Ronald D. Spencer, editor
The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes & False Attributions in the Visual Arts.
Oxford University Press,
240 pages, $35

What a difference a century can make! In 1897, Bernard Berenson concluded the preface to his Italian Painters of the Renaissance with the words: “No artifact is a work of art if it does not help to humanize us. Without art, visual, verbal, musical, our world would have remained a jungle.” It is the voice of the Edwardian dilettante and gentleman-aesthete, very much at the center of his art-world. The Expert versus the Object is the title Ronald D. Spencer gives to a new collection of essays and interviews that focus on (according to the subtitle) “fakes and false attributions in the visual arts,” and the eventual legal ramifications thereof. Mr. Spencer, a respected attorney, and the various other contributors to the volume—art-historians, conservators, dealers, and auction-house experts—speak from what we might consider the very center of our art-world.

At first glance, one might think that, in the intervening century, the jungle has overtaken us … and although the Berensonian ethos of culture, privilege, and leisure has certainly and inevitably evolved into the pragmatic, professional, success-oriented environment that we know today, the art object was even then, and continues to be, the focus of high-stakes marketplace maneuverings and even higher-stakes confrontations in the courtroom. Not surprisingly, that “versus” in Mr. Spencer’s title says it all. His book leaves no doubt that the art object is an artifact that must be challenged and that challenges us in return: clearly outlined is an adversarial debate being vigorously pursued in museums, galleries, academies, laboratories, and, of course, courtrooms the world over. Indeed, the introduction leaves no doubt that the volume’s purpose is to serve as a guide for the un-tutored and un-professional daring enough to venture into the deadly cross-fire.

Roughly the first half of the book comprises essays and interviews in which noted art-world professionals deal with various issues of authentication. The remainder of the volume is mostly by Mr. Spencer himself. It traces, through specific case histories, how some of these issues of authentication have been dealt with in the court of law, here and overseas.

Oddly, it is this second part of the book that makes for the more lively and interesting reading. Not only do some familiar names pop up (Wildenstein, Dubuffet, Agnew’s, Sotheby’s, Pollock, and so forth), but the furious challenges and counter-challenges that are skillfully recounted describe a reality that is light-years removed from Berenson’s genteel musings of a century ago about the life-enhancing nature of high art … yet certainly more charged with quintessentially human motivations: greed, pride, revenge—in a word: with drama.

How can one not be riveted, even after so many decades, in learning about the judicial joust engendered by the deprecating remarks of the irrepressible Sir Joseph Duveen (not yet Lord Duveen of Milbank) on the subject of Mrs. Andreé Hahn’s “Leonardo”? Although the famous art dealer was persuaded to settle for the then gigantic sum of $60,000, he was, of course, right: the Hahn picture has never been regarded as anything but a period copy. There is no better example of the oft-repeated maxim that the art object will, inevitably, command the last word.

Despite the amusing, almost anecdotal, quality of these courtroom confrontations, and keeping in mind the book’s stated didactic purpose, one wonders what practical advice the reader will derive from learning about judicial decisions rendered in different circumstances and even different jurisdictions. A far more useful and comprehensive account of the law as it applies to matters of art will be found in Lerner and Bresler’s Art Law (both the single-volume 1989 edition and the much-expanded two-volume second edition of 1998). Inexplicably, this eminently comprehensive and useful work is not even mentioned in any of the notes, let alone the text, of Mr. Spencer’s book.

Turning to the first part of The Expert versus the Object, we find contributions of acknowledged and eminent experts who express, undoubtedly, the best of contemporary thought on matters such as attribution, cataloguing, scientific testing, and “the trade.” Not surprisingly, the quality of this material and its exposition varies considerably. It should be pointed out that while this unevenness is inherent in any anthological compilation, one common denominator does link, at least thematically, these various articles: its virtually exclusive preoccupation with the pictorial arts—painting and sculpture. Issues of authenticity and verification in the fields of literature, music, the sciences, even architecture, are not addressed.

This said, there are descriptive, thoroughly straightforward accounts replete with detailed information such as the nature and purpose of the catalogue raisonné (Michael Findlay and Peter Kraus), the creation and current role of IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research), the technical examination of artistic objects (Rustin Levinson).

On the whole, these tend to reassure the reader that substantial progress is being made to evaluate objects (both art-historically and venally), and that such evaluation can be verifiable and reliable. After all, documentation is constantly increasing in quantity and quality; collaboration among specialists on important cataloguing projects is now the norm, as is the participation of collateral experts in the fields of conservation and the physical sciences; the verification process is progressively being rendered more independent from economic enticements and constraints. Objectivity at last!

Well, not so fast. Shakier ground is soon under foot. In several other articles we learn that, despite all else, authentication still rests essentially with the individual—with the experience, knowledge, taste, and talent that are the irreplaceable ingredients of any considered judgment; in a word, with connoisseurship. An elusive quality at best, yet we are time and again reminded that connoisseurship is of capital importance in every step of the authentication process: for the identification of copies and forgeries (Francis O’Connor and Eugene Thaw), for the attribution and authentication of paintings and drawings (John Tancock and Noël Annesley), and, finally (why not?), for handwriting analysis (Patricia Siegel).

Indeed, the authors describe events that seem to subvert totally any sense of serenity or certainty about art-world “objectivity” that may have been encouraged elsewhere. We learn, for example, that just over ten years ago a Titianesque painting offered at auction was sold, in a frenzy of bidding, for $11 million to no less a buyer than the Getty Museum. Clearly, a lot of well-informed people, not only in that prestigious institution but also advising the competing bidders, were convinced that on the block was a painting fully by the hand of that greatest of Venetian artists. Today, the same painting is more modestly labeled “Titian and assistants” … back to where it was before its sale!

Even more disquieting is the example of the drawing David Taking Leave of Jonathan with an unblemished attribution history to Rembrandt. We are told that, more recently, “some weaknesses of execution have become apparent, and matters are unresolved at the present.” Now Rembrandt scholarship is hardly a new or neglected discipline; how could these “weaknesses” have escaped the intense gaze of generations of connoisseurs—experts of the stature of Otto Benesch and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot? And if matters are to remain “unresolved” what comfort does this give to the present owner of the drawing?

The intellectual paths that the various authors follow are obviously conflicting: on the one hand is the conviction that solutions to art-historical problems will inevitably be found, as long as sufficient research, documentation, and physical evidence are applied to the task. Almost as the reverse of the same coin is the equally keen awareness that no matter how brightly the investigative light shines, all we can hope for is conjecture—basically, an educated guess. This painful inconsistency is best illustrated by Peter Sutton’s informative and well-presented account of the controversial “Rembrandt Research Project,” an ambitious undertaking that has, over the many years since its inception, come to grips with a harsh reality: the impossibility of resolving even some very fundamental issues of chronology and attribution.

And in this rather unsatisfactory balance is where the matter must rest. Even the high hopes engendered by the application of science and computer-generated data have often been deluded. Levinson, for instance, notes that the English researcher Spike Bucklow “has been able to associate craquelure patterns with different eras of art history.” The problem is that, based on these studies, Bucklow has just recently released a full-dress paper conclusively confirming as genuine a supposedly fourteenth-century Sienese painted wedding casket. Unfortunately for Mr. Bucklow and the reputation of conservation science, the casket has, for years, been known to be a modern concoction, a howling forgery.

Each and every one of the contributors to The Expert versus the Object is, in his or her area of expertise, someone who has grappled with the “unsatisfactory balance” mentioned above, throughout a long and successful professional life. Such success and recognition in the field of the pictorial arts (artists-creators themselves, of course, excluded) can only come to someone who has, for years, combined remarkable visual perception and awareness with scholarly diligence and intellectual curiosity. After weighing that which can be known through research and empirical verification and that which can be intuited through the sensitive inner eye, the connoisseur will render a judgment that is neither wholly “objective” nor wholly “subjective” … and even though it may be “right,” it may not be so for very long. It goes without saying that those active in the field and certainly the contributing authors here are all perfectly aware of this. Putting it in writing for a reader outside the field presents a problem, however, a problem from which the present volume, as we have seen, is not entirely free—particularly since the authors squarely address the layman in the hope that the book will serve as a guide.

As if this were not enough to confuse the more casual observer, some contemporary practitioners of art-history have, of late, been promoting the view that what really matters is not the object itself but the social/economic/gender/political context it represents. In this school of thought, such profound suspicion of the object has inevitably led to its removal from center-stage, a position never questioned by art historians of preceding generations. Now, the object’s physical identity—its quality, style, period, conservation—are all suddenly rendered, if not irrelevant, surely marginal. By extension, those institutions that collect and conserve objects—museums—are no longer seen as the principal and indispensable repositories of our artistic heritage. According to this reading of the art object, one can (and many do) legitimately ask: authenticity, attribution, age; do they, au fond, make any difference?

Consider an elaborately installed, meticulously catalogued exhibition that, at this writing, is garnering considerable critical and popular success: Falsi d’Autore—Icilio Federico Joni e la cultura del falso tra Otto e Novecento (Santa Maria della Scala, Siena). It is a survey of works by one of the most spectacularly inventive and proficient forgers ever to practice that shadowy craft. Works by other similar “specialists” are also included, compared, and evaluated. The not-too-subtle subtext throughout the exhibit is that, since these various painters and sculptors did not copy known antique prototypes, but invented their artifacts by skillfully blending diverse stylistic strands from the past, their work assumes, in its own right, undeniable artistic legitimacy.

Apart from the fact that there is a perfectly applicable term to the activity of the forger—fraud—Peter Sutton admirably and succinctly stated the case for why we should care, and care passionately, about a painting being or not being by Rembrandt: “because seventeenth century patrons and collectors did.”

The more straightforward issues posed by forgeries—objects created with an intent to deceive—are undoubtedly intriguing, but, in fact, the vast majority of authentication questions involve genuine works of art whose status has been rendered uncertain by one element: time. The more time passes between the creation of an object and the moment it is placed before us, the more variables conspire to cloud its true identity. By a peculiar paradox this effect functions precisely in an inverse proportion when examining forgeries: the more time passes, the more they reveal themselves for what they really are.

Thus, the process of authentication, reduced to its core, is simply the progressive resolution of those variables that time has introduced—and their replacement with certainties, or near certainties. It is the process that The Expert versus the Object seeks to describe in its manifold manifestations, and eventual legal ramifications. The often conflicting conclusions that will inevitably be drawn from reading this collection of diverse contributions may well heighten rather than diminish the reader’s anxiety level vis-à-vis the art object. One hopes, however, this will not deter continued engagement in the process of authentication, a process that—by another name—is the search for truth.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 1, on page 64
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