Michael Winner finds painters who do not exist sold at auction Published 25 November 1979
The start of the story: film director and collector Michael Winner (right, by Frank Herrmann) displays his dud Rackham alongside his equally dubious Canaletto while our detail, left, is arrowed to indicate the clues that say whether the Rackham is genuine or not - the artist's monogram and the lines on the bark of the tree
"The bid is against you, sir"
I raised my hand nervously.
"At four hundred pounds, at four hundred pounds twice,” the auctioneer looked around hopefully. Nothing. He banged down his gavel. "Sold."
I had bought a Canaletto. It said so in the catalogue. Lot 101. " Canaletto, a view of the Rialto . . . from the collection of Lord Balfour of Inchrye." But it wasn't a Canaletto at all.
That little moment, unrecorded except by me, in the annals of Sotheby's, introduced me to the auction rooms. It was fourteen years ago.
Today, sadder and wiser, I have bought some 500 paintings. Between making films it's my major occupation. It's led me on a strange path. I've met some extraordinary artists invented by Christie's, one named after the Dutch word for penis. I've been involved in a little matter of Sotheby's putting in for sale oil paintings they had been told by one of the world's leading experts were painted-over photographs. I've had some odd conversations with the expert at Christie's assuring me I'd bought a genuine painting by a man no other expert believed existed. But back to my Canaletto.
In those days the auction rooms kept very quiet about what their catalogue descriptions of paintings really meant. For my purchase to have been given the Sotheby's OK as a Canaletto it would have been catalogued as by "Antonio Canale called Canaletto." A simple "Canaletto" heading meant "In our opinion a work of the school or by one of the followers of the artist or in his style, and of uncertain date."
But no purchaser could know that unless he was an expert in the mores of the rooms.
"It was a very convenient system," Peter Wilson, the chairman of Sotheby's, was to tell me later, "because everybody who bought things, they were all dealers, they knew. . . ."
"I wasn’t a dealer," I pointed out. "I thought I'd bought a Canaletto."
"Well, that was too bad," said Mr Wilson.
Too bad or not, a couple of years later came the Trade Descriptions Act and the salerooms rushed to their lawyers to produce a lengthy new version of their Conditions of Sale and published their hitherto hidden glossary in all their catalogues.
Christie's even go so far as to write "Neither the Seller nor Christie's nor any person in their employ, make or have any authority to make any representation or warranty. . . ." Since every catalogue they produce lists their experts' views on all the paintings in it, this is a fairly odd statement.
A picture headed with a full attribution - i.e. the first and second names of the artist printed in full, meaning the auction rooms believe it to be a genuine work by the artist - will obviously fetch much more money than a painting with a lesser attribution. Art dealer Christopher Brod reckons a full attribution increases the price by at least ten times more than a lesser attribution.
If, on the other hand you buy a painting that carries a full attribution and find it to be wrong, the salerooms do not return the money. Their catalogues state they will only refund if you can prove it's a "deliberate forgery." Christie's insist you bring it back within 35 days of purchase (not nearly enough time to test it or gather experts.) Sotheby's give five years. Both will, very occasionally and in special circumstances be more generous.
So the matter of attributions becomes all-important both to the buyer and to the salerooms' profits. How good are they, and how carefully are these attributions made ?
Julian Agnew, President of the British Antique Dealers' Association, thinks that in print sales the attributions are 99 per cent correct. "And in oil paintings?" I asked. "A much lower percentage, I would hate to have to say what. But the buyer has to beware." He too reckons the price difference between a full attribution and an initialed one "more than tenfold." Art dealer Bill Patterson thinks that of 19th century pictures (which should be easier to get right than older paintings) one in ten is catalogued inaccurately with a full attribution. Since there's about 150 lots or more in each sale that's fifteen paintings per sale. Does he think there's a general tendency to "attribute up"? "Definitely" he says.
Storm over the river scene
River scene by 'Adrien Leprieur': true of false?
Art expert Brian Sewell, who worked for Christie's for ten years and now deals privately in paintings, says he thinks salerooms "make unreasonable assumptions)."
Just how unreasonable is illustrated by a story I was involved in.
In March this year I viewed a sale of "Important English Pictures" at Christie's. Each sale is labelled according to the general standard of its contents, so "Important" is high up on the list. I saw a pleasant riverside scene, fully attributed in the catalogue to Adrian Leprieur. I bought it for £2,659.20. It was fully illustrated in the catalogue, indicating Christie's view of its significance.
When I got it home I thought it looked a bit odd. Not like an English painting at all, more like a Dutch picture in the style of an artist called V Jan Van Goyen. I started checking. I looked up Mr Leprieur in Benezit, a ten-volume work listing details of 300,000-painters. He wasn't mentioned at all. I turned to the 43-volume Thieme Becker with 150,000 artists. He was not in that either. I called in two important art experts. Both agreed the picture was not English, that the artist was not identifiable, and that Adrian Leprieur might well not exist.
I sent a letter by hand to Mr Joe Floyd, chairman of Christie's asking how they had come to make this attribution. Failing proper explanation I asked for my money back.
Mr Floyd replied: "I do not accept your allegations of carelessness on the part of Christie's." He confirmed it was in their considered view a work by Adrian Leprieur, adding that if I did not like their Conditions of Sale (which I said I didn't) I was quite entitled not to do business with them. Since Christie's and Sotheby's are virtually a duopoly this didn't seem terribly relevant. He also referred me to a book by Colonel M. H. Grant published in 1925 as the reason for the attribution. I offered £1,000 for it as an unattributable Dutch school painting. They refused. Finally he offered me my money back although he accepted none of my views about the painting.
The book by Grant, which is the only one to indicate Leprieur existed, is considered highly dubious in the art world. Even Grant wrote that it would be difficult to "assign Leprieur's works if unsigned" as my painting was. I called in Professor Michael Kitson of the Courtauld Institute, an authority on English paintings. "Would you say," I asked, "that anyone could say this painting is by Leprieur?"
"No, no, no, it's definitely not," he replied. "I think it's a copy of a Ruisdael or a Van Goyen. What evidence did Christie's produce?" "They referred me to Colonel Grant's book," I said. "That doesn't mean anything at all," said Professor Kitson. Within a few minutes he found a version of the same painting in the Van Goyen file in the Witt Library in the Courtauld Institute. This painting was in the National Gallery of Scotland catalogued as "by an imitator of Van Goyen."
Next came Miss Elizabeth Einberg from the Tate Gallery where she is Assistant Keeper of the British Collection. Did my painting look like an English picture ? - "No, it doesn't. I simply don't know why they called this Leprieur." Had she seen the paintings illustrated in Colonel Grant's book? - "Yes." Would she say mine was by the same hand ? - "No, no, no," said Miss Einberg, adding "One does take Colonel Grant with a pinch of salt."
Christie's resolutely stuck to their attribution and refused to offer any more information, even though I'd paid them £240 as a "Buyers' Premium" for a service to me as the buyer. I gave the painting back, and they returned my cheques.
Subsequently I Spoke to Mr Simon Dickinson, a director of Christie's, one of the heads of the English Picture department and the man who had so firmly catalogued the "Adrian Leprieur" as genuine. By now I had found out that Leprieur was so unknown that no painting of his had come up in the auction rooms for 80 years since records were kept. How had Mr Dickinson managed to be sure of the attribution ?
"There's one in the Mellon Collection," said Mr Dickinson. He'd seen it. It was one of the two claimed to be by Leprieur in Colonel Grant's book. Mr Dickinson admitted my picture was probably Leprieur copying Van Goyen. Had he ever seen another picture by Leprieur? "No" he'd only seen the one at Yale.
So, on the basis of seeing one painting by a man most experts did not think existed, how could he confidently attribute mine - a copy of another artist's work - to Adrian Leprieur?
"Because the way it's painted is the same. It's like recognising handwriting," said Mr Dickinson.
I pointed out that Professor Kitson and Miss Einberg disagreed. "Does Kitson know anything about English paintings?" asked Mr Dickinson. That was like asking if Muhammad Ali knew anything about boxing, but I persevered.
Who did Mr Dickinson think was the world expert on Leprieur? "I suppose Malcolm Cormack of the "Mellon Foundation at Yale." And who is the best English picture expert in England? "Sir Ellis Waterhouse," said Mr Dickinson. He maintained Colonel Grant's book was a reasonable source.
I sent both Malcolm Cormack at Yale and Professor Sir Ellis Waterhouse in Oxford a good photograph of my "Leprieur." By now I had discovered it was definitely a copy of a Van Goyen, listed in the standard work on him by Hans-Ulrich Beck.
First Malcolm Cormack, head of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art and previously keeper of Paintings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: "I've compared the two paintings," he said, "and I'm sure they are not by the same hand. Its very different from the picture we have here." He went in detail into why his painting and the Christie's "Leprieur" were not by the same artist and added that he didn't believe Leprieur existed at all, and nor did he have any faith in Grant's book.
Then Professor Sir Ellis Waterhouse, once head of the National Gallery of Scotland: could he see any reason why anybody should say the Christie's picture was by Adrian Leprieur? "No, I can't understand it, they're on such very silly ground. It isn't as if there's any evidence that the artist exists." Professor Waterhouse said if he had it, he would catalogue it under Dutch as a "free copy of a Van Goyen."
I would like to have gone back to Simon Dickinson at Christie's and asked how he still justified his unshakeable attribution of the picture to Adrian Leprieur after his two chosen experts totally disagreed, but by now Christie's, knowing I was writing an article, had ordered silence.
Pity that, I had a few other matters to raise. For example, how come they invented the artists Lawrence Bastard, Van Essabel and Jan Louel? Let me explain.
When Brian Sewell was in charge of cataloguing pictures at Christie's an English landscape had been sent in. The owner wrote to ask why it had not gone into a sale. "I went down into the cellar to look at it," explained Mr Sewell, "and said, 'Oh God, it's a bastard!' 'That'll do' said my assistant, 'Think of a first name,' I said 'Lawrence' " Sewell recounted, "and that's how it went into the sale, I invented a painter!"
The Christie's catalogue for December 7, 1962 has Lot 63 fully attributed to Lawrence Bastard. It's described as "An extensive landscape with country people on their way to market. . . . " It was bought by a Mr Spicer who obviously didn't like it, because on March 1, 1963, the same painting crops up again in Christie's as Lot Number 156, still fully attributed. This time it was bought for 65 guineas by the Bond Street firm of Frost and Reed.
Miss Van Essabel (or is it Mrs?) was an artist invented by top art dealer David Carritt. She painted "Still lives of mixed flowers" a pair of pictures that turned up as Lot 145 in Christie's on December 18, 1964. They were bought by someone called Elie. At the time Mr Carritt was working at Christie's: "A particularly revolting flower piece appeared. I decided it might be nice to invent a painter who might eventually ﬁnd her way into one of those dictionaries of artists. What amazes me is that nobody penetrated it," laughed Carritt. The name in fact was a messing about with the name of the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell. "Did you do any more?" I asked. "No, but somebody produced Bastard." "Yes," I said, "I know about him."
Brian Sewell told me of another of Christie's "artists." "It was in the 1950s," explained Mr Sewell. "We had a Dutch picture and there was an old Dutch expert called Ascher who used to come in and give us advice. He looked at it for some moments and then said 'It's Jan Louel.' So we catalogued it as Jan Louel and it went through the sale. Later we had a number of other pictures which, for shortage of any real information, we started calling Louel. Then another Dutch dealer turned up one day and said 'For God's sake, you must stop using this term Jan Louel' and we said 'Why?' and he said 'Well, Lul is Dutch slang for penis.' The artist of course, did not exist!"
Silk paintings in question
I'd also like to have asked Christie's about Lot 5 in their sale of Modern British and Irish Paintings on March 2 this year. This was four paintings on silk fully attributed to the illustrator Edmund Dulac. These even had "Provenance Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch" printed in the catalogue, meaning they had been in the possession of the man who wrote the book they illustrated.
I know Dulac's work well, I bought one this month, in Christie's for £2,300. But these looked very wrong indeed to me from the full-page illustration in the. catalogue. They also looked wrong to art dealer and book-seller David Brass who'd seen them two years earlier with some other paintings on silk, and had earlier seen other paintings on silk - all from illustrated books by different artists, and all he believed, by the same hand. It seems someone had simply copied paintings from books by various artists, and now one of these rather poor copies was in Christie's and being given the fullest attribution as genuine.
Colin White, an art expert from Leeds and author of a scholarly book on Edmund Dulac had seen them earlier, too, and discounted their authenticity. Mr White wrote to Francis Farmer of Christie's and pointed out they were, in his opinion, wrong.
"He wrote to me," said Colin White, "To say 'Oh well, if you have seen them and thought they were wrong. I can't honestly say they were right!' " The reason for the provenance it seems was that the woman who put them in for sale had lived in the same village as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The paintings were withdrawn by Christie's for further research.
Yet another Christie's "oddity" concerns the famous English watercolour artist Arthur Rackham. A painting of his was fully attributed and illustrated with a full-page photo in Christie's sale on February 22, 1977. It was bought by the dealer David Brass. He later sold it to me.
I gave the picture to the Victoria and Albert Museum for restoration and mounting. While they were about it, I said, would they inscribe Arthur Rackham's name on the mount underneath? A few days later the Victoria and Albert rang me: they were sorry but on no account could they write Rackham's name underneath as they were certain it was
not by him.
I checked further. I asked Rackham's daughter, Mrs Barbara Edwards, an expert on his work. She told me she had not believed it to be by her father when she saw it illustrated in the Christie's catalogue. She pointed out the obvious points that showed it wrong. A hand-written poem on the picture was not in her father's handwriting; the monogram, an "R" was like no monogram Rackham ever signed, and he had signed literally thousands of paintings; the general style was different from her father's work, in particular the hands of the two people in it, and the bark on the tree done with circular strokes which her father, she said, never used.
Buyer calls in the Council
How Bastard was legitimised: A Christie's catalogue entry for him in 1962.
Van Essabel gets her name: a catalogue entry for 1964 uses Vanessa Bell's names.
Christie's catalogue for the Winner Rackham in 1977 prints the German verse and dates it
I asked, Mr Brass for my money back and he gave it to me. He in turn asked Christie's for his money back. They refused him. They referred him to their conditions of sale and stood firm. They also refused to supply any information as to why they had attributed the picture to Arthur Rackham. Mr Brass instituted legal proceedings against Christie's and complained to the Westminster "Council Trading Standards Department. Their investigator Mr Chris Rogers looked into it and said he believed Christie's conditions of sale were invalidated by the Trade Descriptions Act.
Westminster Council did not proceed with their case. Mr Rogers says "I felt our solicitors were wrong in their decision not to prosecute." He said when the matter was reported in the Press he got an awful lot of feedback from it. A lot of people, aggrieved buyers and people like that, contacted me."
David Brass in the meantime was left suing Christie's, a task which if taken to the Appeal Court and the House of Lords could well have taken him six Years and cost him £60,000. Not surprisingly he dropped the case. "I still think the picture was wrong, but I couldn't afford to carry on," he said. For his efforts Christie's insisted he pay their costs. His attempt to put things right set him back well over a thousand pounds in legal fees.
I asked Leading Counsel to give an opinion as to whether the conditions of sale published in Christie's and Sotheby's catalogues were defensible if someone took them to court on a wrong attribution. His answer was clear: he did not believe their conditions exonerated them from using proper care and attention in attributing a picture. If it could be shown they had been careless or lacking in the high standards they themselves put forward, then he believed in spite of the printed terms, they would have to give the money back. But there was yet no case law on this matter regarding sale rooms. And with the cost of going to court I do not ﬁnd that surprising.
David Mason runs an art gallery in Duke Street, St James's. He appears on TV with Arthur Negus and Angela Rippon as a painting expert in the BBC Antiques Roadshow. In May 1962 he bought a pair of pictures of German peasants in Sotheby's by an artist called Carl Heuser. At that time Mr Heuser's first name was not known, so until some years later his paintings were catalogued as C. Heuser meaning they were fully attributed as right. This pair was also stated to be "both signed" meaning in Sotheby's view they bore the artist's true signature.
"When I got them back to my gallery. I took one look at them under the floodlights" said Mr Mason "And thought 'What the bloody hell have we got here!' "
What he now thought he had was a pair of "process pictures" - pictures painted over a photographic image. "In proper light - and the lighting at Sotheby's and Christie's leaves a lot to be desired - you could see, looking at the blacks, the browns and the greys the sort of grain that comes from a process picture," said Mr Mason.
Processed pictures were mainly done in the nineteenth century when photography was new, and various methods were developed to imprint the image on canvas. In the early sixties many did not consider such overpainted items as true paintings. I understand they were not sold in Christie's at all. According to one leading employee at least, they were not sold in Sotheby's either, although Peter Wilson disputes this. Either way, if they were put in a saleroom then or now they would bear a clear warning such as "on a photographic base." This did not appear on the catalogue entry for the Heusers.
There followed an acrimonious correspondence between, Mason and Sotheby's, with Peter Wilson, Sotheby's chairman, himself writing: "There is certainly no question of their being 'processed pictures' ." He insisted that Mason should pay for them. Mason, in turn, gave the pictures to a restorer who tested them and reported they were indeed processed pictures, with oil paint over a photographic image. Sotheby's then gave the paintings to their own restorer, Mr Herbert Lank, who sent them to a laboratory and reported that they were not over a photographic base. He added that Mr Mason could have the test repeated at any other laboratory, "at the Courtauld Institute for instance."
In the meantime Mr Mason had found the originals of these paintings and invited Sotheby's to inspect them. They were in Scotland. Sotheby's decided to take up the idea put forward by their own restorer, and the pictures were sent to the Courtauld Institute, Sotheby's agreeing to abide by the Courtauld's decision.
Mr Stephen Rees-Jones, Head of the Courtauld Institute's Technical Department, wrote an unequivocal report: "The examination proves quite definitely that there is a gelatinous layer under the paint and over the ground which is not found in established painting technique . . . the form has been produced by a printing process involving a gelatine layer . . . these paintings have been executed by a process and not by the artists' free hand."
Mason sent the report to Peter Wilson. He had a reply from John Rickett, then head of the picture department at Sotheby's. Mr Rickett agreed to a cancellation of the sale, taking pains to point out it was "most unusual" and not a precedent. But despite the Courtauld report, Mr Rickett said, they would be putting the paintings back into their saleroom again; and indeed they did. On April 10, 1963, nearly a year later, the two paintings appeared in Sotheby's again with exactly the same, unchanged full attribution. No account had been taken of the Courtauld Institute's report. Sotheby's restorer Mr Herbert Lank has told me that after the Courtauld analysis he was never asked to make another report. Nor did Sotheby's ask to see the originals of the paintings offered by Mr Mason.
Instead the pictures appeared as if nothing had happened. They were bought by the Duke of Bedford for £300 - "which" he told me recently "at that time seemed like a lot of money." He still has the pictures in his living room. What did he think of the fact that such severe doubts had been cast on them? "I think it was a bit of a swindle," he said in a mild-mannered way. Later Peter Wilson insisted I telephone the Duke back as he had, according to Wilson, telephoned Sotheby's to say how "delighted" he was with the pictures. I did call him, and he said that when he came to London he would like to have them tested. He did not sound delighted to me.
I discussed the case with Peter Wilson recently. He spent a long time patiently explaining to me how artists throughout history had used mechanical means to execute their pictures. As far as he was concerned his expert, Herbert Lank, had said the pictures were not process ones and therefore he felt quite justified in putting them back in despite the Courtauld Institute's disavowal and the absence of any further tests.
I asked: "If the pictures were with you today, and you believed the Courtauld Institute's report that they were painted over a photographic process, would you put them in as Carl Heuser's?"
"If Mr Lank's report coincided with the other we would certainly not," said Mr Wilson.
Did Mr Wilson consider it less than his proper duty not having the pictures re-examined after the Courtauld report and in not checking on the originals offered to him?
Dealers clash over premium
Peter Wilson of Sotheby's in action
Mr Wilson refused to admit the originals had anything to do with it. They might not be the true originals. Nor could he see why another report was needed. I gave up. Peter Wilson in fighting mood gives not an inch!
The not unusual saleroom harassment followed. When I got my money back on the Leprieur from Christie's they stopped me phoning in my bids to the man who takes them. They would "accept my bids only after each call had been checked with the managing director. This wasted time and effort, although my bids were ultimately accepted. After six weeks of complaints I was taken off the "punishment list" by Christie's.
David Mason was not so lucky. Correspondence he has shown me reveals that nearly two years later Sotheby's were not releasing his purchases as they did before the Heuser incident. Instead of letting him take paintings away and send a cheque a few days later, they insisted on cash on the nose, a penalty not used before the incident or to dealers generally of his standing. "It got down as dirty as that" sighed David Mason, "Two years forward and we were still having a row."
Mr Wilson announced his retirement as chairman of Sotheby's this month. Maybe he wearied what he described to me as the current "trade war" between the auction rooms and the dealers. Up in arms about the introduction of a ten per cent premium to be paid by the buyer, both the British Antique Dealers' Association and the Society of London Art Dealers are backing eleven of their most distinguished members in a court case against Christie's and Sotheby's. They claim there was agreement in the introduction of the premium between the two firms, and if there was an agreement between them it should have been registered under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act. The dealers find it inconceivable that the premium announced by Christie's on May 30, 1975, and by Sotheby's three days later, was not a joint effort.
"The premium is meant to be a charge to the buyer for a service" complains Julian Agnew, President of the BADA, "What they are really charging for is those rather hard chairs you have to sit on during the sale." Jack Baer, chairman of the Society of London Art Dealers, says: "The old tradition was that auctioneers performed one function and dealers another. Like the balance on the Stock Exchange between jobbers and brokers. This has been upset by the premium which gives the salesrooms almighty profits and immense power through those profits.
Peter Wilson keeps fighting to the end. "You ask for the profits of the dealers who brought the case against us," he said to me, "see what they've made."
Personally I don't cry for the dealers. They can look after themselves. What I would like is to see the public protected a bit more - from Lawrence Bastard and Van Essabel, and Mr Leprieur and others that don't get in the papers. Not every one can push as hard as me and occasionally get their money back when things go wrong. In a bizarre way, though, I've quite enjoyed it all.
Letter published on 18 June 1978 in The Times in response to the article below.
Are Christie's wrong?
We reported on page 3 last week that Christie's may face prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act for the sale of a painting, catalogued as by Arthur Rackham, the authenticity of which is now in doubt.
Michael Winner, who bought the painting from the original purchaser writes: Might I add to your story about the "Arthur Rackham" painting. After it had been soundly rejected by many experts on the grounds of a wrong signature and many details of wrong style, I wrote to Christie's asking if they could let me or the original purchaser know how they had attributed it as genuine: and whether the person they were selling it for had any special knowledge as to why it might be genuine.
Christie's refused to explain or reveal anything. Their view was: if anyone trusted us and bought a dud, it's too bad.
The point is, that by authenticating a painting with their "expert" views, they are going to get (and they know it) a greater price for what they are selling than if they had not authenticated it in writing in their catalogue.
It seems extraordinarily churlish of them when they seem to be wrong, to take the view that their attributions are not to be relied pn anyway, and that if you spend more money in the belief that a painting is genuine because they say it is, then don't dare ask for your money back when it's been spent on a fake.
How can they possibly say the Trade Descriptions Act doesn't apply? They're trading and describing what they sell. If they describe it wrongly they should take the responsibility the same as any other trader.
Published in the Sunday Times 11 June 1978 by Linda Melvern
Test case likely over Christie's £1,000 sale of disputed picture
Full Arthur Rackham signature: usually on big watercolours. Rackham's usual monogram. The disputed monogram
Buyer David Brass: no qualms
The disputed watercolour: According to Arthur Rackham's daughter three things are not typical of the illustrator's work - the monogram at the bottom, the lack of detail in the woman's hands and the brushwork on the tree bark
Christie's, the auctioneers, may face prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act after an investigation into the sale of a watercolour whose authenticity is in doubt. If the case is brought it will be the first time the act has been used against one of the big auction houses. It will be closely watched by the art world and by auctioneers, who have always relied on conditions of sale in their catalogues.
Westminster Council, whose trading standards department is investigating the sale, is considering the case.
The picture was catalogued as by children's illustrator Arthur Rackham whose whimsical goblins and fairies decorated the tales of Hans Arthur Anderson, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and many others. His work, if not his name, is known to thousands because of its use on modern birthday cards.
The disputed picture, a delicately amorous scene in a leafy glade, was included in a sale of English drawings and water-colours an February 22 last year and was illustrated in the catalogue. The artist's full name was used and it was described, "signed with monogram, inscribed and dated 1910 pen and black ink and watercolour." The use of the artist's full name is important since that ; is how Christie's traditionally indicates it believes a painting is authentic. If only a surname is given in the catalogue it indicates the work is only in the artist's style.
"The watercolour was sold for £1,045 after lively bidding. Christie's had estimated the price at between £400 and £600. It was bought by an antiquarian book dealer, David Brass, of E. Joseph, of Charing Cross Road, London, who had no qualms at the time about its authenticity: "One only has a certain amount of time to investigate a work when it is for sale. It did seem typical and I assumed that as Christie's had used an illustration in the catalogue there could be no doubt," he said.
Brass then sold the water-colour for £1,700 to the film director Michael Winner who took it to the Victoria & Albert Museum for restoration.
It was there that the first doubts about the picture were expressed. Winner was told that it was probably the work of an unknown German artist.
He then showed the picture to Rackham's daughter, Barbara Edwards, who told him she had seen the illustration in Christie's catalogue and had doubted that the work was by her father because she felt the style and treatment of the drawing were not typical. Although insisting she is unable to be absolute certain the work is not her father's, Mrs Edwards points out three doubts:
The handwriting of the monogrammed inscription is nothing like her fathers, she says. The florid R is quite unfamiliar and she has known her father sign a full size colour drawing with just a monogram. She says the sometimes used a monogram for his black and white drawings.
The hands in the disputed work are not typical. Her father took great care and drew and painted hands in some detail.
The bark on the tree is unfamiliar. The circular strokes round the tree had, to her knowledge, never been used by her father.
Winner went back to Brass who immediately re-imbursed him. Christie's however, was not so forthcoming. The firm refused to give Brass his money back last November and pointed to the conditions of sale. A Clause states that the purchase price can be refunded if the buyer gives notice of "deliberate-forgery" within 21 days of the-sale. There is also a clause stating "that the auctioneers-are not responsible for the "correctness of any statement as to the authorship, origin, date, age, attribution and genuineness of any lot.
Brass says 21 days for refund is very short. Sotheby's gives five years and Phillips' and Bonham's set no time limit. The dealer decided to take legal action and contracted Westminster Council.
The inspector at Westminster, Chris Rogers, has just finished investigating the complaint and has submitted a report to the department's solicitors. He said he believed the conditions of sale used were invalidated by the Trade Descriptions Act of 1968.
"Auctioneers cannot circumvent the Act. If this case goes forward it could have serious implications," he said.
Christie's company secretary, Douglas Ralphs, said both the authenticity of the painting and the interpretation of the Act were matters of opinion. "Anyone giving an opinion can make a mistake," he said. "It could be we are wrong - it could be they are - but no one can be 100 per cent sure. They seem to think works of art can be catalogued like new toys. They want to know where one can look to establish authenticity beyond reasonable doubt. The point is, you can't. The Act does not apply. It was not designed for works of art. In my opinion the Act does not over-ride our conditions."