FreeLee, Poussin, Sherman Lee

Art, Spies, and CMA (Happy Birthday Nicolas Poussin)

Submitted by Leslie Cade on

Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the most infamous spies of the 20th century, was also an expert on Nicholas Poussin. Sherman Lee, one of the most famous art museum directors of the 20th century, was also an expert at seeing the hidden value and authorship in a work of art.

As a Poussin scholar Blunt long dismissed Holy Family on the Steps, owned by the Louvre’s chief curator Paul Jamot, as a copy of another painting currently owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Louvre agreed, resulting in a long-lasting feud with Jamot and his descendants who offered it to the CMA. Sherman Lee instinctively knew the painting was original but because of the vendetta could not facilitate a ruling from the French export committee in order to remove it from the country. Assuming the painting was lost to the museum Lee was shocked when the owner showed up in Cleveland with it rolled in a tube, sans an export license. The museum conservation department stabilized it and sent the owner and the painting on their way. Not too much later Lee received a phone call from an unknown individual who suggested that several French court cases had ruled in favor of removing works of art under specific circumstances without a license. Museum lawyers researched the rulings to the museum’s satisfaction and Cleveland bought the painting. The French were not happy, issuing arrest warrants that prohibited Lee from traveling outside of the United States for several years. A settlement was reached only through lengthy negotiations. The museum was then free to study the work and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is, in fact, the original. The details of provenance are described thoroughly in Cleveland Studies in the History of Art