A British merchant ship called the Westmorland, en route from the Italian port of Leghorn to England, was on 7 January 1779 engaged off the coast of Spain by two warships from France, which had just entered the American War of Independence. We do not know exactly what happened – probably terrifying bursts of cannon fire were exchanged, for the Westmorland was armed – but the British ship was captured and taken to Málaga.
The Westmorland’s cargo consisted largely of Italian foodstuffs: olive oil, anchovies and Parmesan. But there were also 54 crates of paintings, engravings, antique objects, marble sculptures, furniture and books. It was a precious cargo being sent back home by a number of aristocratic British gentlemen on the 18th-century equivalent of an elite gap year, the Grand Tour.
According to the director of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Christopher Brown, they “had been to all the grand buildings and churches and brothels in Europe – and had then gone shopping in Rome”.
In Málaga, the anchovies, oil and Parmesan were sold off. The French captain sent one of the paintings – Anton Raphael Mengs’ Liberation of Andromeda by Perseus – to the naval minister in Paris, who sold it on to Catherine the Great. (Mengs was the most famous artist of his day – equivalent to Damien Hirst, according to the Ashmolean’s senior assistant keeper Catherine Whistler.) But the remaining 54 crates – containing about 743 objects – languished in a warehouse for four years, until the Spanish king acquired the lot.
And so the story might have ended: just another ship’s cargo gone, the acute regret of its owners lost in time. However in the 1990s the then director of Spain’s Archaeological Museum, José M Luzón Nogué, began to research some puzzling marble candelabra in the collection, purportedly antique, but to the tutored eye palpably later fabrications from ancient fragments. Where had they come from? When were they made? And for whom?