This Lucian Freud Mystery Could Be Solved on TV

Was Lucian Freud embarrassed by this early work?

Lucian Freud in 2010 Photo: Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty

The British TV show Fake or Fortune on BBC is about to air one of its most high-profile episodes this coming Sunday—and shed light on a decades-long kerfuffle surrounding a painting allegedly created by none other than Lucian Freud.

In the first episode of its fifth season, the show will explore the provenance of the painting The Man in the Black Cravat which late artist Denis Wirth-Miller claims to be an early canvas painted by Freud. Wirth-Miller has been trying to auction the work for decades, only to see Freud repeatedly block off any sales, claiming the work was not his.

“Can art detectives Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce prove that a painting of a man in a black cravat is one of the first pictures ever painted by celebrated and controversial British artist Lucian Freud?”, the BBC asks in a slogan promoting the episode. However, as the Telegraph points out, the real revelation most likely to be made on the show is the extent of the bitter feud between the two artists. The documentary suggests that Freud, who passed away in 2011, denied painting the work only to “keep one of his greatest enemies from earning a fortune.”

Fake or Fortune's Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould with the portrait attributed to Lucian Freud.

Fake or Fortune’s Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould with the portrait attributed to Lucian Freud.

Freud and Wirth-Miller—who passed away in 2001—met in the 1940s, when they were both students at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. And while no one knew what started the bitter rivalry between them, it was very much out in the open: “Freud referred to Wirth-Miller as ‘Worst Miller,'” the Telegraph reports, “while Wirth-Miller spent his final years writing lists under the title, ‘Reasons I hate Lucian Freud.'”

Art expert Jon Lys Turner, who inherited the painting from Wirth-Miller, said that other experts had confirmed the work was a genuine Freud, but retracted their statements after speaking with the artist. Wirth-Miller bequeathed the painting to Turner in 1997, with the express instruction, “I want you to sell this picture as publicly as possible. I want you to humiliate Lucian Freud.”

The late artist was referring to what he perceived to be the work’s poor quality, which could arguably be the reason for Freud’s denial of authorship.

If proven authentic, Turner believes the painting could fetch up to half a million pounds. According to artnet’s Price Database, the record for a work by Freud now stands at $56.2 million, for the painting Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) which sold at Christie’s New York in May 2015.

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