Local Hero

A scholar and a gentleman, John Spike is also Florence's master art sleuth.

In every classic private-eye novel there's a moment when the knight-errant at the center of the action takes a licking from the forces of law and order. He's a mercenary, doesn't play by the rules, they say. He has information he won't divulge except when it suits him and his client. He's a threat to established, respectable folk: a boat-rocker, a maverick, a loose cannon.

All of these accusations have been directed over the years at 52-year-old John T. Spike. But though his name sounds as if it's straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, he's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. In the first place, he has a doctorate in art history from Harvard; and the only mean streets he walks down, from his Florence apartment in the historic Palazzo Torrigiani, are those that lead to libraries, museums, auction houses, churches, and archives. Yet the comparison is apt. Spike, a dark, heavyset man with the wary air—and some of the wolfish beadiness—of a boxer, is a writer and art connoisseur, with a host of articles and important books on Masaccio and Fra Angelico to his name. But he's also an independent eye-for-hire, a dogged identifier of "lost" masterpieces; and in his most recent book, Caravaggio, published in 2001 by Abbeville Press, his two occupations have merged into what is essentially a laying-down of the gauntlet. For presented in it—alongside all the accepted masterpieces—are three paintings by the revolutionary Baroque artist that Spike claims to have rediscovered over the past 11 years.

Both readable and immensely scholarly, the book is full of disquisitions on the politics, powerful families, and intellectual and theological preoccupations that dominated the age of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) and formed the essential background to his work. "I think it stretched the traditional art-book format about as far as it can go," he says, his voice booming through one of the huge high-ceilinged rooms he shares with his lawyer-wife and their son. "What interested me was the intellectual and philosophical content of Caravaggio's paintings, the way he was used as a spokesman by the Catholic humanists during the Reformation. So I had to read a vast amount about Neoplatonism, Augustine and the early Christian fathers, Luther, Erasmus. Caravaggio's sponsors, after all—and by extension he himself—were preoccupied with matters like science and heresy, free will, salvation and the acquisition of grace: the highest possible levels of human discourse." He savors the words, as if uttering them for the first time, then laughs. "So there I was, the son of a Protestant theologian, deep into Catholic theology!"

John Spike is one of two sons of Robert Spike, a New York minister who became, through the National Council of Churches, a leader in the U.S. civil rights movement. Robert Spike worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on the 1963 March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act before being assassinated in Columbus, Ohio, in 1966, when John was 15. After high school in Tenafly, New Jersey—and a trip to Europe with his best friend to look at museums—John went to Wesleyan University and then to Harvard, where he studied under the "terrifyingly exacting" Sydney Freedberg, an authority on Italian painting.

His doctoral thesis was delivered at Harvard in 1979, by which time he had moved back to New York and become a correspondent for The Burlington Magazine, Britain's magisterial art history journal. Over the years that followed, as a writer, guest curator, lecturer, and organizer of exhibitions, he carved out a niche for himself as a respected independent expert on everything from Baroque portraiture to Neapolitan painting to Italian still lifes—a particularly difficult field. "I found I had a curious form of visual memory, for lines, patterns, juxtapositions, areas of tone," he says. "The point is that no artist applies the paint to the surface identically. Each has his own characteristics, his own palette, which alter over time—and I've learned them for more painters than anyone else alive. Look," he says, reaching for a reproduction of a Jacob and the Angel that he identified for a client as a "lost" Luca Giordano. "This was in a mid-1990s New York sale, and I saw it only in a photograph. But you see? There were Giordano's brush strokes all over it. These red reflections and a coppery tone are very important—and also the light here, on the musculature. Well, my client was at dinner with a number of international curators and art historians, and this painting came up for discussion. But not one of them even mentioned the name Giordano. Yet when he bought the piece and took it back to Naples, the leading Giordano expert there immediately verified the attribution!"

The client, a well-known collector of Neapolitan 17th- and 18th-century paintings, says of Spike, "John and I are first of all friends. But I have to say that he has the sharpest eye anywhere in the world for old masters. He has the ability to make a discovery and turn inexpensive paintings into big shows." Spike himself says, almost modestly, "That's what I do: advise people to buy advantageously. I've been specializing in it for twenty-five years."

Spike and his family moved to Florence in the mid-1980s so he could fully immerse himself in his subject. "I already knew Italian paintings," he says, "but there's a river of pictures here, and you have to swim in it." Soon he was named to advisory committees for Italian exhibitions. He acquired new clients; and he also became, in 1989, the general editor of The Illustrated Bartsch, the multivolume record of all European master prints made between 1460 and 1800. It wasn't until 1992, though, that his reputation as an expert sleuth with a photographic memory became public knowledge—and was challenged for the first time by art's forces of law and order.

In early 1991 he'd been sent a photograph of a still life by Sotheby's affiliate in Madrid, Edmund Peel Inc., and asked for his comments. The painting, now known as Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, shows a seemingly casual assemblage of fruit, in varying states of freshness. It's also—in the shape of the gourds, peaches, and figs and in the ooziness of the watermelon and pomegranates—full of sexual innuendo. Spike immediately saw that it was, at least, Caravaggesque: "very fine and very early." He told Edmund Peel's old masters department as much, but he did not tell them he'd begun to believe it was by Caravaggio himself. When he flew to Madrid shortly before the sale and looked at the painting, he knew. "I almost burst out laughing," he says. "It wasn't stretched; it was simply tacked in place—and it was very dirty. But it was ridiculously obvious to me—and I assumed to everyone else—that there was a Caravaggio in the room."

As it happened, it wasn't ridiculously obvious, even though a picture of the still life had appeared in The Burlington Magazine as an advertisement of the sale's quality. Spike, though, believing that he'd never be able to buy the painting alone, immediately called "a client from one of Europe's top families" and told him the story. The client, whom he had often advised, agreed to back him "up to a price of five million dollars." In the end there was only one other serious bidder, who gave up; the painting was sold to Spike, to his astonishment, for $220,000. Together with his patron, he now owned it.

The process of a picture's authentication is not unlike a drawn-out trial, with art experts as both witnesses and jury—and at first the trial went well. Cleaning of the painting revealed shafts of ocher-green light characteristic of Caravaggio; a major Italian expert pronounced it, in her view, the real thing; and the Getty Museum placed a reserve of $15 million on it, dependent on the say-so of Sir Denis Mahon, the doyen of experts on seicento painting. Trouble was, though, that the octogenarian Mahon, who by his own admission is no expert on Italian still lifes, couldn't or wouldn't give his blessing.

Suddenly the whole tenor of the trial changed. The painting was disinvited from an important exhibition in Rome, and a symposium devoted to it at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, was canceled at the last minute. Spike then published his case for the painting as a Caravaggio in the glossy Italian art magazine FMR. This carried a good deal of weight, since Spike himself was the leading expert on Italian still lifes of the period. But there was now a feeling that his judgment on its own was not enough to tip the scales—partly, no doubt, because of his not being attached to any major art institution, and partly because there is a residual distaste in the art world for scholars buying into their own discoveries, of being, to use the British expression, "in trade."

Spike remains unfazed. He has only praise for Mahon (who has built up a superb collection of paintings brought to light via his own attributions). And he says of the still life, now on loan to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida: "I believe it absolutely right in the manner of its painting—the reddish-brown imprimatura used as shadows and middle tones, and much more—and I also see it as a crucial link between early Lombard still-life painters like Arcimboldo, whose works Caravaggio would have known, and the direction taken by Italian painters of still lifes after Caravaggio's death."

A decade later critics and other art-world types are beginning to agree. Now that the painting has been published again—this time in Spike's book, now in its second printing—the still life is being taught in Caravaggio classes at a number of American universities, and late last year was featured in a major Caravaggio show in Sydney called "Darkness & Light."

One reason for this sea change is that Spike's reputation as a Caravaggio expert no longer rests on just one painting. Within four years of buying the still life, he had "discovered" two more Caravaggios: one hanging almost out of sight in the Uffizi in Florence and the other offered for sale "as the property of a gentleman" by Phillips auction house in London. The Uffizi picture was a small portrait of a cardinal whom Caravaggio must have known through his Entombment, painted for Rome's Chiesa Nuova, the cardinal's titular church. The Phillips picture was called Boy Peeling Fruit, a subject Caravaggio was known to have painted and which existed in several versions. In Spike's view, the Phillips version—which he saw only in a catalogue photograph—was the true original. He suggested to Phillips they take it out of the sale for tests. After they had agreed to do so, he wrote, apparently now on his best behavior: "Congratulations on your discovery of this fascinating work."

The subsequent fate of these two paintings says much about the art establishment's attitude toward Spike. Each was tested and found to be consistent with the work of Caravaggio, and both displayed underpainting and alterations, usually indicative of a signature work. When Spike, however, asked the Uffizi to have the portrait cleaned for an exhibition in Rome, the gallery simply had it varnished, muddying it further, on the false premise that cleaning it might destroy the surface. As for Boy Peeling Fruit, it was later sold privately to a London dealer for a reported $400,000—ten times its original estimate. Spike, who could have bid on it himself, received not a penny for his pains, not even a ticket to London to see it. Yet when I spoke to that London dealer, he told me airily that it was, like the Uffizi portrait, "now widely accepted as an authentic Caravaggio" and worth at least $5 million. About Spike, the man who discovered it, he wouldn't comment.

Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't—rather like his fictional, hard-boiled counterparts—John Spike, private eye, is still going about his business. He has identified numerous works by Mattia Preti (his thesis subject) and Jusepe de Ribera as well as a Simon Vouet, hanging unattributed for more than a century in Rome's national gallery—and that's not to mention all the works he's uncovered for private clients. He still seems ready to enter any fray—most recently the debate sparked by David Hockney about whether old masters used optical aids, including the camera obscura. Spike believes that Caravaggio did. He shows me a picture of Caravaggio's John the Baptist, whose midriff seems to be skewed and out of focus, as if separate optical planes had slipped out of sync, and says: "When Hockney and I were looking at this painting one day in London's Royal Academy, an elderly man came up and said 'Bah, it looks too much like a photograph!' It was Henri Cartier-Bresson!"

"What now?" I ask him.

"Michelangelo!" shouts Spike the art historian. "There are a lot of philosophical and religious questions which have never been addressed properly."

But Spike the private eye can't resist adding: "And there's a London sale in two days' time where there's a picture on offer by 'a minor Neapolitan master.' I have to say that I know exactly what it really is—and I've already told a client!"

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Over the years innumerable old masters have been consigned to artistic oblivion through misattribution—or have simply been hidden from sight. Below, John Spike's short list of some of the most sensational cases of lost and found art treasures.

DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE OF JERUSALEM by Nicholas Poussin: Spotted by Sir Denis Mahon at a London sale in 1995, where it was offered as a Sack of Carthage by a minor Italian 17th-century artist and valued at $27,000. Bought for $8.3 million by Jacob Rothschild's Yad Hanadiv Foundation for the Israel Museum.

MADONNA OF THE PINKS by Raphael: Purchased by the Duke of Northumberland in 1853 and soon afterwards downgraded to a School of Raphael, it hung neglected on a wall at Alnwick Castle for well over a century. In the late 1990s a curator at Britain's National Gallery found underdrawing characteristic of Raphael. The National Gallery is now in a bidding war with the Getty Museum, which has offered $65 million.

MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS by Rubens: Misattributed by a 1780s cataloguer to the minor painter Jan van den Hoecke and sold as such to a private collector in 1920, it came into its own when a relative of its owner showed a snapshot of it to a Sotheby's expert in Amsterdam. Sold for an astonishing $90 million in 2002.

SELF-PORTRAIT OF 1634 by Rembrandt: Hidden for 365 years under a painting of a Russian aristocrat by one of his pupils, it was finally uncovered when its French owner sent it to Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project, in 1999. After examination by X-rays and infrared photography, the overpainting was carefully stripped off by Martin Bijl, former head of conservation at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Sold at auction at Sotheby's London in July 2003 for $11.3 million.

PORTRAIT OF CLEMENT VII by Sebastiano del Piombo: Picked up for a few hundred pounds by a picture "runner" at an English country sale, it was finally recognized as a portrait del Piombo discussed in a letter to Michelangelo in 1531. Sold in 1992 by Agnew's of London to the Getty Museum for an undisclosed sum.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the artisans of Florence's Oltr'Arno in the November/December 2003 issue.