The art market is beginning to wake up and what I find really troubling is the number of works appearing in the public forum without the proper authentication. Many of the smaller auction rooms and dealers, throughout the country/world, believe they know the right works from the wrong ones ... and this is just not the case. In September alone we saw, just in our small area of the market, many works being sold at auction that were not by the artist in question.
Now you might ask: if an expert, like yourself, sees a fake being offered why not say something? Good question and here is the down and dirty (and you might say selfish) answer. To begin with, it really is not an expert's place to police the market or comment on any specific work of art unless they are asked to by the owner of the work. People come to our gallery because we are experts in the field and know that what they are buying has been vetted and is guaranteed by us (it really isn't our responsibility to vet the works being sold by others). We do as much due diligence as possible on the paintings we offer and so should they. Even when we may have no question about a work's authenticity, if there is an outside expert for a particular artist we consult them and, if need be, pay their fees to get an opinion in writing (and in certain cases those fees are pretty steep). If the generally accepted expert for an artist has any doubts or questions about a painting, we stay away ... why take a chance?
Look, if you are going to buy a work from someone then you need to rely on their 'expertise' and expect them to do the proper research. After all, they are making a profit on the sale, so you should expect them to do something for their money --- other than just offering the work for sale.
Here is an interesting story that has been unfolding for the past few years and came back around this past month. In early September I received an email from an auctioneer in Europe regarding a painting by an artist we are considered 'the expert' on. This work has been on the market for a number of years and we have a few questions about the painting that are yet to be answered - one of which is: why is the signature so different from all the others we have seen? We were going back and forth with this auctioneer for months and he finally decided to have the painting scientifically analyzed. This analysis determined that the signature was from the same period as the painting and here is part of my reply to his email in which he reports that finding:
''You seem to be missing the point here, so I will try to explain this one more time. Your research concluded that the signature is from the time the painting was created ... and I am not arguing that point. I would assume that if a painting was produced around 1900 and signed at that time, the signature would be as old as the painting.
My issue is that there are some unanswered questions that need to be addressed before I can give a final opinion on the painting in question.
...Please remember, that I am not saying this painting is wrong, just that we need some of the questions answered. Among them: why is, what would be considered, a major painting by the artist, signed differently than all the other paintings we have seen? We have no indication that this was an exhibited painting, but at one point people stated it was ... why? What is the ownership of the work prior to 1940?...''
It will be interesting to see what happens. Will they hold off selling it? Time will tell. I have said this before, just because a painting is signed with an artist's name does not mean that artist painted the work in question!!
This leads to the next question and answer: why should a reputable dealer / expert stick their neck out for the other guy? Stating one's opinion on the authenticity of a work can lead to legal issues which, in turn, can lead to hefty legal fees; a risk that most of us are not willing to take since there is little to no financial upside. Today, medical professionals and even private individuals are offered certain levels of protection under the Good Samaritan Law ... there is no such protection for the art dealer / expert who would like to help 'fix' a problem in the art world.
We all know that Americans love to sue when they do not get what they want and a negative opinion is not something people want. Over the past few years we have read many cases where collectors have sued authentication committees when they would not issue a letter for a particular work ... and some of those suits ran into the millions. So you need to understand that not sticking one's neck out has very little to do with greed or not wanting to help, and everything to do with smart business sense. Before we render an opinion, paperwork needs to be filled out and signed, certain images need to be sent and a fee needs to be paid (yes, we do charge for the time it takes to review, research and authenticate a work). We have spent a long time studying the works of certain artists, and are very comfortable (after all our questions are answered) rendering an opinion (but it is always important to remember that this is only 'our' opinion).
Now, having said all of this, I must be honest and tell you that in certain instances we will contact an auction room and alert them to the possibility that a work in their sale 'may not' be by the artist in question ... in most of those instances, our help is limited to individuals/firms we already have a relationship/friendship with. I need to stress that we normally tell the seller that they should really reconsider offering the work as they have it catalogued. Yes, some of us do try to help police the art market. Just last week I called an auction room in the Midwest and suggested that they reconsider offering 4 works in their sale since we doubted their authenticity ... and none of the works were by the artists we do official authentications for. So, now you want to know: why do that and run the legal risk? Well, the main reason is that some of us have to try and help remove the 'fakes' in an effort to clean up that artist's market. This, in turn, will hopefully save colleagues from any potential future legal issues and, more importantly, protect buyers from acquiring a bad painting.
Most knowledgeable dealers know the real works from the questionable works ... and even if they are not 100% sure, they often get a feeling that there is something odd about a particular work and will stay away from it. However, this does not mean that a questionable work is not going to sell ... we have seen many 'fakes' sell at auction. When these 'fakes' do sell (typically for far less than the real thing), their results poison the database records for that artist --- remember, the compliers of those databases are relying on the cataloging from the saleroom and have no idea (nor do they care) if a work is right or wrong. So when consulting those results, one needs to be real careful since the information contained may not always be accurate.
Recently we began a research project for Antoine Blanchard. There was a less than a 50-50 shot of buying a real Antoine Blanchard (Marcel Masson) in the public forum ... today chances are as high as 75%. As more auction rooms / dealers seek out the advice of the artist's expert, the cleaner that artist's market will become. Look, most experts will tell you that they are only as good as the information they have been able to gather on a particular artist's working methods, style, history, etc. and that they can make mistakes, but at least there are people who are trying to make things right.
Oh, in case you are wondering, the Midwest auction room pulled two of the works we questioned before the sale; however, they decided to offer the other two - one failed to sell and the other sold for far less than what a real one would have (poor buyer).