Art discovery

THE MICHELANGELOS IN MONTREAL

ROBERT FULFORD June 30 1962
Art discovery

THE MICHELANGELOS IN MONTREAL

ROBERT FULFORD June 30 1962

THE MICHELANGELOS IN MONTREAL

Are the five pieces of clay in a Montreal bank vault really “lost” models made by the greatest sculptor of the ages? The leading authority on Michelangelo says they are. They appear, in color photographs by Don Newlands, on the next pages

ROBERT FULFORD

FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS two Montreal brothers, Paul and Peter LeBrooy, have believed that they own some of the most precious sculpture on this continent. But they didn't know for sure until late in May, when a man came from England to look at seventeen pieces of sixteenth-century fired clay which the LeBrooys keep, wrapped in cotton wool like jewelry, in a safetydeposit box at the Bank of Montreal in Dominion Square. The man from England looked at the objects one by one. handled them, and then announced that

at least five, maybe more, were from the hand of the greatest sculptor of the ages. Michelangelo.

By these words, some handsome chunks of terra cotta — bits of arms, legs, shoulders — were transformed into priceless relics. The expert who accomplished this magic was Ludwig Goldscheider, an amiable Austrian who has made the study of Michelangelo one of the specialties of his distinguished

career as an art historian and author.

Goldscheider decided that four of the pieces (two hands; a thigh and leg; an arm and shoulder) were done by Michelangelo in his maturity, between 1520 and 1531. as studies in preparation for the great Medici Chapel monuments in Florence. A fifth piece, a torso, was done earlier. Goldscheider determined, probably around 1500. when Michelangelo was a young man in his twenties. Among the other dozen models owned by the LeBrooys. Goldscheider believes there are two or three

First look at the only Michelangelos on this continent

(continued) which might he by Michelangelo; until further study, however, he concedes only that they are of Michelangelo's period, possibly done by the master's students.

What Goldscheider’s judgment means is that Canada, Montreal and the LeBrooys now have the only pieces of Michelangelo sculpture in North America, and a third of all the fifteen small models by Michelangelo which are known to exist anywhere. (Michelangelo destroyed most of his preparatory models after the stone sculptures were carved.) Goldscheider’s judgment isn't necessarily final: other art historians could, conceivably, prove him wrong, and a couple of scholars have already indicated privately that they are uncertain that Michelangelo actually made these models. But Theodore Heinrich,

the director

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continued from page 14

The clay fragments were a shadowy art-world story that no one really believed — until now

of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, says he considers Goldscheider, who has written five books on Michelangelo, the most reliable of all Michelangelo experts. “I can't think of any opinion that would carry more weight." Heinrich says.

Before Goldscheider brought the weight of his opinion to Montreal's Michelangelos, they were all but unknown. For three years they were kept in a china cupboard in Paul LeBrooy’s Westmount home; since last fall they have been stored, uninsured, in eleven tin boxes in the basement of the Bank of Montreal. Until Goldscheider’s announcement brought the newspaper reporters and TV cameramen crowding into the bank vault, the LeBrooy pieces had been discussed in public very little. They were last shown in public in 1938. and then only for a few' minutes when they w'ent on the block at Christie’s, the great London auction house, where a Canadian businessman bought some of them.

For several years the Michelangelo models have been one of those shadowy artworld stories which everyone likes to talk about but no one really believes. The curators at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, have maintained an aloof scepticism about the whole thing. They still haven’t even been around to see the collection, and they declined to make any comment on the matter, even after Goldscheider’s visit. Paul LeBrooy says this is because no one can believe that such a treasure would turn up in Montreal.

By Michelangelo, for $13

The LeBrooys are forty-one-year-old tw'ins. Paul is a lawyer who gives advice on death duties (“estate analysis," he likes to say), and Peter is a book salesman for McGraw-Hill. Since they acquired the models four years ago. Paul has taken an intense interest in Renaissance art. He now has a vast collection of books and documents, many of which he has had translated for him from the German. He has yet to see his first full-size Michelangelo sculpture, mainly because he’s never been to Italy; but he and his wife hope to go there when their children grow a little older.

The seventeen models were bequeathed to the LeBrooys by a relative. Perciva! James Woolf, four years ago. Woolf was an engineer who collected art and sometimes sold it to museums and other collectors. He bought the seventeen terra cotta models in 1938, some of them at the auction at Christie’s in February of that year and some of them, apparently, from other buyers at the same auction. They were described in the catalogue of the sale as being by either Michelangelo or his students, but they sold at astonishingly low' prices. Woolf paid two pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence, or a little more than $13. for one torso six inches long: for the same sum, in another lot. he picked up two hands. For one pound, one shilling, he got tw'o arms. The explanation is that 1938. a bad year for everything, was an especially bad year on the art market. The auction houses were flooded with paintings and sculptures brought from the Continent by refugee collectors, and there were few buyers for them. Even Michelangelo went begging.

The models dropped out of sight, as art objects frequently will, during the twentyyears Woolf owned them. As Goldscheider ipay;s, the fear of death duties and theft

(collectors put those two problems in the same category) sometimes makes art owners secretive about their possessions. When the LeBrooys acquired them, no art scholar had seen the models in three decades. Paul LeBrooy showed them to Stanley Lewis, a Montreal sculptor who had spent three years in Florence studying Michelangelo’s techniques. Lewis decided immediately that at least some were genuine. and he urged LeBrooy to show them to experts. In 1959, Lewis and LeBrooy took them to art scholars at Princeton and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but they found no one who would say that these were definitely the work of Michelangelo. After that. LeBrooy kept them in the dining room of his Westmount house and continued to study their background. He would occasionally point them out to friends, mentioning that they were original Michelangelos. It made quite a conversation-stopper. But one evening last fall a friend jokingly picked one up. put it in his pocket, and said, “I think I’ll take this with me.” It then occurred to LeBrooy, for the first time, that his Michelangelos were in danger of both theft and breakage. He immediately rented a safety-deposit box and packed them away. Now he takes them home only for special occasions, like parties. He doesn’t particularly like hiding them in a vault, but he can’t afford to insure them for what he thinks they are worth.

When LeBrooy wrote to Ludwig Goldscheider last winter, Goldscheider first wanted to know the pedigree of the objects he was asked to discuss. It turned out to be long and impressively documented. The seventeen models the LeBrooys own were part of a collection of thirty-four put together late in the sixteenth century byPaul von Praun, a distinguished German art collector who lived in Bologna and began collecting only ten years after Michelangelo’s death. Every owner from that time to the present is recorded, and in a number of scholarly studies, one of them as recent as 1913. several of the pieces are said to be from Michelangelo's hand. The collection remained with the von Praun family until 1803. passed through the hands of two other collectors, and then was sold to one Professor Haehnel. a Dresden sculptor, who exhibited parts of it at Dresden in 1875 and at Florence in 1876. on the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo's birth. After Haehnel’s death the collection was eventually sold to a Dr. A. B. Heyer. (In 1930 it was stored in the basement of the Dresden Museum, and Goldscheider saw it there.) Heyer broke up the collection by selling its pieces separately at Christie’s in 1938. Seventeen w'ent to Woolf, four to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and one — not believed to be by Michelangelo — ended up in a private collection in Santa Barbara, Calif. The rest have vanished.

Aside from the pedigree. Goldscheider’s authentication rests on the technique and quality of the models and on several delicate points at which they relate to stone sculpture Michelangelo is known to have carved. One piece, a shoulder and part of an arm. is apparently a preparatory study for a large sculpture which no longer exists: Goldscheider identified it from a drawing which was made of the sculpture three centuries ago. before the full-scale piece was lost. Another piece, a thigh and leg. is a study for the back view of a sculpture which still stands in the Medici Chapel. Goldscheider had the sculpture

moved so that he could photograph it a few years ago. Before he took that photograph, he couldn’t have identified the model with certainty, because neither he nor any other art scholar had ever seen the back of the statue.

Now that they know what they have, the LcBrooys have to decide what to do with it. Paul LeBrooy hopes that more of their pieces will eventually be authenticated, and he intends to continue studying the background of the collection. At the moment he says he doesn’t want to sell, and he talks about giving the models to museums eventually. He expects to have the five authenticated pieces exhibited, perhaps at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. the

four hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s death.

Peter LeBrooy, on the other hand, has no serious objections to selling. Fie isn’t anxious to get rid of the models, but he thinks that a good offer should be considered. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what a good olfer would be. Nor does anyone else. No Michelangelo sculpture has gone on the market since the great art boom started in the 1950s, so there’s no basis for speculation. “The collection is priceless,” Paul LeBrooy says. “Any figure is ridiculous; I could say $20 million or I could say five cents. I think it would be well over a million, anyway.” He sounds happy as he says it. and satisfied. ★