The Mark of a Masterpiece

David Grann in The New Yorker:

Every few weeks, photographs of old paintings arrive at Martin Kemp’s eighteenth-century house, outside Oxford, England. Many of the art works are so decayed that their once luminous colors have become washed out, their shiny coats of varnish darkened by grime and riddled with spidery cracks. Kemp scrutinizes each image with a magnifying glass, attempting to determine whether the owners have discovered what they claim to have found: a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.

Kemp, a leading scholar of Leonardo, also authenticates works of art—a rare, mysterious, and often bitterly contested skill. His opinions carry the weight of history; they can help a painting become part of the world’s cultural heritage and be exhibited in museums for centuries, or cause it to be tossed into the trash. His judgment can also transform a previously worthless object into something worth tens of millions of dollars. (His imprimatur is so valuable that he must guard against con men forging not only a work of art but also his signature.) To maintain independence, Kemp refuses to accept payment for his services. “As soon as you get entangled with any financial interest or advantage, there is a taint, like a tobacco company paying an expert to say cigarettes are not dangerous,” he says.

Kemp, who is in his sixties, is an emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, and has spent more than four decades immersed in what he calls “the Leonardo business,” publishing articles on nearly every aspect of the artist’s life. (He even helped a daredevil design a working parachute, from linen and wooden poles, based on a Leonardo drawing.) Like many connoisseurs, Kemp has a formidable visual memory, and can summon into consciousness any of Leonardo’s known works. When vetting a painting, he proceeds methodically, analyzing brushstrokes, composition, iconography, and pigments—those elements which may reveal an artist’s hidden identity. But he also relies on a more primal force. “The initial thing is just that immediate reaction, as when we’re recognizing the face of a friend in a crowd,” he explains. “You can go on later and say, ‘I recognize her face because the eyebrows are like this, and that is the right color of her hair,’ but, in effect, we don’t do that. It’s the totality of the thing. It feels instantaneous.”

Read on

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