Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
JMW Turner the
expert, expert opinion Evelyn Joll for
Huntington/Huntington Museum, San Marino/Sotheby's
Getty/Getty Museum, "where quite a few rediscovered masterpieces end up"
"going to the stake" "they really get him" "These people are terror"
Martin Butlin and Graham Setters in Penticton
Art World’s Dirty Little Secret: r malcolm setters / graham setters
“My opinion is entirely non-technical, although there is some technical. My opinion is based on something much more intangible than a fingerprint or relining [of the painting] or whatever. The weight of my opinion, and in a way, to me, it’s very heavy...” Martin lost focus for a moment then continued, “but on the other hand, in a court of law, it might not have any weight at all...” Did something from the past come back to haunt him? As I tried to get Martin to give an alternate name for the creator of Shipwreck, the Rescue by stating, “You’re the expert on British paintings.” Martin concurred, “fair enough, fair enough – but…” His meditation persisted as if he were remembering a terrible ordeal. Perhaps the one his late friend Evelyn Joll had endured while testifying for the Huntington Museum in San Marino, CA?
With an uneven voice Martin uncomfortably compared this story to his own situation, “Put me up in front of a really good defense advocate… I mean, Evelyn Joll was grilled about a valuation that Agnew’s put on a Reynolds full-length portrait that was burned in a fire. He said that he was never prepared to go through that experience again – because he got such a grilling, and I’m not particularly—wouldn’t want …” The distraught Martin then howled: “These people are terror!”
Was this eruption an important clue to why Martin had rejected so many Turner discoveries over his many years in office? Was Martin frightened to support a picture’s authenticity for fear of being reproached at a future date—and was he possibly worried about being forced into the courtroom to defend his decision...
In 1987, Sotheby's paid out-of-court damages to the original owner of a Sebastiano del Piombo portrait knocked down for £180 at auction in Chester. It subsequently sold for £330,000 in London, and - after being cleaned - for a reported £6.5 million to the Getty (where quite a few rediscovered masterpieces end up). (Ian Warrell/Warrell, The Age, AU 2002)
Even as early as 1931 Walter Bayes found that the legal fears of one influential official over authenticating paintings drove him to incompetence. When Bayes asked: “Millionaires… must tremble at your nod,” the reply came: “If you knew my boy… how much it is the other way round. The interests concerned are so great, and money can do such strange things, that I find it generally safer to hold my tongue." (Walter Bayes, Turner, A Speculative Portrait, p5)
In this regard, a personal experience came in 1988 with a visit to the National Gallery, London. It was to do with a painting that came from the estate of Rudolph Hermani (of the Krupp and Mercedes' fame). Although the gallery official that I was directed to, Alistair Smith, had confidently given authorship of the little oil-on-panel to Lucas Cranach the Elder, I was refused written conformation. The lack of success at the National Gallery was the first time I experienced the art-world running scared. To quote from his letter written subsequent to my visit: "As a member of staff of the National Gallery, I am not allowed to authenticate paintings in private hands, and while I do not wish to be obstructive, I would be very grateful if you would remove my name from any printed materials which you are to issue."
Indubitably, this is a wide ranging problem: for many years John Walker had encouraged the vetting of art at the National Gallery in Washington, but as he wrote, “with strong opposition from our legal advisors, who feared we would be sued... I have always felt it wrong that so many American museums, worried either by the possibilities of lawsuits or out of ineptitude and laziness, refuse to help the public in what I consider an essential way.”
Alas, could Martin have
been aping the great Turner himself? Thornbury tells us that
“Turner would never verify a picture. He told a friend that he had done so
once, and the result was that he was put in the witness-box at a trial. ‘It
was the first,’ he said, ‘and it shall be the last.’”[i]
One can only assume that even back then 'those people were terror'.
* * *
Vancouver Sun Jan 23 1997
"A surprise came two days after the 1997 auction of Shipwreck, the Rescue when a criminal lawyer who had first hand knowledge of the painting phoned to give friendly advice. This was Mr. Dowding; he had been following the painting controversy in the press, and after noting the results of the auction, decided to phone and share his own tale of intrigue as it related to the painting. The owner of Shipwreck, the Rescue, back in 1982 fled the country with Interpol and the Mounties (RCMP) close on his heels. The risk of going to jail caused him to abandon his home, painting, and all he had accumulated since coming to Canada from Europe. After many years in the art business the venerable James Henry Duveen wrote that, “Dark dealings surround practically ever great art treasure in the world.”[i] Was this the first hint that we were dealing with a great art treasure? The voice on the phone was slow and succinct. He had been the defense lawyer for the man on the lam, the fellow who left the Mounties ‘without their man’ and my confidant without his fee; Mr. Franz Visnei was now in the Caribbean or some such place according to his former disgruntled lawyer.
For Mr. Dowding it was not a great way to leave a profession of many years: 1982 was the last year he practiced before retiring. It was curious that he still seemed so concerned about the painting after twenty years—clearly this unresolved case left him uneasy. He shared with me his certainty that he and his client would have been victorious in court, at least with regard to the painting. When Mr. Visnei jumped bail, Mr. Dowding was left high and dry with nothing to defend. Because of other reasons spawned during the undercover investigation, his client was expected to spend time behind bars anyway. After he hesitantly promised to try and ferret out the transcripts from the trial, he hung up. I did not hear from him again for almost two years...
James Henry Duveen , Secrets of an Art Dealer, (E.P. Dutton &
Co., Inc., New York, 1938), 44.
[i] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 152.