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How I met the FBI

by David Dallas, Old Master Specialist

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This article is for those of you who missed the webinar about how I met the FBI.

Twenty years ago when I worked for Johnny Van Haeften in his Duke Street, St James’s Gallery, we became friendly with one of the top guys in the Art Squad.  One day we got a call from him asking us if we could help. Two colleagues in the Danish Art squad, who had been working undercover in Eastern Europe posing as dishonest collectors, were rumbled by the thieves and murdered.  It transpired that when they were confronted with the stolen paintings, they handled them in a very timid, unconvincing way.

So we were asked to give a demonstration to about 20 members of Interpol on how to handle a painting, what to look for and how to pass oneself off as a connoisseur.  Somehow the FBI got to hear of this and asked if they could send two operatives as well. Of course we said “yes” and a husband and wife team of FBI agents duly arrived with the European contingent.

We started by showing them what sturdy things pictures really are, whether they are painted on canvas, panel or copper, they don’t need to be handled with kid gloves.  We didn’t exactly throw the pictures at them, but we let them hold them and pass them around to one another.

The agents were mildly surprised that Johnny and I started examining the pictures by looking at their reverse side first.  We pointed out that Old Master paintings (those painted before 1800), often have collection seals made of sealing wax glued to the panel or stretcher, if it is a painting on canvas.  These seals are the clue to the provenance or history of the painting.  King Charles I even branded the panels in his collection with the royal cypher CR!  In the case of 19th Century paintings, the reverse can often reveal inscriptions and signatures of the artists and 20th Century paintings are very likely to have Exhibition labels glued to the stretcher or frame and these too, can be clues to provenance and also add glamour and prestige to a painting if a label shows it has been exhibited in a major public art gallery.

We also taught them to look at the frames and try to determine what materials they are made of.  If the frame is made of carved wood and then gilded in 24 carat gold leaf, which are very expensive materials, the implication is that this is a painting that someone thought highly of in the past and you should take it seriously, too. 

Finally, we turned to the front of the pictures.  We showed our pupils that before we looked at the surface under a magnifying glass, we took in the whole picture to see how well the composition works. Then came the magnifying glass.  If a criminal is watching you whilst you handle the magnifying glass, you have to wield it in a believable manner. You can’t just randomly explore the surface. Johnny and I showed them that we were looking for two things under magnification. 

We would look at various different parts of the painting to see how well executed the details were and at the same time, we could determine the condition of the paint layer.  Historic restoration can leave the surface abraded, as the action of wiping a solvent on a rag or cotton wool swab across the paint causes friction and a cleaning solvent that can dissolve old varnish can dissolve paint too.  Original condition is crucial to the value of a painting and any true connoisseur would know that.

The final tool one needs to know about, especially when determining condition, is the Ultra Violet lamp. All experts carry one.  They are just as useful for examining porcelain or furniture as they are for paintings.  They only work in a darkened room.

When you bombard a painting with UV light it gives off a slightly green haze, but any later paint, such as restoration to a damage, shows up black. It gives you a very precise indication of condition.

We showed them how dirty varnish fluoresces turquoise and how to assess what proportion of the surface is new paint.  There then followed a lively session of Q and A and we and the cops parted as good friends. The FBI visited us whenever they were in London.

If you are going to pass yourself off as a connoisseur you have to be confident. So whatever you do, as an undercover cop, when handling a painting do it with brio and you might just live to tell the tale.

To show how tough paintings are I am reminded of a wonderful vignette that took place in New Bond Street one mid-July afternoon in the 1970s.

The last Old Master sale of the season had just taken place at Sotheby’s and a dealer called Raymond Romari had bought a large Flemish landscape on a piece of wavy copper. As chance would have it, New Bond Street was being re-tarmacked and when Raymond stepped out on to the sunny street, he had an idea. In those days, there was a news stand on the street outside Sotheby’s and you had to pay for the Evening Standard then.

Raymond bought two copies and flagged down the driver of the steam roller. He asked him if he would mind driving over his picture! He said he would be delighted to do so. As a small crowd gathered round, Raymond laid one open copy of the Evening Standard on the tarmac, placed the copper panel face down and the second copy of the Evening Standard on top of it. To cheers from the crowd, he waved the steamroller forward. When it had finished its manoeuvre, Raymond had a perfectly flat picture and no paint loss. I think he might have been lucky that he got away with it! Don’t try this at home!