Collected perspectives on authenticity

Art as authentic emotions – of the artist and the viewer

Philip Mould // Art dealer & forgery expert

Summary: Philip Mould is an art dealer specializing in British art and Old Masters. He is the author of The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser, and a co-presenter on the BBC1 program Fake or Fortune?


For my entire life, I've been trying to define what it is that is so important about art, and in particular the type of old master art I specialize in.

Perhaps the best way is to compare it to the other arts, and in particular the work of great musicians. A great artist can say things, give shape to ideas, tackle sentiments that would otherwise remain unexpressed. Just like great music can hit nerves you never knew existed.

When I was very young, I was drawn to art. My dad took me to a fantastic art gallery in Liverpool called the Walker Art Gallery. There were lots of paintings on the walls, but there was one in particular by Turner, the great British landscape painter. "Do you know something?" he said. "This picture here is a big impressionist view of light, water, color. This is worth more than all the other pictures in the room." And I remember being absolutely fascinated. Fascinated by art's potency. If a picture can engender people to pay huge sums of money, there must be something really special about it.

Art is more than just what it looks like; the engagement is emotionally more holistic.

That special something, I've since decided, is the artist. Artists understand something different about the world around them. In the case of great art, it can be tantamount to a revelation: something of such significance that the insight lives on eternally. It could be Rembrandt's portrait of his mother. It could be a Van Gogh of a cornfield. It could be a plate of fruit. Technical brilliance and poetic insight combined can make these subjects live forever. And when you consider this beauty and insight is brought about by paint loaded onto the end of a hog hair brush, and then poked, dragged or flicked upon a piece of canvas, it is all the more astonishing.

I hate fakes. Art is more than just what it looks like; the engagement is emotionally more holistic. It's also about the story of its creation, the times and civilization of which it's part, and a good slab of faith. It's similar to memorabilia. You will pay fifty times the value of an intimate object if you know it actually belonged to the subject of your admiration – say the dress of Princess Diana, George Washington's battle sword, Jackie Kennedy's earrings. You have no proof of this other than what you are reliably told. There is a comparable reliance upon the back story for an artwork. For me, it's important to know that the painting I'm looking at contains the creative DNA of the artist him or herself, not some shabby counterfeiter.

It can be compared to the time honored trade in holy relics which goes back over a thousand years. The fact that you have a piece of toenail is one thing. But knowing that it's the toenail of St. Augustine suddenly makes miracles possible. That extra dimension of narrative to a work of art validates the emotional and spiritual response.

As an art historian and picture dealer, it is my job to authenticate and evaluate art. Much of my time is spent hunting down "sleepers" at auction - a trade term for mis-catalogued works of art that could be by good artists, but which instead pass unnoticed and overlooked through an auction for a fraction of their true value. It is the high point of our business requiring heightened observation, research skills and above all financial risk.

There are a couple of amusing ways by which you can tell which pictures have alerted the interest of rival dealers on auction viewing days. In more junky sales, when five or more pictures are stacked up against the wall, you will normally find that the most interesting painting is lodged inaccessibly at the back of the stack, secreted there by a rival buyer! Furthermore, if it is a dirty oil painting the surface is often covered with the smears of dried spit that have been left by potential buyers who have wetted the surface to get a look at what lies beneath the grime – a time honored if unhygienic ploy of the seasoned old master dealer!

The other side of the business is helping people and advising them on building up collections of art for investment and pleasure. This can only happen when an individual has gone through the barrier of feeling that they can place their trust in you. Unlike with contemporary art where the artist is alive and the likelihood of fakes and forgeries is remote, the earlier you go the more you have to rely on the judgment and skills of others.

Collecting can be addictive, and it is intriguing to watch how taste develops and changes with the process of buying and the growing of confidence levels. Most people, true to human nature, start modestly and then grow in boldness and outlay. Three years ago a hedge-fund manager, who had never bought a picture in his life, came to buy a $2,000 miniature portrait for his wife's wedding anniversary. Last week, the same man completed a $5 million dollar purchase of a full length portrait of the English monarch, Elizabeth I; he is having to move house to accommodate it, much to the annoyance of his wife!

Authenticity: Collected Perspectives
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Philip Mould
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Philip Mould

Art as authentic emotions – of the artist and the viewer

Philip Mould is an art dealer specializing in British art and Old Masters. He is the author of The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser, and a co-presenter on the BBC1 program Fake or Fortune?

Read here »

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