Botticelli ‘copy’ in a Welsh museum turns out to be the real thing worth tens of millions

For years, a work thought to be in the style of Sandro Botticelli languished in a museum storeroom. But since the removal of the ham-fisted efforts of a previous dealer or restorer has shown that the painting is the real thing.

Painstaking conservation work has removed years of grime from the painting that is part of the National Museum of Wales’s collection — and concluded that it was painted by none other than Botticelli himself.

The Virgin and Child with Pomegranate was bequeathed to the Cardiff museum by sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, two of the Principality’s leading art collectors, in the 1950s.

At the time some believed it to be the work of the great Italian master, but the experts of the day reclassified as being an imitation by one of his followers. It languished in the museum’s storerooms for decades.

Now, however, the painting has been declared an original thanks to efforts sparked by Bendor Grosvenor, presenter of BBC4’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, who rediscovered the picture after being struck by its beauty, and saying that ‘despite all the overpaint, parts of it reminded me of Botticelli’s most famous painting, The Birth of Venus.’

The Virgin and Child underwent extensive restoration which revealed that it had been significantly overpainted.

‘It was treated by a dealer in the 1940s, I think, and he obviously had it painted up by a restorer to make it look like an old, good-condition painting,’ explains restorer Simon Gillespie.

‘It was old-fashioned skulduggery: the dealer had it painted up artistically, very much in the manner of Botticelli, then had cracks put into that paint and dirt put into those cracks. It was quite convincing until you realised all the cracks had been added.’

Britain's Lost Masterpieces presenters Emma Dabiri and Dr Bendor Grosvenor along with specialist art conservator Simon Gillespie and Virgin and Child with a Pomegranate, at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Britain’s Lost Masterpieces presenters Emma Dabiri and Dr Bendor Grosvenor along with specialist art conservator Simon Gillespie and Virgin and Child with a Pomegranate, at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Mr Gillespie and his studio spent more than 130 hours exposing the original layers, and the technique and style that emerged were such that they led experts to reconsider the attribution — and declare once more that the painting is a real Botticelli.

‘You could see there were really good-quality small details that had been badly treated by the last restorer and blended in with the new paint,’ added Mr Gillespie.

Now that it’s once more been recognised as an original, this painting once thought to be of relatively little value is actually worth millions — the record price for a recognised Botticelli painting is $10.4 million, but one was recently put up for sale with a $30m price tag.

This reattribution also adds a new layer of intrigue to the surprising sale of another Botticelli ‘copy’ which made $5 million this summer — almost 1,000 times more than its pre-sale estimate.

The BBC programme about the painting is currently available to watch via the iPlayer (UK users only).