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Determining Authenticity

09.20.1996

The determination of whether an object is authentic or not may prove to be the most important factor in establishing its value. The real Picasso is worth more than the fake; a real diamond will fetch a significantly higher price than its synthetic imitation. Yet, determining the authenticity of a piece may be the most difficult of all the functions an appraiser has to perform.

The concept of authenticity embraces two essential considerations: what is meant by “authentic” and who is the correct person to judge whether a piece is authentic or not. What is considered to be authentic for one type of object may not be considered to be authentic for another. Standards of authenticity vary greatly from field to field. For example, while collectors of European furniture see nothing wrong with major restoration, those who concentrate on American furniture may judge a piece with minor additions to be “fake.” Artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens had large studios fulfilling back orders from anxious clients, yet only a fraction of the paintings bearing the artists’ signatures are judged, today, to be truly “authentic.”

Given such conflicting data, one may rightly ask, “Who is the one to determine whether a piece is correct or not?” Many appraisers would agree that they are not the ones to make the primary determination. They would argue that it is too much to ask a generalist to pass judgment on an object in a highly specific category. Even when the appraiser specializes in a relatively small area, he or she may not feel totally qualified to authenticate a particular object – and the market may not be prepared to accept the opinion of the appraiser as the primary authenticator. For example, an appraiser of impressionist paintings would not be the one to authenticate a Renoir that is unknown to the market. An authenticator, by definition, is one who specializes in a highly specific and, frequently, narrow field. For this reason appraisers frequently rely on third party sources as authenticators.

If appraisers are not authenticators per se, one may ask, who is? Various categories of “experts” come to mind, but each category carries with it a history of academic and legal challenges to the opinions of specific experts.

Auction houses may be considered, by many, to be the most qualified to determine whether a piece is authentic or not since all sales are public, and catalogues receive worldwide distribution and scrutiny. But auction house experts frequently defer to the opinions of others, and even that has not protected them from lengthy and nasty lawsuits. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been entangled in litigation connected with objects ranging from Faberge eggs to Mary Cassatt paintings.

Dealers of deceased artists are frequently called upon to authenticate objects, but they, too, have had their opinions challenged in court. Klaus Perls, the exclusive agent for Alexander Calder was recently disqualified by the court in a case concerning a contested Calder mobile. And, the internationally prominent print dealer, David Tunick, challenged, in court, the opinion of the internationally prominent Swiss auctioneer Eberhard Kornfeld over a Picasso print with a disputed signature.

Famous scholars are frequently questioned about their judgment when problems of authenticity arise. The recent exhibition of all the Rembrandt paintings owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented numerous challenges by the Museum’s staff to the opinions published by the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of Dutch scholars, who, for decades, had passed judgment on the authenticity of Rembrandts held in public and private collections.

On the other hand, museum staff members frequently are not in agreement with one another. At the same time as the Rembrandt exhibition, the Metropolitan held an exhibition of its Goya’s. Gigantic chat labels on the walls revealed to the general public an internal controversy among the staff concerning the authenticity of two versions of Goya’s Majas on a Balcony. One version, belonging to a private French collection, is universally accepted as a genuine Goya, but the Metropolitan’s staff is divided in its judgment of the Metropolitan’s version. The curatorial staff believes it to be a copy by a follower of Goya, but the Conservation Department of the Museum believes it to be an authentic work whose authorship has been obscured by its poor conservation. Unable to make a firm public commitment, the Museum displayed both paintings, side by side, and called upon the general public to make up its mind for itself.

Recently, authentication committees have been established by the estates of deceased artists. But, the judgments of these committees have been hotly contested – especially when the members of the committees are also involved in the marketing and sales of the holdings left to them by the estate of the deceased. Charges of “conflict of interest” have been raised against the authentication committees of Keith Haring, Yves Klein and Alexander Calder, among others. Disgruntled owners of disputed works have claimed that these committees are reluctant to authenticate works owned by others because the art market is not large enough to support too many works by one artist.

In some European countries, such as Italy and France, family members of deceased artists are legally the ones to have the ultimate word on authenticity, even though they may be generations removed from their ancestors. As strange as this may seem to an American audience, the “moral right” (droit moral) of these descendants is well established in the local courts and American appraisers must take this into consideration.

The opinions of living artists, about their own works, have been questioned as well. Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978) was accused of painting fakes of his earlier, metaphysical paintings, during the last years of his life, since the earlier works were more valuable than the ones painted circa 1970.

In today’s litigious climate, even if the spirit of a venerable artist such as Rembrandt could miraculously be brought to testify in a court of law, one runs the risk of hearing a judge say that his opinion about his own work is not legally acceptable because he is too old to remember what he had painted over 300 years ago. As implausible as this may sound, an analogous decision was rendered by a court in discrediting an affidavit written by the French artist, Balthus, about a contested nude drawing of his former mistress.

As one can see, authenticity is a concept which changes constantly, both from the point of view of how one defines what is an authentic piece and from the viewpoint of who is best qualified to determine whether a piece is authentic or not. The appraiser must make an objective judgment about which opinion, (including that of the appraiser), will be accepted by the market and which opinion will not.

In such a changing universe the appraiser’s primarily function is to determine how much an object is worth as of the date of valuation. If it would be universally accepted as “genuine”, its value has not been compromised; it there is any dispute concerning its authenticity, its value may be diminished and the appraiser must then decide just how much the value should be lowered. Clearly this is not an easy job and only the most skilled appraisers can make these value judgments with a certain degree of accuracy and precision.

Determination of authenticity is one of the Elements of a Correctly Prepared Appraisal. For a complete list of the “Elements of a Correctly Prepared Appraisal”, please contact the Appraisers Association of America.

This article appeared in the Antiques and The Arts Weekly, September 20, 1996, page 61 and was written by Victor Wiener.