Troubling new questions are being raised about work a former director of the Museum of Fine Arts has performed for a controversial English art collector and businessman who’s been on trial in England for money laundering.
An article recently published by The Art Newspaper describes how Malcolm Rogers, who led the MFA from 1994 until 2015, supplied “more than a dozen letters of authenticity” for paintings owned by collector James Stunt, upgrading attributions for artworks that previously had sold as lesser studio versions, meaning they were done by an assistant to a renowned artist, or even as “outright copies.”
The revelations also cast new light on a 2014 loan of paintings Rogers brokered with Stunt on behalf of the MFA. Many of those paintings, which included works attributed to Anthony van Dyck and Joshua Reynolds, were exhibited at different times at the museum between April 2014 and January 2018.
At least one of the works was sold soon after it left the Boston museum — attributed to van Dyck and accompanied by an opinion from Rogers confirming its attribution — at a considerable markup from its earlier auction price, when it sold as a studio version.
Three of Stunt’s paintings remain at the museum.
An MFA spokesperson told the Globe the museum does not “have any specific information regarding attribution of any of the works that were on loan to the MFA.”
“We always take issues regarding attribution seriously, whether about works of art from our collection or works on loan to the Museum,” director of public relations Karen Frascona said via e-mail. She added that the MFA has sought to return the last three paintings. “The process has been delayed by the pandemic and the difficulty in finalizing arrangements with Mr. Stunt.”
Rogers, who now resides in his native England, said the MFA loan comprised “[a]uthentic works” by a number of artists.
“I take issue with very many points in the [Art Newspaper],” Rogers said in an e-mail to the Globe. Asked whether he’d provided opinions for any of Stunt’s paintings displayed at the Boston museum, he responded: “I wrote to Mr Stunt about 4 of the works on loan.”
Art historians are regularly asked to give expert opinions on artworks, and while some provide that expertise free of charge, others receive fees for their services.
Rogers said Stunt covered some of his research-related travel expenses and “from time to time made gifts to me as tokens of appreciation,” but he never received direct payments for his “letters of opinion” from Stunt.
That account is contradicted by two former Stunt associates quoted by The Art Newspaper: One claimed to have seen documents that indicated “payments from Stunt to Rogers.” The other, who told the newspaper Rogers was a frequent visitor to the collector’s London residence, said he would often pass envelopes to Rogers as they drove home, though he did not know what they contained.
“I can assure you that the frequency of our meetings is hugely overstated,” said Rogers, who remains a trustee at the Worcester Art Museum. “There was no ‘envelope from Stunt’.”
The Globe could not immediately reach Stunt or his former associates for comment.
A tabloid fixture in Britain, James Stunt is known for his lavish lifestyle, a chain-smoking collector of art and exotic cars who often traveled with a bevy of personal security guards. His marriage to Formula One heiress Petra Ecclestone ended in a contentious 2017 divorce. Stunt was declared bankrupt in 2019, and earlier this year he went on trial for his role in an alleged money-laundering scheme involving cash deposited in a gold dealer’s account, charges he has denied.
Questions about Stunt’s art collection also spilled into public view in 2019, when the Mail on Sunday reported allegations that Stunt, as part of a larger loan, had sent at least three fakes to Dumfries House, a Scottish estate owned by King Charles III’s charitable foundation.
Dumfries House had already returned the entire collection of 17 paintings — including the alleged knock-offs attributed to Claude Monet, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso — when the story published. Still, the question remained: How had Stunt managed to place his works in a home of the future King of England?
The answer arrived a few months later, when an article in Vanity Fair described how Rogers had met with Charles, then the Prince of Wales, two years earlier to recommend paintings in Stunt’s collection.
Asked about that meeting, Rogers told the Globe: “I met with the then-Prince Charles, and discussed with him paintings by Van Dyck and Reynolds.”
The recent Art Newspaper article sheds additional light on Rogers’s involvement with the Dumfries House loan, describing how the former MFA director endorsed seven of the loaned paintings, including works he attributed to van Dyck, Francisco Goya, and Diego Velázquez. (None of the works recommended by Rogers were among the three alleged fakes in the collection.)
An expert in British portraiture, Rogers affirmed that one of the pictures on loan, which had sold with a lesser attribution in 2016, was “clearly an autograph work” by van Dyck, according to the article. This was at odds with art historian Susan Barnes, coauthor of a comprehensive survey of van Dyck’s work, who deemed the painting an “absolute copy.”
All told, the paper estimates the value of Stunt’s paintings with upgraded attributions at about £70 million (more than $77 million at the current exchange rate). It arrived at that figure by calculating the difference between Stunt’s purchase price — pegged at roughly £357,000 — and the insurance value listed on the contracts.
In a letter to The Art Newspaper, which Rogers shared with the Globe, he said he does not “authenticate” artworks. Rather, “I am often asked to give opinions on works that fall within my area of scholarship.”
“As opinions they are naturally open to challenge by other scholars,” said Rogers, who worked as deputy director at London’s National Portrait Gallery before arriving in Boston. “I stand by the opinions that I have given, but would emphasize that they can in no way be considered ‘authentication.’”
Authenticating Old Master paintings is notoriously difficult, particularly for artists who had active studios with many skilled assistants, imitators, and, invariably, forgers. Art historians, curators, and others will provide opinions on a painting in question, with each opinion weighted according to the expert’s reputation. The aim is to arrive at a consensus.
Rogers also pushed back on the notion that some of the works had been considered copies: “I do not recall any catalogued as copies. ... In any case, it is naïve to think that my opinion had the effect of ‘greatly increasing their value’.”
Long before Rogers helped Stunt place the paintings at Dumfries House, the pair negotiated the MFA loan, including works attributed to van Dyck, Reynolds, Peter Lely, Thomas Lawrence, and John Constable.
Although press materials from the time described a loan of five paintings, it subsequently grew to include 13 artworks. Among them was “Francois Langlois as a Savoyard,” a painting the museum described as one of two versions painted by van Dyck — one for the artist, a well-documented work that’s now owned jointly by a pair British museums, and one, Stunt’s version, which the museum said was painted for the sitter.
What the museum did not disclose in its press release, however, was that an Old Master dealer had purchased the painting two years earlier as a contemporary 17th-century studio version for roughly $340,000. According to The Telegraph, the dealer later sold the painting to Stunt as a fully attributed van Dyck.
The MFA displayed eight of Stunt’s paintings at different times through January 2018. At least three of the artworks were subsequently offered at Christie’s Old Master sale that April.
Among them was the Langlois painting now attributed to van Dyck, which sold for $1.8 million — more than five times its 2012 hammer price. The auction house highlighted the painting’s exhibition history at the MFA, noting that both Barnes and Rogers had confirmed the van Dyck attribution.
In an e-mail to the Globe in 2020, Barnes, whose comprehensive 2004 book on van Dyck described the work as “a contemporary version,” said she’d examined the work in person following its 2012 sale and “was happy to affirm it is a second authentic version.”
MFA spokeswoman Frascona said, “We immediately gather all available facts and review every situation” when new information surfaces about an artwork.
“[W]e aim to be transparent with our audiences,” she said. “[W]e’re not in possession of any specific information concerning attribution about past loans to the MFA from Mr. Stunt.”
Aside from the three works still at the MFA, neither the museum nor Rogers could say where the other 10 works have landed.
“I do not know the present whereabouts of any of Mr Stunt’s large collection,” said Rogers. I “have not communicated with him for several years.”