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Another Old Master has been tossed onto the bonfires of the forgeries by Sotheby’s International. A painting auctioned at Sotheby’s New York in 2012 as being an “extremely high quality” Circle of Parmigianino they now say is fake. But is Sotheby’s really just the innocent victim of a naughty forger as they are trying to make us believe?

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Following an announcement in October 2016 that Sotheby’s London considered a supposed Frans Hals sold in 2011 to be a forgery, a second important work has met with the same fate. The latest is said to be a depiction of St Jerome (oil on panel, 73 x 56.2 cm). (1) It was auctioned 26 January 2012 in New York as Circle of Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, called Parmigianino. (2) A number of independent experts who thought the work actually by Parmigianino are cited in the lot notes. Foremost, in 1999 Mario di Giampaolo, an Italian scholar, published the panel as a newly discovered autograph painting. (Sotheby’s cataloguer mistakenly cites him as “Marco”.) Nevertheless, although the work is thoughtfully executed, in parts in quite a free manner, it clearly lacks certain aspects that would make it an obvious choice as a work by the early sixteenth century Parmesan. Missing are the elongated forms and distorted elements usually associated with Parmigianino’s Mannerist style.

The left hand holding the crucifix, for example, is skillfully rendered, delicate, but strong and realistic, not mannered. This depiction of a hand would be more usual in a seventeenth century painting. Furthermore, the general execution is sharp, and the edges are well defined, in contrast to the more sfumato technique favoured at the time. Yet enigmatically the painting is evidently superior to any work of epochal followers of Parmigianino, such as Anselmi, who is mentioned in the Sotheby’s catalogue and who was visibly the weaker artist. This makes it difficult to ascribe the painting to Parmigianino’s “circle”, to someone who would have been his contemporary in other words. This seemingly unknown work – it has no provenance before the late twentieth century – could have been from the brush of a later skilled follower of Parmigianino, maybe even a century after. Indeed, di Giampaolo in his expertise acknowledged the breaks with early Mannerism and dated the work to the 1530s, which would have been late in the artist’s fairly brief career (he died just thirty-seven years old).

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*  Sotheby's not guilty (this time)


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