The disputed case of Lucian Freud


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In the spring of 1997, a Geneva art collector received a phone call from a contact at the city’s bankruptcy and legal process office. There was an auction coming up, for a property that had been unclaimed for nine years, and among the pieces was a painting a collector might want to look at: a canvas attributed to British artist Lucian Freud. The collector was a businessman, originally from North Africa, who used to pick up furniture and artwork at competitive prices from a large selection of galleries, antiques dealers and sales in Geneva. He is keen to maintain his privacy, so I will call him Omar.

Omar went to see the painting that day, at the auction house in Carouge, a southern suburb of the city. The property was owned by a man named Adolfo di Camillo, who died in 1988. According to auction records, it appeared that Di Camillo was also a collector. In the 1970s, he sold a 17th-century painting of Ban, the Greek shepherd god, previously thought to be Rubens.

The work attributed to Freud was a medium-sized natural oil painting of a naked man, painted from the side and from the back. Parts of the background seemed unfinished, or hastily drawn, but the figure itself was captured with skill and with a certain strength. “Oh, he’s interesting, he’s strong,” Omar remembers saying to himself.

The bankruptcy office had attached to this work an estimate of five hundred thousand Swiss francs (about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars). At that time, a recognized portrait of Freud of an eponymous sitter could fetch three times that amount. Omar asked his contact to block it, as one of the last of the sale groups, so that the room would be quieter. On the afternoon of March 7, Omar bought the painting for less than one hundred thousand Swiss francs, or seventy thousand dollars. He also picked up one of Di Camilo’s side tables, the shade of the lampshade, and a Giacometti-style bronze sculpture.

“After I bought the painting, I went home and put it in the rest of my collection and forgot about it,” Omar told me in French when, earlier this year, we met at an expensive lakefront hotel in Geneva. He was wearing a Harrods baseball cap and was carrying a plastic bag. For years, Freud’s scholarly and candid portraits ran counter to the fervent appetite of the contemporary art market, which was for abstraction. Although he was a popular painter in England, in part due to his nickname (Sigmund, his grandfather, went to London as a refugee in 1938), Freud was a respected artist rather than a modernist artist in Europe. In 2002, Omar watched a program about his career on Swiss television, which prompted him to learn more about the painting. So put it on eBay.

Omar posted the ad on the evening of Saturday 30 November. The item description reads “Painting of Lucian Freud”. Omar told me he did not intend to sell the business; Instead, he hoped to get rid of the information. “To do a survey,” he said. Four days later, Omar received a message from the auction site: His item was banned due to a copyright complaint. He called the eBay office in France, and was told the complaint came from the artist.

According to Omar, a few days later the phone rang in his apartment. It was early in the afternoon. Omar recalls: “I said, ‘Hello,’ and after a long time I heard a voice: ‘I am Freud, Lucian Freud.'” The voice, speaking in English, but with a Germanic rasp, said that he was the rightful owner of Omar’s painting and that he wanted it back. (Put Omar says his phone number is on an eBay ad.) Omar says that Freud offered him a hundred thousand Swiss francs, which he refused.

Three days later, the voice called. This time, according to Omar, the man was angry. Freud was eighty years old at the time. The caller offered Omar twice what he paid for the painting, but the collector refused to sell it. ‘No.’ Omar remembers saying. ‘I love this painting.’ I love this. He said, “Damn you.” “You’re not going to sell the painting for your whole life,” he said, I remember. And the line was closed. “

Omar has been trying to unravel the meaning of this call – and confirm the authenticity of his paintings – for the past twenty years. Owning a work of art that is contested, and perhaps of great value, is a severe test of anyone’s aesthetic values, underlying reason, and the innate (often well disguised) capacity for greed. Close your eyes and you will find millions of dollars hanging on the wall. Open it up, and there’s nothing to see. Hope simmers, dies for years at a time, then sparkles again, at odd moments. The issue of authorship can be very simple and frighteningly difficult to solve. Labs and lawyers may tell you what you want to hear, and charge an hourly fee. Omar always showed confidence when we spoke. He told me more than once “there is a beautiful story behind this painting”. But there were days this year when I wish I hadn’t heard of it at all.

Thierry Navarro was asked to get to the bottom of the authentication issue.

In July 2005, Omar shipped the painting to London, where it was examined by William Pfeiffer, a longtime confidant of Freud and his biographer. By this time, Omar was wondering if it could be a self-portrait, citing a similarity between the figure’s face and Freud’s portraits from the 1950s and 1960s. In customs documents, it was announced that the value of the painting amounted to one million Swiss francs.

Pfeiffer gave a thumbs down: the feet were incomplete, which was not Freud’s; The body was built too heavily on the portrayal of the self; The background was off style. When I asked Pfeiffer about the photo recently, after nearly seventeen years of viewing, he had no memory of seeing it at all. But after consulting his diaries, he agreed with his initial confirmation, recorded by an exhibition assistant at the time. “If it had been this spectrum that I entered, he would have said frankly that it was not by Freud,” said Pfeiffer. “There is nothing like it in Lucian’s work whatsoever, anywhere, to survive . . . . each believable one is fundamentally different from this exact, painstaking, and correct thing.”

Freud was shown photographs of the painting several times, by his daughter Esther and Pilar Ordovas, former vice-chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, who now works in an exhibition hall. Orduvas grew close to Freud in 2003, having brought to the market a rare urban spectacle for him, which he had not seen for thirty years. She became a regular visitor to his studio and took over his relationship with the auction house. “The artist was alive. I was doing my duty to show him this work, and I am a little embarrassed,” she told me. “He said, Pilar, certainly not.” There was not even an idea or question for a moment.” After Esther showed her father pictures of the painting, Freud asked that his name be removed from the frame.

Omar was more fortunate with the independent experts. In the summer of 2006, Nicholas Estow, a world expert in pigmentation analysis, traveled to Geneva. Esto examined the painting, now called “permanent nudes,” using a microscope, under ultraviolet light, and took sixteen small samples of the paint. Estow found “a series of points of similarity and correspondence” between Omar’s painting and Freud’s well-known works: traces of charcoal in the paint, the use of boar-hair brushes, favored by Freud starting in the late 1950s, and the presence of a loose rag. Preparatory drawing in pencil. On the lower edge of the painting, Esto also found a partial imprint, which could indicate a more specific connection to the artist.

In life, Freud was a strict guardian of his business and his idiosyncrasies. He communicated mostly by phone but did not give his number, and he changed it often. He was sensitive to the market because of his work and hated having his name signed. “He was willing to do whatever was necessary in order to protect what he believed was his right to be able to show the world what he wanted,” said Jordi Gregg, former editor of The Guardian newspaper. daily Mail And a friend of Freud who wrote a book about him told me.

Most of Freud’s failed paintings never left the studio. “Lucien was a thirsty destroyer of business that went wrong,” Le Fever wrote in an email. “I can remember many who were on death row. In general, these – images in particular – would be solid and often disproportionate.” Freud also kept an eye on the paintings long after he made them. Throughout his career, he became furious when substandard works found their way to the market or forgotten paintings reappeared. In the early 1950s, the home of Gerald Gardiner, Freud’s attorney at the time, was broken into, and one photograph was taken: a portrait of Carol, Gardiner’s daughter, which Freud painted but did not think much of. The story gave rise to a legend, encouraged by Freud, that he paid criminals to get paintings that pissed him off or regretted seeing them in the world. Late in his life, one of Freud’s daughters, Rose Beuth, hesitated to send him a painting to endorse it, fearing that he would punch it instead.

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