The Contentious World of Art Appraisal: Michelangelo, Van der Schardt and the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board*

The Canadian government offers a tax incentive to encourage the donation of art from private collections to public institutions, a practice that is similarly followed in the United Kingdom and the United States. On one hand, the public receives access to artwork that they might otherwise never see, and on the other hand the individuals or corporations receive a tax break for donating the works. The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, in its role as an independent administrative tribunal among other functions, upholds a mandate to certify the cultural property for income tax purposes. The Board determines the fair market value of art to be donated by either the sales comparison approach or the cost approach, both of which are outlined on the Board’s website.

The purpose of the tax certification process is to “encourage[ ] the transfer of cultural property from private hands to the public domain.” In order to qualify for the tax certification, the Board must determine whether the work is of  “outstanding significance, due to its close association with Canadian history, its close association with national life, its aesthetic qualities, its value in the study of the arts, or its value in the study of the sciences; and the object is of such national importance that its loss to Canada would significantly diminish the national heritage.”

The incentivesgranted to successful applicants include “exemption from capital gains tax on the certified cultural property; and non-refundable tax credits for the full fair market values of the certified cultural property.”

How is cultural property actually appraised? The story below raises issues of provenance, the qualification of experts and the contentious nature of the appraisal of art.

* * *

On January 26, 2013, David Baines of the Vancouver Sunreported that eighteen sculptures (the “Collection”) donated to the Museum of Vancouver – terracotta studies of body parts – which had previously been attributed to Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) by art historians, were in actuality made by Dutch sculptor Johann Gregor Van der Schardt (1530-1591) in the late sixteenth or seventeenth century. The sculptures had been put up for auction by the Museum of Vancouver at Sotheby’s in January, Lot 354, and were featured as a part of Old Masters Week.

Measuring between 7.7 and 21 centimeters, Sotheby’s catalogue described the sculptures as “studies after anatomical elements seen in famous monuments sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarotti. The practice of making copies … was central to the education and stylistic development of artists of the Renaissance; these artists also learned by copying their immediate predecessors and contemporaries, particularly the works of great masters.”

Sotheby’s website reveals that they were most likely acquired by Paul von Praun (an important art collector) in the late 1500s directly from the estate of Van der Schardt. After changing several hands they were then sold to J. Wolff from Montreal by Christie’s London in 1938. Wolff’s twin sons, Paul and Peter LeBrooy, inherited the terracotta sculptures in the 1950s, nine pieces each.
As CBC News reports, while in possession of the LeBrooy brothers, the sculptures remained virtually unstudied for years, until some art historians began suggesting that they might be the works of Michelangelo himself. Sometime after, the brothers contacted experts in hopes of having the sculptures attributed to Michelangelo. Later and for years, the works were promoted and toured internationally as Michelangelo’s studies. Paul LeBrooy even authored a book on the topic titled Michelangelo Models: Formerly in the Paul von Praun Collection (1972).

The ensuing controversy making headlines in Canada is centered on the appraised value of the collection. That is, the donation of the sculptures by Corporate House (a financial group) to the Museum of Vancouver, once valued at about $31 million, had also resulted in the issuance of $31 million in tax receipts for the company by the Review Board. It was clearly a shock when Sotheby’s appraised the works at a fraction of that amount, valuing nine sculptures from the Collection at $200,000-300,000. 

Apparently, as revealed in a radio interview with CBC reporter Jason Proctor, the sculptures had endured a riveting history. The pieces had been put up for sale numerous times since the 1960s, receiving offers ranging from several to about $40 million; they were never sold. As per Proctor, the brothers became estranged over the sculptures and divided the collection into two. Corporate House then offered $18 million for Paul’s nine sculptures on the condition that they were attributable to Michelangelo and that they could be appraised for that value in 1996. However, the attribution to Michelangelo could not be made conclusively, and consequently Corporate House acquired Paul’s set of sculptures in 1998 for an undisclosed amount, on the basis that the sculptures were important, unattributed works of the Renaissance era. Shortly following Peter’s death in 2003, Corporate House purchased the remainder of the nine sculptures, whereupon in 2006 they donated the entire collection to the Museum of Vancouver in return for a tax break.

According to Proctor, when Corporate House approached the Review Board regarding the donation to the Museum of Vancouver, they had contacted every expert eligible to verify the attribution to Michelangelo, but learned that it was not “tenable.” Interestingly, Proctor managed to track down two scholars who had been hired by Corporate House, neither of whom had attributed the works to Michelangelo. One of the scholars even concluded that the sculptures were most likely the works of Van der Shardt but he was specifically asked to forgo writing a report about it.

Proctor reveals that the Review Board rejected the initial valuation made by Corporate House for $55 million and later accepted a second valuation based on independent appraisals, in the total fair market value (as defined by the Board) of $31 million for all eighteen figures. Although the appraisals are not made public, the Vancouver Sun reports that Nancy Noble (CEO, Museum of Vancouver) suspects that the sculptures may have been attributed to Michelangelo given the “enormous valuations.”

Several years after the transfer, in 2012, when the Museum of Vancouver decided that the statues were not a part of their collection mandate and decided to flip them on the market, they approached Sotheby’s. The auction house issued a valuation of $200,000-$300,000 for a portion of the collection, and attributed the studies to Van der Shardt.

The question now is: what happens when tax certificates are issued by the Review Board based on appraisals that are disproportionate to subsequent ‘corrected’ valuations when new information is brought to light? Luckily for Canadians, and less so for Corporate House, based on paragraph 32(5)(b) of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, the Review Board has the power to “redetermine” the fair market value “at any time,” which would then prompt the Canadian Revenue Agency to re-evaluate tax returns from Corporate House, clearly anticipating situations like this one. 

The tax certification application process is an intensiveone. However, as Proctor mused in his interview, if he was able to track down the experts that Corporate House used – one of whom had attributed the works to Van der Schardt earlier on – then should the Review Board have done the same? Currently, the Review Board’s policy on monetary appraisal is that “[r]ecipient institutions/public authorities are responsible for selecting reliable evaluators for donations and should be prepared to stand by the work of the appraisers they have engaged,” further, the onus for providing certificates of authenticity also rests with the applicant. 

Sotheby’s Lot 354 from the January sale in New York remains unsold.

*Sources: Department of Canadian Heritage; “Important Old Master Painting and Sculptures: Lot 354” Sotheby’s; “Blockbuster Donation of ‘Michelangelo’ Sculptures Turns into a Multi-Million-Dollar Bust” The Vancouver Sun, January 26, 2013; “‘Michelangelo Models’ Cost Canada Millions in Tax Credits” CBC News, February 20, 2013; “Why Did ‘Michelangelo Models’ Cost Canadians Millions of Dollars in Tax Credits?” CBC News The Current, February 19, 2013; Michelangelo; The J. Paul Getty Museum; The Museum of Vancouver; Amazon

**The author wishes to thank Jason Proctor and the Department of Canadian Heritage for their assistance in providing additional information, and Dr. Laura Petican for her assistance in editing and feedback on the article.

3 thoughts on “The Contentious World of Art Appraisal: Michelangelo, Van der Schardt and the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board*

  1. Regarding:

    “The Contentious World of Art Appraisal: Michelangelo, Van der Schardt and the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board”

    Many people following this story may find the following comments made by practicing artists, sculptors and painters, of interest.
    The first set of remarks were made by Mr. Niki Covington about a year ago around the time the terracotta models were offered for sale at Auction by Sotheby’s on 31 January, 2013.

    Remarks of Niki Covington:

    “There is much contradictory mystery behind these models, which have only recently been attributed away from Michelangelo. I went to the auction myself to judge. There are still other remaining models of the same quality and similar condition that resides at Casa Buonarotti in Florence. Interestingly despite the similarity, while these auctioned pieces have been debunked those counterparts in Florence remain attributed to Michelangelo himself and have always been.

    “There is still much scholarship missing on these models which I believe would reveal anew the hand of the master himself. As a sculptor and painter, it is very difficult to argue away the mind-print of the the great Michelangelo himself from these models, for although there may be superficial inconsistencies the ‘thinking’ behind every form and transition is revelatory of its creator–the master himself. Further scholarship would also reveal why these body parts appear, in fragments, all over the Sistine Chapel in the Ignudi’s.

    “If we could only think like the master, we would see that these pieces are a jewel of intelligence and design, and the originating seeds of many of his paintings and sculptures. As for now, let us keep this our little secret.”

    –Niki Covington, 2013


    Upon recently coming across Niki Covington’s very perceptive remarks, quoted above, made in 2013, I feel inclined to add my own thoughts and some further observations to this clearly controversial situation that involves what should finally, in the end, be considered the proper Attribution of the terracotta models in question.

    Indeed, history has shown over and over again that conclusively authenticating works of Art is a very tricky business. So called “Art Experts” spent countless years studying all the known Rembrandt paintings in the world and deciding which really were- and were not- true “authentic” Rembrandts as opposed to “School of Rembrandt’ or, in fact, later creations painted years after Rembrandt’s death.

    Today the so-called Art Experts are still arguing about the results of the “Rembrandt project”.

    And there is a coffee table sized book that argues that certain paintings believed for centuries to be by Frans Hals are not by Frans Hals. One of those large paintings, is executed on a scale of such towering mastery, that doubting its authenticity is literally akin to claiming that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. But there are people who still do that as we well know.

    And just recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, decided a small portrait of a man that had been exhibited for over half a century as having been painted by a “follower of Velasquez”, was now deemed to have been executed by the Spanish Master himself. I personally had never doubted the painting in question was by Velasquez and long before its so called “curatorial restoration” which led to the change in attribution by the museum “experts”.

    While some readers may believe that the final word has been spoken regarding the beautiful terracotta works of art, under consideration by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, I can state from long experience that this is hardly the case.

    In fact the “Jury is still out” and will likely remain so for many decades to come.

    The remarks of Niki Covington, quoted earlier, are extremely insightful and right on the mark.

    Many years ago I traveled to Vancouver, Canada and spent several days with Paul James LeBrooy who was the last private owner of these terracotta models until his death and who wrote a highly researched book on this terracotta collection titled: MICHELANGELO MODELS: Formerly in the Paul von Praun Collection.

    This beautifully illustrated book, published in 1972, was the result of a lifetime of study and research and strongly makes the case for Michelangelo’s authorship of the models being considered here. Copies of the book can still occasionally be found in libraries or on the International used book market. It is a book well worth searching for and seriously studying.

    Subsequent to my trip to Vancouver to discuss the Paul von Praun Collection with Paul James LeBrooy, I spent a year authoring and in depth study of the models myself applying my lifetime knowledge as a practicing artist and expert in the anatomical drawing techniques and oil painting methods of the Renaissance and Baroque Old Masters.

    A detailed comparison of certain anatomical details to be encountered in the terracotta models, in terms of aspects relating to Osteology, Myology and Surface Morphology, with certain anatomical “graphological” elements in hundreds of known authenticated Michelangelo drawings caused me to agree with the conclusions of Paul James LeBrooy and numerous scholars in the past, that these models were indeed created from the hand of Michelangelo himself and not a student and/or “follower”.

    We live in an age in which so-called “Art Experts” and “Art Historians” who could not draw a straight line if their lives depended upon it, are constantly reattributing the authorship of paintings, statues and drawings although they have never created a single statue or painting themselves and would not be able to differentiate between their Gluteus Maximus or their elbow if you put a gun to their head.

    During the period in my life when I was engaged in work on a Ph.D. in Art History I personally came into contact with said “Art Experts” quite frequently. They shall remain nameless here as an undeserved courtesy on my part.

    It must be painful enough to spend your life pontificating and opining over things that you know very well you could never do yourself. So-called “critics” of every stripe may be included in this category of individuals who feel qualified to judge that which they are totally incapable of creating themselves.

    The terracotta models in the former “Vancouver” Collection are in every way on a comparable level in terms of anatomical knowledge and use of that knowledge to create sublime Masterpieces, with the terracotta models housed in the Casa Buonarotti in Florence, Italy or the British Museum in London.

    Needless to say no living “Art Expert” nor so-called “Art Historian” would dare challenge the authenticity of the Michelangelo Models in the Casa Buonarotti in Florence. Who would be so bold, as well as so profoundly foolish, as to expose himself to world wide ridicule.

    As the great Renaissance genius, Leonardo Da Vinci correctly observed- regarding “critics” :

    “The Supreme misfortune is when Theory outstrips Performance”.

    One is welcome to refer to the level of skill reflected in my own Old Master style paintings at: to observe and judge- what qualifies me to discuss the matters contained herein.

    David Pakter, M.A., M.F.A.


  2. I just came upon this blog post and it is very interesting. The chance that these works will ever be re-attributed to Michelangelo are remote. I have looked over the arguments that attribute the works to van der Schardt — who spent considerable amount of time in Italy and was well known there by his contemporaries — and they are fairly convincing. I also saw the works in NYC. There are of course a number of PhDs in art history that are good with documents but bad with connoisseurship. There are a number of people that I trust a lot with attributions and many more that I do not. And as for the criticism of the changes in attributions and such — that is scholarship, it is not static and is evolving. New scientific techniques for examining art, documents found in an archive — there are so many factors in changing attributions.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Christina. We agree that evolving scholarship may lead to reattribution of art works, thus art historians should be encouraged to continue research and not be silenced or threatened by the possibility of litigation if their findings result in value destruction of certain artworks.

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