Image: Ben Fitzpatrick/BBC

Why ‘Fake or Fortune’ is the only show left on traditional TV that I enjoy

There is little on TV that I watch or enjoy. The BBC produces little of quality, and the brief period where ITV seemed to be producing some good shows has long since ended. And let’s not even mention Channel 4 and Channel 5. Dave, Yesterday, Discovery, the History Channel: these are some places that either rerun good old shows or have some quirky ideas. None of them are perfect, and H2, a secondary History Channel that I loved, is no longer around.

Fake or Fortune, a BBC One show, is one of the exceptions. It’s the series I always come back to. Whilst it doesn’t justify the license fee, the show is one of few that genuinely excite me. It’s a mix of everything I love – history, (mostly) great art, classics, a detective atmosphere and structure, and a gripping aura. It’s a quirky and different concept, and it works.

Philip Mould, an art dealer and historian, and Fiona Bruce of BBC broadcasting fame co-host the show. Dr Bendor Grosvenor used to be the third mainstay in series 1-5, based in Mould’s Pall Mall, London gallery. However, he left to create his own BBC Four series focused on gallery-held works rather than public finds. There was gossip of bad blood, but it didn’t seem to hurt either Fake of Fortune or Dr Grosvenor’s new show Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.

Another mainstay in later series is Aviva Burnstock, head of the Department of Conservation and Technology at The Courtauld Institute of Art. Aviva is who Philip and Fiona rely on to put artworks under the microscope, and she uses scientific and technological techniques to investigate them more thoroughly and present more convincing cases. 

That a show essentially about the inner feuds of the history of art is so successful is astounding, and shows how well-made, fun programmes are popular.

Except for 2013, there has been a series every year since 2011 – that was, until 2020. Sadly, the lockdowns both led to some interesting twists due to the inability to discover key evidence and messed with the usual formula that makes the show so gripping.

Fake or Fortune consistently draws in 4-5 million viewers per episode, it has been a surprising but welcome success. Philip Mould in 2017 said: “The programme has really come of age. I think we are now the most-watched arts programme globally. These shows are conclusion-sensitive, but the repeats have generated just as much interest.” Series producer, Robert Murphy, mentioned something very important, “there are moments of pure discovery that any drama script writer would love to have.”

This is very true, and is why I love the show – what Mould calls “the arcane aspects of research, forensics and history combined with a twisting plot”. The show manages to mix many things into a final product which is always engaging and intriguing. That a show essentially about the inner feuds of the history of art is so successful is astounding, and shows how well-made, fun programmes are popular. The combination of the smooth, stylish, and posh-voiced Philip Mould with the instantly recognisable BBC regular Fiona Bruce certainly helps.

The show is the art world’s Cluedo.

As does the production quality and budget. The BBC seems to have realised just how successful this series is, and rightly gives it a fair amount of money. One of the few good things they chuck our money at. The detective show aura and the cashing in of our love of history, drama, and great art propels this series onwards.

A notorious part of the show is the art authorities involved that our presenters must convince. I’m always shocked by how stubborn, immoveable, and downright rude some French art authorities are, the primary example being the Wildenstein Institute. In the very first episode, the institute rejected the authenticity of a Monet, even with the wealth of evidence in its favour. Mould even openly criticised them afterwards and the owner sued the institute, but lost. Post-airing, even more evidence was presented, and they still said no. They caused another controversy in 2015 where they rejected Renoir’s ‘Picton Castle’ and refused to budge even as the Bernheim-Juene Galerie added it to their catalogue. They have accepted two other Fake or Fortune cases, so it’s not all bad, even if frustrating.

Mould described the show well in 2017: “I often use the analogy of the pathologist’s report in a murder case which can be extremely complex. But viewers are very happy to engage if they are drawn into the narrative of the whodunnit.” The show is the art world’s Cluedo.

All elements come together in this art detective show, creating something unique and special.

Episodes I recommend are the original Monet episode, the series 2 triple Turner case, Gainsborough in series 3, Munnings and Churchill in series 4, all of series 6, Nicholson in series 7, the Peniston Lamb portrait in series 8, and the Landseer and West episodes in series 9.

I leave the last word to Mould about that infamous Monet, which should convince you of the beauty of this show. “Take the Monet from the first series we did. It looked like a Monet. It felt like a Monet. But the experts who actually do Monet say it didn’t look Monet enough. By the way, I still think it is a Monet. But ultimately attribution is an emotional, human decision.

“You garner all the information: the forensics, the provenance, the factual details. The provenance is fact, the technical elements are fact. But then when you move into stylistic areas, it is to do with the quality of argument. It is also to do with comparison. And you can have a committee which, for whatever reason, fails to see it as you do. This is where we see the area of the illusion (in art). The intangible, magical area of art. This area is part of the appeal of the show.”

All elements come together in this art detective show, creating something unique and special. The historical, technical, and artistic realms combine seamlessly. It’s so good. Even if you aren’t interested in art, I promise that you will enjoy Fake or Fortune

Comments (5)

  • What a wonderful program! I only discovered it about a month ago, and became an addict immediately. The complications they encounter; the scenery they walk us through; what we learn about artwork and paintings and different painters’ styles and techniques: sounds boring, but never is. I *do* wish the grand reveal at the end did not involve an envelope that needs to be opened–a cliché in US T.V.–but that is my only quibble. Have you thought about another couple of presenters who could carry on this series?

  • Elizabeth Heredia

    There are many more seasons/episodes but just not available on US TV—dig about on the YouTube etc and you will find kind souls have posted them!

  • Nancy L. Coplin

    I’m in So. California, USA, and Fake or Fortune is absolutely one of my favorites; nothing else on TV like it! I wish they’d gone farther than four seasons before the wheels fell off, though, leaving me with only 20 or so shows to watch and re-watch. I’ve learned so much about art, and the technology is fascinating….Bendor Grosvenor is really quite the sleuth. I hope I can, at least, find his show; but it won’t compare to all the personalities of Fake or Fortune.

    • Martha B. Higgins

      Just so. What an absolutely wonderful program!

    • Barbara Turner

      Oh Yes Bendor Grosvenor is by far the best presenter, terribly interesting, very intelligent and extremely academic . Has more personality about him as a TV presenter. I am so sorry that the BBC gave him up. Now we are left with only one cultural programme, the rest are continual repeats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.