Jusepe de Ribera, A Desperate Woman (Tamar?), oil on canvas, 33.9 x 29.75 inches, Robert Simon Gallery, New York

Contemporary art can be confusing (What? Huh?) or vexing, but at least one knows who makes it. Today’s artists put their names on everything they do, dating their artwork, documenting it through photographs, and creating archives to assist the future art historians whom they hope will care enough to research their work. For centuries before the middle of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, most artworks were not signed or even titled, leaving collectors, museum curators, art historians, dealers and auction houses with lingering questions. Their research adds to our knowledge and to the price of these unsigned, undated artworks. The holy grail for those in the art trade is finding out—through some sort of documentation (letters or contracts), physical analysis (x-rays and laboratory testing of the canvas and paints) and connoisseurship (the same pattern of brushwork, for instance, on this picture as for that)—definitively who did it. Earlier this year, a 500-year-old painting, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri that had for eighty years been kept in storage and classified as the work of a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (ca.1450–1516) was upgraded to being a work by Bosch himself after the Bosch Research and Conservation Project made a detailed study of the artwork and found the picture to be the genuine article. Every year, there appear to be new discoveries and reattributions: a miracle of our time.

However, artists in the past were no less prolific than their counterparts of the present day, and there are many artworks whose authorship is unknown. Plus, many of these works remain unstudied, and it could be that no one ever will know for certain who painted them. One is reminded of this state of affairs at auctions, especially for sales of Old Masters, but even for more recent artworks, when examining lots up for bidding. In an April 27 Old Masters sale in London at Sotheby’s, there are some fully identified paintings by artists who possibly were prominent in their day but are now a bit less so in ours, such as Sir Henry Raeburn, a Scottish portraitist (1756–1823) whose half-length “Portrait of a Young Indian Woman” was confirmed as a Raeburn by a former director of the Scottish National Gallery, and Italian baroque artist Francesco Zuccarelli (1702–88) whose two Arcadian paintings of peasants tending to their animals with the outline of a town in the backgrounds were identified as genuine by the art historian Federica Spadotto, the author of a recently published monograph on the artist. The majority of the remaining 200 or so lots are of less certain attribution. Among them are a “Ferrarese School, 16th century,” a “Follower of Andrea del Sarto,” a “Circle of Paolo Veronese,” a “Manner of El Greco,” a “Workshop of Lorenzo di Credi,” an “After Sir Peter Paul Rubens” and a “Studio of Follower of Jan Brueghel the Younger.”

One may well wonder what the difference is between a “Studio of . . . ” and a “Workshop of . . . ,” or between a “Follower of . . . ” and “After . . . .” Then, of course, “Circle of . . . ,” “School of . . . ,” and “Manner of . . .” are hardly more helpful. How many ways can an auction house say, I don’t know? “Studio of Follower of Jan Brueghel the Younger” certainly sounds confusing, but the reality is even more so. The artistic patriarch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69) is an acknowledged Flemish master, and his sons Pieter the Younger (1564–1636) and Jan the Elder (1568–1625) created their own paintings, but principally made copies of their father’s work. Jan Brueghel (the spelling of the last name was changed by Pieter the Elder’s sons for some reason) the Younger (1601–78) also took up the family business of making copies of his (now) grandfather’s work. However, following in the footsteps of that first Bruegel was an industry in that area of what would later be called Belgium, so Jan the Younger had his own followers. In an age when artists did not seek to strike out in different directions but follow tradition and what earned money, tracking down who did what is no easy feat.

The terminology of ignorance has its own hierarchy, as explained in Sotheby’s Glossary of Terms. Artworks that cannot be fully authenticated are placed on a sliding scale of information and belief:

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

The following are examples of the terminology used in this catalogue. Any statement as to authorship, attribution, origin, date, age, provenance and condition is a statement of opinion and is not to be taken as a statement of fact. Please read carefully the terms of the Authenticity Guarantee and the Conditions of Business for Buyers set out in this catalogue, in particular Conditions 3 and 4.

1 GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a work by the artist. (When the artist’s forename(s) is not known, a series of asterisks, followed by the surname of the artist, whether preceded by an initial or not, indicates that in our opinion the work is by the artist named.

2 ATTRIBUTED TO GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion probably a work by the artist but less certainty as to authorship is expressed than in the preceding category.

3 STUDIO OF GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a work by an unknown hand in the studio of the artist which may or may not have been executed under the artist’s direction.

4 CIRCLE OF GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a work by an as yet unidenti" ed but distinct hand, closely associated with the named artist but not necessarily his pupil.

5 STYLE OF............; FOLLOWER OF GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a work by a painter working in the artist’s style, contemporary or nearly contemporary, but not necessarily his pupil.

6 MANNER OF GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a work in the style of the artist and of a later date.

7 AFTER GIOVANNI BELLINI In our opinion a copy of a known work of the artist.

The Sotheby’s list doesn’t include its own characterization of some lots as “School of . . . ,” but we get the idea. And prospective bidders also get the idea. “Attributed to So-and-So” isn’t as valuable as “By So-and-So,” but it might someday get a different, higher attribution and, in the meantime, the auction house is protecting itself from a lawsuit. “Studio of . . . ” indicates that the artist didn’t necessarily create the work but suggests that he might have seen it or touched it in some way. Perhaps, in time, scholars will find the artist’s own brushstrokes on that canvas, elevating it to a higher status. As we go down the list, the monetary value of the artwork declines.

No condemnation of Sotheby’s is intended. For one thing, it is no worse than any other auction house in this regard and in some ways better. A recent online sale at the Boston-based Skinner auction house listed one work as “American School, 20th Century,” another as “Continental School, 19th/20th Century” and yet another as “Japanese/American School, 20th Century.” Word soup. There is no Japanese/American School, nor even an American School. The “School” would be something that unites otherwise disparate individuals. Art historians may describe the School of Paris (referring to Post-Impressionists and early Modernists who had a strong association with the French capital from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth) or to the New York School of Abstract Expressionists (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and their cohort), and they may classify other artists as North Italian School or German School, referring to artists of a certain period of time who were influenced by a specific artist living and working there. On the other hand, “Continental School, 19th/20th Century” is too broad a geographical area (French? German? Italian?) to be useful, but it offers the illusion of some scholarship behind the attribution. It is a designation to trap the unwary.

“Auction houses get thousands of consignments, and they cannot put much time into any one painting,” said Lawrence Steigrad, a long-time Old Masters dealer in New York City. For that Sotheby’s sale, the highest estimated prices (£20,000–30,000) are for the Raeburn and Zuccarelli paintings, while the others are expected to sell for under £10,000, not nearly enough to cover the cost of bringing in real expertise to make a thorough examination of any one work. With the exception of lots that are assumed will sell for very high prices, auction houses are content to merely upload images of unattributed artworks and email them to known experts around the globe to see if anyone responds with information. The buyers of works of unknown attribution tend to be homeowners looking for interesting decorative pieces, collectors who can’t afford an actual Bruegel but could swing something that looks like a Bruegel, and dealers who hope with some research that they might be able to upgrade the attribution, perhaps even identifying the actual artist.

Part of the job of Old Masters dealers is to find misattributed or underpriced works by well-known artists. They do in artworks what value investors do in securities. One of the most notable example of a misattribution took place in 2006 when Sotheby’s London sold a painting titled “The Cardsharps,” labeled in the catalogue as a follower of Italian baroque artist Caravaggio, for £42,000 that was later reattributed as a genuine Caravaggio, triggering a lawsuit. The auction house had consulted Caravaggio experts who claimed that the consigned painting was a copy of another on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The consignor, however, claimed that the auction house had been negligent, and in early 2015 London’s High Court decided that Sotheby’s had “reasonably come to the view that the quality of the painting was not sufficiently high to indicate that it might be by Caravaggio.”

Robert Simon, an Old Masters art dealer in Manhattan, claimed that he has been able to find “attributions for unattributed or misattributed works a lot of times,” including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Parmigianino and Jusepe de Ribera. He purchased Ribera’s “A Desperate Woman” for $50,000 at a 1999 Sotheby’s auction where the painting was listed as an unattributed workshop painting: “maybe they said it was ‘workshop of Ribera,’ I don’t remember. I just thought it was a great painting. The quality was excellent, but it needed to be cleaned.” After the cleaning, Simon, who has a Ph.D in art history, compared the painting to another version of it that was known to have been done by the Spanish artist, finding similarities that confirmed his suspicion that this was a work by the same artist. A Ribera expert to whom he showed the painting also agreed with his assessment. In all, the process took 15 years, but the painting is for sale at his gallery for $800,000.

Some hunches, however, may be more difficult to prove. “We have a German School painting from the seventeenth century, or at least I thought it was German,” Steigrad said. “I brought the painting to Maastricht”—the annual international art fair in the Netherlands—“and a scholar came by who said the picture was most likely not German School but Dutch School. His primary reasoning had to do with the tablecloth.” Obviously, more research to do.

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