Many artists do not keep a catalogue of their work which can lead to issues of attribution years after their death.  Attribution of a work can lead to decades, if not centuries, of scholars arguing “yes, it is”–“no, it isn’t”–“no, wait, it really is”.  The value of the work itself can follow this roller-coaster ride of yes-no-yes as well.  In recent years, purchasers of seemingly valuable works have sued experts who have declared the works mere “copies” or “in the school of” and not by the artist the purchaser thought he was buying.  Such lawsuits have chilled the appraisal market, and in conjunction, scholarship.  There have been several interesting stories in the Art Newspaper in the last month or so dealing with the issue of attribution.

The first is an interesting and thought-provoking essay on whether the art world should depend on so-called “experts” for attribution, or the connoisseurs.  The author argues that the art world should pay more attention to the connoisseurs (a group traditionally ignored by those deemed as experts) because these are the ones who not only devote their lives to a particular artist, but study the whole period that influenced that particular artist and his/her contemporaries.  Connoisseurs also study the contemporaries.  They study the paintings themselves, and are well schooled in the methodology, tools and style of an artist.  On the other hand, the author continues, “experts” are considered to be such because they’ve written a monograph on a particular artist…or perhaps a catalogue raissonne.  But they’ve done little research by handling the painting themselves.  It is an intriguing argument.

The second discusses the dismissal of a case by group of collectors against a foundation that attributes art.  According to the article, a Manhattan federal court dismissed a claim against the Keith Haring Foundation.  The suit was brought by collectors who sought to have their collection formally authenticated.  The Foundation refused to authenticate the collection because it considered the collection to be “not authentic”.  The collectors attempted to bring an anti-trust suit, claiming that the Foundation conspired with galleries and auction houses to create a monopoly for the works the Foundation wanted to sell.  The court dismissed the action, saying that a refusal by any organization or individual to authenticate a work was not a conspiracy but “an independent and lawful action”.

The third discusses an attempt by the New York legislature to create a statute that protects art experts from lawsuits arising from evaluations of works of art that result in no attribution–in other words, the work was not by the artist in question.  It is an interesting development in the law dealing with the art market.  The hope is that such legislation will allow experts to freely give their opinion without fear of being sued–that it will stimulate scholarly research and discussion.  However, there is some fear that if the legislature is not careful in its wording, it might give experts too much protection, leading them to make determinations without properly doing their homework.

All three articles highlight the issues that surround the authentication of art.  There is no simple solution, but scholars should be able to debate the authenticity of a work without fearing a crippling lawsuit.  The fact that a New York court was willing to dismiss such a suit brings hope.  In the meantime, it is worth watching to see if New York proposes legislation that protects experts and scholars from those who did not heed the warning caveat emptor.