Connoisseur loses legal battle over ‘Caravaggio’

The former owner of a controversial painting faces having to pay millions in legal costs after losing a bitter High Court battle that shook the art world.

Legal battle centred on The Cardsharps, which hangs in the Museum of the Order of St John in London. Picture: Getty

Respected connoisseurs of old master paintings clashed with other experts as Lancelot William “Bill” Thwaytes accused leading auction house Sotheby’s of giving him negligent advice as to whether a painting known as The Cardsharps was the work of Caravaggio – and thus worth millions rather than the thousands he sold it for.

Yesterday, he lost his negligence claim and a judge ordered him to make an immediate payment to Sotheby’s of £1.8 million.

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Mrs Justice Rose, sitting in London, referred to the “hard-fought” and costly legal battle in which Sotheby’s experts had been attacked in “sneering and disparaging” terms but emerged with reputations intact.

The total bill claimed by the auction house is £3.7m, but the final amount Mr Thwaytes must pay has yet to be assessed.

He will also have to pay costs, expected to run into millions, for his own legal representation.

It is understood his legal action had the backing of Harbour Litigation Funding and he also took out insurance.

Mr Thwaytes, of Hornby Hall, Brougham, near Penrith, acquired the painting – which shows a privileged young man falling victim to card cheats – in 1962. He sold it through Sotheby’s to Sir Denis Mahon for £42,000 in 2006 after it was catalogued as the work of a “follower” of Caravaggio.

Sir Denis was a British collector with a reputation for identifying Caravaggio works previously thought lost and, in 2007, he declared his belief the work had been painted by the master himself, in about 1595.

Following Sir Denis’s death, the work was loaned to the Museum of the Order of St John in London, and insured for £10m.

Lawyers for Mr Thwaytes accused Sotheby’s of not consulting enough experts or sufficiently testing the painting.

Sotheby’s countered that many leading art specialists did not believe the work was by Caravaggio and it would never have fetched millions.

The auction house’s old masters painting department (OMP) unanimously agreed it was an anonymous copy of The Cardsharps displayed in the Kimbell Museum, Texas, which is acknowledged to be by the old master.

A raft of experts were called on both sides during the 17-day legal battle last October and November, sending costs spiralling. Yesterday, Mrs Justice Rose ruled Sotheby’s had reasonably come to the view the quality of the painting “was not sufficiently high to indicate that it might be by Caravaggio”.

She declared the auction house had been entitled to rely on “the connoisseurship and expertise of their specialists in the OMP department in assessing the quality of the painting”.

The judge said they were highly qualified and examined the work thoroughly and, despite facing criticism in “sneering and disparaging” terms, had emerged with reputations intact.

There was “serious criticism and some element of a personal attack”, she added.

Mr Thwaytes’s lawyers, Boodle Hatfield, said they were “in the process of considering an appeal” against the ruling.