Expertise goes down the drain
WHO do you call when someone disparages your Degas, pooh-poohs your Picasso or disses your Dali?
Traditionally, the go-to person for spotting fakes and forgeries has been the "connoisseur" - the acknowledged expert in the field who has acquired an intimate familiarity with a particular artist's work. Through a combination of rigorous scholarship and a familiarity with an artist's signature touch, they can identify whether or not an artwork is authentic. Think of it as the art world's equivalent of a forensic handwriting expert.
But those who are best qualified to voice opinions about the authorship of works of art are increasingly choosing to keep quiet. "Scholars and foundations that make decisions about authenticity feel increasingly constrained by legal threats from people who own or are selling fakes," writes Jack Flam, president of Robert Motherwell's Dedalus Foundation, which oversees the legacy of the American expressionist painter.
In Australia, Robyn Sloggett, director of the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, concurs. "The fact that the courts are seen as a solution is an indictment on the level of verification and checking conducted in the market."
The organisations that once assumed responsibility for authenticating artworks by some of the biggest names in the art market, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Roy Lichtenstein, have all recently announced they will no longer do so. In America, the peak body for art historians - the College Art Association - has advised its members to be mindful of the "possible risks of litigation over the rendering of opinions". Flam foresees a grim future. "While the number of fakes in the marketplace is dramatically increasing, an important means for assuring the veracity of artists' work has been disappearing. Enforced silence, in other words, encourages fakes."
Locally, several cases of alleged mistaken artistic identity have grabbed the headlines. In 2010, three forged Robert Dickerson and Charles Blackman drawings were literally cast into the flames of a ceremonial bonfire by the artists themselves after Justice Peter Vickery deemed them to be forgeries. Peter Gant, the dealer who provided the valuations that were sold with the forged artworks, was also found to be in breach of the Fair Trading Act in light of his misattribution of the drawings.
More recently, two paintings sold in 2011 at auction house Deutscher and Hackett and attributed to Charles Blackman are the subjects of a civil case in the Federal Court. Another case before the NSW Supreme Court involves an alleged forgery of a Brett Whiteley painting sold by Melbourne-based art expert and dealer Anita Archer to collector Andrew Pridham. Archer is being sued by Pridham for allegedly failing to exercise "reasonable care, diligence and skill" required to verify's the painting's provenance.
Art dealer James Makin has a bleak view of what this all means for the Australian art market. In the absence of expert opinion, "collectors with no deep understanding of art will be out there buying 'signatures' and building a 'cookie-cutter collection' without the guidance of experts and an awareness of connoisseurship."
Although our major galleries have their own in-house connoisseurs, otherwise known as curators, they also rely heavily on external experts for their depth of knowledge of particular artists or movements when it comes to acquiring new works via the market or donations. The reluctance of experts to venture an opinion on the authenticity of works of art will affect our galleries' mission to expand and improve their collections. Makin puts it bluntly. "Experts are necessary, especially in what is a widely unregulated art market. But I'm talking about the 'right' experts."
Unfortunately, a number of high-profile international controversies have shown that many of those who would otherwise be deemed the "right" experts, are electing to keep quiet on pressing questions of authenticity.
In January 2012, the Courtauld Institute of Art cancelled a forum planned to discuss the attribution of a collection of drawings reputedly by Francis Bacon out of concern for the "possibility of legal action being taken". Bacon's biographer, Michael Peppiatt, and the author of his catalogue raisonne (a comprehensive scholarly catalogue of an artist's output), Martin Harrison, have so far declined to attribute the drawings to Bacon's oeuvre. And a cache of 74 plaster casts claimed to be by Edgar Degas, unveiled with much fanfare in 2009, now languishes without a label because the foremost experts in the field are unwilling to go out on a limb and declare them either the greatest artistic find of the 21st century, or an audacious hoax.
Money is at the core of this emerging crisis of confidence and it casts a pall over every corner of the art market. The troublesome Bacon drawings and Degas plasters are stuck in a strange limbo - orphans of the art market, if you like. And in the high-stakes game of trading art, lineage is everything. In the wake of the art market boom that started in the late 1990s, launching prices into the stratosphere, attribution means a great deal more than ever before. For artists and collectors alike, the greatest concern is the effect on the market overall. When authorship is challenged, even legitimate works at auction can be tarred by the same brush, and prices for an artist's work can stall.
There are very few works of art that can truly be considered as having a watertight provenance - the record that ideally documents the artwork's history of ownership from the point of its creation. Methods of scientific analysis have developed in recent years, but they are costly, and the findings are not always definitive. Furthermore, provenance can be forged, as can techniques that evade scientific detection. Everyone, from auction houses to major public galleries and private collectors, depends on connoisseurs to fill in the gaps.
But connoisseurship is not a static art. Experts develop their understanding of an artist's body of work over time, and as a result previously securely attributed artworks are reassessed. The National Gallery of Victoria discovered this the hard way in 2007, when the Van Gogh Museum declared that its Head of a Man, previously credited to the Dutch master, was most likely painted by one of his contemporaries. Gerard Vaughan, then director of the gallery, was philosophical. "The reattribution of paintings is part of the daily life in any major gallery with a large and complex collection. We regularly change the labels to reflect new research and scholarly opinion." Jaynie Anderson, professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, concurs with the sentiment. "No one should be frightened of real knowledge."
The question posed by many in the marketplace is whether or not the experts in these cases are always right. Mark Fraser, chairman of auction house Bonhams Australia in Paddington, and former director of MONA in Hobart, sees it as a significant problem. "Artists' estates often have the ultimate say, even where they may not be as knowledgeable as they purport to be."
In some quarters, connoisseurship as a field of study is viewed as rather passe. Ever since Marcel Duchamp exhibited Fountain, a signed, thankfully factory-fresh, urinal, in New York in 1917, the study of art has tended to focus on the concepts and theories that underpin artistic practice.
Jaynie Anderson, for one, doesn't consign connoisseurship to the dustbin of history. "It is one of the essential skills of the art historian."
For his part, Fraser would like to see a return to the days when collectors really looked at the art they were buying. "Connoisseurship is less fashionable now than it once was. Buyers look at art from a decorative perspective. They don't spend enough time looking at the art and feeling what the artists were doing." New South Wales art dealer Matt Henry also believes that collectors should trust their own judgment. "If people have any doubts about a painting's authenticity then I would suggest that they follow their instincts. If something seems too good to be true it almost always is."
The perspective of individual collectors is one thing. But what of those who spend large sums of public money on art? In Australia, major public institutions are heavily reliant upon the co-operation of acknowledged experts when accepting donations through the Australian government's Cultural Gifts Program (which gives favourable tax treatment to donors who gift significant works). As prices for art have headed skyward, our major galleries' spending power has declined, making these donations, and the expertise that enables them, all the more crucial.
Could connoisseurship be a dying art, driven to extinction by litigation? And what can we do to ensure artists' and buyers' best interests are protected?
To an extent, it falls to artists and their dealers to look out for themselves. James Makin sees it quite clearly: "Artists should keep better records. It is easy to record every work you do, and file it. Make notes of materials used, and keep purchase receipts from the art supply shop." Another approach is to educate buyers. The Calder Foundation (which protects the legacy of US sculptor Alexander Calder) does not authenticate works, but it does publish a detailed online guide to the sculptor's development, the idea being that interested parties can use the available information to determine themselves whether an artwork is fake or not.
Conservator Sloggett sees an easy path out of the morass: closer relationships between academics, with their painstaking, peer-reviewed research methods, and buyers and sellers. "The trouble is that the art market and the scholarly world don't generally spend a lot of time in each other's company. Scholars need to be more aware of the contemporary market, and the market needs to work in a more scholarly manner."