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Shirts and sausages

28 August 2015


FOR those missing the Antiques Road Show during its summer break, there are repeats every weekday of Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Bargain Hunt, and Flog It! And the popular Fake or Fortune? has enlivened Sunday evenings. Money has been the fascination of the August TV schedules.

In Britain’s Spending Secrets (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) Anne Robinson took a typically sardonic look at our obsession with money — getting it, keeping it, and especially spending it. She confessed that she was brought up to enjoy the stuff; consequently, she was gentle on the big spenders, including Laura, a millionaire businesswoman who justified paying £300 for a shirt by saying that it was “not bad for what it is”. Asked what the “it” in that sentence represented, she replied “label”. Profligate, maybe, but, as someone remarked, “She’s earned it.”

That could not be said of Charlotte, a single mother living on benefits, with four children (and another on the way). She is a food snob who disapproves of supermarket “own brands”. “I’m not having my children eat Co-op sausages,” she said, helping herself to a dearer branded version.

This was a fascinating but disconnected programme: many voices and opinions, and a raft of wildly different experiences, but, perhaps inevitably, given the subject, no coherent message. Robinson said that “money is how we judge ourselves and others.” True, on the evidence offered here; but in fact there were few voices from the ranks. Those with plenty enjoyed having it; and those without wished that they had got it. The in-betweens were silent.

Co-op sausages are one thing, but a genuine Vermeer is another. Fake or Fortune? (BBC1, Sunday of last week) plays in the big league. For the anxious owner of the painting brought in for experts to judge whether it is the genuine work of a master, the decision could be life-changing. Therein lies the programme’s appeal. For a few minutes, we are the anxious owner, and I suspect that every viewer wants to hear a favourable verdict.

They do not always get it, of course. One senses that the presenters, Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould, are on the side of the owners. But the experts, stern-faced and academic, are only interested in things such as canvas age, paint chemicals, and that strange quality “provenance”, which is often the problem.

In the most recent programme (a repeat from January 2014), a painting of some women in a French café was demonstrably in the post-Impressionist style of Edouard Vuillard; but how could a genuine Vuillard vanish off the radar in the past 20 years or so? Where was the paperwork?

So the process of verification began. On this occasion, the questions were answered satisfactorily. The formal letter was read out in whispered awe by Bruce. The painting was a genuine Vuillard. Instantly, its value rose from about £11,000 to £300,000.

This leaves the unanswered question: What is it worth? It was exactly the same painting. What had changed? In what ultimate meaning of the word had its value altered? I think Anne Robinson should enquire.

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