I think Fake or Fortune? (BBC One, Sundays) could be the best television show ever made. It’s certainly better than The Wire and definitely on a par with The Sopranos – and I’m only half joking. Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould are brought a painting by a member of the public, purported to be by a famous artist. Their mission is to prove whether it is the real deal or not. It’s a straightforward premise, but the resulting programme is magnificent, and perfect Sunday night viewing.
To make a further comparison to a TV show, it’s Columbo for art geeks, only much better, because unlike in the adventures of our dirty mac-wearing buddy, here there is a proper element of jeopardy at play. Our Columbos, Mould and Bruce, don’t always come up with “just one more thing” to crack the case.
The presenters always greet negative results, passed down by leading authorities in the field, with understated disappointment. The experts who make these decisions tend to err on the side of caution – and for understandable reasons. A genuine article can be very tricky to authenticate for myriad reasons and everyone involved in Fake or Fortune? is well aware of this fact of life. However, the new series got off to a rowdy start a couple of weeks ago when a still life of a jug and a plate of pears possibly by William Nicholson was rejected.
Ample evidence was gathered in its favour – matching paint pigments, a distinctive signature and a hidden picture of freesias of the kind Nicholson was known for, lurking unseen to the naked eye beneath the painting. Yet, due to a failure to establish a trail of ownership reaching back to the artist and doubts about the quality of brushwork, Patricia Reed, the world’s leading authority on Nicholson, concluded the work was not a genuine one. Poor old Lyn, who had bought the painting in good faith for a whopping £165,000, was understandably heartbroken by the news. Yet she, along with Mould and Bruce, remained true to the Fake or Fortune? ethos and was stoical in the face of disaster. It was online where the storm was exploding.
Social media users decried Reed’s decision in forceful terms. I hope, for her sake, she isn’t on Twitter. Mould, a regular tweeter, did his best to quell the mob, but to no avail. Notwithstanding the fact that the verdict did appear a tad harsh, it seems crazy that a woman who has spent her working life studying Nicholson should be pilloried by a load of armchair amateurs, many of whom I doubt had even heard of the painter an hour earlier. Michael Gove famously said that Britain is sick of experts. He was wrong. The problem is that now everyone thinks they are one. Reed may well be wrong about the Nicholson painting, but her opinion is more valid than that of an angry couch potato.
The solution to avoiding this kind of nonsense is obvious. I must keep myself away from the social media frothing. I’ve given it a go and it is already doing wonders for my mental health. As is watching more Fake or Fortune? The second episode, on Toulouse-Lautrec, was another cracker. The conclusion probably got people venting again. This time, though, I remained blissfully unaware.