Tuesday, September 19, 2017

BBC's Fake or Fortune exposes ancient art world rivalry

Bassin d'Argenteuil ...by Renoir?
In 2011, the BBC ran one of the first episodes of its excellent Fake or Fortune programmes, in which London art dealer Philip Mould, his co-detective Bendor Grosvenor, and BBC presenter Fiona Bruce investigate paintings of uncertain authorship. They’re a good team, with Bruce bringing a certain journalistic grit and Grosvenor acting as a sort art-world Lewis to Philip Mould’s Inspector Morse.

The 2011 episode — which explored a painting, Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil, purportedly by Impressionist master Claude Monet — reached an unhappy conclusion. Despite a seemingly water-tight provenance, exhaustive forensic evidence and almost universal connoisseurial endorsement, the mighty Wildenstein Institute in Paris (which publishes the Monet catalogue raisonné) rejected it. Thus, a painting that might have been worth millions, was rendered virtually worthless, for if the Wildensteins reject a picture, it cannot be sold as a Monet. I expressed my frustration with this outcome in a number of blog posts here.

In the new series, the BBC’s redoubtable trio have tried again, this time to authenticate a work long believed to be by Renoir (above left). The painting, coincidentally another river scene at Argenteuil, dated 1875, has for generations hung on the walls of Picton Castle, a stately home in Wales; indeed it has been in the Picton collection since it was purchased by a member of the family, supposedly from Monet’s studio (Monet and Renoir were lifelong friends and often painted together).

Once again, however, despite the more than compelling portfolio assembled by the BBC team in support of the painting, the Wildenstein Institute has rejected it. They were, it seems, influenced by the absence of documented provenance, the lack of a signature (that never helps), and what they considered the poor quality of the painting. 

These reasons looked decidedly weak, however, when weighed against the evidence so diligently compiled by Bruce, Mould and Grosvenor. Indeed so convincing was it that it prompted the normally circumspect Philip Mould into expressing his “absolute satisfaction that this picture is by Renoir.” He is experienced enough to know, however, that in the art market one has to "play by the rules," however unpalatable they occasionally seem to be.

The headquarters of Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
It soon emerged that the lack of documentary evidence and signature may not have been the real reason for the Wildensteins' rejection of the picture. The five-volume catalogue raisonné of Renoir’s work was compiled by another noble family of Parisian art dealers, Messrs Bernheim-Jeune, located in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré (right), just around the corner from the Wildenstein Institute. The Picton Castle Renoir may have been included in the Bernheim-Jeune catalogue, but even their authoritative imprimatur can be outgunned by the Wildenstein Institute, it seems, chiefly because the Wildensteins have the support of the two big auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. 

The Wildensteins' real reason for rejecting the painting thus appears to have stemmed from little more than professional rivalry with Bernheim-Jeune. But are they perhaps also getting a little fatigued by the BBC's attempts to undermine their fabled expertise? These ancien régime connoisseurs don't like to have their opinions challenged.

When told that their competitors had overruled their endorsement, the Bernheim-Jeune directors seemed unsurprised, telling Fiona Bruce that their rivals would be “thrilled” to turn the painting down. More importantly, perhaps, Bernheim-Jeune also suggested that by publicising the problems with the painting, the BBC were effectively damaging the picture’s prospects. They may have a point. 

This is the second time that Fake or Fortune has investigated a painting of uncertain authenticity, only to broadcast its unsaleable status to ill effect (a ‘Chagall’ rejected by the Chagall Foundation even had to be destroyed). In this, as in previous cases, the programme has cast a raking light not only on a picture of doubtful authorship, but on an excessively powerful art market institution long shrouded in mystery and confidentiality. 

For the owners of these paintings the consequences of the Wildensteins’ patrician pronouncements are profound. Had the owners kept quiet and waited until the Wildenstein Institute’s vice-like grip on the market weakened, which in time it most certainly will, they might have stood to benefit from what is otherwise a convincing case for authenticity. 

Fake or Fortune is certainly helping to illuminate the darker recesses of the art trade. But at what cost? If I had a picture I was unsure about I think I'd keep my powder dry.

Fiona Bruce hit the art world nail on the head when, emerging from a conversation with Bernheim-Jeune’s directors, she concluded, “There is a real bitterness there and the rivalry between these two great houses — the Wildenstein Institute and Bernheim-Jeune — is now out in the open. And, I have to say, it’s ugly.” 

Bienvenue au marché d’art.