Sunday, November 18, 2007

A REAL Leonardo da Vinci mystery (UPDATE: Mystery solved?)

The most famous stolen painting in the world, Leonardo Da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder, was recovered a month ago in Scotland. The work -- which some mistakenly call the only Leonardo in a private collection -- had been stolen from Drumlanrig castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch. This affair has some points of oddity:

1. Due to its fame, the painting could not be sold. The thieves understood that they could hope to profit from their adventure only through extortion, or by private sale to a party who could never display the work.

2. The thieves, who posed as tourists, were cool and professional. They had clearly prepared well in advance. From an August 16, 2004 edition of The Scotsman:
At around 11am, out of shot of the castle’s CCTV cameras, they overpowered a female guide, disabled the alarm system, took the painting from a wall and escaped through a kitchen window.

Then they walked from the castle towards their getaway vehicle - one of them with the masterpiece tucked under his arm. Police believe the men escaped, in the car with two accomplices, along single track roads in the castle grounds before abandoning the vehicle in a wood. They then transferred to a second car, a dark green Rover, found 20 miles away.
A year later, the police absurdly told reporters that this was a "crime of opportunity" -- a spur-of-the-moment whim -- despite the accomplices, and despite the use of two getaway cars, both recovered, neither one of which could be traced.

3. The recovery occurred over a month ago, yet we still don't have a complete story as to what really occurred. Five men have been charged with conspiracy to extort money, including a Glasgow private detective named Mike Brown.

Was extortion the sole motive, or did some wealthy person hope to possess it in complete anonymity? The latter possibility seems hopelessly remote -- until one learns that a wealthy American does, in fact, own Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder -- in complete anonymity.

Leonardo painted two versions.

Or so it is said. Scholars debate the authenticity of both paintings. Some feel that, in both cases, Leonardo's students copied a now-lost original, although most experts now believe that the master painted large sections of both. The presence of pentimenti (small changes to the drawing of the figures) in the Buccleuch is consistent with a Leonardo original; there are also indications that he originally planned an architectural background.

The second version is sometimes called the Redford version, or the ex-Redford version, because it was once in the collection of the Robert Redford gallery in Canada. (No relation to the actor.) The work is also called the Lansdowne Madonna, after an owner before Redford. We know that it was transferred from wood panel to canvas and back to wood -- "which is not a kind way to treat an elderly painting," as this source notes.

In reproduction, this version appears to be more popular than the Buccleuch -- for example, this is the Madonna of the Yarnwinder one sees on Wikipedia. When you see the work on art museum postcards, you usually encounter the Lansdowne. (For a large-sized reproduction, see here.) In my opinion, the Lansdowne's background landscape (reminiscent of what we see in the Mona Lisa) is superior, as is the handling of the Madonna's face. Or so the reproduction suggests.

Can we see this work "in the paint"? No.

Search the internet high and low. Search every book on Leonardo in your university library. Search through back issues of art magazines. You will receive no indication as to the work's current owner, beyond the fact that he or she is an American.

I cannot think of a parallel to this situation. No other work of this fame and quality rests in a location which has never been disclosed to the public.

(By way of comparison, the Marquis de Ganay is quite eager to have the world know that he owns a Salvator Mundi which he believes to be by Leonardo. I have discovered reason to believe that this claim is correct.)

While helping to research a Leonardo-related video project (which was canceled), I contacted the National Gallery in DC about the Lansdowne Madonna. The person I reached -- a Leonardo specialist -- proudly announced that the Ginevra di Benci, in the National Gallery's collection, is the only Leonardo in the United States. (Actually, the same collection contains another Madonna which Leonardo probably worked on as a student.)

"What about the Lansdowne version of The Madonna of the Yarnwinder?" I asked. "It's said to be in America, although I don't know where."

The "expert" on the other end of the line mumbled something incomprehensible.

"Do you know where it is?" I asked.

She didn't. If that question stumped an expert, I didn't feel too bad about my own ignorance.

Thus, as I see it, we still have one missing Madonna. Perhaps my readers can help? Does anyone know where the work is? (Someone must know; the work recently underwent scientific analysis in Italy.)

What kind of person would keep hidden a famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci? Obviously, the American who owns it must have a great deal of wealth and power. He (if that pronoun is correct) must be very secretive, since most art patrons would brag about such an acquisition. No visitor to this person's home has ever blabbed.

Horrible thought: Could some member of the Bush clan have it?

Every Leonardo contains mysteries. The Last Supper is actually one of his least enigmatic works, although a certain bestselling book would lead you to believe otherwise. I consider these two Madonnas more curious.

Update: Mystery solved? A reader named KC has suggested, in the comments section, that the Stavros Niarchos family now owns the Lansdowne. (You may recall the famous Onassis/Niarchos feud, which spawned so many slimy bestsellers during the 1960s and 1970s.) The Stavros S. Niarchos foundation is the power behind a very nice website called Universal Leonardo, which funded the recent scientific examination of the work. Moreover, the site betrays its proprietary interest when it describes the piece as being of unquestioned authenticity.

The current heir to the fortune, Stavros Niarchos III, used to date Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. So, even though you can't see the painting, those two ladies (presumably) did: "That's hawt!" Interestingly, the shipping magnate heir was graduated from the USC film school this year. I once had dreams of going there, but you sorta have to be as rich as a Niarchos...

Finally: Almost needless to say, someone has tied both versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder to the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. Well, it's about time. The linked page also gives you a peek at the rarely-seen third version.

Finally finally: If Niarchos does own the Lansdowne, wouldn't it be ultra-cool if the person who arranged the theft of the Buccleuch were this woman?


Anonymous said...

The owner is supposedly a collector in New York-and it allegedly sold for $150 million, making it the world's most expensive painting. For the fact that it is all anonymous- the amount is equally suspect. rumors swirl on this one.......
and that is possibly the purpose of anonymity as well as reducing the risk of theft.
My first thought was the Niarchos family (strange family history there) which was the benefactor of, but I didn't get far with that- they tend to collect more modern artists or hellenic pieces.
Try looking into the traditional title of the painting:
"Madonna dei fusi"
you may have more luck with that use.
I probably shouldn't spend much more time on this, but it was fun digging around. Learned quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Clifford Irving has it?

Joseph Cannon said...

The Niarchos suggestion makes sense to me. For readers who don't know. Stavros Niarchos was one of the contending parties in the great Onassis/Niarchos feud, which spawned any number of slimey bestseller novels back int he '60s and '70s.

Some will probably score me for opining that the Lansdowne is the better painting, even though I haven't seen it.

All I can say is this: If I had done a drawing like the Buccleuch, my old art teacher would have chewed me out for putting the horizon line so close to the top of the kid's noggin.

Joseph Cannon said...

KC, I think you have something.

I've been checking out If you see this page...'ll see a longish piece about the Lansdowne Madonna which treats it as an unquestioned authentic Leonardo. The only experts who would be so partisan, I think, would be those employed by someone with a proprietary interest in the painting.

That web is indeed the creation of the Niarchos family.

Furthermore, it is apparent here...

...that the universalleonardo site (that is to say, the Niarchos clan) paid for the recent scientific analysis of the work.

So I think we have ALMOST reached a point where we can declare this mystery solved.

Note: The current scion of the Niarchos family, also called Stavros Niarchos, was -- until recently -- the boyfriend of Paris Hilton.

I hope to god he didn't give it to HER.

Anonymous said...

When they make claimes like "the only privately owned Leonardo in the United States" I can only assume they are referring to detailed color artwork, such as oil paintings (or whatever they were working with then.) I have a very good friend who owns a few Leonardo DaVinci works, which are on display in his home, consisting mostly of what looks like pencil drawings, some with water color, and one print off of an engraving.

I know some are "limitd edition prints" made through some kind of process I do not understand or care about, but I am pretty sure at least two of them are just flat-out originals.

None of them approach anything I see here, or have ever seen in a book or museum that are generally considered to be exemplary of his work.

Anonymous said...

Another mystery is how Leonardo got both the young Cher and the young Pat Boone to pose for him.

I like the pissed off expression that the Little Lord Jesus has. His mother has given him a replica of the cross, and told him it is his destiny. He was hoping that she was going to give him a whistle and a ball instead.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

There is a painting purported to be the Lansdowne Madonna currently on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago (Kings, Queens and Courtiers 03/05/11).