"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
June 10, 2013
Art on the Chopping Block
by Lawrence Jeppson

“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.”

As the last words of King Charles I icily silenced the gibbering mob, the royal executioner, forgetting in the terrifying uniqueness of this assignment to ask his victim’s forgiveness, drove his freshly stropped axe clean through the royal neckflesh and into the block.

Within two months, Oliver Cromwell and Parliament decreed a selloff of the most astonishing art collection the world had yet seen, though precious few ever saw it.

Titian, Supper at Emaus, once belonged to King Charles I of England, now in the Louvre.

Among Continental hagglers who took passage on wind-driven peanut hulls to London to clamor for the spoils was one of the richest citizens of France, Evrard Jaback, who trailed only the late King Charles and Queen Christina of Sweden as the most significant art collectors of the 17th century.

Jaback sold art too, and later in his biggest sale, to be taken under duress, he was destined to a horrendous beating from the King of France. Bloody as that was to be, Jaback would keep at it, buying and selling till the end of his days.

He was the first recorded art dealer in his line: he passed his eye and flair genetically to what became the house of Duveen, in all more than 300 years of on-and-off, but-always-fantastic commercing in imperishable things of beauty.

The beheading of Charles I was a tragedy. To all subsequent generations of Englishmen, the stupid loss of his collection was a catastrophe.

Titian, The Entombment of Christ. Once belonged to King Charles I of England, now property of the Louvre.

Coached and goaded at first by his art collecting friend, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles in 20 years had succeeded in assembling in Whitehall, St. James’s, and Hampton Court Castles and in royal residences in Freenwich, Nonesuch, Oatlands, and Wimbleton 1,387 pictures, 399 statues, and an uncounted number of objects, a lode destined to enrich every significant ruling house in Europe.

Charles’s most audacious coup had been the purchase from Duke Vincenzo of Mantua, whose gambling had bankrupt the House of Gonzaga, the heart of the Mantuan collection, including Mantegna’s The Triumph of Julius Caesar; Titian’s Twelve Emperors, The Entombment of Christ, Supper at Emaus and other works; four Corregios, and a Raphael. Daniel Nys, the Danish art dealer who lived in Genoa, called these “the finest pictures in the world.” Nye expertly touted his own services in a letter written to one Endymion Porter in 1620:

Since I came into the world I have made various contracts, but never a more difficult one than this, which has succeeded happily. The city of Nantua and all the Princes of Christendom, both great and small, were struck with the astonishment that we could induce Duke Vincenzo to dispose of them. The people of Mantua made so much noise about it that if Duke Vincenzo could have them back again he would readily have paid double, and his people would have been willing to supply the money.

Charles laid out £18,280, 14 shillings, 8 pence for the Gonzaga collection. (Contradictory French accounts say £80,000!) He didn’t get quite the whole trove because the mercurial Nye sequestered some things for Cardinal Mazarin, and a few less important pieces were left behind in Mantua Castle, only to be lost or destroyed when the city was sacked two years later.

Titian’s Twelve Emperors, once belonging to Charles I, was one of the nine paintings depicting a Julius Caesar victory parade. Once the dispersed property of King Charles I, it eventually came back to the British Royal Collection.

In Vincenzo’s heyday, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) came to Italy to paint originals for the Duke. He also wandered about painting replicas for the Duke of other artists’ works belonging to other collectors. This was a common practice. All these, originals and replicas, were in the package Vincenzo sold to Charles.

Rubens suggested to the English monarch that he acquire the seven Raphael tapestry cartoons of The Acts of the Apostles, which had been left behind in Flanders by Pope Leo X as security for unpaid debts. Jaback and others failed to obtain the cartoons. They were among the few items held back by Cromwell, who didn’t think they were worth much. After all, they hadn’t cost much.

In 1623, Charles paid only £300 for the seven Raphael original cartoons and a woven tapestry. When Oliver Cromwell chopped off the king’s head and sold off the royal collection, the Raphaels were left behind. The cartoons still exist, and they, along with the surviving weaving, hang together in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I consider these unique survivors to the great selloff of England’s greatest art treasure.

In building his huge collection, Charles I extorted masterpieces out of sniveling Philip IV of Spain, purchased the Italian paintings belonging to Rudolph II of Prague, and became patron to Van Dyck and Rubens.

No wonder then the crowned heads of Europe, “far from brooding over their cousin’s fate,” dispatched envoys to the auctions.

Bidding against Jaback were the Spanish Ambassador, Don Alonzo di Cardeñas, who used secret agents to conceal the fact that his king intended by whatever trick necessary to regain the invaluable paintings extorted by Charles; Archduke Léopold William, regent of the Netherlands, who had just absorbed the exceptional collection of the late Duke of Buckingham, after it had been placed on Antwerp’s Friday Market; Queen Christina of Sweden, an art thief almost without equal; Cardinal Mazarin, a bitchy haggler, rich, wily, and possessing dangerous powers towards anyone who crossed him; and Ruben’s friend, the sinister, slippery Sir Balthasar Gerbier, who sold art, influence, and intrigue in all the courts of Europe.

The chopping of King Charles’s head ignited the most vicious art feeding frenzy the world had ever seen.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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