Caravaggio's The Cardsharps in Sotheby's legal battle

Sotheby's is at the centre of a legal battle this week, after claims that it misattributed Caravaggio's The Cardsharps.

Caravaggio cardsharps
The card cheat whose face is partly obscured by the page's hat was sketched in full, suggesting it was not done by a copy artist, who would have had no need to do so. Mahon's attribution has been widely accepted.

The work was sold by Sotheby's in 2006 for £42,000 ($67,564), and was attributed to a follower of Caravaggio rather than the master himself. However, upon purchase, its new owner declared the work an original, valuing it at £10m ($16m).

The seller, Lancelot Thwaytes, acquired the work as the descendant of a Royal Navy surgeon. He is now suing the auction house with claims that it did not complete sufficient tests prior to the sale.

However, Sotheby's refutes the claims, saying that its own team were capable of identifying the work and that it would not have used any of the experts that have backed Thwaytes' claims. They include Caravaggio biographer Helen Langdon and director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.

The buyer in 2006 was Sir Denis Mahon, who is known for identifying a number of Caravaggio works that were thought lost. He died in 2011, leaving many of his artworks to British art galleries and museums.

The version of The Cardsharps in question is the second known copy of the composition, with another housed in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas.

Papers filed by the auction house state: "The Kimbell Cardsharps was painted by Caravaggio with the striking virtuosity and realism for which his early works are famous. The quality of execution on display in the painting falls far short of the Kimbell original."

Caravaggio works are extremely rare, with the artist's life cut short at the age of 38 in 1610. Just 50 pieces were known to exist upon his death, and many of those are now housed in museums, leaving few on the private market.

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