Art law

Caravaggio or copycat: baroque bother in the High Court


If you want to dispute the ownership of a musical manuscript, loan your priceless Stradivarius violin to a young prodigy, or move one of your Old Masters to your overseas abode, Boodle Hatfield is the firm you need. With so many wealthy folk on its books, it's no surprise the firm has a thriving arts and cultural property practice. After all, the landed estates Boodle represents have valuable historic houses and chattels to be managed. And we all know how tricky inheritance issues can get.

Private clients of the high net worth variety often have assets in the form of art collections, which spur a whole host of attendant tax issues, and sometimes even authenticity disputes. Such disputes tend to attract a fair amount of attention thanks to the lucrative sums in the balance, not to mention the surrounding whiff of glamour and scandal.

Boodle has recently been involved in a case concerning a painting that may or may not be by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio. The work in question, The Cardsharps, was purchased in 1962 by Royal Navy surgeon William Glossop Thwaytes, who believed it to be authentic. However, when the doctor's descendant Lancelot Thwaytes sold the painting at Sotheby's in 2006, the auction house judged it to be but a copy. (The original is displayed at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.)

At Sotheby's, British collector and art historian Denis Mahon bought the painting for £42,000. In a twist, Mahon went on to declare the painting an original Caravaggio worth £10 million. Consequently, Lancelot Thwaytes – Boodle's client – brought a professional negligence claim against Sotheby's, arguing that the auction house didn't analyse the painting adequately and thus failed to classify it correctly. The trial lasted for four weeks, and in January 2015, it was ruled that Sotheby’s had not been negligent in its assessment – a result that training partner Richard Beavan describes as “a disappointing end to a good, tough fight.”

On a more positive note, he adds, “the case attracted a lot of media coverage, which has subsequently earned us a lot of exciting work.” One such case involved everyone's favourite spraypaint-wielding Bristolian: Boodle acted for an arts charity during an ownership dispute over one of Banksy's works, and secured a judgement to return the piece from the US to Folkestone, where it originally appeared. The spotlight has also been reflected onto Boodle itself, and trainees told us that “various members of the team were asked to do interviews on the BBC.”

The Caravaggio effect hasn't just been limited to ownership spats: we hear that the case's cultural significance attracted creative clients in areas such as social media and graphic design. Boodle hopes to entice others via the establishment of its 'Art Law & More' blog, which highlights the latest developments in the area, as well as new exhibitions that staff are keen to check out. “There are lot of art-appreciators here,” one trainee underlined, “so all are welcome to contribute to the blog. Going forward, it's thought that it'll be a useful business development tool to help build upon the strong reputation that we're garnering in the courts.”

Recent posts on Boodle's 'Art Law & More' blog have covered topics ranging from the potential effects of Brexit on art law to political correctness.