In a case of mistaken identity and wishful thinking the art market has promoted a copy of a Portrait of Ferdinand de Boisschot (Sotheby’s, 10 July 2014, Sale L14034, Lot 168) to “Van Dyck.”
Unlike the BBC “Van Dyck” portrait of a man in a ruff (Lot 18, 8 July, Evening Sale: Old Master & British Painting), which failed to find a buyer at Christie’s London auction rooms July 8, another seventeenth-century portrait of a gentleman in a large stiff ruff did sell later in the week at Sotheby’s, closing with a quite startling £722,500 despite a contested attribution to Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
Attribution by auction
Sotheby’s seems particularly disposed to believing the nebulous category “art market” as a final voting body for attribution in Old Master paintings, which hopefully will be enough for the seller (the Earl of Warwick) of Lot 168, the new owner and, indeed, Sotheby’s to maintain the supposed new value of this painting, or even increase it.
In a recent and much-publicized spat with Sir Denis Mahon (deceased 2011) Sotheby’s stand by their 2006 cataloguing of a painting of Cardsharps as a copy after Caravaggio, despite Sir Denis’s conviction (he purchased the work on a Sotheby’s auction for £42,000) that the painting is the real thing. In support of their defense against a legal claim from the painting’s previous owner, Sotheby’s state:
“Our view is also supported by the market, which gave its verdict on this painting when it set the price at £50,400 [the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium] at Sotheby’s sale in December of 2006. The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers—had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”(1)
In determining attribution Sotheby’s, at least, feel performance at auction can be the final word. They, as well as other auction houses, use their own internal staff, as well as outside experts, to reinforce their cataloguing procedures that can lead to such auction attributions.
Experts face off
In their catalogue notes to the sale of Lot 168 Sotheby’s very openly and immediately point out that Reverend Susan Barnes, a highly respected Van Dyck specialist and co-author of the most up-to-date supposedly definitive publication of Van Dyck’s oeuvre, does not uphold the attribution. Does this mean that the art market has, forthwith, demoted her for calling it wrong? Certainly some ignored her expertise as they bid the canvas up to 10x its guide price contrary to her advice. Should it be assumed that the expert’s opinion is simply a guide, along with the suggested price? Here we have two renowned scholars at direct odds with one other, with Barnes’s opinion being ignored and Brown given the thumb’s up.
Barnes and Brown appear to have judged only on intuition and first-hand inspection. Barnes first took a close look at the Sotheby’s canvas in 1998, when the painting was on loan in America, and again in 2014, presumably at Sotheby’s request. Brown, less clearly, went over the painting perhaps when it was consigned for auction. These experts then leave seeming trivialities, such as research into provenance and art historical issues or even legitimate scientific enquiry, to third parties, who are usually auction house employees.
Provenance “by descent”
In their lot notes Sotheby’s state that the proposed de Boisschot painting was in the possession of the 2nd Earl of Warwick, and then held “by descent” to the present Earl. The use of “by descent” is a euphemistic ellipsis of supposedly inconsequential information. In other words, we are expected to accept that each individual earl is one and the same as the category of illustrious Earl to which he belongs. This is far from the truth. Many great aristocratic English families had long lines of spendthrift, heavy-drinking and decadent earls and dukes, who became cheats trying to outwit their family’s entails for their own personal gain.
Perhaps one of the most famous was the profligate 5th Duke of Marlborough, who is reported, amongst other things, to have melted down a large dinner service of gold plate, the gift of the Elector of Bavaria to his first forebear to the title, John Churchill, and ordered a fake to be made as a replacement. He did this so he could pawn the gold on the black market and thus bypass the trustees of the entail (Soames 1987, p.203). Fake dinner services, swapped paintings, these things can be arranged. “By descent” is therefore meaningless without proper clarification.
The same picture, or something different?
In the provenance research to Lot 168, Sotheby’s state this canvas was in the collection of the 2nd Earl of Warwick (fourth creation) “certainly by 1815.” As a source for this wild claim they cite a Victorian writer (William Field), who compiled a Historical and Descriptive Account of the town and Castle of Warwick and the neighbouring Spa of Leamington, and briefly noted a portrait of a Spanish General by Van Dyck in the possession of the 2nd Earl at that time.(2) The portrait, as seen by Field (1815, p.186), was hanging in the State Rooms of Warwick Castle, but there is no detailed description nor stated dimensions, etc. Wrongly, the compiler of the Sotheby’s catalogue continues the long-endorsed myth that the portrait of a “Spanish General” (identified later as the Duke of Alva) is the same portrait now identified as Ferdinand de Boisschot.
This assumption is then used as a way to conveniently link the portrait of a Spanish General in the possession of the Earls of Warwick to the sale of a known Van Dyck portrait of Ferdinand de Boisschot from the collection of the Belgian family of Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis the year before, 1814.(3) However, there are a number of problems for this hasty conclusion. Firstly, Lot 168 is neither of a Spanish gentleman nor a General. Furthermore, a painting of the Duke of Alva by Van Dyck was already in the possession of the Earls of Warwick by at least 1802 (Warner, p. 242), so it cannot have come from the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis family sale of 1814.
This source has not been cited by the writers of the Sotheby’s catalogue.
It was the Victorian John Smith (1831, p. 179–80) who first opened the door to confusion, allowing the portrait now identified as Ferdinand de Boisschot, Lot 168 at Sotheby’s, to become wrongly associated with a portrait by Van Dyck of the Duke of Alva.
618. Portrait of the Duke of Alva, when apparently fifty years of age, with a thin face, seen in nearly front view, scanty hair, and gray beard. He is dressed in a black figured silk vest, marked with a red cross on the breast, a full ruff, and a mantle boarded with fur. The right arm leans on the base of a pillar. Dated 1630.
Smith himself contradicts the identity of this sitter as the Duke of Alva, stating this duke died in 1582, that is, before Van Dyck was born. Indeed, the 3rd Duke of Alva died in 1582, but the 5th Duke of Alva was very much alive at the time of Van Dyck, and was Viceroy of Naples 1622 to 1629. Therefore, the identity of this sitter could have been Antonio, Duke of Alva, a Spanish General as seen by Field.
The logical conclusion could be that there were two half portraits claimed to be by Van Dyck in the collection of the Earls of Warwick (fourth creation): one of Antonio, Duke of Alva (now whereabouts unknown, but traceable from at least 1802 to around 1871) and another identified as Ferdinand de Boischott, not known before around 1900.
Closer reading of description
At no point have Sotheby’s attempted a close reading of the description of the portrait identified as the Duke of Alva. They and others, like the Van Dyck expert Horst Vey (Barnes 2004, p. 406) who catalogued Lot 168 as a copy, go gaily forward on the notion that the Earl of Warwick’s portrait of the Duke of Alva and Lot 168 are one and the same. Nothing could be more arrogantly assumed. The Reverend Richard Warner saw a painting of Ferdinand Duke of Alva(4) in Warwick Castle in 1802.
Indeed, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, Grand Duke of Alva was the one who died in 1582, and was generally depicted in armour befitting his status as a soldier and general. Nevertheless, his less well-known grandson, who could have been the subject of a Van Dyck portrait, would also have assumed a military role when he became viceroy.
The slightly later description of William Field begins to call this half portrait a Spanish General. At this point it must be strongly considered that the sitter was probably depicted wearing some sort of military uniform, if not armour. Smith’s description wanders closer to a surface reading of Lot 168. The description of a “mantle bordered with fur”, a “full ruff” and the date, 1630, offer some similarity.
However, Ferdinand de Boiscchot’s hair is not depicted “scanty” as suggested by Smith. In fact the man in Lot 168 has a full head, seemingly disturbed by a passing breeze. De Boisschot is also not wearing a black-figured silk vest. Further, the sitter is shown leaning with his left arm on a pillar, not his right arm as claimed by Smith.
Smith also refers to a “red cross on the breast”. This symbol, which we see on de Boisschot’s chest in all versions of this painting, is, in fact, the symbol of the Knights of Santiago. Many noblemen and servants of the Spanish crown were knights of this order. The Dukes of Alva belonged to this order. The Spanish artist Velasquez is also depicted with just such a cross, said to have been painted onto the artist’s self-portrait in Las Meninas (1656) by the King in 1659 when Velasquez became a Knight. The presence, therefore, of this particular cross/sword symbol on a figure in a seventeenth-century painting, with the hilt and arms fashioned like a fleur de lis, is hardly distinctive enough to isolate the portrait of one man.
Had the Earls of Warwick in their possession at some time a portrait of the Spanish General 5th Duke de Alva, he too might have been depicted as a knight of the Order of St James, with an identical red cross. In fact, Smith (p.458) wrongly believed that this red cross identified the sitter as a Rosicrucian Knight, the cross of which was different. In Lot 168 the Cross of Santiago is poorly rendered, as if the artist was not familiar with the design first hand, so it could be a later addition, or it could indicate the long-held assumption that this painting in its entirety is a copy. The inscribed date in existing versions of Ferdinand de Boisschot could also be anachronistic.
A later description in Gustav Waagen (1854, p. 214–15) of a portrait in Warwick Castle by Van Dyck, again said to be the Duke of Alva, follows Smith in some aspects but also provides extra information which again deviates from Lot 168. The sitter in Lot 168 is not wearing a silk dress with a black pattern, and neither is he wearing a black pelisse as described by Waagen. The sitter of Lot 168 is depicted wearing a brown fur draped over both shoulders. (A pelisse was a short military style, sometimes fur lined, jacket either worn or draped traditionally only over the left shoulder.)
Both Waagen and Smith clearly state that the sitter of the portrait they witnessed has on a vest with a black pattern, not that the man is shown dressed in black. Waagen confirms the inscription of 1630, but like Smith, he does not say where this inscription is placed on the putative portrait of the Duke of Alva. The date of 1630 could be accurate for a Spanish General returning from the outlying provinces of Spanish-controlled territory in Naples, where men were still wearing elaborate ruffs. However, a date of 1630 is less convincing for a portrait of Ferdinand de Boischott.
Sotheby’s cataloguer does not engage with this issue. In 1621 the Spanish Crown took full control of the semi-independent Spanish Netherlands, including Brussels, after the death of Albert of Austria. In 1623 the King of Spain banned courtiers from wearing this depicted wheel-like millstone ruff. Indeed, the fashion was already becoming outdated in England when Ferdinand de Boisschott was a Spanish-Netherlands envoy there (leaving England in 1623 towards the end of the reign of James 1).
This could suggest a much earlier dating for the style of dress than 1630.(5) In 1630 de Boisschot (date of birth unknown) might well have been already in his seventies, so a date of 1620–22 might be more accurate, and fit correctly into Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period. This was also the time when Van Dyck can be more convincingly placed within the sphere of this sitter.
In 1621 de Boisschot, elevated to Lord Saventhem (Zaventem), commissioned a painting of Saint Martin directly from the young Van Dyck (Cust, 1914, p.30). Alternatively, an earlier portrait of the sitter could have been updated. The wife’s dress in the purported pendant portrait (considered missing) is more concurrent with 1630. If this date happens to be correct for both pendants then we must believe the wife is à la mode while the husband is extremely old fashioned.
Failure to adequately engage with other versions
Sotheby’s claim that “Ludwig Burchard was convinced” of the authenticity of Lot 168 (no source, but probably Barnes p.406). They fail to note, however, that an equally august expert, undoubtedly a greater scholar than Burchard, the Edwardian surveyor of the King’s Pictures Lionel Cust, thought a portrait painting now in the Pretoria Art Museum was the original. This canvas, Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Van Haute, 2006, p.40–1), was first noted in modern times in the Sackville Gallery, London, owned by the English Rothschilds (Cust, The Burlington Magazine, 1914, vol. 26, p.31 and illustrated).
The canvas was acquired by Lady Michaelis and donated to the Pretoria Art Museum in 1932/33. This painting has almost exactly the same dimensions as Lot 168.
Further, Sotheby’s citation of this same art historian Lionel Cust, following Vey (Barnes 2004, p.406), is misleading. In 1900 (cat. 30, Sotheby’s citation) Cust was in keeping with all previous sources that the portrait in the Earls’s collection was still that of a Duke of Alva.
Portrait of a Man. With the order of Santiago. Painted in 1630. Has been called “Alva” and “Don Ferdinand de Toledo”. Exhibited Leeds, 1868; G.G., 1887. Earl of Warwick, Warwick Castle.
The 3rd Duke of Alva was also styled Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel. These same catalogue notes confirm that the painting, if it is the same one seen by Victorian witnesses, was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in 1887, still as the Duke of Alva (no. 92). The portrait was later exhibited in Birmingham in 1934 (cat. 30), also by these same earls, quoted as some four inches higher than the one now on auction as Lot 168, and for the first time catalogued as Ferdinand de Boisschot.
Therefore, this portrait now offered as Lot 168 was only identified as Ferdinand de Boisschot after Lionel Cust published the portrait now in Pretoria as this man (1914).
Sotheby’s claim that Lot 168 is “certainly …. the best of all known versions”. They do not qualify this statement. There is no forensic research available for Lot 168, and it is not stated if any exists. Comparisons will have been done by photograph, if at all, and without being informed otherwise, we must assume that their expert, Dr Christopher Brown, has not personally inspected either the Pretoria version, or another version in South America.
Professor Van Haute of the University of South Africa studied the Pretoria painting first hand for her publication in 2006 (p.40–41), at which time she considered its fine execution indicative of a work produced in Van Dyck's studio. Its relationship to Lot 168 would benefit from a direct comparison of the two.
From the time of Lionel Cust the international community has overlooked the Pretoria version, and we should not assume that Lot 168 is a better example of originality without credible and detailed research and comparison. Lot 168 has no claim to being the lost painting from the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis sale, and indeed Lionel Cust published the Pretoria painting as just this lost pendant a century ago.
The inaccurate and rambling diatribe that passes for academic deliberation in Sotheby’s lot notes derails any serious consideration of the research attached to this new attribution. For example, Sotheby’s state that the Lot 168 “was restored and relined after the fire at Warwick Castle in 1871.” Was the fire in 1871, or was the painting restored and relined in 1871, or both? Failing the proffering of further information, we must believe it was restored and relined in 1871, and not since.
We are thereafter given the opportunity to consider this painting the lost pendant to a portrait of Ana Maria de Çamudio.(6) As has been stated, as a pair these paintings of husband and wife were in the possession of the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis family, but only the wife’s portrait was documented as sold to Prince Auguste-Marie-Raymond d’Arenberg, of Brussels.(7) Sotheby’s claim, again in error, that Lot 168 was engraved by Adriaen Lommelin, and give Hollstein, V, 380 as their reference. There is, in fact, no image in Hollstein of the husband’s pendant, only of the wife’s, and it is stated quite clearly that the “pair to this print of her husband by Adriaan Lommelin has not been traced.”
The pendant portrait of her husband, Ferdinand de Boisschot, is considered missing after 1814. Despite this, Sotheby’s are so convinced they have produced this missing pendant, they use dimensions to strengthen their claim. Indeed, Lot 168 (113 x 94 cm) has very similar quoted dimensions as the painting of Maria de Çamudio (112 x 92.5 cm). Well, it has similar dimensions now. Un-noted by Sotheby’s the portrait of Ferdinand de Boisschot in the Pretoria Art Museum also has similar dimensions (113 x 90 cm), so that dimensions are hardly a telling feature.(8)
It is possible from the above research to propose that a Van Dyck portrait of the 5th Duke of Alva, which was in the possession of the Earls of Warwick from at least 1802, might have been destroyed in the fire at Warwick Castle in 1871. An Earl of Warwick, at some point after the fire then acquired a portrait of Ferdinand de Boisschot, probably around 1900, which, until now, was always considered a copy (the 5th Earl of Warwick?).
This portrait must have been improperly catalogued as the same one that had disappeared due to certain descriptive similarities – the date, the cross of the Order of Santiago and the ruff. After Lionel Cust published the Pretoria portrait in 1914 with the same sitter’s identity as Ferdinand de Boisschot, the Warwick painting also became catalogued as thus, certainly by 1934.
However, without proper investigation of all known versions, and with no new evidence other than the word of one expert, Sotheby’s have upgraded this considered copy to an original.(9) Although the art market has voted in support of this new attribution, this should not be the end of the story.
Reverend Susan Barnes will most certainly agree.
Barnes, SJ, de Poorter, N, Millar, O. and Vey, H. 2004. Van Dyck, a complete catalogue of the paintings. New Haven and London: Paul Mellon and Yale University Press.
Cust, L. 1900. Anthony Van Dyck: an historical study of his life and works. London: Bell.
Cust, L. 1914. “On two portraits by Van Dyck.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 26 (139) October.
Field, W. 1815. An historical descriptive account of the town and Castle of Warwick, and the neighbouring Spa of Leamington. Warwick: Sharpe.
London, 1887. Grosvenor Gallery, Exhibition of the Works of Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
Soames, M. 1987. The profligate Duke. George Spencer Churchill, fifth Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess. London: Collins
Smith, J. 1831. A Catalogue Raissonné of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, Volume 3, Containting the lives of Anthony Van Dyck and David Teniers. London: Smith.
Sotheby’s 2014. Catalogue Old Master & British Paintings Day Sale, L14034.
The New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700, volume 5 (Van Dyck)
Waagen, G. 1854. Treasures of Art in Great Britain, Volume III. London: Murray.
Warner, R. 1802. A tour through the northern counties of England, and the borders of Scotland. London: Robinson, Pater-Noster-Row.
Van Haute, B. 2006. Flemish paintings of the seventeenth-century in South African public collections. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press.
* The Art Newspaper Melanie Gerlis. Web only
Published online: 14 February 2013
* Field also mentions a “Nobleman by Van Dyck” but clarifies immediately that the portrait concerned is also sometimes considered to be of Lord Darnley, who died extremely young and fifty years before Van Dyck was born, we must therefore assume, without further elaboration, that Sotheby’s do not link this portrait to the de Boisschot portrait.
* Two pendant portraits by Van Dyck of Ferdinand de Boisschot and his wife Anna Maria de Çamudio were auctioned on the wife’s death in 1663, but bought back by her son Francois de Boisschot. They passed “by descent” to the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis family until disposed of 1814.
* Even if Sotheby’s were to try to make something of the “Ferdinand” it wouldnt help their case, as in 1802 the Van Dyck portrait of Ferdinand de Boisschot is reported as still owned by the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis family.
* See Nora Poorter, Barnes, et al, 2004, p. 122 for her opinion on the wearing of these types of millstone ruffs.
* A version of this portrait was put up for auction at Sotheby’s London, April 2006, as by a follower of Van Dyck. Ludwig Burchard considered this canvas a nineteenth-century copy. However, seemingly acquired from the unsold lots, the same canvas was offered by Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, as the original portrait by Van Dyck, and given a guide price of US$300,000–$400,000. It appears to have gone unsold. The canvas differs slightly in dimension from Lot 168 (42,5 x 38 inches, as opposed to 40,75 x 37 inches). This work was previously auctioned by Christie’s London, as by Van Dyck, in 1929, and later, by the same auction house in 1960, as by Rubens.
* However, the portrait from the Van Remoortere-Thurn und Taxis, and later Prince Arenberg collections, is considered by Horst Vey (Barnes, p. 308) to be current whereabouts unknown. (Barnes, et al, do not inform us where the illustration in the catalogue of this missing painting is taken from.)
* The portrait of the Duke of Alva, cited by Smith, actually has larger dimensions than the existing portraits of Ferdinand de Boisschot. Smith lists a much larger portrait of approximately 125 x 100 cm.
It should also be borne in mind that the Earl of Warwick cannot have been convinced this painting is an original, or he would not have allowed it to be given the guide price of a copy. Although it realized a high price in the end, it could equally as well have gone for the lower guide price.