“Bankrupt Bullion Billionaire” is the kind of moniker the British tabloids love, almost as much as they love titles such as the Prince of Wales. Events unfolding in the art world this week are providing a rare opportunity to use both in the same sentence. Some $129 million worth of paintings on loan to the Prince’s Foundation from a ruined gold trader may well be forgeries and have been removed from public view.
The Dickensianly named James Stunt, a disgraced bullion trader, lent 17 paintings to the foundation in a 10-year lease agreement, according to The Mail on Sunday. The works reportedly include a Monet (Lily Pads 1882, valued at $64 million), a Picasso (Liberated Bathers, $54 million), and a Dalí (Dying Christ, $15 million) from Stunt’s collection. The paintings were hung at Dumfries House, the Palladian manor in Ayrshire, Scotland, that is home to the foundation. Some of the newly hung paintings soon caught the eye of the American art forger Tony Tetro, who recognized them as his own handiwork. “I don’t want any part of this. It has got to be stopped now,” Tetro told The Mail on Sunday, explaining that he sold some of the newly painted works to Stunt himself. Stunt immediately denied the charge. “None of my stuff is fake,” he told the paper.
Tetro occupies a unique perch in the art world. After pleading “no contest” to charges of forging pieces by Dalí, Miró, Rockwell, and Chagall in 1993 and accepting a plea bargain, he later returned to the kitchen table that serves as his studio to continue creating his remarkable “emulations,” as he calls his paintings, careful to represent them as his own work. It is in Tetro’s interest to identify any of his paintings masquerading as the real thing.
“None of my stuff is fake.”
Apparently, Stunt has no such scruples. According to The Mail on Sunday, he sent the paintings to Dumfries House with insurance documentation of their value and a claim of authentication for Lily Pads 1882 from the august Wildenstein Institute in Paris, the guardian of the Monet catalogue raisonné and the last word in authentication of that Impressionist’s work. While the institute remains silent on the authenticity of the authentication, Stunt has been defending his position vigorously on social media. In a style that can best be described as presidential, he reportedly said of the Dumfries House staff in a video, “We are very, very close, extremely close… and I would never do anything to deceive them.” Of Prince Charles he reportedly said, “I support the Prince’s Trust [and] I support the Prince of Wales. He’s a great man. I consider him to be a friend.... I give my huge apologies to the Prince of Wales.”
Since the breaking of this story, Prince Charles has not commented publicly on his relationship with Stunt (who has proudly displayed framed letters from Charles) nor on the counterfeit art. The foundation’s staff simply calls the whole thing “extremely regrettable.” In this case, Dumfries House apparently did not undertake independent verification of the provenance of the works on loan. The Prince himself was not directly involved in the incident.
“I support the Prince of Wales. He’s a great man. I consider him to be a friend.”
That staff maintains that all the paintings have been returned to Stunt. He reportedly disagrees. “None of these pictures have come back, they are all there. No Monet has come back to me because it is not real.… When it comes to art, when it is in Wildenstein, it cannot be fake.”
Dumfries House is one of the jewels in Prince Charles’s crown as king of British architectural-heritage preservation. If its glitter is dimmed a bit during this scandal, its enduring value is unquestionable. Designed and built by the Adam brothers in the 1750s, the manor displays an unequaled collection of 18th-century furniture. A single Dumfries House bookcase by Thomas Chippendale was valued at more than $4 million in 2007, the year in which Prince Charles spearheaded the purchase of the estate for the nation. Meticulously restored, it was first opened to the public in 2008. Dumfries House also fits into Charles’s scheme to promote British artists and artisans. The estate is home to education and sustainability programs, including apprenticeships in stone masonry and animal husbandry, courses in cooking and organic farming, a textile training center, and studio and living space for artists-in-residence.
If Dumfries House virtually glows with noblesse oblige, the same cannot be said for Mr. Stunt. He is best known for his $7 billion divorce from Formula One racing heiress Petra Ecclestone. The 2017 split was followed this year by a court-declared bankruptcy and millions in debts. The judge in the case called Stunt’s behavior “appalling.” The Daily Mail reports that he is being pursued by creditors ranging from bodyguards and divorce lawyers to Christie’s auction house. Perhaps it’s more surprising that he has a godfather at all than that his godfather is Terry Adams, head of Britain’s most notorious crime family.
He is best known for his $7 billion divorce from Formula One racing heiress Petra Ecclestone.
And so, history repeats itself. British royalty allow smarmy commoners—common in everything but the size of their bank accounts—to breach the walls of privacy and dignity that should protect the Crown. Rich vulgarians sidle up to the royal family with surprising regularity. Remember John Bryan, the toe-sucking rich Texan photographed with a topless Sarah Ferguson? Or the late Jeffrey Epstein, whose acquaintance with Prince Andrew resulted in both men being accused of sexually abusing an under-age girl? Or Dodi Fayed, whose affair with Princess Diana ended in a fatal car crash? His dad owned Harrods, where the old man had repeatedly been accused of harassing young female employees.
It’s easy to see what the outsiders gain in such transactions: the social equivalent of a royal warrant hanging above the shop door. But why do the royals let them get so close? Bespoke sexual favors have been in the mix from the days of Henry VIII to Wallis Simpson to Jeffrey Epstein. Greed must play a part, too—even rich royals are never rich enough.
Robin Olson is a writer and editor based in New York