A work of art with the master’s signature

ART HISTORY. The Värmland siblings inherited a Renaissance work of art and became art detectives in the coup

An Imperial Hand. But whose hand was holding the brush when the painting was created? One thing is certain: a Värmland family has a really old
painting in their possession, and if the signature is correct, they will soon be rich as emperors. PHOTO: LENA RICHARDSON

Imperial artwork with the master’s signature

Lars and his siblings have inherited a mystery that has turned them into art detectives. In a gold frame somewhere in Värmland sits a painting that could be a world sensation and a prized possession. The carbon-14 dating points to the turn of the 16th century and the signature makes the heart skip a beat.

The painting has been in the family for a long time and shows a man, depicted against deep black background. He gives a grim impression, is wearing armor and looks to be a powerful person – but in the owner’s family he has usually gone by the name ”the man with the stick”! Mother remembers the painting since she was little. She was terrified of the angry man.

Roman emperor

She used to run past it in the dining room where it was then and that’s understandable. It looks quite terrifying for a small child! The painting has also been named the ”emperor painting”, for the man portrayed, they have concluded, is the Roman emperor Domitian. But who painted the portrait? Nobody knows. But the siblings work hard to find out.

Many methods

Carbon-14 dating, Raman spectroscopy, UV/IR photography, X-ray, microscopy and archival hunting: the methods they used are many. But it was with a completely ordinary flashlight that their curiosity rose to a whole new level. It was already in 1994 that one of them accidentally discovered a letter in the left part of the painting that was then hanging in the parents’ home. I was just lucky. I was going to move the painting and saw the “I”, began to examine it with a flashlight and saw more barely visible letters, switched to stronger lighting and then the whole signature appeared. Which was an incredible experience, says Lars.

Hidden by the ravages of time

The signature is not visible at a quick glance. It’s probably time, the varnish and the ravages of time, says Maria. But when Lars takes out an LED lamp and shines it, as he did that time, then it is possible to read. And it actually says: “L da Vinci”. The same artist who painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. “L da Vinci” it says, and below that “Pinxt”. Soon after the discovery, the enthusiasm dampened, however.

We contacted some art experts then, but there was a bit of a cool reception there. At that time we had no technical investigations yet, says Maria. The project was put on hold, but the mystery lay there latent and gnawing. Over the years, there have been better investigations that can be carried out. Then we started, says Maria. For three years now, we have been doing all these investigations.

ART HISTORY. The uncle with the cane or the emperor – a painting with pedigree and potential

The inherited painting has turned the siblings into art detectives and match the signature on the painting – then it’s a real rarity they’ve got

”Grandfather said there was something special about the painting”

Have you become true art detectives?

We have learned an enormous amount during these years, says Lars. And the analyzes they have done so far has not crushed hope. The carbon-14 dating of the canvas, for example, points to the turn of the 16th century. The X-ray examination shows no previous painting under the current one. However, you can see that it has been retouched, although not in the part where the signature is. What has been pervasive all along is that all the investigations that have been carried out have in no way been able to dismiss that it is a painting from around the turn of the 16th century, says Lars.

In a secret location in Värmland

We meet at the home of Lars’ sister Maria, who currently has the painting. I have parked the car a good distance from the house and it feels a bit like being in an agent novel. We have had a lot of secrecy about us and everything we talk about cannot be written in the newspaper. Where we are must remain a secret, just like where the painting has been since the 1930s, and both ”Lars” and ”Maria” are fictitious names, for safety’s sake. But the painting hangs there on a wall in an otherwise quite ordinary living room, somewhere in Värmland, a landscape that the painting has now returned to through inheritance after many years in another place.

Auction find in Arvika

It was bought at auction in Arvika in the late 1930s. It was an auction of things that A G Hedenskog had collected, says Lars. Hedenskog was the man who, among other things, founded the museum Sågudden in Arvika and he was a great art collector. The siblings’ grandfather lived at this time in a place in central Sweden, but had a job in central Värmland. They don’t know how he heard about the auction in Arvika, but he went there, bid for the painting and brought it home.

Sniffed Fjaestad

The story we have heard is that it is said that Gustaf Fjaestad had also wanted to buy the painting, but he arrived too late. Right after the auction, he offered our grandfather ten times the money, but luckily he refused. They don’t know what the auction price landed at, but they think it was a small amount. We think it was 50 Swedish kronor, or if it was maybe 500, we are unsure about that, says Lars.

RISKY ”All art historians are now terrified to take on such things, because of the Salvator Mundi.” Lars

Salvator Mundi scares

What the value is today depends entirely on where all the analyzes land. And, not least, what conclusions the expertise draws from them. All art historians are now terrified to touch such things, because of the Salvator Mundi. There have been a lot of problems with it, says Lars. That painting was ”discovered” as a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and sold in November 2017 for 450.3 million dollars (about 3.8 billion Swedish kronor). Today, it is questioned whether it is really a da Vinci painting. Lars and Maria have succeeded in researching that their painting was for sale at Christie’s in London in the 1920s. Then it was said to be a painting by Titian, another great Renaissance painter. They have not received any auction catalog from Arvika.

The Roman emperor Domitian was depicted in a pompous manner. He lived from 51 to 96 and the painting was probably made around the turn of the 16th century.
Leonardo da Vinci’s ”Salvator Mundi” was sold for over 400 million dollars at Christie’s in New York in November 2017.
Every part of the antique painting must be examined. PHOTO: LENA RICHARDSON
Self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. He was born on April 15, 1452 and died on May 2, 1519. He was an artist, but also
an architect, engineer, inventor, naturalist, mathematician, musician and philosopher. PHOTO: AP PHOTO
The signature is not easy to photograph, but when you give it plenty of light, the letters appear: ”L da Vinci” and ”Pinxt”. PHOTO: PRIVATE

Grandfather said there was something special about the painting, but he never did any research that we know of, says Lars. The grandchildren have done more research and it just got more and more exciting. We find lots of evidence and everything has to be checked. Every answer kind of brings up a new question. Skepticism is healthy, but what ultimately decides, they don’t know.

What to believe

It is very difficult. We have a painting that is signed – is it more likely than someone saying ”the style is similar, it could probably be” and making an attribution? What does the art world say about this situation, if you cannot tell with technical investigations that it is fake or painted on later? What do you choose to believe? says Maria. – And we are not sure that he did the whole painting, but was involved and then it has been partially overpainted and retouched and the old varnish makes it look darker. The painting looks different now than it did at the beginning, says Lars.

Unable to divide

They have indeed inherited a mystery. It can be difficult enough during an inheritance to divide customary items such as aunt’s old vase, grandfather’s hunting trophies and mother’s beloved Hackefors tableware into 78 parts. This is a unique painting, which at best has a very high value. – We have reasoned that we each have a share. It’s not possible to divide like that, says Maria. – Especially not after we found the signature. Then we had to do research to see how it would turn out and what the future could say about it, says Lars.

You sound very much in agreement given all that’s at stake?

We agree on how to proceed and that we should critically review what comes to light, says Maria.

15th century painting

Perhaps they will never come to 100 percent certainty. Perhaps the painting, despite the signature, is ”just” a 15th century painting by an unknown artist. You can present the facts and let the outside world decide, what do we do with these facts?

But if it is considered genuine and you become billionaires?

If it’s genuine, we don’t have the resources to keep it, just having it insured would cost a small fortune, says Lars. In the next generation there will be even more co-owners, so it might be easier to sell now, says Maria. They would also like it to somehow be shown to a larger audience. – It has to get out into the world, says Lars, but believes that more facts are required for a museum to want to show it. Despite all they have already done, they are only at the beginning of the journey. To be continued.

Are you absolutely sure you desire a conclusion?

It would be very nice to find out. We have lived with this suspense for so long, so it would be nice to finally get a solution to the mystery surrounding our painting, says Maria.

Lena Richardson
054-19 97 75

Roman emperor Domitian, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Tizian, Tiziano Vecellio, Roman emperors, Eleven Caesars, Undici Cesari, Domitianus, Isabella d’Este, Federico II Gonzaga, Mantova, Mantua, Italy, Francis I, Amboise France, Charles I England.