Table misallocations are repeated quite frequently. This is what happened a week ago in Madrid with the painting that was going to be auctioned at a starting price of 1,500 euros and which may actually be a caravaggio, data that Culture and the Prado did not know despite the suspicions that were already circulating in the sector. The ministry stopped the auction on Thursday, hours before the auction, after receiving a warning from museum experts. “It is evident that the painting was going to be bought in silence”, says the expert Manuela Mena, “as if no one in Spain had seen it or appreciated it. But the secret of the market was broken somewhere ”. Mena has a doctorate in Art History and for 40 years she held various positions at the Prado Museum.
The painting that was up for auction was attributed in the Casa Ansorena catalog in Madrid to the surroundings of Ribera (17th century), and one of the antique dealers willing to acquire it planned to pay more than 23 million euros if Culture had not stopped the process.
Being skeptical of an artistic find should be appropriate, agree both Manuela Mena and Keith Christiansen, head of European art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But this American expert points out that it is not so common “to rule out an authorship so quickly, especially in the case of Caravaggio, whose style changes significantly,” according to writes in the specialized magazine About Art.
For more than four decades, Mena, who now lives in retirement in the UK, was in contact with auction houses who came to her for advice. As the doctor and the entities with which EL PAÍS has contacted clarify, the councils of a public institution are very important to value a piece and, in certain cases, to recover part of the State’s patrimony. But they are that, tips, not certificates of authorship. Fernando Durán, Subastas Alcalá and Christie’s (in their case they have their own teams outside of Spain) explain that they raise this type of queries to public and private institutions when, once they have been analyzed by their internal experts, the works continue to generate doubts. EL PAÍS has contacted Ansorena again but once again those responsible have refused to make statements about how the process of appraisal and attribution of the alleged caravaggio.
José Miguel Carrillo de Albornoz, commercial director of Fernando Durán who has an ancient art department headed by a doctor in Art History, explains that they collaborate with a network of specialists and public institutions to which they can turn. “First of all, we send them information and images of the pieces,” says Carrillo. In case this material is not enough, many of these experts travel to see and analyze the piece in person. They all charge a fee for doing this analysis.
María García Yelo, delegate in Spain and director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s, describes the procedure that auction houses must comply with in Spain according to the Heritage law: “Within the European Union there is free circulation for all those works that have less than 100 years old and are not inventoried by Spanish Historical Heritage. When it comes to a piece over 100 years old, an export permit is requested from the Ministry of Culture. If a work is going to be sold outside the European Union and is between 50 and 100 years old and reaches a certain value, it also requires that permission ”.
This did not happen last March, when the Casa Ansorena, without prior consultation with the Ministry of Culture or the Prado Museum, according to Culture sources, announced in its catalog a Behold the man attributed to the Ribera circle with a starting price of 1,500 euros. “The assessment was surprising as it was an old or riberesque painting,” says Mena, who like other sources consulted by this newspaper agrees that the work is in a terrible state of conservation.
The appraisal process for a work does not have a specific duration. It can be almost immediate analysis in the homes of individuals, even exams that take weeks and months. “On a medium-sized canvas there are about 300 characteristics that mark the authorship of a work. They are not seen only with X-rays, but by comparison inside your brain with everything you have seen before ”, says Mena, who was 16 years general director of restoration and conservation of the Prado.
There is a hand in the dark that is ugly, it is usually in the works of Caravaggio
She saw the Behold the man about eight days ago, remember. They sent him a photo, of not very good quality, and even so he could see that “the executioner on the left is a model of the late Caravaggio, which appears more terribly in The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. The other young man is also a model of the painter’s last tragic period ”, says Mena. “There is a hand in the dark that is ugly, it is usually in Caravaggio’s works to reveal the ugliness of the bad guy. I loved the line of the shoulders and neck of the Christ, like that of Greta Garbo in some of her films, it goes beyond reality ”, she continues.
The offers that Casa Ansorena began to receive, such as the one that Robilant + Voena antique dealers were willing to make for more than 23 million euros, is part of the art market game, as confirmed by the auction houses consulted. During the weeks that the works hang in the exhibition halls, offers are received on paper, online or by phone. Sometimes, as Carrillo and a source from Auctions Alcalá explain, the outcome of an auction is known in advance when the bids have been raised to very high amounts. García Yelo assures that at Christie`s the auction is always held to “give all buyers an opportunity”.