Sunday 16 September 2012

The Strange Fate of a Very Bad Picture

This evening on BBC1 a new series of Fake Or Fortune? begins. This has its irritating features - especially for those of us who belong to the tiny proportion of viewers who are not fans of Fiona Bruce (who presents this as well as the great Antiques Roadshow) - but it's always watchable. It follows the fate of works of art that have been written off as fakes but might just be 'sleepers', i.e. the real thing. The story that's told in this evening's show was presented as a news item on Friday's Ten O'Clock News (presenter Fiona Bruce) - and on the BBC News website - giving away the outcome and thereby robbing the programme of all tension.
  Me, I watched this edition of Fake Or Fortune? some days ago, not knowing the outcome, and it left me with my jaw hanging some way down my chest. It seemed a painfully vivid example of the terminal insanity of the art market. A very bad picture - ugly composition, clumsy execution - had somehow spent many happy years as a 'Degas'; then someone had taken a closer look and declared that nothing that bad could really be a Degas and it had been officially declassified. The value of the very bad picture thereby plummeted to almost nothing.
  Enter Fake Or Fortune?, its team of experts and its TV budget, to investigate further, with the clear aim of getting the very bad picture reclassified as a 'Degas'. Not a chance, thought I, once we'd been show just how bad the picture was - but I was reckoning without the combined power of Provenance and Forensics. The experts seemed to establish rock-solid provenance, then proved there was nothing 'wrong' with the forensics. Their findings were presented to the keepers of the Degas catalogue - and, amazingly, they changed their minds. Provenance and forensics have trumped connoisseurship - the evidence of the eye - and the very bad picture is once again worth hundreds of thousands.
  But it's still a very bad picture - if it's a Degas, it's barely even a sketch and he surely wouldn't have signed it (the signature also looked dodgy to the connoisseurs, but what do they know?). As I say, I was totally aghast at this outcome - but I suppose that's what the art market is like these days. A mad world. You can see the programme at 6.30 this evening - judge for yourself.

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