A legal drama over a painting’s authenticity, and a work of book scholarship

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Richard E Spear is one of the most respected authorities in the world on Italian baroque painting, especially the work of Caravaggio. G Thomas Tanselle is the most influential bibliographical scholar of his generation. In their latest books, Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial and Descriptive Bibliography, each has produced a masterwork of Tacitus-like force, clarity and precision. There’s no guff or fluff in their prose: When Spear or Tanselle declares something to be so, it is so, period.

In Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial, Spear provides a detailed, insider’s account of a major suit brought in London against Sotheby’s auction house. For anyone interested in art connoisseurship or courtroom drama, his book will be nearly as riveting as John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

In 2006, Lancelot Thwaytes needed money for his children’s school tuition, so he decided to sell some objects he had inherited from an uncle. Among the pieces he consigned to Sotheby’s was a picture of a naive young gentleman being swindled at cards. To all appearances, it was just an early copy of Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, a masterpiece now owned by Texas’s Kimbell Art Museum. After carefully examining Thwaytes’s painting, Sotheby’s in-house experts agreed that it lacked the vibrancy characteristic of this great artist and wasn’t much better than the 31 other copies of Cardsharps that had surfaced since 1985.

Generously catalogued as being by a “follower of Caravaggio,” the painting realised £42,000. That would have been that, except that the buyer turned out to be Sir Denis Mahon, the then-quite-elderly dean of Caravaggio scholars. After having his new acquisition cleaned, Mahon declared it to be an original work by the Italian master, a replica from his own hand of the Cardsharps in the Kimbell. This attribution was further supported by other experts, conservators and dealers. Naturally, Thwaytes felt cheated and sued Sotheby’s for negligence and for “the difference between the auction price and the painting’s alleged fair-market value of £11 million.”

The trial in 2012 raised numerous tricky issues. Was the freshly cleaned Cardsharps, in fact, an authentic Caravaggio?

What precisely was its relationship to the painting owned by the Kimbell? Did Sotheby’s exercise proper diligence, or should the auction house have conducted a battery of scientific tests and called in an outside consultant? More broadly, is an art historian’s perception of “quality” merely subjective? And in the case of disagreement among specialists, how can one determine who is right? What, finally, is the true worth of the Thwaytes/Mahon Cardsharps?

To answer these and other questions, Spear offers a short history of modern Caravaggiomania, comments on representative examples of the painter’s 60 or so known works, and takes us step by step through the legal case, in which he participated as an expert witness. From the beginning, Spear believed the Thwaytes/Mahon Cardsharps to be a decorative, second-rate copy. To his eye, it looked flat while X-rays reinforced his impression that it was “too tidy, lacking the messiness of creativity.”

More than half of “Caravaggio’s ‘Cardsharps’ on Trial” is devoted to the courtroom battle, and it is a humdinger. Top-flight lawyers – queen’s counsels – faced off and, though eminently polite, neither gave nor expected any quarter. Some witnesses weren’t just grilled; they were burned to a crisp.

During his own cross-examination, Spear quickly realised that Thwaytes’s legal team had read virtually everything he had ever written about art.

Throughout the 16-day proceedings, the judge, Vivien Rose, earned Spear’s unfeigned admiration for her intelligence, fair-mindedness and quick grasp of detail.

And the verdict? I won’t say. However, Spear’s enthralling book makes it even more regrettable that, sometime last year, Washington’s National Gallery decided to abandon its rumored plan for a once-in-a-lifetime Caravaggio exhibition.

More technical than Spear’s narrative case-study, G Thomas Tanselle’s “Descriptive Bibliography” is a “comprehensive guide to . . . the activity of describing books as physical objects.” In essence, a bibliographical description anatomizes a book’s structure and supplies a schematic overview of its printing history. Such data thus creates what one might call a highly condensed biography of the book, starting with the vital statistics of its initial publication and then following its fortunes over time.

Hitherto, the standard introduction to this somewhat arcane branch of humanistic study – one that draws on the passion of the completist book collector, a lepidopterist’s attention to minutiae, and the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes – has been Fredson Bowers’s “Principles of Bibliographical Description.” But that classic, first published in 1949, has long needed updating. To that end, Tanselle has gathered his own fact-rich essays from a lifetime’s worth of reflection on the physical nature of books. The result is a true summa of bibliographical insight, information and guidance.

There are, for example, chapters about paper, typography and layout, typesetting and presswork, bindings, endpapers and dust jackets. Throughout, Tanselle emphasizes the bibliographer’s paramount obligation to study and compare multiple copies of any book before drawing conclusions about its makeup or publication history. Each chapter also contains an essential postscript covering the latest scholarship on its particular topic.

Not least, Tanselle closes by presenting and commenting on a sample bibliographical description, using Herman Melville’s novel Redburn as a test case. An appendix then surveys the major contributions to the “literature of descriptive bibliography.”

Appropriately enough, Tanselle’s masterwork is distributed by Oak Knoll Press, now the leading source for author and subject bibliographies. A stellar recent example is Theodore Roosevelt: A Descriptive Bibliography, by Heather G Cole and RWG Vail, which chronicles the writing career and many books – from The Naval War of 1812 to A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open – authored by this most intellectually wide-ranging of 20th-century presidents.