Friday, 26 May 2017

The mysterious Maurice de Bosdari, a would-be agent for Stefano Bardini

Stefano Bardini
“If this were Downton Abbey, we’re probably in season six by now, so I’m just going to catch you up a little bit”. So began Lynn Catterson’s lecture on the mysterious Maurice de Bosdari, a would-be agent for Stefano Bardini, one of the biggest dealers of Italian art between 1866 and 1929, a man whose legacy continues to grow and unravel in unexpected ways. Catterson has been on the elusive Bosdari’s trail for a while now. After uncovering that the Italian banker from Ancona probably met Bardini in 1900 in order to buy art objects to sell on, she began working with the Bardini archives in Florence (the museum belongs to the city of Florence, the rest to the State), where she was granted access to the 70,000 objects in storage. Here she began to work her way through the material, as well as the thirty boxes of miscellaneous content from around Florence, organising the inventories, letters and photographs to create a paper trail portrait of Bardini and his family. 

As she did this it became evident to Catterson that "it’s not just what’s in an archive, but what isn’t in an archive" that’s important. Bardini was "like Amazon", his connections spread out across Italy, Europe, and by 1889 he had even reached America. Through the development of the archive Catterson was able to live through periods of history, she watched the development of the telegram in the archives as paper notes became stopped messages, she was able to identify the changing ways in which Bardini and his workers managed information. 

In fact she even discovered that Bardini’s manager had written a book about an antiquarian in 1908, a novel that she soon realised was written in real time, and most importantly was hardly a novel at all, but a step by step account of Bardini’s own work. While reading she came across an incredibly specific case of Ghiberti-style bronze doors that were sold via Bosdarsi to a “dumb” American businessman who then had them shipped to London. The American turned out to be none other than JP Morgan. Here was fact turning up in fiction; could there be more? Determined to test the book further she read on, the novel declared that Morgan had sent the doors to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Calling up the museum to ask if they happened to have some doors of the same description she was met with a resounding 'yes' – further proof that the fiction of Bardini’s manager was actually fact. 

Using the novel as a guide, Catterson was then able to uncover more and more about Bosdari’s antics and Bardini’s empire. This was a time in which fooling Americans into buying ancient monuments in Italy was easy sport. After all Godfrey Kopp had managed to persuade John R Thompson to buy the arch of Constantine for 500,000, putting 100,000 down with a note that the balance would be “due on delivery to Chicago”. What a postal order that would have been! 

Bosdari became a notorious con artist, and from the sound of it Bardini’s extensive empire was part and parcel of his ability to succeed. Catterson is trying to recreate what modern technology takes for granted "I wish there was a facebook for the 19th century" she says. Social media now creates a hard and fast record of human relationships, interactions and correspondence; it fills the gaps that Catterson is attempting to fill in history: "I’m basically operating by the Facebook method to find out what’s going on". She takes us through some of the elaborate news reports of Bardini’s escapades and the notoriety that often surrounded him. When reflecting on the current epidemic of "fake news" in the media Patterson is blunt: "Fake news has existed for as long as I’ve been a historian looking". In short, lying to create headlines or manipulated public opinion is by no means a new trade. 

One particularly amusing episode saw a French con artist called Rosenberg arrested on suspicion of being Bosdari when he was masquerading as a priest and swindling divorced ladies from France. The fake news of Bosdari’s capture was soon followed by fake news of Bosdari’s death when his body was reportedly found "floating off the coast". In reality when Bosdari was actually captured he went willingly, fully aware that he was too useful a go-between to smuggle Italian art objects for wealthy businessmen and buyers to not get bailed out. The rest remains a mystery for now, and it’s easy to see how Catterson’s initial comparison to soap-opera-style TV rings true. The antics of these nineteenth century art dealers and con artists feels fantastical, and often during the lecture it was a struggle to keep up with just how many threads of the story there were. Yet Catterson is determined to unravel the mystery of Bosdari, and after this talk I don’t think I was alone in her audience in having every confidence that she’ll do just that.