Recovering a Lost Materpiece: A Conversation with Bill Chamberlain
by R. Whittaker, Nov 26, 2018
Bill Chamberlin got involved in the world of computers early on, in 1969. He learned coding, programming, hardware design, but also, as an entrepreneur, he learned how to run a business.
Twenty some years later, through an unpredictable series of events, his expertise came to the attention of the British film director, Terence Young, best known for his work on the James Bond films, Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Thunderball. Young commissioned Chamberlain to design a financial model for his film production and the two became friends. It turned out to be the beginning of an adventure Chamberlain could never have imagined...
Richard Whittaker: I’d like to hear something about your life as a businessman to begin with.
Bill Chamberlain: Most of my career has been in high tech. I majored in civil engineering and electrical engineering, but went directly into the computer business after graduation. I was interested how computers could be used in civil engineering and ended up getting hooked on computers.
RW: This is in the early days of computers?
BC: Very early, 1969. It was exciting. I spent the next twenty years or so in various aspects of the computer business—selling them, designing them, building them, programming them. In the early 1970s, some other fellows and I started our own company. I did a lot of coding. At one time, I was working with the actual designers of the BASIC language. Then around 1989-90, I transitioned into taking care of other people’s databases, networks and computers. One of the projects I ran across involved a very large and sophisticated medical billing claims service company in Palos Verdes. Through it, I met some interesting people including a motion picture director named Terence Young, who was an investor and board member of the company in Palos Verdes. He directed the first three James Bond movies. We got along well, and we became good friends. In 1994, he asked me to accompany one of Terence’s associates, Tommy Ivering, to Dublin where we were working on financial models for acquiring a studio there. Later, in that trip, he introduced me to a gentleman in old Stockholm, Uno Vallman. I was a native Californian from day one and had never traveled much. I had an office in New York, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but it was high-tech, computers and all that stuff.
So, there I was over in old Stockholm—I mean, this is Europe with buildings many hundreds of years old, cobblestone streets closed off for walking, and so on. It just fascinated me. Tommy introduced me to Uno Vallman. I had no idea who he was. I knew nothing about the fine arts world. I was a computer geek building financial models for motion pictures, looking at scripts and trying to understand how to calculate film runs, budgets, and things like that.
Tommy and I, and a friend of his, sat down and talked with Uno, who turns out to be a famous Swedish painter. Even ex-President, Lyndon Johnson, went over there to buy some paintings from him. In fact, the two of them got quite drunk in President Johnson’s suite, but that’s another story. Anyway, by then, Uno was probably in his early 80s. I was in my early 50s, and we got along well. He’d come from abject poverty to great success in the fine arts world. He’d traveled all over the place, back and forth to France a lot, and had palled around with Picasso and other artists of the time. So, we’re chatting, and finally it boiled down to why was I there? It was a good question.
RW: Right. Why were you there?
BC: Well, it turned out that Uno, in the late 1930s and early 40s was a member of a Swedish underground group involved in protecting and moving young Jewish girls out of France into safe places in Sweden and other countries. Later I found out that, my goodness, Norway had sent 8,000 Jews over to Sweden, where they were absorbed by this group and protected from the Nazis.
RW: There was a connection between Terence, Tommy, and Uno, I take it?
BC: Yes. The connection was that Terence and a couple of his partners in the movie business, were intent on acquiring an animation studio in Dublin. It turned out that Tommy, one of their partners, knew Uno. Now Terence, and his partner Tommy, were impressed with my design and marketing abilities so they wanted me to meet him. I couldn’t figure it out at first.
Well, Uno, after the war, had traveled back and forth to France and met several of the families whose daughters had been saved by this Swedish Underground network. They had no money, but they wanted to pay him back somehow. Some of them had collectibles, and every now and then, someone would give him something. It turned out that one of them—I think she was a granddaughter of Alfred Nobel’s brother (of the Nobel Prize family)—she had a wooden, sculpted box by Paul Gauguin, which she gave to Uno. Now I remember, I met Uno in about 1994. And they wanted me to see what I could do to help in selling Gauguin’s carved, wooden box.
RW: That’s wild.
BC: So that’s how I met Uno, and Terence was excited. Six or seven years later he contracted pneumonia shooting a film and died. I really miss him.
So, I'm in Uno’s little studio in old Stockholm with Tommy, and Uno’s cousin; Leif, who later became my partner, is there, too. Uno pulls this wooden box out and says, “Well, my friend from California, I’d like to show you this.” He sets it down in front of me. It’s called, Boy in a Coffin.
Now, bear in mind, I knew nothing about Paul Gauguin then. Nothing! Uno gave me a package of documents, which I read that evening in the hotel. They showed that the sculpture had been on a Gauguin tour from Chicago to New York, London and Paris in 1986. In the documents I noticed a gentleman’s name, Charles Stuckey. All Uno said was, “Do you think you can follow-up on this and find out if I can sell it?” He needed money.
So, I said, “Yes. I'll make some phone calls. I mean, you guys paid for my trip over here, and this is exciting. Maybe I can pay you back.”
RW: A whole new adventure.
BC: Brand new. And They gave me a catalog of Paul Gauguin’s work they’d copied. [Paul Gauguin Catalog Raisonné, Daniel Wildenstein 1964]. I didn’t know who Wildenstein was. So, I began reading and following-up; I run across Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, many of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists—and then there’s this guy named Émile Bernard. I knew nothing about him, either.
I went back to the US and made a few phone calls. Well, it turns out that this Charles Stuckey oversaw a retrospective exhibit of Gauguin’s work. He was the curator for the Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas, Fort Worth. So, I called him and asked if he could tell me anything about the Gauguin box. He was interested, but wanted more information. So I flew back to Stockholm and made a video of the box. Then I returned to the U.S. (There’s a little side story. For thirty years, Uno had this Gauguin sculpted, wooden box in the trunk of his Volvo where he kept his paintbrushes and tools, and was driving all over with it.)
Anyway, I pursued this with Stuckey and started getting into the fine arts world then. I was going to San Francisco feeling like an idiot, because I didn’t know anything about anybody. I was just a guy off the street going to galleries. I believe that eventually the box was sold to some shipping magnate for maybe three million and wound up in a private collection in Los Angeles. The sale was based upon the material and everything I did.
RW: I imagine Uno would have been happy about that.
BC: I went back over to see Uno in his studio one last time in late1996 and he welcomes me with: “My son from California is here!” I brought a bottle of red wine, so we’re sitting there celebrating the fact that the piece was sold—and his cousin Leif is there, too.
Leif was younger than Uno by 25 to 30 years; he was a former Swedish Royal Marine and Stockholm police officer. For fifteen years of his career, he’d been assigned by NATO as a dignitary bodyguard, and he was part of a team that investigated crimes against humanity by police and military forces. He’d been all over the Gaza Strip, Israel, Cambodia, Egypt, Greece, etc. —a well-traveled, well-educated man. We hooked up and, literally overnight, became a couple of brothers. Eventually we traveled everywhere together on the Bernard project, which I can get into later—in and out of France five or six times, Sweden, Germany. He also came over here to the Bay Area. I really loved the man.
Anyway, we were all sitting there having some wine. (Another side note: at that point, Uno was partially blind, and Leif had created a board with little open boxes you could put colors in. He helped Uno understand what the colors were, so Uno could continue to paint— literally, by numbers, without seeing. Uno knew the canvas and could feel his way.)
So, we’re celebrating and then Uno says, “I have something else I want to show you!” He and Leif drag out this big, rolled-up painting, and open it on the floor.
I looked at the painting and said, “Well, excuse my ignorance, but this looks like a masterpiece or something!”
Uno says, “It is! It was done by a Post-Impressionist painter named Émile Bernard.”
It must have been sequestered out of Bernard’s studio in 1941 when he died, because the Nazis were taking art left and right. It wound up going to one of Uno’s dealer friends in Stockholm who showed it to Uno. Uno recognized it immediately as a Bernard. It was probably rolled up to hide from the Nazis, but it was too big to be rolled intact, so they sliced it down the middle and cut it across the top into four pieces.
I looked at it and said, “I'm out of my league. What are we going to do with this?”
Uno said, “I just want to see if it can be authenticated, and then maybe we find out if it can be restored.”
RW: Let me interrupt for a second. From the moment Uno showed you the little box by Gauguin in 1994 to this moment where he’s showing you the big painting by Bernard, how many years have passed?
BC: I saw the Bernard painting late in 1996— about two years.
RW: And during that time, you’d started to learn about the art history surrounding all this.
RW: How did that work for you?
BC: It was all a discovery. When Uno said, “Émile Bernard,” I remembered reading about Paul Gauguin’s history and his battle with Émile Bernard over who gets recognition for Symbolism. They had a fight.
RW: So, Bernard was responsible for some innovations?
BC: Yes. He did the black outlines, a style that became called Cloisonnism, and he also transitioned into Symbolism-type painting with Gauguin. Gauguin liked Bernard’s style. There are letters from Gauguin to Van Gogh saying how fantastic Bernard’s painting was, and so on. And he was a fantastic artist. He just didn’t get the recognition Gauguin did. He was twenty years younger than Gauguin.
RW: So, Gauguin, in the art history books, gets recognition for some things that maybe Bernard was doing.
BC: Actually had done, yes.
RW: That’s all quite interesting. But let’s get back to the moment with Uno where he presents you with this large painting and wants you to see if you could authenticate it.
BC: Yes. I took it on because I thought it would be interesting, and I was already somewhat familiar with the name Émile Barnard. So, I returned home and started to work on the project. I had all this material on the Gaugin sculpture, so I could talk a little bit like I knew something. But I didn’t know any of the other players in the game like Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Renoir, and Serusier.
RW: You’re a computer guy.
BC: [laughs] I was a geek, and now I’m in the fine arts business!
RW: This is great stuff.
BC: I knew I was out of my league, but I started anyway. I just began studying. It was intriguing. So, I started researching Bernard, but I couldn’t find anything that was close to Uno’s painting, in style or symbolism. I did find religious paintings in history books and art catalogs that were done by Bernard, but I didn’t know where to find his actual work. I knew he had style changes.
Then a friend of mine, whose wife sat on the board of the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, introduced me to a fellow who had a bunch of religious icons. He asked me if I could do something with them. I wondered where he got that idea, but I decided to get involved. I thought, “What the heck. I might learn something.” I told him I would see what I could do. He had a slew of religious icons, and they were kind of interesting.
I was very good at photography at that time, so I visited the guy at his big palatial estate and took some photos. I was working on a direct mail project and the guy who was designing my direct mail pieces helped me make a little catalog that I sent it off to Sotheby’s on a lark. They called me right away and I flew to New York. While I was back there, I decided to go to Christie’s, too. They immediately made an appointment and took copies of everything I had. They shipped the copies off to a woman in London, where they were organizing an auction with a section for religious icons. Right away, the woman called me with a list of the icons I had that they wanted to include in a fall auction in 2007 and a spring auction in 2008.
The owner was willing to pay my expenses, so I went over to London for this auction of religious icons. At that time, I knew nothing about auction houses. But it turned out they really wanted these icons. So, we had a meeting and I was introduced to a guy named Temple at Temple Galleries.
RW: You mean Dick Temple?
BC: Right. Richard Temple, expert. We had a wonderful time. He looked at my inventory and said, “Yeah, this is good.” And how does that happen? I’m sitting there talking with Richard Temple in London—and I also met a Russian guy named André Ruzhnikov who sold the Fabergé eggs to an oligarch over there that were owned by Malcolm Forbes.
BC: Anyway, Temple helped me. He evaluated the icons, and they were all done in the late-1700s and 1800s—none of them in the 1400 and1500s where some might have been done by Rublev, or somebody like that.
RW: Andrei Rublev?
BC: Yes. His stuff is priceless. Anyway, I had two reasonably successful auctions of the icons. On the first one, the lady running it arranged for a luncheon to talk to me. I took a friend to the luncheon, an artist out of Manchester interested in Gaelic art. Well, this lunch went on for three hours. My friend told me later that nobody has lunch with her for three hours. At one point, I’d brought out all my material on the Bernard painting. I carried it with me; I was working on it.
RW: Her name again?
BC: Maria Paphiti, the auction curator/manager, a charming young lady. The next night, I went to what Christie’s calls “Russian Night,” and I'm going crazy because I’ve never seen tapestries as big or as beautiful as they had on display there. Anyway, I go in and there’s Ruzhnikov. We talked for a while. The auction went well.
But getting back to this lunch. Maria is looking at the Bernard painting and studying the symbolism. She said it was really different and nice. It would probably be a private client sale product, she said, because it’s so big. As I recall, she said if I could get the painting professionally restored, authenticated, and framed it could be worth millions of dollars. Based on what I had seen in the auction catalogs I estimated 5 million dollars. We discussed that was a possibility. That was my first time a price range was estimated on it. So, I left thinking, “Okay. I've got to go to work on this.” Now, this was November 2007. Okay? Fast-forward to about 2010. By this time, I’d been in France and had met Bernard’s granddaughter. It gets kind of complicated to go through all the steps.
RW: Okay. In terms of the computer business, that’s been left behind altogether?
BC: No. I continued as an independent consultant and my company, Data Support, continued doing projects and I’d pick and choose as I needed. I had to make some money to pay for all this because now, I was on my own.
RW: What do you mean you were on your own?
BC: I was paying for all the bills myself, so that’s why it was kind of slow.
RW: You mean slow in the process of getting the authentication?
BC: Yes. I was working on it regularly, and the Internet was becoming an extremely useful tool. Then the weirdest thing happened. Back around 2000, I got a call from a gentleman in London, James Norton. He was working for a company called ZCZ Films and he was involved in doing a special on Paul Gauguin for BBC.
He’d heard from a woman in Los Angeles, Debora Silverman, that I had a lot of material on the Gauguin Boy In a Coffin. She was a director of art history at UCLA. He wanted to know whether he could borrow the material. I said, “Sure.” And I just put everything in a box and mailed it to him.
Five to six weeks later, he calls me and says, “I'm just mailing this stuff back to you and I want to thank you very much. It was extremely helpful. I understand that Debora Silverman is using your material in her book and she’s going to give you recognition for it.”—which she did. On the phone with him I said, “By the way, James, I've got a problem here. I'm trying to authenticate a painting and I'm trying to find some religious paintings done by Émile Bernard,” and I described the painting to him.
He said, “You know, I think I saw something like that in a church in Pont-Aven. It’s in Northwestern France, and it’s where Bernard and Gauguin and a whole host of people hung out in the 1890s, painting together. There’s even a street named after Bernard, and another street named after Gauguin.
So, I said, “That’s really great, but I've got to know something specific.”
He said, “I'll tell you what. Why don’t you go and see if you can find a copy of a Catalogue Raisonné, written by Jean-Jacques Luthi, published in 1986. It’s in French, and all the pictures of Émile Bernard’s paintings are cataloged in it. So, I go on the Internet and discover that the only place that catalog exists is in the Bancroft Library over at UC Berkeley! Okay!! I trundle over there and I'm looking at it. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, so I’m looking at every single page. Bernard made 2200-plus paintings in his lifetime. And he did a lot of other stuff, too, as you saw in the material I sent.
RW: I saw that. This guy was prolific.
BC: Yes. So, I'm going through this catalog, looking carefully and thinking it was going nowhere. Then I turn a page and, in the lower right-hand corner, is a little picture—black and white—and I go crazy! It looks exactly like my painting! I think, “My God!” So there it was in this catalog in the Bancroft Library [shows me the page with the image].
RW: Oh, my gosh. It’s virtually identical!
BC: Right. And Bernard signed it! Wow. I go crazy! And it says it’s at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brest. (I've been there four times now.) Anyway, I call the curator, Francoise Danielle up and explain myself. Then I say, “Oh, by the way, you know, I like this Bernard painting, but it’s kind of dark.”
She says, “We’ve got a color negative. We’ll send it to you.”
They send the color negative to me. I could hardly believe it when I received it! I made copies of it. It’s beautiful, and there’s his signature; there’s a date [points as I’m looking at the photo]. This is the proof that he painted it! Later, on my trips to Pont Aven I got confirmation of the painting being done in 1925 and donated in 1991.
So, I called the curator back and thanked her profusely. I explained that I have this big, unsigned painting that looks just like it, and that I’ve been trying to get it authenticated. During this conversation with the curator in Brest, she floors me. She says, “Why don’t you call his (Bernard’s) granddaughter?”
And I say, “Excuse me?”
“Call his granddaughter. She lives about an hour away from the museum.”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
She says, “No,” and gives me the phone number and address. It’s in a little town called Tonnerre, which is where Bernard moved after he came back from Cairo and there’s a bust of him in the city park. His granddaughter was a well-known doctor there. She was in her late 70s and was living there in a chateau that had been the summer home of Louis the XIV built in the 1600s. I couldn’t believe it. It was like we hit the authentication lottery.
So, I called Leif and said, “Leif, roll the painting up and drive down here!” This was in 2009.
RW: Good heavens.
BC: Her place was full of Bernard’s paintings and illustrations and letters and notes and books, etc. And she was in the process of completing a book of 430 of his letters to other artists and people throughout his lifetime—a fascinating story.
We took the painting to Tonnerre and rolled it out. She immediately confirmed that it was done by her grandfather, and she also introduced us to a lady named France Bonnimond-Dumont, who was a French-certified restoration artist, and a curator and expert on Bernard for the Louvre. When she saw the painting, she was very excited about it and was going to do the restoration work. But she became ill and then she passed away.
Later I was able to get a restoration artist here in San Francisco. We started restoration on it in 2010. It was finished in 2012, after waiting six months to let the oil dry, and varnishing it. Then we had it expertly framed.
During that period of time, so many things were done to make sure the restoration was right, X-raying the painting and completing the authentication. We just kept building. I even met Bernard’s grandniece just this year. I discovered that the art dealer Ambroise Vollard had purchased eight-plus of Bernard’s paintings when Bernard came back from Cairo. But Bernard’s paintings were so good in the eyes of Vollard, that they were threatening his inventory of Gauguin paintings that he wanted to sell first. So, he didn’t show Bernard paintings to anybody for years.
BC: In the corner of Vollard’s studio in those days, were paintings by another young artist; his name was Pablo Picasso. I mean, there are all these connections—and Bernard was prolific in other areas. He was happy to make money doing illustrations for Vollard’s books; he started a couple of publications; he wrote poetry; he tried to organize an art society where all the artwork was unsigned—the Anonymous Art Society—where you would buy the painting only because you liked it. He also was prolific in his affairs! Talking to his granddaughter was very revealing, because she knew all kinds of family secrets.
RW: What an amazing story, the Bernard story—but yours, too. So, let me get a timeline from the moment that Uno brought out this big, rolled-up canvas…
BC: That was in 1996. And I took a trip to Paris this year. I went to Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Drouot, Artcurial, and I gave them presentations. Every single one of them was absolutely floored by the material. This painting hasn’t been seen for 73 years. I have it stored at an art storage facility in Paris.
RW: So, what is your relationship with the painting right now?
BC: Uno transferred ownership of it to his cousin, Leif, way back when we were doing the Gauguin sculpture thing. Leif had taken care of Uno for a long time and was like the son Uno never had. I was the brother that Leif never had. So, Leif and I worked on this project together as a 50-50 partnership.
When Leif died in 2017, I got together with his widow and Leif’s lawyer, who was also Uno’s lawyer and knew all about the painting and my work. So, they structured a transfer of ownership to me. When I sell it, I have several commitments.
RW: I was going to say, you must feel some obligation to a lot of people.
BC: I do. I have a list of people whom I want to see given significant bonuses.
And I want the painting to be put into the marketplace in a way that contributes to the history and the reputation of Bernard. This painting is quite unique. It doesn’t have a face on it, but if you look at the symbolism, you realize that this is Bernard’s life-painting of his spirituality. It’s significantly different from any other painting you’ve seen of Christ. The guy was a unique painter.
RW: You’ve invested so much work in this.
BC: A lot of money and a lot of work.
RW: And you’ve had great adventures; you’ve gotten a lot.
BC: I think that’s been the addictive part of it.
RW: This is a journey of how many years?
BC: Twenty-plus years. It’s included working on the painting at a deep level, not only for the authentication, which means fully understanding the artist and things about his life, but then the restoration that meant understanding his style, and trying to bring it back as best we could. Then there’s the question of the symbolism that you don’t see in any other painting. Is it the Gospel of John? We don’t know. The guy in the lower left, who is he? What’s this, what’s that? The process of all that taught me things about spirituality that I would never have encountered.
You don’t get it reading a self-help book, but perhaps when you study a person’s life. I saw it in Bernard’s work, in the frescoes he did in different churches, and other places. And looking through catalogs, you see all these other renditions of Bernard’s spirituality.
Every time Leif and I looked at it, we saw something different. An experienced art dealer came to look at the painting in Paris. I said, “I’ll give you forty-five minutes. Look at it and tell me what you think.” He spent about two hours, and then he cancelled all of his appointments, and we had a three-hour lunch.
Twenty years ago, I would have thought, “Fine. Big painting, sell it, whatever.” The icons were an example. What did I know about icons? They were nice. They had their own religious symbolism. So, now, I’d like to have this painting seen by as many people as possible in today’s world with today’s position around theology. I don’t think we know where we’re going anymore with some of it. The Catholic church is under attack because of all its problems. The Jewish faith is under great stress. There’s a split going on among the Muslim community. And there are other fringe groups. I did talk to a fellow at Grace Cathedral before I started the restoration. I can’t remember his name.
RW: Alan Jones?
BC: Yes! We talked about it. He was a great guy. You know, he was pretty good about looking at the symbolism. But his approach was, “Think about what it means to you, not what you want someone else to tell you it means.” And he was right. I never forgot that. Anyway, Leif and I agreed that we just want the world to see the painting.
RW: Would it be fair to guess that you’ve come to have a feeling about an important function can perform in a culture?
BC: Yes, and I know where my concepts have changed because of working on this painting. I now have a fantastic relationship with a professor at Duke University named Neil McWilliam, probably one of the world experts on Bernard. Then I have a relationship with an art historian lady named Carolyn Boyle-Turner, who’s going to be here giving a lecture in February at the de Young on Gauguin. She knows a lot about the whole back story of this era. And now, I've read a lot of their papers including one fantastic write-up on the spirituality of Bernard and his paintings.
I now look at a painting and appreciate the structure, the style, the colors and so on, but I wonder what the artist is trying to communicate. I want to learn that myself by maybe studying the history. This painting is a period piece. Bernard studied with van Gogh. They worked together. They fought, they argued; you should see their letters. The painters of this era and place fell in love and then had divorces because they were sharing this whole discovery period. From the mid-1800s, into the early 1900s, there were a lot of changes.
I look at paintings now, differently than I would have twenty years ago. I form my own opinions, and then I go out to find if it matches something.
RW: If I asked you to sum up in one sentence—what do you think the importance or meaning of this painting is?—what would you say?
BC: That’s a very good question. You could be looking at it and say, “Oh, a crucifixion picture.” To some people, that’s all it is. But if you stand there and stare at it for a while, you think, “Wait a minute,” and you start asking questions. In an interview, the granddaughter said, “He was probably doing penance for the way he lived his life.” He had affairs, he fought with people, he was a human being with flaws.
I think that at the end, he was always a spiritual person. And I think this painting took a long time to complete. The little black and white study was done in 1925. The large, finished painting was spirited out of his studio in 1941. But what I pieced together, to answer your question, it’s an artist’s representation of humanity.