Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Anjana Ahuja, the Financial Times and the right to privacy

On 01 April 2017 a prominent article appeared in the Financial Times by science journalist Anjana Ahuja. See HERE. The article was not about science but about a picture she had purchased privately at an auction in November 2015. She paid £400 for the picture which the auction house described as 'attributed to James Northcote'. The portrait was signed Northcote  and dated 1803, but looked distinctly odd with rubbing out of the paint under the signature. (The sale price of £400 was far below the price tag a genuine Northcote would usually fetch at auction.)

'Mrs Smith'

'James Northcote 1803' 

The portrait was subsequently authenticated by Jacob Simon from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). He authenticated the picture verbally on the day of his visit. No written report was made. He did this despite the fact that the picture had no provenance whatsoever, that it had a very suspicious signature and that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) already had a picture in their collection which they also claim to be 'Mrs Smith' by James Northcote.

Mrs Smith Barwell nee Unwin 
by James Northcote 1803

In her article Anjana Ahuja explains the implications of the appearance of 'Mrs Smith' for another portrait, also in private hands, known as the Rice Portrait. The owners of the Rice Portrait have provided very strong evidence for this portrait being a portrait of a young Jane Austen, painted by Ozias Humphry in 1788 or 1789. You can read more on their website HERE. Jacob Simon has been an opponent of this picture for decades.

There is a stamp on the back of the portrait of 'Mrs Smith', showing the name of the canvas supplier, Wm Legg. The stamp is almost identical to a stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait. If genuine, this newly discovered picture would prove that the Rice Portrait most probably dates to around the same time as 'Mrs Smith' ie. 1802/03 rather than 1788/89 and so not is a picture of Jane Austen after all.

Anjana Ahuja was very well aware of the potential impact of her picture on the value of the Rice Portrait. She wrote of the latter: 'If authenticated, it would be the only extant oil painting of one of the world's most famous authors, putting it in a rare league indeed - a globally important artwork likely to fetch millions if placed on the open market.'

The Rice Portrait
@ Bridgeman Images

It follows that if the Rice Portrait was now discounted on the grounds of this new discovery of the painting of 'Mrs Smith' that this would represent a financial loss to the owner of the Rice Portrait of millions and a loss to the public of a globally important artwork, a portrait of a young Jane Austen. However, despite this, Ms Ahuja made no attempt to contact the owner of the Rice Portrait until the day before she was due to publish her article.

After the article was published, the owner of the Rice Portrait asked Anjana Ahuja for permission to view the back of the picture. Given that Ahuja's article had attempted to devalue her own picture to zero this seems to me a perfectly reasonable request. But the request was refused, as was a request to supply images of the contentious linen stamp on the back of the picture.

Since then, I have provided copious evidence to show that the portrait of 'Mrs Smith' is not as claimed, that it is not by James Northcote and that it does not date to 1803. You can read this here on this blog.

In the light of continuing doubt about this picture, Mrs Rice emailed the Editor of the Financial Times and again asked if she could view the back of the picture of 'Mrs Smith' for herself. She suggested that perhaps the Financial Times could arrange a suitable venue for viewing the picture as it was understood Ms Ahuja would not want this to take place at her home. Given the potential impact of the picture on her own, such a request was perfectly legitimate.

Within hours she received a reply from Nigel Hanson, Senior Legal Counsel at the Financial Times refusing this request on the grounds of 'intrusion into Ms Ahuja's family life'.

So the situation is that a Financial Times journalist, of her own volition, published a very prominent story in that newspaper claiming that she owned a painting which proves that another picture, potentially worth millions, is in fact worthless. When asked to provide evidence of this, she then refused and claimed it breached her right to privacy.

Can this possibly be right or fair?

It is uncontroversial to say that the defunct Press Complaints Commission was ineffectual. It had no legal powers and gave the illusion of regulation of an industry which was manifestly out of control. Its replacement, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is equally ineffectual. Moreover some newspapers, including the Financial Times, have chosen not to take part, opting instead to 'regulate' themselves. Readers' complaints regarding the Financial Times are reviewed by their own Complaints Commissioner, currently Mr Greg Callus.

Of twenty complaints made to the Financial Times Complaints Commissioner between February 2015 and April 2018, the Financial Times was held to be in breach on one occasion and the complaint was partially upheld on two occasions. The Complaints Commissioner found in favour of the newspaper on the other seventeen occasions. This included my complaint. See HERE

It is disgraceful that journalist Anjana Ahuja is able to use the Financial Times to publish a prominent article claiming she has evidence which devalues someone else's painting and then hide behind a specious claim that she has a right to privacy when she is asked to produce that evidence. It makes a travesty of the genuine right of private individuals to privacy from press intrusion.

That she has chosen to do so leads me to draw the conclusion that the evidence she has is not what it seems. Why else would Ms Ahuja be so reluctant to allow anyone to see her portrait or even to supply a photograph? Why would the Financial Times be so defensive that their response to Mrs Rice's very reasonable request to see the evidence is to send an immediate rebuttal from their Senior Legal Counsel? What other possible explanation can there be but that the picture is not as claimed?

Ellie Bennett

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