BBC Fake or Fortune accused of devaluing Ben Nicholson painting

BBC Fake or Fortune
Experts on the BBC show said the painting could be worth between £50,000 to £100,000

The BBC’s Fake or Fortune show has been accused of devaluing an artwork by a celebrated British painter by questioning its origins for “drama and tension”.

The mural was painted by Ben Nicholson on his friends’ bedroom wall as a thank you gift for staying at their home in 1947.

The current owners of the property in Surrey had the artwork salvaged by conservationists, who expertly removed the plaster it was on in one piece.

The mural went on to be featured on Fake or Fortune in 2022, the BBC programme hosted by Fiona Bruce that investigates the provenance of notable works of art.

The Nicholson mural sparked debate on the show before experts concluded it was “probably” an informal collaborative piece between the artist and the homeowner, Fred Staite Murray.

At the end of the episode art expert Philip Mould said it could be worth from £50,000 to £100,000.

The mural was expertly removed from a bedroom wall and framed
The mural was expertly removed from a bedroom wall and framed

But Lay’s Auctioneers, of Penzance, Cornwall, who are now tasked with selling it, say the mural is a genuine Nicholson original completed only in his hand.

They say they have given the 30-by-24in mural an estimate of £80,000 because of the public debate over it.

Comparable Nicholson works have sold for £200,000, leading to suggestions the BBC may have “devalued” the mural by casting doubt on it for the show.

Mimi Connell-Lay, of Lay’s Auctioneers, said: “As far as we are concerned there is no doubt it is a genuine piece by Nicholson.

“The whole premise of the programme is to ask the question is it or isn’t it and to create drama and tension. With the back story and the provenance there is no doubt to people in the art world that it is a Ben Nicholson work.

“But there was one specialist who said that.

“It is crazy when you look at the dossier of evidence the experts on the show produced that they came to the conclusion that it probably was a collaborative piece.

“One of the specialists on the show stated that they didn’t think Nicholson would have drawn a mandolin that is in the mural in that way, but that is his subjective opinion.”

Ben Nicholson
Ben Nicholson works have sold for £200,000 before

The auctioneers said that Nicholson (1894-1982) stayed at the Surrey home of Fred and Madge Staite Murray in 1947 while he was staging an exhibition in London.

They owned 10 of the St Ives artist’s paintings and he had asked if he could borrow five of them for the display, which they agreed to.

They believe he probably created the mural to say thank you. The Staite Murrays later preserved it behind a Perspex screen at Red Stream Cottage in Bramley.

Art luminaries visited to catch a glimpse of the work, which features his trademark lettering, scattered dots and geometric shapes.

After Mr and Mrs Murray died in 1972 and 1991, respectively, their neighbours acted as unofficial custodians for the mural.

Ms Connell-Lay said: “Madge died in 1991. Her close neighbours of over 25 years, the Metcalfs, remembered her fondly.

“Over time, they heard her many stories about famous artists and were shown the Nicholson mural.

“After Madge’s death, they acted as custodians, ensuring new owners of Red Stream Cottage [Ian and Julie Herrington] were informed of the remarkable legacy within their walls.”

Nicholson painting was probably a ‘gift’

She added: “In 2022 the work was featured on the BBC’s Fake or Fortune programme.

“Although some of the Nicholson specialists consulted for the programme felt that the work was a collaboration between Nicholson and Fred, the programme’s researchers made an emphatic case for the mural being by the single hand of Nicholson, a gift for his good friends the Staite Murrays.

“He was not an artist who was known for collaborating with others and despite being married to one of our finest sculptors, Barbara Hepworth, he did not make collaborative artwork with her.

“It seems implausible that he would have collaborated with Fred on this mural, and much more plausible that he did it as a gift and sign of appreciation to the Staite Murrays after borrowing so many paintings and leaving their walls bare.

“The current owners [the Herringtons] have had the mural expertly removed and preserved. It is a remarkable work from one of the most distinguished pioneers of abstract art.

“Looking at recent auction records, a work of this size and date (attributed to Nicholson) could easily sell for anything between £100,000-200,000 or more.”

The BBC said that the experts on Fake or Fortune “form their own independent view” on the potential value of artworks featured on the show.

A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC does not get involved in any commercial sales activity around the artworks that feature in the series.

“The valuation given in the episode was an estimate of the potential price the artwork might achieve based on the information available at the time to the experts examining the piece.

“The experts in each programme always form their own independent view, drawing on their knowledge and expertise.”

The sale takes place on April 11.

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