Art Market: A genuine dilemma

The purchase of a pounds 300 oak door has caused consternation in the antiques world. One faction believes it is 17th century and worth pounds 500, 000. The other - the V&A - says that's nonsense

IS THIS carving a memento of literary London that miraculously survived the Great Fire of 1666, or isn't it? The possibly historic oak door - oak was the wood habitually used in Britain as a furnishing and building material up to the late 17th century - was found in a local auction in Nottingham in 1986 by a German architect and expert on Chinese bronzes, Ulrich Hausmann, who bought it for pounds 300. He believes it to have come from the Mermaid Tavern, the great meeting place of literary London in the age of Shakespeare, which was burned down in the Great Fire. And he also thinks it's worth "pounds 500,000 at the very least".

Hausmann wants to sell it to the Museum of London, or some other worthy British institution, but neither the staff of the Museum of London nor those of the Victoria and Albert Museum think it comes from the Mermaid - or is even 17th century. They think the door was carved in the 18th or 19th century when people were crazy about the "romance" of history - including, of course, the great days of Britain's literary Renaissance. As such it would be worth pounds 10,000 or so at the most.

So who's right? I'm betting on Hausmann. Christopher Gilbert, former director of the Leeds Art Galleries and the foremost expert on furniture in Britain agrees with him. "In nine out of 10 such cases, the object is likely to be a rogue," he told me. "This is the one in 10 that's right - but it's just the kind of thing that could have been faked up. Furniture historians tend to have a collective nervous breakdown when confronted with something like this. I think that's what's happening here."

Hausmann's ideas about price are very high, however, and that has maybe helped put the museum people off. Historically fascinating fragments of this kind were very popular in the 19th century but are now right out of fashion. If no British institution will buy it, Hausmann intends to put it up for auction in New York and see how high American Shakespeare buffs are prepared to bid.

The top panel of the door is carved with the word "Mermaid" in a cartouche. Below it are two carved portraits of gentlemen dressed in the style of c1600. Their names are handily carved beneath them. That to the left is "Mr B Jonson" and that to the right "Mr W Cambden". Ben Jonson was Britain's first poet laureate and the greatest British playwright before Shakespeare. Indeed, a lot of hot air has been expended in trying to prove that Jonson wrote Shakespeare's plays. William Cambden - since the 18th century spelled Camden - was a famous historian and headmaster of Westminster School where he taught Jonson; he is best remembered for his Britannia, a history of Britain first published in Latin in 1586.

The Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street, a turning off Cheapside, was the centre of literary London around the year 1600. One of the earliest of English clubs, the "Friday Street Club", which was started up by Sir Walter Raleigh, met there. Its illustrious members included the likes of Shakespeare, Selden, Donne, Beaumont and Fletcher, as well as Jonson and Camden - the great poets and playwrights of the day. In verse, Beaumont recorded the delight of evenings spent there.

What things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid! Heard words that have been

So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,

As if that every one from whence they came

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,

And had resolved to live a fool the rest

Of his dull life.

While Keats, reverently looking back to the great days of the Mermaid from the perspective of 200 years later - the age of romantic historicism - wrote:

Souls of Poets dead and gone

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field or mossy cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

To understand the argument one must go back to 23 May 1986 when Hausmann dropped into the viewing of an auction at Neales of Nottingham on his way home for lunch - and saw the door. He had travelled all over Europe admiring church architecture and knew that he was looking at genuine 17th- century carving - though the auctioneers had called it 19th century. He also knew who Jonson and Camden were: "I had never heard of the Mermaid," he told me, "but my wife had." (His wife is English.) He went back after lunch, convinced that he had run across an extraordinary opportunity, and bought the door. He and his wife have been researching it ever since.

Hausmann was born in 1947 in the small town of Mettmann, near Dusseldorf, and studied architecture in Berlin, financing his studies by running a furniture restoration studio. He is the kind of intellectual whose life is driven by passionate interests. The two main ones are China and the European Renaissance - though his father was a botanist and botany also features. After Berlin, he studied Chinese and Chinese domestic architecture at Cambridge and, in the process, was employed to plant the garden of the East Asian History of Science Library (now the Needham Research Institute) with genuine Japanese and Chinese plants.

As this enthusiast and scholar was lifting the door on to his car roof, he noticed an inscription roughly carved with a knife on the back of the "Mermaid" cartouche panel. It reads "(W+S 1667, Green Dragon, London)". He knew the panels should date from 1600-1610, so it made no sense. How he unravelled the mystery of what the inscription meant adds conviction to the authenticity of the piece - it would have been a very odd inscription for a faker to place there.

Hausmann researched every London pub called the Green Dragon in the records of the Guildhall Library with no result. Then, browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge, he saw an old book with the author's name "Hooker" on the spine. Thinking it might be by the famous botanist of that name he reached it down and found from the title page that he was wrong. This particular Hooker had written eight books on Ecclesiastical Polity, and the volume which he held in his hand was printed "for Andrew Crooke, at the Green Dragon in St Paul's Churchyard in 1662". The "Green Dragon", he realised, might refer to a publisher. Back in the library he discovered that Andrew Crooke was head of the Stationer's Company during the Great Fire of 1666 and responsible for assessing the damage to the printing trade. He had published from premises at the sign of the Green Dragon in St Paul's churchyard both before and after the Fire.

The next happy coincidence came at an auction of Chinese bronzes at Christie's, South Kensington. Hausmann was getting bored and wandered into the next room where a book sale was being prepared. Among the books he discovered a second folio edition of Jonson's plays published in 1640 - by Andrew Crooke. The connection between the Green Dragon and the denizens of the Mermaid Tavern was finally established. Another document revealed that the lease of Crooke's Green Dragon premises was owned in 1669 by two men called Giles Widdowes and Augustine Steward - a possible solution for the mystery of "W+S".

No more proof is forthcoming, but conjecture is possible. The Great Fire spread slowly across London. The owners of premises finally engulfed by the flames had time to remove cartloads of property. Someone, maybe Crooke himself, could have considered the carved panels to be of such historic significance that he ripped out a door and carried it off - storing it, perhaps, at the sign of the Green Dragon. Nothing is then known of the whereabouts of Hausmann's door until it turns up at Oxton Manor, near Nottingham, in the 20th century - the former owners of the manor have no idea when it was acquired.

Hausmann first approached the Museum of London to suggest a sale in 1990. The museum had no experts on 17th-century oak on staff and referred the authenticity question to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A sent two experts, specialists respectively in 18th and 19th century furniture, to look at the door. They concluded that "the carving itself was certainly not of the 17th century" and that "the backs of the panels revealed that the carver had reused earlier panels which had been cut down to be fitted into their new setting." They suggested that bits of old wood had been used to create the door at some time in the 19th century. On a second viewing in 1995, they came, broadly, to the same conclusions.

Then began a technical onslaught on the door. Hausmann hired Victor Chinnery to act as his agent. Chinnery is the author of the standard work on 17th- century furniture, Oak Furniture: The British Tradition, and is currently consultant to Christie's and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Chinnery arranged that the door panels should be studied by Dr Ian Tyers of the Museum of London Archaeological Service - wood can be dated from the pattern of tree rings which reflect variations in weather. It turned out that the carved panels themselves could not be dated since they had been cut tangentially - thus making the rings unreadable. The latest growth rings of the radially cut panels ranged from 1579 to 1640.

On this basis, Hausmann and Chinnery suggest that the carved panels, saved from the Mermaid, date from around 1610 to 1615 - Jonson is not wearing the laurel wreath he adopts in portraits post-dating his appointment as poet laureate in 1616, a post of which he was inordinately proud. They suggest that the panels were used to construct a new door after the fire of 1666 - hence the use of some later, but also 17th century, wood.

For the sake of the so-called "dendrochronological" dating of the wood panels, the door had to be dismantled. This was done by a restorer and expert on early furniture, Walter Friedrich, of Cologne while Hausmann watched and photographed the process. There was no evidence that it had ever been taken to pieces before, he claims - and Friedrich, an expert in his own right, agrees. The technology with which the door was constructed, using hand-made wooden pegs, belongs to the 17th century. The pegs which projected slightly because of shrinkage showed no sign of re-use. There was no sign of glue which was favoured from the 18th century onwards.

Rather than finding an honourable place in a museum collection, however, this extraordinary discovery has become the focus of a battle of experts. It must be said that Chinnery and Hausmann have plied and pestered the museums with a perseverance normally only found among nutcases. The evidence goes their way and they can cite a long list of 17th-century specialists who agree with them. Has the Victoria and Albert Museum prevented the nation from making an expensive mistake? Or is Britain about to lose a national treasure because the V & A got it wrong? !

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