Establishing the authenticity of a painting – as Fake or Fortune? entertainingly demonstrated last night – involves a tricky combination of taste, technology and scholarship.
Establishing the exact authenticity of a television programme can be even trickier. On the face of it, Fake or Fortune? was a real-life detective story, full of twists and revelations that appeared to be as unexpected and exciting to those on screen as they were to us at home. Fiona Bruce was there as a kind of fine art Emma Peel with Philip Mould, an Antiques Roadshow regular, as her John Steed, the two of them racing around the place in expensive cars and speedboats, from Paris to Cairo, in a quest to prove that a pretty oil sketch of the Seine really was a missing Monet. It was full of cliffhanger tension and thrilling moments of discovery. But I couldn't entirely shift the suspicion that some of it was just a little too good to be true.
The essential storyline was a gripping one. Some 18 years ago, David Joel, a retired naval officer, had paid £40,000 for a view of the Seine at Argenteuil signed by Monet. The dealer who sold it to him either believed that the signature wasn't authentic, or had given up hope of getting the Wildenstein Institute to admit it to its Monet Catalogue Raisonné, without which it could never be sold as the real thing. David, a dogged kind of fellow, had been trying himself for years, collecting a series of increasingly terse letters of refusal. Enter Mould and Bruce, to have another go at getting this formidably self-regarding body to entertain the possibility that it might have made a mistake.
The programme offers a beginner's guide to the lively snake-pit of attribution, which used to be mostly a matter of connoisseurship and gut-feeling but has steadily been transformed by technology. The painting was taken to Paris, to be photographed on a 240-million-pixel camera that could, with the help of different filters, allow the curious to peer beneath the paint surface. A German Monet expert ramped the zoom up to maximum and announced that there was nothing in the brushwork to arouse her suspicions. Then they turned the painting round, and started to pick away at the clues they found there. A French railway stamp suggested that the blank canvas had been despatched to Argenteuil at about the right time from an art supplies merchant that Monet had certainly had dealings with. They even identified the spot on the Seine where it might have been painted.
Naturally, as in any good adventure, there were setbacks. The French customs high-handedly impounded the picture as it was being taken back to London, on the ironic grounds that it might be a national treasure, and displayed a characteristic Gallic disdain in the face of Bruce's furious protests. And then, in the Cairo palace of one of the painting's former owners, they turned up what looked like absolutely clinching evidence – an old dealer's photograph of the painting, of the kind sent out to rich clients to whip up interest, and an exact correspondence between the style of the stock number on the frame and the tickets used by a Paris dealer called George Petit, who dealt in Monet's work. If it wasn't a work of genius as a painting, then it was undoubtedly a work of genius as a forgery. Along with affidavits from distinguished international Monet scholars, the painting was resubmitted to the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, a thrillingly ominous looking building with a spymaster's electronic gate. Astonishingly, they said no – Guy Wildenstein, a Sepp Blatter of art history, declining to sully his father's record just because of a few inconvenient facts. "We don't think it looks right," they declared loftily.
So what didn't "feel right" to me, you might be wondering, given that this downbeat ending was the exact opposite of what any television faker would have contrived? Well, nothing to do with the facts, only with the way they were presented to us. It was implied, for example, that Bruce and Mould had to wait on tenterhooks for their emissary to return to London from Paris before finding out the final verdict, though it seems frankly inconceivable that he wouldn't have called them on the phone the moment he got the news. And it seemed a little strange too not to mention that David Joel has actually published a book about Monet himself, as if that detail might compromise the idea that he was a plucky outsider up against arrogant art-world insiders. I'm sure the basic picture was the real thing, but they'd added a little varnish to make it shine.
The Marriage Ref – based on an idea by Jerry Seinfeld – was a disaster in the States and doesn't look as if it will do much better here. The idea is that bickering couples bring their disputes for resolution to a panel of celebrities, though since there's absolutely nothing at stake for anyone involved and the disputes are cutely trivial anyway (a husband's obsession with pickles, a wife's addiction to to-do lists), it's really just an excuse for yet another comedy panel show. Dermot O'Leary presents, with tiresome ebullience, and the audience goes "aaahhh" whenever a couple turn up who are over 60. Sarah Millican and Jimmy Carr both had their moments in the first episode, but I'm not sure that there's a lot to keep you watching other than a long unresolved row with your partner over whose turn it is to find the remote control.