Thursday, January 28, 2010

'La Belle Ferronnière'

Sotheby's New York, Important Old Master Paintings, 28 January 2010.

Lot 181
Property of the Hahn Family
Follower of Leonardo da Vinci, probably before 1750
Portrait of a Woman, Called 'La Belle Ferronnière'
Oil on canvas, unframed
21 5/8 by 17 1/8 in., 55 by 43.5 cm
Est. $300/500,000; final sale $1,538,500, three times estimate
by Wendy Moonan

A painting nicknamed “the American Leonardo” may be the most talked about oil in Sotheby’s sale of Old Master paintings, taking place today [Jan. 28]. The portrait of a beautiful young woman called “La Belle Ferronnière” was once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The young woman is not quite as ravishing as the real Mona Lisa, but she could easily be her sister.

It has been consigned by Jacqueline Hahn, the 90-year-old daughter of a couple who received it as a wedding present in 1919.

Sotheby’s has cautiously listed it as “by a follower of Leonardo da Vinci, probably before 1750” and estimates it should sell for between $300,000 and $500,000. (If authenticated as a real Leonardo, it would be worth $125 million.)

Since 1920, this painting, one of a number of versions of Leonardo’s 'La Belle Ferronnière,' has been the subject of a legendary lawsuit, documentary film, a Hollywood tour and, most recently, a detailed investigation by John Brewer titled The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money (Oxford University Press, 2009).

In a lecture at Sotheby’s on Monday, Mr. Brewer, a professor at Cal Tech, called the painting’s history a quintessentially American story.

It is quite a tale, pitting its owner, a mechanic from Kansas, against the elitist art establishment and experts at the Louvre (which owns the definitive version of the painting).

After serving in the U.S. Army in France in World War I, Harry Hahn fell in love with a pretty girl from a seaside resort in Normandy. Her name was Andrée Ladoux. In 1919, Hahn married her, took her back to his hometown, Junction City, Kansas, and went into the used-car business.

Andrée's French aunt, Louise de Montaut, decided to give the couple a wedding gift: her prized Leonardo portrait of “La Belle Ferronnière.” It’s not clear how she happened to own it; Brewer writes it may have been the painting listed as a “Leonard de Vinci” her grandfather bought at auction in France in 1847.

Aunt Louise supposedly smuggled the “Leonardo” out of France in 1920. She sailed from Antwerp to New York with the painting in her suitcase and handed it to the newlyweds.

Harry wanted to sell the painting, preferably to the Kansas City Art Institute, because he thought it would ensure his acceptance in society (and make him rich).

When Kansas didn’t bite, he offered it to several dealers. Word leaked out that a new “Leonardo” had entered the States. A reporter in New York queried Sir Joseph Duveen, the flamboyant art dealer to such voracious American collectors as Ben Altman, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon. Even though Duveen had not seen the Hahn’s Leonardo, he called it a fake.

The Hahns sued Duveen for slander and demanded $500,000 in damages. Duveen paid to have the painting shipped to Paris so a dozen European experts could compare it to the one in the Louvre. The experts agreed the Hahn portrait was a later copy of the Louvre’s “La Belle.”

The Hahns persisted. Hahn v. Duveen came to trial in New York in 1929. The press had a field day covering the two sides: the preening, overconfident Duveen, who boasted on and on about his connoisseurship, and the scholarly paint pigment analysts presented by the Hahns.

The “the battle of the experts” resulted in a deadlocked jury. Threatened with a retrial, Duveen settled, paying the Hahns $60,000 in damages (the equivalent of $600,000 today).

Harry placed the painting in a New York bank vault. The couple divorced. Andrée went back to France and Harry returned to Kansas.

But Harry was still bitter. In 1946, he published The Rape of La Belle, a polemic attacking “the Old Masters racket” as he tried to prove the authenticity of his “La Belle.”

Again trying to sell the picture, he took the painting on a tour to several American cities, including Hollywood (where a viewing was sponsored by Walt Disney and Louis B. Meyer).

No one bought it. The painting had become too controversial.

In 1948 Andrée reclaimed the title to the portrait and took it back to France, where she tried in a most amateur and unsuccessful fashion to sell it for several decades before her death. It is her daughter Jacqueline who has now consigned it to Sotheby’s.

“It captures people’s imagination,” said Christopher Apostle, head of the department of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “As an image, it’s quite beautiful and has incredible wall power. We’ve had a lot of interest in it coming from a lot of areas.”
Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
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