Lancelot William Thwaytes inherited The Cardsharps, an apparent copy by one of Caravaggio’s anonymous followers, from a cousin. The family had purchased the work for a minimal sum in 1962. When Thwaytes consigned the painting to Sotheby’s London in 2006, it sold for £42,000 ($63,700) with the anonymous attribution.
After the 2006 sale, however, the new owner Orietta Adam, cleaned and restored the piece. A year later, her partner, Denis Mahon, the world’s foremost expert on the artist (who was instrumental in identifying the The Taking of Christ, the titular lost Caravaggio of the 2005 non-fiction book The Lost Painting), proudly unveiled the work at his 97th birthday party, proclaiming it a bonafide Caravaggio dating to 1595 and worth £10 million ($15.8 million).
Thwaytes was understandably upset to see the family heirloom he had recently unloaded for a relative pittance being paraded about as a priceless masterpiece, and sued Sotheby’s, accusing them of failing to do their due diligence in attributing the painting. He had sought the auction house’s input before putting the piece up for sale, and accused them of providing “negligent” advice.
Sotheby’s defended its authentication of the painting, citing the opinions of its own specialists, as well as leading experts. Ultimately, the London High Court judge found that the auction house was not unjustified in its belief that the painting’s quality “was not sufficiently high to indicate that it might be by Caravaggio.” Sotheby’s was “entitled to rely on the connoisseurship and expertise of their specialists,” who were “highly qualified and examined the painting thoroughly.”
Since Mahon died in 2011, The Cardsharps has been on loan to London’s Museum of the Order of St. John at Clerkenwell, where it is insured for £10 million. The general consensus is that Caravaggio’s original copy of the painting belongs to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Cardsharps and The Taking of Christ are not the only lost paintings by the artist that have been rediscovered in recent years: Caravaggio’s original copy of Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy turned up last year in Europe (see Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalene Found in Private Collection).
Following the ruling, a Sotheby’s spokesperson expressed the company’s delight in the judge’s decision, calling it a confirmation “that Sotheby’s expertise is of the highest standards.”