Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 149

Selling Botticelli to America: Colnaghi, Bernard Berenson and the sale of the Madonna of the Eucharist to Isabella Stewart Gardner
Selling Botticelli to America: Colnaghi, Bernard Berenson and the sale of the Madonna of the Eucharist to Isabella Stewart Gardner
The Story of Lucretia (see fig. 1) first came to public notice
in 1893 when it was recorded in Ulmann’s monograph
on Botticelli; the following year it was included in the
great exhibition of Early Italian Art at the New Gallery in
London, having been consigned by Lord Ashburnham.10
This exhibition included no fewer than thirteen pictures
attributed to Botticelli. His importance as one of the
presiding spirits of the show can be gauged by the fact
that his name, intertwined with those of Leonardo,
of the special souvenir edition of The Illustrated London
News (fig. 11). By the summer of 1894 the picture was
evidently on the market; it was probably around this
time that Berenson first met Otto Gutekunst, forging the
beginnings of what was to be a very important relationship.
If Gutekunst was to become Colnaghi’s link with Berenson
and Mrs Gardner, Colnaghi’s senior partner, William
McKay, was mainly responsible for dealing with the owner
of the Botticelli, Lord Ashburnham, while simultaneously
negotiating with Wilhelm von Bode, Director of the
Berlin Gemäldegalerie, over the sale of what was at the
time a far more valuable painting in the Ashburnham
Collection: Rembrandt’s Preacher Anslo and his Wife.
Early negotiations with Prince Chigi
The first mention of the Chigi Botticelli in the
Like the Story of Lucretia, Botticelli’s Madonna of the
Gutekunst to Berenson in October 1898.20 At that
Eucharist (see fig. 2) was a painting which had hung
time the relationship with Mrs Gardner had been
for many years largely unregarded in an aristocratic
badly strained by the mismanagement of the sale of a
collection: in this case that of the family of Prince
pair of Holbeins belonging to the Pole-Carew family.
Mario Chigi in his palace in Rome. In 1892, it was
Berenson, whose greed had got the better of him, had
first published by Giovanni Morelli, who described
been dishonest about the amount of profit which he
it as the only authentic Botticelli in Rome apart from
had added to Colnaghi’s asking price; his duplicity
the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Although Morelli
was exposed, much to Jack Gardner’s fury, when
took credit for its rediscovery, the Botticelli was not
the price paid to the original owners was revealed.
entirely unknown to scholars. In 1856 Sir Charles
During the ensuing furore, Colnaghi was made the
Eastlake recorded seeing what was almost certainly
scape-goat for Berenson, and the affair threatened to
the same picture hanging “extremely dark and dirty”
spoil what had been a very profitable relationship for
in the Chigi Palace with an attribution to Domenico
both the dealers and Gardner’s art advisor. A letter
Ghirlandaio, who, as the master of Michelangelo, was
from Gutekunst to Berenson (fig. 12) demonstrates the
almost as highly esteemed at the time as Botticelli.
former’s hope of patching things up so as to pursue
Eastlake suggested that it might be “early Filippino
interalia the sale of the Chigi Botticelli:
Lippi or S. Botticelli.” Towards the end of the
Colnaghi’s involvement was kept hidden from Gardner.
following decade Wilhelm von Bode, the famous
Do write me more clearly, if she [Isabella
Berlin museum director, was offered the picture as
Stewart Gardner] seems inclined to continue
part of an en-bloc transaction at about a twentieth of
dealing with you and if the Volterra Raphael
the price that it would later fetch in 1899, but the deal
(Inghiarimi) [portrait], the Botticelli of Chigi
foundered because the family were not prepared to
and the Bonifiglio & Sebastiano d.Piombo
divide the collection.
(M.Angelo) do not interest her? I mean tell
The Rembrandt was eventually sold for £22,050,
Berenson, who crossed to London after Christmas to confer
me more clearly how we all stand. You see
over seven times what Mrs Gardner was to pay for her
with Gutekunst, was given a tour of the remains of Lord
one can avoid a multiplicity of mistakes
Botticelli. Possibly thanks to Bode, Colnaghi were able
Ashburnham’s collection. Shortly afterwards Otto Gutekunst
and dilemmas by being explicit and frank,
to steal the sale of Lord Ashburnham’s collection from
wrote to him initiating a fifty-year correspondence:
in fact one cannot be too clear and candid
under the noses of the auctioneers Christie, Manson and
Fig. 12 / Letter from Otto
Gutekunst to Berenson
regarding offering Mrs
Gardner the Chigi Botticelli
28th October 1898, London,
Colnaghi Archive.
in such joint matters. Let there be no more
Woods. By the end of June 1894, Colnaghi were firmly
My dear Berenson, Trusting that you are quite
ensconced, selling both the Rembrandt and a portrait
quietly settled down at “Firenze” and ready, I will
by Antonio Pollaiullo (then attributed to Piero della
fire this first shot. It is still Lord Ashburnham.
By November 1898 the relationship with the Gardners
Francesca) to the Berlin Museum. Curiously Berlin who
Don’t you think that some other Mrs Gardner
seems to have improved somewhat, Berenson had
were later rumoured to have been the underbidders
– in the book and mss line – could be found…
managed to rekindle her interest in the Botticelli, and
for Mrs Gardner’s second Botticelli, Prince Chigi’s
by you, who would buy his famous and splendid
Gutekunst was also able to report that negotiations
Madonna of the Eucharist, seem not to have shown interest
library of books and chiefly manuscripts?
with the owner “were well in hand.”22 Colnaghi had
Fig. 11 / Illustrated London
News review of the Early
Italian Art exhibition at the
New Gallery, March 1894.
Colnaghi archives occurs in letters written by
Luini, and Andrea del Sarto, surmounted the cover
in acquiring Lord Ashburnham’s Lucretia.12 However,
misunderstandings, my friend.21
also found a partner to buy the picture (with the
Berenson’s letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner written
Berenson seems to have been unsuccessful in finding a
London dealer Asher Wertheimer), and Gutekunst
in the summer of 1894 had obviously ignited her
buyer for the Ashburnham library, but the sale of Botticellis
told Berenson that, if the deal went through, Berenson
enthusiasm, and on 20 December, the sale of Lord
Lucretia was the prelude to a spectacular series of sales
would have a share.23 In the meantime, Richard
Ashburnham’s Botticelli to Mrs Gardner was concluded,13
to Isabella Stewart Gardner in which the paintings were
Norton, now Director of the American School in
with Berenson making the final payment of £3200
sourced by Colnaghi and sold to her by Berenson, including
Rome and son of Charles Eliot Norton (whose classes
to Colnaghi, thereby ensuring, one presumes, that
the Madonna of the Eucharist, acquired five years later.
Berenson and Gardner had attended at Harvard) had


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