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Controversial Caravaggio to be unveiled in London

Questions about attribution remain over The Cardsharps, once owned by the late Italian Baroque specialist Denis Mahon

Mahon bought The Cardsharps for £50,400 (est £20,000-£30,000) when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s, London in 2006, ascribed to a 17th-century “follower” of the artist. Mahon believed it to be by the master

A controversial Caravaggio that belonged to the late collector and scholar Denis Mahon is due to be unveiled in April at the Museum of the Order of St John in London. Although the rest of Mahon’s 58 Italian Baroque paintings have been bequeathed to UK public collections, the long-term future of The Cardsharps is uncertain, because of the question of attribution.

The Cardsharps came up for sale at Sotheby’s, London in 2006, ascribed to a 17th-century “follower” of the artist and estimated at between £20,000 and £30,000. Mahon bought it for £50,400 (the hammer price was £42,000), believing it to be by the master. The seller, Lancelot William Thwaytes, is now taking legal action against Sotheby’s because of its alleged misattribution, but the claim is being robustly rejected by the auction house.

After Mahon acquired The Cardsharps he offered it on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The museum was willing to accept it, but only if the label read “attributed to Caravaggio”, and this was rejected by him.

Instead he lent the picture to Italy—to Trapani, Forlì and then Cento. It was at the Pinacoteca di Cento last May when the earthquake struck, and the gallery was damaged (it remains closed). For export and insurance purposes, Mahon’s loan was valued at £10m. Its UK temporary export licence expired in July 2012, but there were problems with the bureaucracy in getting the necessary Italian export papers, and it did not arrive back in Britain until last October.

When The Cardsharps was bought, ownership was shared between Mahon and his close friend, Orietta Benocci Adam. She is now the sole owner, following Mahon’s death in 2011 at the age of 100.

The Caravaggio attribution remains controversial. It is accepted by some key Italian scholars, including Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, and Mina Gregori, a Florentine specialist. Others reject it, regarding it as a copy of the authentic version (around 1595), which is at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Sebastian Schütze, a professor of history of art at the University of Vienna, states in his recent catalogue raisonné that the quality of execution of the Mahon work “suggests the painting to be a copy”.

Mahon required that The Cardsharps should be on public view. The Museum of the Order of St John is an appropriate venue, since Caravaggio was a member of the Catholic order of the Knights of St John.

The price of The Cardsharps was almost exactly the same as the £50,000 estimate of what Mahon spent on the rest of his collection, which he began to assemble in the 1930s. The 58 works are now worth around £100m—an indication of rising prices for Italian Baroque pictures.

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29 Mar 13
15:16 CET


Neither The Cardsharps nor the 2011 attribution of St Augustin (120 x 190 cm (approx. 4' x 3') (which I was able to study up close on several occasions at the National Gallery of Canada) are anywhere near being Caravaggio creations. The compositions, the drawing skill display, the lighting - nothing says Caravaggio in either of these paintings). It behoves experts to look to those visual experts in the area of drawing and painting for a more analytic assessment of the constantly cropping up Caravaggio attributions. Again. . . It’s more about money than fact these days.

29 Mar 13
15:16 CET


Extraordinarily fine quality—clearly an attribution to Caravaggio is very plausible, subject to further research.

29 Mar 13
15:18 CET


This piece during the Barouque Period have some little comment. As artist-painter myself have a book as per my references of the work of the Master Caravaggio, with this picture of his work... can hardly find the reality of of his creation. I found it very complicating. The negative and positive composition that varies: The distribution of light / highlights on their faces have some doubts .... meaning, if the highlights of the man on the left side so strong, how come the next is so dark that includes the man at the back too. Well, can this happened because its so old work?

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