Books: The cautionary tale of America’s other “Leonardo”

The painting that still languishes in a vault, despite nearly a century of squabbling


John Brewer, the highly-regarded historian of 18th-century British culture and commerce, has turned his attention to a very different time and place: 20th-century America. The core of this new book is the extraordinary story of Harry and Andrée Hahn, an ordinary young married couple who claimed to have a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and not just any Leonardo but the autograph version of La Belle Ferronière, about 1490, one of the great treasures of the Louvre. Harry Hahn, a World War I veteran, met and married Andrée in France in 1919 and the painting, with its supposedly aristocratic provenance, was a wedding present from her aunt. When Sir Joseph Duveen incautiously and without seeing the Hahn La Belle, condemned it in a phrase, the Hahns sued him for slander, thus initiating a long-running story of art-detection and financial haggling that has gone on almost up to the present day. The court case raised publicly a number of questions about expertise and connoisseurship, provenance, the canon and other esoteric matters not normally debated by an inevitably inexpert jury in a court of law.

The Hahn La Belle is just a chapter in Duveen’s headlong career, and the story on its own, even when told in the minute detail made possible by Brewer’s use of the court records, would not amount to a whole book. However Brewer uses this framework to examine a range of issues surrounding art and collecting, money, authenticity, fakes and forgeries and sheer human credulity in the face of the mystique of the art world. He first paints in the background to the art scene in the US as America plays catch-up with the Old World of European culture, embarking on old master collecting on a grand scale and establishing museums and galleries in the fast-growing industrial cities. The Gilded Age social scene unfolds through the eyes of Henry James and Edith Wharton and the dealing world is unravelled in the diaries of the waspish René Gimpel. The central motif of the Hahn affair is buttressed by the exploration of a number of more academic issues, such as the attempts by G.B. Cavalcaselle and Giovanni Morelli to bring science and academic rigour the role of connoisseurship in authenticating old master paintings. Bernard Berenson naturally plays a part in a scenario that threatened to expose his often mixed motives in sharing his expertise. Leonardo’s modern reputation is explored to give context to the Hahn’s La Belle. Gradually one after another the players appear on the scene, among them Berenson’s rival Robert Langton Douglas and the mandarin and evasive young director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark. Although La Belle was not regarded as a fake, since disputed attributions have some common ground with the world of faking and forgery, the cases of Van Meegeren’s Vermeers and the Wacker Van Goghs feature as well. Muddying the waters throughout is the failure of this array of experts to agree on the authorship of the Louvre painting, a matter of considerable confusion during the court case and its aftermath. In the event, Duveen settled out of court with the Hahns, paying them the considerable sum of $60,000.

Of course, neither La Belle nor the several other hopeful contenders that circled the American firmament briefly in the boom years of American art collecting, is the “American Leonardo” (a title incidentally bestowed on America’s artist-inventor Samuel Morse). That distinction belongs to the early portrait by Leonardo of Ginevra de’ Benci bought from the House of Liechtenstein for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1967, setting what was then a world record for the price of $5m. Ginevra remains even today the only painting by Leonardo in a North American museum, and given that fact, the furore surrounding the appearance on the American market in 1920 of La Belle actually seems almost muted. Had it been proved to be by Leonardo and acquired, as the Hahns had hoped, by the fledgling Kansas Art Institute (eventually to emerge as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), it would have been a civic coup almost beyond imagination. Brewer devotes a chapter to Kansas City and the tortuous progress towards the Nelson-Atkins Museum and cultural coming-of-age.

The Hahn saga continued after World War II, re-ignited by Harry Hahn’s book, The Rape of “La Belle” (1946). What followed was an endless succession of wearisome and ultimately inconclusive negotiations for the painting to be first recognised as authentic and then sold. This involved much scientific and pseudo-scientific analysis and another group of experts. As with every hopeful new direction in the “Hahn affair”, the verdict is again unproven. La Belle still lives in a safe deposit, its status and fate both unresolved.