Of all the things an Englishman might be called, “shoddy” is perhaps the most demeaning. Call us “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and we’ll hear “eccentric, handsome, and thoroughly good value on a long weekend.” But shoddy? There’s something schoolmasterish about it all—repressed memories of untucked shirts and smudged homework, of moral weakness and experimental haircuts. French masonry is shoddy. Italian elections are shoddy. American presidents are shoddy. But an Englishman’s output? Not so!
Which is why the wording of a lawsuit currently simmering away at High Court is so delicious and so telling. In it, the Earl and Countess of Wemyss and March are suing their former art adviser (or rather their trust is suing his limited company) on the charge of conducting his business in an “unprofessional and shoddy manner.” In short, the couple say that Simon C. Dickinson, a one-time senior director at Christie’s who worked for the couple privately, instructed them to sell a painting for far less than they now believe it was worth—and they’d like him to recoup the difference, thanks very much. Dickinson is denying the claims and any negligence.
The accusation must sting, especially as the countess is known as one of the most eccentric aristocrats in the country. (But more on that later.) Either way, this is a litigation not just of facts but of manners. It is, perhaps, a final cry of the English upper classes attempting to imprint some sense of order on an increasingly troublesome world—a place where energy prices soar so high, say, that a countess has to flog a family heirloom simply to keep the gatehouse loo heated come winter.
The trouble started in 2014, when the family sold a version of Le Bénédicité, by the 18th-century French master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, for $1.8 million. The buyer was Verner Amell, a Scandinavian art dealer with a gallery in Stockholm, and it was arranged by Dickinson. The piece had been in the family since 1751, when it was bought by the earl’s ancestor Francis Charteris.
An earlier version of the painting, which depicts a petit bourgeois family saying grace, hangs in the Louvre. And the version owned by the Charteris family was thought to be a “Chardin and studio” work, meaning it was likely painted by his students with just a few finishing touches added by the maestro himself.
The countess is known as one of the most eccentric aristocrats in the country.
Then, just six months later, the painting was bought by the trust of the late Michel David-Weill, the former chairman of Lazard, and a man described in court documents as a “hugely rich” art collector. This time, however, after a deep clean, a “Chardin” signature appeared, and suddenly an industry expert hailed Le Bénédicité as a “fully autographed masterpiece by Chardin himself.” In January 2015, David-Weill paid a handsome $10.5 million for the piece, of which $7.5 million was cash, with the remaining $3 million settled via a painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau—the robber-baron equivalent of trading Pokémon cards.
The countess and earl were understandably miffed: $9 million–ish goes a long way to keeping the roof mended. So in High Court this month, they’re asking Dickinson why he didn’t do his proper due diligence, and arguing that their trust is entitled to what the painting would have achieved had it been sold “as a Chardin at its actual market value.” Their lawyers claim that Pierre Rosenberg, the leading Chardin expert, made it “clear” that he “regarded the painting as being, without qualification, by the hand of Chardin.”
But instead of listening to Rosenberg, apparently, Dickinson “assumed the role of expert himself,” and was influenced by a “false memory of an unrecorded conversation,” from a 1992 visit to the Charteris pile in Longniddry, Scotland. Dickinson’s lawyers, on the other hand, claim that Rosenberg “said words to the effect of there was no Chardin at all in the painting and that it was ‘totally studio.’”
David-Weill paid a handsome $10.5 million for the piece.
The alleged shoddiness continues. “It is not easy to fathom or explain the degree of inattention and incompetence displayed by [Dickinson] in the handling of the painting,” the earl and countess’s lawyers told the court, according to The Independent. The attorneys then described how the adviser rushed through the sale with the “frankly bizarre” explanation that he was worried about an “over-exposure to the market.” Dickinson also claimed that a dealer-to-dealer sale had been secured due to Lord and Lady Wemyss’s “desire for privacy and their inclination to raise funds.”
But there is more nuance to the case, according to Dickinson’s legal team, who maintain that their client’s work never fell “below the standard required of a reasonably competent specialist.” Likewise, “the fact that the buyer of a painting is able to find someone who will buy the painting for much more than he paid does not mean that the original seller has acted negligently or improperly.”
That privacy gambit might not land with the judge. The countess has never been a shy or retiring type. Known as a psychedelics campaigner since the 1960s, she set up the Foundation to Further Consciousness in 1998, advocating for drug reform and research in psychoactive substances, and promoting the medicinal and creative properties of LSD. Beckley Park, her estate in Oxfordshire, was known for years as “Brainblood Hall,” due to its incumbent’s belief that the interaction between our blood and our brain is key to understanding psychedelics, and along these lines, how psychedelics might be used to help combat anxiety, depression, and more.
In 1970, the countess positioned herself in front of a camera and drilled a hole in her forehead to manipulate blood flow in the brain—an ancient process known as trepanning, which she maintains is grounded in science. And which she hopes will one day be available on the National Health Service. (She urges people not to try this at home.)
Essentially, the countess has no fear of rallying against Establishment wisdom. Even if that wisdom is something so prosaic as: sometimes speculative investments such as art go up in value astronomically, based on new information, new market conditions, and new buyers, and there’s not much lowly individuals, aristocratic or otherwise, can do about it.
Take the Salvator Mundi, still the most expensive painting ever sold. It was, for a time, denounced as a fake and rarely shown—but then, the right experts, the right auction house, the right buyer, and the right payday came along—and it was hailed as “the Last Leonardo,” selling for $450 million, more than triple what most dealers had predicted.
For now, the Bénédicité case continues. But its protagonists may soon feel that the real shoddiness is not personal but institutional. It is an art market rigged against the individual—and a racket that the earl and countess must now be feeling they need, dare I say it, like a hole in the head.
To hear Joseph Bullmore reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London