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When is a Titian a repe-Titian?

Part 2: Attributions

Before examining the reasons for their caution let us turn to one other matter, and the stage play. The attribution of works of art, especially Old Masters, has become a modern industry. Scholarly reputations rise and fall on the back of it, as do market prices. Provide proof that a formerly neglected work is by a famous Old Master, and scholar’s reputation and the market price will soar. It happened very recently when Nicholas Penny, a curator at the National Gallery in London, attributed a formerly overlooked painting in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland, the Madonna of the Pinks to Raphael. His reputation was much enhanced and the picture was acquired by the Nation for many millions of pounds.

In the 18th and 19th century, collectors were much more relaxed about attributions. They were often content to have in their collections a work in the style of one of the great names without worrying unduly whether the Master himself had painted every brush stroke. A studio version could be just as good for them, as it often was for collectors in the Master’s lifetime. At the end of the 19th century, the supply of great masterpieces lessened and market prices rose, so that collectors became more cautious. A famous Punch cartoon of the late 19th century illustrates the point with wry amusement. It shows a London saleroom with an auctioneer in the background surrounded by well to do collectors in frock coats and top hats. One of them closely examines a canvas, clearly intending to bid upon it. His friend stands at his shoulder and remarks "Well old man, I only hope it is a Titian and not a repetition!"

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