As pot and kettle moments go, having Jeffrey Archer accuse you of vulgarity is surely up there with the best of them – but Alastair Sooke, recipient of this eye-opening rebuke, handled it pretty well in The World's Most Expensive Paintings.
He didn't bridle or protest. He merely pointed out the silver-gilt cigarette box on a nearby table, crafted into the form of a paperback edition of Archer's Kane and Abel. A nice net-cord volley, I thought. Quite why Sooke had gone to see Archer I'm still not entirely sure, because the smug little perjurer didn't really have anything very illuminating to say about the subject under discussion. Perhaps they just wanted to get a look at his penthouse apartment. Or perhaps they wanted to show you that in the world of the super-paintings even someone as rich as Archer is a comparative pauper. The cheapest painting Sooke focused on here – in a film that took its structure from a Top Ten countdown – had cost its buyer just a little under $73m. Well, not just a little perhaps, given that it was $160,000 under. But mere loose change to the kind of oligarchs and billionaires who haunt the New York salerooms.
Next up was Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents, which made the point that a collector's obsession often lies behind the stratospheric prices some paintings command. When a rarity comes up – and the acquisitive egos of several very rich people collide in one room – there's no saying when the gavel will finally come down. In the case of Massacre of the Innocents it was at £76,529,058 and it went to the Canadian billionaire Kenneth Thomson, a lifetime collector who actually had the decency to put his trophies into a public gallery so that everyone could share them. That doesn't always happen. The Japanese paper magnate who bought Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet and Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette in a breathtaking spending spree in 1990 wouldn't even let his family look at them, and threatened to burn them both when he ran into financial difficulties. They haven't been seen in public since.
There was a bit of desultory reflection on the disconnection between price and value, with Sooke allowing himself to hint that the $87m an Estée Lauder heir paid for Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was considerably over the odds if artistic merit was all that counted. And a French collector called François Pinault, who has a stunning contemporary collection in Venice, tutted sadly about the vulgarity of some of the big recent buyers, who care less about the art than showing that they have the ability to buy it. But it wasn't really until the last 15 minutes that the film began to acquire any real bite, as Sooke explored the recent history of several paintings by the world's "ultimate luxury brand" – Pablo Picasso. The fate of La Rêve was particularly touching. It was bought in the Forties by Victor and Sally Ganz, a middle-class New York couple who paid $7,000 for it – the equivalent of two years' rent and a sum they could only just scrape together. Fifty years on it was in the ownership of a Las Vegas casino owner called Steve Wynn, who was on the brink of selling it for $139m when he accidentally put his elbow through the canvas. The Ganz's daughter talked with rueful common sense about its transformation from an object of aesthetic obsession to a kind of high-stakes poker chip. Sooke, as usual an affable presence on screen, couldn't quite match her for gravitas and authority. He's a good presenter already – he could be a very good one if he thought a bit harder about the words he uses. To describe a Rubens masterpiece as "a total, total knockout!", as he did earlier in the programme, falls some way short of what's required.
The painting Sooke finished with, Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for $106m, securing it the current top spot, also features in the opening titles of Fake or Fortune? – a slightly different take on the intersection of cash and art. This week the "team" (the pretence that they're some kind of investigative unit is one of the minor irritations of the format) were on the trail of a potential Rembrandt, spotted as a "sleeper" in a Cape Town auction. In the catalogue it had a reserve of £800, but Philip Mould's researcher Bendor Grosvenor had recognised the face of the figure in the painting as a regular model of Rembrandt's, and thought it might be a painting sold in 1934 in Berlin after being expropriated from a Jewish collector. With the clock ticking, a Parisian lawyer who'd dedicated herself to tracking down stolen art got the painting withdrawn from the sale, and Fiona Bruce flew out to Cape Town to bring it back for examination.
As in previous episodes the thing was a very effective blend of slightly ersatz mystery and surreptitious fine-art education, in this case a lesson in the complexities of restoring stolen art (there are sometimes more than one claimant when a picture reappears) and an introduction to Rembrandt's studio system, which came courtesy of the fact that it turned out not to be a Rembrandt at all but an Isaac de Jouderville, one of his students. Isaac de Jouderville, as you've probably guessed, doesn't have quite as potent an effect on a saleroom price as his one-time teacher. But even so the price tag had been multiplied by 20. The picture looked exactly the same.