It’s a story full mystery, intrigue, fake paintings, and a major lawsuit that rocked the art world. It all started with a family here in Junction City.
After World War I a former army officer Harry J. Hahn and his French wife, Andree settled in Junction City. Harry was the nephew of Dr. Henry C. Mayer and they stayed with the doctor for a time while looking for housing.
When they were married they received a painting from Andree’s godmother. The painting entitled “La Bella Ferronniere” was authenticated by a French Art expert as being painted by Leonardo da Vinci.
While living in Junction City, Mrs. Hahn decided to bring the painting to the United States and sell it in Kansas City through an art dealer by the name of Conrad Hug.
On June 16, 1920 the Kansas City Star reported the arrival of the art work; “‘La Bella Ferronniere,’ smiling her Mona Lisa smile, wearing her wine red velvet frock and with a jewel shining on her brow, arrived yesterday in New York and will leave tonight for Kansas City.”
Initially many jumped at the chance to own the painting and the biding was fast and furious. That was until a reporter for the New York World telephoned Sir Joseph Duveen for his opinion of the painting.
Duveen was recognized as one of the top art dealers. Among his clientele were the names Mellon, Morgan, and Rockefeller. It was by his recommendation that many of the Old Masters' pieces now displayed in the National Gallery were purchased.
Without ever seeing the picture Duveen declared that it must be a copy because the “real ‘La Belle’ is in the Louvre.” Because of Duveen’s reputation this off handed statement halted any chance Mrs. Hahn had of selling the painting.
Mrs. Hahn immediately filed a law suit against Duveen for $500,000 for slander and damages. She claimed that Duveen’s comments were false and were designed to drive the cost of the painting down so that he could control the art market.Her lawsuit rattled the art world because it made dealers and experts cautious of offering opinions.
By the time the case went to court the Hahn’s had left Junction City, but locals followed the story closely. In 1929 the case went to trial in New York and lasted for 28 days. The proceedings were followed closely by the media and the trial was said to be, “a lowbrow and highbrow circus-the smartest show in town.”
During the pretrial the “Hahn Leonardo” was placed next to the “Louvre Leonardo” and both were examined by experts. The trial was confusing and at one point it was argued that the “Louvre Leonardo” might not be a true Leonardo.
A newspaper account of the trial states that portions of the testimony revealed that “measurements of the Hahn portrait tally with those in the old records of the original da Vinci, while those of another portrait in the Louvre of the same name and generally conceded to be the original da Vinci do not.”
After all the arguments and expert opinions were heard the jury came back with a mixed verdict; nine to three in favor of Mrs. Hahn. The judge ordered another trial but Duveen settled with Mrs. Hahn out of court for $60,000 before the retrial.
However, the damage was done and Mrs. Hahn locked the painting away. In 1946 the painting resurfaced and was on display to the Nelson Gallery for a month coinciding with the publication of Harry Hahn’s book The Rape of LaBella.
The most recent information that I find on the painting is that it was auctioned by Sotheby’s in January of 2010 for 1.5 million dollars. An examination by a leading Leonardo expert concluded that it is not in fact a Leonardo. It dates to the first half of the 17th century and is believed to have been done by a French artist. The sale closed the book on over a century of controversy and debate regarding the work.