High bid on da Vinci wannabe is thrice estimate
La Belle Ferronniere (Hahn version)
Wendy Duveen Weinstein photo
La Belle Ferronnière
, a painting of debated origins, was auctioned yesterday at Sotheby's.

By Peter Duveen

PETER'S NEW YORK, Friday, January 29, 2010--A painting believed by some experts to have been the work of Leonardo da Vinci, sold yesterday for $1,538,000, three times the highest estimate for the work. The winning bid was $1,300,000, with the remainder of the price consisting of a buyer's premium, a fee the winning bidder must pay the auction house.

Sotheby's conducted the auction, from its East Side, Manhattan location, of La Belle Ferronnière, along with scores of other items in an "Old Masters" sale that netted a total of $61.6 million for the day. The auction house expected the painting to command a high bid of between $300,000 to $500,000. Had the work been generally received as an original da Vinci, it would have fetched as much as $250 million, according to published reports quoting auction house officials. A Sotheby's spokesperson told Peter's New York via email that there were four strong bidders for the painting, and that the final bid was entered by an American collector.

A contentious debate over the portrait's origins in the 1920s sparked a high-profile court battle, which ended in a hung jury and an out-of-court settlement.

The painting had been in the family of Harry and Andree Hahn since 1919, and a legal challenge to its disposition was recently resolved in favor of the descendants of the couple, clearing the way for its sale.

A similar portrait hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, and conventional wisdom has it that one is a copy of the other. Which is the copy and which, the original, has never been conclusively resolved, although experts generally side with the Louvre copy as the authentic version. Whether either is actually the work of da Vinci is a matter of speculation, as there is no direct evidence or clear provenance tying them definitively to the Renaissance master.

The subject of the portrait is thought to be Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Lodovico Sforza, who in the late 1400s was Duke of Milan and a patron of da Vinci.

Francis I of France took the Duke prisoner around 1500, and held him until his death eight years later. During that time, Crivelli and her daughter, Djem, were said to have been favorites of the French court. Crivelli's portrait is believed to have remained in the royal collection until the French Revolution, after which it changed hands several times, finally ending up in the possession of a godparent of Andrée Hahn, who gave it to Andrée and her husband Harry as a wedding gift.

Rather than hold on to it, the Hahns decided to sell the portrait to the Kansas City Art Institute in 1920, but renowned art dealer Joseph Duveen, in response to a reporter's query about the sale, said the painting was one of many copies of the work by the same name in the Louvre. The sale fell through, and the Hahns sued Duveen for his off-the-cuff remarks. A trial almost a decade later ended in a hung jury, and after Duveen's attorneys failed to persuade the judge to drop the charges, Duveen settled out of court with the Hahns for $60,000 (the equivalent of about $3 million today).

The court case and the history of the painting itself have been the subject of two books, "The Rape of La Belle" (1946) by Harry Hahn, and "The American Leonardo," by Robert Brewer (2009).

Experts have weighed in on the various issues surrounding the portrait, generally concluding that the Hahn painting is not by da Vinci and that it was created about a century or more after da Vinci's death. However, in "The Rape of La Belle," Harry Hahn argues that his painting is an original by da Vinci.

It is not yet known whether the high bidder in yesterday's auction was moved by the beauty of the portrait's subject, or whether the unexpectedly high price paid represents a bet that some day the portrait may indeed be definitively linked to da Vinci. The colorful history surrounding the controversy that unfolded in the 1920s court case may have been an additional incentive for a collector to pay a hefty premium over auction house estimates.

Yet the controversies surrounding the portrait are far from being laid to rest. 

For example, Sotheby's writes in an information sheet posted on its website that "Duveen had experts in archival research and x-ray analysis examine La Belle Ferronnière but he decided not to use their testimony in the court case, thereby depriving the jury of some of the evidence that could have swayed them to his side."

Yet Harry Hahn, in "The Rape of La Belle," cites numerous witnesses called by Duveen, including experts on pigments and X-ray analysis.

Nor does the auction house offer any support for its contention that expert testimony would have improved Duveen's chances of winning in court. It is equally likely, absent supporting evidence to the contrary, that Duveen found further testimony problematic, and sought to suppress it.

Another controversy is inspired by an inscription on the back of the Hahn portrait indicating that the original painting was transferred from wood to canvas in 1777. The Sotheby's information sheet challenges the authenticity of this inscription. "Examination has confirmed that the Hahn La Belle Ferronnière was not originally painted on panel and then transferred to canvas at a later date, as the inscription on the back suggests," the auction house states. Details of the examination cited were not forthcoming from Sotheby's after a request for the same.

This charge, however, is an old one, dating to practically the beginning of the Hahn-Duveen controversy itself. Hamilton Easter Field, an artist and publisher, wrote in 1921 that the cracking of the paint is unlike what one would find for a work painted on wood panel. "The cracks are the cracks which form when a painting is painted on canvas, not the cracks which form when it is painted on wood," Field tells his readers. Works on canvas were less common in da Vinci's time than works painted on wood panels. Field was confident the Hahn painting was an 18th century product.

Despite its age--experts believe it was created prior to 1750--the painting has, unlike its counterpart in the Louvre, retained its brilliant coloring, a characteristic attributed to the fine and costly pigments used in its execution. Whatever the reasons the winning bidder had for purchasing it, the painting will no doubt afford years of entertainment in terms of continued research into its provenance. The painting's history will also serve as a testimony to the perplexing questions and contentious issues that arise in the process of authenticating a work of art.