Artwatch UK

Christie’s recent sale of a stolen painting

In our 11 October post (“Two developments in the no-show Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi saga”) we suggested that new-style confidential legal conflict-resolution procedures might favour the big guys over the little guys – who “necessarily will forfeit their strongest card: the capacity to raise institutionally embarrassing press coverage”.

Just two days after that post, Mailonline carried a report that demonstrated the hard cash value that press coverage of grievances can unlock: “Painting stolen a week after being valued at £20,000 on Antiques Roadshow 30 years ago turns up at auction by Christie’s – who sell it to the astonishment of the disgruntled original owners”.

The Mailonline reports that the 1874 painting in question, Portrait of Mary Emma Jones, by Emma Sandys, had been stolen a week after the BBC show – in which its experts had valued it at £20,000 – was broadcast in January 1988. Christie’s, who sold the painting for £62,500 in July this year is now said by Mailonline to be involved in tense negotiations with the former owner’s daughter and to be “allegedly trying to buy the silence of the family from whom it was stolen by making an offer of £10,000 in exchange for them surrendering their claim and signing a confidentiality agreement.”

The family have rejected the offer as too low, according to the Times and Christies say that they won’t release it until a settlement can be reached.

Christie’s gushing catalogue entry said no more on the provenance than that the picture had been “recently rediscovered” and was “the property of a private collector”. This was the pre-sale lot essay in full:

“Emma Sandys was the sister of Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), whose luscious portraits in the Rossettian mould served as inspiration to his younger sibling. Although Emma’s work is similar in style and in the strength of its design, she established herself on her own professional terms, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, The Society of Lady Artists, and various Norwich galleries, thereby attracting patrons from amongst the local aristocracy. While images of women predominate in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the wider artistic circle included many talented female artists, such as Emma, Elizabeth Siddal, Marie Stillman and Evelyn de Morgan, each of whom sustained successful artistic careers.

“Recently rediscovered, the present lot depicts Mary Emma Jones, Emma’s sister-in-law, who modelled for many of Frederick’s works including Perdita (Lloyd Webber Collection) and Proud Maisie (Victoria & Albert Museum). The oil painting appears to be based on a chalk drawing by Frederick from circa 1873, now in the Birmingham City Art Museum (see B. Elzea, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), p. 249, no. 3.48) One of the characteristics of the oeuvre of the Sandys siblings was the sharing and repetition of models, studio props and costumes, as well as a similarity in technique which has often led to confusion over attribution between the siblings. Portrait of Mary Emma Jones bears all the hallmarks of Emma’s mature style, and shows the level of sophistication the genre achieved during the 1860s and 1870s.

“We are grateful to Betty Elzea, author of the monograph on Frederick Sandys, for confirming the attribution of the present lot.”

Under “Other information” and “Pre-Lot Text” was found the description “THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR”. That was all. So, no names, no dates, no theft, no nothing.

Once again, we can only repeat our 2014 contention that “As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” (“Art crime”, Letter, the Times, 13 August 2014) and renew the call we made in that letter for governments to make it a statutory requirement that vendors should “disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art”. How else might auctioneers be persuaded to supply a proper log book with their goods?

Michael Daley – 14 October 2018

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