The art market may fluctuate, and many nameless wannabes may be ground down by its relentless machine but, to those on the outside, the art world still largely looks like a gilded palace where beautiful people blessed with god-given talents are rewarded for their efforts and live a life of boundless luxury, surrounded by fawning admirers. Which explains why TV is endlessly keen to use it as a vehicle for those kind of programmes that promise a portal to the wonders within. The fundamentals remain the same: come on our show and it might change your life.
The recent BBC Two series “Show Me the Monet”, a title so staggeringly bad that it can’t help but fascinate, invited artists of one degree of skill or another, to appear before a “hanging committee” (critics and journalists Charlotte Mullins and David Lee and art dealer Roy Bolton) who judged whether the work was fit to go in to a selling show held at London’s Royal College of Art. Alongside a defence of their abilities, the artists were required to put a reserve price on their works. Would-be buyers then made “blind” bids. If a bid came under the reserve then the artists had the choice as to whether to sell; otherwise the highest bidder wins.
That the processes by which art is judged fit for sale, albeit wrapped up in the much trotted-out device of big personalities being opinionated about “ordinary” people, was given an airing on daytime television is surprising and commendable and a welcome counterpoint to the populist splutterings about, say, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.
In Channel 4’s “Four Rooms”, potential sellers have the chance to offer an item to one of four art, design, antique and ephemera dealers (Emma Hawkins, Andrew Lamberty, Jeff Salmon and Gordon Watson), each one in a private room. The sellers can choose the order in which they visit the dealers, but if they turn down an offer in the hope of a better one in the next room, there’s no going back if they are subsequently disappointed.
In the first programme, floor restorer Gerard managed to sell on a slashed Frances Bacon he’d picked up for £4,000. He was offered £48,000 by Hawkins and took the deal without seeing any of the others. Only Lamberty hinted he might have offered more. In programme two, would-be gallerists Nick and Bradley brought a restored four-tonne section of wall, bearing a street art piece by Banksy, for which they wanted a six-figure sum. It’s no secret that the artist routinely refuses to authenticate wall pieces, and after Lamberty, concerned about authentication had knocked them back with a measly five-figure offer, self-styled maverick Salmon (“I’m totally unpredictable”) offered £240,000. As Nick and Bradley paid £30,000 for the wall and its restoration, this might have seemed like a no-brainer. But they turned him down, and only had low offers from the other two. The TV was turned off before any offers were made for a set of Christmas cards signed by Princess Diana.
Raising the bar a little, but still in thrall (“the art world: glamour, wealth, intrigue” goes the opening voiceover), BBC One’s “Fake or Fortune” has an introductory sequence showing journalist and presenter Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould striding purposefully down corridors and getting out of sports cars as if in the latest incarnation of CSI. The pair, previously seen together on the “Antiques Roadshow”, have adapted the idea of Mould’s book Sleuth (recently out in paperback from Harper Collins), tracking down provenances and investigating controversial works, adding a human story by focusing on the lives of those involved with the works under scrutiny. Nevertheless, despite the above, along with a sometimes overly scripted tone and a bit of cheesy flirting between Bruce and Mould, the programme has some weight.
The first programme took up the case of David Joel, who has been trying for 18 years to establish the authenticity of what he believes to be a Monet river scene, always coming up against the firm “non” of the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, guardians of the Monet catalogue raisonné. Despite research that traced the painting back to a Parisian dealer known to sell Monets during the artist’s lifetime, and the support of experts including the Courtauld Institute’s John House and Iris Schaefer of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, as well as many testimonials, including one from Christopher Lloyd, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, all of whom believe the work to be a genuine Monet, the Wildenstein wouldn’t budge. In a private meeting, Guy Wildenstein told House “that he couldn’t go against his father [Daniel]’s opinion”.
“This just shows how flawed many aspects of the art world are,” said Mould. “What we need is not this dynastic, art dealing institution…but a committee, like we have for Van Gogh, or Rembrandt. An academic group of individuals who have earned those positions.”
“For us, this is not a matter of history of ownership, but of connoisseurship,” came the formal reply from Guy Wildenstein. “If David Joel’s painting was not included in my father’s book, it is because he knew of no paintings in Monet’s oeuvre that were executed in the distinctive style of that riverscape.”
In programme two, Bruce and Mould followed up the story of a Winslow Homer painting, discovered near a rubbish tip in Ireland by Tony Varney while he was out fishing. It had languished in his daughter’s loft for nearly a decade before he took it to the “Antiques Roadshow” in 2008, where Mould valued it at around £30,000. A long investigation established it as genuine (it was named as Children under a Palm Tree, 1885), leading Varney’s daughter Selina, a smart and tough single mum, to Sotheby’s in New York where it had been revalued at upwards of £100,000. All very feel-good, until a descendant of the Henry Arthur Blake family, three of whom had posed for the picture when children, stepped in and blocked the sale at the last minute. Cue class war.
The family member, Simon Murray, who is also a lawyer, described an offer to settle with Selina as a “finder’s fee”, and said that she was probably “already in her mind spending it on swimming pools and cars”, a remark likely to see him score highly in a condescension competition. Bruce, in turn, was hard on Tom Christopherson, Sotheby’s European legal counsel, questioning whether the auction house could have spared the Varney family’s distress. Selina, who had endured visits from the Art Loss Register and even the police said: “It’s not the money that upsets me, it’s the morals and the way we’ve been dealt with.” According to the programme, the legal dispute continues.
o "Fake or Fortune" continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 7pm. "Four Rooms" continues on Tuesdays on Channel 4 in the UK at 8pm.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Blind bids, flogging Bacon and a fisherman’s find'