Philip Mould, 'The Art Detective'
GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Around Thanksgiving time in 1992, a London art dealer named Philip Mould was invited to rural Vermont to see a private collection. The owner was Earle Newton, and he kept his paintings inside an old, disused church.
When Mould walked in, he saw hundreds of portraits scattered about, and one of them, propped against the altar, caught his eye.
Mr. PHILIP MOULD (Author, "The Art Detective"): (Reading) It stood out partly because of its quality but also because it did not conform to the politer, better-behaved expressions all around it. An unashamedly porcine image of a middle-aged woman in pink taffeta, she had the unfashionable hint of a smile showing through her bulbous cheeks. Its candor was mesmeric.
RAZ: That's Philip Mould describing the encounter. At that moment, Mould realized he was staring at a painting by the English master William Hogarth, a painting worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Earle Newton bought it at a country yard sale for $250. It's one of the stories Philip Mould tells in his new book, "The Art Detective." He's a paintings expert for the British version of the "Antiques Roadshow," and Philip Mould joins me from London.
Mr. MOULD: Hi, there.
RAZ: How did Earle Newton come to own not just that painting by Hogarth but the other masterworks in his collection?
Mr. MOULD: Earle Newton, professor as we called him, was an extraordinary man. He was an indiscriminate buyer. He would sometimes go into shops and just buy things in quantity.
In fact, he once bought 25 oil paintings for about $250. And what he wished to do was just accumulate as much as possible in order to fill his life and his houses that he bought, as well, because he accumulated them. In fact, he accumulated old cars. This man was an indefatigable hoarder and buyer.
RAZ: You had flown out to Vermont in 1992. This was sort of at the beginning of your career. You didn't know what to expect. First, you thought this was some kind of grand hoax, right? You didn't expect to see anything.
Mr. MOULD: It was only as I was touching down it was snow-filled Vermont, it was a sort of a black-white night, if you know what I mean I suddenly realized what on Earth am I doing?
He then picked me up in this huge, rusting Bentley and took me deep into the wilderness, then, to my amazement found that even though it was the day after Thanksgiving, they had laid out the table and said, we're waiting for you.
And I gradually came to the sticky realization, as I looked around the walls, that there were no portraits. There were no paintings. And I thought I might have, well, walked into some sort of, who knows, rather terrifying hoax.
RAZ: Maybe a Stephen King novel.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOULD: Yeah.
RAZ: But in fact, it wasn't a hoax, but it took a few days, right? I mean, you were there for about 24 hours before he actually showed you his crown jewel, so to speak.
Mr. MOULD: Indeed. So I hadn't seen one painting anywhere. The next morning, I got up and crunched my way through the snow to a church across the road. And then he opened the doors.
Incidentally, it had a sign outside it saying Museum of the Americas, but no one ever visited it. Anyway, so he opened this door, turned on the lights one by one, and the sight that met my eyes is something I shall never, ever forget because instead of a congregation of people in this disused church, it was a congregation of portraits.
And where the altar was, there were full lengths. Where the stations of the cross would have hung, you know, there were middle-sized paintings. It was an assembly of oil-painted faces.
Bit by bit, I began to work out beneath all the dirt, beneath all the grime and this is actually one of the art detective's functions in life is to actually look through the layers of accumulated filth and try and work out what treasures might lay beneath.
And it took me about an hour to absorb it all, and I realized that I was in probably in the greatest sweets shop I shall ever find.
RAZ: How much was his collection worth, approximately?
Mr. MOULD: Adding it all up - and he's now left it to Savannah College of Art -his collection must be close to about $10 million.
RAZ: Ten million dollars. I mean, for somebody in your profession, it's not always easy to make money. People, I think, have an assumption that galleries are always selling their works, but it's actually quite difficult. This trip turned into a gold mine for you. I mean, you actually came back with something quite valuable.
Mr. MOULD: Indeed, I did. And I have to say it was the last experience I would describe as the pre-computer age because I don't travel anything like as much as I used to. The modern hunter of art and there are many, many out there, sits in front of a screen.
I end up buying, I don't know, three or four pictures a week sometimes, sight unseen, in all far-flung parts of the world.
RAZ: You have identified a Thomas Gainsborough piece just by seeing it on the Internet. And you bought a Gainsborough painting from an eBay sale. First of all, what did you pay for it?
Mr. MOULD: I think about $170.
RAZ: And how were you able to identify it as the real thing from a photo online?
Mr. MOULD: It's a bit like bird watching. You get to sort of recognize the plumage, the colors, the shape, the behavior of the portrait, you know, and the posture and what have you. And here was a painting of a man with a rather unprepossessing looking solid jacket, which didn't quite make sense, but a rather beautiful face.
It was rather honeyed in the way that the strokes were applied, and he had a sort of faraway look in his eye. And I thought: hang on, there's only one artist who can do that. That's Thomas Gainsborough. But the jacket looked appalling.
Anyway, I bought it, and I got it back into the gallery, and I realized that what had happened was that this was almost certainly a Gainsborough, but at some point in its history, someone had decided to repaint the body to turn it into a different looking man.
And so I did something which in some ways I'm rather embarrassed about, actually, because I don't restore my own pictures. I have professionals for doing so. But it was only $180 or whatever, and it was irresistible. It was nighttime. Everyone had gone home.
And I took out a bottle of acetone, put the painting on my easel, took out some swabs of cotton wool and bit by bit over the course of two hours, I removed his jacket. And from beneath appeared this most startling form.
At one point, incidentally, I got very concerned because I saw pink suddenly coming through, and the jacket was browny-yellow and I thought, oh, no. I've gone too far. The acetone has burnt through into the canvas. But in fact, it was the hand. It was the man's hand, which Gainsborough had very neatly put into his waistcoat.
It was like a hatching pupa, actually. And this thing came out, and suddenly, I was looking at, you know, this scruffy little picture bought on eBay for $180, I was looking at a (unintelligible) early Gainsborough, painted just as the artist was getting going in his career in Ipswich in the 1750s.
RAZ: And what did you end up selling it for?
Mr. MOULD: The condition was not great. So I unfortunately could only sell it for about $35,000.
RAZ: That's not a bad return.
Mr. MOULD: Oh, it's not a bad return. No, no, no. It's a really good return. But the trouble is when you say Gainsborough, you know, it's a bit like saying jackpot. But you know, there is such thing as a cheap Gainsborough, as well as an expensive one.
RAZ: When so many people have so much access to information now, is it really likely that we'll hear about hidden masterworks, you know, gathering dust in some attic all that much in the future? I mean, do you think those paintings are still out there?
Mr. MOULD: Yes, there are a lot. And I'll tell you what's going to be happening increasingly now. Our science has massively moved ahead, we all know that, but the science of restoration has, as well, and we can now look into pictures, look through them, look behind them. We can take later paint off.
The (unintelligible) photography now has allowed us to be able to compare artists' works so much better. I mean, we can get, like, 1,000 images of some of the greatest artists in front of us, so attribution and the actual exposing of things, who they're by and what they're like, is now much easier.
So the type of discoveries that are going to be made and will be made are not so much the things from granny's attic but the things that are hidden from view.
RAZ: That's Philip Mould, author of "The Art Detective" and the official art advisor to the Houses of Parliament in London.
Philip Mould, thank you so much.
Mr. MOULD: Thank you.