The painting is dated 1789, the year of the French Revolution. But the subject -- horses in a landscape -- and the painter, George Stubbs of Liverpool, celebrated as one of the greatest of horse painters -- could hardly be more quintessentially English.
In retrospect, it seems glaringly obvious. The picture is clearly signed "Geo: Stubbs pinxit" ("painted" in Latin).
The composition, titled "Two Hacks," is small (21-by-29 inches) but charming, and utterly typical of Stubbs. A pair of horses -- one black, one chestnut -- are setting out for a hack with a liveried groom saddled up on the black horse.
And yet this is the painting that the experts seem to have completely overlooked -- not once, but twice.
And what they thought was a copy has turned out to be a genuine article.
The painting was consigned to auction last summer by the Huntington Library
in California. It had apparently been in storage for over 50 years. Did the library's curators take a serious look at it? They surely had the expertise: the library has "one of the most distinguished collections of 18th and 19th century British painting," according to its website
Did anyone at the auction house, Christie's
, examine the painting in detail? Someone evidently decided it simply wasn't fine enough for an Old Masters sale. So it went straight into a Christie's "Living with Art"
sale in New York in June 2016 -- basically furniture, paintings, sculpture and objets to appeal to interior designers and decorators.
Lot 45 was cataloged as "After Stubbs" -- in other words, a copy -- "two saddled horses one ridden by a groom," with an estimate of $3000-$5000 and no reserve.
(A Christie's spokesperson commented: "At the time of the sale we considered the authorship of this picture and were of the opinion that the work was not by Stubbs. While reattribution is not uncommon in the field of Old Masters, particularly when works are restored, we are not yet aware that the new attribution is widely accepted.")
'You don't find a Stubbs every day'
Archie Parker is quietly pleased with his discovery -- "You don't find a Stubbs every day," he remarks languidly -- although he's been an art dealer long enough to know not to crow about it.
The Stubbs is currently hanging on his corner stand at the annual British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA) Fair
in London. The asking price is $900,000.
Although Parker has worked in the fine art trade for a decade, he is still only 29. After stints at several auction houses, he set up himself as a dealer in 18th and 19th century sporting pictures in December 2014.
"Did you know much about Stubbs?" I asked impertinently.
"Enough to buy a picture that was called wrong that was actually right," came the swift reply.
What told him it was a Stubbs?
"Well, this," he says, half suppressing a laugh and pointing at the signature.
Nine months after he bought the painting, Parker has honed his story.
"Discoveries are rare," he says, "but not as rare as people might think."
Parker claims that he probably looks at 3000 to 4000 paintings a week trawling through auction catalogs. He was looking online when he noticed "Two Hacks."
"I wouldn't call myself a genius for spotting this," he says. "All it took was probably half an hour going though the different Stubbs books produced over the years."
Surprisingly, Parker found that the painting was illustrated in the definitive work, the "George Stubbs, Painter Catalogue Raisonne"
written by the late Judy Egerton and published in 2007.
What he quickly realized was that, unknown to Egerton, Stubbs had painted two practically identical versions of the subject. As luck would have it, Parker's business partner (he declined to name him) had been involved in the conservation of the other version in the 1980s, and still had a transparency of it.
That painting was dated 1790. The picture in the Christie's sale had been executed a year earlier. So it was highly unlikely to be a copy.
Parker backed his hunch. He'd spotted the painting online on a Friday, promptly booked a Sunday flight to New York, and viewed the painting on Monday.
The bidding begins
Parker admits he was "slightly nervous" about the Tuesday sale, and didn't register to bid in his company name. He didn't want to set off "any alarm bells."
"You never know who is looking through the registered bidders," he says.
Instead, he used his own name. But at least three other bidders noticed the painting's quality, including another London dealer.
Parker had competition on the phone and in the room. His winning bid was $175,000 ($215,000 with premium).
Old Masters expert Bendor Grosvenor
, reflecting on his blog at the time, said that this could be "one of the biggest deaccessioning blunders in modern times."
Parker has since had the painting and the frame cleaned. He's convinced that it is the first of the two versions by Stubbs, and is the source for a later etching done by Stubb's son.
He has no doubt the painting "should certainly have been in an Old Master sale," though he's relieved that it wasn't, as he probably wouldn't have been able to afford it.
So did Christie's made a mistake?
"In my opinion, yes," Parker says without hesitation.
Has he been in contact with the Huntington Library?
"I think it would be rather mean to rub salt into a potential wound. Unfortunately they are not awash with Stubbs, which makes this rather sad from the point of view of the picture not being looked at enough beforehand."
If he manages to sell the painting at £750,000 ($915,000) Parker is looking at a profit of about 400%.
Not a bad return for an eagle-eyed 29-year-old art dealer.