FOR PEACE OF MIND, DON’T OVERLOOK CATALOGUES RAISONNÉS, RELEVANT DOCUMENTS AND TRUSTWORTHY AUTHENTICATORS
By Danielle Arnet
A recent flap in the art world about authenticating artworks had intelligent collectors glued to screens as 60 Minutes told the riveting tale of an established New York art gallery that became mired in scandal.
It happened when the gallery, once one of the oldest and most highly regarded art dealers in the United States, sold some $80 million worth of fake paintings to high-end buyers, including hedge-fund managers, banking executives and corporate giants. Several ended up suing.
This art dealer shut down abruptly in 2011 as it came to light that bogus copies purported to be Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and other contemporary masters came to the gallery through a Long Island dealer by way of an obscure local forger who later fled to China.
As investigated by the news show, those fakes were inept, with faults you could drive a car through. Yet, based on the dealer’s reputation, they sold unquestioned.
Key to buyer claims of fraud was that none of the works sold with papers of documentation. Right there, most would spot a red flag. Few would think of buying a car or house without a warranty and verifiable history. Nor would we buy gems without a GIA report, and so on.
If those high-end buyers were bamboozled, what chance do the rest of us have?
In the art world, the past history of an item is called provenance, and any responsible auction house or gallery will state it clearly. A careful seller will also share if and when the piece was exhibited, honors won, mentions in literature, and a history of previous ownership.
Important art and objects rate a catalogue raisonné – a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known works of an artist or maker in a particular medium or all media. Included in a CR are full descriptions of the works, title variants, current location of pieces, sizes and condition, and relevant bibliography. Add critic remarks, exhibition history, and artist signatures or characteristic marks.
Bottom line: To avoid fraud, collectors who buy serious works of art, furniture or jewelry should demand a catalogue raisonné or relevant documents before they commit. The rest of us need to collect a signed verification at the point of sale, hope there is a CR for our treasure, and then go about hunting it down. Unless a work is significant and there is a catalogue raisonné, most collectors are on their own when it comes to authentication.
Other resources are art foundations that authenticate works by individual artists. Unfortunately, several major authentication committees have closed because of increased litigation. Still, many existing art committees tied to a specific artist will consider requests for authentication. How expeditiously the request is addressed – providing that it is – is another matter.
Caveat: Authentication typically includes fees and can be a demanding process. Before attempting it, think hard if your treasure is worth the effort. If Aunt Blanche left an Asian ceramic, do you really need to know if its origin is Ming or T.J. Maxx? Be leery of family lore that’s embellished your “treasure” through the generations.
When validating on your own, “first, find out who the expert is on your object,” says Stephanie Clark, president of the New York-based Findlay Institute. Founded in 2015, the institute has compiled catalogue raisonnés for several contemporary artists, including Beltrán Bofill, André Hambourg, Lê Phổ and Henri Maik.
“Use Google to search,” Clark adds. Odds are you’ll find an expert who authenticates. Next, ask them how they determine if it’s the real thing. The Findlay Institute, which works with major auction houses, corporations, and public and private collectors, examines the matrix (material analysis), studies aesthetics (in what part of the maker’s career it was done), historic context, and prices paid for similar works by the artist.
Another online resource is the catalogue raisonné database provided by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR.org). Experts involved are included in each catalogue raisonné.
Help may also come from an auction house, where staff specialists can help you find recognized authorities. Always ask for a breakdown of fees charged. The Findlay Institute, for example, charges a flat fee. The institute hopes to list its catalogs online soon.
Aviva Lehmann, director of American Art at Heritage Auctions in New York, says the house does not authenticate non-consigned goods. But they do research those that are. People expect due diligence from a seller, she says. “Research protects everyone so you can sleep at night.”
While authentication is not always black and white, “The goal,” Lehmann says, “is to remove as much doubt as possible.” And, “We [Heritage Auctions] warrant what we say.”
‘FINDING THE VERY BEST’
When a work falls into a special genre, authentication by a specialized expert becomes critical.
Michael Chu of the Asian Arts Studio in Los Angeles has done independent identification and authentication of Asian goods for individuals concerned about fakes. “Chinese art,” he says, “has been copied for centuries.” Chu specializes in Chinese paintings, jade and scholar works of art. His wife, Clare, has specialized in Chinese snuff bottles for more than 30 years.
Chu recalls how one Chicago couple brought in an inherited cinnabar snuff bottle. Fully aware that cinnabar has been faked for a long time, they’d taken it to several Asian experts who reported that the bottle was nothing special – but then offered to buy it.
Clare Chu gave the couple a detailed description, saying the bottle had most likely been bought in 1920s China by a family member and was worth a few thousand dollars today. Needless to say, the owners were thrilled.
“You were the only ones that were honest,” they told the Chus.
“You cannot lie to people,” Chu says. His advice is to “find someone who is the very best” in the field. “That [level of expertise] is a very small world,” he says.
Sometimes the quest to authenticate provides a nice surprise. When contacted about finding brass plates for an inherited painting believed to be by French artist Constantin Kluge (1912-2003), the Findlay Institute filled the request – and more. Offering to research the work for authenticity then tracing history and provenance, they discovered that the oil on canvas was exhibited at important shows in Paris and Chicago. Plus, they proved a direct line of ownership back to the artist’s studio in the early 1950s.
Examining aesthetics and subject matter, they studied palette and brush strokes and verified the art as genuine. Kluge’s scenic oils have reached about $20,000 at auction.
The painting’s owners received a certificate of authenticity from the institute, including provenance and exhibition information, plus color photos. All that should speak volumes if the painting ever goes to market.
When do-it-yourself searches come up empty, all is not lost. Paintings, porcelains and the like still sell, even without a catalogue raisonné or papers.
Proper papers are a bulwark against fraud. They provide peace of mind, and as a bonus, are likely to pad the bottom line if or when your piece sells.