I have heard it debated with great seriousness whether a fine art dealer in a commercial town, where the finer arts are neglected, is not entitled to resort to a method of disposing of his goods which some people might be disposed to term trickery. Personally, I think any form of trickery having money for its object is indefensible. But there are tricks and tricks, and what will be chuckled over by some businessmen as “a good stroke of business” may, if submitted to a jury, be pronounced a fraud, and it appears to me that people are becoming more exacting every day in their fine art dealings. They seem to expect that a picture dealer will tell them all he knows about any picture that he offers them, and, should they consent to buy it, that he will let them have it at the price he paid for it. Should they find out, after they have completed the purchase, that he made any statement to them that was not strictly accurate, they bring an action against him. How such people would be laughed at if they were to bring an action against the vendor of a patent medicine for having stated on the bottle that it would cure gout, neuralgia, and neuritis, when they had tried it and found that it would do nothing of the sort! There was a pill made during the eighteenth century which was guaranteed to prevent earthquakes. Some time ago I heard it seriously urged, on behalf of an American patent medicine, that when the half of San Francisco had been laid in ruins by an earthquake, the building where the medicine was manufactured remained undisturbed!

But until recent years a pretty free hand was allowed to dealers in works of art. I remember being in a shop—called a gallery—in a provincial town in which a good deal of “restoration” in the picture way was effected. The proprietor had a drawerful of labels each bearing the name of a good old Master done in black on a gold ground, and when a work was “restored” to his satisfaction, he turned over the labels until he found one to suit its style. Then he nailed it very neatly on to the frame, and the picture was ready for sale as a Moroni, a Velasquez, a Tintoretto, or a Titian, as the case might be. The man was an excellent judge of pictures and prints, and I do not believe that he ever got a picture painted on an old canvas to sell as a genuine work. He simply bought all the good old pictures that he thought worth buying and “touched them up.” People bought them on chance, the wise ones asking no questions “for conscience' sake”—the conscience of the vendor; and I am pretty sure that many genuine pictures passed through his hands—some that were worth from a hundred to five hundred pounds apiece for a tenth of the smaller sum.

He saw the humour of his labels better than anyone else, I think. He never gave an audible laugh when I used to inquire if he could provide me with a really choice Rembrandt for thirty shillings; he pretended to take me seriously, and, shaking his head, he would say—

“Rembrandts with any pedigree are getting scarcer and scarcer every year, sir. You wouldn't feel justified in going as far as two pounds if you saw one that you took a fancy to, I suppose? No? Well, I'll see what I can do for you at your price, but I may tell you that it's rather below than above the figure for a genuine hand-painted Rembrandt.”

One day two gentlemen called when I was in the gallery—a major in the Gunners and a brother officer.

“Morning,” said the former. “I hope you got the frame in order.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the dealer, bustling off to where a picture was lying with its face down on a bench. He picked it up and bore it to an easel, on which he placed it in a moderately good light. “That's it, sir. I happened to lay my hands on a more suitable frame, so I didn't trouble with the old one; it's impossible to put a touch of gold leaf on an old frame without making it look patchy.”

“I think that's a far better frame than the old one,” said the major. “I brought my friend in to look at the picture. Who did you say it was by?”

“Rubens, sir—an early Rubens, I think it is.”

“Ah yes, that was the name. Looks well, doesn't it?” said the officer to his friend.

“Very well indeed. I never saw anything that took my fancy better,” said the other. “Look at that silk—rippin', I call it—absolutely rippin'.”

“I thought you'd like it,” said the major. “There's nothing looks so well in a room as a good old picture. But, of course, it's easy overdoing that sort of thing.”

“Nothing easier—like those American Johnnies,” acquiesced his friend. “Yes, a rippin' picture, I call that—good colour, you know, but all well toned down. Do you know what it is—I've a great mind to have one too.”

“Good!” cried the major. “You really couldn't do better, you know—six guineas, frame included.”

“I believe you're right. Yes, I'll take one too,” said the other, turning to the dealer, who was standing silently by.

“Very good, sir,” said the dealer. “I'll look one out for you by to-morrow afternoon, if that would suit you.”

“Suit me well. Six guineas in the frame, I suppose?”

“Yes, sir, six guineas, unless—— Would you like a pair of them, sir? I might be able to take a little off for a pair.”

The grave way in which he suggested a pair of Rubenses, as if it were customary to sell Rubenses in braces like pheasants, was too much for my nerves. I looked at my watch and made for the door, and I hope that I was well round the corner before I burst out.

I heard afterwards that the officer had no use for a brace of Rubenses; but he bought a nice little Dutch village scene, by a painter named Teniers, for three pounds. It was not signed by the artist; but I have no doubt, if he had made a point of it, the dealer would have obliged him: the work of restoration frequently includes the restoring of an artist's signature.

So it was impressed on me that there is a humorous side even to picture dealing in the provinces.

That incident, I repeat, took place in the good old days; but if one gives some attention to the law courts even nowadays one will find plenty to laugh at in connection with transactions in the fine arts. It was certainly very amusing to see some year or two ago, the examples of fine old Dresden which were displayed as “exhibits”—in the legal, not the exhibition, sense—in the law courts, all of which were pronounced spurious by the experts, though sold for many thousand pounds to a wealthy old tradesman, and to follow the story of every transaction. But I found it more amusing still to identify the various pieces with the illustrations contained in aback number of a leading magazine of art which had devoted several pages to a description of the magnificent Dresden collection of the old tradesman. What had been referred to as the gems of the cabinets were the very things that were produced in the Court as examples of the spurious!

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