Sotheby’s attack ‘irresponsible’ musicologist

Sotheby’s attack ‘irresponsible’ musicologist


norman lebrecht

November 29, 2016

The auction house has issued a statement after a Beethoven manuscript failed to sell this morning, following a row on the BBC today programme over its authenticity.

Sotheby’s statement regarding Beethoven’s Allegretto in B minor:

‘We believe it was irresponsible for a third party to raise doubts about Beethoven’s “Allegretto” in B Minor manuscript when they had not inspected it first-hand or taken into account its provenance and the inscription by an English vicar confirming that it was composed and written by Beethoven. This unfortunately had a direct impact on the auction sale, but Sotheby’s stands by its description of the manuscript as an authentic and important piece of musical history and Sotheby’s view is shared by the majority of world-renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally.’

Sotheby’s categorically rejects the suggestion that the Beethoven manuscript is a contemporary copy:

– It has been suggested that the Rev John Abbiss of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, forged this copy of Beethoven’s “Allegretto” in B minor, transcribing it from a score given by Beethoven to Richard Ford in Vienna in November 1817.

– However, the manuscript is so close in all respects to the other original, discovered by Sotheby’s in 1999, that it cannot be a contemporary transcript. Instead, Beethoven made this copy for John Abbiss himself, almost immediately after he wrote out Ford’s score.

– The manuscript carries an inscription by Abbiss in a completely different hand and ink from the music (cf numerous pages in contemporary notebooks in Abbiss’s hand from the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield). Unless he was a practised forger, it is very unlikely that he would master an imitation of hand so characteristic and difficult to achieve. Abbiss’s copy was not laboriously traced either: it is not an exact replica.




  • John Borstlap says:

    We know that Beethoven often wrote-out short passages, or even only a number of bars enough to cover a theme, for visitors or friends, who requested such momenti.

  • Wurtfangler says:

    As someone who has spent his professional life reading Beethoven’s hand, I think Bazza (to his students in Manchester) has every right to question the authenticity if he believes it is in doubt.

    Clearly Sotheby’s has a lot financially to lose through it being found to be less than it is purported to be, whereas Barry has his reputation. My money is squarely on him!

    • Brian B says:

      Sotheby’s also has its reputation on the line if it were to offer as original and authentically Beethoven’s a manuscript/autograph which was a copy or a forgery.
      Any individual declaring the piece to be fake without having examined and inspected the original would seem, ipso facto, to sully that person’s reputation.

      • Susan Cooper says:

        Seeing the original is only of value if, e.g., a forgery made through tracing, or a problem in authenticating the date and provenance of the paper, etc., needs investigation. In the case of this Beethoven Allegretto such issues cast no useful light on the central issue, i.e., whether the manuscript is in Beethoven’s hand. Prof Cooper, after more than 40 years of studying Beethoven manuscripts, was able to assert with 100% certainty on at least six grounds that the manuscript is not in Beethoven’s hand. Sotheby’s were informed of this before they chose to go public, but decided to ignore this expert advice and thus risk their reputation, knowing that the manuscript was not penned by Beethoven. Seeing the original paper copy is a red herring in this case. It is better for an expert like Prof Cooper to compare it in his office with the original from which it was copied and from the myriad other Beethoven resources at his disposal on home ground.

  • sl says:

    ‘Sotheby’s view is shared by the majority of world-renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally.’ I would like to know who these world-renowned scholars are. There is such an abundance of Beethoven manuscripts all over the world. It should be possible for any expert to identify the piece with certainty as genuine or fake.

    Besides, the very idea that Beethoven would have bothered to write two times the same piece for two different people in somewhat different handwriting, while even misreading details, is slightly absurd. I think he would have written rather something else for Mr Abbiss or given him any sheet he would no longer need, as it was his usual custom.

  • Jonathan Dunsby Cavett says:

    This is such a minor work by the composer (just listen to it !) it’s quite boorish of Sotherby’s to make such a fuss. It really is $$$ talking !

    • norman lebrecht says:

      It was Cooper, not Sotheby’s, who made the fuss…

      • Wurtfangler says:

        Wasn’t he entitled to if he thought Sotheby’s were advertising something for sale that was not what they said it was?

        And let’s not forget that Jonathan Del Mar (according to Barry) agrees. Until Sotheby’s says who its mysterious ‘world renowned experts’ are and we can judge their knowledge and experience, I will continue to think that Cooper and Del Mar, who between them have pretty much incomparable experience and knowledge, are more than likely accurate in their conclusions.

      • Ray Richardson says:

        Nonesense. Barry Cooper made a statement and not a fuss. Sotheby’s then made the fuss.

      • David Osborne says:

        Oh Norman it’s clearly Sothebys throwing the hissy-fit here. From what I can gather Professor Cooper is not claiming this to be a forgery, certainly not by the good Rector himself, just the work of a contemporary copyist. As Mr Borstlap points out, Beethoven was in the habit of scrawling a few bars as occasional gifts, but could he really have been bothered to do a second copy of a full work, just to give it away? Nah, just get a copyist to do it.

        • ElizaX says:

          Didn’t Norman recently make a short film for Sotheby’s on the Mahler 2 manuscript that was just sold……..? Not that this would affect his judgement, of course.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            What, exactly, are you suggesting? The film has been posted on this site. I took no fee from Sotheby’s.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        Mr. Cavett is surely referring to the fuss Sotheby’s made after the ms. did not sell. It is indeed all about money from their viewpoint, and their arguments are silly. I have no interest in the opinions of their unnamed experts — that is amateurish. It is also totally unnecessary to see the original to judge whether it is in Beethoven’s hand. And Dr. Cooper is as heavyweight a Beethoven scholar as they come. As for the libel nonsense below, auction houses long ago lost any reputation worth fighting for, something that seems to have been forgotten.

  • Dafydd says:

    “inscription by an English vicar”

    Sotheby’s statement would be more impressive if they had bothered to describe the Reverend John Abbiss correctly. He was a rector, not a vicar.

  • Susan Cooper says:

    It’s worth noting that the same manuscript was offered to Christie’s a couple of years ago. They very honourably refused it on the advice, given independently of one another, by Barry and by Michael Ladenburger of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn – another world-renowned Beethoven scholar. Dr Ladenburger also gave an academic paper in Vancouver recently demonstrating that this manuscript was not from Beethoven’s hand. No genuine Beethoven scholar who has seen this manuscript (no matter whether the original or a good reproduction – it’s the writing style, not the paper that’s crucial) takes it as Beethoven’s hand. From Sotheby’s we see only lies, misrepresentations, denigrations and unethical, unprofessional conduct. The public deserves to see them exposed for the frauds that they are.

    • herrera says:

      Libellous words, Ms. Cooper. Actionable if Sotheby’s so chooses. Also against slippedisc for publishing them.

      • David Osborne says:

        Not if she’s right.

      • Susan Cooper says:

        My words were carefully chosen and I could back up every one of them with sound evidence. I would be prepared to defend them in court if necessary. It would be wrong and unethical not to defend an outstanding academic where he is under attack and denigration for speaking the truth on a matter in which he is eminently qualified – and where there is an overriding public interest to expose fraudulent claims by a clearly unethical auction house.

        • Sue says:

          You may very well have to do that; and then you’ll have first hand knowledge of the real cost of freedom of speech. It’s called “putting your money where you mouth is”.

  • Itsjtime says:

    Libel?? You gotta be kidding me! I have read some pretty looney stuff on this site, but that takes the case. This is a thread of opinions in an open forum.
    *****all opinions about authentication are subjective****
    Sotheby’s can say Jesus wrote it and Mohamed hid it in his pants during the second siege of Mecca. It is the buyers choice to believe. All provenance is a reflection of the auction house’s expertise and reputation.
    There is no way to slander or libel an opinion….unless you say they are knowingly deceiving for the purpose of financial gain…but since nobody could ever possibly know for certain…it is moot.
    Btw: the auction house of ITSJTIME is selling an apple from the garden of eden and Jesus’ short pants. Bidding starts at .00 scheckles. Bid early, bid fast.

  • Ben says: