The gold and the dross

We live in a world where a very large number of people are busy with the debunking of great works and great men. The revisionist historian and critic almost invariably revises downwardm , whether it be piercing what is deemed the legend of a famous character or proving some classic piece of painting or sculpture to be a fake. A few years ago I wrote a biography, and I know the temptation to ''revise.'' It was a study of New York's Mayor La Guardia (1933- 1945), generally assumed to have been the city's greatest mayor and a major political force in his day.

It would have been relatively easy, and almost certainly remunerative, to do a book downgrading and even ridiculing the man. He could indeed be (as I hope in honesty I made clear) a trivial and even an absurd figure on occasion. His reforms were more showy than substantial and few had lasting effects. He stayed in office too long, lacked the courage to raise the subway fare above five cents , and left the city in a parlous financial conditon. I yield these hints to any aspiring revisionist who wants to write a best-selling book. For myself I confess I had to see and judge La Guardia much as he was seen by the wisest men of his own time, a flawed character, but a serious and important one.

The discovery of fakes among artistic works is somewhat different, for it seems to be a question of getting at the truth of the matter and not merely exploiting a perverse or jaundiced disposition. A distinguished connoisseur and collector at Harvard, Philip Hofer, once told me how he had come to reattribute a work whose authenticity was considered secure. Having some doubts himself, he placed the small drawing where his eye could fall on it daily - until one day he perceived it to be indubitably the work of some lesser hand than that to which it had been assigned. Mr. Hofer is a sanguine man who would be the last wanting to be known as a debunker. But in this case his long training, his keen observation based on memory and knowledge, revealed in a sudden flash what later tests proved to be a verifiable fact.

Whatever the need for such negative reappraisals, it is a happy man who can go about seeing gold where others have seen only dross. Such a one was David Carritt, the English art critic, whose recent passing was recorded by John Russell in a delightful essay in the New York Timesm . It was Carritt's gift, and his rare good fortune, to detect authentic masterpieces in the most unlikely places. The museums of our country and of his own, he enriched with great works newly discovered, while unsuspecting owners of what they had taken to be second-rate or worthless paintings were rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. As his accomplishments increased, so did a benign and almost legendary repute. Impoverished nobility and owners of declining estates were said to dream of the day when the butler would come in and say, ''A Mr. Carritt to see you, my lord.''

At the age of twenty-five, John Russell tells us, this extraordinary man discovered in the remote home of a retired naval captain, a Caravaggio which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. Later he found in the stable of an Irish country house paintings by Tiepolo today hanging in Washington's National Gallery. A cottage on the River Thames at Bray, a clubhouse for golfers on the outskirts of London, the dining room of the Egyptian embassy, were other places where he practiced his divining arts. Often his travels brought him where other art historians had not penetrated, but on at least one famous occasion, while a hundred competitors looked on undiscerningly, he carried off a prize of immense worth.

The secret of such a gift Carritt compared to that of the botanist, a field in which he also excelled. Both called for an unerring eye, unfathomable patience, and a mind crammed with minute factual knowledge. Yet one suspects that in his moments of revelation as a critic, he also was guided by an instinct for hope and by an optimistic faith. If, botanizing, he looked closely at the earth, he must also have looked at the sky toward which all things grow.

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