The modestly estimated bronze, measuring 51/2in (14cm) high and modelled as a winged putto clasping a snake, had been catalogued as Italian 17th century in an April mixed sale held by California auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield.
Subsequent research has revealed that in 1913 this same statuette had been lent by the distinguished English collector J.P. Heseltine to the exhibition Italian Sculpture of the Renaissance at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. The four bronze reliefs of centaurs and lapiths on the base (seemingly associated) were then catalogued as the work of Foppa Ambrogia Caradosso (1445?-1527) and the statuette itself as from the ‘School of Donatello’.
Daniel Katz, whose most sensational discovery was the Giambologna marble Female Figure now in the Getty Museum, is, however, convinced this is a bronze modelled by the hands of Donatello (c.1386-1466) himself some time between 1420-50.
“This is an autograph work by the greatest sculptor who ever lived,” Katz was quoted as saying in The Times and those who are shown the bronze in Mr. Katz’s Jermyn Street gallery are confidently told by staff it is an autograph Donatello.
Attributing a ‘discovered’ work to one of the greatest names of Western art is a notoriously problematic process. The problems are compounded in this particular case by the fact that no comparable small-scale secular statuettes (as distinct from finial figures) were made by Donatello, or indeed any of his mid-15th century contemporaries. In other words, if this bronze is a genuine autograph work, Donatello will have invented the Renaissance statuette.
Given the significance of the issues and the lack of directly comparable works, scholars have as yet been more cautious about confirming the statuette’s autograph status.
Jeremy Warren, who curated the much-lauded Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: The Fortnum Collection exhibited at Daniel Katz’s gallery last July, described the object as “a very important 15th century bronze, almost certainly from Florence, very close to Donatello”.
Further scholarly opinions are sure to be aired in Apollo and The Burlington Magazine. But in the meantime Mr Katz, who intends to keep the bronze for his own personal collection, remains convinced that his £3500 sleeper is a Donatello masterpiece.
But how can he be so sure?
“I have my reasons, but I can’t go into them at the moment,” explained Mr. Katz, snatching a few moments on the telephone during his hectic round of meetings with important scholars and clients. “I’ve taken the bronze to Italy and it compares very favourably with the figures on the Siena Baptistry font.”
The difficulties of attribution at this level can be seen in the example highlighted in last month’s issue of Apollo. This contained a closely-argued article by Detlef Heikamp, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Technische Universität, Berlin, de-attributing to an unknown Tuscan Mannerist sculptor the ‘Michelangelo’ Archer which created so many headlines in the mid-1990s when it was ‘re-discovered’ in the French embassy in New York.
According to Heikamp, “the magic powers associated with the name of Michelangelo are such that supposed new discoveries tend to be over-valued”. Heikamp’s article goes on to suggest that the power of the Michelangelo name “lures scholars to put forward unsustainable hypotheses”.
A question of attribution
ITALIAN Renaissance sculpture made a rare splash in the national news last week with the announcement that a £3500 bronze bought in Los Angeles by leading London works of art dealer Daniel Katz was now identified as a “multimillion pound masterpiece by Donatello”.