Several of the greatest collectors of Old Master paintings in turn-of-the-century America were sold fakes or wildly misattributed works by Leo Nardus. Drawing on newly discovered documents, Jonathan Lopez explains how Nardus was exposed and discusses the impact of
During the 1890s and early 1900s the American industrialist P.A.B. Widener purchased 93 paintings, primarily Old Masters, from the Dutch-born art dealer Leo Nardus, who operated out of New York and Paris. (1) According to two dossiers of unpublished correspondence in the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (2) Widener began to suspect that there was something wrong with these pictures in late 1907, when he noticed that the three Vermeers he had acquired from Nardus were not included in Hofstede de Groot's newly completed catalogue raisonng (Fig. 3-5). (3)
[FIGURE 1 OMMITTED]
In the wake of this discovery, a succession of experts--including De Groot, Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry and Wilhelm Valentiner--paid visits to Widener's home outside Philadelphia to assess the 'Nardus pictures'. The experts informed Widener that, while a few of these paintings were true master-pieces, the vast majority were copies, fakes, or comparatively minor works incorrectly attributed to great artists such as Vermeer, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Turner, Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Upon hearing the news, Widener reportedly became 'frightfully enraged' and fulminated that he had been 'swindled in the most shameful manner'. (4) The resulting turmoil would yield important changes not just for the Widener collection and the career of the mysterious Leo Nardus, but also for the standards and practices of the American art market.
Nardus is seldom mentioned in the annals of art history, although, from his arrival in New York in 1894 until his downfall in 1908, he was an extremely active and successful dealer in the United States. (5) Fluent in four languages, a champion swordsman and an internationally known chess master, Nardus was a highly charismatic individual, and he used his charm to devastating effect in his business dealings. He was able to sell unexceptional Italian and Flemish primitives to American millionaires for very high prices--sometimes through the mail--simply by employing such seductive phrases as, 'It is difficult to explain these pictures to you in every detail, but I have the conviction that they belong to the highest works that art has produced'. (6) As for provenance, all that Nardus generally offered was a vague disclaimer such as, 'The pictures mentioned here, have been chosen by me, out of a famous Collection in Italy.'
[FIGURE 2 OMMITTED]
Contemporary accounts of the American Old Master market during this relatively early period in its development suggest that adventurers of the Nardus type were not unusual. Indeed, they were a source of sardonic pride in certain corners of the European art world. 'Avant tout, tant pis pour les Yankees', as the critic Paul Eudel put it in his classic Trues et Truqueurs (1907). (7) 'They have simply to learn more or else hire better experts.' By virtually any standard, however, Nardus constituted a breed apart...
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