Cleaning Up the Art World

One spurious Tintoretto at a time.


illustration by heather burke; photograph courtesy of the museum of fine arts, boston

The MFA’s orange-hued café serves a mean sautéed hake, but Frederick Ilchman’s having none of it. It’s that blasted eyeball—not on the fish (a meaty filet), but the one staring up vapidly from an art book perched on the curator’s lap. According to the caption, it’s a Tintoretto self-portrait, owned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “The head, it’s like…an egg, with the eye drawn on it,” Ilchman sniffs, visibly irritated. Soon his plate is exiled to the table’s edge, as the unwieldy tome is hoisted onto the place mat. “In Tintoretto, the eyes are set deep in the sockets. This one,” he says, flipping triumphantly to the offending ogler, “is quite clearly by somebody else.”

An impromptu lunchtime lecture might seem pedantic, even pompous. Yet the MFA’s 41-year-old assistant curator of European paintings has reason to grandstand. This month museums, auction houses, and collectors the world over anxiously await his 25-page verdict (written with art historian Robert Echols of Jamaica Plain) on which Tintoretto paintings can be considered genuine works by the Venetian Renaissance master, and which should be demoted to look-alike status. With Tintorettos selling in the high six figures, and “school of” Tintorettos selling for a fraction of that, fortunes hang in the balance. A staggering number, too: Revisions to Old Master catalogs typically yield a dozen or so disputed works, but Ilchman’s Tintoretto revise will decimate the canon. Of roughly 450 canvases attached to the painter, more than 150 will be rejected.

Suffice it to say, reverberations will be global. In sheer numbers, the Accademia in Venice may bear the brunt of the casualties, but it’s got Tintorettos to spare. More grim will be the situation for smaller institutions that have scraped together funds to buy their one and only. “When word gets out that they’re by the studio of Tintoretto, they will be shunted down to storage,” Ilchman predicts. The art market, already on its knees, will hardly welcome another unceremonious kick in the pants; Sotheby’s has wasted no time hitting up Ilchman for advice about works it’s got on the block next year.

Academic pride, too, will take a knock. “Yes, some people will be hurt because their Tintorettos are now Galizzis,” says Columbia University professor David Rosand, “but scholars will take it even harder.” One particularly embarrassing gaffe: Anyone who ever took a college art-history class likely used the ubiquitous Janson textbook, which features a color plate of The Last Supper as its sole Tintoretto example. “A fine painting,” says Ilchman, “but Tintoretto didn’t paint it. It’s by Domenico, his son.”

Ilchman and Echols anticipate pushback from certain Italian scholarly circles, loath to embrace a made-in-America catalog of their countryman’s oeuvre. Ilchman, charitably, says it’s hard to blame them. “After all, who would expect to find the epicenter of Tintoretto studies between Fenway and J.P.?”