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Book Name: The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money

Author: John Brewer

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Overall Rating: (3.67/5) View all reviews (total 58 reviews)
Description

At first, the tale seems rather ordinary: in 1920, Andrée and Harry Hahn offer for sale a painting,La Belle Ferronnière, that they claim is by Leonardo da Vinci. An art dealer questions the painting's authenticity—and the couple sues. In the courtroom, the circus begins, with the usual one-upmanship of experts, cross-examinations and baffled jurors. In two other circus rings are the broader art market and the world of schemers, fakes and the truth about the painting itself. Brewer, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology, is a fine ringmaster. He paints thorough pictures of each player—the ambitious Midwesterner Harry Hahn; the rarified and aggressive art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen; and the numerous representatives who took on the challenge of selling a tainted painting: A large, hectoring man who was also capable of great charm, [Leon] Loucks... told his friends that he was an illegitimate child who had been abandoned by his shame-faced mother who 'sold' him to a medical research facility.... IsLa Belle Ferronnièrea Leonardo? That mystery drives the book forward, but also delivers a satisfying twist: why do we care? 12 b&w illus.(Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Reviews

A Pretty Painting Without a Home

by Addison Dewitt "I'm nobody's fool."
(4/5)

John Brewer's in-depth study of the history of Hahn's "La Belle" and it's repeated denunciation in the art market is nothing short of captivating. As an artist, I found it particularly interesting and had a great amount of joy while reading his tale, always rooting for the underdog painting and hoping for it's eventual sale for a fortune. However, much like Harry and Andree Hahn, (the painting's owners over the course of 60+ years) I would be repeatedly disappointed in the art world, critics, so-called experts and a huge cast of charlatans, hucksters and confidence men. I also found myself wondering about the art elite, those "educated" individuals who pronounce something great and something else a fake. Fortunes turn on their words, perhaps incorrectly, as Brewer reveals.When most artists sit down to a canvas and create a feminine image of beauty, they don't ponder her future, and certainly don't foresee an amazing timeline of ups and downs 300 years later, deals made and broken, studies undertaken, testimonies given and lies told which haunt "La Belle" to this day. Even now, she sits in storage in Omaha, awaiting her fate.Brewer takes us on an extremely detailed journey that spans nearly four centuries, from the painting's supposed creation in the 1600s (something that is still under debate), to it's present day existence in a midwest location which cannot be revealed due to legalities. His writing is factual and the style is well-suited to the subject at hand. Brewer avoids over-sentimentalizing the story and lets the facts speak for themselves. The timeline he lays out is direct and the afterward (which perhaps might be better placed as a prologue from which to flash backward in time) is nearly as compelling as the rest of the book.Rather than list the cast of real-life characters that are for, against and neutral about the painting's authenticity and go into a rather long, laborious synopsis, suffice it to say that hardly a fact about the painting and it's various owners, admirers and detractors is left unrevealed. The only place in this partially hard-to-absorb tome where Brewer slows the pace to a crawl is in the chapters toward the end, as a bit too much unnecessary back and forth between various parties is kept in play, realities that may seem salient to a private investigator but which may bore the average reader. Otherwise, Brewer holds well the attentions of artists, art lovers and art historians in a book which should grace the shelves of each.


Reveals cultural pentimento

by Alyssa A. Lappen
(5/5)

Cultural snobbery is front and center in this artistic whodunit that may never reach conclusion. Here, novelist Henry James' distaste for the American nouveau riche art aficionados plays a large role. So does the vast purchase of European art treasures --- and fakes --- by late 19th century robber barons and capitalists, who did not always know what or from whom they were buying, while British and European sellers cashed in on their (sometimes faked) artistic currency as the value of their local tender fell against the almighty dollar.John Brewer presents a witty and historical clash of old and new cultures, alongside a war between art connoisseurs and the modern advocates of technological methods of detecting paint age and origin, canvas x-rays and so on.Determining artistic provenance of any given painting is always an interesting exercise, and sometimes proves utterly impossible to establish definitively. Thus was the case with La Belle Ferronnière, a Leonardo Da Vinci painting of which there were two versions, one hanging in the Paris Louvre, and another gifted to to Harry Hahn and his French war bride Andree upon their 1919 wedding, and soon thereafter alleged to have been faked.For anyone interested in the art world, whether an art historian or a mere plebeian art lover drawn to such major museums as New York's Metropolitan --- which so appalled Henry James --- this book is a fascinating look at the importance of art not only as a medium of cultural exchange, but as a substitute for hard currency and personal prestige, alike.Merely looking at art is an enriching experience, of course. But acquiring and trading it can be enriching in so many other ways as well. In John Brewer's fine volume, one finds the progression of pentimenti --- artistic alterations in a painting seen in traces of previous work --- showing not so much how individual artists have changed their minds on composition while painting, but how the entire artistic world has altered its face in the last few centuries.An excellent read, enriching throughout, on so many levels.---Alyssa A. Lappen


Good book, odd marketing

by Amazon Customer
(3/5)

I ordered this through the Amazon Vine program because the teaser made it sound like an interesting based-on-real-events heist novel. It is, in a sense, but the author spends an inordinate amount of time in the fine details of the art world, art history, and a myriad of other related subjects. This isn't a problem in and of itself because it still makes for an interesting read, but it seems to me that this story should have been written and promoted as a non-fiction documentary of the heist, as the characters seem a bit forced. There's enough good reading here for a non-fiction account, rather than the shoe-horned novel that we end up with. The main problem is the way the book is marketed - as a suspense novel, rather than the slow-paced, information heavy book that it is.


Art history, acquisition and power...no novel here...

by An Educated Consumer
(5/5)

Wealth and possessions, prompting art acquisitions by the financially endowed, have been pattern since the beginning of time.Most of us, at one time or another, have expressed an awe of people's homes, possessions, opportunities etc.A very wise person, my sister, who is also a talented and trained artist, once enlightened me with something that goes beyond the facade. Do they have original paintings? Works of art? If not, how can they be 'rich'?Enlightening me with the fact that there are so many talented artists that could be explored to fit every pocketbook.John Brewer is an extraordinarily gifted writer as he relates the tale of "The American Leonardo." This book was not the page turner, the mystery that I had expected. Instead, it was a detailed, careful and thorough accounting.One will never know for certain (although I have my own layman opinion) if this La Belle is authentic.I did get an understanding, sometimes shockingly, of how art has influenced the future of a locality, political, financial, power and social gains, the role of the experts, curators and, for the rest of us...the humble uninitiated.While not a textbook per se, this book is an education unto itself. Not for everyone but fascinating nonetheless.


The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money

by Anna M. Ligtenberg "AnnaLovesBooks"
(1/5)

ISBN 0195396901 - This will be the first time I ever review a book by saying that I didn't finish it, because I could not. I would rather have to crawl from one coast of the US to the other than read the rest of this book.I was HOPING for something akin to what the marketing made it out to be: an exciting story about an art-world mystery that would capture your imagination! This book couldn't capture my imagination if I started with my imagination hog-tied to a chair.The author, in what reads as a somewhat pretentious, vaguely professorial tone, rambles on and on about the art world and a whole slew of other minutia. There is so little time given to the telling of the actual story that by the time he finally got rolling, I stopped caring. How it is possible for all the ingredients of a great story to turn out to be so bad, I cannot guess but have to blame the author's lack of writing skills. For a book that is what this one promised to be, tryThe Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece.- AnnaLovesBooks


Just not interesting, at all

by Anne-Marie G
(2/5)

I was unable to finish this book. It is written in beyond boring prose. It isn't even academic factoids to keep me interested, was just blah, blah, blah. I had really hoped for something along the lines of 'Beethoven's Hair' where history is mixed with modern sleuthing.


Leonardo Lost in a Tangled Narrative

by Bay Gibbons
(3/5)

This book is ostensibly about the famous "American Leonardo"--a painting with a century old stigma of possible forgery. However, Leonardo ultimately gets short shrift in this book which is more about the transformation of the American art world in the past 100 years than about the Leonardo. This is my chief problem with this book--the departure point is fascinating, but the chapters on the world of art connoisseurs and dealers is heavy going. I was glad I persevered, however, because after a hundred pages or so the narrative returns again to the Leonardo, which is the most fascinating part of the book. A good--but not great--read.


To Be Or Not To Be (A da Vinci)

by Bruce Loveitt
(4/5)

Being something of an "art junkie", I really enjoyed this book. But if you are expecting the central tale to be one of art forgery, or if you are looking for a clear-cut resolution at the end of the book you may be disappointed.(No one claims the Hahn painting is a forgery. It's a question of whether it was done by da Vinci, a pupil of da Vinci, or a later copyist.) However, if you can just enjoy reading about some quirky personalities; the infighting between art dealers, museum directors, connoisseurs; and the argument over "subjective" evaluation of pieces of art vs. "objective" (scientific) evaluation of works of art, then I think you will be both entertained and educated by this book. Mr. Brewer is a scholar who both writes well and who has a nice, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor - so the book is not a difficult read. He also realizes that 300 pages of just talking about the Hahn painting might be a little bit boring. So he enlivens the book by bringing in a bit of historical information about how art experts have sometimes gotten egg on their faces by being fooled by forgeries. (Specifically, he writes about the forging of van Goghs by the art dealer Otto Wacker in the 1930's and the 1945 indictment in Amsterdam of the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, for forging a series of Vermeers.)One thing that Mr. Brewer makes clear is that even though he is a scholar, he is not an art expert. I think this made him a bit gun-shy about drawing conclusions from the conflicting evidence and/or opinions presented by the various experts over the years. I found the "summing up" at the end by the author to be a bit wishy-washy and I think he should have been a bit more open about the conclusions he reached. (But he does present enough information for the average reader to draw his/her own conclusions.) One tantalizing storyline that popped up several times is the serious possibility that the version of "La Belle Ferronniere" that is in the Louvre was not painted by da Vinci. Apparently several well-respected experts have come to this conclusion, but Mr. Brewer does not devote much space in the book to talking about this juicy tidbit. However, on balance, this is a fascinating glimpse into the world of fine art and how ego gratification, wish-fulfillment, money and "protecting one's turf" sometimes clouds the judgment of otherwise sensible and intelligent people.


Intriguing Look at the Transformation of Art into a Commodity

by CG
(5/5)

The story reads like a Hollywood script: A US war veteran marries his French sweetheart, upon returning to small-town America they realize that a wedding gift from an eccentric aunt may be a Leonardo da Vinci painting. Fervor ensues about its authenticity, then about the industry of art authentication.This book begins by covering the investigation into the painting La Belle Ferronnière, weaving the narrative into a compelling tale. Throughout the text it also discusses how art is authenticated, the debate between scientific methods vs. connoisseurship, forgeries, and the sudden rabid interest in collecting Old Masters.I do not know a lot about art, and even less about its authentication, but this book is very good at presenting its detail at an understandable level.


Intriguing

by CGScammell
(4/5)

I am not an art lover in the sense of buying expensive paintings for my private collection. What I know about art is what little I learned taking history courses. So this book by John Brewer opened my eyes to the art world, the art world filled more with businessmen, curators, scientists and some art historians who all have different objectives in mind. How can one judge a painting for its originality without ever seeing it? Was it painted first on wood and then transferred to canvas? How can one prove that with little scientific evidence? Egos of the people involved, power and money are play into this world. These are the mysteries of the art world.A decades-long trail over a small painting alleged to be from Leonardo ensues, and the many people who speak out for and against a painting comes to surface. The result? There's now a painting in an Omaha storage vault holding this contentious painting.Each chapter covers different aspects of this "Old Masters" art collecting that developed in the US in the 1870s. Wealthy businessmen in the railroad, steel mills and newspapers began collecting Italian works so much that a new art form developed: the art of making copies and fakes. When the first steps toward forensics came about in courts in the 1910s, more curators began relying on that flourishing science. The second chapter delves more into the Italian side of assessing genuineness to a painting, give the unschooled reader like myself a good introduction to the quacky world of art. These chapters, albeit scholarly in tone, are needed for someone like me with no background in art history.Brewer's book reads like a well-done investigative reportage. What amazes me is that while the world was suffering a severe depression, those of wealth and prestige were fighting over the genuineness of La Belle Ferronniere. The author clearly sides with those calling it a copy and in the end gives us his reasons why.This was certainly an enlightening book for me. I learned not just about the art world, but about the cut-throat world of the art and businessworld. Lives were crushed and destroyed over this painting.Definitely a must-read for art lovers and anyone interesting in the arts.


Art Wars

by chefdevergue
(4/5)

This book makes me wish I could have been an art connoisseur at the turn of the century. I know a little about history, I have opinions which I express loudly & I am inclined to attack those who disagree with me. Sounds perfect! This is pretty much the art world as described in John Brewer's book, ostensibly a story about Mr. & Mrs. Harry Hahn vs Sir Joseph Duveen, but in fact a story about more wars and rivalries than I can count: New World Money vs Old World Heritage, science & technology vs intuitive connoisseurship, and more pissing matches between various art dealers than you can shake a misattributed stick at.Brewer writes a thorough indictment of the art world, so much so that I later found myself in the National Gallery wondering if ANY of the paintings on the walls really were what they claimed to be. The massive conflicts of interest just make the reader feel slimy at point, and it doesn't help both Harry Hahn and Duveen are basically two self-promoting boors cut from the same cloth. It is hard to have a rooting interest in either party when all is said and done.Like other reviewers, I am disappointed that the story is left unresolved...although even after the January 2010 auction, is there an end to the story? The Louvre continues to resist subjecting its "La belle ferronnière" to close scrutiny, so we are left with nothing but speculation. Aside from that, I found the writing to be reasonably accessible and more informative than I initially expected. Good read!


An Eye on Art

by Christian Schlect
(3/5)

A weak ending mars this book's strong start on the difficulty in ascertaining the origin of great art.It is hard for me to believe that many readers really need to know, or would be interested to know, the detailed financial twists and turns arising from the muddled ownership by lowlifes (Who cares about Leon Loucks?) of what is almost certainly a painting by someone other than Leonardo.Note for a future edition: hare-brained instead of hair-brained on p.262.


When science and instinct collide

by ck "moonshadow"
(4/5)

Four centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci was creating such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. His gifts encompassed much more than painting -- he was a skilled illustrator, sculptor, inventor, and scientific thinker. He also managed to surround himself in mystery, both during his lifetime and in the years to follow.A century ago, a young couple wed in Europe at the end of World War I and settled in Kansas City, bringing with them a painting that they claimed was a da Vinci. He was an American serviceman; she was from an oceanfront resort town in France. The story of that canvas and the lives it influenced is the basis of John Brewer's scholarly yet lively "The American Leonardo."Before plunging into the couple's efforts to sell the painting -- a tale that would come to involve a lawsuit, a book, various tours and displays of the painting, and several rounds of intense scholarly scrutiny -- Brewer spells out the crossroads at which the fine art scene stood, both in America and internationally.Changing economic times and mores were bringing two very different schools of art verification to a series of inevitable collisions, one of them about this very painting. Further, while it might seem odd that a debate would rage in the U.S. about whether a work was truly that of an Old Master, Brewer shows that the growing wealth of a certain economic tier in the U.S. actually fed the demand for bona fide works by the Old Masters and spurred the rise in price. Kansas City itself, where the debated painting resided, nearly doubled in population between 1910 and 1930, the two decades that sandwich the arrival of this painting in the U.S.Readers hungry for the tale of La Belle Ferronniere may think twice about the need for the first hundred pages of this book, but having read them carefully, I believe they provide a grounding needed for the thorough understanding of what came next.Indeed, while La Belle could have arrived on the art scene at any time, the time and place at which she appeared resulted in the maximum possible impact both on the art world and on a number of people's lives. If you're up for a scholarly mystery peopled with singularly compelling characters, this book is a rewarding choice, not least because it's fact, not fiction.


Dry as Dust

by David Cady
(2/5)

This is a dense, fact-laden book that will appeal to Art History majors everywhere. I, unfortunately, am not an Art History major, and found it to be a bit of a snooze. Don't get me wrong, it's beautifully written, very scholarly, meticulously detailed and researched -- it's just not all that fun. Not that Brewer needed to dumb down his subject matter. On the other hand, he didn't do much to make it entertaining, either. I was hoping for something a little more like R.A. Scotti's "Vanished Smile," which chronicled the early 20th century theft of the Mona Lisa like a crackling good international thriller. Which is what one might expect from "A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money." Too bad Brewer hasn't the story-telling skills to produce the kind of rip-roaring True Life Adventure his publisher's would like us to believe he has.


AN INTRIGUING SIDEBAR IN THE HISTORY OF CONNOISSEURSHIP

by David Keymer "David Keymer"
(5/5)

I reviewed Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination: English culture in the eighteenth century, when it came out in 1999. I concluded my review by writing that it was "an intellectual feast of the first water, [a] book [that would] be savored by amateurs and professionals alike." I wish I hadn't used up that sentence on Brewer's earlier book, because otherwise I could apply it to this one. Brewer is a first-rate historian -a scholar who knows his subject backwards and forwards and really thinks about what he is saying before he says it--and his prose style is impeccable, forceful and engaging. And what a subject he has chosen for this book, the fight over the authenticity of what might be/could have been the first and only Da Vinci in America, a tiny portrait, only twenty-one inches by sixteen unframed, of a young woman, entitled La Belle Ferronniere. A young doughboy, Harry Hahn, in Brewer's words "one of life's chancers," brings it home to Kansas at the close of the Great War along with his lovely French bride, Andree. They claimed that an "aunt" of Andree's had given it to them as a wedding present. The Hahns never claimed to be art collectors or critics: they saw the painting as a way to make money -lots of money! By 1919, the Hahns were in negotiation to sell it. And then their troubles started because most of the connoisseurs called in to verify its authenticity said, no, it might be an attractive little picture, but it wasn't, couldn't be, by Leonardo. Foremost among the naysayers was Joseph Duveen, owner of the most prominent and wide-reaching art dealership in the western world, a very "big shark in the turbulent waters of the art market. The Hahns finally got Duveen to trial in 1929 to contest his published remarks about their painting, and they won: it was a hung jury, one vote short of decision in favor of the Hahns. Duveen bowed to the inevitable. Rather than go to trial again, with potential damage to his firm's and his own reputations, he settled and paid the Hahns $60,000, which was a lot of money in 1930. The history of this painting post-trial was even more fascinating, and equally confusing, as its history until that point. Since 1930, it has passed through several hands -of enthusiasts and tricksters--and today it lies locked up in a vault in Omaha, Nebraska, inaccessible to viewers, assessors and critics alike. Around this first-rate picaresque story, Brewer weaves a web of explanation of larger topics: why and how did the cult of Old Masters appear, and the culture of collecting? What place does connoisseurship a la Bernard Berenson and Sir Kenneth Clark have in determining the provenance of old paintings, and where does science fit in and what questions can it answer and NOT answer? (Think of the woman truck driver who claims she owns a Jackson Pollock but will not allow it to be examined by any but her own experts, detailed in the 2006 film Who the #%&$ is Jackson Pollock?) Brewer closes with sage comments on what art connoisseurship does and does not do, and how it rubs against the particularly American prejudice against elitism (and subjective judgment). This is a very good book and a worthy contribution to the growing literature on the history of artistic taste. It will prove equally satisfying to both the scholar and lay reader.


SIMPLY WAS NOT MY CUP OF TEA.

by D. Blankenship
(3/5)

I fear that I cannot give this work a high mark. The primary reason for this is that it is a book in search for a genre. I accepted this book via the Amazon Vine Program in that it presented itself as a book dealing with the history of a particular controversial painting; a detailed account of the painting origins, id known, an investigative sort of book which also dealt with the various personalities involved in this case.First, this case has already been written about numerous times. Most people who have even inkling as to what has gone on in the world of art is at least aware of it. This was not a story the broke new ground.No, what we more or less got here was an extremely boring read; a book in which the author has indulged himself with the phenomena of American greed at the beginning of the 20th century...as if we did not already know that! The flinging around of wealth of the mega rich at the turn of the century is by now legendary. Again, no big enlightenment here.Now I am one who dotes of dry and dusty books; books filled with small facts that are absolutely meaningless to but a very few. I have to admit that this one did even me in. Folks, for my taste, this was one very, very boring read.I also had a bit of a problem with the author's use of source documents or information. All too often there simply were none. The author tended to make accusations, give accounts, interpret actions by various individuals, but he have little to no information as to the source or validity of his information and statements. For me, this was unacceptable. It is not that I doubt his word...but really!I did finish this work, unlike several reviewers but I have to be honest with you...I do not blame those reviewers in the slightest for discontinuing the read after only a few chapters. I suppose that if I had more of a life, I would have hurled the book onto the "donation pile" long before I got halfway through the thing.This is all a pity. The premise of the book is good. The history involved is good. The information of the inner workings of the art world of that day and time could have been oh so interesting. Alas though, the author simply did not deliver.Throughout the read I kept feeling that I was reading a text book on art history that someone had tried to liven up a bit with a "mystery" and failed to pull it off. I have quite a number of shelves in my home devoted to novels and quite a number of shelves devoted to art history...all are better than this particular read.I am giving this thing three stars though out of respect for those that did find some enjoyment in reading it. I am a firm believer in "to each his own." What is one man's cheeseburger is another man's sprout sandwich. This work was simply not my cuppa.Perhaps, as other reviewers have pointed out, if this work had been presented and marketed differently...???Don BlankenshipThe Ozarks


Brilliant scholarship with the style of a novelist

by Elizabeth G. Melillo "gloriana"
(5/5)

The American Leonardo is a treasure as rare as classic art - a panorama of social history and commentary, written in an absorbing style. The combination of factors, which introduced me to many elements of a period and culture of which I had little knowledge (far less than I do of art), was not merely a rich stew but a bourgignon of scholarship.One of the refreshing elements in this superbly researched study was that it incorporated original, highly extensive research with a degree of selectivity that 'tied together' varied influences: excesses of capitalism, social commentary, ostentation in some approaches, the combined innocence and sense of injustice of the main characters. The period and situation came alive vividly, sometimes with an element of tragedy. As an art lover, it gave me a new perspective on the time and place, since the 'prestige' and materialism attached to art during that era would be foreign to my way of thinking.The writing style is rich and intelligent - happily free of the 'dumbing down' editing so prevalent in many non-fiction books today.I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the arts, history, or chronicles of celebrities (many well-known names appear.) It captures so many facets of the time that there is something here for nearly any reader.


Read before you start investing in art.

by eric talerico "Greenmanwest"
(4/5)

If you are thinking of investing money in art, this book should be on your reading list. Its an entertaining and well-researched account of the struggle for possession of, and the proof of the authenticity of "La Belle Ferronnière", a painting which may, or may not be a genuine Da Vinci. "The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money" gives the reader a good idea of the kind of politicking, elitism, ego, greed and obfuscation that has driven the value of artworks to the peaks that they have reached in recent years. It will shed some light on the way that value is manufactured, regardless of the provenance or intrinsic value and meaning of the artwork in question. I highly recommend this book for artists, laymen, investors students interested in finding out how the art market ticks, for better or for worse.


Questions of Acquisition, Attribution and Trust or Determining Authenticity by the Experienced Eye vs Science

by Erika Borsos "pepper flower"
(4/5)

My attention was immediately captured by the title "The American Leonardo" and the subtitle "A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money". So this book had me hooked from the start. The author did an amazing job researching his subject, sorting out all the players, questions, and controversies which arose about a painting called "La Belle Ferronniere" which surfaced in Junction City, Kansas in 1919. The couple, Harry and Andreé Hahn, who owned this painting maintained theirs was the original "La Belle Ferronniere" painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. They openly challenged the authentication by art experts of the painting with the same title which hung in the Louvre in Paris, claiming *it* was the copy not theirs. The painting in the Louvre had at times been rejected by art experts as being an original Leonardo and was pronounced by them to have been painted by one of Leonardo's pupils. In many ways the book reads like a mystery and John Brewer does a magnificent job in building suspense, adding background information and research data to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The only problem is the mystery remains unsolved even to this day and the painting which used to be in the possession of the Hahns, is now owned by someone else, yet - it languishes in a storage facility in Omaha, Nebraska likely never to be placed on a wall in an art gallery where it surely deserves to be. This book reveals all the many questions which arose about the claims, examinations and conclusions reached by art experts about this very unique and beautiful work of art.Essentially, the book details the history of this controversial painting, how it came to be owned by the Hahns and its contradictory past history as provided by Louise de Montaut, Andreé's aunt who gave it as a wedding gift to the couple and their many attempts to sell it as an original "Leonardo" from Nov 1919 well into the mid-1960s. The author describes the multiple roadblocks they encountered in obtaining art experts to view their painting which became even more difficult after the Hahns sued the famous New York art expert, Sir Joseph Duveen, for "slander of title" of their painting. He had pronounced it a copy without ever having viewed the original painting. The goal of the Hahns was to sell their painting for the highest fair market price, to whoever was willing to purchase it. The Kansas City Art Institute expressed a willingness to buy the presumed masterpiece but only if it was authenticated as an original by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Harry first contacted the Duveen brothers in New York in November 1919 by writing to them that he had a certificate of authentication about his painting provided by the French art expert, Georges Sortais. The Duveens likely did not take the matter too seriously as dealers of their stature were often offered a painting found in an attic presumed to be by an Old Master. Navigating the art world, with its competitive nature, snobbish elitism related to ownership of old Master paintings by wealthy patrons, and authentication by connoisseurship became a daunting task for the Hahns. Little did they realize when they began their search to authenticate their painting and then pursued a lawsuit against Sir Joseph Duveen that they would fall into a black hole from which they could not escape. Their lawsuit pitted the art establishment and its historical way of reaching authentication through the "studied eye" of connoisseurship against a more scientific view which included among other things, X-ray examination of a painting as well as chemical analysis of the paint used on the canvas. Despite the fact that six out of eight art experts (which included Sir Joseph Duveen himself) who viewed the "La Belle Ferronniere" owned by the Hahns, had pronounced it a copy, the jury was unable to reach a full consensus. Duveen petitioned the court to have the case dismissed but the judge ordered a retrial and in 1930, Duveen reached a settlement by agreeing to pay the Hahns $60,000 and their lawyers fees, although he still asserted theirs was not an original Leonardo da Vinci painting but more likely a 17th century copy.The author does a phenomenal job of describing art culture and how famous collections of paintings were obtained for museums and private collectors in Europe as well as in the United States from the turn of the century into the early 1900s. The author does a superb job of providing an understanding of the milieu into which the Hahns dove without much preparation. The book clearly shows there are many controversies created by art experts who use connoiseurship as their basis for authentication, especially when the opinions of various experts differ. Art experts can not always come to a full agreement on authentication and even individual opinions may change over time in this regard. One very telling example of such an event occurred when Sir Joseph Duveen who had pronounced the Hahn "La Belle Ferronniere" as a copy began a correspondence with John T. Harding, a great supporter of the arts who had asked Duveen to restate his views about the Hahn painting. Sir Joseph Duveen gave his expert opinion that he thought the Hahn painting a copy but he also wrote that he believed the "La Belle Ferronniere" painting in the Louvre "is very close to Leonardo da Vinci, but is not by his hand - probably it was painted by Boltraffio." These words were to haunt the New York art expert in the future in ways he could not imagine! The author also wrote a very excellent chapter on the current status of the American "La Belle Ferronniere" and why it is still caught up in legal entanglements related to ownership. This book is most highly engaging and I whole heartedly recommend it for anyone who loves a good mystery and particularly enjoys art. Erika Borsos [pepper flower[


Fascinating tale of the Old Master art world

by E. Rothstein "erothstein"
(3/5)

I had heard wonderful things about The American Leonardo, and began to read it with gusto. Brewer limns a fascinating tale of the art world's darkest corners, all centered around one family's bid to prove their Leonardo painting La Belle Ferroniere is authentic, and subsequently sell it for a princely sum. Brewer's research is exhaustive and impeccable as he traces the painting's provenance, how it came into the hands of French bride Andree Hahn, and how she and her husband attempted to sell it in the burgeoning market for Old Master art. Brewer reveals the details of the legal case brought against art "expert" Henry Duveen by the Hahn family when he dared to suggest their painting was a fake, sparking a controversy that continues to this day. Beyond the scope of the famous trial (which made headlines around the world in 1929), Brewer gives the reader a thorough course in the development of art connoisseurship, and the advent of the market for Old Master paintings. All of the elements here are intriguing and intelligently presented, but Brewer's writing is rather spare, and the juicier elements of La Belle Ferroniere's journey to legitimacy often fall flat. Someone with a better sense of STORY TELLING might have made more of the plentiful moments of intrigue, paranoia, and drama inherent in the case. Still, if you're looking for a well-researched, thoughtful telling of a true case that shook the art world, The American Leonardo absolutely delivers.


So awful. So disappointing. Do Not Recommend!

by Farnoosh Brock
(1/5)

This book was such a disappointment. I admit, I didn't finish it. Didn't even make it half-way. But I read enough. More than enough and I was sick of the author's degrading of the American pursuit for wealth in the early 1900s and his rage about the revolution of all things Americans focused on pursuit of wealth and comfort. So this book was not much about ART and what I thought it would be which is Leonardo's painting and the journey it takes at the hands of the temporary owners.


"Harry Hahn was a man who liked to talk and tell stories."

by frumiousb "frumiousb"
(4/5)

The prose style of The American Leonardo nearly put me off at the beginning of the book. Brewer is surely a well-respected historian, but he isn't up to the kind of writing promised by the book's marketing. The publishers imply Dan Brown. You are delivered something rather more dusty. In the introduction he rhapsodizes about the central mystery of the book: how do you know if a painting is authentic? Interesting stuff, actually, but hardly "obsession, art and money".So know what you're getting. This isn't a thriller. This is a pretty sprightly magazine article published by an academic and expanded into book form. It's well-researched and interesting if you're interested at all in the art world and the question of fakes/mistakes.Brewer does assume a fair amount of knowledge from his readers about technique. I didn't have it, but wikipedia gave me a hand. I wondered in several places if he knew for whom he was writing.All this aside, La Belle makes for a good story. If you have patience and time and interest, this is very much worth a read.


Interesting Book of US Social History

by hasselaar "belgie"
(5/5)

While not an art historian, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While filled with art history, it also focusses upon America during the time of the Gilded Age and the great Robber Barons. The history of a painting that COULD BE a Da Vinci, is filled with fascination information upon the great art critics of the time. The mystery of the Leonardo remains unsolved. But, this is a highly recommended book for those wishing to learn more of America during it's rise to social and cultural awareness,


Impeccable Scholarship

by HeyJudy "heyjudy"
(3/5)

THE AMERICAN LEONARDO is a beautifully written book, documenting the legal battles fought -- still being fought, almost a century later -- over a painting that may or may not have been painted by DaVinci.The tale is filled with a cast of everyone who mattered in the world of art, c. 1890 to 1930. Duveen plays the most significant role, followed closely by Berenson. The great robber barons of the day also are involved as collectors.Author John Brewer's scholarship is of the highest order.The report is so thorough, however, that the book makes for tedious reading.Nonetheless, this is an important work for anyone interested in the art world during the period at issue. And the mystery of the painting's provenance continues to this day.


How Do You Know If a Masterpiece of Art is What It's Suppose to Be?

by James R. Holland "Author, Photographer, Photo...
(4/5)

This is another of several recent books this reviewer has read and reviewed that deal with the marketplace for very rare and therefore valuable art masterpieces. This one focuses on determining whether a painting was really an original work of Leonardo daVinci, a copy or fake? The story involves a painting--"La Belle Ferronnniere"--given to a young American Harry Hahn and his French wife returning to American from WWI. They believed the painting might be, was by Leonardo. Trying to authenticate that fact is the story of this book and the saga examines and illuminates the behind-the scenes art market world of the 20th Century.This is a meticulously researched non-fiction book. Unfortunately I quickly became bogged down in it. There was too much trial material and too much complicated science for me to simply enjoy reading the book. One of the facts that mystified this reviewer was that in 1777 a restorer "Hacquin" had transferred the picture from board to canvas and had signed the back of the canvas attesting to that fact. I was never quite able to understand how that was possible. If a canvas painting were being transferred to board it would seem that it would be easy to simply wrap the treated canvas around the board backing. But I had trouble imagining removing the paint pigments from wood and transferring the complete picture to canvas and not ending up with a messy glob of old paint. Although mentioned many times in the book the process still wasn't clear to me. I'm probably typical of those people that sat on the trial jury. I stopped reading, went on line and spent a couple of hours researching restoring paintings, "Hacquin" and transferring a painting done on wood to canvas. It was too complicated for me to grasp and I don't like to have to do that much extra research when I'm attempting to enjoy a book that should have made that process so clear that even a typical member of a jury could easily comprehend it.Like the media reporters of the time, their public readers, definitely the members of the jury and any collector of expensive artworks, people want to be able to be certain that the so-called masterpiece they are buying or even looking at in a museum is indeed the work of the artist who supposedly produced it. It used to be entirely the task of "experts" to determine that by eye and examination of other works by the same artist and following the history of the artwork through it's very various owners..Modern science has now made it possible to tell if a particular painting was indeed produced in a certain time period, contained only paint and canvas that existed in a certain historical period or if it contained modern products that would indicate a fake. The science can find the obviously newer counterfeit, but it still can't scientifically prove that Leonardo da Vinci was the person who painted a particular picture. Trying to determine that fact by jury trail is almost impossible. In that legal arena it all comes down to the skilled arguments of the better lawyer.This is still a wonderful book, but it did allow my limited attention span to stray and left many questions unanswered and unresolved. It would also make me hesitate to purchase an expensive piece of art by a dead artist simply as an investment. It also lifts the veil on the so-called "Wizards of Oz" who authenticate great works of art. It's a good book. I'd also recommend reading "The Vanished Smile" by R.A. Scotti and "The Lost Chalice" by Vernon Silver both of which deal with the art market, counterfeiting, authenticating and restoring art treasures. They are much easier to read and are also excellent combinations of art treasures and mysteries.


DaVinci Hook Doesn't Deliver

by J. A. Walsh
(3/5)

John Brewer offers his own entry into the growing literary canon of art/high society pop lit, where "obsession, art and money" make the world go 'round.A confluence of events contributed to the growth of the genre: the consumption-era 90's, the "reality TV" model of wealth-as-entertainment, and the runaway success of the art-basedThe Da Vinci Codechief among them.Brewer takes advantage of the Da Vinci hook, but does so to tell the inside story of the personalities that populate the elite art trading world. There are enjoyable moments and head-slapping anecodtes, but I don't see the book standing well on its own.However, if you are in this milieu and want different take, AMERICAN LEONARDO is a different take and not a bad read. Its just not a "must-read." Brewer's book fits most snugly into the "high society" commentary category of this burgeoning section of the book store, alongside books likeThe Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine,The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House ScandalandRogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum. Like these books, LEONARDO is a story about the eccentric elite that move in art circles.One of the book's strengths is the way in which it demonstrates how social mores inside of these organizations is reflective of the art itself. The relationships and the people involved in them are all about artifice. In a world of experts and the erudite, there are times when no one really knows what is happening and is scared to death that anyone might find that out. Is the painting real is the same as does he reallly have THAT MUCH money?But, Brewer does not have as compelling an art story as other recent books. In the true crime/theft category,The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece (P.S.)is an all-time classic with recent entriesThe Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theftdelving more deeply into the underworld (asThe Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Artdid years ago), and R.A. Scotti'sVanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisausing a Picasso hook in place of Brewer's Da Vinci angle.In the straight scam category,Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Artis getting good reviews for exposing some of the same fundamental flaws in the dealer/auction network that Brewer touches upon. 2008'sThe Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (P.S.)took on forgery with Nazi art afficionados as the "marks." Finally, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting is a great read and a new release - The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece- returns to the question of unknown provenance in the same way that recent headlines on the "newly-discovered" Da Vinci have brought the question into mainstream media.Brewer's book is not bad. It belongs on this shelf. But, many of these selections should go on the true crime/heist reader's list well above LEONARDO.


An "eye" or "forensic evidence"?

by Jill Meyer
(5/5)

John Brewer covers a lot of ground in his well-written search into the age-old conundrum of proving provenance of a piece of art. Is proof of a painting's artist determined by the "eye" of an art consultant, who "knows" - in this case, Leonardo - or by forensic examination of a painting, using paint chips, wood/canvas, and other technical details?In the late 1800's, as Americans with money moved into world society, many traveled to Europe and came back with artwork to furnish their homes, and in some cases, municipal art galleries. This was an age when wealthy young American women were "sold" as brides to, in many cases, impoverished members of minor European nobility. It was a trade; the brides went East to Europe and the art came West to the US. But how was the art being bought and sold in London, Paris, and New York to be authenticated as a "real" Vermeer or a "real" Raphael? Here's where it got murkey; the great art dealers used independent sources to say what was real and what might have been a really good copy of a painting. Men like the American Bernard Berenson and the Dutchmen Mauritz van Dantzig and Helmut Ruhemann, whose "eye" could authenticate or condemn a painting.Brewer's main story here is that of a painting which may or may not be a Leonardo. The painting, La Belle Ferronniere, had a murky history before it fell/was given/was stolen into the hands of one Harry Hahn, who returned to Kansas City from his WW1 war service in 1920 with both a pretty "war bride" and a painting that might/might not be worth a fortune. All depended on determining the authenticity of the painting, which seems to have been hidden in attics up to the time it Harry Hahn came to possess it. The early 1920's was a boom time for both art and boosterism in the growing, prosperous cities in America's Midwest. Anyway, the Hahns announced they owned this original Leonardo and the claim was dismissed by Sir Joseph Duveen, one of England's premier art dealers. He made his statement without examining the painting and was sued by the Hahn's for a form of slander.The legal proceedings went on for nine years, with the case basically being settled out of court with payment from Duveen to the Hahns in 1929.The painting, which has to this day not been sold, then spent the next seventy years being shipped to France and back again a few times, spent time in London and New York at various museums, all the time being analised by "experts" in the quest of determining "is it" or "isn't it" a real Leonardo.Brewer does an excellent job making the ins and outs of the Hahn painting's many twists make sense to the layman. I suspect the painting will never be authenticated (or sold) and will live out its life in an Omaha warehouse.


Questions Of Attribution

by John D. Cofield
(5/5)

In 1919 newlyweds Harry and Andree Hahn arrived in Kansas City with a most unusual wedding present: a Leonardo da Vinci given to them by a friend of Andree's French family. La Belle Ferronnière was a lovely painting which seemed to bear some of the hallmarks of Leonardo's works, but also seemed strangely clumsy and lifeless, especially when compared to another painting of the same name, also supposed to be by Leonardo, which was in the Louvre. Harry and Andree began to market their "American Leonardo" and touched off a controversy which has lasted for ninety years.The primary focus of John Brewer's history of the controversy around the Hahn "La Belle" is the question of what exactly constitutes a valid attribution, the identification of one particular artist as the creator of a particular art work. Connoisseurs tend to fall into two major camps: those who believe in using "scientific" analysis versus those who rely on observation and emotional response. Neither camp accepts the other's methods, and the result is endless debate and rancorous controversy.The story of the Hahn's La Belle Ferronnière is full of intriguing characters, many of them highly regarded and brilliant connoisseurs and many others shady if not downright criminal. Arguments over whether the painting was really a Leonardo escalated into full scale lawsuits and decades long vendettas.While in the end the final resolution of the identity of the creator of the Hahn "La Belle" is still undecided, "The American Leonardo" is nevertheless a very intriguing and satisfying history which will leave its readers, particularly those who know little or nothing about artistic provenance, with a better understanding of the difficulty of making correct attributions and a healthy skepticism towards the self-proclaimed experts who try to make them.


A compelling book about a controversial painting and the 'science' of art attribution

by Jojoleb "jojoleb"
(4/5)

In John Brewer's excellent new book, The American Leonardo, Brewer discusses one of the most controversial paintings of all time: the Hahn La Belle Ferronière. Was this work painted by Leonardo Da Vinci or was it an inferior copy of the La Belle in the Louvre? What was the reaction of the Art world? And how do we really know whether anything we see in an art museum is what it seems to be? Rather than let the story crackle on its own, Brewer has chosen to ponder more philosophical questions. Because of this, the book isn't the fastest read and may not suit some readers. Still, it is an incredibly well written account of the Hahn's story and an eye opening exposé of the underpinnings of the art world.The story of the Hahn La Belle is an interesting gem of history in and of itself. Brewer, however, is less concerned about this story and, rather, uses it as a vehicle to contrast the differences between the lay person's conception of art and that of the art connoisseur. Brewer's interest does not lie in whether this particular painting was created by Da Vinci. The controversy that Brewer ponders is how can we truly know whether a displayed work of art can be considered authentic.The Hahn La Belle rocked the foundation of the art world by changing people's perceptions of art authenticity and exposing the weaknesses of how the art community attributes and authenticates art. The public trial between Joseph Duveen, the most influential art dealer at the time, and the Hahn family brought the inexact 'science' of the connoisseur to light for a broader audience and in doing so changed the lay person's perception of art. Brewer skillfully guides the reader through this story.And therein lies one of the difficulties of this book. Brewer's focus is such that the book reads more like the script of a documentary than it does a novel. He describes the colorful characters that populate the book well enough--the arrogant but charming Joseph Duveen, the blustery, bombastic, yet charming Harry Hahn, and Andree, Hahn's quiet, refined, and attractive wife, to name a few.But Brewer zeros in more on the history of art authentication: how a small cadre of experts and dealers mixed business with connoisseurship. The prospect of making more money if a painting sold at a higher price often muddied the waters of authenticity. Brewer mostly succeeds in keeping up our interest by fleshing out the stories of each of these characters, but in between there are long stretches about the science (or the lack thereof) of early 20th century art attribution. If the question of art authenticity is a burning one for you, this book will appeal. If not, it will be slow going.Given that this book is solidly aimed at the layperson, it would have been helpful to describe some of the more technical aspects of renaissance art and art restoration in the early 1900s. I was aware that the Mona Lisa, for example, was painted on a wood panel. But I was unaware that even at the turn of the last century it was a common practice to transfer paintings from wood to canvass in order to preserve them. Brewer makes reference to this, but seems to treat it as common knowledge. I found an article online from the New York Times in 1910 that describes how a restorer, Arthur Dawson, was able to perform this kind of transfer for wealthy clients. It would also have been helpful to know something of the techniques of renaissance painting, the pigments used, and how these elements came to bear when the expert analyzes a painting. A better knowledge of what was available in terms of scientific analysis at the turn of the last century and how this was performed would also have been of help.Differences are described between the Hahn La Belle and the Louvre La Belle. There is a nice section of pictures in the middle of the book. What's missing here, however, would be two full-color and full-size panels with each of these paintings side by side. Without that, it is often difficult to fully understand what the experts were looking at during the trial and why they came to the conclusions that they did. The pictures in this section were of reasonable quality, but were in black and white. My review copy was not marked as such. Given that this book was already released in the UK, it is likely that I received a final copy. (As an amusing aside, the cover picture is that of the Louvre La Belle.)The book could not have been released at a more auspicious time. The recent discovery of a 'new' Da Vinci painting may catapult sales of Brewer's book and may even put Brewer himself in the limelight. One can see that the stakes are quite high: if this painting turns out to be a Da Vinci a $19,000 investment could now be worth $150 million dollars. The fact that this latest find was legitimized using state of the art forensic techniques reminiscent of CSI, shows just how much things may have changed since the Old Master's art collection boom, where they relied mostly on the expert's eye.[ADDENDUM 1/28/2010: According to the New York Times, the Hahn's La Belle sold at Sotheby's to an unidentified American buyer for 1.5 million dollars (including fees), well above the $500,000 estimate. This is an interesting post script to the book. It remains to be seen as to whether the painting will be exhibited at some later date.]


A fascinating thesis, a fractured narrative

by Jonathan A. Turner
(3/5)

John Brewer uses the case of Harry and Andrée Hahn's putative da Vinci to examine a whole interrelated set of cleavages in our notion of what constitutes art: European vs. American, cosmopolitan vs. provincial, scientific vs. aesthetic, elitist vs. populist. What makes a work of art valuable? Is a painting just a commodity, like a barrel of turnips? And who is qualified to make artistic judgments?The last-named is the most central tension of _The American Leonardo_, pitting the connoisseurs against the scientific/technical analysts. The former, led by Sir Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson, held that a cultured eye and a "sixth sense" (as one of them put it) constituted the be-all and end-all of art attribution. They displayed a really astonishing degree of vitriol towards technical and historical analysis of paintings. Their objection, as Brewer portrays it, is fundamentally a hostility towards anything that might tend to democratize art appreciation.This is great stuff, lucidly and fairly presented. The questions raised are still germane; if you ever express skepticism towards Britain's Turner Prize, for example, you may be hectored by latter-day Duveens ("It's great art because we, the anointed ones, are telling you so").As a narrative, however, the book sometimes stumbles. Brewer is so intent on his big picture (no pun intended) that he loses the thread of his story. He shows a pronounced tendency--particularly in the first half of the book--to drop in references to people, places, things, and events in random order. Some specifics:* Characters appear and disappear unpredictably. For example, the art dealer Conrad Hug is introduced briefly on page 11, then vanishes until page 110.* There's a lack of a coherent, consistent narrative sequence. In Chapter 1, for existence, the triggering events for the eventual libel trial are touched on, but not expanded upon. Instead, the remainder of Chapter 1 is dominated by, of all people, Henry James. James fits in nicely to Brewer's overall thesis, but we never do get back to the specific causes of or run-up to the trial.* The trial itself doesn't come until Chapter 6 (starting on p. 137), but there are numerous references to occurrences therein beforehand. We learn the outcome of the trial on p. 91, various isolated details on following pages, and the aftermath on p. 101.* There are many other such forward references: some event will be mentioned in passing, then referred to, then dropped, and then finally introduced and explained fully. We are told, for example, that May 1923 was "a few months before the Hahn La Belle returned to Paris" (p. 99). Wait--why was the picture going to Paris? And how did we get to 1923? The opening of the chapter is a short bio of the Hahns, which only took us up to around 1920.These would be of no consequence in a book aimed at a specialist audience. In, say, an academic treatise, it makes perfect sense to assume your readers are already familiar with the basic facts, and forge ahead with your analysis. The American Leonardo, however, is pitched toward a general audience. And for a general audience, you need a story structure--beginning, middle, end. It doesn't have to be strictly chronological (it could be thematic, or character-based) but it does need to be there.Finally, there are two omissions worth noting:* There is very little discussion of the science and technology of picture attribution--either in general, or with reference to the Hahn _La Belle_. Certainly the reader is not given enough information to form any picture of the scientific methods, or any judgment of the evidence in this case. This is particularly surprising given that the battle between scientific vs. aesthetic attribution is the book's central theme.* The larger philosophical question is: Does it matter? Does the Hahn _La Belle_ suddenly become a better picture if it turns out to be a genuine Leonardo? Conversely, if it's not by Leonardo, is it impermissible to like it? Certainly some of the connoisseurs seem to have thought that it had to be inferior because it must not be a da Vinci.Perhaps it's unfair to castigate Brewer for writing the book he wanted to write, instead of the book I wanted him to write. These lacunae, however, are so substantial that I feel obliged to point them out.Perhaps _The American Leonardo_ is best understood as an extended essay in the academic tradition. Notwithstanding the subtitle, it's not a complete success as a tale. (Don't skip the introduction, or you won't have any idea what's going on.) But it does provide some vivid character portraits, and it raises some large and fascinating questions, and it follows its central thesis across more than a century. Put aside any notion of reading it as a detective story, and consider it instead an invitation to ruminate.


Detailed and Dense

by kdea473
(4/5)

With little background in art (other than visiting some very wonderful museums in my travels), I have spent considerable time reading art history-related books this past year. I found the topic of this book to be intriguing, and was looking forward to reading it.The author's writing style makes it difficult to read, bogging down passages with the words (leading the reader to focus on the actual words rather than the point).I truly enjoyed the discussion of art authentication, and especially the convoluted nature of Joseph Duveen's art authentication / art dealer career. Seems like the sort of story that is too strange to be true!This book is probably not for the most casual of readers. It is detailed, dense, and can take a long time to get through (I worked on it for almost a year!). That being said, it is truly a very interesting look at a very interesting topic.


Disjointed, Dry and Not Well Told!

by Kevin Currie-Knight
(1/5)

I had a feeling I might not finish this book around page 100. The book, which is about the trials of an American faimily to sell a Leonardo painting, La Belle Ferronniere, when some of the leading art critics had reason to believe it was a fake. But as of page 100, there had only been a few mentions of the painting, the family, or the ensuing turn of events. And at page 115, I decided that the book simply wasn't worth my time. It is quite dry and should be marketed more as a textbook on art history than anything the general reader might want to digest.The biggest problem with this book, as another reviewer noted, is that it is "dry as dust." Chapter one alone was quite monotonous, as it was devoted to the author arguing turn-of-the-century capitalism led to a huge desire by rich Americans to buy art. The author repeats this about 10 times, offering new quotes to support his interpretation each time. Other chapters are similar in their dryness and their tangents.The second big problem with this book - the one that finally drove me to put it down - was the authors lack of ability to tell a story in a unified way. As another reviewer notes, the author often brings up a character's name only to leave them off for 100 pages while the "sets the scene." And this is the way the book feels: the author occasionally alludes to Hahn and his contentious quest to sell the painting in the first four chapters. On chapter five, with no transition in, the author begins the story right before the legal trial starts, as if we do not need to know how the owners came across the painting or any other backstory. Very, very disjointed writing like this makes for a read I am glad I did not finish.So my verdict: I found this book to be a dry and disjointed work that probably belongs in a college art history classroom. If that is what you are looking for, you may well like this book. If not, look elsewhere.


A story without a heart

by Kevin Killian
(3/5)

The American Leonardo tells the story of a young couple, Harry amd Andree Hahn, who fetched up in the heartland of America--Junction City, Kansas--operating an automobile asset. They lived inauspiciously but shortly after their marriage revealed the secret which they considered a valuable asset--namely, a painting by the great Leonardo Da Vinci, "La Belle Ferroniere." It had been a wedding gift to the bride from a family friend, when the Hahns tried to sell it within twenty months of the wedding, Emily Post frowned on such etiquette but the rest of the USA cheered, patriotic pride exploding in the wake of a Great War in which many US doughboys had died.When Duveen dismissed the picture as a fake and a fraud (without ever having seen it), the resourceful Hahns sued him for slander. The ensuing court case forms the heart of John Brewer's lengthy book, which I read about only recently in a New Yorker article about a disputed Leonardo drawing which is attracting attention today, under eerily similar circumstances, David Grann, speaks of Brewer's book as if it were some kind of New Yorker-like masterwork of nonfiction. It's not, but it has its good points, and I don't want to sell the book short, but it's boring,Okay, the interesting-est parts all involve Brewer's continuous contextualizing of the art market circa 1920. We take it for granted that Old Masters were always the blue chip pictures on the market, but at the time of the Hahn case, we learn, such a state of affairs was a relatively recent development. Old Masters could be bought for a song in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s. It was not until the rise of a new class, the "connoisseur," (literally, the guy who knows), that Vermeers and Raphaels began to attain really good prices. The rise of the connoisseur couldn't have happened without an explosion in the number of rich American businessmen who wanted to get the best for their money: without being able to determine a consensus on what is the best, they might as well have continued buying up countries instead of works of art. The situation arose that continues even today, although today painters and artists, once anointed and plugged into the cabal, can sell new works still wet from the fabricators, at the prices it once took a painting a few centuries of patina to reach. Somehow I wound up not feeling sorry even for the Hahns, the little Davids trying to bring down the big Goliath of connoisseurship. They seem as greedy as the rest of the bunch. Every page of this book is an excoriating example of a market out of control, and yet Brewer looks on as though this were all great good fun.


An Inner-Disciplinary Study of a World Few Outside the Elite Circle Know About

by Kyle Slayzar
(5/5)

Like many books I review, I chose "The American Leonardo" to read and review with as much knowledge about the subject (contemporary art) as a third-grade finger-painter but with as much dexterity as a lobster wearing oven mitts. In short, I don't know jack about art, especially the world behind all the glits and glamour that is often the butt of jokes by those outside this elite cultural circle.With that said, if someone wanted to show me the world behind contemporary art, particularly how art is judged, appraised, showcased, etc., one would have to really dumb things down but not to the point of making me feel like I'm back in Ms. Preston's elementary art class. Professors Eli and Eyde Broad (a.k.a. John Brewer pseudonym) provide this easy-to-read glimpse into the past and contemporary art world with the Hahn's La Belle Ferronniere, a painting by Leonardo Di Vinci, as the primary case study.Brewer's introduction brings up the important question of, "who is in this world and why are they so important?" Brewer notes that the elite art world has been, up until the publication of The American Leonardo, exempted from criticism and self-examination whether from outside perspectives or from within. As a self-proclaimed art aficionado, Brewer provides the latter, an outside perspective, on the art world.Using the Hahn's La belle Ferronniere as a case study, Brewer shows how the art world has worked and evolved into what it is today by examining how Hahn's painting was showcased, judged, and later declared a fake by New York art appraiser Sir Joseph Duveen. From the lawsuit that arose soon thereafter Brewer shows how the court case, while still be deliberated after 80 years, challenged the very credibility of the elite within the art society by making everyone ask just why we trust them or take their word for anything such as their own expertise. This then begs the question, what constitutes an art "expert" and how does scholarly discourse within the art community take place? While this may seem frivolous to many, especially those with little interest in art and art history, I have always believed it is critical to ask the experts, "what makes you an expert and why should your opinion matter to me or anyone?"However, it should be noted that Brewer does not seek to tear down the art community, only to examine it and, more or less, support its prominence in society but still exposing several problems, corruption, and biases within the elite circles.Brewer answers most of these questions with clear precision but does not either A) confuse the reader or B) make the reader feel like a complete ignoramus for not knowing art terminology, protocol, and colloquialisms. "The American Leonardo" proved to be a very stimulating read, one that I feel as though gives me a better perspective of the art community and much greater respect of those who engage in it.All in all, a solid A-.A very engaging read indeed.


A little too dry but overall an education in the arena of classical art authentication

by Lilly Flora "by Lilo Drandoff"
(3/5)

I've never really been all that into art history and when I initially picked this book as a vine selection I was under the mistaken assumption that it was a novel. I was a little disappointed upon discovering its non-fiction nature, but mostly fascinated with the true tale of slander and art authentication that follows the painting known as the American Leonardo. Though this book is a little too dry and factual (non-fiction can be entertaining too and this author seems to forget that at times) overall it's a truly remarkable tale and education in some of the most complex arenas of the classical art world.Three stars.


Lack of Detail on Attribution Is Disappointing

by Lynne E. "Lynne E."
(2/5)

This quotation from the author's Introduction basically explains what THE AMERICAN LEONARDO is about: "Much of the history of the Hahn La Belle Ferronniere is the story of how different people, both inside and outside the art world, have attempted to use the picture to further their own ends."The "Hahn La Belle Ferronniere" is a painting that at one time was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by a few leading art critics. Unfortunately, the book is so laden with historical facts about (1) the painting's various owners, (2) the art critics who examined the painting, (3) the lawyers who conducted a famous trial about the painting's authentication, and (4) the dealers who attempted to sell the painting after it became virtually unsalable because of fragmented ownership interests, that the story of the painting itself gets lost.From the jacket photo, it appears to me that the painting--although very pleasing--is clearly NOT by Leonardo. Thus I was looking forward to reading the details about why "the American Leonardo" was ever thought to be a Leonardo, and about the true and current attribution based on experts' reports and scientific testing. However, although there is one artist named as the probable painter, the book includes precious few attribution details. Instead, the Afterword states that the author "cannot, for legal reasons, reveal the names of the experts in the so-called black book" (the "black book" being a collection of materials put together by the present marketer that includes evaluations and expert opinions on the painting). What few attribution details there are, derive mostly from trial testimony by 1920's experts. These experts, so far removed from today's experts, steadfastly insisted that "the eye of the connoisseur" was so paramount that provenance and scientific test results were utterly superfluous.The narrative does make it clear that most art experts have always believed the painting to be a copy of Leonardo's La Belle Ferronniere, which is in the Louvre. Kansas City art lovers may be interested in reading this book for the considerable historical detail on the founding of the renowned Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, which at one time gave serious consideration to purchasing the Hahn La Belle Ferronniere for its collection.


An interesting battle from the culture wars

by Malvin
(4/5)

"The American Leonardo" by John Brewer focuses on the strange career of the Hahn family's painting, 'La Belle Ferronniere' (reputedly by Leonardo da Vinci) to help us understand one of the most interesting battles from the culture wars of the 20th century. Mr. Brewer painstakingly reconstructs the personalities and events that surrounded the 'Belle' in America from 1920 to the present, presenting a fascinating narrative that should interest a wide audience, especially lovers of art, culture and society.Mr. Brewer takes us back to a time when the introduction of the 'Belle' in America by the decidedly middle-class Hahn family was seen as a threat to connoisseurship in service to the wealth and prestige of the nouveau riche. The author reminds us that the trial, which sought to establish the authenticity of the painting versus its repudiation by the power brokers of the art industry, caused a national sensation. We understand how the trial served as a cultural flash point, pitting the Midwestern Hahn family against the haughty cultural experts of the Eastern art establishment who refused scientific analysis to definitively resolve the issue.On that point, the release of the book couldn't be more timely. News of the discovery of a fingerprint on 'La Bella Principessa' and its subsequent reattribution to Leonardo appeared in the media in October, 2009. Yet, those looking for proof about the Hahn painting in this book will be disappointed. Tantalizingly, at the 1929 trial we are told the Hahn's lawyer spoke briefly about a thumbprint on the picture that purportedly shows the damage Leonardo had suffered to the thumb of his right hand; unfortunately, nowhere else in the book is this matter disccused. Mr. Brewer states that the labyrinthine financial claims made upon the painting precludes him from disclosing any hard evidence, which is contained in a secret dossier under the control of the current ownership group. Languishing in limbo in an undisclosed location in the Midwest, Mr. Brewer implores us to release 'Belle' from the captivity imposed upon it by the past sins of its owners and society, and allow it to be examined using modern methods.I highly recommend this entertaining, engrossing and illuminating book to everyone.


Very interesting introduction to a variety of topics

by Marcy L. Thompson
(4/5)

I really enjoyed this book. I came to it knowing little about the process of art attribution, almost nothing about the cultural history of the relationship between "art appreciation" and class in 19th century America, and nothing at all about the painting in question.I worried that I might not have the background to appreciate the book, but I gave it a try anyway, and I'm glad I did. I now know a lot more about all those topics, and I had the pleasure of reading this engrossing, interesting book along the way. The book provides sufficient background that a novice like me could understand the controversies explored in the book.I found the particular story chosen to frame the discussion to be interesting and quirky enough to hold my attention through some of the more arcane discussions of what happened and what it all meant. The story of this painting is filled with unusual and intriguing characters, and they (mostly) come to life in the pages of the book.Well worth the time I spent reading it.


Fascinating and Frustrating

by M. Broderick "mikebinok"
(4/5)

To start out with the positive things about this book--It covers some fascinating topics, and inspired enough interest in me that I've ordered two other books (one on art forgeries in general, and one on a particularly successful forger mentioned in this book) on related topics while reading it. I suspect I'll order other books in this field, which is pretty remarkable since I'm not a fine arts person!For me, the interesting topics covered were:1) How "Old Master" paintings are traditionally evaluated by connoisseurs versus how the general public sees them, conflicts between connoisseurs, and the disdain of that community for technical tests;2) The spectacular trial held because of critical remarks about the title painting about a pillar of the art community;3) Art forgeries and how opinions of them by the connoisseur community may be fallible, and can change over time.These topics are covered well, and are very interesting.Now the downsides of the book--I ordered the book because of interest in Leonardo da Vinci, but there's almost nothing about him in the book, and very little about the painting that is the main subject. The author seems to assume familiarity with many fairly technical issues of art that the general public knows little of, even though this is a book for the mass market. The book covers the ongoing conflict over this painting in quite a bit of detail. The early years of this are interesting, reaching a peak of excitement during the big trial of the late 1920s, but after that, my level of interest in what was happening fell off progressively, and by the time I neared the end of the book, reading it bordered on being a chore (though it picked up in the Afterword).If the subject interests you, I suspect you'll find many parts of the book interesting as I did. If nothing else, the book will probably encourage you to think about fine art, its role in our society, and how we evaluate and appreciate it. Not for everyone, but I suspect those who do like it will like much of it very well. It's not typical for me to read a nonfiction book about a field that isn't one of my main interests, and be spurred to order several books for follow-on reading!


An interesting mystery stuck in molasses

by M. Hyman "Artist at large"
(2/5)

The story behind the book... the attempted sale of a what might be da Vinci painting (most likely a copy)... and the various legal battles and art intrigues surrounding it is interesting, and has the potential to be an interesting historical mystery and tour of art verification. And, when the author sticks specifically to the issues surrounding the court case, the various players, and their motivations, the book is interesting.Unfortunately, i found that only 3 or 4 chapters out of the entire book were fun to read. The majority of the book is ponderous and repetitive, and reads like a mix between a pompous academic lecture and gibberish from an art magazine. So instead of being a human interest focused mystery, it is at times, and perhaps I might paraphrase in style, by attempting to elucidate what may or may not previously been referred to in other reviews on this subject matter or others, reflected in many ways in the writings of the time... you get the point... it is just plain hard to keep interest through the verbal clutter.It also has some egregious errors with respect to some of the paintings and artists discussed.It is researched in detail, covers a lot of material, but, except for a few rare chapters, never connects on a human level. The material itself is interesting, but I think it would have to be rewritten with a very different style and approach to make the book work.


The Battle over La Belle: Taking On the Elite World of Art Connoisseurship.

by mirasreviews
(4/5)

"The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money" uses the story of an embattled painting to follow conflicting ideas about art attribution as they evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries. The painting, the "American Leonardo", is version of Leonardo da Vinci's "La Belle Ferroniere" that was given to Harry Hahn, a American auto dealer, and his French bride Andrée as a wedding present shortly after the First World War. The Hahns tried to sell the painting in the United States, and, when the powerful New York art dealer Joseph Duveen dismissed it as a copy without even seeing the painting in 1929, they sued him for "slander of title". This brought the snobbery and mystery of art attribution out in court, alongside newer forensic techniques that might also offer insight.Most art historians and dealers concluded that the Hahn La Belle was a copy of the Leonardo that hangs in the Louvre. But, for the Hahns and their supporters, it became a fight with the art establishment over the often subjective nature of art attribution. John Brewer presents a short history of the commodification of art in the 19th century, as the Gilded Age engendered a "cult of art history and good taste", and the resulting need for more accurate art attribution. The art expert was born -or he created himself to fill the role. But experts were not infallible, and their summary judgments as to who painted a picture didn't necessarily inspire trust in the laypeople, who were beginning to put more stock in forensic technologies.To illustrate the conflicting views of art attribution and to tell the saga of the Hahn La Belle painting, the author takes us through the 1929 trial, the resumption of the battle in the 1940s and 1950s, when Harry Hahn wrote a polemic against connoisseurship entitled "The Rape of La Belle", all the while supposedly trying to sell the painting, until the 1970s, when the painting became an object against which unscrupulous persons borrowed money, racking up an incredible 29 liens against its future sale. The Hahn La Belle had its prestigious supporters too, including Dutch connoisseur Maurits van Dantzig and German conservateur Helmut Ruhemann, and I appreciated the portraits of all of the professionals who had opinions about the painting."The American Leonardo" suffers for not having a real protagonist, though. The Hahns are not very sympathetic or competent, and I was left doubting that Harry Hahn ever believed his painting was genuine. It was never clear to me why the supporters of the Hahn La Belle in the art world thought it was genuine either, though I can understand why it's detractors did not: the Hahn La Belle does not appear to have been painted by the same artist as the Louvre painting, judging only by photographs of it in the book. And I think the author fails to pit connoisseurship against forensic methods, because the x-ray and other technological analyses seem to support the position that the painting is a copy. I enjoyed "The American Leonardo", but it is perhaps not as strong a critique of connoisseurship or defense of the little guy as was intended.


Biography of a Painting

by Orville B. Jenkins "Research Guy"
(5/5)

This book is a biography of a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Brewer provides a mystery story covering an 80-year period. Brewer traces the story of the painting called La Belle Ferronière. This painting belonged to a Kansas City couple named Hahn.Harry Hahn and his French wife Andrée had received this painting as a wedding gift from an adoptive aunt of Andrée shortly after World War One. A controversy arose that led to a complex international intrigue because this painting is the same as another like it in the Louvre. Brewer investigates legal transcripts, affidavits, newspaper stories, family papers and all the other sources he can discover, in order to tell the complex story.When the Hahns decided to sell the painting, thy needed to have it evaluated and authenticated. Authorities differed, and as matters progressed, the authenticity of the copy in the Louvre was questioned also. The amazing tale involved a side by side evaluation, discussion among differing authorities and legal battles over defamation and complex financial agreements over the decades of the 20th century.Controversies and disputes continued over rights to sell or display the Hahn La Belle. Promissory notes and contracts over rights changed hands in confusing layers of claims, counterclaims and legal liabilities. Hahn personally interviewed many principals and family members, and spent hundreds of hours in research and finally got a personal view of the painting.The Louvre's copy is also deemed by authorities to be a copy, a joint work by Leonardo and his students or a painting by one of his disciples. The creditable Hahn work of art, however, was likewise never substantiated as an authentic Leonardo. Brewer found it in a locked storage vault in Chicago, under the care of the current representative of the Hahn family, still unable to sell the painting.The value and desirability of the unauthenticated painting makes it of less value than the family are willing to sell it for.The amazing story hangs together through the skillful descriptive prose of Brewer. Mystery fans will find this as engrossing as most murder mysteries they have read. The American Leonardo holds its own in the world of spy novels and international suspense and intrigue.A strong theme in this story is the charge that the professional art world, with its valuations, museums and auctions, is a racket amounting to collusion among a small clique intending to bilk unsophisticated nouveaus riches. A hefty trade in fakes gains the spotlight for much of the story, complicating the legal theme in worldwide art trade over the 20th century.The Hahn La Belle becomes the cause célèbre around which an outsider from the Midwest takes on the subjective, cliquish arrogance of the professionals. This traditional art clique initially rejected the attempts to objectify evaluations by use of modern science.Forensic approaches can evaluate the components of the pigments, character of the canvas or wood and other media. The old school rejected such rational objective approaches, favoring the supposed emotional effect paintings supposedly have on those sensitive to them. Thus the story Brewer presents here traces the development of scientific analysis as a major component now accepted in evaluating and authenticating old master paintings.


I didn't know...

by Patricia R. Andersen "redheaded booklover"
(4/5)

Apparently, there seems to be no science to art authentication. I never knew that, I thought there was a lot of work to figure out who really created a painting. John Brewer takes you inside this world of fake (or is it?) art with the case of Harry and Andree Hahn's da Vinci, La Belle Ferroniere.Of course, the Hahns purchased the painting thinking it could be a da Vinci. But according to the art historians, it is not a real da Vinci, just a copy of a painting in the Louvre Museum. It seemed to me that it should be relatively simple to prove - are the materials similar? Was it created during the time period the artist was alive? Surely x-rays or some other technology could prove this.But there isn't a definitive way to prove it. It seems to be that if certain art historians believe that a painting is authentic, there is is authentic.I really liked this book but I think it needs a little more polishing. Everything is presented from the layman's point of view, so you don't have to major in art history to understand where the narrative is taking you.If you're interested in art history, or da Vinci, I recommend this book highly. You will learn quite a bit about art and the art world. I enjoyed it.


An interesting history of a real art mess-terpiece

by Peter Ingemi
(5/5)

The American Leonardo is an interesting history of a painting at the center of of of the great art controversies of the 20th and now the 21st century.Mr. Brewer tells his tale well and for a person who has no background in any kind of Art he gives a real solid history of the players and the environment that produced the controversy.There are very few heroes in this story the experts and the Art community seem more interested in protecting their prerogatives and the the source of their own wealth than the realities, however the Hahn and co see to be also looking for ego and profit.The trial is covered well and the post trial activities are even more interesting and Byzantine in nature. It is very easy to get lost within it. The fact that the author only was able to see the painting in question by not disclosing where it is the most fitting conclusion to the story.Doctor Who - City of Death (Episode 105)comes to mind at once as the question becomes of how important is what a painting looks like for it to be admired and enjoyed. (The story is quite similar as it turns on which of 7 Leonardo's are genuine) It would seem to me that it is all a matter of personal taste, in theory an art historian might have a different standard but in the end it is all subjective. I've seen art in galleries that I thought was junk but it is on exhibit and worth quite a sum.And that brings up the subject of the values. Estimates not withstanding something is by definition worth what people are willing to pay. The various historians (particularly in the late 18th and 19th century had quite a racket. No doubt they admired the works but I'm sure the comfortable and high life and status that their knowledge allowed them was admired by them even more.After reading the book I can't guess what the painting in question is worth but I can tell you that this book is appealing and is worth the purchase price.As an aside if you are into current politics this book will be especially interesting as much of it turns on the difference between the elites and "flyover" country. You can't help but see the parallels.


BREWER WITH HIS OWN MASTERPIECE

by Professor Emeritus P. Bagnolo "Slugger/BIGGUY"
(5/5)

Since I am an artist, I found the opportunity to review this book exciting.The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and MoneyI was not disappointed, as I found the content of this book delightfully fascinating, very exciting and it outlined what I always suspected about many "art experts," they appear to be mostly, smoke and mirrors, magicians. Obviously, I was thrilled to see it was offered to Vine Critics and I jumped at the chance to read it, and read it I did and rapidly, almost as rapidly as the author, Professor John Brewer makes the tale unwind. Brilliantly worded, intelligently organized, and cleverly unfolded, the narrative speeds along like a Ferrari along the Adriatic followed by a wild ride inland through the Hills of Abruzzi or along the Caserta tracks in Naples.Brewer takes the reader though the first American era of "Conspicuous Consumption," in the late 19th century to the early 20th century, an era, after wending our way through the current one, was, though hard and strewn with impediments to spirituality and aesthetics, a walk in the park compared to the present era of evil and mean spiritedness personified.America was in the late 19th century to the late 1920's bursting with growth and the staggering wealth of the railroad, land grabbing, oil drilling and refining, robber barons and many industrialists and entrepreneurs, to say nothing of mining czars. Many of these men were relatively uneducated, uncultured money grabbers who began to spend fortunes to create private art collections, which at first consisted of what the snobbish insider art world called "academic artists," men like the Brit Alma Tadema, or the French Bougruereau, though he was a distinctly better painter than the multitude of newer artists who try to copy the work of Pino of whichthey are contemporaries, today.Their homes were bursting with excesses in furnishings, nick-knacks, doodads and horrific displays of their aggressively acquisitive nature, which loudly displayed their rapid rise to parodies and icons of the fat-cat splattering the surrounding areas with bigger, better, more and more, and disgustingly more materialism, but loaded with larger than life quantities of artifacts of poor taste and vulgarity, which they thought and we know, to have been the fruits of their labors. Soon they desired to bolster a cosmetic face on their excesses, for early on it did not matter what they acquired as long as they paid a high and quotably so, price for it.The world of antique art was a bit dormant until the latter part of the 19th century, when one could have had a Titian (Man w/Red Hat) for a mere $450.00, in 1876 and sell it 30 years later for $132,000, and another bought at a pittance sold in 1914 for $290,000. The same year the Tsar of Russia paid a then mind boggling $1.5 millions for a Leonardo- (Benois Madonna).Those staggering prices are now, of course, nothing in comparison. But how did Nouveau Riche Americans with little knowledge of European art make their purchases, when they knew little to nothing about European art, or any art for that matter?Therein is the gist of this wonderfully written, lively book. Around the gaudy purchases, there grew a new and burgeoning industry, of art dealers, art connoisseurs, art attributers, dealers in fake masterpieces by the carloads, the creation of scientific instrumentation and technologies, with which to authenticate, repudiate, discover or study brush strokes, paint content, X-ray, canvas and any other means by which fraud could be detected. However, there was also the need for the wealthy buyers of art, to protect themselves against counterfeit copies of classical European and later American artists works, against also duplicitous dealers in art, agents, art connoisseurs, and even falsely scientific, art attributers. Here in a world in which multi-millionaire industrialists had no leverage, they were targets of the grifter's and frauds. Nouveau Riche Americans became the patsies of unscrupulous partnerships between painters skilled in mimicking the work of the old Italian Masters and some severely less than scrupulous art dealers, authenticators and others were able to scam even the great museums. One art critic recently said that his estimate was that 40%-60% of the Master Works in the greatest museums of the world were frauds, counterfeits.In trying so hard to impress the world with their culture and heritage, American entrepreneurs were hard put to coax up a lineage that would impress each other and their Euro-friends. Unable to do so, they attached themselves to works of art and to choose friends with a pedigree in hopes that it might rub off on them by association.Brewer winds us through sale after sale, character after character, names like Henry Clay Frick, Sir Hugh Lane, JP Morgan, the Wideners, the Altman's, but finally overriding all was the introduction of one Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hahn, he a automobile dealer, she the daughter of an impoverished French family of nobilityThe then famous art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, without ever seeing what is now known variously as the Hahn La Belle Ferronnie're and the American Leonardo, allegedly by Da Vinci, deemed it a fake.Hahn who was no fool, and was unwisely disrespected by artiste snobs because of his lack of a cultured, noble, or High European ancestry, perhaps saw this as an advantage rather than so much of a setback and promptly sued Duveen, in 1920 in what was to become the greatest trial of such proportion and genre in American history... struggling on and off for nearly eighty years and still and undoubtedly the longest. Harry, and later, more so his beautiful wife, Andree' changed the way in which art is authenticated and traded. Before, a word from one man, based on as simple a method of authentication as his "eye for art" was enough to send a multi-millionaire or a museum scrambling to their check book to scratch out seven to ten figure checks for a new master piece. No longer, now the utmost in, yes still the eye of the art dealers, art connoisseurs, art attributer's, have some sway but not more than that of the technology at the service of those seeking to authenticate art. The last anyone heard of the fate of the painting was to be sold in spring of 2009, after a century of struggles to authenticate it. The amazing part of the story is that over those long decades the owners had many chances to sell it, at times in the millions of dollars, but always `stopped just short" of doing so in the words of Brewer.At war when the story began were the heretofore, highly honored and thought irrefutable, near infallible, art dealers, critics, authenticators, connoisseurs and "experts" pitted against scientists, each high suspicious of the others. Now still guarded, there is at least a consensus using both methods and while in the end they cannot be infallible, they can at least lower the odds against error and fraud.Read and enjoy the nearly century long travail over the authenticity or lack thereof of the American Leonardo's fate and how an auto dealer and his loving wife changed an entire industry from speculative, to at least more scientifically certain. Certainly clever fakes of antique art pass on and are purchased for huge figures, but not so much any more... or so they think...


Great masters authentication

by Reader "Eugenia"
(3/5)

In 1920s a young midwestern American soldier and his French bride arrive to America with their wedding gift - Leonardo DaVinci's painting - or so they thought. This book takes a look at what is art and how experts decide when work is original and when it is a copy. It takes reader to a journey about how wealthy Americans become obsessed with becoming "cultured" by acquiring art, how intellectual elite of the time (Edith Wharton, Henry James and Oscar Wilde) promoted art in their writings and what resources were getting engaged to determine if the art in question was genuine.The book also takes a look at decades long journey to dispute origins of the painting. It takes serious look at what it means to be art expert, art admirer and methods used in the past and today to authenticate art.This comprehensive work of how art, money, collecting and museum values merge will bring forth methods to any reader to decide for themselves if the "American Leonardo" is in fact genuine or fake. By the time I was finished reading this book, I certainly had my opinion of the painting in question was genuine or not.


Well written and researched. Very interesting

by Robert Busko
(5/5)

The American Leonardo by John Brewer is less about the painting La belle ferroniere and more about the huge egos of the principles involved. The painting was owned by Harry Hahn and his French wife, Andree. The Hahn's maintained that it was a wedding gift given by an unidentified family member of the bride. Brought to the United States (the painting originally went to Kansas City) in 1920, they attempted to sell the artwork for $225,000. However, when the authenticity of the work was questioned the sale was halted after Sir Joseph Duveen declared it as a fake without even seeing the painting. This spurred a lawsuit by the Hahn's for $500,000. During the trial Duveen relied on a number of his art expert associates to testify in his favor. In the end, the jury was unable to come to a verdict and with the threat of a retrial looming, Duveen came to a settlement.La belle Ferroniere, the Hahn version that is, has never been proven to be what Harry Hahn claimed; an original Leonardo. The original, or the one the world thinks is original, is hanging in the Louvre.Brewer's book is a marvelous read not just for the story of the painting and the controversy that surrounds it even today, but also for its examination into how the public sees art in general. Brewer also does a good job at examining how the American public's image of art changed over time. La belle ferroniere was only one of an endless line of art making its way to the United States during this period. In the chapter The American Scene, Brewer examines the development of American agriculture and industry and how this growth drove many of Europe's wealthiest families into financial ruin. In the end, many of the of Europe's precious works of art were sold off to American "robber barons". Many of these works of art found their way to American museums, especially the new Museums in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. During the early part of the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon to walk into a department store and see large oil painting being displayed that may have once graced the walls of an English castle.The American Leonardo is more than just one story. For those interested in how the art industry in the United States has developed and grown, then this is a book you'll want to read.I recommend.Peace always.


Entertaining and enlightening read about how art is determined

by sanoe.net
(4/5)

John Brewer'sThe American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Moneywas a dry, but surprisingly entertaining read especially for art novice (more like 'know-nothing') like me.Brewer details how a returning WW1 soldier and his bride returned to the United States with a painting that was reportedly done by Leonardo Da Vinci. The problem? A painting of La Belle Ferronniere already existed amongst the Louvre's Leonardo collection. An expert at the time, Sir Joseph Duveen, declared the young Hahn's item a fake.Seems like a straightforward open-and-shut case? Not quite. The Hahns countered by suing Duveen for slander and from there, the reader learns, via this tale, how 'art by the masters' is confirmed or not confirmed and how thin the line of confirmation is.Brewer is not a fancy writer but he is writer who makes his subject matter accessible. As previously noted, I consider myself a know-nothing in matters of art or the art world. My mind gets daydreamy when the subject of art history becomes the main topic of discussion. Yet, Brewer and his tale kept me entertained when I thought I would become bored.Solid 4-stars.


"The Art Racket"

by Scott T. Rivers
(3/5)

Art aficionados will enjoy this labyrinthian chronicle on the authenticity of da Vinci's purported "La Belle Ferronnière." Spanning nearly a century, "The American Leonardo" (2009) examines the distorted world of "the art racket" and its cultural conflicts. Historian John Brewer's style may be too dry and slow going for some readers, but his book would make a fascinating documentary as the painting's saga continues to unfold.


Good story poorly told

by Skunk Tabby
(2/5)

The story behind this book--whether a painting is a genuine da Vinci, a copy, or a fake, and the people who advocate on one side or another--is interesting. How do we know what is real and what's not, and does it matter?Unfortunately, Brewer can't write his way out of a paper bag. The book jumps all over the place-- through time, across oceans, and around people--without any coherence. While stories need not be told strictly chronologically, shifts should make sense, and guide the reader along. Brewer fails utterly at this. People are introduced, then forgotten. Events seem significant, until later they are discredited. Fact mingles with opinion, and there's no way to tell them apart (which, given the subject, is apt, but frustrating for the reader). Sentences and paragraphs ramble on and on and on, until you can't remember where or why they started. Brewer never met a subordinate clause or adjectival phrase he wouldn't include, and never uses a 5 cent word when a 10 dollar one (or more) will do. To top it off, glaring typos abound, ncluding people's names misspelled or changed entirely. Following the who's who is a challenge.A major failing is the lack of color photographs. That was probably done to save on costs, but on a book about a painting, and more importantly, comparing paintings, it makes it very hard to indentify with the topic and form your own conclusion.This book is a long, hard slog. A recent New York Times Magazine on van Meeregen's Vermeer forgeries covers much of the same ground, but in a far more succinct, clear manner. Unless you are really, really, really interested in this particular painting, there's no reason to read this. FWIW, the afterword is by far the best part of the book. If the entire book had been written in that style, which was more intimate and well-written, the book would have been much, much better. It's sad that this book didn't live up to its potential.


Value: $125 000 000 if it's real, $100 000 if it aint.

by sneaky-sneaky
(3/5)

John Brewer's book is a mix of intrigue and greed surrounding a painting wishfully attributed to Da Vinci. Since there is already another version of the painting hanging in the Louvre, there is a good chance that the American Leonardo isn't. The main strength of the book is an analysis of connoisseurs, experts, traders, forgers, and what it takes to authenticate a painting. Even the most advanced modern techniques may not be able to prove or disprove who held the brush that created La Belle Ferronniere. What drags the book down is a torturous labyrinth of wheeling and dealing surrounding the painting and the author's minute detailing of it, including each interest, percentage, and bracketed conversions into U.S. dollars. There is a good comparison shot of the two La Belle Ferronniere paintings in the center of the book, and out of personal preference I would say the Louvre painting is superior and looks far more like a Leonardo; the American version is softer, more idealized, and the eyes are lifeless. The author at least had an opportunity to visit with the painting, and due to the release of the book it would probably be a good time for its owners to exhibit La Belle, but apparently it has been tied up in various litigations since about 1920.


The American Leonardo

by S. Robbins "talking to a tortoise"
(4/5)

Most of us take the art world for granted, we don't really understand how it works and because of the enormous sums of money involved, assume that the people involved have a fool proof method of determining the validity of famous works of art. When you think about it, isn't art supposed to be valued for the unexplainable impact it has on you, the beholder. Well, not so fast with that train of thought. This story is about a painting, that is old, is considered very good and is considered a fake, yet is better than the one in the Louvre. As is so often the case, truth can be stranger than fiction and this story is no exception. It follows the twists and turns of one painting and in so doing, uncovers the elite of the art world as being best guessers in many cases. The true origin of the painting in question becomes secondary to the story, but it's a very interesting story and well worth reading.


Not Recommended for the General Reader

by Stephanie De Pue
(3/5)

"The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art, and Money," by John Brewer, is about a controversy much better known in the earlier twentieth century: in 1919, a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn, of Kansas City, and his beautiful French war bride, Andree, began attempting to sell a picture of hers: "La Belle Ferronniere." They were claiming, on no evidence whatsoever, that it was by the world's most famous artist, the Italian Renaissance figure Leonardo da Vinci, and that the version in France's internationally-famed art museum, the Louvre that was attributed to Leonardo, was not. (Of course, the world's most famous painting, the "Mona Lisa" that is definitely by Leonardo, is not far from "La Belle Ferronniere" in the Louvre, located in the heart of Paris.) At any rate, the renowned New York art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen declared the Hahns' picture a forgery, sight unseen. They promptly sued him for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades, set the American Midwest against the Eastern Seaboard and its experts; divide the art world between aesthetic "experts" and dealers, forensic technicians and historians, and throw unwelcome light in its most shadowy corners. The issue, as to whether the Hahns' picture is an actual Leonardo, is not yet determined, and the picture still is in limbo, held in an Omaha bank vault. If it were a Leonardo, estimates are that it would be worth $150 million. The author Brewer, who, logically, made a point, and an odyssey of seeing it, says it is beautiful and seductive, with lovely colors.This is a book Brewer is well qualified to write: he is Eli and Eyde Broad Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at California Institute of Technology and the author of many books, includingThe Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Unfortunately, while his prose is serviceable enough, it's rather plodding, and I found it heavy going: it took me a long long time to slog through its nearly 300 pages. Now, I hold a degree from Cornell University, rather a substantial Ivy League East Coast school, with a major in Renaissance History and a minor in Art History, but, in terms of this book, I'd have to consider myself a general, rather than a specialized reader, and I can't recommend the book for general readers. I thought the information contained, though certainly interesting, having the ring of truth, and clearly the product of a great deal of research, might have been better absorbed in a series of magazine articles: the author's bibliography actually does mention as research sources two articles he had previously written on the subject. There isn't a player in the tale likeable enough to root for, with the Hahns hoping to profit from Kansas City boosterism; and Sir Joseph Duveen and American art expert Bernard Berenson, perhaps being the best-known figures, to a specialized audience, at least, shown to be rather slippery. And illustrations seem to be becoming an obsession of mine, but, for heaven's sake, why aren't the illustrations of the two competing "Leonardos" in color, so readers can form some kind of opinion?Early in the book, Brewer says the Hahns' lawyer "told the press that the imprint of a thumbprint could be discerned in the paint of the Hahn picture and hinted strongly that it showed the damage it was known Leonardo had suffered to the thumb of his right hand. The press lapped this up, producing headlines such as `Modern Science will play its part in deciding the merits of this unusual lawsuit,' and `Will thumbprint made 400 years ago prove painting is Leonardo da Vinci's original?' One paper claimed that the version of "The Virgin of the Rocks" at London's National Gallery had been authenticated as a Leonardo on the basis of fingerprints in the paint."Now this is where things got interesting to me, because, according to Brewer, the Hahn picture still, rather puzzlingly, languishes in limbo, neither authenticated nor denied, though it might be worth so much money. He is puzzled by why the current day owners have not continued with the authentication process, using modern technology, and, I believe, mentions Peter Paul Biro, a Montreal-based forensic art expert who might prove or disprove claims. Biro has extremely recently - October 14, 2009, after the publication date of this book - made international headlines in this area, discovering a Leonardo fingerprint and palm print on a beautiful little painting, "La Bella Principessa," that matched Leonardo's fingerprint on his "Saint Jerome" in the Vatican, about which picture's authenticity there can be no doubt. Biro thereby nailed down the "Principessa's" recent attribution to Leonardo, made by Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the art museum in Vinci, Tuscany, Italy, Leonardo's home town, on the basis of `technical, stylistic and material composition evidence,' including carbon dating. On this, I'm with Brewer: why isn't this being pursued?But you can take heart, Kansas City boosters; in my modern art history course at Cornell, that elite eastern university, several modern pictures were discussed that belong to your very own Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, whose founding Brewer discusses in the book.


Interesting topic, but 'American Leonardo' has accessibility issues

by Suzi Hough "The Fashion Piranha!"
(4/5)

As a student of art history, I found John Brewer's book to be quite interesting, if not exactly entertaining. It was a slow read; I could only read it in short bursts, and took over a month to complete it. The writing's dry and covers a lot of territory. Brewer would introduce a man, for example, backtrack several years to tell his personal history and talents, sidestep to explain more about the man's field of expertise, and the history of that field, and then FINALLY come back and advance the main report about 'La Belle' and the painting's history. Ultimately, the book focuses on art criticism and its evolution throughout the 20th century rather than Leonardo Da Vinci and 'La Belle Ferronnière.'Very little is actually said about the painting. It's described a couple of times, and we are presented with some black-and-white photos...but otherwise very little is said about it or its creator. All the drama focuses on its 20th-century owners and the fight to get it recognized as a legitimate Leonardo painting by "Big Art", the art historians and critics who time and time again dismiss it as a fake or a copy of the 'La Belle' painting found at the Louve (another heavily disputed piece). If any scientific analysis was done on the painting during its various trips to different museums for studies, the results aren't really looked at.When I read the book, I was disappointed at at the end because there was no definite resolution to the story. 'The American Leonardo' ends with the painting, which had been on the market for decades but never sold, was involved in a court battle for ownership. It seems a pity that Brewer couldn't wait another year to publish this book, as the eighty-plus years attempt to sell 'La Belle' was concluded at auction in January of 2010, where the painting sold for 1.5 million. But perhaps the publicity from the printing of this book helped drive the auction price? Who knows. All I know is that the story of 'La Belle' as told in Brewster's book is unfinished, and for me that was very unsatisfying.


Much to learn

by T. C Gerlach "pootiboo"
(4/5)

This book was not as fast of a read for me as it was for everyone else. It's very well researched and well written. It is not hard to understand, the author explains everything to us that we need to know to follow what is going on in the art world and who is who. Before this book I hadn't thought much about how to authenticate a painting. I just always assumed that those in the Louvre were there because they deserved to be there. In this book though we're introduced to Harry Hahn and his wife who claim to have the original version of "La Belle", not the one in the Louvre. How do you prove it and exactly whom do you have to prove it to? This is the meat of the book. A novel well worth the time it takes to read.


Fake, Forgery or Genuine?

by Terri J. Rice "ricepaper"
(5/5)

Harry and Adrée Hahn were given as a wedding present in 1919, a painting purported to be by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. There was in the art world a certain snobbery that defied a couple from Kansas, of all places, to be in possession of an original by da Vinci, indeed!Between 1900-1914 300 articles on American collecting of European Old Masters America were written; America was obsessed with the value, the purchase price of art work. "The issue of 'How do we know? How can we distinguish originals from a copy, true or false' seemed all the more pressing in 1920, when the Old Master boom was producing record-breaking prices... after all, an original is worth millions, a copy only thousands, or maybe nothing at all."But how does this distinguishing original from copy happen? Enter the connoisseurs of art. Sir Joseph Duveen airily dismissed the Hahn painting as a copy, a fake, at with that the Hahns sued for libel.These art connoisseurs were an elite little group whose self aggrandizement was basically their only qualification. They maintained that connoisseurship trumped art history, that direct experience- seeing the paintings for themselves was the only legitimate way to determine an original. It was therefore, highly personal in every regard and extremely subjective.These connoisseurs could be persuaded to deem a work of art fake or original based on the owner's pedigree, where they lived, whether or not they were new to the world of buying and selling art. And with one decision a painting could be declared a copy and never get another fair look.Enter Harry and Andrée Hahn, incredulous about the process they sought expose process for the biases process it was. Duveen looked forward to the trial as a way to prove that the method of observing art could stand up to scrutiny.This is that story.It is detailed in its analysis of "not just a single painting's travels and fortunes. It also raises questions about how attributions are made, what effect they have on the status and value of paintings, and how the entire system that validates and authenticates Old Master art has developed during the twentieth century."This book is written by a professor in humanities and social science at California Institute of Technology and as such is a bit of a text book in its delivery and for that I gave it four stars rather than five.


Did Leonardo Really Come to Kansas?

by T. Karr "mild-mannered accountant"
(4/5)

Harry and Andree Hahn of Junction City, Kansas, expected to sell their Leonardo da Vinci painting for a small fortune. Their efforts were thwarted when one of the world's foremost experts declared their painting a fake without ever looking at it. World-wide research, intrigues, and lawsuits followed.This is the story of a young couple who came to the United States with a painting given to them as a wedding present in France and how they used the painting to challenge the art world in the 1920s. "The American Leonardo" is also the story of what really makes a painting great. Is it the painting, the artist, the viewer, or the fact that the "experts" say the painting was created by a particular artist. And what makes an "expert" an expert?This book also shows how art can become an obsession and change people's lives. Whether the picture was a genuine Leonardo or a fake made no difference once a person became entangled with the Hahn "La Belle."This book will appeal to people interested in the art world, particularly Old Masters paintings. It will also be enjoyed by people who like to read about an interesting courtroom battle. The first third of the book is like a Grisham novel with an art history lesson thrown in. The final two thirds of the book lacks the same pace and delves more deeply into the art world and the "science" of authentication and forgeries.


Fascinating Story But A Somewhat Tedious Beginning

by Wilhelmina Gawdy "coolartsybabe"
(4/5)

There is no debate, in my mind, that "The American Leonardo, A Tale of Obsession, Art, and Money" was well researched and is a fascinating case. The beginning of the book is extremely tedious to get through. I found myself losing interest, not in the subject, but in spending the time getting through the introduction and first few chapters. I felt as if I was walking through a tar pit on a hot summer day as I read those first pages. But, after getting past the laborious task of learning the layout of the case, the writing does become more engaging. I would recommend this book to true lovers art history, artists, and art collectors. The topic of authenticating artwork is like working a complex logic puzzle and, to me this makes the case of "The American Leonardo" as intriguing in as much as it is bewildering.


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