Thursday, 30 June 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

In the glitzy world of Hollywood, the oft-used phrase, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’, has become, in the words of Jane Austen, a truth universally acknowledged. Indeed, it is a slogan which has become the cornerstone upon which the career of many a vacuous starlet has been built.

But does the same apply to the more decorous world of art? To answer this question, we should look to respected London auction house, Sotheby’s, which has recently had some cause to ponder the relative merits of the statement, after becoming embroiled in an unholy row with dealer Philip Mould.

The trouble began last October, when Sotheby’s were commissioned to oversee an attic sale at Chatsworth House, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Devonshire.
Among the thousands of lots up for auction was a painting of an unknown woman by an anonymous 17th century Flemish artist. After consulting with a number of experts in the field, the painting, an 18in x 13in oil on canvas, was listed in the Sotheby’s catalogue as ‘from the circle of Rubens’, art-speak for ‘heavily influenced by Rubens’. Philip Mould, however, begged to differ. After snapping up the artwork for £10,000, Mould revealed that his firmly-held belief that it was in fact by the Flemish master, Anthony Van Dyck. Suddenly, the sedate world of art dealership became decidedly more animated ….

Mould, who has made quite a name for himself by spotting unattributed Van Dycks, has had the painting cleaned, and the varnish overlay removed. He is, he says, more than ever convinced that his new acquisition is a Van Dyck, a belief corroborated by at least one respected Van Dyck expert. With their hard-won reputation coming under fire, Sotheby’s were forced to take the unusual step of releasing a statement in defence of their attribution. The statement read:
"Six out of seven of the world's leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby's has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted)."

Before and after cleaning
Debate surrounding the attribution of artworks to particular artists has always been a notoriously contentious issue. With the development of new technologies to aid in the attribution process, the landscape is constantly changing, forcing experts to continually re-evaluate conventional thinking. However, despite the growing knowledge in the area, this particular ascription continues to be contested. Neither party has been able to back up their attribution definitively. It looks like this is one controversy that is set to rumble on for quite some time.

One thing is for sure, the publicity certainly hasn’t hurt Philip Mould or his gallery. His discovery is now valued at £85,000, and his exhibition, Finding Van Dyck, which showcases this and his other Van Dyck discoveries is proving very popular …

Finding Van Dyck is currently showing at Mould’s Dover Street gallery. Until July 13.

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