Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 160

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
On the day of the Private View, Gutekunst wrote to
If that is the case, I demand instantly the
Against those who argued that Italy’s export laws
year Prince Borghese had escaped from a similar
Berenson that the Botticelli “looks splendid in our
money for my own charity and that the
infringed the rights of a family to dispose of its own
infringement with impunity. The Prince argued that
gallery in the centre of some tasteful drapery put up
picture be sent to me. I have charities (many
heirlooms the demotically minded New York Daily
it was inequitable that the rights of primogeniture had
for the purpose. A number of people have been to see
of them, alas!) to which I have been unable
Tribune argued that “there may be some serious
been abolished in Italy, while the legal obligations
it and I am quite sleepy and tired talking so much.”
to give anything lately, because of the
doubt as to the right of these heirs of medieval
remained in force on Roman princes who could “die
By 14 November he reported that “the picture draws
moneys my pictures were costing me. You
despotism to sell their historic collections, as they
of hunger in their unsaleable galleries.”84 Rather than
crowds,” including members of the clergy and several
must readily see that, if the story is true, it is
would sell furniture or bric-a-brac purchased at last
imposing swingeing fines and draconian legislation,
girls’ high schools.
a most monstrous and most unpardonable
year’s sale.” On the other hand, the failure of the
a better way, argued Sciarra, would be for the
offence on the part of the Colnaghi’s.
Italian government to purchase works of art from
Italian Government to encourage owners to donate
the impoverished noble families meant, argued the
a proportion of their collections to Italian museums
Shortly after the London exhibition opened,
Berenson wrote to Mrs Gardner to say that, “I hear
Clearly either Berenson or Colnaghi should have
Tribune, that “the Italian government plays dog in
in return for obtaining export licenses for a certain
from Paris today from a friend who has been offered
asked Mrs Gardner’s permission first, but her extreme
a manger in preventing owners from selling their
proportion of foreign sales.
the Chigi Botticelli for 350,000 fr. He writes it is a
reaction to what may have been a breach of etiquette,
works of art abroad when it remains impossible to
hideous picture, & asks me whether it can be the real
but hardly a monstrous offence, reveals the depths
sell those works to the nation.” There were also issues
The years following the Chigi case, between 1902 and
one. So you see it is well to exhibit the real one, &
of her antipathy towards the London dealers; this
of inconsistency in the application of the law, both
1909, saw a progressive tightening up of Italian export
put an end to the little game of the dealers.” The
had been intensifying throughout September because
between different areas of Italy (reflecting historic
legislation with the introduction of a national system
exhibition, which was proving to be a great crowd-
of the difficulties in getting the picture to London,
discrepancies predating the Unification) and in the
of notification, which responded to the need to clarify
puller, was clearly serving its desired purpose, namely
compounded by her frustration at being deprived of
judgements meted out to individual owners, as was
the export laws in order to ensure greater consistency
“to clear up once for all the real ownership of the
her Botticelli for so long. We know from her letters to
argued by Prince Sciarra, who like Chigi, had fallen
and control of the outflow of Italian heritage objects.85
picture,” and was due to continue until the end of the
Berenson that she was also irritated by the enormous
foul of the Pacca Edict in 1892. Sciarra had faced a
Similar debates were going on Britain, though, while
and ongoing publicity which the Chigi Madonna had
three-month prison sentence, whereas in the previous
the Italian response was protectionist, the British
However, less than two weeks after its opening,
engendered, and in terms of the politics of the heritage,
tendency was towards finding funds for museums
the Botticelli had become a hot topic.
to become more effective guardians of the nation’s
Colnaghi received the news from Berenson saying that
heritage (leading to the founding of the National Art
Mrs Gardner wanted her painting immediately and the
There was no doubt that the Botticelli had left Italy
exhibition would have to be closed. The Botticelli was
illegally, but dealers were not the only ones to flout
accordingly despatched on the next available steamer
Italy’s archaic and chaotic export laws, which were
By 1907 the boot was clearly on the other foot, with
from Liverpool to Boston, and what was to have been
more honoured – even by prominent museum directors
Britain, which had hugely enriched its cultural
a moment of triumph for Colnaghi, was brought to a
– in the breach than the observance. The exodus
patrimony as the result of the French Revolution and
humiliatingly-premature conclusion.
of works of art from Italy during the second half of
Napoleonic Wars, now finding itself more preyed
the nineteenth century, which had greatly enriched
on than predator. This prompted George Bernard
Mrs Gardner’s sudden change of heart resulted
museum collections in London and Berlin, as well as,
Shaw to launch a diatribe against the “American
from the fact that she had learned that Colnaghi’s,
increasingly, private collections in America, clearly had
millionaires stripping us of our art treasures,” although
apparently without her permission, were exhibiting
to be stemmed. The question was how to do it. Here
in fact up to that point Berlin had posed a larger
her picture on behalf of their [in fact a royal] charity.
opinions were divided over the thorny question of how
threat to the British national heritage than America.86
On 6 November Gardner wrote a blistering letter to
to balance the rights of owners against those of the
Matters came to a head two years later with another
state, over what constituted the national heritage, and
deal in which Colnaghi was involved: the threatened
over what measures should be in place for protecting
sale of the Duke of Norfolk’s Holbein portrait of
I am hearing on all sides that my Chigi
that heritage. The Times put the conundrum most
Christina Duchess of Milan to Henry Clay Frick prompted
Madonna is being exhibited for charity in
succinctly: on the one hand “property implies the right
a national outcry in which Colnaghi and the duke
London. This certainly can not be possible!
to dispose of an article at one’s own good pleasure,” but
Never in any civilized place has such a liberty
at the same time, in Italy “if this principle were granted
been taken by people who pretend they are
in respect of works of art, nothing would soon be left
honest, without the consent of the owner.
outside the churches and galleries.”
Collections Fund – now The Art Fund – in 1903).
Fig. 21 / Bernard
Partridge, Hans
Across the Sea?,
Punch, 1909, London,
Colnaghi Archive.
were pilloried in the press. However, the most powerful
vitriol was levelled against the figure of the Uncle
Sam with his bag of dollars trying to drag Holbein’s
Duchess on to a waiting transatlantic steamer (fig. 21).


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