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James Beck, 1930-2007, Renegade Renaissance Scholar

I was just thinking of calling James Beck for his opinion about the Raphael portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to be offered July 5 by Christie’s, London. Now I can’t.

Always provocative and often right (think the “Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue,” maybe the Metropolitan Museum’s Duccio, and, to my mind, the Sistine Ceiling’s scrubbing), Beck was a master gadfly and debunker of artworld orthodoxies. His bully pulpits were his professorship at Columbia University and ArtWatch International, the watchdog group of which he was founder and president.

As for the Raphael—the seller, New York dealer Ira Spanierman, had bought it in 1968, “when there were doubts about its authenticity,” writes Louise Jury of the London Evening Standard. And I learned from U.K. blog Art History Today that Beck had regarded the painting as “a crude variant of what was originally a large, standing three-quarter length state portrait,” as blogger David Packwood paraphrased the art historian’s 1975 article in the Burlington Magazine.

In its press release about the painting, Christie’s notes that it “was the subject of attributional debate with regards to both the artist and the sitter from 1862,” but is “now accepted by all major scholars of the artist.”

Beck’s last book, published just a few months ago, From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis (European Press Academic Publishing), takes issue with several high-profile attributions, including the Met’s Duccio.

I’ll miss his erudite, righteously indignant rants.

UPDATE: An appreciation in the London Times, unsigned online but written by Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch U.K., is here.

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