Painted by an unidentified hand, the 18th century oil is significant for its sitter: the Huguenot silversmith who founded the Chelsea porcelain factory c.1745.
E&H Manners, the London dealer specialising in ceramics and works of art, re-acquired it at Doyle New York in its auction of the collection of Sarah Belk Gambrell last June (see ATG No 2501).
Before the acquisition, he had agreed the sale to the museum in principle. It was knocked down for a nearly four-times estimate $35,000 (£25,360) and Manners sold it on to the museum “for cost as an act of goodwill”.
The price tag is significantly lower than when the painting was last in his possession, but that first sale, he says, “is the one thing I’ve really regretted selling abroad. It really should not have left England.”
The painting can be traced back to 1932 when Christie’s sold it as a Zoffany picture of a gentleman and two ladies.
It was purchased by Sir Henry Hughes Stanton Operman and passed down by descent until Manners spotted it in an auction in New York in 1993.
Five Chelsea vases featured in the picture caught his eye. He purchased it and brought it back to London where he contacted John Mallet, then keeper of ceramics at the V&A.
Mallet cut the phone call short, he recalls, jumping into a cab and rushing over to see the work in person.
It was a picture he knew from a pre-war black-and-white photograph (which Sir Timothy Clifford, former director of the National Galleries of Scotland, had also spotted). The research began.
In the picture Sprimont is accompanied by his wife Ann. Five Gold Anchor vases surround him, while a newly decorated example fresh from a muffle kiln is presented to him by his siter-in-law Susanna Protin.
Now attributed as English school, it dates to c.1759, the beginning of the Gold Anchor period, making it the only known painting to show activity in an 18th century English porcelain factory.
Mallett published details of the rediscovery and attribution in articles at the time. Manners sold it to Sarah Belk Gambrell for a comparatively large sum, and it was displayed on loan at the Mint Museum from 2004 until the auction last year.
“All the value is in the subject,” Manners says. “It’s of great historical importance. Of all the items I’ve ever had, it’s the one that’s been published the most, probably 30 or 40 times. I didn’t expect it to return to the market and we were expecting to pay a lot more.”
The V&A has undertaken conservation on the picture, with plans to display it in a newly acquired historic frame in its British Galleries from the autumn.