Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Midas touch

You have to hand it to Dorset fine art auctioneer Guy Schwinge. Over the past ten years he has developed an uncanny knack of coaxing the most amazing works of art from the English provinces. Now he's done it again, unearthing this extraordinary Achaemenid gold cup of Janus type (left), which is to be sold at his Duke's of Dorchester saleroom on June 5th.

Given their recent track record, it's hardly surprising that Duke's generate the sort of national and international publicity that other provincial auction houses can only dream of. Of course, Sotheby's and Christie's turn up masterpieces all the time, but they have multi-million dollar marketing machines behind them and their auction rooms are in London, the nerve centre of the international art trade. Duke's manage it on the relatively constrained budget of an independent country auctioneer while operating out of an unprepossessing but spacious hut in Dorchester town centre.

Back in March 2000, Duke's turned up a tiny gold-ground panel of Christ in Majesty (right) by the 14th century Florentine painter Nardo di Cione (active 1343 — ca.1365). Found in a local country house, it was sold for £66,000 to London Old Master paintings dealer Simon Dickinson, who sold it on for an undisclosed sum to Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Some five years previously, the museum had acquired the altarpiece to which the panel belonged — Madonna and Child with Saints Zenobius, John the Baptist, Reparata, and John the Evangelist — and with which it was eventually reunited.

Then in April last year the Dorchester firm sold two important surviving panels (left) from an altarpiece by the Renaissance master Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) for £1.7 million (YouTube video of the sale here). The two Dominican saints — believed to be the last previously missing side panels of a High Altarpiece commissioned by Cosimo de Medici for the church of San Marco in Florence in 1443 — had been found hanging behind a bedroom door in a West Country home.

I find this kind of news very reassuring because it suggests that a trove of incredible objects remains hidden in the British countryside, safe from the cold dead hand of the dismal TV antiques programmes that over the past twenty years have proliferated like woodworm in a cabriole leg, ripping the heart out of the traditional art and antiques trade and turning every Tom, Dick and Harry into an aspiring dealer.

Every time I see one of those odious, gurning game-show presenters with their chocolate tans I remember the proper definition of an expert — "x is the unknown factor and a spurt is a drip under pressure."

A few weeks ago I took my two young sons on a trip to the Kent coast to roam the pebbly beaches that the late Derek Jarman made his home, brave the bitter Channel winds, climb the Dungeness lighthouse, and generally soak up the atmosphere of an engagingly bleak and still largely neglected stretch of Britain's coastline. En route we stopped at Rye and, chiefly to shelter from the pouring rain, ventured into a few of the many antiques markets that cluster in the town centre.

Twenty years ago this would have been a pleasurable activity for you'd have stood at least a remote chance of finding something old, curious, perhaps beautiful, perhaps truly ancient, maybe even of unrecognised value. Not any more. The place was packed to the rafters with kitsch — Watneys Red Barrel ice pails, reproduction flintlock pistols, modern crockery. Not an antique in sight.

But now here's Duke's of Dorchester to the rescue, introducing us to one William Sparks (of W. Sparks & Sons Iron and Metal Merchants) a rag and bone man of Taunton, Somerset (right) who, during the 1930s or early 1940s, somehow acquired the extraordinary piece of ancient Persian gold illustrated above.

The Achaemenid Empire (550-330BC) was one of the largest empires of the ancient world, spanning territories that stretched across three continents, taking in modern-day Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, north to the Black Sea and down into north Africa, Egypt and west to today's Libya.

How the cup found its way to sleepy Somerset and into the hands of Taunton's authentic answer to Steptoe and Son is a provenance mystery worth pondering.