A man who sold an £11 million Caravaggio painting for just £42,000 is suing auction house Sotheby's for wrongly branding it a copy.
Lancelot Thwaites alleges that Sotheby's failed to consult enough experts or carry out sufficient tests before concluding that The Card Sharps was a 17th-century copy of another Caravaggio painting that hangs in the Kimball Museum in Texas. Both show a young card player being tricked during a game.
Because of the attribution, the painting was sold in 2006 for just £42,000 to collector Sir Denis Mahon - who later had it authenticated as a genuine Caravaggio and valued at £11 million.
"Mr Thwaytes had a picture which he thought might be by Caravaggio [and] sent it to Sotheby's for research. Sotheby's looked at it and they told him that the painting wasn't by Caravaggio, but they hadn't done the tests that he had asked them to do," barrister Henry Legge told the court.
"They came back to him and said they had done the X-rays on the painting and said it wasn't Caravaggio, but they didn't do infrared imaging. When it was sold, the new owner had it cleaned and submitted it to the tests - including infrared - and it was subsequently attributed to Caravaggio."
Sotheby's is defending not only its actions but also its attribution, maintaining that the picture is "clearly inferior" in quality to genuine works by the artist: "a work by a painter working in the artist's style, contemporary or near contemporary, but not necessarily his pupil," it said. Several experts agree; and Sotheby's suggests that if the painting were genuine, collectors and dealers would have bid higher.
The case is expected to last three weeks.
Definitively authenticating paintings is never easy - indeed, it's been estimated that as many as 50% of the artworks in circulation today are actually fakes. But owners are often determined - earlier this year, after two years' detective work, a Yorkshire family identified a grimy picture as the long-lost work Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkey by Victorian artist Jerry Barrett. Bought for £400, it was revalued at £180,000.
Very dramatically, Antiques Roadshow presenter Fiona Bruce last year suspected that a painting brought in to the programme was a genuine Van Dyck. After it was authenticated by auctioneers Christies, it was valued at half a million pounds - but still failed to sell at auction this summer.
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