The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures. By Philip Mould. Viking. $26.95.
You would expect a book about enormously valuable works of art – and some attempts to fake them – to be all about greed. But that is only incidentally the focus of Philip Mould’s The Art Detective. For Mould, a British gallery owner and regular on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, it is the excitement of the chase that matters just as much (or nearly as much) as what is being chased. You find this out only when Mould gets into a confessional mood near the end of his book: “If I am honest, what first got me interested in art (and I had first done it with silver teaspoons and shoe buckles as a child) was the thrill of seizing on things others might have missed or undervalued. As a result I got to love the paintings I later moved on to. I and my colleagues may occupy a world of the ultimate luxury goods, of cosmopolitan refinement and intellectual acumen, but beneath the varnished surface the competitive animal lurks.”
The scientific mind lurks there, too. “Dendrochronology, which dates wood by its tree rings and so provides the probable felling date of the tree from which a painted panel was cut, is now a very precise science, whereas it used to require a lengthy trip out of town for a verdict that later proved to be inaccurate, in many cases because of flaws in the data on which the calculations were made. …We now have at our fingertips investigative science that can transform arguments and rule out or bolster speculative claims.”
And let us not forget the analytical mind – an opinionated one: “I become frustrated to the point of irate when [sic] visiting museum exhibitions where no attempt has been made to explain or interpret the core condition of a picture. …The sensory appreciation of art is governed largely by what remains rather than what the artist first intended, and guidance on how a work might have changed or suffered is as illuminating as focusing on a work that is in a transcendentally good state. …There are countless thousands of works of art that, had they not been corrupted, would offer a very different picture of our civilization’s visual history.”
Mould is clearly a man of style, a man of knowledge and a crusader of sorts. What sort becomes clear only as he reveals something of his techniques, his successes and failures, in six stories about paintings and their provenance – whether they turned out to be unrecognizable masterpieces (a badly disfigured Rembrandt self-portrait) or frauds (a fake Norman Rockwell). He is also admirably self-effacing, as in his story of a painting he bought for less than $200 on eBay after spotting it “amid a gruesome-looking pack of offerings.” The head was of much higher quality than the body, and when Mould received the painting, he decided to “play God” and “live dangerously” by trying on his own to remove some of the overpainting that he was sure was there. Mould gets away with this risky endeavor, and the painting turns out to be an early Gainsborough – but he will not repeat his restoration attempt because, ”treating me like a drunk, for the past two years my staff have hidden the acetone bottles.”
It is the combination of arcane knowledge and self-deprecatory humor that ultimately makes The Art Detective such a fascinating book, whether or not you have a strong interest in the intricacies of tracking down damaged museum-quality works or uncovering artistic misrepresentation. A book that could all too easily be a piece of esoterica is instead a frequently delightful journey through the back rooms of galleries and museums. “Apart from anything else, the purpose of this book is to try to communicate why I and others take the risks we do.” It certainly does that: the adrenaline rush associated with unexpected discovery is palpable. At the same time, Mould makes an honest effort to show the lay reader some of what professionals see when evaluating art. For example, several of the book’s color illustrations show the Rockwell painting, Breaking Home Ties, along with the copy (painted by Don Trachte) that had hung in a museum as a genuine Rockwell. Mould carefully points to elements of the original and copy that distinguish them – and an attentive reader can certainly see the differences. What is so interesting here is the story of all the experts who did not see them or who found ways to explain why the fake must be a real Rockwell, even if perhaps a study for the final painting, or maybe damaged, or…well, there were plenty of possibilities, all relating to “the type of art-world blindness that goes to the heart of many great discovery stories.” Yet the Rockwell tale is only one highly intriguing element of The Art Detective. The uncovering of the Rembrandt self-portrait – an amazing story also shown in the book’s well-chosen illustrations – is at least equally unlikely and equally delightful to follow. In fact, the entire book is filled with delights that one need not be an art connoisseur to appreciate. Mould manages to do something quite special here: he takes an arcane world of big money, world travel and minutiae and turns it into the basis of a series of great stories that, with only a little tweaking and a murder or two, would fit quite well into an Agatha Christie novel. Yet there is no need here for the appurtenances of fiction: Mould is a detective – a specialized one – in the real world, and by opening the door to what he does and how he does it, he simultaneously demystifies great art and, by showing the characteristics that make it great, renders it even more fascinating.
“Next time you go to an exhibition, spend some time looking at the people looking at the art,” Mould suggests. “One of the most telling features of visitors to a gallery is that they will study the labels before they look at the pictures. …[T]he information on the label often dictates how the work of art is perceived, enjoyed and esteemed.” The Art Detective is the story of how those labels come to be – of their value and their occasional inaccuracy. After reading this book, you will not likely take the labels entirely at face value again – and may decide, for a change, to look first at the art works themselves.