The BBC repeat of Fake or Fortune, with Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce, produced another little gem, with the story of the discovery of a Winslow Homer at The Antique’s Roadshow in 2008, perhaps the greatest American watercolourist, and its valuation at £30,000. Then the journey to prove its provenance in England, America and the Bahamas, its restoration and re-valuation, at close to quarter of a million dollars, but the stepping in at the New York Southeby’s sale of the original owners, the Murrays, right at the eleventh hour. It was highly dramatic, proved Philip Mould’s toughness, but now the ownership has been disputed for over two years.
There were some strange ellisions in the tale of why the original owners had showed no acknowledgement of a painting though, or theft either, in Southeby’s original due dilligance investigations. Family letters clearly proved the family had been one time owners, yet what they did not prove was how the painting, and drawings of relations too, got on a rubbish tip, if crime had been involved, or they had perhaps been given away, sold, or discarded in some folder. Surely the fact that an unframed and then rather grubby sketch had been with other sketches, suggests it had been in a folder, and so never hung illustriously on the walls of the ancestral home, Myrtle Grove, despite the family’s mounting passion for art.
To me it was particularly telling though when the young scion of the Murray family, Simon, and a former barrister and now lawyer, spoke on camera about his supposed sympathy for the family who found it on a rubbish tip, their natural disappointment that it was suddenly wanted back, now its true value had been flagged in the Telegraph, and how the finders were obviously thinking of the money in terms of ‘swimming pools or cars’. Oh those awful, greedy, ignorant and unartistic working classes! Actually what you saw were some rather nice people, four great kids and, despite an admittance of knowing nothing about art from the daughter, Selina, a rather moving sequence involving a charming American curator and her emotional response to one of Homer’s big sea paintings. Beyond the power of money, that is always the true value of art, how it speaks. That sea tussle, swept up in wilder forces, became her personal story, by natural association, and then the bigger story of a tug of war now underway, across the classes.
The sale was stopped, perhaps rather sadly for Selina, if she could have shared 30% of the sale. But Phoenix Ark would like to offer an enlightened solution. Why don’t both the finders and the original owners offer the painting to a major American Museum, brokered by the BBC, and split the proceeds 50/50, because it probably would not even be around if the finder had not gone on his fishing trip. Then honour would be served, money shared for swimming pools, cars, children’s education, or the upkeep of said Myrtle Grove. But above all the truer purpose of art would be served. People would actually get to see the damn thing, not have it languishing in some safe, so enjoy it and its rather strange story too, and America would have one of its favourite sons come proudly home. A truly democratic solution. We know, it will never happen!
The image is a wikepedia photo of Winsolw Homer