A LAWYER AND THE
LOST  CARAVAGGIO

Michael
Sean Quinn**

            Lawyers are from time to time
involved in commercial or mercantile problems related to fine art. A few large
firms have departments specializing in it. There are several forms of insurance
for it. From time to time, lawyers get involved in litigation over this or that
piece, and they played a good sized role in dealing with Nazi looting. Lawyering
art fraud and art forgery can be lots of fun.

If you enjoy this
kind of thing, you will find Jonathan Harr’s THE LOST PAINTING published in
2005 more than merely amusing.  It is not
really about lawyers and the arts. It is not actually about frauds and
forgeries.

It is really about
two graduate students, two art historians, and one or two art restorers finding
a lost painting of Michelangelo Mersi da [or some combination of names, anyway] Caravaggio.  (Incidentally, Harr is also the author of a
very exciting book on a whole series of law-related  events, A CIVIL ACTION, published some years
ago. Its topic was a water contamination case in Massachusetts during the
1980s.)

Really informed
scholars knew that it had existed at one point in time, several centuries, but
had been missing for centuries, and all those with qualifications agreed that
none of the look-alikes were the original but merely quite good copies.

Harr’s tale is of
two Italian art history graduate students looking for something else—another
Caravaggio—to see there was an uncontroversial original. Along the way, they
found meaningful clues as to the existence of the lost painting, namely The Taking of Christ, a dark but
exquisite work.

Here is to be found
something implied about lawyering.  The
“girls” spent months combing through very old—centuries old—commercial
documents regarding various aspects of sales and logistics. Some of the work
had to be conducted in the “archives” of long wealthy families, some of whom
had come on what many of us would regard as hard times, and some of it was
conducted in more comfortable, not to mention, European libraries.  Does any of this sound a little like what
junior lawyers in large commercial firms do all the time?

Eventually, our
heroines confirmed which of the first painting was the original and became
involved in locating the Taking. It
turned out to be in a Jesuit monastic building in Dublin.

Restoration began.
It was a long and arduous process, and a nearly disastrous mistake was made in
its “relininig.”*  During this period,
and immediately afterward, the Order had to decide what to do with it. It was
too much an international treasure to keep in a monastery residence
building.  Hence, should it be sold?
Should it be sent to Rome and housed in the city out of which the painter had
to escape to avoid a charge of murder? Or what?

(*This is a  traditional method to address restoration
problems involving “ancient” paintings. Its function is to reinforce the back
of the canvas by attaching a new canvas to the old one.  The process often referred to as “relining.”
A number of techniques and adhesives have been employed to do this, but as with
all methods there is a risk of altering the surface texture of the painting if
the procedure is not exactly right. Some compare—perhaps extravagantly–relining
to heart surgery, and it is done “nose to canvas,” like a lot of other painting
identification and restoration work.  In
this case, the mistake was to use Irish linen as the reliner, as opposed to
Italian material.  The reason was that it
would take too long to get the Italian stuff to Dublin, given that the
restoration process was behind schedule and over budget, I think. Perhaps there
was a bit of nationalism involved too, I conjecture. In any case, the error was
corrected and no injury to the painting can be found.)

At this point we get
an explicit inclusion of an Irish lawyer
It had been decided that the paint would go to the national museum in
Dublin, but it was not be given or sold to it. It was to be lent to it pretty
much forever.  After an oral agreement
had been reached following international but very quiet debates and various
negotiations, in which lawyers undoubtedly participated, “the Jesuit lawyer
[then] worked out the conditions of the indefinite loan, none of them very
stringent. The gallery would consult the Jesuits on all matters concerning the
painting, such as loans to other museums, which would require Jesuit approval.
The society would also derive income from licensing the rights to the
painting’s reproduction on cards and posters. And finally, the gallery would
provide a full-sized, high-quality reproduction, complete with fame, to hang on
the empty wall in the parlor of the” Jesuit residence where the picture had
been found.” Although nothing is said about this, I conjecture that more than
one lawyer reviewed this document; I think I would call it a “quasi-lease.”

Three closing
points.  First, I realized for the first
time how little classical religious painting have often had to do with
spirituality or religious institutions. The real focus is on beauty and drama.
. . .period!  (Well. Maybe not completely.  There is also the commercial value painting
can generate out of interior decorating.) Second, Harr ignores the dimensions insurance
must have played in the final transaction he discusses and in many, if not all,
of the later ones. I would expect that lawyers would have a continuing
involvement in those processes too. Finally, I note that a knowledgeable
satirist might be tempted to  call the
arrangement between the Jesuit Order and the museum a Jesuit “indulgence.”

Michael Sean Quinn, Ph.D.,
J.D., C.P.C.U. . . .

The Law Firm of Michael Sean Quinn et

Quinn and Quinn

                                                  1300 West Lynn Street, Suite 208

                                                              Austin,
Texas 78703

                                                                  (512)
296-2594

                                                             (512)
344-9466 – Fax

                                                  E-mail:  mquinn@msquinnlaw.com

Originally posted on 09/01/2015 @ 9:29 pm

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc. (530)

One of Texas's leading insurance scholars, Michael Sean Quinn is a past chair of the Insurance Section of the State Bar of Texas and has a broad legal practice.

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