The Kansas City Leonardo da Vinci

La Belle Ferronnière hangs in the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Deirdre Pirro
May 3, 2019 - 14:01

If the Midwestern car salesman Harry J. Hahn had still been alive in late January 2010, when the news broke that Sotheby’s auction house in New York had sold the painting for 1.538 million dollars, three times its estimated value, he would have been a very happy man. In 1919, then an American aviator in France during World War I, Hahn had married a local girl called Andrée Lardoux. As a wedding gift, the bride claimed that her aunt, the Comtesse Louise de Montaut, had given the couple an old painting. (Lardoux often changed her story and the “countess” turned out not to be an aristocrat but an impoverished nurse.) In 1917, French art expert George Sortais had certified it to be a work by Leonardo da Vinci, identical to the picture attributed to the artist that hangs in the Louvre known as La Belle Ferronnière or, sometimes, the Portrait of an Unknown Woman.

 

 

"La Belle Ferronnière" or, sometimes, the "Portrait of an Unknown Woman"

 

 

The artwork is a three-quarter portrait of a woman dressed in a red gown with a square neckline and full sleeves adorned with green ribbons. A long, dainty necklace is wound around her neck and her centre-parted hair is pulled back, while a single-jeweled headband, which gives the painting its name, graces her forehead. Thought to be Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the wealthy and powerful Duke of Milan, the woman has the hint of a smile on her face as she gazes at the onlooker.

 

L’Italienne: Catherine de’ Medici

Her Florentine-French legacy

On January 5, 1589, when Catherine, the great Medici-born queen and regent of France, died of pleurisy at 69 years of age in Blois, just eight months before her son, Henry III, was
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After the newlyweds smuggled the picture to America in 1920, they decided to sell it. They were on the point of clinching a deal with the Kansas City Art Institute for 220,000 dollars when a newspaper reporter contacted the famous art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen to interview him about the sale. It was late at night in London when Duveen answered his phone. Half asleep and without ever having seen it or even a photo of it, he told the reporter the painting must be a copy as the original was in the Louvre. Duveen would live to regret his hasty remark.

 

When the deal fell through in November 1921, Lardoux sued Duveen for malicious slander and sought 500,000 dollars in damages. Before the trial began, to help decide the controversy, the art dealer managed to have the Hahn painting taken to Paris and viewed by several art experts side by side with the Louvre painting. These included artist and art critic Roger Fry, the director of London’s National Gallery Sir Charles Holmes and Bernard Berenson, who was in an embarrassing position because he had previously expressed doubts about whether Leonardo had painted the Louvre portrait. Furthermore, Berenson had secretly been a paid consultant of Duveen’s for years. Nonetheless, all these experts agreed that the Kansas City Leonardo was a fake.

 

In 1929, Lardoux finally went to trial in New York, provoking a media circus and a storm in the art world. The crux of the case was whether her right to property prevailed over Duveen’s right to freedom of speech. The plaintiff’s lawyer argued that Duveen’s experts had no scientific or documentary evidence to validate their opinions but instead merely relied on their “connoisseurship”, their finely tuned intuition or sixth sense based on years of study. Fourteen hours of deliberation resulted in a hung jury with nine out of its twelve members voting against Duveen, indicating that they had been totally mystified by “an exotic vocabulary and a distrust for connoisseurs”. Because no unanimous verdict could be reached, the judge ordered a retrial. Faced with this expensive prospect and in ill health, Duveen settled the case shortly afterwards and paid the couple 60,000 dollars in damages, but he never changed his mind. 

 

Still unable to sell the painting, the Hahns held on to it, believing that they would one day be vindicated as the owners of the first Leonardo da Vinci painting in America. Hahn was a self-taught expert. Having spent years studying paint pigment chemistry and technical aspects of Renaissance art, he was all the more convinced that the Louvre painting was a copy and that his was the original.

 

In 1933, Hahn wrote a book with painter Thomas Hart Benton entitled The Rape of La Belle, but he did not publish it until 1946, seven years after Duveen had died. In it, he bitterly attacked curators and art experts as an elite art specialist brotherhood, lording it over what he called “the Old Masters racket”. He maintained that “the business of the art expert is largely fraudulent” and that their “venal” ways meant that numerous copies decorated museums and billionaire collectors’ homes.

 

In the years preceding the 2010 Sotheby’s sale, the Hahn’s canvas was locked in a vault until, as the auction house’s press release states, “in 1993, La Belle Ferronnière was examined by a leading Leonardo expert, who concluded that while the painting was not by Leonardo, it did in fact have age, and suggested that it dated to the first half of the 17th Century. Recent scientific analysis of the pigments used confirms that conjecture and suggests the work was painted by a French artist, or someone using French materials, before 1750.”

 

Today, the painting of the La Belle Ferronnière attributed to Leonardo da Vinci hangs in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

 

 

FUN FACT

The only museum in the world outside Europe to own and show a Leonardo da Vinci painting is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is the oil-on-wood portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, which the American gallery purchased from the Princely House of Liechtenstein in 1967 for the record sum of five million dollars.

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