Q&A: BBC's art sleuth Philip Mould

As the next series of Fake or Fortune is about to start filming we caught up with the art detective himself to find out a little more

Is there an an unknown Rembrandt or Gainsborough sitting in your attic, covered in cobwebs just waiting to be discovered? The race is now on to discover unattributed treasures or counterfeits currently languishing in the dimly lit corridors of Britain. 

Following the success of the first series, ‘Fake or Fortune?’ is coming back to BBC1 setting crack art-sleuthing duo Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce on the trail of material to provide the perfect ‘Whodunnit’ art crime scene for next year.

Last year the BBC1 programme instigated the discovery of a painting by Winslow Homer, found near a rubbish tip, and later estimated at a quarter of a million dollars. 

The programme also investigated 17th century Dutch painting from the Courtauld collection that turned out to be a fake, a lost Monet, and a putative Rembrandt seized by the Nazis.

We had a chat with Mould to find out what all the fuss is about.

Fiona Bruce and Phillip Mould pose for their own painted portrait

Fiona Bruce and Phillip Mould pose for their own painted portrait

So Philip, you’ve got the next series of Fake or Fortune to film with Fiona Bruce – are you still looking for entrants?

Oh yes it’s very much still open but we have to get on with it over the next three weeks. Any painting that is exciting, high quality, that has a mystery about it – we want to see it.  

Hopefully with the benefit of state of the art science forensics, museum experts, and art-world endeavours we can answer a few questions.

This is the second series, where did the idea come from?

I have written a couple of books on art discovery, most recently one called Sleuth: The Amazing Quest for Lost Art Treasures and the idea for the show grew out of discussions with the producer of the Antiques Roadshow. We had a conversation, put our minds together and formulated this idea of bringing art discovery into the public sphere.

What excited you most about being part of the programme?

I love being able to tackle the complex world of attribution which can have huge ramifications. A genuine Rembrandt could be valued at £25m if it’s a copy, 250 quid! But to the large percentage of people fakes look exactly the same - if not even better than the real thing.

The question that arises is - what makes art so covetable and makes a collector chase it?

It’s like being the Jacque Cousteau of the art world - taking people to the unseen areas of a world that is fascinating in its complexity. It touches all aspects of the human condition and embraces history.

It takes in lives of artists who use paint and of course paintings that can have a dark side. The idea of forgery and taking on the mantle of someone else is deeply interesting.

Where has the painting been, has it come from the Nazi collection, a drawing room of kings or queens? Paintings have acted like currency, also a way to be adorned. Why do people like Hitler or Napoleon want them? Why does anyone who makes money have a tendency to buy paintings or be painted themselves?

Winslow Homer's 'Children Under a Palm Tree'

Discovered! Winslow Homer’s ‘Children Under a Palm Tree’

Why is correct identification such a big problem in the art world?

Expertise changes from one generation to the next so we will have a completely different view from those before us. Gradually things are getting better and we have more accurate conclusions.

Digital photography has radically changed things, we can make comparisons in a way we were never able to before. It has been completely transformative to the world of art history.

Fifty years ago, if you were trying to identify a work by Gainsborough you might have been reduced to looking at black and white pictures or sketches, now we can really get to grips with what we are looking at. Everybody has access to high resolution cameras.

What is the process of identification like?

It falls into three areas.

The first part is just the eye – there is a lot of Sherlock Holmes in it, it is about noticing things which have specific characteristics of the artists involved, as opposed to general characteristics of the era. Brush strokes can work like fingerprints.

The eye can appear to be airy and poetical and so forensics is a good way to back you up.   

You can look at the materials used, where the paints originated from, identify the canvas but also look for things invented after the artists lived. That’s often a big give away.

It’s all evidence that would impress juries!

The third is the history of the painting, who owned it? The idea is to dig down layer after layer, find out who passed it to who and hopefully bring it back to the artist. Place it on their easel.

What happens to the paintings that you investigate? Is there stock advice for an owner?

Our job is just basically to try and unveil the art, to solve the mystery but then it is up to them. People respond in different ways, some people love a fake – it adds another story! Some people decide to do nothing and then six months later temptations beckons and they sell.

Are there any artists that are regularly mistaken?

Constable, Gainsborough and Turner – these are all great English artists who seem to get misunderstood or misinterpreted.

You specialise in portraiture, what is it that draws you to it so much?

I adore portraiture! There is a real discipline involved! The artist has to satisfy the person who it is for, who they are painting and work within the boundaries of expectation - but also has to keep their artistic integrity and come up with ideas that excite them.  I like that wrestling match!

I also find a face more interesting than a bowl of oranges!

How do you find the London art market at the moment – is it suffering from the crunch?

I think there has been a flight towards high quality art at the moment. I’ve noticed comfortable and steady progress in selling high quality painting. Deceased artists that are proven in their durability and value provide stability in an uncertain world. There is a solidity about them that people go for.

How is London competing on the world stage?

London is really holding its own! London, unlike New York, has been doing this for 500 years and there is a richness here in the traditions and in the established collections of art. There is still a lot of art in Britain, and there is a lot of atmosphere when you look at art.

Personally New York is rather too commercially minded and unyielding but London lends itself on a more subjective way of looking at art.

Great thanks for your time! Best of luck with the show…

Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce are on the lookout now – the time is ripe to wipe away those cobwebs and reveal the lurking promise of a masterpiece in your attic. If you have a painting that you think Philip and Fiona should look at, please email philip@philipmould.com.

 

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