Thursday 21 March 2013 - by Kyl Chhattwal
The great Italian sculptor, painter and architect Michelangelo Buonnarotti—like many sculptors of his time—made tiny clay and wax models or “studies” of the human figures he would later hew out of marble.
Hundreds of these models existed and, according to
popular legend, prior to Michelangelo’s death in 1564 he destroyed them all, along with his architectural drawings of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and his sketches for the Sistine Chapel, so that future artists would never learn his secrets.
Thankfully, not all of the models ended up smashed against the great artist’s studio wall. In 1531, over three decades before his death, Michelangelo gave two large boxes of models to his student Antonio Mini, who fled with them to Paris. After Mini’s death 40 of these models were repatriated to Italy by the sculptor Rustici.
When Michelangelo destroyed the rest of his clay models, these 40 surviving ones became rare and coveted objects indeed, particularly among artists and scholars. The great Italian painter Tintoretto, and the historian Vasari, each possessed them at some point in time.
The models were eventually acquired by the 16th century silk merchant and art collector Paul von Praun. After Von Praun’s death in 1616 his German inheritors removed the models, along with ountless other Italian Renaissance masterpieces, from Italy for good.
This, at least, has been the accepted gospel concerning the provenance and history of the so-called “Michelangelo models.”
That is until earlier this year when 18 of the models—now in the possession of the Vancouver Museum in Canada, and consisting mostly of small disembodied arms and legs, and limbless torsos—found themselves at the center of a singular financial controversy involving, among other things, unwitting fraud of the Canadian tax system.
The models came to Canada after being sold privately to a Montreal businessman by a German doctor fleeing the Nazis in 1938. In the mid-1990s the businessman’s family sold them to an investors group, who then donated them to the Vancouver Museum in exchange for $31 million worth of Canadian federal tax credits.
When the museum tried to auction nine of these pieces off earlier this year, experts at Christie’s auction house revalued and reattributed them, concluding that they were not in fact the work of Michelangelo at all, but a lesser-known student of his, Johan Gregor van der Schardt.
Instantly, the value attached to these tiny clay statuettes plummetted from tens of millions of dollars to a couple hundred thousand. And the Canadian taxpayer was left wondering why $31 million in tax credits were issued for what were now, comparatively-speaking, rather worthless bits of clay.
(For more details on the Canadian side of this story, follow the link to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC)’s report below.)
Issues of unwitting Canadian tax evasion aside, cases like this highlight the somewhat fatuous nature of art valuation, and the problems inherent in putting price tags on cultural artifacts.
In the long view of history, the actual identity of the sculptor who made the Michelangelo models may not actually be that important.
Regardless of whether they were: a) sculpted by Michelangelo himself to facilitate his marble sculptures, or b) sculpted afterwards by a student imitating the great master’s style, the fact remains that the models are products of Michelangelo’s undeniably world-changing artistic vision.
Likewise, they’ve been regarded as genuine Michelangelo pieces throughout history.
And have therefore have left their mark on history as such. Tintoretto famously made a series of sketches of them, and Marie-Antoinette and Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe both marvelled at their mastery. Jan Brueghel the Elder even incorporated some of them into his paintings.
The more pertinent question therefore becomes: why are these obviously significant pieces of art history not being more widely displayed, or at least repatriated to their country of origin: Italy? Now may be the opportune moment for the Italian government, or a wealthy Italian philanthropist, to bring the Michelangelo models home after four centuries of exile. After all, thanks to experts at Christie’s, they can now be picked up for a song.
In the photograph accompanying this blog post you can see small but conspicuous holes drilled into the top of the models. Paul Lebrooy, son of the original Canadian businessman who purchased them in 1938, wrote a book arguing for the models’ authenticity, and he explains the holes like this:
“A number of the models have a small hole in them in order that they could be hung by a string and studied by Michelangelo from all angles. If these models were copies of [Michelangelo’s] statues or even [copies of] lost original models, it is very doubtful that the copyist would have placed these holes in them.”
Here is a clip from the CBC radio show The Current, discussing the 2013 “Michelangelo model” controversy in depth: