Finders, Sleepers

By Sallie Brady

Leveraging luck and sleuthing skills, savvy dealers discover hidden treasures.

Miscatalogued, overpainted, lost amid the ephemera of a pokey country auction—a hidden masterpiece is the holy grail of every any good art and antiques dealer. It’s the fantasy that keeps them awake nights, the dream that their hunch on a “could it be a…?” is spot-on and the piece turns out to be a valuable, maybe even museum-quality treasure. Sleepers, as they are called, turn up as paintings, sculpture, furniture, jewelry and decorative objets. Often the tales of discovery are as compelling as the objects themselves. The dogged dealer who ends up owning them is part sleuth, part gambler, and almost always ahead of the pack with an arsenal of knowledge in his or her particular field. With Master Paintings Week and Master Drawings Week (both July 3–9) going up in London this month, and some show-stoppers at last month’s London antiques fairs, it’s the season to see sleepers that are freshly awakening to the market.

Not every category of fine art and antiques is a prime hunting ground for undiscovered pieces. Most tend to turn up in areas that might be considered niche or even unfashionable in the present market. The lack of ready scholarship, or even interest, in some areas often means a less-than-thorough provenance or even misidentification. Crispian Riley-Smith, the director of Master Drawings Week, is showing an exciting, previously misidentified discovery, The Baptism of Christ (£13,000) at his Bury Street exhibition. When an American collector presented him with a group of drawings to sell, Riley-Smith spotted one that was identified as “German school, 16th century,” but the dealer thought that stylistically, it looked like the work of Raffaellino Motta. “I asked a scholar, California’s Dr. John Marciari, who had recently written an article in The Burlington Magazine, what he thought, and he felt the Motta attribution was correct and went on to identify it as a preparatory study for a destroyed Baptism fresco that Motta did for a chapel in Rome in 1570. It’s the first drawing connected with the project.”

Another find from a private collection, this time a pre-war Swiss collector’s, will be with Stephen Ongpin Fine Art during Master Drawings Week when he shows a previously unpublished Claude Monet pastel, Waterloo Bridge, London, 1901 ($980,000), one of 26 pastels Monet did of the view from his Savoy Hotel suite that year. Typically the painter gave them as gifts to his collectors.

Spotting the diamond in the rough—or in the dirt and the overpaint—is the constant pursuit of sleuthing Old Master dealers. Poor restoration and the habit of “updating” pictures, particularly portraits, to keep the sitter fashionable is common in this field. The art world recently saw a classic example of this phenomenon when a voluminous hat, earrings, excessive hair and ornament were removed from a canvas to reveal a Rembrandt self-portrait. Las Vegas casino developer and noted collector Steve Wynn bought the painting for £7 million in 2003.

This month, Deborah Gage shows a new version of Bartolomé Estéban Murillo’s The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop, stripped of 19th-century overpaint that obstructed the picture’s entire background. Benjamin West’s Cupid and Psyche, from 1808, had been hanging in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., for 100 years when London dealer Thos. Agnew & Sons bought it. “After we cleaned it, it was ravishing, and I showed it to Allen Staley, the scholar who wrote the book on Benjamin West, and he didn’t even know of it,” says Agnew’s Christopher Kingzett. That painting is also for sale during Master Paintings Week.

Dealer Philip Mould, an “Antiques Roadshow” regular and author of The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures, released in June by Viking ($26.95), has made a career of finding discoveries lurking under grime and overpaint. Mould is willing to risk millions at auction on his hunches, as he did in 2006 when he set the record for a British portrait by paying £2.6 million at Sotheby’s London for the Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I, circa 1563, attributed to the artist known only as “Steven.” When cleaned, the figure’s stunning dress and jewels revealed important clues to the queen’s history. During Master Paintings Week, Mould is showing Titian’s freshly restored Portrait of a Venetian Admiral, possibly Francesco Duodo. In this case, Mould was betting that cleaning and restoring would give firm confirmation to the fact that the portrait had, indeed, been painted by Titian. The dealer gambled $1.76 million on that in January 2009 when he bought it at Sotheby’s New York, where it had been consigned by French & Co. of New York, which bought it at auction in 1997. Mould says the misunderstood restoration that the gallery performed on the painting obstructed its attribution to Titian and is the reason why they were unable to sell it. Mould is asking £3.5 million for the portrait.

Sleuth dealers across all genres agree that the main reason artworks become sleepers is that auction houses must act quickly to get pieces to the block. “They don’t have the time to research properly,” says Ian Butchoff of Butchoff Antiques in London. “They have a deadline and need to catalogue things. In the end, being a dealer, you have the time. I will see something, the bells will start going off, and I’ll know intuitively I’m looking at something important and will start researching.” In 2007, Butchoff spotted a sleeper in a small Philadelphia auction house: an extraordinary 8 ½-foot long Scottish cherrywood desk, fitted with 72 black basalt Wedgewood plaques. Thinking that it looked like the work of 19th-century furniture makers Wright and Mansfield, Butchoff began investigating, turning up an extraordinary provenance that showed that the desk was a commission for one of England’s top industrialists. “Every little piece of documentation increased its value,” says Butchoff who sold the piece at the Summer Olympia Art & Antiques Fair to a Russian collector for “quite a bit.”

This, year at Olympia—now known as the London International Fine Art Fair—Butchoff has another sleeper, “the finest thing I have ever seen in my 40-year career,” he says. Called the Haugsburg cabinet, it took 17 years to make, produced in Liverpool by the workshops of German émigré Friedrich Haugsburg, who had an eponymous high-end decorative shop. An exquisite feat of ebony, mother-of-pearl, silver wire and brass, exteriors and interiors depict everything from the façade of the Cathedral of Rheims, to Kew Palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Butchoff found the lost masterpiece in a country sale. His asking price is £650,000.

“It’s because provincial sales have a lot of volume to get through that you’ll often find things miscatalogued,” says Daniel Morris of the antiques advisors Corfield Morris, “the wrong wood, the wrong century.” Morris says he recently spotted a George Bullock mahogany side cabinet in a country salesroom. He recognized the curve, the cedar drawers, the signs of the workshop and bought it for a client for £1,600. “M&J Duncan, here at Summer Olympia, are selling a stamped George Bullock side cabinet for £95,000,” says Morris. Being only one of two stamped pieces by the maker, it is far more important than Morris’ find, but if Morris’ cabinet were offered for sale at Olympia, it would fetch £15,000 to £20,000, he says.

One of the most notorious—and respected—firms of sleuth dealers, Tomasso Brothers of Leeds, focuses on an area that’s not saturated with competitors, or terribly fashionable. The three Italian-born brothers are noted dealers of Renaissance and neo-classical bronzes and sculpture. Their headquarters, Bardon Hall, is a Gothic mansion stuffed with treasures that also houses a massive library and stacks of auction catalogues. “We spend about £50,000 a year on books and catalogs,” says Raffaelo Tomasso. Their research pays off in unearthing the likes of Giambologna’s unrecorded Venus Urania, which they recognized and sold in New York in 2008 for $7 million, and Hubert Gerhard’s Mounted River-God, circa 1580s, which they spotted at a small auction and sold in 2009, again in New York, for $3 million. Their 2010 Scultura III exhibition (October 21–31 at Otto Naumann’s gallery in New York) promises more sleepers, such as a small bronze head of a cherub by Guglielmo della Porta from the model for the chancel door at St. Peter’s and a late-15th century Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist stucco relief by Benedetto da Maiano that still retains its original polychrome decoration.

This month, Sotheby’s London is also touting discoveries. Their “Treasures: Aristocratic Heirlooms” sale offers 21 one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen pieces from various collections, including an enormous silver wine cistern from 1705 made by Philip Rollos, senior and junior, and John Rollos for Thomas Wentworth, estimated to fetch £1.5–2 million.

For collectors who might themselves want to gamble on sleepers, “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes, and Discoveries,” an exhibition at London’s National Gallery through September 12, should be a required course.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: July 2010