Bust turns to boom for a Bernini
A bust sold for £85 in 1978 is now worth millions. Donald Wintersgill follows the story from Loughborough, England, to. Christie's of Netu York.
CHRISTIE'S sold the contents of
Lord Lanesborough's huge and chilly stately home, Swithland . Hall, Loughborough, in 1978. It was an
extraordinary place. '
Pigeons were nesting in the upper sto reys; Lord Lanesborough's model railway, his great enthusiasm, ran through two
Among the goods on sale was an item described simply as a marble bust of a Pope, which went for a trifling £85. The buyer was Roy Pope, an antique dealer from Clapham.
Mr Pope sold the bust to Nicholas Mei nertzhagen, a dealer in antiquarian books, who wanted it to decorate his London flat. The price was £240. But Mr Meinertzhag cn went to the library at the Victoria and Albert Museum and discovered an illus tration of a bronze bust, the same as his marble, by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598- 1680). Mr Meinertzhagen had made a re markable discovery. His marble was likely to be the original for the bronze and al most certainly came from the hand of Bernini himself.
Christie's had missed the treasure that was underneath their noses; so had the dealers who went to the auction at Lord Lanesborough's mansion. Bemini was the most renowned of 17th century sculptors and was the chief exponent of the Baroque style. The Pope was Gregory XV, a re former who reigned for less than 2.5 years in the 1620s.
Mr Meinertzhagen, after a decent inter val, sent the bust off to auction. He chose Christie's great rivals, Sotheby's, to handle the sale. The sculpture came up at Sothe by's in London in December, 1980, this time attributed to Bernini himself. But not
everyone in the art world accepted that it was by the master.
The sculpture's full history was not known, and the possibility remained that the work might be a copy, which was why the price, £132,000, was not all that sensa tional. The buyer at the auction was Nor man Leitman, an American dealer.
Lord Lanesborough took legal action against Christie's. The case was settled out of court and the terms of the settlement have never been made public. Mr Pope
was philosophical, saying that this kind of thing was all part of the game of being an
antique dealer. Mr Mcinertzhagen made a tidy profit, but had to share it with the tax man; and Sotheby's took at least £12,000 in fees out of the £ 132,000.
The bust again surfaced after another
deccnt interval. This time Mr Leitman,. the successful bidder at Sotheby's, sold the
sculpture to a collector in Canada. Mr Leitman asked the British Government for an export licence, which was required by law. A curious fact emerged during the hearings: the price had shot up to £2,870,000. It seemed that Mr Leitman, or someone working on his behalf, had dug up proof that the sculpture was indeed by Bernini.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a self-portrait.
The Government issued the export li cence and the sculpture went to Canada.
The new owners were Joey and Toby
Tanenbaum, of Toronto, who during the past 25 years have formed a collection of European paintings and sculpture, mainly of the 19th century. The Tanenbaums have sent their bust to be sold by Christie's
in New York this week; the forecast price is a minimum of$A9 million.
And here the story takes a further twist. Christie's has been hyping the sale with vigour. It has produced a handsome hard back catalogue especially for the sculpture and a fold-out colour brochure with Greg ory XV as centrefold. They have also pro duced a press release which gushes: "The Eternal City was Bernini's lifelong stage — and Bernini was its consummate impresa rio :. . A celebrated child prodigy,"Bernini thoroughly immersed himself in the masterpieces of classical antiquity ..." The catalogue has 22 pages of description, history and photographs, and carries a provenance of the piece. It mentions the sale by Christie's at Lord Lanesborough's stalely home, but fails to mention that the sculpture was unrecognised by the auc tioneers and went for only £85.
An essay in the catalogue by Charles Scribner III mentions the bust's subtle manipulation of the marble. "The phe nomenal contrasts of texture and surface qualities are especially noticeable in the thinning hair of the tonsure, the thick bushy beard and moustache, the furrows of the forehead and.delicate veins of the forehead." If they are especially notice able, why were they not noticed by Chris tie's in 1978?
What has made all the difference to the sculpture is an endorsement of its authen ticity from the world's leading authority on Bernini, Professor Irving Lavin of Princeton University. He said, "In my opinion the bust is not only the original, it is wholly autograph (i.e. by the master's own hand) and one of the most perfect and important of Bernini's early works."
This opinion multiplied the value of the piece. Buyers, especially private collectors, want to be sure that they are getting some thing that is copper-bottomed.
But Christie's has given itself an insur
Bernini's marble bust of Francesco I d'Este. A similar bust of Gregory XV is
expected to fetch at least $A9 million when auctioned by Christie's this week.
ancc policy. Tucked away in the catalogue in quite small print is a note: "Christie's and Seller assume no risk or responsibility for the authenticity of authorship of this lot." The hype Christie's is putting on may turn out to be counter-productive.
Every auction is a gamble and if the bust fails to make a huge price Christie's will look rather foolish.
The owners, the Tancnbaums, are basi cally collectors but they will also be inter ested in the money. They have had £2.8 million locked up since 1983. It is true they have had the joys of ownership, but for several years the sculpture was on loan
A great deal depends on who are the likely bidders.
The nouveaux riches have always helped to fuel the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist market.
But the nouveaux riches will not necds sarily want, in their Fifth Avenue apart ments, a marble bust by Bernini.
Nobody knows what the Japanese are likely to do.
They have been the big force in the Impressionist market's sensational boom of the past three years and they have dipped into Old Master paintings too.
They could possibly take a fancy to Gregory XV, but a Pope is not of great interest to a Japanese.