Masterpiece or Fake?

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The word windfall has been much in the news lately here in the UK, mostly in relation to so-called windfall taxes on predatory energy suppliers who ramp up their charges as another winter approaches. But windfalls come in a variety of guises, and not all of them are Heaven sent…

Image: Flatford Mill.

Flatford Mill by John Constable. This faded fake hangs on my bedroom wall…

A story on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow this week featured a Vicar who bought an old oil painting and was persuaded by the Roadshow experts to have it “restored”. It was later declared to be a genuine Van Dyke and valued at more than £300,000, which the vicar said would pay for a new peal of bells for his chapel.

Resisting an obvious joke about God working in mysterious ways, and leaving aside my ignorance in matters both religious and artistic, I do wonder if I can be the only person to query whether the restoration actually ruined the painting rather than restored it. As a lay person having seen the before and after pictures it’s my guess the vicar would be less reluctant to part with the masterpiece after the so-called restoration. But Whatever (as a stroppy teenager in my part of the world might say), at least the story served to set me thinking…

Up the workers, brother!

I watched another TV programme some while ago in which various experts examined works of art and antiques, duly proclaiming them real or fake. One of the items they examined was a watercolour by an exalted and now dead artist, who was therefore conveniently unavailable to comment on the experts’ opinion. The collector whose property it was told an emotional sob story of hard times, exploiting his wife and children to justify his hopes that the piece might prove to be genuine, for it would then be worth more than a hundred times what he paid for it, and the windfall would save his family from the horrors of penury.

The collector, his wife and children, all seemed perfectly nice people, but I wonder if he gave a thought to the person from whom he bought the piece. Did he tell the seller he suspected it had great worth? There was no suggestion that if the piece did turn out to be worth a mint then he would offer the previous owner a fair proportion of the windfall.

This story reminded me of the time I worked in the fine arts industry. I was a mere minion, you understand, toiling in a workshop that served the practical needs of the trade. We made picture frames, mounted and prepared oil paintings, acrylics and watercolours for exhibition all over the country, everything from ready-made 6×4’s to huge contemporary prints for company boardrooms, and original works framed in heavily embossed, gold leafed mouldings, the sort of thing you see on old masters in the museum. The work did not require much skill, but it did need care and attention to detail.

We were a happy bunch in the workshop, which was manned by myself and two ladies. Upstairs, the boss fretted over his overdraft and tore about frantically from meeting to meeting finding work to keep the rest of us busy, and scheming the downfall of competitors while his long-suffering wife manned the public sales counter out front. Two boisterous lads, whose daily battles playfully firing brass staples at each other across the workshop from powerful pneumatic guns, moved on to greater things once the boss discovered I could make all the frames he needed. If he had only paid me in proportion I might still be working there and making an honest bob for him and me both. Up the workers, brother!

Grafters and grifters…

But back to the issue in question: one of the characters our boss did business with was the proprietor of a gallery one or two towns away who used to enter the premises through our workshop trailing wreaths of dense blue smoke from the smouldering rough shag in his pipe, leaving the workshop staff coughing and cursing loudly in protest. He never took the hint, exiting again the same way an hour later without apology or apparent awareness. The workshop staff muttered expletives and wafted the doors to clear the pollution.

Another was a character whose specialisation was touring the country knocking on doors, offering to buy whatever bric-a-brac the unsuspecting householder wished to be rid of. Spying some valuable masterpiece he would adopt his poker face and offer pence for it. Once acquired, he cleaned and fettled his booty and sent it on to marketplaces where it (and we presume his) true worth would doubtless be better recognised.

This gentleman – I use the word pejoratively – would breeze through the workshop bragging about his latest killing, an antique oil painting or hundred-year-old long case clock of exceptionally fine workmanship. It was his huge delight to boast that he had used his expert knowledge to fleece some little old lady who had no idea of the true value of the pieces she had inherited from aunt Mabel. To her, so he claimed, they were merely clogging up the hallway and collecting dust in her cute little thatched cottage buried deep in the Wolds or paddling in the levels of Somerset. This – forgive my lapse – this cheating b*st*!d thought himself so clever, so sophisticated to have made his killing, offering buttons for pieces he knew would be worth a mint in the auction houses of London.

I got into hot water with my boss when I challenged this character on his morals. I suggested it was one thing to make a decent profit in return for the exercise of skill or knowledge, and quite another to knowingly fleece little old ladies of their life’s savings or inheritance. He was shocked at my temerity in challenging him. His sole justification was that he knew, and they didn’t, and that gave him not only the advantage but the right to exploit them. It never crossed his mind that he was cheating anybody.

Good riddance!

I wonder if anything I said to Mr Grifter sank in, and perhaps eventually changed his attitude. I never knew because I left that workshop not long afterward. As with the TV collector with his sob story and obvious disappointment on being told his watercolour was a fake, I had no sympathy for our antiques cheat. I suspect the boss was not really sorry to see the back of me when I left. If I had stayed perhaps he would have gone bust once I had sapped the enterprise from his best collaborators with my high moral stance. I concluded I was not well suited to the art, antiques and collectables industry, and turned my hand to another occupation instead. As in sailing, where one man’s fair wind is another’s foul, so in life one cheat’s windfall may be an honest person’s loss.

I wonder if the Vicar of Van Dyke will offer some portion of the Lord’s windfall to the person from whom he acquired his good fortune?

Being a writer is at least an honest profession. No novelist can hope to please everyone, but you can try-before-you-buy using Amazon’s Look Inside feature, or download a free sample of any book you find on the Zon. Happy reading!


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