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Trials and Tribulations of
Buying Old Master Paintings on Ebay

'Landscape with a watermill'
An oil painting said to be by George Barret Sn.1732-1784

“Do you by any chance have in stock a painting by George Barret of a Mill?” The question was asked by an Ebay advertise, Alan Nelson, and would have been a little unusual under normal circumstances; but not on this particular day. Just an hour or so earlier, we had telephoned Lane Fine Art in London with a similar question. We were told by the telephonist that we would have to speak to Mr. Foley, but he was not available and we would have to call back at 6.30. We did so; received no reply and had the phone slammed down by the same telephonist when we called back the following day. However, before her abrupt termination of our conversation, she did say that the Mr. Nelson we had been dealing with in Dorset was in fact a brother-in-law of Mr. Foley, and that he occasionally put lesser works from Lane Fine Art on his website. She said that Mr. Foley would not be available at any time to discuss the painting and refused to provide any information whatsoever on it even though the painting was advertised for sale on the Lane Fine Art website. By this time, it occurred to us that someone might have something to hide about this painting.

We had spent a frustrating two weeks seeking information on the painting from the aforementioned Mr. Nelson through his Antique Portrait Ebay Store. We had stumbled on the painting quite accidentally while searching online for another work. We recognised it immediately as a painting we had seen many years ago in London and were surprised that it was now being offered for sale on Ebay by a provincial English dealer at a discounted price. The correspondence copied below lays out the sequence of events.

The painting has been offered for sale in London for the last eight years or so. Considering this and the extreme reluctance of the two dealers involved to answer routine questions about it, one must ask why it remains unsold and why there is such a reluctance to disclose essential information on the painting. As is so often the case with misattributions, this work lacks a provenance tracing back to the artist. In fact, the only provenance it has is very recent and even this is not as straightforward as one might expect. Alan Nelson, states that: “the original provenance is unknown but it has passed through some London art galleries in the past few years”. This is not entirely accurate and is to some extent slightly misleading. The painting has indeed passed through some London art galleries in the past few years but it does not appear to have been sold by any of them.

Moreover, there is an omission in the recent provenance, which is relevant to the status of the work. We are reliable informed that the owner of the painting when it was first offered for sale on the London market was Desmond Fitzgerald. The difficulty with this is that it was Fitzgerald who first attributed the painting to Barret and his attribution appears to have been based on a drawing, which does not in fact appear to relate to the painting at all. Over the years, we have had first hand practical experience with Desmond Fitzgerald and found that his expertise was limited. The O’Meara painting described elsewhere is an example of this. He was undeniably passionate about early Irish paintings but passion alone on a particular school or period does not qualify anyone as an authority and over enthusiasm can often lead to mistakes. When we consider the lack of a signature; a deficient provenance; no exhibition record; and the absence of even one single thread of tangible evidence to support the attribution; the painting at best should have been described as one attributed to Barret and not as one by his hand.

George Barret 1732-1784: Landscape with rustics and cattle by a house

In his notes [An Age of Elegance, London, 2007] William Laffan relies primarily on comparisons to a work in oil: ‘Landscape with rustics and cattle by a house’, sold by Sotheby’s, London, in 2002. However, one glance at the illustration above is sufficient to show that there is little to compare in these works. Laffan naively relies on the simple fact that Sotheby’s example contains: “a similar mixture of humble buildings, cattle and figures” and offers nothing else to substantiate the comparison. Apart from the fact that the style in both works has virtually nothing in common, countless compositions have been painted over the centuries based on these simple elements.

Laffan also relies on Desmond Fitzgerald’s comparison to the drawing by Barret in the Victorian and Albert Museum but the comparisons here are just as void, which is clearly demonstrated in the illustration below. He also refers to a drawing by Ruisdael but the same arguments apply. Apart from the fact that all four works show buildings of one sort or another set beside water, there is nothing tangible in style or content to warrant an attribution.

Drawing of farm buildings by George Barret 1732-1784.

“Acknowledged works by Barret are not as plentiful in Ireland as might be imagined, considering that he did not leave the country till he was thirty. Yet his name is heard constantly in Irish auction rooms, for it is customary there to attribute to him every mediocre eighteenth century landscape: a practice which, naturally, has tended to increase his disrepute.” This observation was made by Thomas Bodkin in summarising his 1920 article on George Barret. Although the current painting can not be described as mediocre, it is disturbing to discover that so little appears to have changed in Barret scholarship over the last century.

NOTE: The painting was deleted from the Ebay website on the 22nd May 2015 with an announcement that it was no longer available. However, it remains for sale in London.

Screenshot of one of the Ebay advertisements

10th May 2015
MPFA to Alan Nelson, Antique Portrait, Dorset: Is the painting signed? What is the provenance of the painting?
Alan Nelson: Thank you for your enquiry. The superb painting by Barret is not signed as he rarely ever did. But a closely related drawing by Barret is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I can supply a written document from William Laffan (the world expert on Barret) confirming the paintings authenticity. I will also fully guarantee it 100% to be as stated in my description. The original provenance is unknown but it has passed through some London art galleries in the past few years. Do not hesitate to contact me if I can answer any other questions.
MPFA: Does the painting belong to you? Do you have an independent condition report? Please send a copy of the drawing. Please send a copy of the Laffan document.
Nelson: Can you contact me at antiqueportrait so I can properly reply to your questions.
11th May
Nelson: Further to your enquiry – I confirm that I am an owner of the painting. I can supply a detailed write-up by William Laffan (who is the George Barret expert since the Knight of Glin died in 2011). The painting was also published in Mallett's catalogue of Irish paintings "An Age of Elegance" page 12. I will need your email to forward full details on condition etc. Please reply to the address in the scan. Look forward to hear from you.
MPFA: You chose to sell the painting through Ebay. Are you prepared to continue with the process?
Nelson: You can buy the painting via Ebay, but I will not be able to send you any documents or hyperlinks via the messaging service.
MPFA: How many owners are involved?
Nelson: The painting is owned by myself and two other dealers. It is available for sale at the moment if you wish to purchase. I can supply all necessary details once a clear intention to buy has been received.
MPFA: Where is the painting today?
Nelson: Its in a secure store in South London.
MPFA: Have all three dealers purchased equal shares?
Nelson: All parties are equal.
MPFA: Secure store South London: Is this in SE11?
Nelson: Is your interest not to do with buying the painting?
MPFA: If you prefer, I will discontinue the correspondence and deal with one of your partners.
Nelson: Thank you for your interest, if you change your mind do not hesitate to contact me.
12th May 2015
MPFA: No reply to my last question. I see that the price is now reset to $20,000. Is there any possibility the extra $2,000 buys the answers to the questions you have failed to answer so far?
Nelson: Painting is still available, realistic offers welcomed.
MPFA: I can only consider making an offer after I have seen the related drawing; the condition report; and the Laffan expertise. You can send these to me through the photo facility in the message system.
Nelson: Barret is in showroom condition. Has been cleaned and lined. Frame is giltwood and good.
MPFA: You describe yourself as a dealer who has run substantial trading galleries in London for the last twenty years. Surely you should know that the five-word condition report is entirely inadequate for a $20,000 painting which is over 250 years old. The value of this painting is determined by market freshness or staleness; pictorial rating; authenticity; provenance and physical condition. It is extremely unlikely that this painting has not been restored on a number of occasions. As a professional dealer, you should know that that this painting is unsaleable unless all of the information pertaining to all of the above is disclosed by you. Furthermore, your statement: "All parties are equal" is entirely ambiguous so I will pose the question again. Have you paid for a 1/3rd share in this painting? You should also answer my question regarding the location of the painting as it is pertinent to whatever inspection arrangements I might have to make. Is the painting in SE11?
15th May 2015
MPFA: In the absence of a reply to my last message, I will reset the questions here. . . . .
Nelson: Before I give you any further information I need to know who you are?
16th May 2015
MPFA: As an experienced dealer who has sold several thousand items on Ebay over the last year, you must know the rules by now. I am not obliged to identify myself in order to obtain run of the mill information on the item you have offered for sale.
19th May 2015
Email to A. Nelson ( would like to request more information about a product or service. Message of A. Nelson: Do you by any chance have in stock a painting by George Barret of a Mill?
Ebay announcement: SAVE US $3,000.00 You watched this at US $20,000.00. It was just discounted to US $17,000.00. Make it yours today! Landscape with watermill, by George Barret, Irish Fine 18th Century Oil Painting: US $17,000.00: 1 left at this price. 9 buyers are watching this item. (22nd May 2015

19th May 2015
MPFA to William Laffan: I came across the Barret landscape with a mill offered by Alan Nelson and Christopher Foley and have tried without success to get proper information on the painting from them . . . . .
All of this makes me very suspicious and I have now decided to challenge openly their methods of dealing and the attribution of the painting. Please let me know if you would like to discuss this matter before I go to press.
Laffan: I am baffled. I know this picture and in my opinion, and I say this having written extensively over the last 15 years in the field of 18th Century Irish landscape painting, it is without any doubt whatsoever a work by George Barret. I also know the dealers involved. Their integrity is unquestioned, their expertise in this particular field unsurpassed. May I ask what qualifications, either academic or trade, you have to pronounce on the attribution of a work by Barret? Indeed, especially one you have not seen. If you have any substantive reason for doubting the attribution to Barret, I am sure Christopher Foley would be interested to hear from. He is among the most scholarly and respected of dealers in London. Suggest you put up or shut up, but please do not contact me again about your conspiracy theories.
23rd May 2015
MPFA: It is the height of bad manners to tell anyone to shut up, no matter what the context. I have dealt in Irish paintings for over forty-one years and was actively trading in this period when you were still in short pants. Your arrogant assertion that there is no doubt whatsoever about the painting demonstrates a very unhealthy attitude to scholarly debate. I have substantive reasons for doubting many aspects of this particular offer for sale but, as it appears that you have no interest in discussing the matter cordially, I will proceed and ‘put up’ my case as you suggest. I have phoned Christopher Foley a number of times yesterday and today after two frustrating weeks of trying to deal with his brother-in-law. He has refused to speak to me . . . .
In all my years of trading, I cannot recall such a shoddy and sordid set of circumstances. I am sure when you read the text of the correspondence, which I will ‘put up’ online; you will change your mind about the integrity of these wonderful associates of yours. I will also ‘put up’ sound arguments, which will demonstrate the flaws in the current attribution.
Laffan: I asked you not to contact me again, but I must respond, as your increasingly bizarre correspondence raises an important matter of scholarly principle. You adduce no evidence whatsoever to question the attribution of the picture to Barret. Well actually you do. Mr Foley was not very nice to you. Well diddums. I object in the strongest terms to personal animus (in this case an imagined slight) being used as a factor in determining the attribution of a painting instead of any scholarly, or connoisseurial principles. You have no absolute right to see this picture. I cannot speak for Messers Foley and Nelson but your hysterical reaction (‘shoddy and sordid’? really? how? how dare you?) rather suggests that they were wise not to engage with you. Perhaps your reputation precedes you. But why bring me into it? You are clearly only interested in my opinion if it chimes with your own. I repeat that having studied this picture in the original, it is in my opinion without doubt a work by George Barret. Of course it is you who chooses arrogantly to ignore the opinion of others. If I had agreed with you, you would be citing my opinion as gospel truth. You cannot have it both ways. It is none of my business whatsoever that you have had two frustrating weeks. Why are you telling me this? I don’t care. However, I absolutely resent you using an artist that some of us care deeply about as the battleground for your pathetic tantrum and also resent connoisseurial principles being personalized and trivialized in this fashion. Grow up!
MPFA: I wonder why it is that so many ‘experts’ ask me not to contact them again. The evidence you seek is forthcoming. You seem to have missed that point in my correspondence. Extraordinary how you would assume that this correspondence is in any way connected to the forthcoming paper. You might remind me please where I claimed a right to see the painting. I made contact with one of your associates seeking further information on a painting, which was advertised for sale. Details on the extraordinary events which followed will be covered later. You ask why I brought you into this. The answer is that I didn’t. I simply granted you the courtesy of letting you know that I was about to publish a paper in which your name would appear and invited you to contact me if you wished. I offered the same courtesy to two other gentlemen who were also involved with the painting in earlier years and they were both very pleased that I had contacted them. I fail to recognise the hysteria you refer to and assume that the reputation you refer to might have something to do with my uncanny knack of exposing shoddy experts and the unsavoury dealers and auctioneers they associate themselves with. I have no interest whatsoever in procuring an opinion from you as I have already made a careful study of your chimes. If you were genuinely familiar with my reputation, you would know that I do not rely on external expertise or opinions in determining whether a painting is worth buying or not and you flatter yourself in your assumption that I would want to cite you. I told you about the two frustrating weeks because you asked. For someone in your position, you display a surprising inability to follow the simplest of correspondence. I am at a loss to understand your reference to a battleground but perhaps you have an inkling as to the content of the article I have just finished drafting. Incidentally, the title is: ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Buying Old Master paintings on Ebay’. It will be online next week and if you have any interest in influencing what I might say in the final draft, my door remains open; but only for calm and civil debate. [End]

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