Found after 221 years: the spoils of a treasure hunt worthy of Fake or Fortune

Found after 221 years: the spoils of a treasure hunt worthy of Fake or Fortune

There have been a number of exhibitions lately that have re-assembled once glorious but long since dispersed collections. The Royal Academy’s reconvening earlier this year of the treasures of King Charles I, for instance, which were auctioned off after his execution in 1649, or the 2003 showing at Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, of Sir Robert Walpole’s extraordinary collection, which his debt-ridden grandson, the 3rd Earl of Orford, sold to Catherine the Great for £40,000 in 1779.

Now, it is the turn of Sir Robert’s youngest son, Horace, one of the most important and stylish collectors of the 18th century. When he died without issue in 1797, the mass of art, objects and curiosities he had amassed over his lifetime and that filled the Gothic Villa he built at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, were inherited by a cousin in the Waldegrave family.

It didn’t survive intact for long: in 1841, the alcoholic 7th Earl Waldegrave was jailed for assaulting a police officer and was so in debt that when he was released he put the collection up for sale. It took some 24 days to sell 6,000 works.

Simon Sheffield Portrait of Baron Sheffield

For a new exhibition, which opens on Saturday, curators at Strawberry Hill have traced 150 of these works to owners who, more often than not, were unaware of the Walpole provenance. Behind the scenes is art historian and “super sleuth” Silvia Davoli, whose specialism is hunting down provenance or history of ownership, as Philip Mould or Bendor Grosvenor do on the BBC’s Fake or Fortune and Lost Masterpieces.

The British Museum was unaware, for instance, that an ancient bronze hand of Sabazius, the god of fertility, in its collection, had belonged to Walpole, until Davoli identified it from a drawing made when Walpole owned it. Meanwhile, a fragment of a Roman wall painting she was searching for turned up at Sotheby’s this summer, and Davoli was able to fill in gaps that neither Sotheby’s nor the owner knew about.

Another find was a long lost 16th century portrait of Baron Sheffield by Antonis Mor, which was sold in the 1841 auction as “by an unknown hand”, to one Richard Rushton Preston for 14 guineas. Over the years, the painting was resold several times, but Davoli discovered that the last purchaser, at Christie’s in 1951, was a descendant of the sitter with whose family it still resides.

Some discoveries, though, have not made it back to Twickenham. A whole cache of Italian Old Master drawings in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow were not known by the museum to have belonged to Horace Walpole until Davoli alerted them – but export negotiations with Russia proved to be one hurdle too far, even for her.