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Fake or Fortune?

‘Selling at 95 million dollars’.  The auctioneer’s hammer falls and a painting is sold.

It is a clip from the opening sequence of Fake or Fortune? a four part series on BBC 1 which investigates the mysteries behind  paintings.  The investigation is led by Fiona Bruce (the newsreader and journalist) and Philip Mould (the art expert, borrowed from the Antiques Road Show).  They have been styled by one critic ‘the Emma Peel and John Steed of the art world’.

Bruce sets the scene:  ‘The art world  –  glamour, wealth, intrigue. Beneath the surface there’s a darker place  –  a world of high stakes and gambles’.

We are certainly in territory where unbelievably large sums, ten of millions of pounds, are paid for art works.  Inevitably the art market provides a magnet for fraud, theft and corruption.  The Art of the Heist series on Sky Arts demonstrated the risks thieves are prepared to take.

In 2000 two Renoirs and a Rembrandt worth 80 million dollars were stolen in an armed daylight raid on the national Museum in Stockholm.  And in 1990 up to 500 million dollars of art was ripped from the walls of the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston in a single night.  The haul included works by Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Big names mean big money, and much of the present series focuses on authenticity  –  on establishing that the painting in question is actually by the artist whose name is on the canvas.

Forgery, and also misattribution, has been a constant thorn in the side of scholars and art dealers.  For centuries it has been an essential feature of art training for the student to analyse, copy and imitate the style of acknowledged masters.  Some become particularly proficient in the skill and become outstanding copyists without necessarily demonstrating a corresponding level of originality in their own work. A few channel their abilities to meet the demands of the illegal art market. 

 At its best such forgery is difficult to detect.To establish authenticity art experts have traditionally relied upon a mixture of connoirseurship, gut-feeling and provenance.  But in recent years advances in forensic science have provided far superior techniques for analysing materials and researching beyond the surface image.  The detailed examination of a fake Vermeer, created by the master Dutch forger Van Meegeren, illustrate this development perfectly.

The introduction of such scientific analysis has influenced the choice of targets for copying.  The forger of the twenty-first century tends to copy contemporary or modern works  –  they are less likely to attract close scrutiny and the materials are more easily matched.

The scale of forgery activity is staggering.  According to the Head of the Arts and Antiquities Squad at Scotland Yard, some law enforcement agencies suggest that between 40-50% of the art market could be fake  –  though no evidence was offered to explain how this estimate was reached.

Fake or Fortune? is an interesting and informative series.  My disappointment is that it concentrates almost exclusively on the symptoms of the chaos and pays little attention to the causes.  For example, I would like to ask:

  • Why is anyone prepared to pay so much money for a work of art?  Is it genuine love of art?  Greed?  Investment?
  • Why is the artist’s name so important?  If the experts have difficulty in determining authenticity there is presumably little discernible difference in quality.  Why should the name have such a dramatic affect on the valuation?
  • Who are the forgers?  Should skills of high quality be more publicly respected and recognised?  Vermeer was master painter:  Van Meegeren was a master forger.  Would such recognition attract these ‘artists’ away from illegal activities?

See also What’s in a name?  What is it about Neighbours? Show me the Monet!


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What is it about ‘Neighbours’?

I have been an avid follower of Neighbours since the days of Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue).  I have seen the parachuting into stardom of Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Alan Dale, Kimberley Davies, Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrem, Holly Valance et al.

I have been present at countless weddings, seen innumerable characters trapped in disused or burning buildings, have searched with parents and neighbours for lost children, and have even witnessed the resurrection/reincarnation of Harold Bishop who had been washed out to sea.

Of course, there have been, and still are, aspects that annoy me.  For example, plot lines and dramatic scenarios are repeated;  the quality of acting is uneven (although, overall, it is better than many critics would have us believe); officers in authority (such as the police and representatives of the social services) are constantly surly and aggressive;  the doctor and the lawyer are seldom at their jobs and mostly eat at the local cafe; the school seems to have only two teachers, one of whom (the principal) walks around with his shirt outside his trousers, is addressed by the pupils as Michael, and also eats at the local cafe.

Occasionally characters undergo a personality change  –  probably due to the large number of plot writers used and the difficulty of maintaining continuity in a story that has been unfolding five nights a week for twenty five years.

This list of irritations provides sufficient reason for me never to watch another episode.  And yet, like Philip Pullman, I watch no other soap but return unfailingly for my daily fix.

Why do I do it?
Is it because I enjoy the exuberance of the youthful cast?
Is it because I feel I know the characters and have a genuine interest in what happens to them?
Is it because I welcome the challenge of solving the various dilemmas  –  what would I do?

I’m not sure what the answer is.  Help please!

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‘Show Me the Monet’

This series of ten TV programmes comprises a pleasing balance of enjoyment, education and entertainment.  In each programme artists (amateur and professional, young and not so young) who have yet to establish themselves, strive to get their work accepted for a prestigious exhibition at the Royal College of Art.  Those attending the exhibition will include buyers, collectors, gallery owners and agents.

To achieve their goal artists have to satisfy a ‘hanging committee’ comprised of three respected and experienced art critics, including David Lee (the supposed Simon Cowell of the group!).  Each entry is assessed against three criteria:  originality; technique; emotional impact.

Several factors contribute to the appeal of the series:

  • The diverse range of backgrounds from which the artists are drawn is surprising.  For example, we have seen a retired female wrestler, a shop assistant, a retired lawyer, a council maintenance worker, students of all ages and levels of experience, professional artists etc.  The value they have placed on their work has varied from £8 to a hopeful £100000.  Artistic talent is being revealed in most unlikely characters and circumstances.
  • The contribution of the judges is wholly positive.  Their criticism is consistently constructive and is related to the artwork, not the artist.  The artist as a person is respected, does not feel under attack or threatened and is able to appreciate the advice offered.
  • The judges think aloud, so the contestants know the basis for the comments made.  This is an extremely valuable teaching strategy.
  • The artists are not competing with each other but with a standard of entry required for the exhibition, thus there is an absence of aggro.
  • Almost without exception the artists express gratitude for the constructive appreciation of their work by people whose judgement they value.

The producers of most other talent shows could learn a great deal from this excellent series.

See also Self! Self! Self! ‘Show Me the Monet’: A Sequel, Fake or Fortune? and What’s in a Name?

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