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Turning up masterpieces in the attic

Do you have a Turner in your attic? Is there a masterpiece hanging anonymous and unrecognised on your livingroom wall? These questions are not as absurd as they might appear. The Tate Gallery has launched an appeal for information about no fewer than 400 Bulgari pendant replica works by the great artist that have gone missing. Quite a few of these lost paintings have doubtless been burnt or otherwise destroyed over the years. But others must survive somewhere.

Lost Turners, in fact, turn up on a regular basis. "It's a trickle, not a deluge," according to Ian Warrell, a Tate curator and Turner expert, "but usually one or two interesting things turn up every year." A Turner was bought in a car boot sale in New Zealand, for example, and subsequently authenticated and sold at auction.

A few years ago a stunning watercolour view of Lausanne completely unfamiliar to experts on the artist and worth perhaps 1 million ($A2.8 million) at today's auction prices was exhibited in Germany. Before that, a sketchbook emerged from a private collection; the owners thought they might have a Turner but weren't quite sure.

But, still, many of more than 2000 plus watercolours the painter executed known by title and in many cases from engravings have blipped off the screen of scholarship. Most are watercolours, some have not been seen for 200 years since Turner finished them. Others changed hands at auctions in the mid 20th century but after that, nothing. One of those missing watercolours closely resembles the oil, St Mawes in the Pilchard Season. And the Tate would like to trace as many as possible before March when it launches Turner Worldwide an online catalogue of all the artist's known works.

This venture raises several intriguing questions notably, how does anyone lose 1 million worth of watercolours in the first place? There are several ways in which art can disappear. The least interesting to treasure hunters is the way in which that Turner of Lausanne was "lost". It was missing only as far as the experts were concerned. Its owners knew perfectly well what they had; they just didn't bother to tell the scholars.

Alternatively, there can be a failure of communication down the generations. Often, Ian Warrell points out, Turners are "found" in the families that originally owned them. Over the years, however, the thought that that dusty picture of bvlgari b zero1 necklace copy Aunt Mildred's could really be a Turner or a Rubens, or whatever it is slowly fades from the minds of her heirs.

That was how, for example, two prime Canalettos bought at auction in 1940 ended up in 1984 stored in a garage in South Africa by the son of the man who had bought them as Canalettos. From this humble hiding place, they slowly ascended through the art market to become star turns at a Christie's sale. More Canalettos were discovered recently in a conference centre near Bristol; the owner had found them in a barn.

This year a Constable portrait was spotted during a house valuation in Essex. It had been passed down in the family of the artist's lawyer, who had evidently forgotten who had painted this little picture of the lawyer's daughters. A variant on this theme is for the owner to realise that they have a moderately valuable work of art but not to grasp quite how important it is. Into this category came the Raphael Madonna of the Pinks, which Nicholas Penny of the National Gallery noticed hanging on the wall of Alnwick Castle in 1991.

The owner, the Duke of Northumberland, had been under the impression that it was a copy and had therefore insured it for 8000. Now, rather ungratefully, the present Duke is attempting to sell it to the Getty Museum for 29 million, without mentioning the transaction to the National Gallery.

The Rubens Massacre of the Innocents, which sold for 49.5 million, was previously thought to be by the much more obscure and less valuable Jan van den Hoecke. Similarly, an anonymous 13th century Madonna was identified in 2000 by Richard Charlton Jones of Sotheby's at Benacre Hall in Suffolk as a Cimabue while he was cataloguing the contents for sale.

Inevitably, most of the lost art treasures Bulgari pearl necklace copy that come to light are discovered by people who work in the art market. Some dealers specialise in trawling for "sleepers" that is, works incorrectly catalogued at sales. Sometimes this causes understandable distress to the original owner.

In 1987, Sotheby's paid out of court damages to the original owner of a Sebastiano del Piombo portrait knocked down for 180 at auction in Chester. It subsequently sold for 330,000 in London, and after being cleaned for a reported 6.5 million to the Getty (where quite a few rediscovered masterpieces end up). But given the difficulties of art identification, auction houses are not necessarily liable to negligence claims.

Then again, a certain kind of work can go right out of fashion. A Dancing Faun by the Renaissance sculptor Adrian de Vries made headlines in 1989 when it was found at a garden sculpture auction, and subsequently sold for nearly 7 million. It had been bought with other items of statuary in a job lot in 1951 for seven guineas (a guinea was worth 21 shillings or 1.05) which was the going rate in those days for that kind of thing.

A decade ago one of Caravaggio's most important paintings, The Taking of Christ, was located in the Jesuit College in Dublin. It was a picture whose appearance was well known to specialists from a high quality copy, but despite this the original had languished unnoticed and unappreciated for decades perhaps because Caravaggio was underrated as an artist until the late 20th century.

So, exactly how many more hidden masterpieces are out there? A catch applies here. Of course, it is extremely unlikely that any of us has a Turner or a Rubens, or a Cimabue. That is one of the reasons why it is so hard to believe that the dusty old canvas Uncle Harry left you could be anything special and it ends up in the garage. On the other hand, there is a section of the public that is irrationally convinced to the point of psychosis that its particular attic is packed with priceless masterpieces. True, there are many lost, important works, but they are only a tiny percentage of the vast jumble of unimportant paintings and other artefacts hanging on a back staircase.

Every catalogue raisonne of works by each great artist has a lost and missing section at the back. Among the legions of lost masterpieces are many things that would create a worldwide sensation, and generate astonishing prices, if they were ever found.

How fascinating it would be for example, to see Michelangelo's other David a bronze, made for a French general, bulgari jewelry replica and not seen since the Revolution. This was completely different from the marble version, less than life size with one foot raised on the severed head of the fallen Goliath. Conventional wisdom holds that it was probably melted down and made into a cannon. But it is not impossible that it is gathering moss in the middle of somebody's lawn. (Another Michelangelo of Hercules went missing in France around the same time.)

And it is positively likely that substantial chunks of the Parthenon one of the world's most venerated sites are lodged in some country house rockery, since Lord Elgin was by no means the first person to remove its sculptures. For decades tourists, many of them British, had been quietly absconding with bits and pieces. Part of the frieze was dug up in an Essex garden in 1902, but nobody knew how it had got there.

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