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When is a Titian a repe-Titian?

Part 5: "I ranked with fortune tellers and astrologers... and deliberate charlatans."

Lord Lee replied as follows on March 9th 1928: "I am in receipt of your letter of March 4th concerning your kind offer to come over to London to inspect my picture of "Venus at her Toilet", but I think you must have misunderstood the purpose and spirit of my previous correspondence with you. I am of course always interested, from an artistic and historical point of view, in any picture in my collection, and always pleased to offer appointments to any critics or students who may wish to visit it or to study any of the paintings or other works of art which I possess. Attributions, however, are so largely a matter of opinion, and there is much truth in the Latin saying "Tot homines, tot sententiae" that I have never asked, and should never be willing to ask, anyone to give me an opinion or Certificate as a professional matter. I may add that the question of the possible market value of the picture in my collection, whether it be "a few hundred pounds or fifteen to twenty thousand pounds," does not interest me in the slightest degree as my pictures are not for sale and have for me a value which has no relation to money". Two more letters followed: a rather whinging response from the "expert", who claimed he had been misunderstood because his letter had been translated from German into English by a stranger. Lord Lee then terminated the correspondence by telling the Viennese expert that he could not inspect the picture as he did not want it published.

As this little story shows, there were at the time many minor and pseudo Berensons around, all of them trying to find clients and fees. Later in life, when the relationship with Duveen was long over, Berenson began to write notes for an autobiography which he never, in fact, completed. He wrote: "I ranked with fortune tellers and astrologers...... and deliberate charlatans. At first I was supposed to have invented a trick by which one could infallibly tell the authorship of an Italian picture.... Finally it degenerated into a widespread belief that if only I could be approached in the right way I could order this or that American millionaire to pay thousands and hundreds of thousands of pounds for any daub that I was bribed by the seller to attribute to a great master..... I took a wrong turning when I swerved from more purely intellectual pursuits to one like the archaeological study of art, gaining thereby a troublesome reputation as an expert.. The spiritual loss was great and in consequence I have never regarded myself as other than a failure..." In other words he sought, I think, at least in retrospect, and not without a large helping of special pleading, to ally himself with the rather pure and detached philosophy that Lord Lee expressed so succinctly in his letter of March 9th 1928.

The Duveen/Berenson relationship was not unique. It was very much the character of the art market of the day. One of Berenson’s lasting achievements was to establish a framework of disciplined scholarship that would allow reliable and justifiable authentications to be made, and although it is fashionable today to decry his achievements and scorn him for his relationship with Duveen, it seems to me that his attributions hold up remarkably well (he was not of course right 100% of the time), and that by the ethical standards that prevailed in his day he was not out of line in his dealings with Duveen. Both of them did, and will, attract so much attention, simply because they were such dominant personalities, and so flamboyant and colourful in their own individual ways.

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