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Goya blunder paints Prado in poor light

The Prado Museum in Madrid launches a huge two-month Goya exhibition tomorrow, part of an ambitious "Goya year" to mark the 250th anniversary of the Spanish master's birth. However, the fanfare has not drowned out discord created on the eve of the celebrations by the museum's over-enthusiastic discovery of a Goya that wasn't.

A religious painting, which was uncovered during the restoration of the late dictator Franco's former torture chambers in Madrid, earlier this month, was hailed within hours of its discovery as a Goya by the director of the Prado, Jose Maria Luzon. Mr Luzon, an archaeologist by training with no specialist knowledge of Goya, presides over the largest collection of Goyas in the world.

"It is a cracker of a Goya," he said, before returning with a heavy cold to his sick bed whence he had been summoned to announce the find to the world. Except that it was not. The painting, showing angels pleading for souls in purgatory, although signed by Goya, was actually painted by a lesser-known contemporary, Mariano Salvador Maella, in 1781.

The former Prado director, Alfonso Perez Sanchez, spotted the painting as a Maella the moment he saw it on television, and made his doubts known immediately. A quick check was sufficient to reveal, after the damage had been done, that the work was registered in the archives of Madrid's local government as a Maella and that a preliminary sketch was even registered in the Prado's own records.

The blunder was an unfortunate case of taking desires for reality, as remarks by the head of Madrid's regional government, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, suggested. "It is a particularly significant find and could not have come at a better moment on the eve of Goya's 250th anniversary celebrations," he said, after being assured there was no doubt of the its authenticity.

The Prado's curators were scandalised their director had been so imprudent, especially as experts believe uncertainty surrounds dozens of paintings attributed to Goya.

"Inexplicable" and "inexcusable" were expressions bursting from the museum's press office concerning Mr Luzon's hasty endorsement. "Any responsible museum would have taken time to check. That's the right way to go about things," a spokeswoman said, adding that Mr Luzon had offered his resignation, which was not accepted.

"How many Goyas are painted by him and how many are only attributed to him?" asked one journalist yesterday of the Prado's leading authorities.

Mr Luzon shifted in his seat. "Studies on Goya are always ongoing," he mumbled. "And if that leads to reflections, that's magnificent."

Juan Luna, the exhibition's principal organiser, was more direct. "I don't know," he said yesterday. "An immense number are certain and many are doubtful. I can't give a number."

Some experts reckon that up to 150 Goyas "need to be investigated". Doubt even hovers over a masterpiece imported for the exhibition, a dazzling portrayal of two young women at a balcony. Two versions exist, one in a private Swiss collection, the other in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which many attribute to a pupil of Goya. The one on view in the Prado's exhibition - "the original", according to Mr Luna - is from the Swiss collection.

It is not the first time that a Prado director has found egg on his face. Mr Luzon's predecessor, Felipe Garin, had to resign after it was discovered that raindrops were leaking into the room housing master works by Velasquez.