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Duking It Out Over Duccio in Columbia Magazine

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Mark Steele in Columbia Magazine, Fall 2006
Another Met-sensitive book, also due out from an Italian publisher this month (after several delays), is James Beck‘s From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis, which elucidates his doubts about the attributions to Duccio of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Madonna and Child” and to Raphael of the London National Gallery’s “Madonna of the Pinks.”
Some preemptive damage control was exercised by the Met’s curator of European paintings, Keith Christensen, in a Columbia University publication that might have been expected to be more sympathetic to Beck, an art history professor at that university: The most recent issue of Columbia Magazine granted Christensen a forum for calling Beck “a lunatic”:
“Frankly,” Christiansen says, “Jim is out of his depth. It’s not enough to walk into a room, stand in front of something, and say, ‘Gee, I don’t like that. It must be a fake.’ You have to deal with the fact that there is a very considerable body of highly expertise scholarship [supporting a Duccio attribution]; and I’m not talking about us at the Met, I’m talking about the cumulative bibliography of this picture, people who really do know the material. No one’s had the remotest thought that this was a forgery.”
Christiansen, who has been with the Met since 1977 and has known Beck nearly as long, speaks with the passionate, civilized diction of an affronted connoisseur. “An institution can’t be in the position of defending a picture — for which there is no credible reason to have any doubts — against a lunatic who is not going to be satisfied with anything because he’s made up his mind.

Beck, also quoted in the article, slugs back:
“De Montebello has no expertise at all in anything,” Beck heartily rasps. “He’s a manager. He thinks he has expertise, and that’s what did him in.” As for the trustees, Beck sees a case of the blind leading the blind: “None of the trustees are experts at all, so they really have to believe in their experts.” And of Christiansen, whom Beck once hired to teach at Columbia, Beck says, “He is a very devoted lover of art, but [in approving the deal] I think he made a tragic mistake — probably the mistake of his career”….
Beck, for his part, appears philosophically resigned to being cast as a crank who says wild, reckless things.
“My task is impossible,” he says, “but somebody has to do it.”

Don’t you just love it when art historians get angry?

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