Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 154

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
Despite all these speculations, the reality was that
Berenson had indeed written a discouraging letter to
there was no immediate private purchaser for Prince
Mrs Gardner on the eve of Prince Chigi’s auction. 57
Chigi’s Botticelli. Having bought the picture at the
In response to her cabled enquiry as to whether the
end of May, Colnaghi and their partners had to find
Botticelli was worth $30,000 (£6000), he advised
a purchaser without alerting the Italian authorities,
(incorrectly) that the picture was not in good
the press, or the general public to its whereabouts. The
condition. He also wrote that “even if Chigi sold his
initial plan was for Wertheimer to offer the picture
picture for £6000, it would cost more than £7000 by
to one of the French Rothschilds, probably Baron
the time it was out of Rome,” and that the competition
Edmond de Rothschild, who is mentioned earlier in
was so intense that she would have to pay far more
the Colnaghi letterbooks in connection with the sale
than that:
of Lord Ashburmham’s pictures. But Rothschild was
recovering from an illness in Paris and could not be
Early last month, Agnew’s had already
approached. Gutekunst’s letters to Berenson reveal
offered £7000, and some days later
his anxiety that there were very few buyers for the
raised the offer to £8000… I think
picture at what was, for the time, a very high price
Chigi had up to that moment no
for a Botticelli, particularly since it seemed as though
intention of selling, not realizing
Berenson might have closed the door on selling the
what prices would be offered. But
picture to Mrs Gardner, by playing things too cool.
seeing what was offering and how
Gutekunst wrote to Berenson on 8 June:
many bidders there were, he had
the marvellous idea of sending out a
So to the Botticelli, W [Asher Wertheimer] is to
circular to the 24 principal dealers in
blame to a great extent, but I cannot exonerate
Europe telling them that on May 24, he
you altogether… when she asked you about the
would sell his picture.
picture, you ought to have been much more
was also some sympathy for the purchasers at least
have… left the door open… Of course Mrs J
decided to cancel the sale because “a certain dealer
on for two years and reached the highest court of
among British and American journalists who saw the
has not seen the picture & she may …fall in
offered him a price beyond his wildest dreams… The
appeal, but, in the end, he escaped imprisonment
whole Italian system of export control as being highly
love with it yet. What is to be done? …Think
picture will now sell for not less than £15,000.”
and his initial fine was commuted on appeal to
it over carefully. It’s your money as well as
“a trif ling fine of around £80” before being
Fig. 16 / Press cutting
from an Italian newspaper
speculating that the Czar
was the purchaser of the
Chigi Madonna, curatorial
files, Boston, Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum.
Berenson continued saying that the Prince had
The legal proceedings against the prince dragged
Fig. 15 / Press cutting from
The Sunday Herald, curatorial
files, Boston, Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum.
bold and much more positive… You should
ours… I don’t want to scold you in the least, I
“Remember,” concluded Berenson, “that I paid only
dismissed altogether. “This verdict,” opined The
The press, of course, had a field day, but, so
only regret that you were too rash. I certainly
£3000 for your cassone [the Story of Lucretia] worth
Athenaeum, “seems tantamount to a reduction of
successfully did Deprez cover his tracks that it was a
wrote all you quote but with this difference:
several of Chigi’s Botticelli. That will give you an
the ‘Pacca Law’ to an absurdity, unless another
long time before anyone realized that the picture had
I did not want you to approach Mrs J in the
idea how prices have risen.”58 Now, having poured
volte-face of Italian procedure is impending.”54
been bought by Colnaghi or, indeed, sold to Gardner.
matter, but I certainly did not want you to put
cold water on Gardner’s enthusiasm and, finding
The Sunday Herald went still further carrying
Various names were bandied around including that of
her off absolutely when she approached you…
that the expected Rothschild sale was looking far less
the headlines: “Italian officials to blame for the
the American dime-store billionaire P. A. B. Widener,
There can be a limit to the prices of such
promising, Berenson had to execute a rapid volte-face.
controversy,” “provisions of the lawfully carried out
who had in fact bought another version of the picture
pictures as she wants. They are prices… as
by Chigi,” and “Honest purchaser forced to resort
from Agnews, and “an agent of the Rothschilds”;
long as one is able to buy them at all. But when
to strategy” (fig. 15). Not only had the prince been
even the Russian Czar was cited as a possible
she is, so they say, desirous on her part to buy,
exonerated in the eyes of some commentators; there
purchaser in the italian press (fig. 16).
why not encourage instead of discouraging it?


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