Caravaggio 'Copy' Could Be Real

A painting originally bought by a British naval doctor for 140 pounds ($218) in 1962 may now be worth as much as 10 million pounds if his descendant can prove it’s a real Caravaggio.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are watching this dispute play out in a London courtroom.

The authenticity of “The Cardsharps” is at the heart of a lawsuit against Sotheby’s, which judged the artwork a 17th-century copy.

Described as by “Caravaggio (After)” in the 1962 auction, where U.K. Royal Navy Surgeon Captain William Glossop Thwaytes bought it five decades ago, the painting was sold again through Sotheby's in 2006 for 42,000 pounds.

The recent purchaser, the British collector Denis Mahon, has since declared the work an original and valued it at 10 million pounds, according to court documents in London.

The naval surgeon’s descendant, Lancelot Thwaytes, is suing Sotheby’s over the prior valuations, and the case is scheduled to go to trial next year.

Dark, Dramatic

Authenticated works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who died at the age of 38 in 1610, rarely appear on the art market. No painting catalogued as being by the artist has appeared at auction this century. His dark, dramatic paintings are coveted by many wealthy art collectors for their rarity.

The price at which the painting sold in 2006 reflects that the art market believed it was a copy, Sotheby’s said in an e-mailed statement. Its classification of the painting as a replica is supported by a Caravaggio scholar and “several other leading experts in the field.”

“The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers,” the auction house said. “Had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realized would doubtless have reflected that.”

The piece in dispute, currently on view at the Museum of the Order of St. John in London, is nearly identical to one of the same name by Caravaggio that’s on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The paintings depict two boys playing cards, one of whom has extra cards tucked behind him in his belt.

William Glossop Thwaytes, who also owned another Caravaggio, considered his “Cardsharps” authentic, according to the lawsuit.

The subsequent owner, Mahon, who died in 2011 at the age of 100, was a well-known collector and art historian. He left 58 Italian Baroque-period paintings to public collections in the U.K. “The Cardsharps” wasn’t included in the bequest because of attribution concerns.

Lancelot Thwaytes claims Sotheby’s didn’t adequately test the painting using 2006 x-ray/pigment technology, nor consult experts.

The case is Mr. Lancelot William Thwaytes v Sotheby’s, U.K. High Court of Justice, Chancery Division, case no. HC12F03128.