I’m nervous of experts; their say-so can easily backfire on you. There is the kindly squash: Roy Lancaster, inspecting the leaf of what I thought was a rare Mexican oak: ‘I’m sorry, Hugh, but I’m afraid it’s a hybrid’. And there’s the expensive put-down, the speciality of the fine art business. A plant is merely a plant, but with art huge sums can ride on questions of authenticity. It matters millions of pounds whether it was Titian’s brush or his assistant’s (it could even have been the same brush, borrowed) that laid on that stroke of paint. It can look pretty venal, too, when the decision can only be made by one expert, living in Switzerland and charging fat sums for an opinion.
How much does authenticity matter? Would no one go the British Museum if the Elgin marbles or the Benin bronzes were perfect replicas? Is there a palpable aura about a pharaoh’s granite head that no reproduction could ever evoke? We must admit that fakes can work – until they are rumbled. Personally I would be happy to hang a fine reproduction of, say, a Stubbs (I’d love a Stubbs), the real thing being far out of reach. In fact we do have a watercolour copy of Claude’s Hagar and the Angel, done when it was given to the National Gallery in 1828 by Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont was so loath to part with his Claude that he travelled with it as his ‘carriage painting’ (it is surprisingly small) when he went to his house in Leicestershire or to the Lakes to see Wordsworth. Constable copied it, too, to use on his lecture tour to Worcester – indeed I believe ours is Constable’s own copy. But no expert will go out on that limb.
Stanley Holloway nailed it, when his hero Sam Small, at the Tower of London, says ‘It’s ‘ad a new ‘andle, and perhaps a new ‘ead, but it’s still the original axe’.