|Old Master Criminals
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
8 December 2007
The first great generation of American art
collectors, people like PAB Widener, with his 110-room Philadelphia
mansion, tend to be referred to as the Robber Barons. What is
sometimes forgotten is that they were not the only robbers,
nor indeed the only barons, on the scene. The people who sold
them their masterpieces also included a bunch of scoundrels.
Prince Felix Yusupov, the man who in 1916 murdered
Rasputin and who in due course fled Russia taking a couple of
Rembrandts with him, sold these heirlooms to Widener for £100,000,
with an agreement that, if the old regime was restored in Russia
before January 1 1924, Widener would sell them back to him for
the original price plus eight per cent per annum.
Shortly afterwards, Calouste Gulbenkian, annoyed
that Widener had secured a bargain, let it be known that he
was prepared to pay twice the sum. Yusupov asked for his paintings
back, so he could resell them. Widener demanded to know what
had happened in Russia to make the restoration of the old regime
likely. Yusupov's answer (he was litigious as well as a murderer,
and later successfully sued MGM over a film which, he claimed,
asserted that Rasputin had raped his wife) was to take Widener
Widener, who won at the end of a thoroughly
scurrilous case, had experience of dealing with the scum of
European high society. An article in the December issue of Apollo
tells the hitherto unpublished story of a moustachioed villain
- champion swordsman, international chess master, art swindler
- called Leo Nardus, who between the mid-1890s and 1908, sold
Widener a total of 93 paintings, most of which were dross.
Widener's suspicions had been aroused in 1907
when the three Vermeers he had bought from Nardus failed to
be included in the new catalogue raisonné. He decided,
instead of hushing up a story which might make him look a fool,
to call in the experts and get to the bottom of the matter.
He called in Hofstede de Groot (the author of the Vermeer catalogue),
Bernard Berenson (to look at his Italian paintings), Roger Fry
(for the British art) and a German scholar called Wilhelm Valentiner.
To appreciate the awfulness of the situation,
it helps to understand that Widener had himself already had
a catalogue published, in two volumes, bound in red leather,
of his collection as it stood in 1900. A vanity publication,
to be sure, of which 250 copies had been printed for distribution,
the catalogue itself would not have been seen by the general
public. But the illustrations had been engraved in Paris, and
word had spread, arousing the suspicions of Widener's sons (one
of whom was later lost, with wife, son and servants, on the
The best of Europe's experts were brought to
Lynnewood Hall, north of Philadelphia, and those who could not
be summoned were consulted by letter. The news was not unrelievedly
gloomy, since a few of the paintings Widener had bought were
acknowledged as genuine. But the list of fakes included many
of the great names of European art.
What is fascinating about the Apollo article,
written by Jonathan Lopez, is that the story it tells has been,
to an extent, covered up till now. Widener himself seems not
to have cared who knew of his misfortune, so long as reparation
was made. But his friend, neighbour and lawyer John G Johnson,
another noted collector, had been just as badly stung by Nardus.
Johnson, more than Widener, was afraid of ridicule, and his
instinct was to suffer in silence.
Gallantly, Lopez tells us, Johnson agreed to
forego reparations for himself if Widener was to some degree
compensated. In the end he was, although only to a limited extent.
But the Widener family tradition has been, hitherto, that -
yes - Widener was sold some dud paintings early on, but that
the dealers responsible had gamely agreed to take their paintings
back. This turns out to be not really true, and it took years
for all of the Nardus fakes to be winkled out of the collections
in which they had found discreet and expensive homes.
People sometimes get the impression that it
was Berenson, working for the dealer Joseph Duveen, who fooled
the American collectors of the day. But Lopez makes a vital
point when he says that, however dubious the unacknowledged
financial relationship between Berenson and Duveen may have
been, it was a way of selling genuine paintings, not passing
off fakes. Berenson may have made his share of errors, but he
was a real expert, and those who bought on his advice are likely
to have done very well out of it.
The same goes for Duveen. He may have been
expensive to deal with, but if you were prepared to pay top
dollar - if you were a Mellon or a Frick or a Kress or a Widener
- you ended up with masterpieces. The ultimate beneficiary of
much of this art-collecting has of course turn out to be the
great American collections - in Widener's case, as with several
others, the final resting-place being the National Gallery of
Art in Washington.
American collectors had once been shy of buying
Old Master paintings, precisely for fear of being made fools
of. There's an interesting Edith Wharton story on the subject
of early collecting, called "False Dawn". There, the
father believes his son has been cheated when he buys Italian
primitives on the advice of John Ruskin. It is only years later
that his taste is vindicated.
Widener made his initial fortune as a purveyor
of meat to the army in the civil war, before becoming the public
transport mogul and princely art collector. He obviously had,
as the expression is, something of a sharp learning curve, in
dealing with European villains like Nardus and Yusupov. As for
the prince himself, I see that his court case against MGM, through
which he won a handy £25,000, has bequeathed us one familiar
thing: the disclaimer at the end of films which tells us that
all the characters in the foregoing story are fictional, and
that any resemblance to living persons is accidental.