A month or so ago I wrote about the art experts who rule on the authenticity of various works of art, people whose decisions often make the difference between mere pretty pictures and multi-million-dollar masterpieces, depending upon whether some famous artist created them or some unknown student or imitator rendered the work. And from time to time, they have to sort through outright attempts at fraud. It's tedious, time-consuming, and technically challenging work requiring detailed knowledge of everything from chemistry to the most arcane art history. Yesterday I discussed the various other factors that make for "value" in the art world. In doing so, I compared the art market to the real estate and stock markets. Sometimes, there is also another apt comparison--Las Vegas.
It's no secret that the stock market is often little different from the gaming tables of Vegas, or its eastern counterpart, Atlantic City. The odds are calculated a bit differently and there is a certain degree of statistical research available to the Wall Street gambler that his Boardwalk counterpart might envy, but still, intuition plays an enormous role. The same is true of a little-known niche in the art market too--that of the undiscovered masterpiece. It's a peculiar breed of "art expert" who sits on the bidding floor of Sotheby's or Christie's in New York or London and feels the tension rise with the numbers, every ounce of instinct and experience in the work and workings of the old masters comes to the surface. Sometimes thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money, or his reputation (which is often worth much more) rests on his acute eye and art instincts. A keen eye for detail, an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history, and shrewd business instincts all meld into an effort that has as much to do with gambling as art.
One such gambler is Philip Mould. It's a game of wits. In the past fifteen years, he's "discovered" five van Dycks, several Gainsboroughs, a George Romney, and a portrait of Henry VIII's older brother. Sometimes, as in the case of the king's brother, he profits from the mistakes of others just like himself who may have dismissed a work as a mere copy. Working out of London, he is as apt to be found prowling estate sales and catalogues as the major art auction houses. He owns a gallery in the Mayfair section of London and not only relies on his trained eye to discern artistic greatness, but his sense of touch and smell as well. Henry VIII's brother he bought for $19,000. It's now worth $775,000. His clients range from the Smithsonian Institute to private collectors, and even the British Parliament. Though very much an art expert himself, often he must wait months to have the wisdom of his wagers confirmed by other, more technical art experts and restorers who rely more on science than art in their work. If he's right, he or someone he works for, gets a masterpiece...or a big check. If he's wrong, it's not a pretty picture...or perhaps, just a pretty picture.