10: I Miss My Chance to Purchase a Work by Botticelli

During the period I was pursuing my research on Botticelli, Botticelli constantly filled my thoughts, and were I to hear a rumor that something Botticelli-related had transpired somewhere in the world or had been discovered, I would rush off, no matter the country, and would not be convinced unless I checked its veracity. And society, too, gradually came to recognize me as a specialist in the field, and I was kept informed of new information on various topics; in particular, after my Sandro Botticelli was published, it came to be that famous art dealers—the likes of [Joseph] Duveen of London and New York, for example—would send me photographs right away when a work related to Botticelli went up for sale and would seek my opinion of them. So it was that I naturally came to be aware of materials relating to Botticelli that were largely unknown to others, and so I would turn these little discoveries into short articles and publish them from time to time in specialized, high-quality magazines abroad devoted to research on the fine arts—New York’s Art in America or London’s The Burlington Magazine, for example. I was not without opportunity to encounter exceedingly fine, genuine smaller-sized pieces among these, although it was rare, and even if authentic works of importance like the aforementioned altarpiece of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite did not come easily. And so I came to think that, if one were to stick it out for years on end in Botticelli’s hometown of Florence and constantly devote one’s attention to and keep one’s eye out for Botticelli-related works as I was doing, then it was by no means impossible that one would in time come across a choice work of this sort to purchase and bring home to Japan. Such a possibility existed, however, because this was more than fifty years ago—in other words, before the history of Italian painting had been exhaustively researched and put in order.

 In the midst of one thing and another, one day at the Palazzo Corsini an original Annunciation by Botticelli, albeit an exceedingly small-scale and simple one, was discovered—in spite of the fact that the Corsini had been a prominent family since the Renaissance and were known for their large collection of fine art, and furthermore that any specialist ought to have known the contents of their collection due to the fact that their Palazzo on the Arno was open to the public as an art museum. From my perspective, the Palazzo Corsini was no more than a two- or three-minute walk along the Arno from my lodgings, and since at any rate this was where an authentic, heretofore unknown Botticelli had been discovered, I felt as if I had been struck dumb, so to speak. The discovery was made by the famous Professor Adolfo Venturi of the University of Rome, who was familiar with my research on Botticelli from before and who was always good to me; and so when he published a short article on this new Botticelli discovery in the research journal L’arte, of which he was in charge, the article was printed with the dedication “To Professor Yashiro”—thereby expressing his respect for me, who was his junior by far. Although I of course felt honored by this, at the same time—thinking, “He got me!”—I was unable to stop feelings of a kind of envy or ill will from arising in my heart. Even though it was such a minor work, at any rate if an unknown piece by such a master as Botticelli was mixed in among the paintings of a gallery open to the public that ought to be known to everyone, almost as if it were just lying on the side of the road, then so be it, I’ll dig up something of my own—so the fighting spirit flared up within me.

One day, I went to visit a certain art restoration shop in Florence. Because various old paintings were brought into the little shop, for a researcher like me it also served as a good place to learn. Looking around the atelier, I found placed there a small rectangular painting of the Annunciation, which was unfamiliar but at a glance looked like it could be taken as a Botticelli. There was no doubt that it was the central part of a predella for an altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary, which Botticelli had often painted, that had been separated from the rest as a single beautiful fragment. I felt a jolt of surprise, and I asked the restorer, with whom I had been on good terms for some time, “What is this?” To which he said, “It’s a Botticelli that no one knows about yet. I think it is quite fine; what do you think?” While exchanging small talk—“Botticelli…I agree with you there,” and so forth—he said something unexpected: “This is up for sale, you know. Do you have any interest in it? Although the owner is in a hurry to sell, so you would have to act fast.” Until that point, I had not even in the slightest toyed with the thought that, among other things, purchasing a Renaissance painting might in fact come within the realm of possibility. And yet a Botticelli of manageable scope this charming, and furthermore a beautiful rendition of the Annunciation, which was above all Botticelli’s forte—and on top of that, because there seemed to be a certain amount of damage to the surface of the painting, the price would likely not amount to much. I abruptly made up my mind that I definitely wanted it, given I were able to buy it. Although I, for my part, had become thoroughly excited, wanting, due to the fact that my enthusiasm for Botticelli was burning with such intensity, to among other things bring an authentic Botticelli back to Japan as a memento of this enthusiasm, nonetheless I feigned calmness and enquired, “What is it going for?” Converting roughly to Japanese currency, the price at the time was twenty thousand yen. Needless to say there was no way I had the money, but if it were at the level of twenty thousand yen then I thought that it would not be impossible to call on someone in Japan to buy it, and I made a request to the restorer, saying, “I certainly am interested; I will get back to you as soon as possible, so please wait a little.” He said, “Please act quickly! I’m not the owner, and the person in question has reason to be in a hurry to sell, so if a new buyer were to come along, I have no idea whether the owner would wait for you.” Although Italy does not have a system for designating National Treasures like that in Japan, they are exceedingly fussy about the export of works of art—the procedures for doing so are a hassle, and furthermore their inspections are strict; and so the fact was that, with regard to a work that was a new discovery and yet unknown to anyone, I wanted to sell it quickly to a rich tourist passing through Italy.

 I was at a loss as to whom I could have contribute the funds and so forth, and yet I wanted that beautiful little jewel-like Annunciation so badly I could not help myself; and so, since nothing would come of the situation as it was, I rushed back to my lodgings in haste and wrote a gushingly impassioned letter to the effect that: “Although small in scale, this outstanding authentic Botticelli can be purchased for a mere twenty thousand yen. By all means, please buy it for the sake of Japan.” Because I had no one else to whom I might address the letter, I sent it to Mr. Masaki [Naohiko], the principal of the [Tokyo] School of Art, who had sent me abroad to study in Italy. In those days, post via the Trans-Siberian Railway was the fastest, and it took at least two weeks one way. I was, needless to say, prepared to accept failure, and yet at the same time I placed my trust in the one-in-a-thousand chance and waited in restless anticipation. Before long a telegram from Mr. Masaki arrived: “HAVE BUYER FOR TWENTY THOUSAND YEN.” In haste I rushed over to the restoration shop and made the shopkeeper an offer for the purchase of the Botticelli painting, at which point I was told, “Although the owner waited a good while for a reply from you, the fact of the matter is that he couldn’t go on waiting forever like that, and since an American came by only four or five days ago who said he would buy it, we sold it. A real shame, but hey—he waited a long time for you, you know.” It was entirely too late, and there was just nothing to be done about it. And so afterward I included only a beautiful photograph of the painting in the illustrations for my book Sandro Botticelli (Plate XLVII in Volume 2 of the first edition) as a memento of my bitter disappointment.

 After I returned to Japan, when I met with Principal Masaki I enquired, “Who was going to buy that Botticelli?” I then learned that it was Nishiwaki Saisaburō, the tycoon from Ojiya in Echigo [Modern-day Niigata Prefecture] and a famous lover of the fine arts. From what I was told, at that time there was a meeting in Tokyo for the National Society of Fine Art or something similar, at which influential figures in the fine arts were assembled, and that Mr. Masaki, reporting that “Yashiro in Italy wrote to me on such a matter,” took the occasion there to announce my hope of purchasing a Botticelli painting. Thereupon, I am told, everyone agreed with the idea, and Mr. Nishiwaki, who was in attendance at the meeting, spoke up about contributing funds. Afterward, when I returned to Japan and met with Mr. Nishiwaki in Tokyo, Mr. Nishiwaki asked me, “We missed our chance with that Botticelli, didn’t we—where is it now?” And I answered, “A wealthy American living in the countryside outside of New York bought it and has it now—although I haven’t been there to see it yet.”

At the same time, this experience of failing to purchase this fine piece gave me, among other things, confidence that there might be someone among Japan’s wealthy to buy an appropriate item, were it to go up for sale, and faith in such were a possibility. And so, when I discovered the Botticelli altarpiece of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite at the used frame dealer’s in London through such a course of events as noted previously, I was able to hope with confidence to have someone in Japan buy it for me if the Lord Lee, who was in the process of buying it, did not go through with the purchase. Needless to say, although this was a major work that seemed bound to become a historically famous piece, at that time I was to be sure the only one who knew the true value of the painting, and furthermore the painting was in such an apparently dubious state that even the figures in charge at the National Gallery in London passed its photograph along to me without paying it any attention; at a glance it was an item that looked right at home crammed among the junk of the storeroom of that shabby used frame dealer near the vegetable market. And so I estimated that, as for the price, there was no doubt at all that it would be next to nothing. Because I still had no experience whatsoever in purchasing a find of this sort, however, I hesitated in buying it, and I grew full of myself and said too much about its great artistic value and its historical significance in the presence of the Lord Lee, who had been dragging his feet for a long time; and so I brought about the outcome that the feelings of the Lord Lee—who was a man of great wealth—gradually changed on the matter and the used frame dealer gradually grew more confident. Thus my hope, as a matter of fact, of purchasing this piece for the sake of Japan ended with the misfire of only telling this once to the used frame dealer, and, from my perspective, merely turned into the result that I simply helped the Lord Lee make a successful find. That used frame dealer seemed to have immediately caught on that the value of the painting had become a big deal with the appearance of this peculiar person from the East—namely me—and it appeared as though he might have been quite persistent in his negotiations with the Lord Lee on the matter.

Since the circumstances surrounding the discovery of this Pala delle Convertite by Botticelli had been quite an interesting experience for me, as well, I told the story to my British scholarly acquaintances in London with whom I was close; upon which they promptly asked me, “And did the Lord Lee do anything to thank you?” When I replied, “Needless to say it was nothing like that,” they said, “That’s odd—doesn’t he have good reason to thank you?” That impressed me, and I wondered if such ways of thinking or customs, too, really existed in the West; but later, as a result of gaining life experience of various kinds, I came to realize that even among scholars of the fine arts in the West there are many scholars who intervene considerably in the sales of paintings to make a profit, or who make an awful amount of money off of appraisal fees. Scholars who had no scruples about doing such things sure enough did seem to have poor reputations, however.