An intriguing story recently ran in the International New York Times in which it was reported that a drawing known as “La Bella Principessa” owned by Canadian art collector Peter Silverman and purchased for around $20,000 in 2007 may or may not be an authentic long-lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci potentially worth up to $150 million.
The art world controversy surrounding the drawing involves a newly developed twist with Shaun Greenhalgh, the infamous British art forger who is “thought to have created fakes that spanned centuries of art history”, now declaring it to be his work.
Greenhalgh was sentenced to over four and a half years in prison on forgery-related charges back in 2007 and was responsible for a number of “well-documented fakes”, such as a Guaguin sculpture of a faun purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago and an Egyptian alabaster sculpture of a princess purchased by the Bolton Museum.
The story of “La Bella Principessa” and its attribution began in January 1998 when New York art dealer Kate Ganz purchased a “head-and-shoulders study of an aristocratic young woman”, viewed in profile and dressed in the Italian Renaissance style, for nearly $22,000 (with fees) at Christie’s in New York. The drawing was created in pen, ink, chalk and watercolor on vellum, and was cataloged by Christie’s as “early 19th century, possibly German.”
In January 2007, Ganz sold the drawing described as “based on a number of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and may have been made by a German artist studying in Italy” to current owner Silverman for the above original purchase price (less a dealer’s discount).
In June 2008, a company in Paris specializing in digital scanning, Lumiere Technology, announced that its analysis of the drawing had determined that the work was by da Vinci. Thereafter, the work was valued at £100 million by London art dealer Dickinson, who offered the drawing for purchase to select clients.
In October 2009, a Dickinson adviser declared the work an authentic da Vinci in an article published in The Times of London. In addition, the attribution has been endorsed by at least six da Vinci scholars.
As an authentic da Vinci, the drawing has yet to win over the art world. Notably, the work has not been exhibited in any major art museum and it was excluded from the landmark exhibition entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at the National Gallery in London running from November 2011 to February 2012.
Most recently as of last week, Kasia Pisarek, an independent art historian specializing in attribution, was the latest scholar to make a case that “La Bella Principessa” is not a da Vinci. In her paper presented at a London conference, Pisarek went through a checklist of apparent “inconsistencies”—i.e., lack of any documentation or copies, presence of just three stitch-holes in the side of the vellum sheet, and anatomically incorrect quality of the drawing itself. Pisarek concluded that “the present attribution to [da Vinci] must be deemed unreliable.”
As for the current whereabouts of the controversial drawing, it is being held at the Geneva Freeport storage warehouse and is not currently available for purchase, according to Silverman, who mentioned that he had been offered $60 million for the drawing in 2012 but had turned down the offer. Silverman said that he would like “the drawing to be shown all over the world so that people can decide for themselves.”
Depending on which account one believes, it can be summed up that “La Bella Principessa” is either an authentic da Vinci worth in the multi-millions; a 19th-century Italian Renaissance style drawing worth in the tens of thousands; or a modern era fake worth barely anything.