Is it a '5' or a '6'? The answer could make an art fortune
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Is it a '5' or a '6'? The answer could make an art fortune
The director of the Uffizi gallery, Eike Schmidt, in the Hall of Saturn at Palazzo Pitti, in Florence, Italy, June 3, 2018. Schmidta, a friend of one of the “Bathing Venus” owners, says the sculpture was made by Giambologna in 1597. Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- For years, Alexander Rudigier, a London art dealer, has been on a quest to prove that a bronze figure of a bathing woman discovered 30 years ago in the house of a Paris scrap merchant is by the venerated Renaissance sculptor Giambologna.

Look at the master’s familiar flourishes, he said. He has documents found in Italian archives. And scientific tests, he insisted, support his conclusion.

Yet Rudigier, who is a part owner of the sculpture, has been struggling to get the art world on his side. Though some art historians support him, other Giambologna experts believe the work is merely a clunky 17th-century copy of a marble Giambologna now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and thus probably worth millions less.

But in September Rudigier’s cause received a boost when the sculpture, “Bathing Venus,” was included in an exhibition of Florentine bronzes organized by the world-renowned Uffizi Galleries in Florence, where it was identified as being an original work by the hand of Giambologna.

“Exquisite,” the Uffizi declared. And no less an authority than the museum’s director, Eike D. Schmidt, wrote in the catalog that it possessed “an extraordinary sensuality” and was undoubtedly a Giambologna.

But Schmidt’s vote of support has troubled some art historians, who say he had no business using his platform at the Uffizi to become involved in a simmering attribution dispute, especially since Rudigier is a friend of his. What’s more, Rudigier, who owns the work with another dealer, has been trying to sell the bronze for years, and the historians say Schmidt’s judgment could influence its value.

“They try to give credibility to their opinion by exhibiting it,” said Dorothea Diemer, a German art historian who is a leading critic of the Giambologna attribution. “It’s for sale, and so this attribution makes a difference. It is a question of such a lot of money.”

In a statement, an Uffizi spokesman said that Schmidt believed the scholarly dispute had been resolved in favor of Giambologna, and that the presence of the sculpture in the exhibition had nothing to do with the relationship with Rudigier.

“The bronze has been included in the exhibition exclusively for scholarly reasons,” the spokesman, Andrea Acampa, said. “A number of internationally renowned experts from museums and academia have independently concluded that the ‘Bathing Venus’ is a 16th-century sculpture.”

The debate turns on such details as whether a number in the sculpture’s date is a 6 or a 5, the finish of the Venus’ hair and the angle of her arm, and whether a Medici grand duke would let an unknown assistant sign a sculpture destined for a French king.

It also raises questions about what kind of relationship museums should have with dealers, who are often the gatekeepers to privately owned works that could attract paying visitors, but who also stand to gain handsomely from having a prestigious institution display their holdings.

“That visibility has the potential to increase the value of the art and that’s not what museums are in the business of doing,” Gregory Stevens, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, said. The potential for a conflict of interest is greater if the art is owned by a friend, he said.

But others say that in the real world, museums take loans from commercial owners all the time; directors can have legitimate opinions, if they are experts; and building a network of useful donors is exactly what a museum director should do. The rules about museum ethics are “not hard and fast,” Sally Yerkovich, professor of museum anthropology at Columbia University, said.

Attribution disputes in particular can be acrimonious. Reputations are at stake, and as art has become a currency of high worth, whether something is deemed real or not can determine fortunes.

Consider the most famous recent example. Bought for under $10,000 at a Louisiana auction when it was thought to be the work of a minor artist, a painting of Jesus titled “Salvator Mundi” was reattributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold for $450.3 million at auction in 2017 to a Saudi prince believed to have been bidding on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, though there are still doubts about whether it is a Leonardo at all.

Giambologna was a Flemish artist who settled in Florence in the 1550s. Though less famous than his hero Michelangelo, he became widely appreciated as a genius of sculpture in bronze and marble and the official court sculptor to the Medici grand dukes, the Italian banking and political dynasty. A work like the “Bathing Venus,” if newly attributed to him, could command tens of millions of dollars. Labeled a later copy, it would be a handsome example of 17th-century craftsmanship but worth far less.

The 3 1/2-foot-tall bronze carries the inscription, in Latin, “Me Fecit Gerhardt Meyer Holmiae,” or “Gerhardt Meyer Made Me in Stockholm,” along with a year that is either 1597 or 1697.

Like a bitter family dispute, each side puts forth evidence that the other side dismisses.

Rudigier and his supporters, including Schmidt, say the year is clearly 1597, but the anti-Giambologna camp says that what he says is a 5 is in fact a 6 that maybe wasn’t fully closed because of a casting fault.

Rudigier has science: thermoluminescence testing, which dates an object by measuring light levels emitted when traces of the bronze’s casting core, made from materials like clay and still left inside the sculpture, are removed and heated. (The more time that has elapsed since it was originally exposed to heat, the more radiation the material has absorbed since then, and the brighter the glow.)

One test suggested a date of 1582, plus or minus 22 years. A second, by another laboratory, calculated a range of 1308 to 1608. Rudigier said that he had a third lab review the results, and it backed the 16th-century dating. But some experts view the system as imprecise.

It can be affected by the mineral composition of the core, or whether the sculpture has been exposed to water, or to heat, or was buried.

“It depends on so many parameters,” said Jean-Marie Welter, a copper metallurgist who has studied the sculpture and opts for the 1697 date. “These have to be determined by further analysis, and when you can’t, you have to make an educated guess.”

Those against putting Giambologna’s name to the Venus note its lower arm angle, partly obscuring its face, atypical for the artist and suggesting it was an imperfect copy of the marble now at the Getty. And they say the unfinished, rougher style, for example in the bronze woman’s hair, is not late Giambologna.

Rudigier counters that this simply demonstrates how Giambologna’s early style persisted into old age. And by obscuring Venus’ face, he says, the sculptor was profoundly rethinking the earlier marble, creating a more introverted figure and a new kind of interplay, inviting the observer to “approach her without being seen.”

“It is not surprising that a new attribution of an important work of art meets with some embittered disapproval when it puts into question the established image of an artist,” he said.

Rudigier’s theory won support in 2016 when he published his ideas in a prestigious Paris journal, Bulletin Monumental, supported by the respected French art historian Bertrand Jestaz. Rudigier hypothesizes in this journal and a new book that the Venus was probably one of a group of bronzes known to have been commissioned by the Medicis for King Henry IV of France.

Rudigier’s biggest hurdle has been convincing scholars that the Gerhardt Meyer named in the inscription is not the Gerhardt Meyer who was a leading bronze founder active in Sweden at the end of the 17th century.

Instead, he insists it’s the signature of an earlier Meyer, who, he says, was working at Giambologna’s side in Florence a century before. He found mention in the Florentine records of someone called “Gerardo fiammingho”— Gerard the Fleming — who he says is probably his Gerhardt Meyer.

The critics doubt that the Florentine Meyer existed. There are no other works carrying his name, and none of the other known works of the Medici commission carry the name of their founders.

“It’s an interesting copy; that’s it,” Dimitrios Zikos, a Giambologna expert, said. “The idea that a nobody from the Arctic Circle would have assisted Giambologna, who had three bronze foundries at his service, and had such a prestigious commission before vanishing as a comet into nowhere is the fruit of the wildest imagination and belies everything we know of the artistic patronage of Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici.”

The Getty considered it a copy when it studied it around 2000. In 2013, Rudigier tried to sell it to the Prince of Liechtenstein, a prominent collector of bronzes, but the prince’s advisers declined. “We were not 100% convinced that we could tell the prince he should buy it,” Johann Kräftner, director of the Princely Collections, said.

Schmidt, a German art historian who arrived from the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2015 as the Uffizi’s first non-Italian director, is a scholar of Medici ivories, and also widely considered an expert on bronzes.

What convinced him about the Venus, which he had followed for many years, was “technological and scientific analyses, which unmistakably corroborate the 16th-century date,” the Uffizi said. Schmidt’s one-page essay on the Venus in the exhibition catalog mentions briefly that the attribution has been contested. The placard next to the sculpture itself makes no such mention, saying simply that it is a Giambologna.

Schmidt and his friend Rudigier have collaborated before. They prepared an exhibition together in 2018 on German sculptor Fritz Koenig, which included some works owned by Rudigier. Two years earlier, another exhibition included a work by the late-medieval German artist Veit Stoss that Rudigier subsequently put up for sale at a London art fair.

Asked about their relationship, the Uffizi said that it frequently borrowed works from private owners, and that the Venus was not the only privately held work in the current exhibition.

Rudigier said that the exhibition, in the Pitti Palace, is already helping cement the bronze’s true place in art history. It is not for sale, he said, while it is part of the show, which ends in January.

But if it does one day sell at a high price, Rudigier said, that would be proper reward for his years of hard work. “If an artwork is saved from being melted down and is now in the Pitti Palace,” he said, “it will help people for a lot longer than I am alive.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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