In the spring of 1997, an art collector in Geneva received a call from a contact at the city’s bankruptcy and prosecution office. There was an upcoming auction, of an estate that had gone unclaimed for nine years, and among the lots was a painting the collector might want to take a look at: a painting attributed to British artist Lucian Freud . The collector was a businessman from North Africa, accustomed to unearthing furniture and works of art at competitive prices in the many galleries, antique dealers and auction houses in Geneva. He wants his privacy, so I’ll call him Omar.
Omar went to see the painting that day, at the auction house in Carouge, a suburb south of the city. The estate belonged to a man named Adolfo di Camillo, who died in 1988. According to auction records, di Camillo also appeared to have been a collector. In the 1970s he had sold a 17th century painting of Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, once thought to be a Rubens.
The work attributed to Freud was a medium-sized naturalistic oil portrait of a nude man, painted from the side and back. Some parts of the background looked unfinished or hastily sketched, but the figure itself was captured deftly, with some power. “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s strong,” Omar remembers thinking to himself.
The bankruptcy office had attached an estimate of five hundred thousand Swiss francs (about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars) to the work. At the time, a recognized Freud portrait of a named sitter could fetch three times that amount. Omar asked his contact to hold it, as one of the last lots in the sale, so the room would be quieter. On the afternoon of March 7, Omar bought the painting for less than one hundred thousand Swiss francs, or seventy thousand dollars. He also picked up one of di Camillo’s side tables, a lampshade and a bronze sculpture in the style of Giacometti.
“After I bought the painting, I went home and put it in the rest of my collection and forgot about it,” Omar told me in French when we met earlier this year in an expensive lakeside hotel in Geneva. He wore a Harrods baseball cap and carried a plastic bag. For years, Freud’s candid and elaborate portraits went against the overflowing appetite of the contemporary art market, which was for abstraction. Although he was a famous painter in England, partly because of his surname (Sigmund, his grandfather, went to London as a refugee in 1938), Freud was a respected artist rather than a fashionable in Europe. In 2002, Omar watched a program about his career on Swiss television, which prompted him to learn more about the painting. So he put it on eBay.
Omar posted the announcement on the evening of Saturday, November 30. The item description said “Painting by Lucian Freud”. Omar told me that he had no intention of selling the work; rather, he hoped to ferret out information. “To make a reconnaissance,” he said. Four days later, Omar received a message from the auction site: his item had been blocked due to a copyright complaint. He called the eBay office in France and was told the complaint was from the artist.
According to Omar, a few days later the phone rang in his apartment. It was early afternoon. “I said ‘Hello, hello’ and after a long time I heard a voice: ‘I am Freud, Lucian Freud'”, recalls Omar. The voice, speaking in English, but with a Germanic rasp, said he was the rightful owner of Omar’s painting and wanted it back. (Omar had put his phone number on the eBay ad.) Omar says that Freud offered him one hundred thousand Swiss francs, which he refused.
Three days later, the voice called back. This time, according to Omar, the man was angry. Freud was eighty at the time. The caller offered Omar double what he had paid for the painting, but the collector still refused to sell. “’No. Sorry,’” Omar recalled saying. “’I love this painting. I love this.’ He said, ‘Fuck you.’ He said, I remember, ‘You’re not going to sell the painting all your life.’ And he hung up.”
Omar has been trying to untangle the meaning of this call – and to have his painting authenticated – for twenty years. Owning a contested, possibly extremely valuable work of art is a cruel test of anyone’s aesthetic values, core reason, and innate (often well-disguised) capacity for greed. Close your eyes and millions of dollars hang on the wall. Open them, and there’s nothing to see. Hope flares up, dies for years in a row, then flares up again, at odd times. The issue of paternity can be both maddeningly simple and frighteningly difficult to resolve. Labs and lawyers can tell you what you want to hear and charge you by the hour. Omar always projected confidence when we spoke. “There is a beautiful story behind this painting”, he told me more than once. But there were days this year when I regretted never having heard of it.
In July 2005, Omar shipped the portrait to London, where it was examined by Freud’s confidant and longtime biographer, William Feaver. At this time, Omar wondered if it might be a self-portrait, noting a similarity between the figure’s face and Freud’s photographs of the 1950s and 1960s. In the customs documents, he declares the value of the painting to be one million Swiss francs.
Feaver gave it the thumbs down: the feet were unfinished, unlike Freud; the body was too heavily built for a self-portrait; the background was stylistically offbeat. When I asked Feaver about the photo recently, nearly seventeen years after viewing, he had no recollection of seeing it. But after consulting his diary, he agrees with his initial claim, which was recorded by a gallery assistant at the time. “If that spectral self had come in, he would have said emphatically that it wasn’t by Freud,” Feaver said. “There is nothing like Lucian’s work, ever, anywhere, to survive. . . . Every certifiable item is basically quite different from this rather careful, thorough, and correct thing.
Freud was shown images of the painting on several occasions, by his daughter Esther and by Pilar Ordovas, former vice president of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, now a gallery owner. Ordovas approached Freud in 2003, after she released one of his rare urban scenes, which he hadn’t seen for thirty years. She became a regular visitor to his studio and managed his relationship with the auction house. “The artist was alive. I was doing my duty to show him this work, a little embarrassed,” she told me. “He said, ‘Pilar, absolutely not.’ There wasn’t even a moment of thought or question. After Esther showed her father pictures of the painting, Freud requested that her name be removed from the frame.
Omar had better luck with independent experts. In the summer of 2006, Nicholas Eastaugh, a world authority on pigmentation analysis, visited Geneva. Eastaugh examined the painting, which was now called “Standing Male Nude”, with a microscope, under UV light, and took sixteen small paint samples. Eastaugh found “a series of points of similarity and correspondence” between Omar’s painting and Freud’s known works: traces of charcoal in the paint, the use of hog hair brushes, which Freud favored from from the late fifties, and the presence of a preparatory drawing, in pencil. On the lower edge of the canvas, Eastaugh also found a partial fingerprint, which may indicate a more definitive connection to the artist.
During his lifetime, Freud was an ardent guardian of his work and his intimacy. He communicated mainly by telephone but did not give his number and changed it often. He was sensitive to the market for his work and hated signing his name. “He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect what he believed to be his right to be able to project what he wanted to the world,” said Geordie Greig, the newspaper’s former editor. Daily mail and a friend of Freud, who wrote a book about him, told me so.
Most of Freud’s failed paintings never left the studio. “Lucian was a passionate destroyer of works gone wrong,” Feaver wrote to me in an email. “I remember many were waiting for the showdown. Typically these, especially portraits, would be stiff and, more often than not, out of proportion. Freud also kept an eye on the paintings long after he made them. Throughout his career, he became angry when inferior works ended up on the market or forgotten canvases resurfaced. In the early fifties, the house of Gerald Gardiner, Freud’s lawyer at the time, was broken into and only one photograph was taken: a portrait of Carol, Gardiner’s daughter, which Freud had painted but to which he didn’t think much. The story gave rise to a legend, encouraged by Freud, that he paid criminals to seize paintings he disliked or regretted seeing in the world. Towards the end of his life, one of Freud’s daughters, Rose Boyt, hesitated to send him a painting for authentication, lest he drill it instead.