Sotheby's fends off rare negligence suit over Caravaggio dispute

Fri Jan 16, 2015 11:01am EST
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By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) - A British man who sold a painting at Sotheby's for 42,000 pounds ($63,750) only to hear a year later that it could be by the Italian master Caravaggio and be worth 10 million pounds has lost his negligence lawsuit against the auctioneers.

In a highly unusual move, Lancelot Thwaytes sued Sotheby's for 11 million pounds in damages on the grounds that the auction house's experts should have conducted further investigations to see if the work was indeed by Caravaggio.

Scholars disagree about whether the painting, known as "The Cardsharps", is by Caravaggio himself or whether it is a 17th century copy by a follower of the master -- as it was presented by Sotheby's when it sold the picture for Thwaytes in 2006.

Thwaytes told the London High Court that he had repeatedly sought and been given assurances from Sotheby's before the auction that they were sure the work was not by Caravaggio.

After the sale, the painting passed to Denis Mahon, a famed art collector and Caravaggio expert, who, after further technical investigations announced at his 97th birthday party that it was by Caravaggio and was worth 10 million pounds.

"Words cannot really do my emotions justice, but I was in utter disbelief and absolutely horrified to see that the painting was now being proclaimed to the world as an original Caravaggio," Thwaytes said in evidence to the High Court.

Mahon has since died.

Other eminent scholars and Sotheby's own experts maintain that the work is not by Caravaggio, who died in 1610 after an eventful life punctuated by brawls and flights from the law.   Continued...

The painting "The Cardsharps" attributed to the artist Caravaggio hangs in The Museum of the Order of Saint John in London January 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Neil Hall