wed 23/04/2014

Fake or Fortune?, Episodes 1 & 2, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews

Fake or Fortune?, Episodes 1 & 2, BBC One

A Monet the establishment won't accept, a rubbish tip find worth £200,000? Tales of art skullduggery

Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould put in their sleuthing monoclesBBC

Fake or Fortune? on BBC One, with Fiona Bruce and art dealer and sleuth Philip Mould, ought to have been called CSI: Cork Street for its blend of fine art and forensic science. They were trying to resolve whether a Monet was in fact a Monet, using a 240 million-pixel camera, Monet's own accountbook (which Fiona Bruce ran her ungloved fingers across) and plenty of ominous music. Next up: who killed Marat in David's picture?

The mystery of fakes, forgeries and misattributions becomes ever more fascinating as pictures fetch greater prices at auction; Monet's record stands at £41 million. The National Gallery recently held an exhibition of fakes to illustrate their persistence and frequent high quality. David Joel, the owner of the potential Monet (too easy to mistype as Money) must have been thrilled he'd got the BBC to take up the trail, which involved sailing down a river to see if Monet could have seen the same view, tracing gallery labels to Cairo and digitally analysing pretty much everything about the painting.

Wrapping a programme on art authentication within the mystery of an actual disputed case was a great idea, so we absorbed the latest in technological detection while rooting for the owner. There were too many tropes of forensic television - chunks of exposition, cliffhangers, dark hints - and the programme was pitched at times surprisingly low: "Monet was one of a group of revolutionary artists..." Philip Mould, who has had major successes in uncovering misattributed masterpieces, did not glorify himself to anyone who appreciates Monet when he said: "This is not art you have to be trained to like." The lowest common denominator was unlikely to be watching Fake or Fortune?, thus there was no need to stoop to please it.

Unusually for such well-planned programmes - they didn't happen on a private Cairene residence of a millionaire art collector by accident - there was unexpected drama when French Customs stopped Mould trying to take the painting out of France, which he found somewhat surprising. Fiona Bruce stridently upbraided a French official - in French - and eventually the painting was recovered, but a genuine crisis made this much more interesting.

What the programme ultimately showed, however, is that all the technology in the world can't settle a question of attribution. Mould introduced a professor at the Courtauld Institute as a connoisseur, saying that "connoisseurs rely not on science but on their trained eye". "It simply looks right," says the prof, and herein is the problem. Why should one picture be admitted to the catalogue raisonné and another excluded when sentiment - or educated deductions, to be kind - are the criteria? Of course, many scholars must agree, but the science and detective work of the discipline must still submit to human judgment.

And there is a further rub. The publishers of the catalogue raisonné, Wildenstein & Company, and therefore the arbiters of authentication, have thus far refused to admit the work for reasons best known to themselves, despite the agreement of scholars. The programme's climax was a trip to the Wildenstein Institute to present the new evidence for authentication. One of the presenters then spoke of being given "a peremptory dismissal" by Guy Wildenstein, who refused to contradict his father's opinion, a display of filial piety if not necessarily artistic appreciation. Mould called instead for a committee of scholars to replace the high-handed authoritarianism of the Wildenstein Institute.

One charge laid against other final authorities on certification is that the fewer pieces they authenticate, the more the others are worth: smaller supply, of course. I would not allege this motive in this case - for all we know, the detection, which was circumstantial rather than definitive, may have been faulty - but the art world comes out of Fake or Fortune? as murky as one of Rembrandt's self-portraits, even under a 21st-century ultraviolet light.

Next page: ISMENE BROWN reviews Episode 2: Winslow Homer's Children under a Palm Tree

What the programme ultimately showed is that all the technology in the world can't settle a question of attribution

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