The only reason why I didn’t give this book a 5 out of 5 was because the book-snob in me kicked in and thought it would be too much to place it up there with Austen and Garcia Marquez. That being said, it was an utterly rewarding read: an entrancing, fast-paced view of the art world, with a good dose of investigative history and terrific storytelling.

You might recognize Philip Mould is part of the team of experts in Antiques Roadshow, where he evaluates paintings. He also started his own antiques business and soon realized that the best way to get profit and satisfy his own taste for adventure was to go after hidden masterpieces. Some risks paid off, others were disastrous, but this book focuses of six success stories – six fabulous paintings and how their true identity was uncovered.

My favorite story was about a Rembrandt self-portrait, so over-painted to reflect the fashion of different owners and centuries, that it became labelled as “by a follower of the artist”. Mould tells us of the painting’s adventures until it’s finally recognized as an original. In between he describes the birth of the Rembrandt Research Project, a unique initiative created by the Dutch Government, to ensure the protection of one of the country’s biggest assets from forgery and misattributions. The RRP is currently Chaired by Ernst van de Wetering, a fascinating man who Mould unapologetically admires:

In an old house if Amsterdam lives a professor who wields daunting power in the highest echelons of the art world. His name is Ernst van de Wetering, and he has come to be an arbiter of life and death for the works of Rembrandt.

Some of Mould’s stories are set outside the UK. He went to the United States to gather information about a Norman Rockwell painting that for four years lay hidden behind a false wall, while a forgery held a place of honor in the Norman Rockwell Museum. I also found myself hanging at the edge of my seat during his trip to the Bahamas to uncover the past of a Homer watercolor found in a dumpster in Ireland.

Each story becomes addictive and compelling because Mould tells is from a human perspective, adding interesting historic and personal insights. It also helps that the book has images of the paintings he’s describing. I lost count of the times I went back to them as I read.

If you’re interested in art or history, apart from this book I’d also recommend the BBC Series Fake or Fortune, presented by Philip Mould, the man himself. One of the episodes is about the Homer watercolor.


Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, The Cineaste’s Bookshelf (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 3: Art business/Restoration