Even Unknown Masterworks can be Found in Museum Storage

My story is about the discovery and subsequent process of reaching consensus on the attribution of an unpublished early work by the Italian veduto (vista or views) painter Giovanni Antonio Canal, called il Canaletto I 1697 – 1768 at the Denver Art Museum. Yes, even unknown works by old master artists can be found even in museum storage areas.

I chanced upon this painting one day in 2007 while looking at works with other staff members from the Department of Painting and Sculpture in storage.

Although I signed the APFs [Acquisition Proposal Forms] for the works in 2001, I didn’t really look closely at the painting until 2007 when our team was vetting works in the museum’s storage. OK, mea culpa, but immediately after this OMG moment in storage, I sought to see what was in the object file on the painting. It took some time to locate since the file had been misfiled. Documents indicated that it was part of a group of works bequeathed by a prominent Denverite Charles E. Stanton in 2001. More on him later.

The work was described as “Painted from the lagoon, a vista of the Piazetta into St. Mark’s square with the basilica of San Marco in the center distance. The Doge’s Palace is at right; gondolas and commercial boats I (stet) the foreground. Studio of Canaletto.”

Mmmm. Studio of Canaletto. I wondered. The quality of the painting seemed better than studio, which can mean someone other than Canaletto himself but from his studio, would have painted it. Moreover, inscriptions on the version of the frame suggested a more promising attribution, based on the possible provenance of the painting.

One label read: The Piazza San Marco looking West from South of the Central Line. Probably a studio replica of Constable no. 27 in the collection of the Duke of Bedford. Valued and appraised 10 March 1969 by Thos. Agnew & Sons, Ltd. Other labels included the following: a round label inscribed in pen and black ink in an old hand, Sir M. / Boileau [?] / No. Fr; a small label inscribed in pen and black or brown ink in an old hand. Lilies / 254; two labels each stamped in blue ink: 9172; a label inscribed in pen and blue ink: No / 13768 / 5; and finally a label inscribed on frame backing in graphite, 16105. These were all clues that I would later use to verify the painting as a true Canaletto.

According to Thomas N. Maytham of Art Advisors LLC in a December 2000 fax to Bridget O’Toole, a registrar here at the Denver Art Museum, the attribution of “Studio of Canaletto” was obtained by Maytham in 1987 from the Canaletto scholar J. Links and based on a transparency that Links had seen. Maytham states that the painting sold at Sotheby’s, London in “the 1950s or so for about $45,000.”

So how did the painting get here and from whose hands did it pass? In subsequent blog posts, I’ll address how the painting passed from London to Denver, who was Charles Stanton, how the work was determined to be by Canaletto, and when the work was most likely painted by the master. Stay tuned.

Image credit: Giovanni Antonio Canal, called il Canaletto. Venice: The Molo from the Bacino di S. Marco, about 1724. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Edwin M. Stanton, 2009.336.