sat 13/04/2024

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

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

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

Episode 2: The Winslow Homer reviewed by Ismene Brown



Winslow Homer's Children Under a Palm Tree: found near a rubbish tip, almost sold for a quarter of a million dollars

If the first episode, reviewed above, centred on attribution, the second homed in on the equally thorny, much more personal topic of ownership. This was a rollercoaster of thrills, unexplained events and human injustices, hingeing on two almost incredible things. A painting was found dumped near a rubbish tip. Its owner turned up 24 hours before it was due to be sold at Sotheby’s for a quarter of a million dollars, depriving its rubbish tip finder - inevitably one was rich and unpleasant, the other poor and sweet - from poetic justice. Even better, it began and ended on TV.

The tale had started on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow - in 2008 fisherman Tony Varney brought along five pictures he’d found next to a rubbish tip in Ireland 20 years before; one appeared to be by a massively collectable US watercolorist, Winslow Homer, worth five figures, according to Roadshow expert Philip Mould. Daughter Selina, whom Tony had given the picture to, is a single mother of four and clearly could do with, as she says, 30 quid, let alone 30 thousand. Mould and Fiona Bruce set out to consolidate the attribution of Selina’s watercolour. Slightly less to the fore was Bruce’s unease about who owns a picture picked up off a trash heap 25 years ago.

By now the painting was valued at $250,000 - 24 hours before the auction up popped the Murrays to claim ownership

The detective work was fascinating: from the other pictures found with this one, clues to ownership pointing to a former Governor of the Bahamas, one Sir Henry Blake, whose family demesne was three miles from the Irish rubbish tip, gradually hardened. Sotheby’s “Due Diligence” department whose job is to establish who owns a picture before it’s sold contacted Sir Henry’s descendants, the Murrays, still living at the house, who apparently reassured Sotheby’s guy that they knew nothing of the picture’s existence and had no interest in it.

All seemed clear for sale. By May 2009 the painting was up for sale valued at $150-250,000 at Sotheby’s New York, and Selina and Tony were in New York in a state of total flabbergast. But 24 hours before the auction, up popped the Murrays - now reinforced by the lawyer son Simon - to tell Sotheby’s that they claimed ownership. Even at this stage the sale was set to go ahead, with the two parties sorting out percentages later, until 10 minutes before Lot 16 was due up. Selina was grabbed into Sotheby's foyer and was told the Murrays would not allow the sale unless she agreed to take 30 percent only of the proceeds. Furious at what looked at that point like chancing, she refused, and withdrew the picture. It was the wrong move.

Mould interviewed Simon Murray, an unlikeable lawyer who denied his family had had any of the contacts that the Sotheby’s due diligence man firmly said he made, and added that he empathised with Selina, since in her mind she’d no doubt spent the proceeds of the picture sale “on swimming pools, cars and so forth”. Never shall two such different worlds meet.

Three weeks after the sale, the painting was still locked up in Sotheby’s New York, Murray still hadn’t supplied proof of losing it, and police visited Selina telling her she might have handled stolen goods. The stench was growing thicker.

Why were Sotheby's prepared to sell a picture whose ownership was disputed?

But after long months of dispute and uncertainty, there in the family home was found the proof Simon Murray was hunting for: family letters from the 1880s telling of Winslow Homer’s visits to the family in the Bahamas and detailing how he was asked to sketch the children in Arabian Nights fancy dress for a party. The party, right down to the children’s costumes, was documented in the 1885 Bahamian newspaper and the very urn pictured next to the children sits these days in the family’s garden in Ireland.

The Murrays, now that they know (thanks to TV journalism) how valuable and integral to their history the picture is - and it is now even more valuable given the developments in its provenance - told Mould they would no longer sell. This seemed the end of it for Selina. She had spent large sums on lawyers, and was worse off than she started. Sweet-natured as she was, she declared that the experience had been extraordinary enough. But the dispute remains unresolved still, which implies it's not as cut and dried as that.

Unanswered questions still nagged. Had Sotheby’s had adequate contact with the Murrays or not? (And why were Sotheby’s prepared to sell a picture whose ownership was disputed on the very day of the sale?) If the family hadn’t missed the picture and hadn’t had a burglary, how did it land on a tip? A drop of rain and it would have been ruined. Did they give it to someone who threw it out? Did they throw it out themselves 25 years ago? Quite possibly, considering that for a long time it had been assumed to be a work by Lady Blake herself (she was an accomplished amateur painter).

Unfair as it all seemed on Selina, it had been made clear at the top of the programme that if you dump something, then regret it later, you still have a better claim on it than a finder - no matter how late you change your mind. But what if you gave it away to someone else, and they dumped it?

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

Share this article


What seemed bizarre the lack of the art divvy curtis dowling who we see on the BBC sometimes but they are obviously, for one reason or another, scared of him being too prominent we saw his show last year and where blown away

Would it not be a good idea to see if an organisation such as the British Museum or National Gallery could purchase the Monet off David Joel, for a sum of say between £500,000 or £1m? This way the Joel's would get a substantial sum of money now for their pensions/families and the British Museum/National Gallery would have obtained what is almost without doubt a genuine Monet for a very reasonable price. Then at some point in the future when the fact that it is genuine - and this surely will happen even if it takes another 50 years - and the arrogance of the Wildensteins rightly exposed for what it is, we the British through our museums would own a genuine article for everyone to be able to view. They could even display the painting as soon as it was purchased and use the arrogant/dismissive Wildenstein position as a cause celebre to attract more people in to see it! A win/win situation if ever there was one. But I guess this solution must have already been considered. Tim Collis, 20th June 2011.


This is a deeply sad case where a legal battle can take years. By providing increasingly substantial Provenance, the case appears to be heading towards a victory for the Simon Murray cause. However, the timing was so tight and so depressing that somehow I feel that somebody very close to the whole story may have approached Simon Murray to make his claim at the very last minute. Selina and her family should reflect on this and I hope that both parties can settle amicably and quickly before the value of the whole episode is eroded by the huge legal cost and as importantly an Art treasure loss. (Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", means the origin, or the source of something, or the history of the ownership or location of an object.The term was originally mostly used for works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing. Typical uses may cover any artifact found in archaeology, any object in paleontology, certain documents (such as manuscripts), or copies of printed books. In most fields, the primary purpose of provenance is to confirm or gather evidence as to the time, place, and—when appropriate—the person responsible for the creation, production, or discovery of the object. This will typically be accomplished by tracing the whole history of the object up to the present. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation). Best Wishes, DINESH R MAKWANA [Comment edited by moderator]

I have throughly enjoyed both episodes of Fake or Fortune, but last nights (26th June) has left me so disturbed at the plight of poor Selina and her family having had their expectations raised by Philip Mould firstly on The Antiques Roadshow and then subsequently in Fake and Fortune that unusually I am responding in writing. When Selina was told she had a number of options at the time when the picture was withdrawn from the sale I think Philip should have counselled her carefully on these options. Obviously he was correct not to tell her what she should do, but each option should have been explored in detail. Had she agreed to the 30% offer of the proceeds from the Murrays she could right now be sitting with quite a tidy sum! Unfortunately she now has nothing but legal battles and inevitable anxiety ahead. Have the Murrays evidence of a burglary? Was it reported? Were other items stolen? The account of Southeby's approach to Mrs Murray senior and her response as reported by her son when interviewed did not match. This was a most entertaining programme and I wish Selina and her family well. I just wish she'd taken the 30%! [Comment edited by moderator]

This is now a question of honour & conscience ... which appear to be in very short supply in this sad case. Mr. Murray's apparent arrogance & lack of fellow feeling has been extraordinary & it was, frankly, very sad to watch. Anyone who goes through life (away from the courts) in this adversarial way, does himself no favours at all. [Comment edited by moderator]

Neither Mr. Murrey nor, frankly, Mr. Mould have covered themselves in glory on this occasion. "To those that have shall be given" ...... 'twas ever thus.

I thoroughly enjoyed both programmes. With the Monet episode I was completely gob smacked to hear the wildensteins 'judgement'. If the Wildensteins believe that it is indeed a fake, then to halt all challenges they should categorically state why they say it is a fake. All they have done now is to show their institute in a pretty grubby light. As for the Homer episode, it seems that ownership hinges on where it was found and when it was found. I think the onus is on the Murray/Blake family to prove that the painting left their position without their consent. As it took over twenty years before they 'realised' it was missing, I would love to hear their hypothosis on this. Overall, an extremely interesting series, and I am looking forward to further episodes.

Having watched the Fake or Fortune episode featuring the Wilmslow Homer picture, I wrote to this site expressing my thoughts and reservations arrising from the programme, in a wholly rational and considered manner. Having posted my submission in this forum, I now find my views and indeed the views of others, who, like my self questioned the authenticity of the correspondence purportedly received from Simon Murray's ancestor - mysteriously withdrawn from the site! Have I been censored or have I uncovered an inconvenient truth?

Thank you to the person who posted the previous message - yes I too wrote to this site to express my frustration after viewing Fake + Fortune. I criticised the behaviour and arrogance of Simon Murray and the unfairness as I saw it. My comments too have been taken off this site, as have others I read earlier in the week?

To all commenters: there are laws in Britain that define a line between reasonable opinion and defamation. Some comments here have been edited or removed for necessary reasons. These interventions protect you as well as the object of your comments.

I must genuinely thank the moderator for removing my earlier post following the Fake or Fortune programme, thereby protecting me from any possible allegation of defamation of character. In this instance, I feel that Mr Simon Murray gave the viewers ample opportunity to form their own, balanced and considered opinions as to his integrity and character from the way he conducted himself in the programme. Am I allowed to say that?

It is hard to find the words to explain the viewers opinion about the Homer episode. It is only right to take into account for the people who vere towards the families side of the argument that many facts about the ongoing argument will not have been stated in the program. For the people who believed that Mr Murray must have been informed by an institution about the sale of the painting should consider that the show actually explained that he was already there on holiday. If Mr Murray is going to stamped as the "so called owner" then it is important to ask whether or not you know all the facts. The porgram clearly explained the attachment that his family had to the painting and even though it wasnt knowingly stolen of course Mr Murray would have sufficient right to lay claim on the painting. It is hard to pin point where Mr Murray can be seen to be arrogant. He merly states the facts that are on the table and provides a balanced argument to the issue at hand. It is hard to defend a particular position when the bbc allow the viewer to get attached to particular people and then bring into the picture a person who claims that they have a right to the painting. It is important to take both sides of the argument into consideration and to understand that it is an extremely hard process for both parties before jumping to conslusions

The auction house looked shifty when pressed by a sceptical-looking interviewer about how exactly hard they had tried to contact the original owners. Mr Murray was always going to look like the meanie in the fairy tale even if he had right on his side. Poor Selina was led up the garden path. The whole programme left me feeling sick.

Does not the disposal of other Blake family items both during and posthumous of Lady Edith Blake prove precedent? Two volumes baring Lady Blake's ex-libris were auctioned by Bloomsbury last year, the family photograph album was accessioned by the National Archives of Canada in 1986 and numerous other items previously belonging to the family are in instutions such as the National Museum of American Indian. It would be reasonable to assume then that the family sold or disposed of these items at some point during the 20th century. It would also be reasonable to assume that with these items were also the Homer and ephemera, perhaps via an estate sale taking place either at Myrtle Grove or in the local vicinity?

I think the Homer painting should have been sold with each party taking 50% each of the profits.

Such a shame, Selina has her hopes built up in the interest of 'good tv' and not given decent legal advice when she needed it. The production team should have done a better job of looking after her. And Sothebys look like they failed in their responsibilities. Really feel for her. Kind of see the original owners point of view too, although they only succeeded in proving that they owned it originally. The whole thing ultimately hinges on proving how it left their possession. Fascinating stuff.

Having just watched the Homer episode i just had to share my own views. To see this likeable mother of 4 and her father and to share in their luck and hopes was truly heart-warming. the search for the origin of the painting was intensely interesting and the BBC deservedly requires a pat on the back for a series that goes from strength to strength, however what did leave a nasty taste in my mouth was the last second introduction of the obnoxious, slimy and deeply unlikeable simon murray, who's family had "suddenly" realised that the painting was their's despite never having reported a theft, the money was for repairs to the house, and then it was a family relic that he couldn't bear to part with, and to state in this day and age that the plaintiff had earmarked the money "for cars and swimming pools" was outrageous and frankly vile. [Comment edited by moderator]

Does anyone know what the background classical piano music in the latest fake or fortune with Van Meergeren at around 45 minutes is?

I think I remember the piece you're talking about... and I believe it may be 'Comptine d'un autre été: l'après-midi' by Yann Tiersen. You tube it to check : )

Having watched this programme and then later in the evening watch Curtis Dowling the real lovejoy on Hidden Paintings on BBC1 at 10.25 I am amazes the BBC do not use Mr Dowling for this series. Apart from the fact he is the only real divvy in the UK (yes I have seen him perform almost like Derran Brown but better) he can talk like a normal person and not like a pompous public school boy. Come on BBC pull your socks up or are you frightened he would expose too much of the truth?

Following on from the last comment by Alan. I too saw the Hidden Paintings show which I must agree seemed so much more genuine and down too earth. I have seen Curtis Dowling on Inside Out & Rogue Traders & believe he has done the poor daytime shows also but believe he would be a better choice for a programme that is attempting to get more people interested in art as he is 'normal' and not a named celebrity shoe horned into a job to keep the exposure up or worse a very posh man who no one can relate too, but no doubt the BBC think unless you went to Eton and have a million pounds you are not qualified to talk about art

Just seen Curtis Dowling LIVE this weekend and he is indeed a divvy, spotting fakes from the real think without even looking. This is no trick, we thought it was but seen it too often for it to be a fake, Derran Brown eat your heart out. Curtis has done stuff for the BBC yet we get stuck with another posh man as the expert on these shows, for crying out loud!!!

just seen this CURTIS DOWLING in the Carribean. He divvied 10 items from random without even looking. I have never witnessed anything like it in my life. There is no other antiques expert in my opinion that could hold a candle too him

the wildersteins have a problem that they can't be seen as changing their opinion. this would cause doubt as to their do so would automatically destroy their reputation. this is the pope problem,they must be infallable.fortunatly the would does not believe in perfect people.they must agree,or disolve their organization.

CNBC's TREASURE DETECTIVES Just seen the US version of this with English art expert Curtis Dowling. Its excellent.... remember the wizard of Oz? well fake or fortune is the black and white bit and Treasure Detectives is the colour bit! OMG! why can't the bl**dy BBC just make Treasure Detectives instead of this dull, public school programme????

Hi Anyone know all the music playing in the Monet episode Cheers

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters