The Italian state recently purchased a $4.2 million carved linden-wood crucifix by Michelangelo that probably isn’t by Michelangelo. In an of cut budgets and economic crisis, such as purchase might seem frivolous. Then again, Michelangelo drawings have sold for $20 million, so perhaps this is a good deal?
The main problem is that few experts seem to think that this could possibly be the work of Michelangelo. The lovely crucifix (the cross of which is missing) is dated circa 1495, when Michelangelo would have been only twenty. Some say that its delicacy is distinctive, and bears a likeness to Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta, made when the artist was twenty-four. But most scholars worldwide cite a number of concerns regarding the attribution to Michelangelo. One, there is no known wooden sculpture by Michelangelo in existence. A crucifix from 1492 at Santo Spirito in Florence is thought by some to have been one of Michelangelo’s earliest works, but this is unconfirmed and far from the general consensus. Two, Michelangelo’s many biographers, in particular the man who idolized him, Giorgio Vasari (whose famous biography of Renaissance artists, The Lives of the Artists was written so as to feature Michelangelo as the culmination of centuries of artistic geniuses, the chapter on Michelangelo being many times longer than any other artist) does not mention either the construction of this crucifix or any work in wood by Michelangelo. It is true that half to two-thirds of all artworks by pre-Modern artists that we know once existed (from references to them in contemporary documents, contracts, diaries, biographies, etc) are considered “lost:” a piece of optimistic art historical terminology that suggests that the works might have been destroyed or just might be found—so the re-emergence of works by great artists is entirely plausible. However it is rare indeed that a work that is never mentioned in any extant document should suddenly appear.
This debate raises interesting questions about the value of artworks. The value of art is non-intrinsic—unlike jewelry, the component parts of which are of quantitative value, art is usually wood and canvas and stone that, without the craftsmanship of the artist, would have little or no value. A pile of wood and canvas and pigment is worth little, but assembled into a painting by Picasso, it is worth millions. There is a good deal of non-malevolent wishful thinking on the part of members of the art world. The art world as a whole benefits if objects newly on the market prove to be both authentic and legally-acquired (read as “not stolen”). The owner makes a fortune in selling their treasure. The middle man (dealer, gallery owner, auction house) gets a commission. The buyer gets a trophy. Scholars get a new treasure to study, the public a new bauble to admire. If the work in question turns out to either be a fake, misattributed, or stolen, then everyone loses out—the only beneficiary is an abstract sense of justice having been done, the truth having emerged, to the financial loss, and loss of face, of many. There is, therefore, a subconscious desire on the part of much of the art world to will works like this crucifix to be by the hand of master artists. On the other hand, the skeptics, particularly academic skeptics, can make a name for themselves by denouncing the optimistic attribution. When it comes down to it, the value of works of art is a combination of authenticity, demand, and rarity—but the key to all components is that value equals perceived authenticity, plus perceived demand, plus perceived rarity. Because of the non-intrinsic value of art, perception is everything. This often results in interesting tugs-of-war between various scholars and members of the art trade. And a new treasure by one of the greatest artists who ever lived hangs in the balance.