$16 Million Work by Leonardo da Vinci Discovered—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week

Artsy Editors
Dec 16, 2016 10:39PM

Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.

01  A Paris auction house has found a $15.8 million drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the first such discovery in 16 years.

(via the New York Times)

In March, a retired doctor visited French auction house Tajan with a file of unframed drawings. One of them, a pen-and-ink study of St. Sebastian tied to a tree, immediately caught the eye of Thaddée Prate, director of Old Master pictures. Prate sought a second opinion from an independent dealer and adviser, then a third from Carmen C. Bambach, curator of Italian and Spanish drawings at the Met. Both outside experts attributed the work to da Vinci, with Bambach calling it an “open-and-shut case.” The drawing has been dated between 1482 and 1485, when da Vinci lived in Milan and painted the first version of The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86). According to Bambach, this represents the first undisputed da Vinci drawing discovered since 2000, when Sotheby’s offered up a chalk-and-ink study of Hercules and whirlpools by the Italian polymath. In accordance with French heritage laws, the country could declare this work a “national treasure” to prevent it from being exported. That would grant the government 30 months to produce a sum of money equivalent to “fair international market value” of the drawing.

02  ISIS militants have regained control of the historic city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site revered for its antiquities.

(via the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press)

On Sunday, the Islamic State drove out forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who had been defending Palmyra since gaining control of the city last March in what was considered the first significant victory in the fight against ISIS. During the conflict, Russian warplanes launched 64 airstrikes, likely causing serious damage to the city, which dates back to the Neolithic era and was renowned for its ruins and antiquities. ISIS last captured the city in May 2015, whereupon, during their 10-month command, they destroyed and looted priceless artifacts, monuments, and architecture, including grave damage to the Arch of Triumph, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, and ancient tombs dating as far back as A.D. 44. They also beheaded the city’s archaeological director. After recovering the city in March, Syrian antiquities officials and experts had begun talks about restoration efforts, though they estimated little could be done in the near term, given the city’s severe loss of life and infrastructure. At that point, many of the remaining valuables—namely the contents of the Palmyra museum—were moved to Damascus. Officials now fear the Islamic State will be even more destructive in its new tenure in the city. Syrian antiquities official Maamoun Abdulkarim told the Associated Press, “I fear they will be more vengeful.”

03  In the latest shift at the top of the auction world, Christie’s announced on Wednesday that CEO Patricia Barbizet will step down.

(via the New York Times)

Barbizet will be replaced by Guillaume Cerutti, who currently serves as Christie’s president of Europe, Middle East, Russia, and India. A Christie’s press release says Barbizet initiated the change, which will see her continuing her role as CEO of the auction house’s parent company, Artémis, a position she retained during her two-year tenure at Christie’s. Barbizet will also continue to serve on Christie’s board as vice chairwoman, with owner François Pinault assuming the role of chairman. Barbizet joined the auction house as CEO in 2014, following the departure of Steven P. Murphy, and her role was often characterized as temporary. She is replaced by Cerutti, who previously served as deputy chairman in Europe and chief executive in France at competitor Sotheby’s, before leaving the house in 2015. He also served as managing director of the Centre Georges Pompidou. With Barbizet remaining in a close advisory capacity to Cerutti, great change is not expected at the 250-year-old auction house. But the transition comes just one week after Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, announced his departure from the house, to create Lévy Gorvy with dealer Dominique Lévy. It also comes at a time when both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are struggling to convince collectors to consign top lots amid a cyclical contraction in the art market.

04  The Gurlitt trove of some 1,500 artworks, the discovery of which gripped the art world in 2013, will enter the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, following a court ruling.

(via the New York Times)

The decision by a Munich court ends a challenge by a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt, Uta Werner, who contended that Gurlitt was mentally unfit when drawing up his will in 2014. In the will, Gurlitt bequeathed the collection—including works by Marc ChagallAuguste RodinHenri Matisse, and Max Liebermann—in its entirety to the Swiss museum. Discovered in his Munich apartment as well as a home outside Salzburg, the works had been assembled by Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who collaborated with the Nazis. The collection’s seizure was brought on by a probe into potential unpaid taxes by the 81-year-old Gurlitt, only coming to light a year after police first raided the reclusive man’s apartment. It brought a wave of attention to the issue of Nazi-looted art and restitution. Five works from the Gurlitt hoard have since been restituted to their rightful heirs, but as many as 680 works still have questionable provenance. In the midst of this ongoing research, the Kunstmuseum Bern has been preparing for exhibitions of the collection in Germany and Switzerland, a process that can now continue.

05  The lawsuit over artist Cady Noland’s disavowed Log Cabin sculpture has been dismissed, although the work’s authenticity was not addressed.

(via The Art Newspaper)

Noland, who has a strong market and has in the past disavowed works she deems damaged, removed her authorship from the work in question after she learned that some of the logs had rotted and were replaced with new ones. The work’s 2014 contract of sale, between Ohio collector Scott Mueller and Michael Janssen Gallery in Berlin, stipulated that if Noland were to disavow it, Mueller would be refunded the $1.4 million he paid. After the work’s disavowal, the gallery paid Mueller $600,000; over a year later, he sued the gallery for the remaining $800,000. Due to the amount of time that passed before Mueller filed his complaint, a Manhattan court dismissed the case in early December. Mueller also sued his art adviser Marissa Newman, who he claims did not advise him in good faith, but the court sided against him, saying Newman had no “fiduciary relationship” with him. What the court did not resolve, however, and what is still an ongoing question, is whether an artwork can be attributed to an artist who disavows it.

06  Heritage Auctions has accused a Christie’s subsidiary of illegally lifting data from three million of Heritage’s listings in order to incorporate the information into its own subscription database.

(via the Dallas Morning News)

Heritage, a Dallas-based auction house focused on collectibles, filed the suit last Friday, seeking damages of up to $150,000 for each copyright infringement and up to $25,000 for each violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. With allegedly millions of plagiarized listings, damages could be hefty. Heritage has singled out the independently operated subsidiary Collectrium—a platform that claims to provide “searchable auction results from over 1,500 auction houses worldwide,” purchased by Christie’s in 2015—as the culprit in the data theft. Heritage said it first noticed something suspicious in July, and has since traced the data-mining software back to nearly 40 false accounts, including one under the name of superspy Jason Bourne. These accusations spotlight the growing phenomenon of “web scraping,” where a third party copies portions of another site for its own use. The practice has been ruled legal on occasion, although it’s less likely when the scraper is a direct competitor. This is not the first time the auction houses have clashed: In 2014, Heritage sued Christie’s for $40 million for persuading luxury handbag specialists to break their contracts. That case will go to trial in 2017.

07  English arts organizations suffer from a lack of diversity among their employees—especially those in leadership roles—according to a new report.

(via BBC News)

As part of its second annual audit of the 696 cultural institutions it supports, arts funding organization Arts Council England (ACE) surveyed staff diversity. The study revealed that while many of the museums, kunsthalles, collectives, and other entities they subsidize had improved racial and gender diversity within their staffs, high-level positions did not reflect this diversification. Directors, board members, and other organization executives remained largely white and male. Indeed, while ethnic minorities represent 15 percent of the general workforce, only 10 percent of artistic directors, 9 percent of board chairs, and 8 percent of chief executives are not white. “For change to be real, there needs to be more diversity at the top,” Darren Henley, ACE’s chief executive, told BBC News. The report also spotlighted an institutional lack of people who self-identify as disabled. While 19 percent of the general workforce is disabled, the percentage drops to four percent of the workforce in art institutions. Henley said ACE is in the process of conceiving a diversification strategy that they will encourage their funded organizations to adopt. While the full strategy has yet to be revealed, ACE did note that priorities will include increasing diversity at cultural organizations and attracting audiences from less affluent social groups.

08  In a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress unanimously passed a new bill geared toward helping Holocaust survivors and their families reclaim art looted by the Nazis.


Approved by the House on Wednesday and the Senate late last Friday night, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016 now heads to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law. The bill loosens the statute of limitations in restitution cases, generally increasing the amount of time Holocaust victims and their heirs have to file a lawsuit seeking the recovery of a stolen work after it is discovered. Backed by prominent figures including actress Helen Mirren and collector Ronald Lauder, the law would provide a single federal statute of limitations for such cases. Though the new unified limit would streamline the legal process and potentially allow new cases, critics say the HEAR Act still falls short. Still, the bill’s passage is at the very least a symbolic victory, showing Holocaust victims and their families that the issue can bring together even our bitterly divided Congress.

09  A court has ruled that hundreds of Crimean objects on loan to an Amsterdam museum are the property of Ukraine.

(via the New York Times)

On Wednesday, after a two-and-a-half-year legal dispute over the ownership of 565 rare objects from Crimea, an Amsterdam court ruled that they should be sent to Ukraine, where they will be housed in Kiev’s Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine. Crimean museums loaned the works to Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum for their exhibition “Crimea: Gold and Secrets From the Black Sea” in 2014, just before Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula (an action that was denounced by the UN and the EU). Since the close of the show, the works, valued at $1.57 million, have been held in storage in Amsterdam. Following the annexation, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture requested they receive the works, arguing that at the time of the exhibition, they were the property of Ukraine, and it was feared that if they were returned to Crimea, Russia would seize them. Crimean parties have three months to appeal the decision, though a Ukrainian court still needs to rule on which country is the rightful owner.

10  In one of the largest charitable donations in British history, property developer Harry Hyams has bequeathed his art collection to England.

(via The Telegraph)

From his £487 million estate, Hyams, the highly influential developer behind London’s Centre Point tower, has donated £450 million worth of fine art and vintage cars to England. The collection includes JMW Turner’s The Bridgewater Seapiece (1801), Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s Tristram and Iseult (1872), and Sir John Everett Millais (Millet)’s Cherry Ripe (1879), in addition to previously unseen work such as portraits by painter George StubbsHyams died last December at the age of 87, and now his collection will be made available to the public through The Capricorn Foundation, a charity he founded in 2010. The foundation will organize the display of his collection at his Wiltshire country home, Ramsbury Manor, which is famously remembered as the site of the largest domestic burglary in British history, from which millions of pounds’s worth of items are still at large. The charity will also see that his works are loaned to the nation’s museums and galleries.

Artsy Editors

Cover image courtesy of Tajan.