Who Says So?

What determines that a work of art is authentic? Oh, go ahead, take a stab at it. Did you say the paint? Good. How about the brush strokes? Or the style? Well, there is something else and you’d never guess what it is.

Regardless of its nature, period of manufacture, or maker, there is only a finite amount of vintage artwork in the world. Once in a while, though, something new turns up from some long forgotten place that sends curators, conservators, historians, museologists, and collection managers scrambling. Who found it? Where has it been? Why wasn’t it found before? And, on and on. Eventually the object’s authenticity will come into question.
It is usually when something unexpected surfaces that everyone asks the magical question: What makes it what it is purported to be?
Depending on the importance of the object, you would be amazed at the potpourri of answers. What is interesting is that within collecting circles of 20th century objects lots of people are willing to give lip service to what they believe are the object’s origin. But usually only a few are professionally responsible and capable of basing their evaluation on fact and scientific information. What frequently happens is the object becomes recognized as a “something or other” by consensus. I’ll discuss authentication by consensus in a moment, but first a diversion.
I think it’s important to stop and address what I have dubbed the “Limp Wrist Sellers Network.” You see, there is a little-recognized group of dealers across the country who consistently claim they are only representing artwork as a “seller” and don’t know-and don’t have to know-what it is. In other words, when challenged, they simply go limp and shrug. “Hey,” they say, “I didn’t know it wasn’t real. I just sell this stuff.”
Consumer protection agencies and the Federal Trade Commission have begun to hold “professionals” up to a higher standard than the casual collector. What that means is that if you hang out your shingle as a dealer-even if you work out of your home but tout yourself as a service or source-you are considered by law to be a professional and must show due diligence in representing the goods and wares you offer. You’ll need good records to substantiate your claims. The collecting community, however, should not need nor wait for a governmental agency to clamp down on our activities. It is the responsibility of every seller and buyer to establish authenticity before money is exchanged. Okay, back to my main theme.
Authentication is a delicate and often controversial endeavor. Conservators traditionally decline to authenticate because their focus is not on artists but rather on artist’s materials-how those materials perform over time and how to prevent the stuff of which the object is made from succumbing to further structural degradation from insults of many different origins. Curators, museologists, and a great many dealers also decline to place their name on the dotted line and refuse to get involved.
So, who says it’s authentic? In the past, famous and highly respected analysts like Dr. Walter C. McCrone have been asked to establish authenticity of various art objects. But the job has proved to be pretty risky. It’s the messenger who gets shot. This because even though the analyst is not the one who decides what the artwork is-the art itself does that-he or she must interpret the data and communicate the findings with the lay person.
“I established that the Veil of Veronica is nothing more than a barber’s towel,” said Dr. McCrone to his class at the McCrone Institute “but the Catholic Church would not accept my evidence. Many miracles have been connected with the object and the church refused to acknowledge my findings. I did much the same for the Shroud of Turin. The pigments [on the Shroud] come from a quarry not far from where the Shroud was found. The church, regardless of scientific findings, believes it to be a holy object.”
Dr. McCrone has another tale even more interesting. “A gentleman brought a painting to me that was obviously done by a famous artist,” McCrone said. “The paints are right, the canvas is right and the style is right. Even the signature is clearly that of the artist. But the experts who gather around the known works of the Master denounce the piece as done by one of the artist’s students and merely signed by the master artist. In short, they will not allow the painting into the pantheon of known works.”
Authentication ought not to be bestowed upon an object just because someone says so. But, all too often, something is considered real because the experience of the “old timer” is respected. This was never more evident than when I was faced with an authenticity question that turned out to be more than it first appeared. The owner said, “Why, you can see it’s real. Look at the details and the style. Not only that, but all my friends think so, too.”Oh, so here we have several collectors who have banned together to corroborate each other’s hypotheses without any scientific inquiry or evidence. In the world of fine art many a collector has been fooled, some to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, by what their associates thought was real.
So, what’s the moral of this story? When in doubt, check it out. Ask lots of questions and ask for evidence. Hard evidence is not based on whim, favoritism, or friendship. In the end it will be you who says so, because you know-for sure!