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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Masterpiece Without a Master

LOS ANGELES -- One day in 17th-century London -- probably -- a painter stepped into a studio with a palette full of pigments, a canvas 7 feet high and a naked woman. Maybe she was his mistress, maybe not.

Either way, the result was "Andromeda Chained to the Rock," credited for more than 150 years to the Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck. The Ahmanson Foundation acquired it in 1985 as a 20th birthday present to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put it up right away. "It sends chills up and down my spine," said Scott Schaefer, then LACMA's curator of European paintings.

But these days, "Andromeda" is all but invisible. Although it probably cost about $1 million, it hasn't been hung in a public area for several years, and the museum has never announced a reason. The answer is there, however, for those who dig into LACMA's online collection database: In July 1998, the museum decided it wasn't a Van Dyck, after all.

"It's a casualty of art history," said J. Patrice Marandel, who took over as LACMA's curator of European paintings in 1993. "We're not hiding it. We're not ashamed of it. Perhaps we're sorry, but I wouldn't even go that far."

As with many works of that time, the picture's first 200 years of existence are a mystery. After "possibly" being held in the collection of the artist in London, then "possibly" joining the collection of the earl of Pembroke, the work by 1834 had joined the collection of Britain's earl of Dunmore. From there it passed to another British owner, a Parisian owner, a Parisian dealer, then several New York owners. Then in 1984, a New York dealer named Christophe Janet offered the work to the Ahmanson Foundation and LACMA.

When the museum brought the work aboard, Schaefer hailed it as a rediscovered masterpiece. But by the time Marandel joined LACMA in 1993, he was already an "Andromeda" skeptic.

Though scholars generally agree that the unsigned work seems to date from the late 1630s, when Van Dyck was hard at work (and often leaving works unsigned), the painting's mythological theme raises some eyebrows. Only one unchallenged mythological painting of his is known to exist: "Cupid and Psyche," thought to have been painted about 1638.

Those who believe Van Dyck painted "Andromeda" say that for both "Cupid and Psyche" and this canvas, the model was the same woman -- Margaret Lemon, Van Dyck's mistress in the late 1630s. Maybe, they say, the mythological theme was an excuse for Van Dyck to paint his girlfriend naked.

If it isn't a Van Dyck, Schaefer said, "it is a very odd thing for someone to have done a naked picture of someone else's girlfriend."

Marandel shrugged off the mistress angle. "It could be anybody," he said. Sometimes, he added, "they all look the same to me, those 17th-century people."

Most gave the painting at least a tentative thumbs-up, he recalled, including Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. "The painting had a big buzz around it," recalled Marandel, who was working at the Detroit Institute of Arts at the time.

And then there was Oliver Millar, surveyor emeritus of the queen's pictures in Britain and perhaps the world's top expert on Van Dyck's years in London. As he approached "Andromeda," Millar, who was then 73, called for a ladder.

"He wanted to look at the face very closely, and it's pretty far up," Marandel said. And then "he said to me, 'I am very sorry.'"

Marandel started the re-attribution paperwork. There was no public announcement, but when another painting arrived that he wanted to make room for, Marandel pulled "Andromeda" from public view. It hasn't been seen in LACMA's galleries since, and it's listed as "imitator of Van Dyck" in museum records.

Down in the LACMA storage rooms, the veteran curator turns from "Andromeda" to head back to his office.

"We still don't understand enough of what went on in those studios," he said. "We probably never will."