I had never heard of Alfred Wallis when, in September 2016, Dorset Trading Standards received information from colleagues in Cornwall that suspected fake art by him was on sale in our county. Officers in Cornwall received a tip-off that the Alfred Wallis ‘Perkin Collection’ – being advertised in a painting and furniture fine art sale by an auctioneer in Dorchester – was not the real deal.
The auctioneer, Duke’s, had been operating for many years and was held in high regard, locally and regionally. Every couple of months, it held fine art sales at its rooms in Dorchester, advertising them through a printed catalogue and online. There were more than 1,000 lots on this occasion, with the 11 Wallis works being a major feature. One of the works even adorned the front cover of the catalogue, and the items were introduced with an article written by an expert on the works of Wallis, explaining the connection between Emma Perkin – the niece of Wallis’ carer – and the painting. These were high-value items, with guide prices ranging from £2,000 to £50,000.
Handle with care
Duke’s is a prestigious and prominent local company, so it was important to get things right. In a low-key operation, trading standards officers attended the showroom a few days before the auction date and the Wallis works were seized – using powers in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the Consumer Rights Act 2015 – and secured, along with associated paperwork.
The main thrust of suspicion was on one lot: a pencil drawing on the back of an old Player’s Navy Cut cigarette packet, which is a type of artwork associated with Wallis. However, the packet is believed to have been manufactured in the 1950s – and Wallis died in 1942. Having examined photographs from the auctioneer’s website, the cigarette manufacturer, Imperial Tobacco, confirmed that the trademark on the packet had been applied for in 1955 and the design for the pack was approved in December 1956, with a revision approved in August 1960 – more than a decade after the artist’s death. This gave us enough suspicion to doubt the authenticity of the rest of the collection.
Several items, of pencil drawings on card, were impossible to date, having no discernible features. Seven paintings – on media ranging from tobacco-tin lids and the panel of a Lipton’s tea chest, to an old blow torch, reminiscent of the type of material Wallis would have used – were submitted to an expert in the history of art technology for forensic testing. Concerned about their possible value – just in case we really were in possession of a prized collection – and the potential for damage, we notified our council insurance team and an officer drove the exhibits to the laboratory for examination. The expert concluded that they were not authentic works by Wallis, and were produced at a much later date in emulation of his style.
The Player’s Navy Cut pack was also sent to a cigarette-packet expert, who corroborated Imperial Tobacco’s timeline, adding that there were certain font changes to the lettering on the packaging in the 1950s too, which were consistent with this packet.
Due diligence failings
Unfortunately for Dukes, the emails we seized revealed that they had understood the attribution of the works to Wallis was in doubt before it chose to advertise them for sale. Significantly, there were key moments when they had opportunities to demonstrate due diligence, but failed to do so.
• A senior auctioneer had been advised by an officer from Cornwall TS that he had doubts about the provenance of the collection, and that forensic examination in these circumstances would be wholly appropriate, in line with due diligence
• Duke’s made enquiries about testing with a forensic art lab in London, which advised that there were fake Wallis artworks in circulation. It was also told that testing would cost £650 per item
• Duke’s was invited to an open evening where Wallis’s works were being discussed in a case study, but it declined to attend
All it would have taken was the examination of one of the painted items to discover they were fake – an appropriate action considering the lot guide prices and the potential reputational damage to the business. Another significant, damning discovery from the emails was that – several months before the auction – a Wallis expert advised the same senior auctioneer, and one of the partners, about their misgivings over the Perkin Collection, having taken photos of what they believed was the whole collection in 2010. None of the auction items appeared in this collection. They, too, suggested that forensic testing would show whether the paints used in them were available in Wallis’s lifetime.
Furthermore, email records of the senior auctioneers’ and two senior partners’ internal discussions about the works showed they were aware of concerns, but the decision was taken to go ahead with the sale regardless.
More missed opportunities
In the end, the cigarette packet became the most crucial evidence in the case. Again, email evidence showed that Duke’s had been made aware of concerns about the packet by the Cornish expert before the auction, and were offered the contact details of an expert. Putting the expense of forensic examination aside, this would – for the cost of a phone call – have cast enough doubt for Duke’s to withdraw the items. Another opportunity missed.
On 30 October 2017, during the first hearing at Weymouth Magistrates’ Court, Duke’s pleaded guilty to eight misleading actions under the CPRs. This related to advertising for sale at auction works of art purported to be by the Cornish artist Alfred Wallis, when they were not by that artist and were in fact paintings produced after his death. The company was fined £6,300 and had to pay all costs of £11,800. The auction catalogue gave a total price range of £70,000 to £125,000 for these eight items.
A significant loss to consumers was avoided by trading standards’ intervention. We have continued with enquiries about the forgers, but – to date – this has proved inconclusive, given the burden of proof required. It has been an interesting venture into the art world – an area of which I had no previous knowledge. The case demonstrated the value of a good working relationship with other authorities, something that is key to the success of our profession.