Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 156

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 letter closed with a P.S.: “She must not fall into
but if she felt able to make a decision on the basis of
other people’s hands. Agnews are making an exhibition
the illustration of it in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, she was
of the Italian pictures Murray has saddled them with
to cable ‘BUYCELLI’ and the picture would be hers.
and which they have not managed to get rid of yet.”
Berenson’s powers of persuasion were evidently
Berenson now had the tricky task of going against
effective because on 24 June 1899, to Gutekunst’s great
his earlier advice and persuading Gardner that the
relief,62 Mrs Gardner bought the painting for £14,500 a
Botticelli, previously condemned as overpriced and in
relatively modest profit given the considerable risk that
poor condition, was in fact “the last universally accepted
Colnaghi and their partners had undertaken. However,
Botticelli in the market” and “among his Madonnas,
because of the ongoing prosecution of Prince Chigi,
the noblest and grandest.” Berenson conceded that the
Colnaghi thought it prudent to conceal the painting
price, at around £15,000, was “monstrous”, but “Italian
until the legal processes had run their course.
pictures have risen at least five times their former value
in the last four years.” He concluded:
In the meantime, Colnaghi were on the track of an
even greater Italian picture: Titian’s great masterpiece,
Sacred and Profane Love (fig. 17) from the Villa Borghese,
almost certainly will. So, if you can spare
which they had agreed to buy in July 1899 for the
the money, you after all would not be
eye-watering sum of 3,175,000 francs (£150,000).63
paying more than the market value of the
Berenson had been carefully priming Mrs Gardner to
picture at present, possessing yourself of
buy the picture which he said would hang perfectly
On 9 June, maintaining an air of cool professional
we thought we might write to you the enclosed
a truly great masterpiece and snatching it
alongside Titian’s Rape of Europa, acquired through
formality, Colnaghi wrote a letter to Berenson which
letter, which will enable you to inform the
out of the teeth of worthy rivals.
Colnaghi in 1896, in the new museum which she was
was obviously intended to be shown to Mrs Gardner
Lady, that as she evinced such interest in the
in order to rekindle her enthusiasm, announcing
picture, you inform her of this, the price paid
the successful purchase of the Botticelli and offering
etc and this you will do all in your power to
Berenson first refusal on the painting:
get it insured for her till she come to London
planning to build at Fenway Court (fig. 18).64 But,
Fig. 18 / View of the Interior
of the Titian Room showing
Titian’s Rape of Europa,
Boston, Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum.
to see it. This would be at our place – much
If Gardner was interested in the picture, with no
these negotiations broke down, initially because the
commitment to buy before she had seen it, she should
colossal price seems to have been a stumbling block
cable ‘YEBOTTICELLI’, and Berenson would do his
with Gardner’s trustees,65 and then because the Italian
very best to reserve it for her until she could inspect it,
government stepped in and bought the villa and
Dear Sir,
much better there, too, than to lose hold over
collections for the nation, signalling a new determination
We hasten to inform you, that Prince
her by letting her buy such an important
to stem the flow of works of art out of Italy.
Chigi’s Botticelli has been bought by a
picture of W [Asher Wertheimer].
small London syndicate against Berlin
The Chigi prosecution was meanwhile trundling through
(Kaiser Museums Verein) for £13,000
So keen were Colnaghi to do business with Mrs
the Italian courts, reaching the final court of appeal in
after a long struggle. By exercising our
Gardner, Gutekunst continued, that they were
Perugia in January 1901. Speculation in the press, which
utmost diplomacy, we hope strongly to
prepared to offer her the Botticelli at a very modest
showed no sign of abating, was becoming increasingly
obtain the first refusal for you. Kindly
profit and this fact, he was at pains to stress to
irksome to Gardner. “I wonder if that beast dealer
wire to us at your earliest convenience
Berenson, should be brought to her attention:
[Colnaghi] who had my Chigi Botticelli in London has
what you wish us to do.
leaked and bragged,” she wrote acerbically to Berenson
We remain, Sir,
Fig. 17 / Titian, Sacred and
Profane Love, 1515, oil on
canvas, 118 cm × 279 cm,
Rome, Galeria Borghese.
If you don’t take it, the Paris Rothschilds
Yours faithfully P and D Colnaghi.
In his covering letter to Berenson, Gutekunst explained:
I think you might follow up, what you said about us
in October 1900, “my footsteps are dogged by reporters;
in your letter by pointing out “you see how useful
and carry newspaper full of it.” Three months before the
they are! Here they are already giving me the 1
conclusion of the Chigi appeals process, in November
option of the Botticelli at only £2000 profit/We
1900, Berenson wrote urging Mrs Gardner to go public
would take 10% even above cost of £13000).”
and put an end to press speculation:


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