When your experts disagree and why every connoisseur needs a conservator of integrity and verve… like I have.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program notes. When I go to an art museum, gallery or auction house I am eagle-eyed and fastidious to a degree. A nick in the frame, the dust and grime of centuries, the general effect sad and forlorn, all these I see. I see, too, the myriad of other defects in these often bedraggled artifacts which are a severely neglected part of our artistic inheritance. I see them… I decry them… but if the picture in question be on offer… such defects constitute a cri de coeur I cannot resist.
For I am a good Samaritan, thrilled by finding something that was once splendid but has fallen upon hard times; an object once of brilliance and splendor, calling to me to restore it to its pristine allure.
I hear the cry, I see the need, but alone I cannot do the task. To achieve the desired result I need a collaborator… a person as fastidious as I am, as exacting, as motivated to return a once beautiful thing to its full, proud state. I need — Simon Gillespie, sleuth, chemist, aesthete, magician. And, as this article will prove, I am lucky to have him, just as he is lucky to have me… both essential for the achievement of the goal.
For the incidental music to this article, I have selected, so perfect, Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite “Pictures at an Exhibition” (which you’ll find in any search engine) because I know what going to exhibitions with Simon is like. We are both opinionated men, men of wit and wisdom, men unafraid to weigh in on the relative merits of any picture by any artist on earth… we are men, too, who enjoy, as what true connoisseur does not, life’s good things… and we like to share them, too.
I am always on the hunt for another picture for my collection. One admirable place to find the Old Masters I desire is in Vienna at Dorotheum, where since 1707 connoisseurs have found pictures to their taste. I loved it at once and I somewhat regret sharing this information with you, as I know you will love it, too, and someday we may vie for the same object, to your dismay since I am unrelenting where the pursuit of beauty and ownership are concerned. Still, as I am a good Samaritan…
At Dorotheum I find the treasures particularly of Middle Europe, lands of nobility, culture, and of once proud dynasties now with impecunious relations who sell history with regret. I feel completely at home in these corridors…
The “Gnaw” test.
… The picture of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II captured my eye at once. It was, even in its terrible condition, worth a second glance…. then a third. It portrays the future Emperor as Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1765 , a lucky boy who had been gifted with the city of Florence and environs to reign over. It was a fate any civilized person could enjoy without cavil. His brother Joseph II was emperor of all, with all the world’s problems. Fortunate Leopold had la dolce vita and the portrait, for all its imperfections, showed that.
Thus fortified, I slept on the matter, and it passed the “gnaw” test; viz., if the item in question is of sufficient interest that it gnaws at you … then you must pursue the matter. That is the connoisseur’s credo, and I adhere to it fiercely.
I emailed the efficient staff at Dorotheum, requested the condition report (it made for almost macabre reading what with all its damages and how they happened)… and then asked to speak with the staff expert on this picture. She was charming, knowledgeable — and adamant.
“Do not buy this picture.”
If you have never done business with any of the major auction houses, you may well be incredulous at an employee therein telling a customer looking for reasons to buy that such reasons were few, indeed non-existent, and that you’d be most sorry if you disregarded the advice not to purchase. But there is a method to this madness and that is the value of long-time satisfied customers. Such customers in the Old Masters category can easily buy objects totaling hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in a lifetime. Thus these auction houses, many founded like Dorotheum in the 18th century, take the long view — and so their candor stems from more than basic honesty… it is good business.
Dorotheum’s in-house expert on the painting had good reasons for what she said: the picture, not to put too fine a point on the matter, was an unholy mess, as you can see from the ” before” photo above. What’s more, the picture was so far gone that restoration, in her professional opinion, was impossible. The object was well and truly one step from the ignoble street vendor or flea market. And that, so she said, was that.
But there she was wrong… I had Simon Gillespie in my corner. And I was on the telephone to him a few minutes after I had heard what Dorotheum’s expert had to say.
“How long have I done your pictures?”
Many years ago, I purchased from Sotheby’s in London a magnificent portrait of Queen Victoria’s handsome, irresponsible father-in-law, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It should have been in Buckingham Palace but probably wasn’t because Her Majesty didn’t approve of his hurtful behavior towards his son, her adored Prince Albert. And so wafted by this royal displeasure, the picture commenced its history of peregrinations. Until I saw it, wanted it, but didn’t at all like the idea of living with its imperfections. I had enough of my own.
I asked the expert assigned to this picture to recommend a restorer and conservator… and thus Simon Gillespie and I came to know each other and work together towards assembling pictures of note… and bringing them back to life. When I told Simon what Dorotheum’s expert had said, he answered briefly and to the point: “How long have I done your pictures?” In short, his opinion, stated frankly and without equivocation was to acquire this off-putting picture and let him get on with the job at hand. Expert advice and all importantly expert results make me who advise so many take heed at his advice. And so, over the course not just of years,but of decades, Simon has brought recommendations to me; I have brought my potential finds to him for always candid advice. And one picture after another (now a thing of beauty yet again) has embarked for the New World to my domain…
… and each time they arrive, I am the proverbial kid in the candy shop, for, remember, until that moment I have not actually seen the object but in photographs… each acquisition instead acquired on the recommendation of one sage fellow who has never misadvised or misdirected me.
Stunning, smart, chic, how does he do it?
And so the latest item in my happy avocation is now in Cambridge… the picture I was explicitly told to avoid… but took bolder counsel from Simon. And, of course, to see the “before” and the “after” is to know at once why a good conservator would never do… it had to be the best. And so it is. In every work he and his attentive staff take on… you are sure to find a result of integrity, for Simon like me,is supremely dedicated to doing the right thing, the accurate thing, the thing that “restores”, not invents.
Each picture he saves, and many have been celebrated masterpieces down on their luck, is the work of a lifetime. For Simon is a conservator to his fingertips. That means he has helped back to health one work after another, learning in their subjects, their compositions, their brush strokes and flourishes their secrets… and so he keeps good faith with them and their creators… and the same good faith to customers like me who demand authenticity and in Simon Gillespie they always get it.
To contact Simon Gillespie Studio in London email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to simongillespie.com
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also an avid art collector and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at worldprofit.com and JeffreyLantArticles.com
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Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.