News24

Internet changes art dealing

2010-06-21 18:13

New York - When Philip Mould began as a professional art dealer 22 years ago, the buying and selling of high-end artwork was confined to a small group of well-versed art historians who scoured the globe in search of masterpieces.

But the timeless world of art has changed in the age of the internet and technology. Once limited to examining 15 to 20 works per day, Mould and his staff can now judge the value of between 50 and 100 works of art per day.

"There are more possibilities, more discoveries. But there is also more competition. There is a new generation that likes the adrenaline rush, and buys indiscriminately," Mould said.

Mould's new book, The Art Detective, explores the once-shadowy but now widely accessible world of art dealing and restoration. "Knowledge is more democratised now," he said.

Mould once had to use low-quality photographs to judge a work of art being offered by a seller. Now he is able to closely examine every inch of a painting by using modern digital imagery.

"Photography has transformed the art world," he said.

His book is subtitled Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures.

Among the best of his stories: The discovery of a Rembrandt self-portrait.

Originally attributed to a follower of Rembrandt, the painting once was valued at between $2 000 and $4 000. Later, having been authenticated as a lost self-portrait, it sold at auction for $5.2m. It is now valued at an estimated $40m.

Thrill of the chase

Mould, 50, is an expert on British portraiture and a presenter for the television series Antiques Roadshow, in which appraisers judge the value of antiques purchased across Britain. The show has been duplicated in several countries, including the US, Canada, Australia and Germany.

Mould says he is drawn to the art itself and to the excitement of the chase.

"The most exciting moment is when the painting is taken out to be improved and restored," he said. "It's the artistic equivalent of open-heart surgery. Sometimes I can't even watch. Emotions are extreme, especially when you've paid for it yourself."

Mould uses his expertise to expose fraud. British police have estimated that 50% of the art sold on eBay, for example, is fraudulent.

"There are more fakes now. A lot of fakes come from China, for example. But one can never recreate the effects of time. Even the smell is important," Mould said.

"It's very exciting. Old-fashioned connoisseurship is greatly assisted by modern science," he said.

Sophisticated fingerprint technology allows buyers to authenticate art by finding the sometimes centuries-old fingerprint of the artist.

"A fingerprint is better than a signature in establishing whether something is authentic or not. Unlike a signature, a fingerprint cannot be faked."