In the spring of 1997, an art collector in Geneva received a call from a contact in the city’s bankruptcy and court proceedings. An estate was up for auction that had been unclaimed for nine years, and among the lots was a painting the collector might want to see: a canvas attributed to British artist Lucian Freud. The collector was a businessman originally from North Africa, used to buying furniture and works of art at competitive prices in Geneva’s numerous galleries, antique dealers and salesrooms. He’s very keen on privacy, so I’ll call him Omar.
Omar was visiting 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 the auction documents, di Camillo was also a collector. In the 1970s he had sold a 17th-century painting of Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, who was 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 from behind. Parts of the background appeared unfinished or hastily sketched, but the character himself was skillfully captured with a certain vigour. “Oh, it’s interesting, it’s strong,” Omar recalled saying to himself.
The bankruptcy office had enclosed an appraisal of five hundred thousand Swiss francs (about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars) with the work. At the time, a recognized Freud portrait by a named actor could fetch three times that amount. Omar asked his contact to hold it as one of the last lots of the sale so the space 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 took with him 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 I forgot about it,” Omar told me in French when we met at an expensive lakeside hotel in Geneva earlier this year met He was wearing a Harrods baseball cap and carrying a plastic bag. For years, Freud’s searching, candid portraits defied the contemporary art market’s overwhelming appetite 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 rather than fashionable artist 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 published the advert on Saturday evening, November 30th. The item description read ‘Lucian Freud Painting’. Omar told me he had no intention of selling the work; rather, he hoped to scavenge information. “To clarify,” he said. Four days later, Omar received a message from the auction site saying his item had been blocked due to a copyright complaint. He called the eBay office in France and was told that the complaint was from the artist.
According to Omar, the phone in his apartment rang a few days later. It was early afternoon. “I said ‘Hello, hello’ and after a long time I heard a voice: ‘I’m Freud, Lucian Freud,'” Omar recalled. The voice, speaking in English but with a Germanic snare, said that he was the rightful owner of Omar’s painting and that he wanted it back. (Omar had given his phone number on the eBay ad.) Omar says Freud offered him 100,000 Swiss francs, which he declined.
Three days later the voice called back. This time, according to Omar, the man was angry. Freud was then eighty years old. The caller offered Omar twice what he paid for the painting, but the collector still refused to sell it. “‘No. I’m sorry,'” Omar recalled saying. “‘I love that painting. I love that.’ He said, ‘Fuck you.’ He said, I remember, ‘You’re not going to sell the painting for the rest of your life.’ And he hung up.”
Omar has spent the past twenty years trying to unravel the meaning of that call — and have his painting authenticated. Owning a controversial, potentially extremely valuable work of art is a cruel test of a person’s aesthetic values, basic sanity, and innate (often well-disguised) capacity for greed. Close your eyes and millions of dollars are hanging on the wall. Open it and nothing is visible. Hope flares up, dies for years at a time, then flares up again at odd moments. The question of authorship can be both insanely simple and terrifyingly difficult to solve. Labs and lawyers may tell you what you want to hear and charge you hourly rates. Omar always exuded confidence whenever we spoke. “There is a beautiful story behind this painting,” he told me more than once. But there were days this year I wish I had never heard of it.
In July 2005, Omar sent the portrait to London, where it was examined by Freud’s longtime confidant and biographer, William Feaver. At this point, Omar wondered if this might be a self-portrait, noting a resemblance between the character’s face and photographs of Freud from the 1950s and 1960s. In customs papers, he declared the painting to be worth one million Swiss francs.
Feaver gave him the thumbs down: the feet were unfinished, which was in contrast to Freud’s; the body was too heavily built for a self-portrait; the background was stylistically off. When I asked Feaver about the picture recently, almost seventeen years after viewing it, he had absolutely no recollection of seeing it. But after consulting his diary, he agreed with his initial claim, recorded at the time by a gallery assistant. “If that spectral I had gone in, he would have said flatly that it wasn’t Freud’s,” Feaver said. “There is nothing like it in Lucian’s work that would ever survive anywhere. . . . Every single certifiable is fundamentally different from this more cautious, meticulous, correct thing.”
Freud was shown images of the painting several times, by his daughter Esther, and by Pilar Ordovas, a former vice president of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s who is now a gallery owner. Ordovas became close to Freud in 2003 after she pitched a rare urban scene of his that he hadn’t seen in thirty years. She became a regular visitor to his studio and tended to his relationship with the auction house. “The artist lived. I felt a little embarrassed about my duty to show him this work,” she told me. “He said, ‘Pilar, absolutely not.’ There wasn’t even a thought or a question.” After Esther showed her father pictures of the painting, Freud asked that his name be removed from the frame.
Omar had better luck with independent experts. In the summer of 2006, Nicholas Eastaugh, a world authority on pigment analysis, traveled to Geneva. Eastaugh examined the painting, now dubbed Standing Male Nude, with a microscope under UV light and took sixteen tiny color samples. Eastaugh found “a number of points of similarity and correspondence” between Omar’s painting and known works of Freud: traces of charcoal in the colour, the use of pig-hair brushes, which Freud favored from the late 1950s, and the presence of a loose brush preliminary drawing, in pencil . Eastaugh also found a partial fingerprint at the bottom of the canvas, which could indicate a more definite connection to the artist.
During his lifetime, Freud was a keen guardian of his oeuvre and his private sphere. He communicated mainly by phone, but did not give out his number and often changed it. He was sensitive to the market for his work and hated signing his name. “He was willing to do whatever was necessary to protect what he believed to be his right to show the world what he wanted,” said Geordie Greig, a former editor of the Daily Mail and a friend of Freud’s who wrote a book about him told me.
Most of Freud’s failed paintings never left the studio. “Lucian was an avid destroyer of works gone wrong,” Feaver wrote me in an email. “I can remember that many were waiting for the culling. In general these – especially portraits – would be stiff and more often disproportionate.” Freud also kept an eye on paintings long after they were made. Throughout his career, he grew angry when inferior works found their way onto the market or forgotten canvases resurfaced. In the early 1950s, the home of Gerald Gardiner, Freud’s lawyer at the time, was broken into and a single photograph was taken: a portrait of Carol, Gardiner’s daughter, which Freud had painted but did not think highly of. The story gave rise to a legend promoted by Freud that he paid criminals to get at paintings he disliked or that he regretted going out into the world. Late in his life, one of Freud’s daughters, Rose Boyt, was reluctant to send him a painting for authentication, fearing he would punch a hole in it instead.