Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now you see it, now you don't... 'Caravaggio' copy may be still missing

First it was reported stolen; then it was reported to have been recovered. Then it was suggested that it had not been recovered but was still missing. And then a nasty murder seems to have crept into the usual toxic brew of museum-break-ins, rumour, counter-rumour and underworld goings-on. Meanwhile, the painting at the centre of it all is not even the real thing, but a version of the original work by Caravaggio.

Back in August, I reported here that the painting known as The Taking of Christ, or The Kiss of Judas, stolen in July from a museum in Odessa, was not, as widely reported at the time of the theft, an authentic autograph work by Caravaggio, but a copy, albeit a very fine copy, of the original work by the artist now in the National Gallery in Dublin.

A couple of days ago it was reported that the version stolen in Odessa had finally been recovered. Had this been the case, the cycle from theft to recovery would have been considerably more contracted than tends to be the case with most thefts of major masterpieces, which can take years to resurface, if at all. But then it was suggested that the picture recovered in Ukraine was not the one stolen in July. The Caravaggio copy was still missing.

One can't help wondering whether the thieves - having undertaken the low level research required to establish that they were indeed in possession of the real thing - discovered that the authentic work was in Dublin and that theirs was a copy.

Clearly the Odessa version has value, having been executed to a high standard and perhaps even roughly contemporaneous with the autograph work. But it is not the real enchilada, as most serious Caravaggio scholars established decades ago, and as I made clear in my earlier piece, which drew on some first-rate scholarship published many years ago in The Burlington Magazine (relevant articles cited here).

Nevertheless, the case raises intriguing questions about relative values on the illicit market. It was also interesting and amusing to note that earlier authoritative reports notwithstanding, most news wires seem to have insisted on reporting the recent alleged recovery as if the Odessa picture was Caravaggio's original.

Art Daily reported the recovery here; the French language APA agency reported it here; and a Russian language online news journal covered it here together with a suggestion that the Odessa work was still missing.

Will the Caravaggio copy please stand up!