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Art Theft

More on art dealer Philip Mould and fake upgrades.

(Edited and updated, 10 May 2020)

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In December 2009 Sotheby’s London auctioned a painting said to be the “last self-portrait” of the Flemish Baroque artist Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641). On a guide of £2–£3 million, the painting was bid up to £8.3 million, and snapped up by London art dealer Philp Mould, co-purchased with the Alfred Bader Art Gallery, Milwaukee. Yet this same painting, long owned by the Earls of Jersey, was widely considered a copy by all experts previous to this century, that is until the Queen’s scholar Oliver Millar used the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue (Yale University Press) to upgrade the piece. Millar cited the painting as “the best surviving version” (maybe the original).

Fake: false, copy, imitation, mock-up, dummy, phony, punked, dodgy,
forged, fudged, fugazi, faux or in art world parlance “not right”

But is it Van Dyck?

However, newly emerged technical evidence confirms this supposed “original Van Dyck Self Portrait”, now in the London National Portrait Gallery having been sold to the nation for £10 million in 2014, is in fact a problematic artwork that was entirely repainted in modern times. Notwithstanding it is evidently not even “Van Dyck”, being that it is quite ghastly, it must be considered fake. Diagnostics, some even now hidden in the NPG away from public view, demonstrate the work has underlying severe damage, with antique paintwork that at some point has bubbled and melted.

What is certain is by the time Philip Mould re-sold the work to the London NPG in 2014, he certainly had in his possession the technical evidence the piece is “not right”. This perverse situation, where Mould had paid a fortune for a work that turned out to be a fake, wasn’t going to be easily resolved by asking Sotheby’s for his money back. Mould, by then a public figure, had positioned himself as a “Van Dyck expert” from early in the 2000s, and it would have been death to his burgeoning self-appointed career to admit he was that stupid.

Back in 2009 when Mould acquired the work he said it was an opportunity not to be missed. “This is the most important 17th-Century British portrait to come onto the market in the last two decades,” he enthused at the time. This doesn’t explain why he then tried to flip it for a smallish profit (relatively), almost immediately offering it to the London National Portrait Gallery just a year later for £9.5 million.

Alfred Bader, his partner in the painting, was a widely hailed billionaire philanthropist who didn’t need this small-change profit and could have donated the work as he had many others. Presumably Mould already had his commission from Bader for buying the piece. The painting just seemed to hang around for the five years Mould was trying to sell it, positioned opposite an assistant’s desk.

615D9C43 7891 4D3B 91D6 55CD2C684EC1Philip Mould and Bendor Grosvenor at the Dover Street Gallery, the “Van Dyck” in the background

Indeed, the painting had a tortured trajectory after Mould and partner Bader bought it in 2009. After the failed attempt of 2010 to sell it to the National Portrait Gallery, around 2013 they were desperately trying to get a London businessman to take it of them (nevertheless for a hefty profit of around £4 million). There seemed no motive for Mould and Bader buying the piece (over the odds) in the first place, and the tout around London to dump it was surely becoming embarrassing.

New evidence shows the London NPG “Van Dyck selfie” is most definitely a fudge.

I never liked the painting. It seemed faux, but there were no Van Dyck experts either criticizing it or lauding in 2014, around when I first became aware of it. It had suddenly become the darling of the British nation in a drive to stop the London businessman obtaining it and shipping it abroad. “Duchess Kate to help save pricey portrait for Britain,” headlines beamed around the world. The objection to the export seemed to hinge not only on the painting’s suddenly touted brilliance, but on the fact it was seemingly then destined for the walls of a crass Los Angeles mansion.

One loan voice carping in the wilderness was an art critic who wrote for the Evening Standard, a wily seasoned old gentleman and Old Master specialist Brian Sewell. Sewell said he modified his own impression of the work given a chance to see it in real life, that is, when it was put on public display by the inexplicably enthusiastic National Portrait Gallery touting a national fund-raising drive. Sewell said: “I sense a dissonance between the face and the costume, as if two quite opposing aesthetics are at work?” What he meant was that far more than one person has painted this portrait – it is as he said a heavily overpainted “fudge”.

56A7083B E4B0 47EB 950B 2F6A60A873B9The Screenshot of the Infrared and X-ray released by the NPG in a video in 2015

Dissonance is polite.

The depicted costume in this supposed Van Dyck Self Portrait is a travesty, and far away from what is known of Van Dyck’s handling. Oliver Millar had tried to explain away the low-level of the brushwork by saying the painting might not have been finished. He was being ironic surely – the brushwork is all load and stab amateur. But there were no technical diagnostics available, or none that were in the public domain, to fall back on in 2014. Even so, Sewell demanded these should be executed before the British people were asked to fork over £10 million to Philip Mould.

Notably, and without benefit of either an Infrared or an X-ray, Sewell managed to sense the trouble lurking beneath the painting’s surface. However, Mould’s blogging assistant Bendor Grosvenor simply shot Sewell down, ridiculing Sewell for even demanding such technical analyses in the first place. This was indeed strange given in the same blog (February 2014) he went on to admit Mould already had both – Infrared and X-ray.

Bizarrely, in 2014 Grosvenor accused Sewell of “forays at the edges of art history’s realm”. Sewell was an alumnus of the London Courtauld Institute of Art and an ex-employee of Christie’s auction house, while the carping Grosvenor calls himself an “art historian”, he is in fact a political scientist. Infrared and X-ray (unavailable publicly at the time the NPG purchased the piece) together with other diagnostics still hidden away, will become the painting’s downfall.

The diagnostics

Significantly, the NPG did have access to Mould’s technical analyses, before it authorized the painting be bought for a princely sum in May 2014 (using funds raised via public generosity). It is not clear if Sewell saw these diagnostics, as he passed away in September 2015. Yet the Infrared and X-ray were only made publicly available on a YouTube video, released 26 January 2015, long after the painting had been acquired.

Notably, the NPG has never posted an Ultraviolet image, nor has it made publicly available a pigment analysis ordered 10 April 2015. There is a reason for this. The UV reveals the extent of the repainting, and the pigment analysis uncovered the use (at least) of modern Phthalocyanine blue. We had to make a Freedom of Information request even to have access to this material, which shows the overpainting is pervasive, swathes covering the whole piece.

Even more damning the extensive use of this blue pigment, one not known before the twentieth century, is evident in an isolating varnish, suspiciously smooth with an airbrushed effect, which covers over even older retouchings underneath. Yet, these unknown scientific diagnostics confirm the painting is a restored copy. Almost nothing is left on the surface that can even be considered antique, never mind “Van Dyck”.

The cited “pentiments”, bits seen in the X-ray and/or Infrared that don’t match the surface image are not “artistic indecisions” but the revelation of a different artwork hiding underneath. The painting now hanging in the NPG as a “Van Dyck” is likely not even older than the eighteenth century. Indeed, the NPG kept repeatedly telling us there was Prussian Blue on the painting, a statement they later withdrew.

2BFEA62A 8098 4BDF B489 16B6DE247A7BThe real Van Dyck on display in Antwerp, and the fudged copy in the National Portrait Gallery

On the other hand, a work which recently re-emerged at a museum in Antwerp is clearly the original of this composition, and demonstrates what a “real” Van Dyck should look like. The NPG portrait is so bad how did anyone think it was a Van Dyck in the first place, never mind a fantastic one? The collar, for example, in the NPG version looks like a tatty, used, dentist’s paper bib. Where were the supposed Van Dyck experts Susan Barnes, Malcolm Rogers, Christopher Brown, or even David Jaffe, when the British public were being asked to raise £10 million for Mould’s ghastly painting?

By Dr. Susan Grundy 

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