One of the most exciting moments in an auction house is when a painting, hitherto disregarded by its owners, has something about it that demands more research into its history, provenance – and attribution. Bonhams' specialists see thousands of works a year and, during their careers, they have built up a mental image library, which is why, when works come in, they are perfectly placed to evaluate each and every one.
At Bonhams, the process begins with the porters who initially receive the works. When one of the team in the Oxford salerooms alerted the Old Masters Department to a small portrait of an unknown man that had arrived with a collection belonging to a 19th-century painter, Caroline Oliphant, the Head of Pictures, immediately looked at the image. She decided there might well be a more illustrious hand that was responsible for the painting rather than 'studio of'. To find out what happened next, turn to page 32 and read Andrew McKenzie's account of the investigation into this intriguing picture.
It's not the first time that one has wished that a painting could talk. Because objects are often more reliable witnesses to history than people. This season, Bonhams is selling a number of works that tell a story more eloquently about the fate of the owners than the owners themselves. Take the jewellery albums of Grand Duchess Xenia, to be offered in The Russian Sale. Xenia, the sister of the last tsar, Nicholas II, escaped with her life, but little else to remind her of her glittering past – apart from two jewellery albums that detailed her former riches. It is a reminder of the importance – and power – of objects that can bear witness.