Visiting a friend in Switzerland, he opened a drawer and found himself looking at an unframed drawing of a young girl in profile, wearing Renaissance costume. Executed in ink and coloured chalks on a sheet of vellum measuring 330mmx39mm, it was laid down on an oak board. When Silverman asked who the artist was, his friend didn’t know – he’d bought it on a whim because it was “a nice pretty thing”. Then, Silverman told a reporter: “My heart started to beat a million times a minute. I immediately thought this could be a Florentine artist. The idea of Leonardo came to me in a flash.” So rare is it to discover an unknown drawing by the Renaissance master that Silverman admitted: “I saw it, but I didn’t dare speak the L-word.”
Silverman’s discovery made a thrilling story, but it was a complete fabrication, and the first of several versions of the story he told. In fact, New York art dealer Kate Ganz acquired the drawing at Christie’s in 1998 for $21,850 catalogued as “19th century, possibly German” and she sold it, with the same attribution and for the same amount, nine years later to Silverman. During the time she owned it, the many museum curators, museum directors, conservators and collectors who saw it in her gallery all concurred that the drawing could not be more than 100 years old. As for the “L-word” Mr Silverman dared not utter, when he saw the picture at Ganz’s gallery in January 2007 it was described on the label as “obviously based on a number of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci”.
Ganz (to whom I was married 30 years ago) told me that when she read about Silverman’s “discovery” in The New York Times, she simply faxed a copy of the original invoice to the paper, proving she had sold the drawing to him. The Times then ran a correction.
The saga might have ended there, with Silverman exposed as a fantasist. But last month the issue was reopened by the publication of La Bella Principessa, a book by Professor Martin Kemp, strongly supporting the idea of Leonardo’s authorship. Kemp is emeritus Professor of Art History at Oxford, and a recognised expert on Leonardo’s scientific work. The book’s co-author Pascal Cotte claims to have used technology to prove the work’s authenticity, and its preface is written by Nicholas Turner, former curator of drawings at the British Museum and the Getty, now a freelance art consultant.