The Feral Beast: Nothing up Sotheby's sleeve...
Playful, but with sharp claws
Sotheby's is being sued by an unhappy vendor, after it catalogued his picture as by a "follower" of Caravaggio and sold it for £50,000. It's now said to be by the painter himself, and worth £10m. Lancelot Thwaytes is taking the auction house to court for saying The Cardsharps was "a 17th century copy" when he consigned it in 2006. It was snapped up by Caravaggio expert Sir Denis Mahon, who then identified it as an original.
Sotheby's is sticking to its line, saying it did its homework. "Our view is supported by the market, which gave its verdict when it set the price at £50,400." But leading art critic Brian Sewell is bemused by the case. "I'm surprised Sotheby's did not automatically consult Sir Denis, because he had been the absolute authority on Caravaggio for half a century," he tells me. "They should have gone to him for his opinion."
However, Sewell is not convinced the painting is necessarily by the painter's hand. "Sir Denis became really quite irresponsible later in life, and saw quite a lot of Caravaggios where there were none at all. The onus will be on the vendor to prove it is by him, and the onus on Sotheby's will be to indicate that they did indeed consult Denis at the time. They may have thought it not worth showing him this bit of old rubbish. Either way, Denis is conveniently now dead."
Eggs were thrown at last week's Hatchet of the Year awards, the prize for most stinging book review. And they keep coming. Novelist Rachel Cusk has hit back at Camilla Long, the Sunday Times reviewer who won with a demolition of Cusk's marital unravelling, Aftermath. Long described it as "acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains". I ask Cusk how she's taking it. "I didn't read her review in fact," she sniffs. "And since I've never heard of her, and assume she's not an intellectual of world repute, I don't feel all that menaced!" Going down well, then.
PM's bad dream
The Prime Minister had a busy night on Valentine's Day, squeezing in two parties as well as his son Elwen's 7th birthday. The launch of old friend James Fergusson's book on Somalia, conveniently held at Westminster Palace, preceded a Tory party reception for Parliamentary researchers. Wisely he didn't stick around for the school disco that followed, when one wag raised the spectre of Labour's '97 landslide, by requesting D-Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better", hot physicist Brian Cox on keyboard. But it has a timely resonance: the title is also that of the biography of John O'Farrell – the Labour candidate for Eastleigh.
Lembit Opik doesn't normally waste any time drawing attention to himself when the opportunity arises. So why no noise from the ex- MP following the meteor shower in Russia? When he was the Lib Dem member for Montgomeryshire, he was so concerned about the threat of airborne bits of matter that he would frequently make long speeches about the danger in the Commons, demanding to know what provision had been made to protect us. In 2008, he established that we spend only £25,000 a year on the threat of Near Earth Objects. The subject is close to Lembit's heart because his grandfather, Ernst Julius, was a professional astronomer specialising in comet and meteorite impacts. There's even an asteroid named after him, prompting Lembit to once quip, "I may have to move to Öpik's asteroid one day if I lose Montgomeryshire." Maybe he has – his mobile had no signal yesterday.
David Miliband finally appears to have got over losing to his brother in the Labour leadership election. On a visit to Bradford last week, he said he's backing Bradford against Swansea in the Capital One Cup final next Sunday; "I always back the underdog," he joked, masterfully poking fun at both the team and himself. Is Ed ever as witty?
It's the curse of Shirley Williams. A man who drove Williams on a victory lap of her constituency in his MG, after she was elected Labour MP for Hitchin in 1966, has revealed that it cost him his friends and led him to abandon the car for almost half a century. Kit Ellis, then 24, found that the right-leaning local car club turned its back on him, as did his Socialist friends, since Williams was to the right of Labour. In disgust, he laid up the 1949 MG TC in his mother's garage, and moved to London, where he has lived ever since. Now, almost 50 years later, he has unearthed the car, Michael Worthington-Williams reports in The Automobile.
Mr Ellis has fond memories of that day: "We drove around for three or four hours, with Bernard Williams following behind in his Rover," he tells me. "My car was pretty primitive: it had no roof and no windows. I don't think Shirley was particularly happy about it, or about the agricultural smells. She went on about this idea that England ought to position itself somewhere between the US and Russia, and we should be like Yugoslavia. I remember thinking she's crazy – Yugoslavia's a terrible country, then run under Tito. I remember thinking, 'I don't think she really believes this.'"
When I ask Baroness Williams for her recollections of that day, she says: "I have no memories of it whatsoever."
Tony Hall hasn't even started at the BBC, and already he has improved it. The incoming director-general has scrapped the meaningless management speak, and renamed the "vision" department "television", and "audio" is now radio, because "it's what we and our audiences actually call them". But how far will he go in cleaning up the BBC after the Jimmy Savile scandal?
A report by Vanity Fair suggests there are plenty more tales of illicit fumblings to emerge. "A veteran BBC filmmaker told me the BBC itself "was a hotbed of repressed sexuality," writes Maureen Orth. "He recounted the tale of an editor of the current-affairs programme Panorama and a female staffer encountered in flagrante across the editor's desk one night by a fireman. "Don't you even knock when you come in?" the editor asked. "I did knock, sir," the fireman replied, "but you was knockin' rather harder." Wonder what BBC jargon is for rumpy-pumpy?
Becks à la carte
David Beckham will be living in a £14,600-a night suite at Le Bristol, when plays for Paris Saint-Germain. No doubt affable Becks will soothe relations with France, a little fraught since we sent them six bute-doped horse carcasses. But not all the beau monde is as dazzled by Becks as we are. One radio wag titters: "So, the English have been foisting their worn-out carthorses on us. But enough about David Beckham ...."
Jeremy too sexy for his shirt?
Jeremy Irons appears to have fallen in love with his younger self. Last week he claimed older men used to touch him up – "I just told them to get lost." Now, he says he was so hot that hitch-hiking was fraught with danger. "As a young man I … travelled from England to Gibraltar," he tells Shortlist. "South America is another place I've backpacked around.... l needed to hitchhike a lot over there – but I often had to leave someone's car because they either smelled of garlic, or there was a chance they were after my very young body [laughs]." Quite the Narcissus.
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