Is this a Holbein? The market will decide at Maastricht next month

Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota says no, but the director of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, among others, believes it is

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The disputed Holbein Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt is to go on sale at the Maastricht fair next month, for $10m. London’s Weiss Gallery is selling the picture on behalf of antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs, who bought it in 1974 for £2,800, as the work of an anonymous artist.

The portrait had come up for sale at Sotheby’s in London on 5 July last year, with an estimate of £2m-£3m (then $3.7m-$5.6m), but it failed to sell. Its chances at auction may have been affected by a report in our July issue (p1), pointing out that it had not been requested by curator Dr Susan Foister for her “Holbein in England” exhibition, which closed at Tate Britain last month. This suggested that she had doubts about the attribution. After it failed to sell at Sotheby’s, Mr Gibbs apparently turned down a private offer of £1.3m.

Since then, old restoration has been removed and the painting was sent to the Tate for a detailed examination. On 18 December Sir Nicholas Serota wrote to Mark Weiss, saying that “our curatorial and conservation staff have looked at it closely in the conservation studio and have consulted with internationally recognised experts”.

Although no names were mentioned, presumably Dr Foister, of the National Gallery, played a key role in the Tate’s consultations. She is the world’s leading specialist on Holbein’s English period, having published a monograph in 2004 and curated the Tate exhibition.

Sir Nicholas concluded that his specialists had determined that “your painting is not by Holbein”. Eight reasons were cited, ranging from the large scale of the head in relation to the size of the picture to the pink priming.

Mr Weiss, an established Tudor and Stuart portrait dealer, disputes the Tate’s findings, and has commissioned his own research. He now plans to exhibit Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt at Maastricht and it is being published in the Tefaf catalogue as a Holbein of around 1540. Tefaf has tough vetting procedures, so the key question is whether the fair organisers will permit the picture to be hung as a “Holbein”.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt has already been examined by London dealer Anthony Speelman, chairman of Tefaf’s old master vetting committee, and Professor Bernd Lindemann, another key member of the vetting team. Professor Lindemann is director of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie and knowledgeable on Holbein. They have both seen the Tate letter. According to Mr Weiss, “Mr Speelman and Professor Lindemann support the attribution”.

Other experts whom Mr Weiss has consulted and who believe the work is authentic include Sir Roy Strong (former director of the National Portrait Gallery in London), Dr Jochen Sander and Dr Bodo Brinkmann (both Städel, Frankfurt), Libby Sheldon (University College, London) and Katherine Ara (independent).

Last month, Mr Weiss said his main reasons for accepting the portrait as a Holbein are based on connoisseurship: “I clearly see the hand of Holbein in this groundbreaking work and given the close patronage of Holbein by three generations of the Wyatt family, the unprecedented nature of the all’antico design in English portraiture, the artist’s characteristic manner of its execution, both on the surface and in the ravishing underdrawing, it surely cannot be by any other artist.”

In December, a UK export licence was issued for the Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt. On the application form Mr Weiss described the picture as a Holbein, valuing it at the sterling equivalent of $10m. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council did not accept that it was a Holbein, and a licence was therefore granted. Had the attribution been accepted, a licence for an English Holbein would almost certainly have been deferred, to enable a UK buyer to match the price.

The decision on the painting’s status is now up to the market, and its verdict will be delivered after the Maastricht fair opens on 9 March. In a letter sent to Sir Nicholas on 23 January, Mr Weiss said that he is “grateful that this debate is finally in the open, and with all the opposing evidence that you have provided available for discussion”.

If authentic, it is the only surviving portrait of Holbein’s English period in private ownership.

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