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A mere Vermeer July 7, 2004

Few works by the revered Old Master survive, so why is tomorrow's sale of a newly authenticated painting unlikely to top ?3 million? Martin Gayford explains.

It seems the world has a new Vermeer. Another painting has just been added to the roster of works by the most glamorously mysterious of all the Old Masters - Young Lady Seated at the Virginals (not to be confused with the National Gallery's work of the same title).

Mystery: Young Lady Seated at the Virginals "

That means that, instead of there being - depending on who is doing the counting - about 35 authentic Vermeers in existence, there are now about 36.

So why is there not more euphoria? Why no breathless feature articles, no documentaries on TV? And why are Sotheby's estimating that at the auction tomorrow it will make not more than ?3 million, or not much more than a rather average Roy Lichtenstein recently reached?

The reason, in a nutshell, is that it's not much good. If this were a great Vermeer - in other words, any of the other 35 - there would be no limit to the stratospheric extravagance of the bids. At $104 million Picasso's Boy with a Pipe might start to look like a bargain. But Young Woman Seated at the Virginals is not like the others.

When it was included in the Vermeer and the Delft School exhibition three years ago at the National Gallery this tiny, 10in x by 8in canvas looked like an embarrassed gatecrasher at a smart party. If it could have spoken, it would have said: "I just don't belong here. I think I'll sneak away quietly now."

You didn't have to be a Bernard Berenson or a Lord Clark of Civilisation to make up your mind. The judgment of the eye was unequivocal: this is not a Vermeer. It looked like a pastiche or fairly competent fake.

Now, after some restoration, it looks a bit better, though still not nearly as good as the acknowledged Vermeers.

But there is more to these matters than that. Assuming there are no signatures or handy documents such as letters and contracts, which in this case there aren't, two sorts of evidence count towards a picture's authenticity -what it looks like and how it was made.

A connoisseur takes into account a huge experience of other works by the artist in question. Many factors count, including style and details of handling, and also quality. But, generally, if a painting isn't much cop, that's going to count against it. The assumption is that great artists produce superb work.

The other kind of evidence is technical - are the materials and methods the right ones for the artist and the date? Often, what the eye tells us and the verdict of the laboratory support each other. The problem is that in this case they don't.

The technical examination is also pretty unequivocal, but it points in the opposite direction to the evidence of the eye.

The use of pigments in this picture was exactly what one would expect in a Vermeer. Furthermore, the piece of canvas on which the picture was painted seems to have been cut from the same piece of cloth used for one of Vermeer's most magical works, The Lacemaker in the Louvre.

Consequently, a committee of eight experts has declared in favour of Young Lady Seated at the Virginals. Scientifically speaking, then, this is a Vermeer.

Or rather, strictly speaking, science shows it probably came out of Vermeer's studio around 1670 (the approximate date of The Lacemaker).

There are some other possibilities. This could be a picture begun by the master, and later completed by somebody else. Or it could be partly by that useful figure so often introduced to solve difficult problems of attribution - the studio assistant. It is true that some bits of this picture (the girls' skirt and the wall) are better than the rest.

Now, there is no evidence that Vermeer had any assistants. But then he is a man about whom almost nothing is known. Perhaps one of his daughters, for example, was learning the trade. It is anybody's guess.

The alternative conclusion is that this supreme painter periodically produced a bit of a clunker. The German impressionist Max Liebermann once remarked that artists should be grateful to forgers. Because of their existence, he said, all our worst works will be dismissed as fakes.

Auction prices, often derided, have the advantage of being a true test of confidence. If people truly believe in this picture, it will go for a lot more than ?3 million.


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