A pre-dawn run along the Durban beachfront and an armed man rises with intent from the pavement. But this is not one of those stories. This man's weapon of choice was the metal detector, a quaint sight these days and a tool ever to be associated with all sorts of cranks and oddballs. No doubt some of whom will write in to disagree. Quite what he hopes to discover on the well-trodden Durban beachfront is anyone's guess but it does bring to mind some of the fantastic art finds made over the years. If you are an addict of “Cash in the Attic” or “Antiques Roadshow”, you'll know exactly what I mean.
One of the most well-known dates from 1820 was when a Greek farmer discovered the Venus de Milo buried on his farm, along with a few other ancient statues. The famous statue, said to be the “epitome of female beauty”, was created somewhere between 130 and 100 BC and can be seen today in the Louvre.
More recently, workers in 1978 found a 20 tonne bas-relief sculpture buried under a street in Mexico City. The sculpture was of the Aztec night goddess Coyolxauqui and dated from the fifteenth century. It is thought that it was buried to protect it against possible destruction by the Spanish conquistadors in the early sixteenth century.
A find more suited to the armchair treasure-hunters occurred in Milwaukee in 1990 when a middle-aged couple found out that the “reproduction” Van Gogh on their wall was in fact an original. The still life “Vase with Flowers” was authenticated and sold shortly after for $1.4m. And, while not art exactly, there is the delightful story of the man who bought a $4 wooden frame from a flea market in Pennsylvania, only to discover hidden inside one of the 24 known 1776 copies of the US Declaration of Independence. It sold on auction for $2.4m in 1991.
But before I unleash a torrent of holiday bounty hunters, you should be warned of the possible pitfalls. For one thing, proving the authenticity of your find may be a long and arduous process. In 2000, a Californian painter found 65 glass negatives wrapped in newspaper from the 1940s on a garage sale. He managed to bargain the seller down to $45. Ten years later he announced to the world that these were in fact the work of famed photographer Ansel Adams with an approximate value of $200m and all manner of furies were unleashed.
Court cases have lashed back and forth on charges including slander, conspiracy and trademark infringement (amongst many others), with the true provenance still unrevealed. Then you may have read of the huge stash of 271 Picasso works that were made known to the world this past year: apparently a “gift” from the grateful painter to a (by now) aged French couple. Here there is no question of authenticity but there are serious doubts around legitimate ownership. And the French government concur, with the couple being indicted in June this year on charges of illegal ownership.
After all this excitement, you may prefer to ‘find' your art in a more civilised fashion. If you're heading into the northern hemisphere over the holiday, you may be lucky enough to be visiting one of the cities that hosts one of the top ten art galleries in the world. Any “top ten” list is bound to attract dissension, but this one is strictly based on visitor numbers. Included are the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Met and MOMA in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. London also has three of the top galleries, the Tate Modern, the British Museum and the National Gallery and, in the best British tradition, they're all free to visit!
A little further afield is the National Museum in Korea. And although it never made it onto the list, a visit to Florence would be incomplete without a detour through the glorious Uffizi Gallery. With chilly northern winter on the go, art galleries are a great place to warm up, soak up some culture and buy unusual gifts for the folks back home (or yourself!).
And if you happen to be lucky enough to be staying in our beautiful country for the holiday, perhaps you should fit in a visit to one of our great galleries or take in art under the sun at one of the many “Art in the Park” events. For who knows, you may just find your very own treasure. asa
Jennifer Ferreira CA(SA), BBdgArts, BCompt (Hons), is a financial manager at The Unlimited.