Robert Setters: The Art of Provenance
In 1997, I bought a painting at an Aldergrove auction for $7,500. Based on a vintage label and rumours of a good provenance, the auction catalogue had assigned only a tentative attribution to Britain's most famous historic painter, J.M.W. Turner. The painting was huge by most standards; nearly six by eight feet. When talking about important old paintings, little is as important as an unimpeachable history of ownership.
Although I was excited by this purchase, my previous experiences dampened my enthusiasm. Most novice collectors who have convinced themselves they have a "priceless masterpiece" send off pictures to Christie's or Sotheby's. I was in my mid-40s and was far too jaded I had been there and done that. Not until I learned that the art world is politically orchestrated, did I seek out procedures to circumvent the injustices that normally befall inexperience.
Experts, the ones who ultimately say "yea" or "nay" must naturally be fully convinced that their position is not going to be compromised by a misattribution. Somewhere down the road, there is the risk that a decision made today will come back to bite them; embroiling them in litigation or embarrassing them out of a job. For reasons of self-preservation, their first instinct is to condemn.
The fundamentals to support authenticity include tracking down the provenance, comparing style and materials used, scientific testing of those materials, and forensics. Yes, even forensics. There was a fingerprint of J.M.W. Turner on my painting of Shipwreck, the Rescue. By the end of the scientific investigator's effort, he had shone a bright light on all the facets needed to guarantee that the painting was indeed by the famous 19th-century artist. Nothing was neglected.
In this case, an easy part of the process (and likely the least expensive) was to follow the provenance. It was a bizarre journey indeed. Previously, Shipwreck, the Rescue had been owned by another local family. They were hoping to realize an elusive fortune by the standard Christie's/Sotheby's route. They had even contacted the accepted experts on Turner. No luck. The Tate Gallery in London gave a clipped and not very helpful reply: "Sadly, in our opinion it is very unlikely to be a genuine Turner."
Frustrated, the owners placed the picture in the Aldergrove auction without a reserve price. Even after their disappointment with the major auction firms they still believed it could bring tens of thousands. The press coverage leading up to the sale might have suggested this, and the media attention after the sale was extraordinary. Newspapers, television and radio were all involved, prodding me for something newsworthy.
Alas, the picture had been hammered down at a relatively paltry sum. The day after the auction, I received a phone call from a woman posing as a "friend of the RCMP member who was involved with an investigation of the painting twenty years ago." She boldly stated, "Be careful what you do with that painting, the previous owner went to jail." I sharply replied, "No one went to jail." The phone went dead.
Yes, the painting had been subjected to a groundless Interpol/RCMP challenge just after it arrived in Canada. Gordon H. Dowding, the now frail and aged defence lawyer involved with the case, had already phoned me before the attempted intimidation by the supposed lady friend of the lead investigator. Dowding shared that Franz Visnei, the German owner of Shipwreck, the Rescue was trapped at the time in an undercover sting operation.
The cloak and dagger mischief reached its zenith as the agent's provocative banter stimulated Visnei to expand the program. Not only had he fraudulently told the agent provocateur that he paid more for the painting that he truly had, but he also admitted to fraudulent activities dealing with the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Fleeing to parts unknown, Visnei sacrificed his Turner, a mansion outside Langley, a collection of valuable paintings and several large gemstones. During the court proceedings, proper papers of authenticity were presented. German art historian Doctor Rudloff had guaranteed the painting. These papers mysteriously disappeared from police custody during the trial.
Once Visnei was gone, the painting was considered as proceeds of crime and was sold at public auction without any history or attribution attached. Twenty years later I became the owner of the Turner painting. In due course, I traced a stencil number that was tattooed onto the stretcher (73OAS). The following is email correspondence from March 16, 2000, sent by Christie's archivist Jeremy Rex-Parkes:
Good Morning, Mr. Setters; It was 73OAS and the sale was 4th June 1904: "The Highly Important Collection of Pictures and Watercolour Drawings, the property of James Orrock, owing to ill health and is ordered away from London, Lot 140, JMW Turner, RA, The Shipwreck, 63 X 87 inches. Presented by the artist to his executor, Mr. Griffiths, from the collection of Sir J. C. Robinson."
This took the history directly back to J.M.W. Turner himself, three times over. First, James Orrock Esq. (18291913) was a renowned collector of Turner's work, and Thomas Griffith was Turner's highly respected agent, while Sir John Charles Robinson R.E. (18241913) held the venerable post of Surveyor of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Pictures. He was the first superintendent (18521869) of the collections at the South Kensington Museum [Victoria and Albert Museum].
By this point though, there was too much dirty water. The wayward disaster at sea had been shopped around beyond reason. Too many quasi officials had by now put their foot in their mouths. There were reputations at stake and potential litigation in the air. What else were these experts to do but distance themselves from the picture and blindly guard each other's backs! This is why so much other testing and research needed doing. It took me and my son, Graham, several years of research and writing. Our effort resulted in a book. Art World's Dirty Little Secret has proven a hit with those in the trade and professionals in the art field. It covers much formative investigative technique; techniques that are now becoming standard for authenticating valuable pictures.
Believe it, the art world is a fragile place. Masterpieces that sell for 100 million dollars are the ones that can shake it to its foundations.
Robert Setters is a Penticton writer and art and antiques
collector, and the former owner of an antiques sales and valuation business.