Who stole the "Madonna of the yarnwinder" … And has the Cellini salt been offered for ransom?

The Duke of Buccleuch’s celebrated “Madonna of the yarnwinder”, attributed to Leonardo, was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, this week by two men posing as tourists. Although the painting is small, 19 x 15.5 inches, and it is disputed to what extent it is by the hand of Leonardo, it is one of the most famous works by the Renaissance master in a private collection in the UK. If it is authenticated it would probably make over Ј30 million at auction. A comparable painting, Raphael’s Madonna of the pinks, is still awaiting an export licence after being sold to the Getty for Ј35 million.

Mark Dalrymple, director of Tyler and Co, chartered loss adjusters, and hired by Lloyd’s underwriters to investigate the theft, said that, depending on information provided and police approval, a “very substantial” reward was being offered for the painting’s return.

The Duke has one of the finest private art collections in the UK, including fully authenticated works by Rembrandt and Holbein. The castle is open to the public and, despite the security risks involved in exhibiting such a valuable painting, the Duke has ensured that the famous painting is on public display. The Earl of Dalkeith, the Duke’s son, said it was very difficult to guarantee the painting’s safety in its castle setting. “We are shocked and deeply saddened by what has happened. This is a wonderful painting that has been in the family collection for more than 250 years. It is an enormous treasure and it has been brutally removed from the castle,” he said.

The painting shows the Madonna pulling the infant Jesus away from a wooden tool used for winding wool. There is an eye witness account of Leonardo painting the subject and more than a dozen versions of it are known to have been produced by Leonardo’s workshop. Some, including a version in a private New York collection, show the yarnwinder with a small cross bar, making a reference to Christ’s future Crucifixion. The Drumlanrig painting depicts the yarnwinder as a simple vertical bar and is believed to be one of the earliest versions of the subject, painted between 1500 and 1510 for Florimand Robertet, Secretary of State for Louis XII of France.

For some time it was thought to have been lost somewhere in France and, after occasional doubts about its authenticity, Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark), in his later years, came to regard the figures and the foreground rocks as being Leonardo’s own work, reinforcing the opinion of other experts, notably Cecil Gould, a former Director of the National Gallery, London.

In 1991 the National Gallery of Scotland subjected the painting to close comparative scrutiny, using other versions of the picture as well as related drawings by Leonardo and other artists (see The Art Newspaper, No. 13, December 1991, p.2). The National Gallery in London then borrowed the picture in 1993 and hung it alongside other works by Leonardo in their collection, “The Virgin of the Rocks” and the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St Anne.

Professor Martin Kemp of St Andrew’s University, and one of the doyens of Leonardo studies, commented at the time that “Of the many versions known, at least a dozen closely resemble the Buccleuch picture”; the National Gallery of Scotland even has its own, albeit of poor quality. On the subject of whether the painting was by the master’s hand he commented “there stands a very good chance of it being by Leonardo in the broadest sense of the word…there is some Leonardo in it”, a cautious retreat from the greater certainty expressed by previous scholars.

Emil Moeller wrote in favour of Leonardo’s involvement in the Burlington Magazine in 1926, as did Cecil Gould, David Caritt (“a large part…is Leonardo’s own”) and, after prolonged indecisions in print, Lord Clark.

Frank ZГllner, however, in the latest Leonardo monograph, speaks of “technical shortcomings, which one would not expect to find in panel paintings dating from Leonardo’s maturity… only the original design can be attributed to Leonardo.”

The theft highlights the difficulties of safeguarding valuable works of art while allowing access for the public. It is the latest in a series of robberies of art works so famous that they would be impossible to sell on the open market. Still missing are Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, and Vermeer’s “The Concert”, stolen in March 1990 from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston by thieves dressed as policemen. Even art world insiders can only speculate as to their whereabouts and the motives of such robberies. Theories being put forward by the police and experts for this latest theft include links to terrorist groups and drugs gangs.

Benvenuto Cellini’s salt, a masterpiece of 16th-century goldwork, was stolen in May from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. An Austrian radio station, State Radio Austria, recently received a ransom letter for the salt which contained fragments of enamel scratched from its surface and a demand for Ђ10 million. According to the radio station, the letter was sent by a middleman who knows where the salt is and blackmailers will be in contact with the museum’s insurance company in the near future. Dr Wilfried Seipel, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, refused to comment on the news and stated that the museum had received many such demands.

Published in: on August 30, 2003 at 7:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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