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 Bourgeoise—Middle-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.
Most of the testimony by Duveen’s experts during the trial had been read into the record, because many of them were in Europe and did not wish to come to America to testify. They may also have wanted to avoid trying to defend the art of connoisseurship, always somewhat nebulous and hard to define with any precision, in the pragmatic setting of the law court. Like Duveen’s testimony, some of their depositions seem snobbish and patronizing, and Berenson especially, like many shy and nervous people under pressure, comes off as imperious and solipsistically self-assured.
He explained that he had originally doubted that the Louvre Belle Ferronnière was by Leonardo but now he was convinced it was—an opinion he continued to hold for the rest of his life. When Ringrose asked Berenson if he had notified the authorities in the Louvre of his revised opinion, he curtly replied, “There are no authorities in the Louvre.” (Sometimes criticized for changing his attributions, he once observed that “consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.”) When asked whether the Louvre picture was painted on wood or canvas, Berenson, who boasted that he had looked at the painting “a thousand times,” replied that he didn’t know. “What?” exclaimed Ringrose, “you claim to have studied it so much, and you can’t answer a simple question?” To which Berenson unfortunately riposted, “It’s as if you asked me on what kind of paper Shakespeare wrote his immortal sonnets.” It is “not interesting,” he insisted: “It is not interesting on what paper Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.”
The imperfection of his analogy must have been evident even to him. But Berenson was always so focused on the artistic expression of a work of art that he often revealed a surprising nonchalance about its physical state, and even Duveen’s excessive attempts to restore paintings to pristine condition in order to please his clients don’t seem, so far as I can tell, to have bothered Berenson as much as they might have.2 Berenson admitted to Ringrose that he was not an expert on the chemical composition of pigments or on the ways artists paint. He said that a lifetime of looking had given him a “sixth sense” that enabled him to attribute paintings to specific schools, eras, or artists—a claim to which both the Hahns’ lawyer and the judge in the case took exception because it was indefinable and had no scientific verification. As Berenson explained to the lawyer who questioned him, to authenticate a painting one had to have a comprehensive knowledge of all the accepted works by the artist. “You then get,” he said,
a sense, if you have had sufficiently long training…. This is not a matter for beginners. It takes a very long training before you get this sort of sixth sense that comes from accumulated knowledge.
The expert connoisseurs were generally dismissive of scientific evidence; but the simple fact is that in the 1920s the use of scientific methods in attributing pictures was still in its infancy, so much so that when X-rays of the Hahn painting were presented in court, a radiologist had to read them, because none of the art historians could. Later, however, Duveen, who maintained that he didn’t believe in the evidence of X-rays, managed to find a young man at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Alan Burroughs, who was beginning to pioneer the use of X-ray evidence and had actually taken an X-ray of the Louvre Belle Ferronnière. Burroughs managed to give concrete, scientific evidence suggesting that the Hahn picture was a copy of the one in the Louvre.
Harry Hahn, denied by the jury the attribution he wanted, concluded that he was the victim of a conspiracy by what he called “the art racket.” Over the next three or four years, he wrote an intemperate, tendentious book, entitled The Rape of La Belle, for which he didn’t manage to find a publisher until 1946. In his angry account of the dishonest intrigue he claims Duveen had mounted against him, Berenson is, of course, one of the chief villains, and like the judge at the trial, Hahn could not abide Berenson’s claim to have a sixth sense:
One thing is certain, however, the sixth sense divining faculty possessed by Mr. Berenson has been very rewarding. It has also been of inestimable value in composing that attribution music from which the maestro, Sir Joseph Duveen, did his highly profitable fiddling. Science may here be out, but fat cash is surely in. If Mr. Berenson is crazy, maybe it is with the craziness of a fox; if he is deficient in common sense, he has an insect’s compensating instinct for fixing up a nice nest.
Following the account of the trial in 1929, Brewer gives, for the next 150 pages or so, an exhaustive, exhausting chronicle, in perhaps more detail than many readers will desire, of the subsequent fate of the Hahn picture. We learn that for most of the past eight decades it has sat unseen in storage, first in New York City until after World War II, then in Kansas, and then in Nebraska. During this time, the family squabbled over its possession, Harry Hahn struggled to get his book published and the painting sold, and a wide assortment of people attempted to make a fortune from the picture. The Hahns used it as collateral to pay their legal and other expenses, and they used Duveen’s $60,000 to move back to France for a few years, all the while trying to authenticate and sell the painting. We are told about the origins of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, about the Hahns’ divorce and their respective remarriages, as well as about the famous trials concerning Otto Wacker’s fake Van Goghs in 1932 and Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers in 1945.3
A lengthy chapter details the vicissitudes of Harry Hahn’s manuscript of The Rape of La Belle and the decisive parts played in its eventual publication by a Kansas City businessman, Frank Glenn, and the populist American artist Thomas Hart Benton, who wrote a feisty introduction for the published book. The repeated attempts to prove the Hahn picture’s authenticity, which came to involve Maurits van Dantzig, a self-proclaimed expert on forgeries, Helmut Ruhemann, the highly controversial restorer at London’s National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, and Philip Hendy, are painstakingly recounted, and we are taken step by detailed step through the labyrinth of pecuniary skullduggery, as one person after another tried to profit financially from the Hahn painting and, as Brewer puts it with prodigious understatement, “the financial arrangements surrounding the painting [became] increasingly Byzantine.” By 1996, there were twenty-nine liens worth almost $42 million on the painting.
Since Brewer published his book, the Hahn heirs, who lost control over the painting for a while, came into possession of it once again, as the result of a confidential legal agreement executed in March 2009, and it was auctioned at Sotheby’s on January 28. According to Sotheby’s catalog, recent technical examination of the “[in]famous portrait,” including pigment analysis, indicates that the Hahn painting dates from the seventeenth century, thus confirming the opinion expressed by the Oxford professor Martin Kemp, one of the world’s leading Leonardo scholars, who examined it in 1993, said it was not by Leonardo, dated it to the first half of the seventeenth century, and thought it might possibly have been painted by the French baroque painter Laurent de La Hyre. Although the presale estimate was $300,000–$500,000, the painting actually sold at auction for $1,300,000; with the addition of the buyer’s premium fee, the American private collector who bought it paid just over a million and a half dollars for the picture that once belonged to Harry and Andrée Hahn.
Connoisseurship, though difficult to describe, is not the mystery it is often thought to be. Rather, it is a skill acquired through a great deal of hard work, discipline, study, and sophistication. It is not hocus-pocus, sleight of hand, or casual guessing, although it may appear so to the uninitiated. But we recognize our friends’ voices on the telephone or their handwriting on envelopes, and most listeners can distinguish between a piece for piano by Debussy and one by Mozart. All these are forms of connoisseurship, and they are acquired skills. When I was an undergraduate, I once met a curator of decorative arts at a major museum who told me, to my amazement and amusement, “the only things I can’t date are stoves.” And at Harvard, we regularly taught students in literature to identify passages of prose or poetry, if possible by specific author, but if not, at least by period. These are merely more sophisticated, intellectual forms of connoisseurship than recognizing your friend’s voice when you answer the phone. All are based on experience and comparison, memory and intelligence, but there are no scientific formulae to describe them or scientific aids to achieve them.
In October 1988, at the Gabinetto Vieusseux in Florence, the late Sydney Freedberg, one of the most accomplished and highly regarded connoisseurs of Italian painting, gave a lecture in which he attempted to explain how the connoisseur works.4 Defining connoisseurship as “the use of expert knowledge of a field…to identify objects in it, determine their quality, and assess their character,” Freedberg was at pains to “demystify” connoisseurship, insisting that it “is not a product of that unfathomable, non-rational and animal-seeming thing that is called ‘intuition,'” but rather the result of vast, intense, informed visual experience carefully stored in the memory.
In his essay, too dense and complex to be quickly summarized here, he stresses the supreme importance of a capacious visual memory. He also takes account of the various scientific aids (“radiography in its multiple forms, infrared and ultraviolet devices, and macro-photographs…analyses of pigments and of varnishes, dendrochronology and thermoluminescence”) that have been developed in recent years; yet he emphasizes that they are only “ancillary to the connoisseur’s mode of operation,” helping him to confirm or deny the evidence of his eye. Science can tell us that a painting had to be painted before 1400, but only connoisseurship can give us the understanding that it was painted by Giotto.
Kenneth Clark, when asked in 1960 to state his opinion of both the Louvre and the Hahn paintings, craftily avoided stating categorically that the Louvre picture was by Leonardo but he did say that it “is the original of the Fifteenth Century, and the Hahn picture a post-Raphaelesque copy.” He then went on to invoke a characteristic “mode of operation” of connoisseurship:
I believe that by taking a group of authentic drawings and pictures by Leonardo, and demonstrating his type of modelling and then taking a number of post-Raphaelesque heads and showing their type of modelling, it would be possible to prove that the Louvre picture fell into the first category and the Hahn picture into the second, even though the Hahn picture is an extremely close and skilful copy….
Brewer, who does not mention Freedberg’s important essay, nevertheless seems to be in general agreement with it. As a professor of the humanities at Caltech, he is understandably interested in the relationship between connoisseurship and science, and he is eloquent about the ways that “ordinary folk, common sense, science and objectivity” can be intimidated when confronted with the elitist world of privileged collectors, high culture, and arcane expertise. But in the end he endorses Helmut Ruhemann’s vision, in which, as Brewer says, “the admittedly subjective talents of the trained and experienced eye worked together with the ‘objective’ expertise of science.” However, it is worth noting that Brewer also quotes Ruhemann more explicitly, stating, “I believe that all these [scientific] devices, even if they become more perfect with time, will never be able to compete with the instinct of the true connoisseur, his unaided eye will always be the decisive factor.” Surely not only Freedberg but Berenson himself would have agreed with that.
In a personal “Afterword,” Brewer describes how, with considerable difficulty, he finally managed to get access to the Hahn Belle Ferronnière at an undisclosed location in Omaha. There is a poignant moment when the picture is finally unveiled and he realizes that, despite all his research and everything he has learned over the years about the Hahn picture, he lacks expertise as a connoisseur and doesn’t really know what he’s looking at: “Seeing the picture,” he says, “was in some respects an empty gesture…. I was just another of those people who stand before a portrait and ask themselves, ‘Is it a masterpiece? Is it a Leonardo? How do I know?'”
—January 28, 2010
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. ↩
For the most recent discussion of Duveen and his methods, see the fascinating article by Jonathan Brown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s just-published pamphlet Velázquez Rediscovered (2009) entitled “A Restored Velázquez, a Velázquez Restored”: ↩
“Berenson, Connoisseurship, and the History of Art,” reprinted both in The New Criterion (February 1989), and in I Tatti Studies: Essays in the Renaissance, Vol. 3 (1989). ↩