Defending the Integrity of an Artist’s Life’s Work -WSJ article
By JACK FLAM
In the U.S., billions of dollars are spent annually on art. For the art market to thrive and remain healthy, both buyers and sellers must have confidence that the objects they trade in are authentic.
There are two main ways of protecting the integrity of an artist’s output: the authentication board and the catalogue raisonné.
An authentication board provides timely opinions to potential buyers and sellers. In some cases, as with the recently disbanded Andy Warhol authentication board, people who submitted works have had to agree to have them stamped as “Denied” if they were rejected. This is in effect a way of policing the market.
A catalogue raisonné, by contrast, is a scholarly undertaking independent of the market. It is an analytical or “reasoned” compilation of all the works created by a given artist. Unlike an exhibition or book, a catalogue raisonné is not a selection. It presents the full breadth of the artist’s accomplishment, with nothing left out.
Works are submitted by individuals and institutions to a catalogue raisonné committee over a period of years. They are studied, and judgments about inclusion are made and sometimes reconsidered. Traditionally, such catalogs have been published as books, but digital versions, such as the online catalog of Isamu Noguchi’s works announced last month, are now becoming common.
In the catalogue raisonné, the works are arranged in chronological order, with entries on each work listing its dimensions, the materials it’s made from, every exhibition it has been in, every book and article in which it has been mentioned, along with what is known about its provenance. Compiling such a catalog is a meticulous process that takes many years, sometimes decades.
In preparing the catalog, the authors evaluate the work in terms of three, and sometimes four, areas of inquiry. We always begin with connoisseurship, a close visual analysis of the work to determine whether it looks and “feels” like a work by the artist. We pay special attention to composition, brushstroke, color, surface, and the signature if there is one.
We also delve into the provenance, trying to reconstruct the ownership history of the work from the time it is said to have left the artist’s studio. This can be a thorny undertaking. The art market is notoriously opaque, and not all owners of works are forthcoming about when and where they obtained them. Even people who have nothing to hide are often reluctant to have their names published as owners, for fear of theft or because they do not want to reveal elements of their net worth.
We look into historical context, relating the style of the work to other works by the artist done around the time it was supposed to have been created. This is important, as forgers are often unaware of the precise times that an artist’s style changed.
When necessary, a fourth kind of inquiry is undertaken by a forensic scientist, who can provide valuable information visible only to sophisticated analytical tools such as electron microscopes. Recently, for example, the Dedalus Foundation, which I head, came across some questionable works claimed to be by the Abstract Expressionist artist Robert Motherwell that forensic testing revealed to contain deeply embedded layers of paint that had not come into use until well after the dates on the pictures, and that employed other materials and techniques foreign to Motherwell’s practice. But because disclosing such information might provide a roadmap for future forgers, most catalogue raisonné projects do not give detailed reasons for a work’s exclusion.
Catalogues raisonnés are compiled to provide a definitive corpus of the artist’s work for scholars. But the information in them is of great interest to collectors and dealers as well. Just as important is the information that is not in them—the works that have been excluded because the authors do not believe them to be by the artist.
The high prices paid for pictures painted by major Abstract Expressionist artists, and the works’ relative scarcity, have created a hothouse environment for the production of fakes. The authenticity of the artworks being sold today must be dependably protected, or we risk seeing the creation of a peculiar kind of bubble in which extremely expensive works of art can suddenly become worth virtually nothing.
But since the exclusion of a work can greatly affect its market value, a good deal of pressure is sometimes exerted by owners of questionable works to have them included in the catalog. As a result, the scholarly authors of catalogues raisonnés have increasingly had to worry about potential lawsuits from collectors or dealers unhappy about the exclusion of works they own. The Dedalus Foundation was recently involved in litigation regarding one of Motherwell’s “Spanish Elegy” paintings, which it held to be a forgery. In a settlement reached two months ago, the foundation was allowed to stamp the painting with the words “not an authentic work by Robert Motherwell but a forgery,” and was even reimbursed for legal expenses.
As a result of this growth in litigation, many experts have been discouraged from giving opinions about authentication not only to the public but even to scholars studying other artists. Some artist-created foundations have entirely sidestepped giving opinions about authenticity by delaying the creation of catalogues raisonnés, or by declining to undertake supplements to already published catalogs. So far as I know, all such lawsuits have been unsuccessful, but they can nonetheless inflict an enormous loss of time and money on the foundations involved. The Warhol Foundation cited costly litigation with collectors as the reason it disbanded its authentication board in October.
There are laws, such as the anti-Slapp (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statutes, that protect free speech for the public good. Since a substantial part of the U.S. art market is based in New York, the art community should work with that state’s legislature to find a way to strengthen such laws so scholars can express their opinions without being intimidated or even silenced by the threat of litigation.
In the long run, permitting scholars to freely publish their opinions about works of art without getting entangled in complicated, expensive and often gratuitous lawsuits will benefit history and art history. But it will also benefit the marketplace, which is best served by allowing the truth to circulate freely.
Mr. Flam, an art historian and former art critic for this newspaper, is the president of the Dedalus Foundation, which is working on a catalogue raisonné of Robert Motherwell’s work.