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Mystery and Legal Battle over Da Vinci’s Earlier (and Prettier) Mona Lisa

Steve Palace
Mona Lisas
Mona Lisas

A legal battle is raging over who owns the Mona Lisa. Not the famous painting hanging in the Louvre, but an earlier version said to have been painted by original artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The Mona Lisa Foundation, established in 2012 to promote the early version, states it is the sole property of a Caribbean consortium. But there’s a fly in the ointment. Andrew and Karen Gilbert from south east London claim their family bought a substantial stake in the picture.

This game-changing work was initially brought to light when, according to a BBC article, it “suddenly emerged in 1913”. Art dealer and playwright Hugh Blaker discovered it at a manor house in Somerset, England. It got the name “Isleworth Madonna” due to its presence in his south-west London studio.

Isleworth Madonna
The Isleworth Mona Lisa

But how did the Gilberts become involved in the Mona Lisa’s affairs? They have shown the BBC “a series of documents which they say shows the family bought a 25% share of the painting in 1964.” These relate to dealer Henry Pulitzer, who owned the painting after Blaker.

Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre

An amusing photo exists of the picture taking pride of place in Pulitzer’s front room, the Mona Lisa watching over a domestic scene of Sixties TV watching. Pulitzer received financial assistance from the Gilbert family whilst trying to prove it was a true Leonardo. The late Leland Gilbert, who was a business associate, agreed to purchase a share for £4,000.

Mona Lisa
Crowds of people looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum.

“About a decade later,” the article says, “Pulitzer locked the portrait in a Swiss bank vault, and following his death, it eventually ended up in the hands of the international consortium (Mona Lisa Inc, based on the island of Anguilla) in 2008.” The Telegraph reports it was also passed on to Pulitzer’s partner Elizabeth Meyer.

Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci

According to its website, the Mona Lisa Foundation seeks to “make Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ known and loved in its own right, as much as the version that hangs in the Louvre Museum.” It strenuously denies the Gilberts’ claims.

Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, also referred to as a “Sherlock Holmes” of the art scene, is assisting the family. His own views on art are decidedly no-nonsense. Quoted by the Telegraph, he said “I don’t care if this is a painting of Elvis on black velvet, Whatever it is, 25 per cent of it belongs to the Gilberts”.

Underpinning this court action is a war of words between the art establishment as to whether the Earlier Mona Lisa is the genuine article. Prof. Jean-Pierre Isbouts has examined the work up close, and is 100% convinced.

He bases his conclusions on several factors, including “historical records” that suggests da Vinci created 2 Mona Lisas. The artist’s biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) wrote that the Mona Lisa was never finished after da Vinci labored on it for several years. The Earlier Mona Lisa has an incomplete background, leading to speculation this was a product of the master.

Quoted by the BBC, Prof. Isbouts also draws attention to their proven 16th century origins, identical “configuration” and “composition”, not to mention the tell tale paint application or “handwriting” of the piece.

Isbout’s findings are disputed by da Vinci authority Prof. Martin Kemp. He hasn’t seen the painting, but feels he knows enough to make up his own mind. Prof. Kemp refers to the infrared scan of the Isleworth Madonna, which is “tediously exact and is clearly the kind of drawing that’s made when you’re copying something rather than generating it.”

How did the Mona Lisa become so Famous?

If the da Vinci label sticks, then the Gilberts could be in line to make millions through an Italian court. The art legend’s Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World, 1490-1500) burst onto the scene from seemingly nowhere in 2017. The price tag? A rather cool $450 million…!