During my career as a professional art researcher, I must have had this kind of conversation dozens of times. Most people seem to own at least one mystery antique object they want to find out more about.
At the other extreme, I have been asked to undertake extensive research for clients for a fee. An American I once worked for had a piece of French furniture he wanted to investigate. It had been sold by a woman at Christie's in 1906, and I was commissioned to find out more about her. All I had was her name and her London address at the time of the sale. She did not appear in any of the standard biographical dictionaries, so without much hope I went to the local-
history library covering her smart London area, to track down any records.
After three days, a fascinating story began to emerge from dusty, rare books and period newspapers. The owner turned out to have been a wealthy and beautiful widow, a prominent figure in London society and a close friend of Edward VII - renowned for his intimacies with attractive ladies. Newspapers of the day reported their meetings and were scandalised when he granted her the use of a royal residence in Richmond Park as her country retreat.
But as the Edwardian era drew to a close, so did her glamorous lifestyle. She went bankrupt, hence the sale of her goods at Christie's - which was covered by the newspapers in gleeful detail. My client was delighted. His purchase was no longer just an example of fine French craftmanship but a little bit of English history and a great conversation piece.
Art history research can appear an arcane pursuit, conjuring up the image of academic and elegant Anthony Blunt figures leafing though precious manuscripts. Only years of experience can provide the kind of knowledge seen on The Antiques Roadshow, where an expert can identify a work at a single glance. But you do not have to be an expert or an academic to research your favourite family treasure.
Anyone can become their own art detective. Museums and libraries are open to all; auction houses provide a free valuation and identification service; specialists in every field can be consulted. There is a truly astonishing range of resources available - many of them costing nothing. The rewards can be tremendous - and not just in terms of discovering how much your heirloom is worth.
At its most successful, research can do more than identify, date and value an antique or picture. It can also bring it to life. I once investigated an important Sevres porcelain vase - massive in size, and positively heaving with gilt and decoration. A letter to
the Sevres factory and museum in France (which have preserved all their archives) uncovered not only
the original designs and the names of all the painters and craftsmen who had worked the vase, but also revealed a remarkable tale.
In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, Europe's most eminent statesmen met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. During that time, the vase was presented as a diplomatic sweetener to the British representative, Viscount Castlereagh by the great French politician Talleyrand-Perigord. Suddenly the vase was far more than a gaudily decorated and oversized porcelain pot; it was a piece of political history, and an example of art detection at its most rewarding.
The history of an object is not just about who made it, but also concerns who has owned it and what has happened to it over the years (known as the provenance). Social snobbery is as much a fact of art research as it is of other areas of life, and a good provenance - while it will not improve the intrinsic quality of the work - can certainly make it more interesting and possibly more valuable.
While most of us are unlikely to find that our family possessions once belonged to a royal mistress or a great potentate, there is always a story to discover. It is hugely satisfying if you manage to find out a little more about the artist who painted your picture, or the cabinet-maker who produced your chair. In research terms, it can sometimes be the most obscure figures who are the most interesting, since you might be the first person to investigate their history. This enables you to become an 'expert witness' on your own specialised topic.
The success of an art investigation can never be guaranteed. Sometimes you will resolve your mystery and uncover a treasure-trove of wonderful information. You might occasionally find out more than you actually wanted to know - as happened to one of my clients when I unfortunately discovered that a Gainsborough owned by the family was in fact a copy. Other times, you will be able to turn up little more than a date and a nationality.
Many works are destined to remain anonymous; even the greatest detectives have their unsolved cases, and you might never discover who painted your picture or made the furniture you inherited. 'The more featureless and commonplace a crime is,' Sherlock Holmes complained, 'the more difficult it is to bring it home.' The same is true for the art detective.
Whatever the results of your investigation, you will always learn about an item's general history - the events and fashions that influenced its style and made it what it is. You may or may not find a name and a story to go with your favourite possession, but by the time you wrap up the case you will certainly understand it better - and hopefully enjoy it more.
How to be an art detective
Every object has its own specific requirements, but the same general procedure can be applied to any work - be it an Old Master painting or an ancient teddy bear.
PREPARING THE CASE: Examine the item closely and carefully. Write down what it is and what it is made of. Don't worry if you can't identify the material precisely -
'ceramic' will do if you don't know whether a blue and white plate is pottery or porcelain. Highlight any interesting features of decoration or design. Measure the work and copy down all marks, signatures, labels and numbers inscribed on it.
Collect any circumstantial evidence. If the object is inherited, list the people to whom it has belonged and, if possible, the dates of their birth and death. Note down any related family stories, but be cautious and sceptical. Like the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, family legends often belong to the realms of pleasurable fantasy rather than fact.
Gather together any relevant bills, letters or papers. If you purchased the object, write down anything you were told about it at the time. If possible, ask the dealer or vendor for more information. Finally, take a photograph of the object, preferably in natural light. This will be useful for showing to the relevant specialist or museum.
THE INVESTIGATION: If you have a name to go on - a signature on a painting, a factory mark on a pot - then it is worth doing some preliminary research in a library. Books won't tell you whether your object is a masterpiece or a fake, but may help pinpoint a person who can.
Contact your local library for your nearest art history library - or at least which branch stocks the most books on art and antiques. Begin by looking at the main dictionaries and reference works in your field. Every subject has its research bibles, such as Geoffrey A Godden's Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks - referred to in the trade as 'God'. Art Detective (see footnote opposite) provides a list of such works; publications by the Antique Collectors' Club are worth consulting. Photocopy relevant information.
These reference works will provide the first real evidence - the dates of an artist, the details of a factory. They will lead you to other sources of information (museums, archives) and to other published works - not just books, but auction and exhibition catalogues, newspapers and periodicals.
Whatever your requirements, you will need a good library. The Victoria & Albert Museum houses Britain's National Art Library and the largest collection of fine and decorative art books in the world. National Copyright Libraries are another good source. For general research, try the London Library (though you have to pay a membership fee); most of its collection is kept on open shelves rather than in distant storerooms, and books can be borrowed.
Many art and antiques societies and institutions have their own specialist libraries. In London, Goldsmith's Hall houses an important silver library; the Courtauld Institute of Art has two picture libraries (The Witt and The Conway) devoted to artists and sculptors respectively.
AUCTION HOUSES: If you take an object along to the front desk (or send in a photograph and details), they will give you a free valuation and identification.
DEALERS: Though not set up to provide an official public information service, many are happy to
offer advice about their area of expertise. Some will look at objects out of interest, others will give a written assessment and valuation for a fee. Find an established specialist in your field, with an academic - not just commercial - passion for the subject. Two main trade associations, Bada and Lapada, should be able to help.
MUSEUMS: Britain's museums are a treasure-trove for the art detective. Most provide a free opinion service on objects brought in by the public (telephone for details). At the Horological Students' Room at the British Museum, you will find a leading clock and watch specialist. There is also a magnificent collection ranging from 16th- century timepieces to the Mickey Mouse watch. Many museums have libraries open to the public; specialist departments have their own libraries and archives which can be consulted by arrangement.
If you are investigating a marine painting or navigational instrument, try the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; for Wedgwood, try the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent; for the decorative arts in general, there is no better starting point than the V & A.
ARCHIVE RESEARCH: If you know where a particular artist lived, go to a local history library and see what you can dig up there from directories, census forms, electoral registers and rate books. The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts is a mecca for the art detective, providing a catalogue of archives and papers held in record offices nationwide.
Look up the your artist or craftsman in the index. You might discover that an artist's letters are held by the Royal Academy Library, while details of transactions with a particular Lord are listed among the family and estate papers at a record office in Leeds.
OTHER SOURCES: If the company that made your object still exists, find out if it has preserved any records. If the item commemorates some sporting event, try the relevant association. If you want to identify a rare type of wood used in furniture, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew may be able to help.
National Art Library: Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, tel 071-938 8500
NATIONAL COPYRIGHT LIBRARIES
The British Library: Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, tel 071-636 1544
National Library of Scotland: George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW, tel 031 226 4531
Cambridge University Library: West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR, tel 0223 333000
National Library of Wales: Aberystwyth, Dyfed SY23 3BU, tel 0970 623816
The Bodleian Library: University of Oxford, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG, tel 0865 277000
The London Library: 14 St James's Square, London SW1Y 4LG, tel 071-930 7705
The Witt Library (and Conway Library): Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN, tel 071-873 2777 (reception)
DEALERS' TRADE ASSOCIATIONS
The British Antique Dealers' Association (Bada): 20 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1BD, tel 071-589 4128
The London and Provincial Antique Dealers' Associat-
ion: (Lapada): 535 King's Road, London SW10 0SZ, tel 071-823 3511
The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts: Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1HP, tel 071-242 1198
Madeleine Marsh's book 'Art
Detective - How To Research Your Paintings, Antiques & Collectables' will be published by Pelham Books on 6 May at pounds 13.99Reuse content