California Literary Review

Book Review: The Art Detective by Philip Mould

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June 8th, 2010 at 9:56 am

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The Art Detective by Philip Mould
The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures
by Philip Mould
Viking, 272 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Pigments and Pentimenti: What’s Behind It All?

Philip Mould speaks of himself as possessing “a fisherman’s optimism,” which drives him “through the day’s challenges.” He then combines this with a “connoisseurship — a skill in defining and recognizing strokes of the master on the basis of what is before you.”

To judge from this book, one clearly needs to add more to that characterization: a generous measure of gambler, for example, plus an Indiana-Jones-type adventurer, as well as a super sleuth. Only then have you begun to illuminate his tasks as the ‘art detective’ narrator of our tale.

Philip Mould might plead guilty to all the above, and, as if such were not sufficient potential for a fascinating work, he adds showmanship. As experienced host for Britain’s Antiques Roadshow, he knows how to pace a story, when and how to make his revelations.

After the briefest introduction delineating his artistic territory, he explains to readers how the art world has radically changed since the technological revolution. “The Internet is now an integral tool in the workings of my business,” Mould says, and while connoisseurs and dealers far and wide might always have had knowledge of a coming sale of a work of art from a catalogue received in the mail, these days there is much more interchange:

…it would not just have been the fact that there was a high-quality digital image for all to find with their search engines, but that with a few clicks of the mouse it could be instantly shared with others: curators, art historians, fellow dealers, prospective clients, all of whom could offer responses, no doubt some of them guarded, which would translate into the type of bidding fervor.

Mould had now become accustomed to another world.

The Art Detective instantly engages us with his own discoveries, un-coveries really, his successes and near-misses over these years. And for some 250 pages, he never flags. First off comes, “The Case of the Hidden Hoard,” which finds him a perplexed and somewhat fearful young man, a new London gallery owner, en route to a remote and unheard of Vermont destination,

For a start, I had no knowledge of the city where I was landing. I also had little notion of where I was off to next. The gentleman I was traveling to meet had told me that the flight would be followed by a two-hour journey into deep country. Of more concern, however was the gentleman himself. Apart from that brief meeting in my gallery three months earlier when he appeared unannounced with a suitcase of books and a worn brown envelope of photographs, I had no idea who he was; since then we had only corresponded and his last letter had contained my plane ticket. I was now off to spend a weekend with him in the wilderness.

Writing of the incident after 18 years, he recalls this as the last of his “art dealing forays that could be described as the pre-Internet era.” The collection of paintings he had embarked upon to look at had been amassed in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the photos he had been shown of it were of the most primitive quality, black-and-whites mostly, many of them blurry. There was hardly any way to assess their quality, or even estimate whether his effort to cross the world “on a hunch,” made any sense. The only possibility then available for judging their worth was to have a look at them in the flesh.

But as we meet him, we can tell that there was growing trepidation. In the process of pursuing the arduous realities of his decision to seek out these mysterious work of art, his plan had begun to pall.

In hindsight, we hear his reflection upon how he had simply gone crashing into the unknown! Now, in the cold light of current times, and given his subsequent experiences as gallery owner and art maven, he knows well how all might well have ended in disaster.

When he did reach that designated destination — after an exhausting plane trip and railroad journey, the increasingly weary, frozen traveler finally did find his host awaiting him, only to be escorted straight to the gentleman’s ancient Daimler automobile and transported yet another 2 1/2 hours over difficult, narrow roads.

Nor did the circumstance grow more encouraging at their arrival at a very modest white-painted clapboard house, greeted by a welcoming Mrs. Earle Newton. The lady turned to introduce him to her son, the heretofore totally silent young driver over those hazardous roads. The fellow, who had already stepped forward from the car to help him out, then promptly removed his chauffeur’s cap to come forward and shake Mould’s hand.

As it happened, that day was our American Thanksgiving, and despite the lateness of that arrival, dinner had been held back. Places could be seen in their dining room ready for the celebration. Their visitor, despite all his visible fatigue, must certainly agree to join them for it.

He had barely settled into his room when it was back for their feast. Not however, without glancing quickly about at the many pictures hung upon the walls along the way, an initial impression which did not erase his growing fear that he might well be on something of a wild goose chase. As he tells us:

Every art dealer I know has mastered the reflex of surfing the pictures on entering a room. There is nothing particularly predatory in this, just professional survivalism, and as I’d crossed the Atlantic to see a substantial art collection I was naturally expecting to encounter evidence from the outset.

There were further delays on the next day, first with a fuller tour about that house, where bric-a-brac was to be seen everywhere, as well as piles of old books, stacked, rotting and mildewed. Immediately following, came an early morning introduction to the frosty and isolated local scene. It was off to a tiny little house just across the road, where he was to meet the Newton’s sister, India, who also showed rooms of bookshelves, and boasted of her “invaluable finds” among the collection.

And, as they left her to continue along the road, they next must review some twenty or more deserted automobiles strewn about.

…long chassis period pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, including Chryslers and Lincolns like those reconditioned numbers still being driven around Cuba today. There was even a London black cab. Mostly with deflated tires, they looked like decaying carcasses, and nature was fast taking over; one even had a tree growing through it …

All the while his host held forth, explaining how he alone had salvaged them, and gloating about how much they should soon come to be valued.

Convinced by now that he was part of some preposterous hoax, he had little choice but to follow Newton towards his next destination on this freezing morning: an overgrown and virtually abandoned church. Here he announced that it was his “Museum of the Americas,” founded to tell the whole story of how our country “grew out of its relationship with Britain.”

Then his key to its door wouldn’t work and Mould was left standing in the cold while Newton rushed back to get help from his son, who managed to shove it open enough for them to squeeze through. Long minutes followed as Newton struggled with the light switches to reveal that silent and “cavernous interior.”

But as Mould accustomed himself to the dim light, he saw before him a flabbergasting spectacle: instead of real people sitting on its pews, each row was filled with canvases — square, rectangular, odd shapes, some framed, others not, and every one, in row after row, propped against the seats.

Miraculously, in the sudden flood of light, those faces illuminated that deserted chapel and instantly raised the spirits of our skeptical adventurer! What he saw that moment, he remembers even as he writes of it years later, calling it fresh in his mind as yesterday:

There was indeed a congregation not of people but of Seventeeth-and Eighteenth-century portraits, close to three hundred in total, not only on the chairs but covering or filling every available hanging, niche and corner….

Mould found among them works by Reynolds, Hogarth, Romney, Joseph Wright of Derby, Ley and Soest, along with scores of lesser artists. There were American painters like Gilbert Stuart and Robert Feke, mostly in various stages decay, with layers of mildew covering their surfaces and spreading over each of them to distort those noble, elegant and posed features.

Newton meanwhile explained to Mould about how he had collected these over the many years at auctions, even in old barnyards and farm sales. Or, he had seen them stacked up at local art dealers, who offered any five pieces chosen without frames for $100. And best of everything, when Mould commented about one painting that struck him especially, a lively, formidable piece, Newton was noticeably delighted. This one, he chuckled, was the very one he had paid more for than any of the others, his most in fact — all of $250. Only, he complained, because that the fellow selling it kept on insisting that it was a real Hogarth! Mould stood before that picture, now looking at it in pure astonishment, for that is, in fact, exactly what it was!

So you have that one example. And this adventure is only a beginning! However, it gives some notion of our Art Detective’s ventures, each different, unique, utterly unpredictable. Among these random experiences in his world of lost art, we see him tracking a lost Gainsborough out of Los Angeles, a Rembrandt through a Paris auction house (this one, a painting so much disguised it had been long ago been relegated to the lesser designation as a “Follower of ” that master). We watch him salvage a well-hidden portrait of young Queen Elizabeth I, a portrait already regularly rejected as inauthentic by a considerable number of art historians over the years.

Yet another of his discoveries turns out to be a lost watercolor by one of America’s greatest 19th century artists, Winslow Homer — a painting which had literally appeared out of nowhere one day in Southern Ireland, abandoned next to a dump heap! The work had been miraculously rescued by a local fisherman.

Stories behind such revelations present remarkable variety. They involve different artists, various eras, and alien circumstances. Most often, they are each situations particular to the artist’s life at the time. And certainly, they present for the art dealer involving himself in them, enormous gambles. Mould is kept hopping financially through his entire career!

Along the way in this book, there comes another bonus. The author manages to demonstrate for us some of the most skilled aspects of his trade. We are offered an insider’s view of how he goes about making his discoveries, unveiling each level before advancing to the next, all, in a complex process of detection. Next follows the intensive research into each artist’s life and experience during the time of execution for the particular work in question.

We are then witness to the methods of effecting these restorations. Mould introduces his associates and colleagues in the process. Men like Ernst van de Wetering, one of the art world’s most regarded experts of Rembrandt’s works, as well as an Amsterdam restorer, Martin Bijl, whose talents he has called upon for many of his ventures into such recoveries. We observe, along with them, the intricacies of each step Bijl must hazard in his restoration process, if he is to salvage the painting of the master:

Bijl pulled out his solvents and scalpels and got to work, revealing the shadowy remnants of Rembrandt’s original hand beneath its prosthetic imposter. The same was done to the hat, which had been fashionably ‘updated’ probably by the same artists around the same time, and it was duly returned to its less voguish original appearance.

As a result of this, Mould was here able to reintroduce to the public this work as Rembrandt himself had created it, even to his original hat! Thus, his efforts had recovered a long lost masterpiece — a work formerly known only as the Page Portrait and labeled, “By a follower of the artist.” Martin Bijl’s restoration had transformed what had formerly seemed to experts, “an almost unsaleable hybrid, with its unappealing fish eye” into a Rembrandt original. And moreover, not much later, Mould managed to sell that painting at auction for 7 million pounds!

The Art Detective succeeds admirably in bringing to life the work of all those who played a part in his special world. His book is an engaging and informative romp from start to finish.

  • Anne

    This book sounds fascinating. Thank you!

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