Lance Charnes's Reviews > The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser

The Art Detective by Philip Mould
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: readers looking for the print spinoff from Antiques Roadshow

When you go to a car dealer, you can be reasonably sure that Toyota or BMW or Ford is, indeed, a Toyota or BMW or Ford. The dealer doesn't have to trace the VIN through the whole supply chain back to the factory to confirm the nameplate's legit. Simple.

Not so much for buying art. Rembrandt didn't put serial numbers on his paintings. Famous artists had schools and followers who learned how to paint or sculpt the way the master did, started or helped with the master's works, maybe knocked off a canvas on the side for a client who wanted the look but not the price. Over the course of decades or centuries, the varnish yellows and clouds, the piece gets damaged or altered, and restorers (or, especially in the old days, "restorers") may overpaint the original work to "fix" it. It finally lands on an easel in a gallery or auction house and the questions begin: is this an original or copy? Who really created it? What's it worth? What a modern dealer does with such dilemmas depends on his ambition, honesty, and desire to solve the puzzle.

Philip Mould, this book's titular art detective, runs a successful London gallery specializing in 16th-19th Century portraits, and as such appears to regularly find himself grappling with these problems. Devotees of the British version of Antiques Roadshow may recognize his name. This book is a collection of stories of his adventures. Each of the six "cases" takes him down a trail that often leads across oceans, through archives and museums, and into the homes of the great and humble.

Mould is an able and personable narrator. Learned, literate, yet self-deprecating, he manages to avoid the stuffed-shirt tone common to art experts speaking about art. These are the tales he might tell at a dinner party in a posh Kensington townhome or over drinks at the club, and in much the same way. He manages to minimize his use of specialist-speak (the often impenetrable argot of the art world) and usually takes care to explain what he's up to and why. He also avoids the pitfall of "I" -- making it sound like he's the one doing all the heavy lifting. He regularly includes his extended network of employees, colleagues, friends and contacts in Europe and North America and credits them with their contributions to his sleuthing.

This is essentially a short-story anthology and has the episodic nature common to such things. Don't expect a strong throughline or to have any overall summing-up. Surprisingly, the client rarely appears; the point to all of Mould's detecting is to fetch the best price for the work in question, but we rarely see the purchaser's reaction to all this work or hear from them whether any of it has the intended effect. (Indeed, at least two of the stories involve work done for museums, which is interesting but hardly a gallerist's typical calling.) The book is tightly bound to the art markets in Britain and the American Northeast, with their similar attitudes and standards. It would've been nice to see Mould carry out his work in the wider global art market, and perhaps learn how, say, Chinese or Mideastern clients and institutions react to his brand of truth-seeking.

The Art Detective is an entertaining and engaging account of real-life detective work in the rather odd world of art collecting. Its narrator is easy to get along with, and the supporting characters are often equally colorful. If you're at all interested in how we figure out whether a painting is a masterpiece or hotel art, this is a good place to start.
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Reading Progress

September 28, 2014 – Shelved
March 6, 2015 – Started Reading
March 22, 2015 – Finished Reading

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