The amazing story of a Dürer masterpiece bought at a yard sale for $30 – Delighted to share my new story for the Sunday Times Magazine
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When Clifford Schorer, an American art dealer who specialises in Old Masters, realised that he had forgotten to buy a present for a colleague in Boston, he had no idea that a chain of coincidences was about to lead him to one of the most sensational finds in recent art history, a discovery that ranks with Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.
Schorer, a partner at illustrious London dealer, Thomas Agnew, is well known in the art world for his ‘eye.’ His speciality is misattributions: the Turner on sale as the work of a minor artist; the Winslow Homer no one recognises. “You’re looking for the mistakes the auction houses make,” he told me as we sat looking over the ocean at his Gropius-designed house on Cape Cod.
But in mid-May earlier this year, his only concern was finding a gift. He had spent the day at his warehouse near Ashland, Mass. In the evening, he was due to attend a retirement party for a friend, the curator of the Yale Center For British Art, Amy Myers. It would be bad form to arrive empty-handed.
A Google search on his phone showed he was not far from an antiquarian bookstore. Arrived, he was amazed to discover a first edition of Blake’s poems, a particular favourite of his colleague. A much bigger surprise was about to follow. “ The storeowner said that a friend of his might have a Dürer,” Schorer recalls. “ I said: No, he doesn’t! He has an Albrecht Durer engraving. Fateful words I regret. But I left the bookseller my card.”
The emailed image he received eleven days later, showing a drawing of a Madonna and Child, stopped him in his tracks. “I thought: this has got to be the greatest forgery that has ever been done. I just couldn’t make the mental leap that it was right.”
But he called the owner of the drawing. By chance – another piece of luck in a story of baffling coincidences – he lived only a few miles from Schorer’s warehouse in Ashland. When he arrived, Bruce and Gail Melincon, a couple in their sixties who travel all over the state to yard sales, explained that they had bought the drawing for “a low sum’ at a yard sale. “I was speechless,” Schorer recalls, his dark eyes gleaming like onyx. “I said: this is either the greatest forgery that has ever been done, or it’s a masterpiece.”
Dürer is often called “The Leonardo of The North,” for the dizzying range and quality of his work. So, with the owners’ permission, Schorer commissioned a series of tests both in America and England that lasted several months. By then, he had written the couple a cheque for $100,000 as a down payment. “I was out on the thinnest of limbs,” he recalls. “But I was sure it was right.”
The drawing (see image, below) measures 16cms. X 16 cms. and was probably executed between 1503-05, in black ink, with two different nib sizes. What is special about it, apart from the fact that it might be by Dürer, is that it showed mother and child in a rare, domestic setting. The Christ-child is bare-bottomed, turned away from his mother, who holds what looks like a nappy cloth. “It is part of an attempt to humanise the Madonna in Germany,” explains Schorer. “To make her look like a typical Hausfrau.”
The key to proving it was a Dürer was the paper. So, in England, he enlisted the help of the world-renowned expert, Jane Mcausland. After an initial examination, she sent Schorer an email from her Suffolk studio. It was headed: The News Is Bad. But after further analysis, she wrote a second email headed: The News Is Good. “She sent me an image and my heart stopped,” he recalls. “It was the trident and ring watermark that is known to have been made for Dürer by his patron.”
A further examination by the leading expert on Dürer, Dr. Christof Metzger, director of the Albertan Museum in Vienna, confirmed it was genuine – and the first new Dürer drawing to have been discovered in more than a century.