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Antiques Collector Bought Cheap “Fake” Picasso – Now Learns it could be Authentic

Nancy Bilyeau
Rosie May, of Brighton and Hove Auctions, and auctioneer Andrew Potter. Copyright Argus/Sax Rohmer Ltd.
Rosie May, of Brighton and Hove Auctions, and auctioneer Andrew Potter. Copyright Argus/Sax Rohmer Ltd.

An extraordinary Pablo Picasso auction is about to take place. When Philip Stapleton, an antiques collector from Crawley, West Sussex, bought a painting that was supposedly a Picasso for $290 (£230) at a car boot sale, he knew it didn’t seem likely that it was genuine. But the truth behind the painting ended up taking Stapleton on an art world roller-coaster ride–with the outcome is still not known.

When he spotted the “Picasso” painting at the car boot sale (a market where people sell their goods from the trunks of their cars), he most liked the look of the Art Deco 1930s frame. But he still felt a bit embarrassed by the purchase and it sat on his desk for six months.

Picasso auction

The painting is set for auction on June 7

When he finally took the painting to be tested at a leading auction house, their report left him stunned: the oil on board study could have indeed come from Picasso’s hand, and if so, it would be worth at least $1 million.

Stapleton told the Daily Mirror: “I still can’t really believe what has happened. I’m like a rabbit caught in the headlights. It’s a very strange feeling. I feel kind of numb.”

Picasso's signature

The Picasso signature

The auction team at Brighton and Hove Auction Room said they were “stunned” and declared it a possible “preliminary study,” according to the Telegraph.

Rosie May, art researcher for Brighton and Hove, said in an interview with the Daily Mirror: “Philip’s a regular customer who comes in with bits and pieces for us to sell and he also buys at the auction. He came in one day and said this might be of interest to you. First of all we dismissed as someone had copied a Picasso and put it in a frame. The signature did not sit well with me, the Seated Bather is 1930s and this was an early signature.  But it caught our attention.”

PIcasso auction

Rosie May pointed out four signs that could indicate authenticity – including faint writing on the back. ‘We took the back off and on the back of the actual painting in very faint pencil you can clearly see the Picasso signature.”

After some detective work, May said she found four tell-tale hallmarks on the painting that indicated it could be a real Picasso study of the Seated Bather painting now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted in Paris in the early 1930s, the MOMA work has been authenticated. The painting has a surreal and unnerving nature, with Picasso’s use of colors and contrast. In Seated Bather, the woman’s head is sectioned off into pieces, her eyes are merely extensions of the top part of the head, her mouth is sideways and has no jaw connected to the face.
Picasso message

“It’s a later signature now and a message in pencil and you can make out the word ”To Roland” and a date.”

One of the tell-tale marks of Stapleton’s painting was “Roland Penrose” was written faintly on the back. Roland Penrose was a good friend of Picasso, and he organized exhibitions of Picasso’s work. May said there “so much circumstantial evidence that it is likely genuine – and if it was authenticated it would be worth roughly £750,000.” But she added: “We can’t authenticate it, other than having paint analysis done on it, but that costs thousands.”
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Stapleton does not want to pay for further analysis so it will be auctioned with this current information on June 7, 2019. A Pablo Picasso auction, even with the unusual circumstances surrounding this one, is always an event and there are a huge range of possibilities for the final selling price.
There are skeptics of course. One theory is that it is from the hand of David Henty, a prolific art forger who has mused that this painting could be from his hand. He ran into trouble after selling loads of fake paintings on ebay, including Picassos. However Rosie May and the team at Brighton and Hove believe he is lying for publicity. “He is a liar, he isn’t an honest person,” said Ms. May, adding: “It would be a shame for Mr. Stapleton if this devalues the artwork.”
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There are other skeptics as well. Philip Mould, the art dealer and presenter of the BBC series Fake or Fortune?, said in an interview with The Telegraph: “No one in the serious art market is likely to take it seriously unless it was authenticated by the Picasso family and estate. It’s a titanic task to get the evidence to satisfy them. The road to authenticity with Picasso is paved with rejection. It’s not impossible but to find a piece with all the evidence of a Picasso is a prize of the 20th Century.”

We shall see what takes place with this most unique Pablo Picasso auction.


Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com