Art restorer may have painted fake Botticelli

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A "PRICELESS" Botticelli masterpiece bought by the National Galleries of Scotland may have been painted by a little-known Belgian artist, it has emerged.

The Scotsman reported last week how "every penny" the Galleries possessed was used to buy Botticelli's The Portrait of a Youth in 1933, which was hailed as a coup for the national collection. But a damning technical report in the 1950s showed it used a paint not invented until 300 years after Botticelli's death, triggering a Cold War-style cover-up.

One expert now believes that the true painter was Albert Philippot, a Belgian artist and art restorer, who came from a family famous for producing perfect imitations of classic masterpieces. Tantalisingly, the 1952 report on the painting which sealed its fate is missing. Scanty gallery records say an M, or Mr, Phillipot "admitted" painting the work, but it is not clear when or to whom.

Philippot was the son-in-law of Jaf van der Veken, a celebrated Belgian restorer, who died in 1964. The two worked closely together and made their names as brilliant restorers.

Van der Veken's work was at the heart of a show at the Groenige Museum in Bruges, Belgium last year. The exhibition, Fake/Not Fake: Restorations, Reconstructions, Forgeries. He was an expert in reproducing masterworks, right down to the cracking of paintings with age.

In 1934, two panels were stolen from an altarpiece in Ghent cathedral by Jan van Eyck, called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and one of the most famous artworks of the Middle Ages. Van der Veken's replacement panels were so perfect that many people believed them to be the originals.

Others have called on the National Galleries of Scotland to put its vintage Botticelli fake on show - and take a second look at the painting itself.

Laurence Kanter, curator of the Robert Lehman collection of 3,000 works of art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and an expert on early European painting, said there was much to learn from the painting bought as a "perfect" portrait by Botticelli. He visited Edinburgh in 2001 while researching a Botticelli exhibition and admired photographs of the "brilliant" painting.

He said: "There is a great deal to be learned from forgeries. I don't think there is an open-and-shut case. It might well be fake, but I would like to be persuaded of it first. There is a great deal to learn by studying these pictures." Mr Kanter wrote to the National Galleries at the time, urging it to re-examine the picture.

Immediately after the "Botticelli" was bought from a London dealer, in May 1933, one British newspaper reported claims that it was a copy of one in the Louvre, painted recently in Belgium, that had found its way to a London dealer.

But top gallery directors from Dublin and Amsterdam backed Scotland's claims to have bought the "perfect" original of the Louvre painting. Mr Kanter said: "It implies to my mind either the picture is a brilliant forgery, and I would like to see it and admire it, or maybe the evidence has been misinterpreted and it's not a forgery at all."

Rudy Pieters, a journalist, who has written a book on the Mystic Lamb, could not confirm if the Belgian "Philippot" was the "Phillipot" of the gallery files, but he said: "There is too much of a coincidence.

"Van der Veken made copies and falsifications. He added his own versions to really old paintings, so that a lot of people right now don't know where the authentic painting begins or ends.

"Albert Philippot always collaborated with him. There is still a lot to discover about him."

Belgium and the Netherlands were major centres for restoration before and immediately after the Second World War.

For 20 years, many of the major paintings that Stanley Cursiter added to the galleries' collection were sent to a Dutch restorer and dealer, Martin de Wild, for authentication and restoration.

The region also produced the famous Dutch painter and master forger, Hans van Meegeren, who sold fake Vermeers for huge sums. Belgian restorers, probably including Philippot, took part in the investigation.