BEIRUT: A painting thought to be by Salvador Dali recovered by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces in October is “not a very good copy,” a leading expert of the Spanish surrealist’s work told The Daily Star. “We can for sure document that it’s a copy,” Nicolas Descharnes, internationally renowned Dali historian and guardian of the painter’s copyright, said in a telephone call this week. “In fact, it’s not even a very good copy.”
On Oct. 13, the ISF arrested four individuals following an investigation in Beirut’s Cola neighborhood and Metn’s Dohat Aramoun, which led to the seizure of the work, suspected to be “Portrait of Mrs. James Reeves.” After releasing a statement, the ISF tweeted a video of the painting in which an officer is shown pointing to various details.
A month later, on Nov. 14, Descharnes was contacted by French Commander Jean-Luc Boyer to provide an assessment of the painting.
Boyer, the police commander and head of documentation at the Central Office for Combatting Trafficking in Cultural Property, had been solicited by the Lebanese authorities to authenticate the work.
Boyer could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
The task was then delegated to Descharnes, whose father Robert was close with Dali as a friend and later worked as his secretary.
Following the Spanish surrealist’s death in 1989, Robert was made administrator of Dali’s copyright.
Descharnes has since carried on his father’s trade.
“I was sent a bunch of photos [over email]. They were not very professional, but we had enough to work with,” Descharnes said.
He first attempted to investigate a “strange” faded stamp found on the back of the canvas.
The task proved difficult as it was nearly indecipherable.
While he noted that the majority of Dali’s paintings did not feature such a stamp, it was also not impossible for one to be found.
“At the end, we [discerned] that there was something about a museum in the north of France [on the stamp], but it wasn’t conclusive,” he said.
Moving forward, Descharnes began to compare photos of the painting to those stored in his archives. Within “minutes,” it was clear to the expert that the painting was indeed a copy.
“There were several mistakes – differences in the clouds, differences in the lighting,” he said, further noting issues with the signature.
From there, the expert provided his evaluation to Lebanese authorities via email.
According to a source from the ISF, Descharnes’ was not the final assessment consulted by Lebanese authorities. “The painting has been sent somewhere in Europe for an official report,” the source told The Daily Star. He did not provide further details as to where, or to whom.
Descharnes confirmed that he had not received the painting, noting that the relationship had been a rather informal request for his opinion.
“When an official report is made, we will come out with a statement,” the ISF source said. “At the moment, we don’t know when that will be.”
As for the four individuals arrested for their attempt to traffic the fake painting, the ISF source said that they remained under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Police.
Following its retrieval, the ISF had initially claimed the “Portrait of Mrs. James Reeves” to be worth “millions.” That estimate was quickly debunked by The Daily Star, after art historian Laurence Saphire and Descharnes both gave significantly lower values of around $200,000 to $300,000 if the painting had been real.
“This is one of the portraits Dali was commissioned to do of high society ladies when he was in the United States,” Saphire said in October. “These are not worth millions. They usually sell for a few hundred thousand dollars because they’re not considered serious paintings.”