Friday, December 5, 2003

MADRID — A museum’s nightmare: having to choose between two paintings by two masters that come up for sale at the same time.

A worse nightmare: It’s a Spanish museum, and the masters are the two giants of Spanish painting, each with his reputation recently refreshed.

It came close to happening. Indeed, say some, it did happen. And thereby hangs one of the year’s most interesting art stories.

The museum was Madrid’s Prado. The works for sale were by Velazquez and Goya. The majestic Manet-Velazquez exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was this year’s major show. Two years ago, the exhibition “Goya: Images of his Women” shed new light on the 19th-century enfant terrible of Spanish painting, and critic Robert Hughes’ just-published biography, “Goya,” is the talk of the art world.

Madrid’s Prado Museum has bought a painting by Velazquez for $27 million. Should it have acquired a Goya instead?

The question is rooted in a highly unusual controversy that a senior Prado official dismisses as “completely manufactured” but that a leading Madrid newspaper and other critics say is valid.

In late November, the museum announced that it had acquired on the international art market a Velazquez portrait known as “The Pope’s Barber.” Dated to the Spanish painter’s second visit to Rome, between 1649 and 1651, the picture shows the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with sad eyes and a ruddy complexion.

Works by Velazquez rarely come up for sale, and the museum was able to buy this one for its collection thanks to a special one-time government grant of 23 million euros ($27 million). “The Pope’s Barber” is just the second Velazquez painting the Prado has ever acquired in this fashion.

Gabriele Finaldi, the museum’s director of conservation and research, said in an interview with this reporter that the painting was in perfect condition, “of undisputed authorship, and admired by all the Velazquez experts.” Its acquisition filled a gap in the museum’s Velazquez collection, which, though very large, did not include any works from the artist’s important Italian trip.

“It’s the moment when Velazquez is in Italy for the second time,” Mr. Finaldi says. “He is on an important mission for [King Philip II] to buy art. … While there, he wants to show off his skills as a painter.” Velazquez painted his famous portrait of Pope Innocent X, now in Rome; the likeness of Juan de Pareja, now at the Metropolitan in New York; and several members of the papal court, including a man identified as the pope’s barber.

Not long after the Velazquez acquisition was announced, the Spanish daily newspaper ABC revealed that the Prado apparently had passed up an opportunity to acquire “an extraordinary Goya” and had bought instead what the paper called “a minor Velazquez.”

Called “Celestina and a Woman on a Balcony,” the vivid Goya work had been in the collection of a Spanish family. In a typical Goya scene from late-18th-century bourgeois life in his native Spain, the artist depicts a wizened old marriage broker — a Celestina in Spanish — and her young, elegantly dressed “client” standing on a balcony.

ABC reported that the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which has overall responsibility for state-run museums, including the Prado, was notified late last year that the work, which London art expert Nigel Glendinning last week called “a Goya of exceptional quality,” was for sale but expressed no interest.

The work eventually was sold to another prominent Spanish collector, Ester Koplowitz — reportedly for about $22 million.

Mr. Finaldi, who says there’s no such thing as “a minor Velazquez,” points to the time frame as proof the Prado did not choose one work over the other.

“The big story here is that the Prado acquired a supreme Velazquez,” he maintains. “There are barely a dozen works by Velazquez that are not in museums, and when one comes on the market, the Prado has to take note of it.”

However, Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya — the twin pinnacles of Spanish painting — arouse warm reactions from partisan experts. Together they are the main attraction for the Prado’s 1.8 million visitors every year, more than 60 percent of them foreign tourists.

Critics of the Velazquez purchase say that “The Pope’s Barber” is a small picture (50.5 cm x 47 cm) and doesn’t cut enough dash for a pricey acquisition.

Predictably, the Velazquez-versus-Goya debate has produced political fallout — which some believe was the hidden motive all along. As if in confirmation of the suspicions, earlier this week the opposition socialists formally questioned the conservative government as to why the Goya was ignored.

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