500, the most expensive item in the collection. And it was described by Gustav Waagen in 1854 with notable enthusiasm: “Of all the numerous specimens of the picture I have seen, none appear to me so well entitled to be attributed to [Raphael’s] hand as this.”3 Yet within six years it had been declared a copy.

What causes a painting to fall from favor, as this one did so soon after its arrival in Alnwick? What causes these relegations to lower leagues, these sudden and capricious disparagements? Chance must play a large part in it, as it seems to have done in this case. I recently spent a weekend in the company of some of the leading Raphael scholars, who were discussing the early work of the master. What struck me on several occasions was their readiness to go back to early sources—not just the earliest sources but also nineteenth-century historians and critics—to go back to them, to be sure, for their errors, but to go back to them also for their insights.

It is not the case (or it does not seem to be) that art history makes a definite, irreversible progress uniformly on all fronts. An observation made in 1840, disprized in 1870, and neglected ever since may turn out to suggest the solution to a problem. The great scholars from before the age of photography, who traveled around the European collections with nothing more than their notebooks and their memories to help them in their comparisons, may have been better trained in the art of observation than the modern student with a photo archive at his fingertips. They worked, after all, mainly by examining original works of art.

And then it appears that it is not wise to assume that all the archives have been ransacked for the light that they can shed on Raphael. Key dates can still be found on documents. Key inscriptions may turn out to have been overlooked, or mistranscribed, or misinterpreted. It happens with Raphael, just as it happens with the works of other artists, that a single piece of evidence, or a single misapprehension, can skew the whole of our understanding. An inaccuracy in the reporting of a certain cardinal’s birth date, the fact that an inventory number has disappeared beneath a layer of grime, apprehensiveness over the doubting of a certain grand painting’s authenticity—any one of these, let alone a number of these in combination, can wreck a whole chain of reasoning. “I paused before [the Raphael],” Penny wrote, “chiefly because I am interested in picture frames as well as pictures and in the history of error as well as in the history of art.”4

Astonishing discoveries can be made in the most obvious of places. It is only a generation ago that Penny’s predecessor at Trafalgar Square, Cecil Gould, stood with Konrad Oberhuber in front of the National Gallery’s portrait of Pope Julius II, then usually believed to be a copy of a Raphael, and as a result of their conversations decided to make a complete X-ray mosaic of the painting. This research led to other inquiries which enabled Gould to prove that the National Gallery’s version of the portrait was the original, which once belonged, with another Raphael painting of the Madonna, to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. In this church the two paintings were so revered that they were only shown to the public on certain feast days.

Then along came a papal favorite, Cardinal Sfondrati, one of those sinister cardinals who seem to have stepped out of the poems of Robert Browning. In 1591 he confiscated the two great works for his own collection, leaving an insulting 100 scudi offering for the church. And so began a process by which this portrait, which was once said to have been so true to life that it caused fear in those who saw it, fell into obscurity. It passed from collection to collection. First, the identity of the sitter was forgotten. Then the presumption of its inferiority took hold, as another version of the portrait, in the Uffizi, was preferred.5


One door opens. One door closes. One masterpiece lights up. One comes crashing off the wall. One man writes: Dear Diary, today I discovered a Raphael. Another: Dear Diary, I am not sure how Mr. Getty is going to take this…

I mentioned that there were two Raphaels in Santa Maria del Popolo, whisked away by the feared and detested Cardinal Sfondrati, to the anger of all Rome. One was the papal portrait. The other was a composition known as The Madonna of Loreto—another of those Madonnas much admired and copied over the years. A generation ago one could have been forgiven for thinking that both of them had found their way, by different routes, to the National Gallery in London, for, as Gould wrote, the version of The Madonna of Loreto “which has the best claim to being original is that at present on loan to the National Gallery from Art Properties Inc., by courtesy of Mr. J. Paul Getty.” But a few years after writing this, by the same method of reasoning that established the National Gallery’s portrait, Gould was able to show that the picture that hung in the church was now in the Musée Condé at Chantilly. Getty’s Raphael was relegated to second league.

The other day, Deborah Gribbon, explaining why the Getty Museum, of which she is director, had bought the Duke of Northumberland’s Raphael off the walls of the National Gallery, in such a startling breach of etiquette, was quoted as saying that “we have no Raphael in our collection.” “‘Tis true, ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true” (Shakespeare). They have none, but that does not mean that they have not had one, or indeed more than one, in the past—that Getty himself, and subsequently his museum, have not had some phantom Raphael pregnancies. They are trying for a Raphael, just as they kept trying for a Canova. They long to hear the pitter-patter of tiny Raphael feet. But that does not mean they are welcome to take their pick from the cribs in London’s maternity ward and go rushing out into the parking lot with a screaming Raphael under their arm.

Welcome or not, this is what Ms. Gribbon has done. In September, the Sotheby’s auctioneer Henry Wyndham accompanied the Duke of Northumberland on what the two men thought of as a courtesy visit to the National Gallery, where they explained out of the blue that they had sold the Raphael for $50 million to the Getty Museum, and would be applying for an export license. Subsequent inquiry confirmed that the deal was done (subject to the license) and that no rival offer from the gallery could be considered.

The duke and his castle-creeping henchman left, and a sense descended upon Trafalgar Square of having been treated, when all was said and done, shabbily. And at first it seemed as if the timing of the move was no coincidence: the director of the gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, was new to the post, while his main rival for the appointment, Nicholas Penny, had just left London for Washington. The art market was still reeling from the record-breaking sale of a Rubens last summer. One could see Wyndham advising the duke that now might be a good moment to move.

Perhaps to allay this sense, Gribbon made clear in her announcement that the Getty had been offered the painting a year ago by Sotheby’s.6 That offer turns out not to have been the first time the Getty was approached over the Raphael, and indeed there is reason to believe that the Duke had been touting his little masterpiece elsewhere. It could well have turned up, for instance, among the pinging machines of Las Vegas, to become The Madonna del Bellagio. The duke was touting his Raphael, and at the same time enjoying a government indemnity (that is to say, free insurance while the painting hung in the gallery) of £22 million. In addition, his family enjoys immunity from inheritance tax on this, as on other works of art in their collection. We all got the benefit of seeing the Northumberland painting, but the Northumberlands received immense benefits in return.

No museum likes to see a work of art bought off its walls, and it is normally the case that an American museum would tread very carefully before doing anything that might be construed as interfering in the relationship between a donor or a lender to another museum. Before the announcement of the Getty sale was made, I asked a longstanding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum in New York whether the Met had ever bought an object directly from another museum’s walls, and whether there would be any objection to their doing so. She said that as far as she could recall there had been no such case. If it happened that there was a painting in the LA County Museum (she said, by way of example) that the Met wanted to buy and knew was for sale, there would be no objection to their going ahead provided they knew that the contract for the loan had finished, that the museum in question did not have the money to purchase the object, and that they had, essentially, given up on it. In other words, I imagine that if such a situation arose, the one museum would make discreet inquiries with the other, before even entering negotiations.

Now in the case of London’s National Gallery, you have to understand, first of all, that it is a different sort of institution from the Getty. The Getty people only seem to think about the Getty, and no doubt that is all well and proper, if somewhat red in tooth and claw. The National Gallery, being a national institution, has to attempt to act in the national interest. From that point of view, Penny’s argument was always that the best place for the Northumberland Raphael was in the public rooms in Alnwick Castle, where it could be seen along with the remains of the family’s picture collection. According to this view, the stately homes are the true regional galleries, and every effort should be made to keep their collections intact and accessible.

When a great work of art leaves one of these private collections, it sometimes falls to our national institutions to fight to stop the export of the work. Each institution that does so, does so on behalf of the nation. Suppose the Ashmolean at Oxford had the funds to mount a campaign to save the Raphael; it would not do so in competition with the National Gallery. It would be sent out, like a champion, to fight for the nation. Occasionally more than one champion has to go out, as Edinburgh and the Victoria and Albert Museum went out together in the case of Canova’s Three Graces.

When Gribbon observes that, while the Getty has no Raphael, the National Gallery “does have a number of Raphaels hanging in its galleries,” she’s right. Excluding the Alnwick painting, there are eight. And these are the eight publicly owned paintings by Raphael in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In addition to these there are in the Scottish National Gallery two or three (depending on your point of view) Raphaels owned by the Duke of Sutherland. That is the full extent of Britain’s Raphael patrimony.7 Eight publicly, four privately owned.

Now if we look at the US, we find that here too are, depending once again on how you calculate it, a dozen paintings by Raphael. There is a very interesting account of the way these were acquired in a catalog by David Alan Brown called Raphael and America.8 In 1897, Bernard Berenson made a list of Raphael paintings around the world. There were none in America. By 1909 he could list two, which he had himself bought for Isabella Stewart Gardner. (One of these, the portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, has recently been shown to be a good seventeenth-century copy.) By 1932 there were nine. The last to cross the Atlantic seems to have been a predella panel, which in 1965 entered the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. But the last to enter an American museum was the beautiful-seeming Madonna and Child with a Book, bought by Norton Simon in 1972 from Wildenstein in New York.

A quarter of these Raphaels were taken from the walls of public collections in Europe, with either Hitler or Stalin acting as facilitator. Two were bought by Andrew Mellon from the Hermitage, as part of a deal whereby the then treasury secretary personally paid $7 million in return for twenty-one great paintings, which were bought (through the agency of Knoedler’s) specifically with the founding of the National Gallery in Washington in mind. They never passed through Mellon’s personal collection but were sent straight to the basement of the Corcoran Museum, and Mellon later surprised his critics in a famous court case by declaring them as tax-deductible (no one realized he was founding the National Gallery at the time). The deal with Stalin was motivated by the Russian need for foreign currency.

The deal with Hitler (Duveen was the motivator) turned on the Nazi desire to boost public holdings in early German painting. Duveen despised most German painting and was very happy to swap German for Italian old masters. The portrait of Bindo Altoviti in the National Gallery of Art in Washington came from the walls of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Duveen sold it to Samuel H. Kress, who was essentially purchasing works for public collections.

Apart from these three paintings, the remainder of the Raphaels in America, like so many old master paintings in the United States, came either directly or indirectly from British collections. Most came directly. The Getty Museum, in its regular, inexorable, and highly successful raids on British patrimony, likes to present itself, where possible, as the injured party. But the people at the Getty are the world experts on the provenance of paintings, and they know better than anyone in the world the story these provenances tell.

I have spoken of patrimony. I might have used the word “heritage.” Both terms have defensive connotations, and it is true that countries that are rich enough tend not to fight defensive battles over works of art. They do not need to. We do. And that is why the National Gallery hopes that the government will delay issuing an export license, while funds are being found. It is not wrong to be on the defensive. The very notion of an old master painting was traced by Francis Haskell to the late sixteenth century in Florence, and to a decree of 1602 which forbade the removal from Florence, for any reason whatever, of the works of eighteen named painters from what was perceived as a golden age. Not all of these painters were Tuscan: Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Parmigianino were included.9

Our British patrimony, our heritage, is not only the culture we have enjoyed in common. A great house is saved for the nation, and the public becomes able to enter it for the first time. A masterpiece is found in a corridor, and crowds get their first sight of it when it goes on public display. Our heritage is well defined as that which we should bitterly regret to lose, were we to see it go. These great works of art become our public property at the moment they are declared our heritage.

One should not begrudge America its success. I will walk through the Met entranced by the beauty of the objects and the bravura of their display. But sometimes I will want to stop and spit—not on the memory of those great collectors and patrons, great crooks though so many of them may have been, but on the graves of the slippered fools back home who let these masterpieces go. It is not only the Northumberlands of the present, and their eager auctioneers. It is the failures and the complacencies of the past that reproach us, and make us determined to act in this case.

This Issue

December 19, 2002