Television: Rich pickings on the antiques trail

Roger Cook returns next week with a bold inquiry into art fraud. Tim Dowling investigates

The antiques business is a bit like the political lobbying business: it's not so much that a few rotten apples are spoiling the barrel, but that the whole barrel was a bit mealy to begin with. It is, after all, a world where buying something for less than it's worth and selling it for more than it's worth - and duping someone at both ends of the transaction - is the whole point. When you take away the shady practices of antiques dealers, the shameless profiteering of auction houses, the wildly inflated prices, the forgeries, the illegal exports and the plain old thieving, what's left? There is perhaps such a thing as honest, upright antiques dealing, but it's clearly not where the big money is.

In a departure from his usual high-risk door-stepping, Roger Cook takes on the shabby-genteel world of fine art and antiques in The Cook Report Special: The Antiques Rogue Show (ITV, Wednesday). The statistics alone prove it to be a subject worthy of Cook's attention: pounds 500m worth of art and antiques stolen annually, works of art worth pounds 1bn currently listed in the Art Loss Register. Central to The Cook Report Special is a sting operation involving a borrowed country house and a copy of a pounds 20,000 painting which is left temptingly on the kitchen counter. With Cook's team posing as collectors, a known ring of art thieves is dispatched to steal the painting to order, and caught in the act by cameras hidden in bushes, bread bins and boxes of tea bags.

This is a big subject for Cook & Co, and they open their investigation on several fronts. Along with the sting operation, the programme looks at the problem of "knockers" who go door to door conning pensioners out of their antiques; the particular vulnerability of stately homes to art thieves; the art markets which serve as clearing houses for stolen property; and the blind eye which dealers and even top auction houses often turn to potentially stolen goods. "It's a very complicit crime," says Cook Report producer Philip Braund. "People are always eager to accept something without making any checks whatsoever."

A proposed "code of due diligence" requiring such checks has already met with resistance from the auction houses, who say they already do all they can. The programme highlights the need for such a code by borrowing a large painting from Sir Thomas Ingilby, who has reported it stolen to Trace magazine - the closest thing Britain has to a national database of stolen antiques. Then a scruffy man in a hire van takes the picture round London's auction houses in search of an appraisal. What is shocking is not so much that the auctioneers do not check the provenance of the painting (all have the convenient excuse that they would have done had the painting been put in a sale) but that none of them seem to know the slightest thing about its value. A few don't even guess its age or the artist, despite the fact that it is signed and dated. This includes the auction house that had appraised it for Sir Thomas a few weeks earlier.

In yet another strand of the programme, Mr Cook's team buy a painting - a rather nice little Lowry - that had been withdrawn from an auction on the suspicion that it was a forgery. The intention, according to Mr Braund, was "to see if an auction house would accept something that was an obvious fake". Lowry Museum curator Judith Sanding confirmed that the painting was "not right", only to have restoration expert Lady Poppy Cooksey, a serious woman burdened with a name from a Wodehouse novel, perform tests which proved that the painting is indeed genuine. It is said to be worth pounds 30,000, and may even now be hanging in Carlton Television's boardroom. "The thing is, you don't have to be an expert at all to be in the antiques business," says Mr Braund. "I suspect I now know more about Lowry than some of the experts we took our picture to."

For the most part, The Cook Report Special juggles its several topics nicely, despite a slightly out of place segment about a police sting operation that inadvertently led to John McVicar's son marching into a gallery with a shotgun and ripping a Picasso off the wall. The contention that the undercover squad's offer to buy stolen paintings resulted directly in a situation where lives were put in danger seems a bit rich, especially when the case is put by two old lags who were caught in the sting and an agent provocateur like Mr Cook himself. It seems more likely that McVicar Jr is simply a bonehead of the first water.

While this may be new territory for The Cook Report, most of the old elements are still there. Mr Cook himself still speaks with the grim, righteous cadence of the old-fashioned TV muckraker. It is a style that one now associates almost exclusively with parody. At times you feel you could be watching an expertly made-up Dawn French doing an uncharitable impersonation. But he has a reassuring way of calling a spade a spade, and a bad guy a bad guy. Although it was cut from preview tapes for legal reasons, I am assured that the traditional final showdown between Mr Cook and Mr Bad will happen on Wednesday. Sadly or mercifully, depending on your tastes, this high-flying art fraudster is unlikely to threaten Mr Cook with a crowbar in the car port.

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