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The Cost of Poor Care: Multi-millions

When I saw a digital image of the Pontormo portrait of Cosimo I de Medici, which was up for sale at Christie’s yesterday, I fell in love with it. It’s a beautiful pose, a study in black. But then I heard from art historians about how abraded the surface was — some said they could not even stand to look at it.

452px-Cosimo_I_de_Medici_by_Jacopo_Carucci_(called_Pontormo)And surely, the presale estimate was a giveaway: $300,000 to $500,000 for a Pontormo? It would, some experts said, be worth $30 million to $50 million if it were in good condition. The Metropolitan Museum doesn’t even own a Pontormo. The Getty paid more than $35 million in 1989 for Pontormo’s Portrait of a Halberdier – more than $65 million in today’s dollars.

Could varnish, retouching and other poor maintenance choices really destroy the picture that much? Who would do that?

Earlier this week, I went to Christie’s to see for myself — and while I can look at the picture, I did see the obvious problem. It’s flat and one can see the retouching brush strokes. Most of the damage, I was told, was done decades ago, not recently.

So I was very curious to see what happened at the sale. The hammer fell at $600,000 — and with premium the price was $725,000.

So someone still wanted the work.

But, boy is this a lesson in care.


  1. Jim vankitk says:

    Let’s see 725 k against 30 $mil I guess you could afford to restore it. There’s a great Chinese copiest in Brooklyn who been out of work for a few years. I bet he could do a great job.

  2. Scott Redford says:

    Yes indeed. There is famous Australian work by Arthur Streeton that is included in all the surveys etc that has a central small figure that one cannot believe the artist left that way. It’s so crudely finished, the fave and nose are just a couple of sharp strokes in the centre of a very nice impressionistic landscape. I complained to an art dealer friend and he went on at length about a certain restorer in Australia who is “ruining” pictures on a weekly basis and should be jailed he thought! It’s still going one out there it seems.

  3. I have to second Mr. Mosberg. Yours is the blog I refer folks at the Heard to most often. Please do keep on blogging, you’re providing an invaluable service to us out here in the Wild West!

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