Caravaggio's Casino for sale at 471 million euros. But is the estimate correct?

As is known, the Casino dell'Aurora, home to Caravaggio's only known wall painting, will go up for auction in January. Value of the property: 471 million euros. Is the estimate correct? According to many, no, let's see why.

471 million euros, of which only 432 million is for frescoes and murals, and 310 million for the Caravaggio mural alone: these are the estimates for the Casino dell’Aurora that will go to auction in January, with minimum bid set at 353,250,000 euros and bids of one million. Who will be able to afford to buy the extremely valuable property at such high figures? It is indeed a mind-boggling sum, very high even for the coffers of the state, which can avail itself of the right of first refusal, since it is a restricted property, and so the question that many are now asking is: is the estimate with which the Casino has been valued correct?

Meanwhile, the premise: how was the valuation done. This was explained by the same expert who dealt with it, art historian Alessandro Zuccari, who nonetheless admitted that estimating Caravaggio’s mural, as well as the other paintings in the Casino, was very difficult because these are often unique works and, above all, they are part of a unitary complex that has remained intact from the seventeenth century to the present, maintaining its unity. What is more, it is a unique place in the world because there are no other wall paintings by Caravaggio, because it houses one of Guercino’s most beautiful works, theAurora, and because there are masterpieces by many other seventeenth-century artists, starting with Domenichino. The estimation was deductive: it was based on insurance estimates of works similar in technique and period, and on sales quotations (for example, for Caravaggio, the estimate of the Judith of Toulouse was taken into account, which although it is accompanied by numerous attributional doubts, including those of Zuccari himself who does not consider it to be autograph, is nevertheless according to the scholar the closest work to be able to formulate a quotation).

Was this a correct procedure? Professor Zuccari’s estimate has not been without criticism. First came those of Tomaso Montanari, who spoke of an “absurd and shameful estimate given birth by a professor willing to evaluate those paintings as if they were canvases free of all constraints, already available on the London market”: according to the scholar, since they are “constrained, and immovable, assets that will have to continue to be visited,” they are works that “are not worth those astronomical figures at all.” The point, implied (the article published in Il Fatto Quotidiano does not explain it), is that constrained assets have a significantly lower value on the market (precisely because of the constraint, which entails a series of limits and obligations on the part of the owner of the asset) than an unconstrained asset.

Caravaggio's mural
Caravaggio’s mural

More specifically, Rita Borioni, a member of RAI’s Board of Directors, entered; she is a former professor of Cultural Heritage Legislation (a topic on which she also wrote a textbook) at the University of Calabria from 2001 to 2009. “The current owners of the Casino dell’Aurora Ludovisi,” she wrote publicly on her Facebook profile, “have decided to put their asset up for sale. And they can do so even if the property is listed because, for the state, whether a property is owned by a private individual or another makes little difference as long as the prescriptions of protection and enhancement on the property itself are guaranteed. However, the state can exercise on cultural property the right of first refusal, that is, it can interpose itself between seller and buyer after the sale has taken place and purchase the property at the price agreed upon between the two private parties. Not, therefore, at a price that the state decides and not even at the price asked abstractly by the seller, but at the price at which it was actually sold.” If the Aurora Casino “was sold not for 450 or 475 million, but for 550 million, that would be the amount to be paid for the state to take possession of the asset.” Again, Borioni explains, quoting MiBACT executive Irene Berlingò, “it is well known that attempts at expropriation by the state and the determination of the right price are always, and I stress always, the reason for decades-long disputes that, by the way, the state loses quite often. In short, I really enjoy the debate, even on these issues, but it should always be remembered that Italy is a liberal democracy that constitutionally protects the private property (subject to limits to ensure social function and make it accessible to all) of everyone. Ours and even those we dislike.”

Still, in About Art Online magazine, Gloria Gatti started off by wondering “whether at the real estate executions section of the Court of Rome, a Caravaggio imprisoned inside a dilapidated villa is going to be put up for sale at the best offer, rather, than a villa with a Caravaggio inside.” Gatti disputes, meanwhile, the fact that the judge did not entrust the sale to an entity specializing in its field of expertise (in this case, an auction house): instead, it was chosen to order the sale “through a commission agent but followed the ordinary procedure, setting an asynchronous telematic sale, delegating to the sale operations a notary public and appointing an architect for the appraisal of the property.” Gatti specified that the dilemma of valuing Caravaggio’s mural painting "was solved, with an arithmetic calculation, by Prof. Alessandro Zuccari, and was obtained by multiplying the value of the work per square meter by the extent of the vault, using the method of comparables (comparable transactions), and taking as a parameter the price ’proposed’ or dreamed up by French antiquarian Eric Turquin for the Judith Beheading Holofernes, found in an attic in Toulouse." Gatti recalled that the Judith, a controversial work, was supposed to go up for auction in 2019 with an estimate between €120 million and €150 million, but the French state waived the exercise of preemption “because its attribution to Merisi was too doubtful, and, predictably, as a result of this, the painting was withdrawn from sale by the private auction house Labarbe and to this day traces of it have been lost.” In essence, the estimate of Caravaggio’s mural painting, Gatti explains, in fact “was not analogically deduced from a real datum, but from an opinion of Turquin, and from an eye-catching marketing campaign orchestrated on a dubious painting that, when it was exhibited at Brera with the asterisk (attribution proposed by the owner and not by the museum) provoked the resignation of Giovanni Agosti, a member of the Pinacoteca’s scientific committee, and a rift in the art world that to this day has not decided whether it is a work by Caravaggio, the Flemish Louis Finson or a collective work, left unfinished by Merisi and completed by some of his followers.”

Gatti also stresses the danger of relying on insurance estimates to price Caravaggio’s work: “the figure,” explained Massimo Maggio, CEO of PL Ferrari, an insurance company specializing in art, “is often unreliable, especially when the lender is a private entity, which often uses the insurance value to carry out commercial or financial transactions on the work.” Gatti, too, like Montanari, explains that the fact that the work is subject to a constraint should result in a significant abatement of the estimate: “In addition, therefore, to the unreliable comparable,” Gatti wrote, “no abatement coefficient was applied in the appraisal due to the fact that it is a painting subject to constraint (art. 13 Cultural Heritage Code), a circumstance that, on the market, is well known to cause a decidedly significant depreciation (from 50% to 80%) [...]. And no further abatement coefficient was applied because it is a masonry painting, inseparable from the property on which it is made, immovable and unsaleable separately and insusceptible of generating revenues through onerous loans.” Ultimately, according to Gatti, “while understanding the difficulty of appraising a unique property containing the only masonry painting by Caravaggio, the methodology applied for the appraisal that results in a summation of the values of the masonry to that of the works, inseparable by constraint and by nature, is not correct, since they are inseparable assets. Such an estimation criterion could have been applied only if the detachment of the masonry paintings and their sale by auction as movable property had been planned and authorized by the Superintendence. In the current situation, the value of the Villa Ludovisi should have been the subject of a single appraisal, the real estate one, to which a multiplicative coefficient should have been applied on account of the uniqueness and rarity of the works that are part of it, and a further multiplicative coefficient on account of the greater potential profitability that could possibly be derived by the successful bidder through the public enjoyment of the works of art contained therein.”

Finally, Senator Margherita Corrado of the Mixed Group spoke on the issue today, submitting a question to Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. Corrado starts from a premise: the MiC has the right to exercise the right of pre-emption, purchasing the Casino dell’Aurora at the same price as the best private offer, however, “many doubts have been expressed about the method adopted for the estimate,” the parliamentarian explains, “since the judge, in the judicial division proceedings between the heirs of Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, who died in 2018, did not make use of the faculty to entrust the sale to a subject specialized in the field (as allowed by art. 532 c.p.c. when the attached property has a special character, as in this case), nor did he involve the MiC, the owner of the rights of protection, but followed the ordinary procedure and divided, in the estimation, what by nature and constraint should not have been, since the property and the alleged Caravaggesque painting are inseparable.” Moreover, Corrado points out, “no abatement coefficient was applied to the estimate of the second one, despite the fact that the prerequisites were met.” Corrado also challenges the method of comparable transactions adopted by Zuccari, pe the fact that it was adopted as a parameter, the senator points out, “not a real datum but ’an opinion,’ as Gloria Gatti called it, pointing out other questionable decisions as well.”

Still, Corrado continues, because of the chosen modalities (asynchronous telematic sale and not publicized on any specialized art journal), “there could be a financial damage to the private individual, with the risk that the compendium will remain unsold and at the next auction its value will be lowered by 20 percent, but also a fiscal damage, because in the presence, instead, of a valid offer, should the State exercise pre-emption, it will be forced to shell out a potentially oversized amount.” Therefore, Corrado and colleagues Angrisani, Granato and Lannutti, asked Franceschini to explain “how many and what constraints weigh on the Casino dell’Aurora and the artifacts it contains (works of art, furnishings and accessories), when they date back and whether they have been updated recently, and when, or in view of the transfer of ownership that will be sanctioned by the auction; whether of said assets there exists, individually, an adequate photographic documentation; what is the overall valuation of the assets subject to the aforementioned restraining orders and what value is attributed, in merit, to the Caravaggesque painting and the frescoes by Guercino depicting the Aurora and Fame; to when does the last inheritance tax paid for the Casino dell’Aurora prior to the death of Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi date back and how much does it amount to if revalued to today.”

Caravaggio's Casino for sale at 471 million euros. But is the estimate correct?
Caravaggio's Casino for sale at 471 million euros. But is the estimate correct?

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