The wit to woo a bronze-buyer

Until experts can be persuaded of its provenance, a bronze owl that may be by the Renaissance sculptor Giambologna remains unsaleable. Geraldine Norman on the growing legal wrangle
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The Independent Culture
ART USED to be art. But with auctioneers and art dealers falling over each other to point out investment opportunities, art is now money. What this means is that hundreds of thousands of pounds can now hang on the attribution of a painting or sculpture to a particular period or artist.

A bronze owl, which has been through the hands of both Sotheby's and Christie's, provides a spectacular example of the pitfalls surrounding such attributions. It was purchased by its present owner for $4,000 in 1989 (£2,700) as a Roman copy of a Greek original, then very nearly sold for £500,000 in 1990 as the work of the great Renaissance bronze maker Giambologna. But Britain's two leading sculpture experts disagreed on the attribution, rendering the piece virtually unsaleable. It now has £112,000 worth of debts secured against it, mainly reflecting legal fees incurred during attempts to firm up the attribution and find a buyer.

This cautionary tale opens in Florence in the late 1980s when the owl's present owner, Jean Claude Samia, met a young Italian called Claude degl'Innocenti. Innocenti's father had been an antique dealer in Casablanca and the owl had belonged to him; it had been installed on the terrace of his Casablanca home as part of a fountain. It may have been at this time that water turned the bronze owl green - or it may have turned green before it reached Morocco.

In any case, the owl was green with corrosion when Innocenti Junior showed it to Samia in a Swiss storeroom, along with the other antiquities he had inherited from his father. Samia bought all of them, paying $4,000 (£2,700) for the owl. "It made a big impression on me," he told me recently. "You could say I fell in love with it."

Jean Claude Samia, 54, is half English, half Italian, was brought up in Egypt and has lots of wayward Mediterranean charm. He is best described as an adventurer. He has tried his hand at heavy industry, at haberdashery, at art dealing - mainly classical antiquities - and has ended up in marine archaeology. He dives to find antique treasures off the coast of Latin America and in the Mediterranean, generally working in collaboration with local government agencies. He has a company called Undersea Research Organisation Ltd, based in Dublin but registered in St Peter Port, Guernsey.

After buying the owl, he hurried to London to show it to his friends in the art trade to explore the possibilities of reselling at a profit. He was told, to his surprise, that it probably dated from the Renaissance, not antiquity. The owl was duly tested by Jack Ogden of Independent Art Research in Cambridge who said the constituents of the bronze alloy were not typical of the Roman period; Dr Peter Northover from the department of metallurgy at Oxford also tested it and reported that "the corrosion is consistent with a 16th-century date or even earlier."

Samia was convinced. He turned to the leading bronze restorers Plowden Smith who carefully removed the green corrosion from the bird and applied a brown wax ("easily removable" says Samia) to the golden tinted metal. That made the owl the same colour as Renaissance bronzes which have spent their lives indoors - which is what collectors and dealers are used to looking at. The green corrosion was left inside the hollow owl to demonstrate its former condition.

Then began the delicate business of marketing the bird. In May 1990 approaches were made to Sotheby's, the auctioneers, and to Danny Katz, London's leading sculpture dealer. Katz made his name and fortune by discovering a Giambologna marble statue in a garden in Sweden and selling it to the Getty Museum in California, the world's richest museum. He has a particular affection for the sculptor. Moreover, he was one of the dealers most actively involved in the 1980s mini-boom in Giambologna bronzes; American collectors like Mrs Seward Johnson, the Johnson's Baby Powder heiress, went a bundle on them and drove prices towards the million mark. The art market recession had not begun in May 1990 when Katz first saw the owl.

On the very day he was shown it, he offered £500,000, then got cold feet and decided to pull out. Samia took the bird to Sotheby's which estimated its value at £150,000-£200,000, "pending further research". When Katz heard that the bird had gone to Sotheby's - though he was not told the Sotheby's estimate - his enthusiasm for a deal was rekindled. He signed a contract and paid over the first £250,000 on 16 May 1990, promising to pay the second instalment two days later.

But on 18 May the deal fell apart. Before paying the second instalment, Katz took Anthony Radcliffe, the sculpture expert from the Victoria & Albert Museum, to see the owl - then residing with Samia's solicitors. According to Samia, Katz emerged from the viewing room saying "it's a fake" and asking for his money back. He never got it. "We had a binding contract and I could have sued him for the other half," Samia explains.

Katz himself has refused to discuss the owl with me, beyond commenting that he "lost a lot of money on it". Anthony Radcliffe of the V&A is not prepared to talk about it either. "It keeps popping up, that owl," he said, "and I don't want to have anything to do with it."

So the owl went back to Sotheby's. On advice from the company's experts Samia turned to Radcliffe's former colleague at the V&A, Dr Charles Avery, a well-known Giambologna expert, and asked him to investigate the bronze. Avery was an obvious choice of helper; he spent a period running Christie's sculpture department after leaving the museum and is now a freelance consultant.

He delivered his report on the owl to Samia on 4 May 1991 attributing the sculpture to Giambologna. He had travelled to Florence to compare the owl with birds and animals by the sculptor in the Bargello Museum and presented a reasoned argument for his attribution.

To go ahead with an auction, however, it was necessary to be sure that neither Katz nor Radcliffe would persuade buyers against the piece by expressing negative opinions. Samia went back to Katz and negotiated a deal whereby the two of them would share the proceeds of the sale if Sotheby's found a buyer.

The next trip to Florence was undertaken by Katz and Sotheby's expert Elisabeth Wilson. They took the owl with them and put it alongside the Bargello birds. "It didn't look like the great ones," she told me recently. "But it was not unlike some of the less good." In May 1992 she felt able to write to Samia's solicitor in more optimistic terms: "Following the very successful visit to Florence, we would now suggest including the owl in our sale in London at the beginning of December." She then approached Radcliffe to see if he might alter his opinion - but to no avail. "I think he's of the same mind as me," Wilson says today. "No one can pin it down. I don't think it is a fake. I think it's an old thing. I have even wondered if it could be Roman. Sculpture is so difficult."

Radcliffe's unchanged opinion put Sotheby's off selling the piece and in April 1993 they advised Samia to try London's other leading auctioneers, Christie's. Charles Avery believed the owl was by Giambologna and, having worked for Christie's, had close links there. So he was commissioned to see if he could do a deal. Discussions began in late 1993 and continued throughout last year but have run aground once again. In the words of Christie's expert David Ekserdjian: "Different people have different views on the attribution, quite robustly different. That being so, we are not going to achieve unanimity in its favour which is what one wants at auction." In other words, while Radcliffe and Avery continue to disagree, the owl is virtually unsaleable.

Samia and Avery are both anxiously looking for a way out of the impasse. What they need is new evidence to prove the case one way or another and Avery is the man best placed to find it. Last summer he discovered that an owl fountain had been constructed at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli in 1566-68, precisely the years when Giambologna was making bird bronzes in Florence. He now suggests that Samia's owl comes from this fountain which incorporated an elaborate automated tableau driven by water power. Against a rocky background, birds on bronze branches chirped until the sudden appearance of a hooting owl silenced their song.

Maybe it was the waterworks at Tivoli that turned the owl green with corrosion. Maybe its sudden appearances from the back of the fountain explain why the back of the bird is only sketchily finished - because the back would not be seen by the public. Or maybe not. !