Fortune

Fake or Fortune couple discover €450 painting is actually worth €100K, but there's a catch

Jan and Chris Starckx purchased what they called The Portrait of a Child at an auction for just €450 back in the 1970s. However, over the years, they began to suspect that they were sat on something rather special. After various trials, which even took the pair to Miami to compare the picture to another genuine Kooning, Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould arrived at the couple’s Belgian home to deliver the good news.

“Well, what we have here is an advantage because we know the other painting went for €50,000,” Philip beamed. “I believe, in many ways, that your picture is superior. The artistic impact, the characterisation of the child, the condition is so good, and you have the name carved into the wet paint, and therefore think it’s worth excess of €50,000. I could see it making up to €100,000.”

However, despite buying the painting over four decades ago, they may not be entitled to own the portrait without being able to clear up who sold the picture to them and why.

Chris explained: “After Miami, we came back and I was contacted by the vendor. He told me the person who left painting died three years ago, and left a lot of money and his belongings to his son. This man, he managed to lose all of his money in a very short time and became homeless. At some point, he was asked to clear his house because he didn’t pay the rent, so he asked two friends to get rid of all his belongings and to sell them.”

Fiona chipped in: “This is really important; the man who owned the painting asked his friends to get rid of it for him? Did he write that down – was there any instructions or anything?”

“The sad fact is, you may not own this picture,” sighed Philip. “If the people who sold it to you did not have the right to sell it, you don’t own it.”

Fake or Fortune: is this a genuine Lucian Freud?

In 1997, Jon Lys Turner was given a Lucian Freud painting by his friends and mentors, the artists Richard “Dickie” Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. Turner had just entered one of the British art world’s bitterest feuds. 

Beginning in a Suffolk art school in 1939, and rumbling on past Freud’s death at the age of 88 in 2011, it would involve the painter’s family, art experts and auction houses. At its heart was a single question – was the portrait of a man in a black cravat painted by Lucian Freud? 

For Turner this is more than an abstract debate about provenance. Chopping was a highly regarded illustrator responsible for the original James Bond book covers. Wirth-Miller was a brilliant tutor, but his career as an artist had not been dazzling. Acolytes of Francis Bacon, the two men were life partners and, like Freud, had both studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Hadleigh in Suffolk in the early 1940s. Somehow in this creative wartime milieu, Chopping and Wirth-Miller came by the picture. Turner still can’t pinpoint a specific incident that led to the enmity between Freud and Wirth-Miller, but its fierceness is beyond doubt. 

As late as 2003, Wirth-Miller – who also died in 2011 – was writing lists of “reasons I hate Lucian Freud”. Freud was one of the most distinctive portraitists of the 20th century, and this early work hints at what lies ahead. 

Could it really be that his hatred for Wirth-Miller was so strong that he would deny his own work? Or was the painting actually a fake? For more than 20 years, auction houses and experts have told him he owns a genuine Freud, only for them all to change their minds. 

Now, thanks to Fake or Fortune?’s line-up of art experts and scientists, the matter can finally be settled. Turner admits he has grown to like the mystery of owning a painting that might or might not be by Lucian Freud. If it is genuine, will he sell it? “I think so. Then I’d have fulfilled my pledge. It wasn’t about the money for Dickie and Denis. It was a matter of honour. For them, it was about the feud.”

Freud’s famously fleshy nude, Benefits Supervisor Resting, sold for £35.4 million in New York last year – the highest price that has ever been paid for a painting by a British artist.