The 2014 London summer auction season witnessed two spectacular failures for the concept of art super sleuthing, promoted widely by Philip Mould with the support of the BBC and two leading auction houses, who recanted previous attributions of these same two works as copies.
Provenance research and art historical writing in the marketing of Old Master paintings continues to lack a solid, re-useable, theoretical framework or to show even a suggestion of academic rigor. It’s still all bells and whistles that, for this season at least, the punters didn’t buy into.
The Internet destabilizes a business model
In his book Sleuth: the amazing quest for lost art treasures (2009) art detective Philip Mould introduces his theories about art sleuthing (that is, the rediscovering of neglected masterpieces) by admitting a major oversight on his own part. At the time (2007) when the somewhat appropriately named Rembrandt Laughing (image above) set a small Cirencester auction room on fire, Mould was nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that he’d wandered around the venue only a few days before the auction. By his own admission he totally missed this so-called “sleeper,” which was even used as the cover for the sale catalogue, coyly attributed to a follower of Rembrandt with a very low estimate of £1,000.
This small work on copper finally went for £2,600,000 on the hammer and eventually sold to the Getty in Los Angeles (after some haggling for an export license) for a reported $25,000,000 in 2013. Actually all the way as Mould was crying, the dealer who did bag the painting at that auction was the one really laughing.
Mould excuses himself by claiming that the painting probably wasn’t in the room when he was looking around, and that generally he eschewed the opportunity to look at catalogues (although one must presume there must have been some lying around).
He also points to the fact that in 2007 he was caught out unawares by the encroachment of the Internet on what was previously a much more elite and closed business.
He states (2009: 4): “Ten years ago I wrote Sleepers: in search of lost Old Masters, which comprised stories about myself and others who had made significant discoveries at auction and elsewhere. I would need to reread it to be sure, but I don’t think I even mentioned the word internet (sic), and I certainly did not refer to it as an integral tool in the workings of my business.”
With two Mouldian “uncovered sleepers” on offer at the 2014 London Old Masters auction season, the author, dealer and art detective put his reputation on the line, and it would seem he has again been hoisted on his own petard, as both paintings failed to raise any interest.
It might have been a consequence of the Internet that kept buyers away from these two newly rediscovered offerings, just as in 2007 when the punters were able to descend like flies around a jam-pot called there on the Internet tom-tom, in a way that Mould had never witnessed before. Unlike the days before technology, today armchair surfers can catch out low-level catalogue offerings with the click of a mouse and the right search phrases. Until recently auction house sales catalogues were only available directly to a select clientele, or to those who actually went to the auction rooms, and most people had to buy them or wait for them to enter the public library system. Now they are available to everybody, free, to download from the auction house websites.
Mould himself knows all of this, but ignored it at his peril (or didn’t make sure that the auction house cataloguers didn’t ignore this). He has written the creed but failed to join the movement.
“For a discovery to be established it has to work on paper as well as paint” (Mould 2009: 5).
Neither of these paintings worked well “on paper,” certainly not in the way they were presented.
A “Van Dyck” Man in a ruff & a “Gainsborough” Cottage door go under the hammer
The first painting to go up on auction was at Christie’s King Street, being the much-touted BBC Van Dyck man in a ruff, or the so-called Priest’s painting. It failed to attract any interest at a guide price of £300,000–£500,000, and was sent back down to the unsold lots. A day later, on July 9, Philip Mould’s business model got a second outing, this time at Sotheby’s. In this instance a cool £1,500,000–£2,000,000 was being sought for a “Gainsborough,” very recently still considered a low-level copy. This painting also went unsold.
In both instances Philip Mould was not the direct owner, but his reputation was at stake. He was the front-line expert in the “Van Dyck” canvas, being the BBC’s representative and presenter on the Antique’s Road Show, and his company, Historical Portraits Ltd, was the previous owner of the “Gainsborough”. Mould had bought this canvas on a New Orleans auction as little ago as 2011, for $11,000. He had subsequently sold it on to its present owner for an undisclosed sum, a billionaire if rumors are correct, who would have thought the new price small change.
Nevertheless, no one wants to feel they’ve been profited off, and the fact that it was up for auction so soon meant the new owner wanted to get, at the very least, his money back. The owner of the “Van Dyck” is a Derbyshire priest, who reportedly only wanted to restore his church bells, but who undoubtedly must be left feeling very let down having had his head stuffed full of the notion of making such a vast profit.
Both paintings, and this is an overlooked and crucial part of this whole debacle, were previously auctioned by the very same auction houses as copies. Slipped into the provenance, as if it is common practice, Christie’s record in their catalogue entry that the priest’s painting was sold anonymously on 21 April 1988 as “Follower of Sir Anthony van Dyck,” for £1,000, by Christie’s. Is 1988 all that long ago that it is of no consequence? The “Gainsborough”, also recorded in the sale catalogue provenance, was sold 4 June 1987 as “After Gainsborough” (sum undisclosed), by Sotheby’s New York. Are Sotheby’s London saying Sotheby’s New York don’t know what they are doing, or that it is too long ago to matter? Of course in legal terms it doesn’t matter.
The owners who sold the canvases back then, and the buyers that bought them and sold them again, have no come back on the auction houses. The cooling off period is a mere five years, generally speaking. However, in art historical terms it’s creating a nightmare scenario, especially when the auction houses punt their catalogues as documents of historical importance.
“Christie's beautifully illustrated, in-depth and scholarly catalogues provide comprehensive and meticulously researched information, indispensable to both new and established collectors. Christie's prides itself on producing the most academic and visually stimulating catalogues in the auction business, and we invite you to explore these publications.”
Would that be “ meticulously researched” only now and not then (in 1988)? Why did Christie’s downgrade the priest’s painting 26 years ago? Why are they recanting that downgrading now? The claim that there was an unfinished work (to be discovered and uncovered) under the finished work (that no one supposedly knew about until Mould) is like saying there is ice in ice-cream, literally or figuratively.
The only artwork I know of that springs fully formed, as a finished work, is a photograph. This same priest’s portrait was attributed to Van Dyck by the German art historian, curator and Netherlandish-expert Gustav Glück (1871–1952), who “recorded his appreciation of its charm of handling and expression and dated it about 1628–30” (Borenius 1941: 200).
Remember this is a comment of the finished painting, as it was when Father Macleod first bought it, in other words, long before Mould’s appointed restorer took the top layers off. Tancred Borenius (1885–1948), Finnish art historian and professor of the University College of London, expanded on this description by drawing attention to the “richness of modulation in the treatment of the masses of light and shade” (Borenius 1941: 200).
First up Lot 18: Man in a millstone ruff
Christie’s catalogue entry is titled “Property of Father Jamie Macleod,” and contains information that contradicts Mould’s own suppositions previously broadcast, that the painting’s whereabouts the last four hundred years were cloaked in mystery, which is not true. The provenance, which is traced from the early nineteenth century, is rendered somewhat obsolete by Christie’s sale of the painting as a copy in 1988 (after all we are supposed to believe that its true authenticity was masked by putative overpainting).
In other words, the whole thrust of the BBC Antique’s Road Show and Mouldian argument is that no one had ever understood this painting’s importance until Fiona Bruce called Mr Mould over to look at the painting during filming in Cirencester in 2013. “It’s about as off-piste as you can get,” he’s recorded as saying, when Bruce asks him if he thinks this portrait could be “a Van Dyck.”
The rest of the expanded lot text is a presentation at the level of undergraduate, and contains the usual blah-blah-blah and non-sequiturs, lacks in a solid framework, and is undirected and fairly meaningless. Despite Mould’s reinforcement for the importance of scientific analysis in any new attribution (Mould 2009: 5–6), nothing is offered in the notes to Lot 18.
There are two important sources given in the literature (Tancred Borenius cited above and Smith, 1831), but no reference to either in the text. Smith is cited as A Catalogue Raisonné, etc. Etc? The cataloguer hasn’t bothered to tell the reader that it’s volume three (of nine volumes) so happy hunting.
Some of the phrasing could certainly do with revision, for example: “these sketches would have been rapidly taken from life.” An image forms in my mind of the artist running around rapidly grabbing the life out of every sketch he comes across. Confusion arises also from careless structure. A paragraph is a new thought, but it nevertheless refers to the paragraph before, and the paragraph after.
The cataloguer seems to think it’s a form of bullet point. In the second but last paragraph, the writer means to refer to the “picture here on auction,” but as the choice of word follows straight on from a previous paragraph about the large painting bombarded by the French in Brussels in 1695, your first thought is you’re still reading about that painting. In other words, despite the painting of the Brussels magistrates (c.1635) being bombed by the French it “was in the collection of the banker Jeremiah Harman (c.1764–1844)”.
This is followed by a whole paragraph about this Jeremiah Harman, like we should care. Unless of course the cataloguer is trying to show us what a celebrated collector he was, and that he had this great Van Dyck portrait all along (the man in a ruff). But isn’t this the same painting Christie’s sold as a downgraded copy in 1988? Then on we go, and confusion continues to reign supreme, as just after talking about the collection of the great Jeremiah Harman, and the sale of his Italian pictures to the Earl of Carlisle (more blah-blah-blah), we get (albeit in a new paragraph) the “proceeds of this sale will go towards new Church bells for Whaley Hall … to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War.
”That cant be right either, as the writer has just been telling us that Jeremiah Harman was an eighteenth century gentleman?
Oh, you mean the proceeds of this very sale of Lot 18. Now I get you, but honestly I’m exhausted.
It is true that this portrait (what’s left of it) does seem to relate to the figure on the far right (to the viewer) of the putative modello for the lost Van Dyck painting of Brussels magistrates, but even that so-called preparatory sketch has a very short provenance, only first heard of when it surfaced at auction in Paris in 1868, exactly the same year a similar portrait to this auction lot (and now in the Oxford Ashmolean) first went on exhibition in Leeds (Barnes et al, 374 and 388).
The cataloguer refers to the number of travellers who witnessed this lost Brussels painting, but fails to note that not a single one describes a painting that matches exactly the putative modello. This may or may not be an issue, but all these “rapid sketches” turned up only in the nineteenth century, with no provenance or earlier references. We have no written documentation of Van Dyck making such sketches.
These studies, before they were turned into sketches by the removal of all that nasty “overpaint”(1), could also have been individual portrait copies (by an unknown hand) made from the Brussels painting before it was destroyed, or they could have been concocted later from following the modello.
If Christie’s truly want to stand by their claim to academic excellence, they should have included a motive for the downgrading in 1987/88, but none is proffered. And I for one am not even slightly convinced that Father Jamie Macleod should get more than the £400 he paid for this portrait in the first place, especially now that it isn’t even the one cited in the literature, at which point it might have had some hope.
Second up Lot 63: Cottage door
The other Mouldian offering this summer is the depiction of a woman and children at a cottage door said to be by Gainsborough. What do Sotheby’s (London) offer up that 26 years ago Sotheby’s New York couldn’t have known? The answer to that are paragraphs of waffle and supposition, and a grand total of nothing. What is important to the argument here is, what should we expect of the lot notes, especially in consideration that Sotheby’s is asking the punter to pay more than two hundred times the amount Mould paid for the painting in 2011? If you précis these notes, prepared by Hugh Belsey, to what is relevant to the actual painting, it whittles down to one or two short paragraphs, and really doesn’t answer the question as to why it is now considered as an original, whereas previously it was not.
Starting with the provenance, there appear to have been two paintings of landscapes with cottage and figures unaccounted for, which were auctioned from the artist’s posthumous estate sale. This really means nothing, so we write “could be” (which we note Sotheby’s hasn’t). A Victorian businessman supposedly acquires one of these two “missing” works (now the one on offer here), but we are not given the trail as to how. Indeed, if you read carefully and consider that this businessman was only born a year after the Gainsborough sale, then I have absolutely no idea how this was possible?
"Gainsborough was so fond of the composition that a second version (the present lot), was painted for his own collection. It remained in his possession until his death and was only sold by his executors in 1789 as part of the great sale of Gainsborough’s collection and studio contents at Schomberg House when it was acquired by the great collector, politician and businessman Wynne Ellis (1790–1875)."
How does an intelligent educated man, Mr Hugh Belsey, make such a ludicrous claim? It would have been at least thirty years before Ellis could acquire this painting, if this is the painting directly from Gainsborough’s collection. Did no one proof read these notes? (And you want me to spend how much on this painting?)
Touting a new business model: connoisseurship
In a recent very public spat with the Tate Britain’s curator Martin Myrone, Mould’s partner/assistant Bendor Grovesnor calls for calm and a “new” connoisseurship, as a solution to the problem of the chaos of art attributions in the past. However, as this article has shown, it is not only sniffing out misattributed pictures that is important, it is the scholarly endeavor that accompanies basic aesthetic judgment that is so commonly undervalued. The examples above show a singular lack of attention to anything critical, or to the process of auditing even in the exercise of editing and proofreading for basic facts. It is not the Internet that caught out Belsey’s blooper, but it is the ready availability of the catalogue on the Internet that gives more eyes to the problems of attribution and connoisseurship.
As Mould himself says, this is now “the culture we occupy – a market which has a thousand eyes on anything and everything of possible significance that raises its head over the commercial parapet” (2009: 5). He is, of course, referring to the appearance of possible sleepers that he and a select few in the previously more elite pre-Internet world of Old Master traders would have been the only witnesses to before a lot came up and the hammer went down. However, what hasn’t quite sunk in yet, is the number of eyes also monitoring everything that is being said, both verbally and in writing, in support of (or even against) these so-called discoveries.
Nothing Bendor Grosvenor says in defense of “new” connoisseurship is untrue (Art Newspaper, Issue 258, June 2014), and the close observation of the visual image in a discipline about visual images should really go without saying. However, shedding skins to morph from sleuth to “new” connoisseur seems to me a personal survival tactic rather than something the discipline of art history really needs. What is needed is discipline; and the fear of consequences.
A SECOND PORTRAIT HAD ALSO TURNED UP, PRIOR TO BBC FILMING.
IT TOO WAS STRIPPED OF “OVERPAINTING” AND RE-SOLD BY FERGUS HALL ART GALLERY, LONDON, ALSO AS A RAPID SKETCH TO THE BRUSSELS MAGISTRATES.
CHRISTIE’S DO NOT REFER DIRECTLY TO THIS WORK IN THE LOT NOTES. GLÜCK (1931: 286) THOUGHT THE COMPLETED FERGUS HALL PAINTING VAN DYCK, AND PUBLISHED IT AS SUCH.
YET UNTIL IT WAS “CLEANED AND RESTORED” SUSAN BARNES, CHRISTOPHER BROWN AND MALCOLM ROGERS APPARENTLY COULDN’T (SEE THAT IT WAS VAN DYCK). HORST VEY (BARNES ET AL 2004: 416) PUBLISHED IT AS A COPY.
MUCH OF THE RECENT AESTHETIC JUDGEMENT OF THESE PAINTINGS AS VAN DYCK SKETCHES RELIES HEAVILY ON THE NOTION THAT ONLY VAN DYCK WAS EVER ABLE TO PAINT AD VIVUM, OR THAT IT IS ONLY MODERN RESTORERS WHO CAN REMOVE OVERPAINTING (IN OTHER WORDS THAT ALL PRESERVED PAINTINGS DON’T HAVE A LONG HISTORY OF PREVIOUS RESTORATION CAMPAIGNS).
IN THE FERGUS HALL ART GALLERY EXAMPLE HORST VEY (BARNES ET AL 2004: 416) FOUND THE “HANDLING OF THE FACE … RATHER FREE; THE TECHNIQUE ALMOST SUGGESTS THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.” THIS OBSERVATION FLIES IN THE FACE OF THE NOTION THAT THE SO-CALLED OVERPAINTING WAS VISIBLY PEDESTRIAN, THEREFORE NOT VAN DYCK, THEREFORE HAD TO BE REMOVED.
Barnes, SJ, de Poorter, N, Millar, O and Vey, H. 2004. Van Dyck, a complete catalogue of the paintings. New Haven and London: Paul Mellon and Yale University Press.
Belsey, H. 2014. “Lot 63: Thomas Gainsborough, The Cottage Door,” in Sale Catalogue: Old Masters and British paintings, evening sale (L14033). Wednesday 9 July. London: Sotheby’s.
Borenius, T. 1941. “Addenda to the work of Van Dyck.” The Burlington Magazine 79 (465): December 198–203.
Christie’s, 2014. Sale Catalogue: Old Masters and British paintings, evening sale, Lot 18 (Sale number Francesco-1537). Tuesday 8 July. London: Christie’s.
Glück, G. 1931. Van Dyck: des Meisters Gemälde in 571 abbildungen. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags.
Mould, P. 2009. Sleuth: the amazing quest for lost art treasures. London: HarperCollins.
Smith, J. 1831. A catalogue raisonné of the most eminent Dutch and Flemish painters. (Containing the lives and works of Anthony Van Dyck and David Teniers, vol 3). London: Smith & Son.
Sotheby’s, 2014. Sale Catalogue: Old Masters and British paintings, evening sale, Lot 63 (Sale number L14033). Wednesday 9 July. London: Sotheby’s.