Hidden in plain sight: Part 2

Burglar Bill’s selection

2020-11-14 09.20.09At the end of my last blog post, Burglar Bill has returned home from a successful night of housebreaking and has slept all day in his comfortable stolen bed. On rising in the evening, he unpacks his swag-bag and takes a closer look at his loot, which includes five pieces pinched from a strange house filled with some very unfamiliar stuff: my house. There is a small brown vase, a colourful plate, an old leather-bound dictionary, four small black-and-white prints in a frame, and a patterned red rug. 

Bill regards the results of his night’s work with satisfaction. But could he have done better? Has he missed some treasures hidden in plain sight among the objects from which he made his choices?

* * * * *

Object #1: one small brown vase.

Burglar Bill made his selection from a group of five dull brown pots  He decided that the three cylindrical ones were a bit boring, which left a round one and a bulbous one. But the round one looked messy and unfinished, with something a little child-like about the scratched lines. So he chose the bulbous vase (on the right) and put it into his sack.

Wrong choice, Burglar Bill!

The five vases were all made in the 1960s or 1970s. They are by four potters much influenced by the brutalist style of the period, whose work is often closely associated or confused with each other’s.

  • The two cylinders on the left in the picture are by Bob Dawe, a Suffolk potter whose work seems to be generally overlooked and undervalued.
  • The third cylinder vase (second from right) is by Louis Hudson who potted in Liskeard, Cornwall. He was a very prolific potter who made much of his work using moulds and is dismissed by some studio pottery purists as a production potter and thus inferior to throwers or hand-builders. His work sadly has little or no value.
  • The bulbous pot (right), which was Bill’s selection, is by Bernard Rooke, whose pottery is in Ipswich, Suffolk. He is well thought of, and his larger pieces such as standard lamps are in demand by retro/vintage interior designers. Bill might expect to get around £20 for this small vase if he sold it on eBay.
  • Bill should have chosen the round pot in the middle of the picture. It is a fine piece by Alan Wallwork (1931-2019), who “was one of Britain’s most distinctive potters, known for sculptural work that was important in the story of studio ceramics, but who should also be judged in the context of the broader artistic developments in the country in the 1950s and 60s”[1].  Wallwork is a great name among collectors, and the prices of his pots are currently rising rapidly. At auction this example would carry an estimated price of £100-200.
Best choice: Alan Wallwork vase

* * * * *

Object #2: one china plate

With four pretty plates to choose from, Bill thought the choice was a no-brainer. The one with the gorgeous flowers and gold paint must be the treasure, so he put it into his sack.

Wrong choice, Burglar Bill!

All four plates are interesting and attractive objects.

  • Porcelain plate (upper left) by Machin & Co of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, around 1830. A prettily hand-painted plate of no appreciable value.
  • Leeds Pottery transfer-decorated pearlware plate, 1790-1800 (upper right). This is an early piece of transferware with a fairly rare LEEDS*POTTERY impressed mark, and would be of some interest to collectors. It’s badly damaged and spectacularly repaired on the base with staples, which would also make it attractive to collectors of unusual repairs (yes, there are a few). Might get perhaps £20-30 at auction.
  • Bill’s choice (lower left), the fine porcelain plate with beautifully-painted flowers and luscious gold decoration, is from the second half of the nineteenth century, probably made in Dresden and brought to Paris as a blank to be painted and gilded. A superb example of a “cabinet plate”, and you can easily see its appeal to Bill, but if it’s value he’s after (and he is, after all, a burglar) then it is a poor choice: a sadly unfashionable item of negligible value.
  • The item which Bill should have selected is the one lower right, a hand-painted and gilded plate in the Blue Lily pattern, made at the famous Worcester Porcelain factory. This pattern became very popular after 1788, when King George III and Queen Charlotte paid a royal visit to the Worcester factory and ordered a large breakfast set, the surviving pieces of which are still kept in the Royal Collection[2]. After the visit the factory shrewdly changed the pattern name to Royal Lily, and it became a bestseller for the next two centuries. The plate which Bill failed to choose is an early example from the Barr period (1792-1803) and is in much better than average condition. In the current market it might sell for around £50.
Best choice: a Worcester Royal Lily plate

* * * * *

Object #3: one book

Burglar Bill found four dictionaries on a bookshelf but he only had space in his swag-bag for one of them.  Working on the principle that the oldest object will always be the most valuable, he selected the bulky leather-bound 1812 English dictionary and stowed it in his sack.

Wrong choice, Burglar Bill!

This was an understandable error on Bill’s part. It is very often the case that oldest is best, but not on this occasion.

  • Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic was a standard work used by my wife Frances while studying for her degree in Arabic at the University of St Andrews and then later in her professional career as Edinburgh University Library’s Arabic specialist. But this 1966 edition is now badly out of date. Copies are currently selling on eBay for 99 pence.
  • The Hindustani dictionary was brought back by Frances’s late father from service in the Second World War with the Royal Engineers in India. It is an interesting curiosity, but it isn’t rare and is unlikely to be in great demand. Its 1941 price of two rupees might have increased to around £10 in 2020.
  • Bill’s choice was the Reverend James Barclay’s Complete and Universal Dictionary of the English Language, printed in Bungay, Suffolk in 1812. It’s a big old book and the impressive title page gives it the appearance of being something special. But in fact it is a fairly late edition of a book first published in 1774, and Barclay’s attempt at compiling a dictionary has always been considered decidedly inferior to the work of his great contemporary lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson. There are lots of copies of this edition available, and you could buy one in similar condition to the volume selected by Burglar Bill for around £50.
  • The book that Bill should have chosen was the Chinese-English Dictionary by the Reverend Carstairs Douglas. Originally published in 1873, this is the 1899 edition, much improved by the inclusion of Chinese characters. The dialect known to Douglas as Amoy is now referred to as Southern Min, and the dictionary is “the first comprehensive Southern Min – English dictionary and indeed the first dictionary of ‘living’ Southern Min in any language; it remains an important work in the understanding of the language”[3]. There are currently three copies of this scarce edition available on the market for online sale, priced between £375 and £424. In terms of market value, Burglar Bill missed out badly by failing to make this choice.

Best choice: Chinese-English Dictionary

* * * * *

Object #4: one picture

Burglar Bill has space in his swag-bag for one small picture. He prefers pictures with people in them and his flashlight picks out four black-and-white engravings. Bill doesn’t especially like any of them, but he came out tonight with an urge to steal a  picture, so he makes his choice solely on the basis of the one for which he thinks he might be able get the most money. On close inspection he notices that in the framed set of four small caricatures each one bears a tiny monogram Rt followed by the year 1641 or 1651. “Rt? That’s Rembrandt, innit? I’ll have that”. And he puts it into his sack.

Wrong choice, Burglar Bill (probably)!

Bill’s reasoning is absolutely spot-on. If you’ve only got space for one picture, make sure that it’s the Rembrandt. But things are not always what they seem.

  • The lady in the headscarf carrying a jug is titled A Jersey Milkmaid. It is a drypoint engraving of 1920 from an edition of 100 copies, signed in pencil by the artist Edmund Blampied (1886-1966). Blampied was a prolific painter, engraver, book illustrator and cartoonist and is perhaps the most notable artist to emerge from Jersey in the Channel Islands. There are copies from this edition in many important galleries including the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 2000 a copy sold at Christies in London for £411, and in 2012 a proof copy sold at Skinner in Boston for $770. There’s currently a copy offered for sale by a commercial gallery in Connecticut at a breathtakingly inflated price of $1,500. This is probably the most commercial of the four pictures and would be the best one for Bill to pass on to his fence.
  • The portrait of Thomas Campbell was published in 1812 and is an engraving by Samuel Freeman after an original drawing by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It was a gift to Frances from a dear friend after she completed her dissertation on Thomas Campbell for the degree of Master of Philosophy at Glasgow University. Campbell (1777-1844) was one of the most celebrated British poets of his day but is now almost completely forgotten – except, of course, by Frances.  This picture has a much higher sentimental value than market value.
  • The old bald bloke with the beard and glasses is Dr Eugen Goldstein, engraved in 1921 by the “degenerate” German Expressionist artist Ludwig Meidner. This copy is number 17 of an edition of 50 signed by the artist. If you want to know more about this picture, I’ve written a whole blog post about it which you can find here. I don’t know what price it would command at auction, but other Meidner portrait engravings seem to sell for a few hundred pounds each.
  • Burglar Bill’s remarkably informed choice was the framed set of four small engravings of heads purporting to be by Rembrandt. But there’s a problem, Bill: the items you have stolen are almost certainly fakes! A pity, because if they were genuine they would be worth many thousands of pounds each, and could provide Bill with perhaps the most lucrative burglary expedition of his illustrious career. I have shown images of these etchings to various experts, who all agree that although in the style of Rembrandt and somewhat similar to his engraved head studies or tronies, they are imitations by an inferior hand. It’s possible that they were made in the eighteenth or even in the seventeenth century, and the fact that they bear a monogram so very similar to that used by Rembrandt indicates that they were surely made to deceive. So their only value would be curiosity value. Unless, of course, the experts are wrong and these etchings just happen to be genuine unknown works by Rembrandt…
Most commercial choice (probably): A Jersey Milkmaid by Edmund Blampied

* * * * *

Object #5: one rug

Burglar Bill needs to steal a rug for his stolen cat to lie upon in front of his stolen fireplace. He takes note of four red rugs of a size which he will be able to carry. All are quite similar in their colours and geometric patterns. He finds the choice quite simple. Two rugs are quite dirty and worn-out, one has a big tear and fraying edges, but one looks quite new. That’s the one! So he rolls it up and straps it to the outside of his sack using a stolen trouser belt.

Sensible choice, Burglar Bill!

As a fireside rug, Bill’s choice makes good sense: a beautiful hand-knotted rug in lovely condition which isn’t worth much and can therefore risk exposure to feline claws and red-hot cinders. If, however, he was looking for the most valuable rug, then his choice is hopelessly wrong. All four rugs are from the central Asian territory now recognised as the Republic of Turkmenistan. They have similarities and differences.

  • Upper left: a Tekke marriage or dowry rug. I think I read a story somewhere (or I might have made it up) that this type of rug was made by young women of the nomadic Turkmen Tekke clan to demonstrate their carpet-making prowess to their prospective husbands. This example is probably from the late 19th or early 20th century, which is neither very old nor very new for this type of object. It’s of average interest and quality, and in average condition, and on a good day might fetch £100-200 at auction.
  • Upper right: the rug that Bill selected is a modern Turkmen prayer rug with Yomut design motifs. It was made within the last 20 or 30 years and is likely to be a handmade production piece from a settled workshop rather than a one-off rug from a nomadic tribeswoman. It’s a brightly-coloured, beautifully-made decorative rug, but at auction I would expect to be able to buy it for perhaps £50-£70.
  • Lower left: a Yomut bagface or chuval. A chuval is the decorative outward-facing side of a large bag used by the nomadic Turkmen peoples for storage and transportation of their tents. This is probably a 19th century example, with good colours but in fairly ragged condition and without any outstanding or unusual design features. Again an auction price of £100-200 seems about right.
  • Lower right: if Bill had been looking for the most valuable rug, he should have gone for this one, which is an engsi or tent door rug woven in the 19th century by a woman from the Saryk clan. The Saryk engsi is quite scarce and a great favourite with collectors, with distinctive examples in good condition fetching astronomical prices in the best rug auctions. The example which Bill didn’t choose is very worn and has holes and patches and sloppy repairs, but even so it would likely sell for several hundred pounds if catalogued accurately in a specialist sale. You certainly wouldn’t put it in front of an open fire and let your cat sleep on it.   
Most valuable choice: a Saryk Engsi

* * * * *

An alternative ending

Burglar Bill is, of course, a fictional character, the eponymous hero of the wonderful children’s book by Janet and Alan Ahlberg. Just in case you don’t know the book or can’t bestir yourselves to look back at the first instalment of this blog post, I’ll repeat my summary of the story here:

Burglar Bill spends his days sleeping and his nights breaking into people’s houses and stealing their nice things. One night he finds on a doorstep a nice brown box with little holes in it. He takes it home and discovers that it contains a baby. The next night (when he isn’t out on the prowl himself) Bill is awakened by someone breaking into his own house, and he discovers an intruder called Burglar Betty. It turns out that Betty, a widow, is doubly bereft, having recently left her baby in a brown box on a doorstep while burgling a house, and returned to find box and baby missing.  Betty is reunited with her baby and bonds with Bill over a cup of stolen cocoa. They decide jointly to go straight. They take back everything they have ever stolen and then get married. Burglar Bill gets a job in a bakery and becomes Bakery Bill. Bill, Betty and the baby live happily ever after.

The imaginary break-in to my house takes place during the night prior to that fateful night recorded in the Ahlbergs’ book when Bill finds the big brown box with little holes in it containing Burglar Betty’s baby.

2020-11-10 15.27.05Bill leaves through my window in the early morning, taking a vase, a plate, a book, a picture and a rug. He sleeps all day and unpacks his sack when he rises in the evening. He places the vase on the sideboard, the plate in a kitchen cupboard, the dictionary on the bookshelf, and the rug in front of the fireplace, where it is immediately appropriated by the cat. He puts the framed set of four etchings aside for sale to Fred the Friendly Fence.

Then he gets ready to go out for another night of stealing – which, may I remind you, is to be the very expedition that is destined to determine his life’s future direction. There’s a happy ending in store for Bill and Betty.

But what if I were to offer you an alternative story line?

Authentication

Our overall verdict on Burglar Bill’s nocturnal incursion into my house is that he has selected some nice things to steal, but that he could have made much better choices. Nevertheless, Bill is pleased with his haul. But then his destiny changes.

What if, before consigning the etchings for disposal, he decides to check them out first on his stolen computer? And what if, after a few minutes of searching, he becomes so captivated by a fanciful notion that the etchings might genuinely be by Rembrandt, that he cancels tonight’s planned burglary expedition and instead stays at home glued to Google?

As a result, Bill never discovers the big brown box with little holes in it which contains the baby. On the subsequent night, Burglar Betty passes by his house but doesn’t break in because she sees through a chink in Bill’s stolen curtains the glow of his computer screen as he passes the hours scrolling through images of Rembrandt etchings.

So Bill and Betty don’t meet, and they don’t marry. Bill doesn’t go straight. He doesn’t become Bakery Bill.

Here’s what happens instead: Bill cannot trace any online images of these particular head studies, and they don’t feature in the catalogue raisonné published by Adam Bartsch (1757-1821) or in any subsequent update. But he finds records of several very similar etchings which are accepted as being by Rembrandt.

Bill gets thoroughly enthused and decides to attempt to establish a firm attribution for the four prints. He gives up burgling for a short period and decides to survive on his savings and his stores of stolen comestibles while devoting himself to full-time research.

Within a few weeks, he amasses a fat file full of evidence in support of his notion: scientific analyses of papers and inks used by Rembrandt in his printmaking; documentation showing that Rembrandt engraved more studies of heads than are currently accepted as part of the canon; detailed stylistic comparisons with verified works; authoritative opinions from experts, academics and connoisseurs. He believes his case is solid and submits the etchings together with his dossier of evidence to Sotheby’s auctioneers.

Left: spurious monogram on one of Bill’s stolen etchings. Right: genuine monogram on an authentic etching

After lengthy and detailed consideration, the experts at Sotheby’s recognise the etchings as genuine works by Rembrandt. They are offered for sale, and because of their unique nature, they attract competitive bids from museums and private collectors all over the world. They sell for £25,000 each.

The sale receives wide media coverage, which comes to my attention. It’s a simple matter for me to prove my former ownership, because I have the invoice for the purchase of the etchings from my local auctioneer, and because I have previously published an image of one of them on page 60 of my book Random Treasure. I contact the police. Burglar Bill is arrested, charged with stealing the etchings from my house, convicted and sentenced to become Prisoner Bill for five years. Upon his release, now a hardened and unreformed criminal, he returns, alone, to the only work he knows – burglary.

Wrong choice, Burglar Bill!


Notes

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/nov/20/alan-wallwork-obituary

[2] https://www.rct.uk/collection/5000086/a-part-tea-coffee-and-dinner-service-decorated-in-thenbsproyal-lily-pattern

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carstairs_Douglas


13 thoughts on “Hidden in plain sight: Part 2

  1. Thanks for these postings, really interesting and entertaining. As I did ok on the quiz-like element, It’s also encouraged me to have another go at trying to authenticate a little watercolour (not by Rembrandt I may add), but as I’m not a burglar it won’t result in a career change …

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      1. Will do … not quite Fake or Fortune, but it was suggested by someone that it was a fake, but I’m not convinced …

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  2. Did the author collect the £100k proceeds from the Sotheby’s auction (less commission and hypothetically of course) 🤔😬

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    1. Good question! Here’s what happened (hypothetically). The police tried to recover the £100k (less commission, etc) from Burglar Bill, but, having got big ideas from stealing the Rembrandts, Bill had spent all the dosh on high-tech burgling equipment in preparation for a raid on the Louvre to steal that nice Mona Lisa.
      Unfortunately, in the night after the equipment was delivered, it was stolen by Burglar Betty in a daring break-in at Bill’s home. Betty likes pictures with flowers in them, and is currently believed to be training up the Baby as her accomplice for an attempt to steal that nice Sunflower painting from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.
      In the meantime, the author engaged lawyers to pursue Sotheby’s for selling the stolen Rembrandts without making a proper check on provenance. Sotheby’s admitted liability and made a generous out-of-court settlement, whereupon the author immediately embarked on the world’s biggest and longest charity shop binge and blew all the money on a vast pile of worthless and unutterable junk.
      However, the author is generally well-pleased with the outcome, mainly because he didn’t believe – and still doesn’t believe – that the Rembrandt etchings were ever anything other than outrageous fakes.

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  3. Inclined to feel sorry for Poor Old Bill, but I liked his choices anyway. But missing a genuine Wallwork is shameful. And isn’t it interesting what happens in parallel universes?

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    1. On reflection, I’m not certain that making up alternative endings for happy-ever-after children’s stories is an entirely healthy and wholesome occupation. I might start speculating next about the day when a hunting party arrived in the Hundred Acre Wood. Or the day when David Attenborough and the Zoo Quest team disembarked Where The Wild Things Are.

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  4. I’ve considered the reverse for the Antarctic story – what would have happened if Birdie Bowers and his chums had survived. Obviously, as naval/army officers, WWI – but would they have been unlucky and died in, say, the Battle of Jutland (like one of their expedition chums) or become (like another expedition member) war heroes and national figures in a less sombre way. To add a twist to Random Treasure’s thoughts … would Pooh, Piglet and the gang, armed with branches, thistles and the like, seen off the hunting party – or would David Attenborough charmed the Wild Things as he did the gorillas?

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    1. The picture you paint of Birdie Bowers in your book is of such a thoroughly nice, dutiful, upright, selfless sort of chap that somehow I doubt he would have survived more than about 24 hours of WW1 conflict. But a spot of counterfactual (or in my case counterfictional) speculation is always a worthwhile exercise. As for David Attenborough, I was thinking about his dark monochromatic TV past when his objective was not to charm and conserve animals but to capture them and bring them home for display in London Zoo. My feeling is that this treatment would make the Wild Things quite a lot Wilder. Despite which, I can forgive Mr Attenborough almost anything because he’s such a notable and refined collector of studio pottery.

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