Sotheby’s has withdrawn an important “13th century” belt buckle from its 2 December old master sculpture and works of art sale after questions were raised by The Art Newspaper. The intricately-designed silver and enamel buckle had recently been owned by Paul Ruddock, now chairman of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum.
We were contacted by Claude Blair, retired head of the V&A’s metalwork department, who told us that the buckle is a modern fake. Following our queries, Sotheby’s issued a statement, saying that “due to questions raised since the publication of the catalogue, we—in consultation with the US consignor—have decided to withdraw lot 2 from our sale.” It had an estimate of £20,000-£30,000.
Dr Blair, who left the V&A in 1982, is convinced that the buckle is one of the notorious Marcy fakes, marketed by Louis Marcy in the 1890s. Marcy worked as a dealer in both Paris and London, selling “medieval” metalwork.
The buckle surfaced in the collection of Dacre Kenrick Edwards, whose estate was sold at Christie’s in 1961. It then passed to distinguished New York collector Germain Seligman, who lent it for an exhibition at The Cloisters (Metropolitan Museum, New York) in 1968. The buckle was offered at Sotheby’s in 1995 (estimate £15,000-£20,000), but went unsold. It passed through two specialist dealers in New York and in 2004 was sold to an English collector via the London dealer Sam Fogg.
In May 2005 the buckle was presented in an exhibition of “Medieval and Later Treasures from a Private Collection” at the V&A, where it was dated by curator Paul Williamson to 1280. At the time The Art Newspaper identified the anonymous collector of the hundred items in the show as Paul Ruddock, then a V&A trustee. The authenticity of the buckle was questioned by Dr Blair and it was quietly removed from the display before the closure of the exhibition.
It was then tested by Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for archaeology & art, which showed that the enamel and silver filigree dated from the 19th century. The silver alloy of the body was consistent with medieval silver, although this could have been melted down old silver.
Dr Blair also established that the buckle and three other pieces of metalwork had been shown at the Society of Antiquaries in 1905, when they belonged to Sir John Charles Robinson, the retired first superintendent of the South Kensington Museum (V&A). In 1908 these objects were exposed as of modern French manufacture and it emerged that they had all been bought from Marcy. A number of Marcy items had also been acquired by the V&A in the 1890s (including a reliquary, chess casket and portable altar), but these too were long ago exposed as fakes.
Following evidence in 2005 that the buckle was either a fake or a pastiche, Mr Ruddock returned it to Sam Fogg, who refunded the price. Last month Mr Fogg told us: “We arranged for the return of the buckle to its previous owner. I do not know who owns it now.” He added that the Oxford tests showed “the enameling of the coat of arms was probably later restoration —not that the piece was a fake”.
Last month the buckle appeared in Sotheby’s 2 December catalogue of Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art, where it was lot 2, “Franco-Flemish or English, late 13th century belt buckle”.
The catalogue notes: “Only nobility would have had the means necessary to raise a utilitarian object like a belt buckle into such a precious work of art. It therefore comes without surprise that the buckle bears the arms of the Lords Ingham of Ingham, trustees and ambassadors to the British rulers during the continuous wars with France around 1300.”
The Sotheby’s catalogue entry goes on to cite V&A curator Dr Williamson’s 2005 catalogue, which was published by Mr Fogg. This leaves the unfortunate impression that the museum accepts the object, whereas it was actually removed from its display.
Mr Ruddock was astonished and unhappy to learn last month that after returning the buckle, it had later been put into Sotheby’s. Dr Williamson was equally concerned, and he too has contacted Sotheby’s. He told Sotheby’s that since publication of the catalogue of the V&A show, he now regards the buckle as “very problematic”.