Loading...
 

Cover Story: The $60 million man

Dan Bibb says he found a masterpiece. Why isn't the art world paying attention?

Two issues occupy Dan Bibb's mind these days. The first is his left leg. Bibb fell on it in August, and since then he's been hobbling. Bibb is a big man, with the body of a retired offensive lineman. His eyebrows slope up at the far corners, so that even though he is almost preternaturally cheerful, he sometimes looks like he's snarling. Which he clearly is now, as he makes his way down the aisles of the Scott Antique Market, his left leg pivoting in painful half-circles, propelling him forward.

??
But it's more than his leg. From around almost every corner, from behind the tables sagging under the weight of candelabras and urns and thick books with gold gilded edges fastened with metal clasps, the questions come. "Hi Dan. Sold the painting yet?" "Dan, I heard you turned down millions. Is that true?" "Dan, you remember us, right? Any news with your painting?"

??
Bibb tries to be polite. But his leg is killing him. He runs a forearm across his sweaty brow. He needs to sit down. Not here, though. Anywhere but here. Sure, some of these people are his friends, but most of them? Pontificators. Poseurs. Windbags. "I swear," he says on the drive home, "I bet some of them don't want me to sell my painting. They're jealous."

??
Bibb is 52 and lives alone. This is probably for the best, because the fact of the matter is there's simply no room for anyone else. Over the years, he has packed enough art into his two-bedroom condo in Buckhead to decorate a wing of Versaille. Oil paintings of long dead royalty cover the walls. Stone statues leave indentations in the carpet, which in spots is littered with hay, compliments of Bibb's pet rabbit. When Bibb has company, he clears massive art books off his leather sofa and peers at his guest over a coffee table loaded down with obelisks and old clocks and other objets d'art.

??
Once, long ago, when Bibb was a young collector, a fire consumed the apartment where he then lived. Firefighters punched a hole in the floor, right through a Persian carpet. All he could save was a portrait he attributes to Jean-Francois de Troy, from 1681. Bibb, an art restorer by trade, repaired the painting. He touched up the scorch marks and fixed the canvas. Today it hangs right near the front door, as if positioned for an easy exit, just in case.

??
For years, before he finally moved it to a vault, another painting hung on a wall in Bibb's home. Set inside an enormous black and gold wooden frame, the painting stretched almost from floor to ceiling. It was striking — not just for its size, but its subject — a man in his late thirties, with full red lips and a long chin, standing near a balcony, his hand resting on a sword handle, a swath of drapery behind him. At parties, guests would pose for photographs next to it. If they asked how he got it, Bibb was happy to tell them.

??
One day in 1977, when he was living in New Orleans, Bibb went to an auction house on Magazine Street. The catalog had intrigued him. But the auction it had advertised was long over; all that was left were a few paintings, which the auction house owners gladly brought out for him. The paintings were all large, he recalls. One was of an old ship at sea. Another was, according to the catalog, a "portrait of a 19th-century Irish gentleman in the manner of Sir Peter Lely." Lely was a 17th-century artist known for painting British royalty in pastoral settings.

??
Bibb so often says he is a modest man that it almost seems like bragging. But he is supremely confident about two things — the quality of his art restoration ("I do phenomenal work") and the keenness of his eye. On that day in New Orleans, something struck him about the painting of the lantern-jawed man in the black billowy cloak. First, he didn't really look like an Irish gentleman, despite the red hair. Second, the painting seemed older than the 19th century. Bibb decided to buy it, although he won't say for how much. He brought it out to his Fiat Spider convertible and laid it over the top of the back seat. The painting was so long that the bottom jutted out over the tiny car's trunk; it occasionally scraped the pavement on the drive home.

??
So it was that Dan Bibb came to own a portrait not of a 19th century Irish gentleman, but of King Philip IV of Spain, painted in 1632 by one of the most revered and imitated of the Old Master painters, Diego Velázquez. At least, that is what Bibb grew to believe over time. Proving it was another matter.

??
Over the years, Bibb's obsession has taken him to Austria, Russia and Spain, through libraries and to laboratories and art institutes. In researching his painting, he has spent himself $300,000 into debt. His mortgage payments are late. He has no health insurance. But more painful than the penury and the bum leg are the patronizing glances of curators and the insulting indifference that has greeted what he believes is the "single most important art discovery of the last century."

??
Dan Bibb is a believer, and he wants the rest of us to believe.

??
Last November, the Prado museum in Madrid caused a stir in the art world when it paid $27 million for a portrait of the pope's barber, painted by Velázquez around 1650. Critics believed the money would have been better spent on a Goya, which was on the market at the same time and which various experts agreed was a more "important" painting than the Velázquez, which stood barely a foot and a half high and was hardly considered one his best works.

??
But Gabriele Finaldi, the Prado curator, was unapologetic, telling a reporter there is no such thing as a "minor" Velázquez.

??
Finaldi's response was hardly hyperbole. In the history of western art, few painters are more lionized than Velázquez, a technical virtuoso who is often referred to as "the "painter's painter." The value of his works is further enhanced by their paucity; only about 100 Velázquez paintings are known to still exist. Of those, perhaps none is more famous than "Las Meninas," painted by Velázquez just a few years before he died at 61. Whole books have been devoted to analyzing this single painting, a bold and indulgent work that critics and experts consistently rank among the top 10 paintings in the world. "Las Meninas" captures the royal court in various stages of preparation for a portrait, while Velázquez himself stands ready at an enormous easel, and the king and queen are reflected in a mirror. When Manet first saw the painting, he was heard to mutter, "I don't know why the rest of us bother." In 1957, Pablo Picasso became so transfixed with "Las Meninas" that he painted 58 renditions of it over four months.

??
Unlike other Old Masters, Velázquez was appreciated in his lifetime. He was pintor del rey — the king's official portraitist. He was also the chief decorator of the royal palaces.

??
"Las Meninas" was Velázquez' crowning achievement. The small portrait of the pope's barber was done some years before, during the painter's second and final trip to Rome. By that time, Velázquez was well into middle age, his expertise long acknowledged and his stature within the Spanish royal court assured.

??
But in the history of his artistic development, it was his first trip to Italy, some 20 years earlier, that scholars call a "turning point" for Velázquez. Rome in 1630 was a point of convergence for other Baroque artists. There, exposure to the works of giants like Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo emboldened Velázquez' technique.

??
When he returned to Madrid in 1631, he set to work on a portrait of his boss, King Philip IV. In the painting, the king holds a petition in his right hand, while his left hand rests on a sword handle. A large curtain is bunched up behind him. The curtain is pulled to the side to reveal a balcony and a balustrade.

??
Scholars know that description from copies of the original — copies that now hang in museums in Austria and Russia. As for the original, pre-eminent Velázquez scholar Jonathan Brown has written, "this portrait is no longer extant."

??
Not so, says Dan Bibb.

??
"I have it."

??
A day after he brought home the portrait of the "Irish gentleman" in 1977, Dan Bibb went to the New Orleans public library. Bibb was only 26, with just a high school degree and a few college classes to his credit, but he was an avid student of art history. He'd grown up in rural Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. After their father left, Bibb and his two sisters were raised by their mother. In art, Bibb found, as he calls it, "escape from the drudgery." After an apprenticeship in Atlanta, he had moved to New Orleans in his mid-twenties and taken work as an art restorer, making about $1,500 a month — good money at the time for a college dropout.

??
And so there he was, with a painting that covered his wall from floor to ceiling. He knew enough about Baroque painting to know his portrait was Spanish. On a hunch, he began flipping through books on Velázquez.

??
In a Velázquez catalogue raisonne, a book that lists every known piece of work by a particular artist, Bibb saw something that made his heart skip: his painting. The book explained it was a portrait of King Philip IV, painted not by Velázquez, but by the students in his workshop. It was hanging in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Still another version was listed — this one slightly different. It was displayed at a museum in Vienna, and was attributed to Velázquez and an assistant. But this painting was significantly smaller; it was thought to have been cropped at some point long ago to fit a frame or a wall space.

??
Soon after, Bibb learned that the supposedly impeccable catalogue raisonne, published in 1936, had been incorrect. It had properly described the Hermitage's portrait of Philip IV but had included with it the wrong photograph — a photograph, as Bibb came to realize, of his own painting, taken years earlier. The true portrait hanging in Russia, as it turned out, features significant differences — the king's face appears older and the drapery hangs differently.

??
Bibb understood now that he was dealing with three paintings: two were hanging in museums in Russia and Austria, and the third was on his living room wall. He began to wonder if his painting was the lost original, painted not by Velázquez' workshop, but by the man himself.

??
Such distinctions of attribution are important, and vitally so when it comes to the marketplace. A Velázquez workshop painting could feasibly fetch tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. But a Velázquez original? A king's ransom. In 1970, a Velázquez portrait sold for $5 million at auction, then a world record for a piece of art. The next Velázquez up for public sale didn't come until almost 30 years later when, in 1999, a buyer paid almost $9 million for a portrait of the patron saint of Seville — a painting that had been misattributed for years to another artist. Then, of course, there was last year's purchase of the "minor" Velázquez for $27 million.

??
No, finding a missing Velázquez was too much for Bibb to hope for. Lost masterpieces don't just show up at some auction house in New Orleans, where they're bought by 26-year-old bubbas from Alabama. Reason demanded skepticism. So Dan Bibb was skeptical.

??
But as the years passed, and as he moved to Atlanta and hung the painting on the wall of his new condo, Bibb learned more about his portrait's provenance and about Velázquez. First, markings on the back of the painting indicated that it had belonged, in the early 20th century, to an Austrian industrial baron named Wilhelm Ofenheim. Ofenheim's art collection was so large that part of it had been displayed in Vienna, and the other part in a castle in Moravia. In 1930, the art journal Apollo published a seven-page story about Ofenheim's collection. The story mentioned an "old copy from the Spanish school of the portrait of Philip IV, by Velázquez." Even then, it seemed, the painting was believed to be a derivative.

??
But Bibb had other ideas. If the catalogue raisonne had been wrong, why not Apollo too? No literature mentioned any other copies of the portrait beyond the two hanging in Vienna and St. Petersburg. Why couldn't his be the original?

??
In 1996, Bibb flew to Russia, carrying with him a photograph of his portrait. At the Hermitage, he stood before a painting he had come to believe was inspired by his own. He met with the curator of Spanish paintings, showed her his picture and was told, he says now, that he had an important painting. But nothing ever came of it.

??
Nor did anything come of subsequent trips to Vienna, to view the other version, or finally, to the Prado in Madrid, which contains more Velázquez paintings than any other place in the world. Bibb recalls meeting with a curator who, like the one at the Hermitage, promised him they'd get back to him. But no one ever did.

??
In a sense, their response wasn't surprising. All Bibb had brought with him was a photograph. So as the months passed with no phone call, he knew he needed to pad his argument with more than just a snapshot and instinct.

??
In July of 2002, Bibb brought the painting to James Squires, associate conservator of paintings at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center. Squires is not in the authentication business, nor is he a Velázquez expert, but he could tell a few things right away. First, it was definitely an old painting. Second, the canvas was a coarse weave, which was consistent with the time period in which Bibb believed it was painted.

??
"If you had seen a fine-weave canvas," Squires says, "it would have suggested something else."

??
Using a needle, Squires took tiny samples from nine locations on the painting — places such as the king's hand, the curtain behind him, and the tree barely visible through the balustrade. Squires sent the samples to McCrone Associates, a laboratory outside Chicago. The idea was to compare the samples taken by Squires with samples from known Velázquez paintings. The results would surprise even Bibb.

??
The lab that tested Bibb's painting was founded by Walter C. McCrone, a chemical analyst who gained fame and controversy for declaring in 1978 that the Shroud of Turin had not covered the body of Jesus, but in fact was a "fantastic work of art" from medieval times. Some years later, carbon dating indicated McCrone was right. McCrone, who died in 2002, also labeled as forgery the Vinland Map, a parchment that some believed was proof that Europeans had been to the New World before Columbus.

??
The task of examining the pigment samples from Bibb's painting fell to Joseph Barabe, a research microscopist at McCrone. Of course, a detailed pigment analysis would be almost useless if there was nothing to compare it to. Luckily, Velázquez scholars, some years earlier, had taken pigment samples from known Velázquez paintings and published their findings in a book. It was this book, Examining Velázquez, that Barabe consulted during his examination.

??
"The book was extremely well done, a very thorough study," Barabe says now. "It mentioned some of the things — various aspects of the palette — that Velázquez did not use, which was helpful."

??
Orpiment, for example, was a yellow paint common to the early 17th century, except Velázquez was known to use another yellow instead, called lead-tin yellow. Barabe's analysis showed evidence of lead-tin yellow, but no orpiment. What's more, lead-tin yellow went out of use around 1750, which suggested that the painting was made before that date.

??
The paint used for the sky also was interesting. "This was a mixture of lead white and a synthetic pigment called smalt, which is basically a cobalt glass which is ground very fine," Barabe says. Mixed in with the cobalt were trace elements of arsenic and nickel, which were also found in the known Velázquez paintings.

??
Same too with the ground layer — which is essentially the primer layer for the entire painting. "First of all, Velázquez used a number of different grounds during his career," Barabe says. "The ground that he would have used for this painting, because it coincided with a series of portraits of royalty, was a particular mixture of red ochre. This is a natural pigment. They dig it out of the ground. It comes with a lot of accessory minerals besides the red iron oxide particles themselves."

??
Those "accessory minerals" — quartz, clay and mica — again were found in both the known Velázquez paintings and the samples from Bibb.

??
"I try to enter into an analysis with an open mind but with what I would call a healthy skepticism," Barabe says. "That's my job. I always look for ways in which I can be fooled. With each test that we did, they all basically came up consistent with Velázquez' palette."

??
At the end of his six-page report, Barabe wrote that "we find compelling evidence supporting the attribution of Portrait of Philip IV to Diego Velázquez."

??
For Barabe, an expert on chemical analysis but not on 17th century Spanish painting, the endorsement was as strong a one as his position allowed him to provide. "I used the word 'compelling' because, while it's impossible for us to say that this was by Velázquez, I felt the evidence pointed rather strongly in that direction."

??
In December 2002, X-rays and infrared photographs were taken of the painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Scholars often take X-rays of paintings to examine the evolution of a painting — how the shape of a face may have initially been sketched out, then changed, for example. In Bibb's painting, X-rays showed the artist had made significant changes along the way to several aspects of the painting. For instance, the angular top of the hat on the table behind the king had initially been rounded. Bibb argues that if the painting were a copy, X-rays would show no substantial difference from the initial sketches to the final product.

??
The X-rays revealed another clue. Velázquez was known to dry his brush on an unfinished part of the canvas. The artist who painted Bibb's picture did something similar, cleaning his brush of lead white in various parts of the canvas, leaving white streaks that show up only in X-rays.

??
The pigment analysis, the X-rays, the infrared photography — to Bibb, all this was empirical evidence of what he's known for so long.

??
"Only in the last few years has the technology come together where I can pull this off," he says. "This is what I've been waiting for all these years."

??
When he talks about his painting, Bibb ticks off the reasons it is a true Velázquez — the pigment comparisons, the X-rays, the search for the "lost" original — and then sums up his argument with a pat tautology, which goes something like this: "It's either a Velázquez or it's not a Velázquez." Or, he'll say, "The painting proves itself."

??
At the same time, he is aware that in the art world, no painting is a masterpiece — or, more specifically, will be accepted as a masterpiece — unless a so-called "expert" pronounces it one. Lab tests, to Bibb's chagrin, are not the final arbiter. After all, with an acknowledged master such as Velázquez, it's possible an acolyte could imitate the work, down to using the same paints. In the end, the art world relies on the discerning eye of an expert to tell the difference.

??
For Bibb, that validation from the connoisseurs has been elusive. He has called Brown, but the Velázquez scholar, who is a professor at New York University, has not expressed interest in the painting. (Nor did he respond to voicemail messages or a letter sent by CL.) The Prado and other museums won't get back to Bibb. (In an email to CL, Finaldi, the Prado curator, said he "cannot comment on Mr. Bibb's picture, the documentation of which I am aware of.")

??
The art world's reticence is no surprise. Experts occasionally have been sued when they've given opinions that owners don't like, and they prefer not to give opinions about works that are on the market, explains Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research.

??
What's more, the nature of authenticating or attributing a painting is not an exact science. "Connoisseurship is not like DNA," Flescher says. And yet, that expertise is essential to the process of authentication, she believes.

??
"Connoisseurship is based on the premise that someone with a trained eye and a lifetime of knowledge and familiarity with a given artist can better recognize that artist's hand than someone who is less familiar with the artist," she says. "Is it infallible? No. Of course not. Can experts disagree? Yes, sometimes. Especially when you're dealing with connoisseurship alone, because it's inherently subjective.

??
"In addition to connoisseurship, there's scholarship — that is, documentation that links the work in question to the artist. In a well documented artist, the absence of documentation can be very significant."

??
Bibb is not totally alone, however. He has found at least one institutional ally in Romita Ray, curator of prints and drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens. Like others interviewed for this story, Ray was quick to point out that she is not a Velázquez scholar. Still, she says, she was struck by the painting when she first saw it in the spring of 2002.

??
"The immediate impression I had is that it was either a fantastic master painting or a really good forgery," Ray says. "There were certain things about the eyes and hands, which tell you the painter who painted the canvas is highly skilled."

??
As important as the pigment analysis is to the authentication process, just as essential, Ray says, is "a very serious amount of scholarship."

??
Ray is currently in discussions with Bibb to display the painting at the Georgia Museum, where it would be available for examination by whomever is interested.

??
"Our point is to open that door now and to try to bring down some of the big names in the field to come study the painting for themselves," Ray says. "So much has been written about Velázquez that of course it's very natural that people would be skeptical. That's why the scholars are so critical to this. They're the ones who have access to the royal archives. They have access to primary documents from the 17th century. And because they're immersed in how to connect the dots in the field, they're the ones who are able to then place the missing piece in the puzzle."

??
But even if an expert saw Bibb's painting and pronounced it the genuine article, that still may not be enough. In 1990, a French art dealer named Charles Bailly was so convinced that a painting of the Virgin Mary was done by Velázquez that he paid $3.4 million for it, despite a vague attribution to a "circle of Velázquez" and an initial estimated price of $52,000.

??
Over the next four years, Bailly set about proving his hunch. He hired experts and an art restorer. As in Bibb's painting, X-rays showed underlying brushstrokes where the artist had dried his brush. Smalt was used in the sky. Sotheby's attached its name to the painting, traveling it around the world so that potential buyers might see it. Brown, the Velázquez expert, came out in favor of attributing the work to Velázquez, as did other scholars. But a former Prado director, Alfonso Perez Sanchez, disagreed, saying it was the work of Alonso Cano, a lesser-known Velázquez contemporary. Although he offered no evidence, his opinion forced Sotheby's to attach a small label to the painting, saying that Perez Sanchez had "raised the idea that this is an early painting by Alonso Cano." It was enough to doom the painting; at auction in 1994, not a single bid was made.

??
On the wall of Bibb's tiny kitchen, made even smaller by a massive bird cage that contains his other pet, a parrot named Gunter, is a yellowed scrap of paper posted at eye level. It is a "Prayer for Unexpected Income," which begins, "I believe God is the source of all supply, and money is God in action, and should be used for good."

??
Bibb is ready to sell his painting. He feels the urgency more than ever. Bills are forming a small mountain on his dining room table. He has to sell something — if not the painting, then part of his beloved collection. But where would he begin? Likely the last to go would be his assortment of Russian icons. Bibb has collected hundreds over the years and loans them out for free to small museums throughout the Southeast. Currently, they're on display at the Biedenharn Museum in Monroe, La. In November, the museum flew Bibb down to celebrate the opening of "Windows to Heaven: Russian Icons from the Collection of Daniel R. Bibb."

??
But if he sold his Philip, Bibb would never have to worry about money again. He could display his collection properly. He could pay the bills. He could fund a laboratory to help authenticate other lost masterpieces, which he knows are out there.

??
Potential buyers have contacted him, he says, but for obvious reasons he won't name them. His asking price is staggering — Bibb believes his painting, as a true lost Velázquez, is worth somewhere between $60 million and $150 million. But, given the $27 million spent on Velázquez's 18-inch portrait of the pope's barber, to snag eight or even nine figures for a seven-and-a-half-foot high portrait, in its original frame, wouldn't be a surprise.

??
If it's the real thing.

??
Some years back, a representative from Christie's auction house looked at Bibb's painting, but he recalls her dismissing the painting by calling the king's hand "superfluous." Such remarks, as well as the indifference he's encountered along the way, have left Bibb with nothing but bile for the art establishment. He dismisses them as "arrogant and pseudo-intellectual."

??
"This is completely new, and that scares them," he says. "I'm rocking the boat."

??
Whether or not Bibb's cynicism is sour grapes, one thing is sure: he runs a tactical risk by disparaging the very establishment on whose imprimatur he relies.

??
After almost 27 years, Bibb is tired. More research needs to be done on the Philip, he says, but it's best left for someone else. He wants it gone. There are other paintings he wants to research.

??
Then again, he's waited this long. One thing he will absolutely not do is sell his portrait for less than it's worth.

??
"If it sells, it sells. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

??
Bibb leans back on his leather couch and stretches his aching leg.

??
"I can wait. It's a Velázquez. I'd stake my life on it."

??
steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com



More By This Writer

Article

Wednesday February 22, 2006 12:04 am EST
Music | more...

Article

Wednesday October 26, 2005 12:04 am EDT
Did a serial killer murder 20 women a century ago? | more...

Article

Wednesday October 19, 2005 12:04 am EDT
City officials have been huddling for months to come up with a new slogan for Atlanta — one that we can only hope will be as catchy as "What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas." As it turns out, though, the idea of branding our city is nothing new. In 1911, a group called the Ad Men's Club put out a call in local papers seeking ideas for a slogan. The winner got $10. Here are some of the... | more...

Article

Wednesday October 12, 2005 12:04 am EDT
A Marine dies on West Peachtree | more...

Article

Wednesday October 5, 2005 12:04 am EDT

Estimated combined wealth in 2005 of Anne Cox Chambers and Barbara Cox Anthony, the daughters of James M. Cox, who founded Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises ... $25 billion

The sisters' rank in the Forbes magazine list of 400 richest Americans ... 12

Percentage by which sisters' fortune has grown since 1996 ... 212

Percentage by which median American household income has grown from 1996 to 2004...

| more...
Search for more by Steve Fennessy

[Admin link: Cover Story: The $60 million man]