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Estimated at £150,000-200,000, the short piece from Beethoven's ‘Late’ period had descended through the family of the vendor and was catalogued as an “Autograph manuscript of the ‘Allegretto in B-Minor for string quartet’ composed for an English visitor to Vienna in 1817”.

Its attribution was questioned by Professor Barry Cooper of the University of Manchester who said he was “certain” that the manuscript was not in Beethoven’s hand. Cooper said the 23-bar piece was “not an original” and pointed to a mistake in the penultimate bar where a D note appears instead of a C.

“Beethoven wouldn’t make a mistake like that,” he said.

Sotheby’s said that it stands by its description of the manuscript as “an authentic and important piece of musical history”.  It also stated that its “view is shared by the majority of world-renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally”.

This morning Cooper appeared on the BBC’s Today programme debating the issue alongside Simon Maguire, head of musical manuscripts at Sotheby's. The two men clashed over their assessment of whether it was handwritten by the German composer or a contemporaneous copy.

Maguire said: “I don’t agree with the mistakes that Professor Cooper seems to identify. I’ve been through the manuscript with other Beethoven experts and they think it’s more a matter of Professor Cooper misreading the manuscript than anybody else, let alone Beethoven.”

Notes and Signs

Cooper said he believed some of the notes were miscopied and the marks Beethoven used to cancel-out sharps “are completely different to any natural signs in any genuine Beethoven manuscript”.

“I don’t agree with his analysis of what the manuscript says,” said Maguire.

“I went through the sketches for [Beethoven’s] Opus101 and they were full of natural signs like this.

“Before this, professor Cooper had told us Beethoven didn’t do beams with curves on them and I went straight to a manuscript that we had sold in 1990 and it had lots examples and so does the manuscript of Opus 101.”

During the sale earlier today, Sotheby’s auctioneer addressed the controversy from the rostrum before offering the lot, announcing that the questions surrounding the attribution were “not supported by Sotheby’s or by the contemporaneous record".

“Direct Impact on Auction”

Beethoven manuscripts appear occasionally at auction and the £150,000-200,000 estimate here did not appear excessive for an unrecorded discovery. Last month, Sotheby’s sold a sketch-leaf for Beethoven’s  “Emperor” piano concerto for £377,000 (including premium) which was over double its high estimate.

The manuscript at the current sale was a single sheet notated in dark brown ink with a complete twenty-three bar piece which was billed as “a second and unrecorded autograph manuscript of Beethoven's farewell present given to one of three Englishmen who visited Beethoven in Vienna in November 1817”.

It was discovered at Pencarrow House in Cornwall in 1999 alongside another piece which the auctioneers sold in December 1999 and is now in the Bodmer Library in Geneva-Cologny.

While the controversy certainly affected market confidence in the manuscript, Sotheby’s released a statement to ATG saying Cooper’s intervention had “had a direct impact on the auction sale”.

“We believe it was irresponsible for a third party to raise doubts about Beethoven’s “Allegretto” in B Minor manuscript when they had not inspected it first-hand or taken into account its provenance and the inscription by an English vicar confirming that it was composed and written by Beethoven.”

Record for Mahler’s Resurrection

The debate over the ‘Allegretto in B-Minor’ sheet however did not dent demand for the key lot of the Sotheby’s sale – the complete manuscript of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”).

Selling at £4.55m including premium, the price set an auction record for any musical manuscript, surpassing the previous high of £2.59m which had stood since Sotheby’s sold a manuscript of nine Mozart symphonies in 1987.

Spanning 232 page, it was written entirely in the composer’s distinctive hand and included Mahler’s deletions, alterations and annotations.

Mahler Second Symphony auction

A page from the complete manuscript of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”) which was offered at Sotheby’s showing the composer’s annotations in blue crayon. Selling at £4.55m including premium, it set a record for any autograph music manuscript.

It came to auction from the estate of the American economist and businessman, Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016), a Mahler devotee who was able to realise his dream of conducting the composer’s second symphony with the world’s greatest orchestras.