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Woman who sold drawing attributed to Leonardo sues auction house

A Swiss woman is suing Christie's auction house in New York for failing to "exercise due care" almost 12 years ago when it sold a drawing she consigned for less than $22,000 (U.S.) - a drawing that several experts now attribute to Leonardo da Vinci, and that they estimate could be worth more than $150-million.

In a complaint filed this week in Manhattan federal court, Jeanne Marchig, an animal rights activist based in Geneva, said Christie's wrongly attributed the mixed-media profile drawing of a young woman to an anonymous 19th-century German artist working "in the taste of the Italian Renaissance." She and her late husband brought the work to the auctioneer's attention in 1997.

Ms. Marchig is seeking unspecified damages; a report in London's Guardian newspaper on Wednesday said "her lawyer wants a substantial figure."

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The Marchig consignment was sold at auction in late 1998 to a New York art dealer, Kate Ganz, for $21,850, including a buyer's premium. Very little was known about the work - a 33-by-22-centimetre drawing in ink, pen, chalk and wash tint on vellum - before it surfaced at the auction. The dealer then held on to it until 2007, when a Canadian collector, Peter Silverman, bought it for $19,000 on behalf of an unnamed Swiss friend and fellow collector.

The Leonardo attribution was first announced in June of 2008 at Toronto's ideaCity conference by Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and one of the founders of Lumière Technology, a Paris-based firm specializing in digitalized forensics. Carbon dating determined that the vellum was produced between 1450 and 1650 - within Leonardo's lifespan (1452-1519) and several hundred years older than Christie's evaluation.

A few months later, Lumière sent images of an apparent fingerprint found on the drawing to a Montreal native, Peter Paul Biro, co-founder of London-based Art Access and Research and its director of forensic studies. Last October, Mr. Biro announced that it was indeed a fingerprint, from the middle or index finger of Leonardo's left hand, and "highly comparable" to a confirmed Leonardo print on an artwork in the Vatican.

La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.

In a statement Wednesday, Christie's said it "strongly disagrees with these claims and believes they are without merit." The drawing is currently on view at an exhibition in Gothenburg, SwedenLa Bella Principessa may never enjoy "uncontested attribution" as a Leonardo original. Nevertheless, several prominent Leonardo scholars in recent years have thrown their clout behind that identification.

Martin Kemp, a Leonardo expert at the University of Oxford, who has studied Leonardo for more than 40 years, firmly believes the portrait is of Bianca Sforza, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan. Alessandro Vezzosi, director of Italy's Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, concurs, along with Mina Gregori, a historian of Italian art at the University of Florence.

"The purity of the profile and the Florentine topology of the face" make it unmistakably a Leonardo, she told ARTnews magazine last year.

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Jacques Franck, a Leonardo specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The Guardian on Tuesday: "It's not Leonardo's hand. The drawing presents anatomical mistakes, notably the link between the neck and the bust."

He is supported by Klaus Albrecht Schroeder, director of the Albertina museum in Vienna, who said last year he'd been offered the drawing for exhibition but declined because "no one" - including the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and Albertina curators - "is convinced that it is a Leonardo."

Carol Pedretti, a professor of Leonardo studies in Los Angeles, told ARTnews it could be genuine but would not rule out "the insidious possibility of a fake."

Real or Phony?

Works of art are constantly being attributed, misattributed, reattributed and downgraded as different technologies and fresh eyes are brought to bear, in tandem with new avenues of research. Scholars are educated to be skeptics, with the result that consensus is achieved often grudgingly, if at all.

No artist has had more misattributions and reattributions than Rembrandt van Rijn. Indeed, in 2005, the Netherlands' Rembrandt Project announced that more than 600 paintings once attributed to the Dutch master were the work of others, while others previously deemed fakes had been re-evaluated as genuine. The famous Polish Rider in New York's Frick Collection, for one, has undergone several rounds of attribution and reattribution.

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Johannes Vermeer is another Dutch master who's undergone the same process. A century ago, there were believed to be as many as 100 Vermeers in existence; now no more than 35 are firmly attributed. Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) was an especially adept Vermeer forger. His Supper at Emmaus was regarded as genuine for many years when, in fact, it had been completed only in 1937, more than 260 years after Vermeer's death.

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