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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

Controversial Caravaggio to be unveiled in London
Questions about attribution remain over The Cardsharps, once owned by the late Italian Baroque specialist Denis Mahon

by Martin Bailey

March 2013--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.

Source: The Art Newspaper
Published online: 28 March 2013