Art has much to offer the investor, but it can be tricky to navigate. Renowned art expert Philip Mould provides guidance on the riches of English portraiture, and overleaf shows examples of what to look for.
Words: Lisa Freedman
In another age, Philip Mould might have been a private detective. He has the same cool English reticence, the same sharp eye, the same instinctive appreciation for when something is ‘not quite right’. Fortunately for those of us less interested in dastardly deeds and more concerned with finding attractive bodies to furnish our library, Mould decided to confine his sleuthing to the world of English portraiture.
Mould, who appears regularly as an expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, runs an internationally renowned gallery in London’s Mayfair, where you’ll find museum-quality likenesses of five centuries of the rich and famous. And, if you’re trying to build up a collection or track down a portrait by an artist such as Sir Joshua Reynolds or Sir Peter Lely, you couldn’t find a better place to start.
Mould himself began honing his art detection skills early in life. (‘When I was 13, I collected shoe buckles; they were cheap and I could conquer the field.’) But it was only after studying art history at university and joining his older brother in the antiques business that the field he hunted in became portraiture.
His first major discovery was a tiny painting by an unknown artist of the young Prince Arthur, elder brother of King Henry VIII. The portrait had in fact been correctly catalogued by Sotheby’s, but what the international auction house had failed to realise was that this was the only likeness in existence of the short-lived heir to the English throne.
Hardly surprising, then, that Mould’s motto is ‘fortune favours a well-prepared mind’ and his boy-scout thoroughness, combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of many artists (‘identifying signature stroke’), has helped him unmask a host of extraordinary works – often in the unlikeliest places.
‘Five years ago, I bought an Ipswich-period Gainsborough for $200 on eBay,’ he says casually. ‘The whole body had been painted brown but the face, even in a digital image, was clearly Gainsborough.’
Many of his clients would be delighted if he could perform similar miracles for them. But although cheap-as-chips Gainsboroughs will always be in short supply, if you’re looking for a specific period or artist, Mould is happy to work to order and can usually track down a significant work by a well-known painter within a matter of months.
‘Some of the greatest old masters were remarkably prolific,’ says Mould. ‘Gainsborough, for example, painted 200 to 300 paintings a year. And Van Dyck, who worked with a studio, completed a major work a week. A large number of these paintings left the UK in the late 19th and early 20th century, but they can still be found.’
Mould’s business has grown alongside the recent fashion for the ownership of large country homes and his advice to new collectors is concise: ‘The key things to bear in mind are: authorship, beauty, historical importance and condition.’
The growth areas he is seeing at the moment are 17th-century miniatures, early 20th-century portraits and works from the Tudor period. ‘Tudor portraiture has a graphic quality, which works unusually well in a contemporary setting,’ says Mould.
Whichever period you’re interested in, however, you can feel confident that the best portraiture will hold its value remarkably well. ‘It’s the tortoise to the contemporary-art hare,’ says Mould. ‘Good-quality historic portraits have seen a steady annual rise of about five per cent. They never experienced the enormous rises of modern art, but they haven’t seen the drops, either.’
Philip Mould Gallery is at 29 Dover Street, W1S 4NA. www.philipmould.com
Sleuth: The Amazing Quest for Lost Art Treasures by Philip Mould, is published in May by HarperCollins