James Beck: Art Historian Says Museum Paid $50-Million for a Fake Duccio

Historians in the News

An art historian at Columbia University says the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid $50-million last year for a 19th-century painting that only appears to be the work of the early Italian master known as Duccio. According to The Times of London, the Columbia professor, James Beck, says the painting, which depicts the Madonna and Child, does not resemble any of the handful of known works by Duccio, a 14th-century painter who is regarded as one of the founders of Renaissance art.

Mr. Beck, who will publish his analysis of the small painting in a new book in September, is no stranger to art-historical controversy. In the early 1990s he focused a withering attack on the Italian authorities who oversaw the cleaning of Michelangelo’s landmark frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, a project that removed nearly 500 years of accumulated grime and showed the paintings to be remarkably more colorful than had ever been imagined. Mr. Beck said the curators had overcleaned the frescoes, and had in fact removed some of Michelangelo’s own pigments (The Chronicle, March 4, 1992). In a later book, he said the Sistine cleaning and other similar projects had resulted in a “massive recasting of Western civilization’s sacred texts” (The Chronicle, March 16, 1994).

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