By Carter B. Horsley
When we read a label in a museum, or auction
house, we assume that the information reflects the museum's, or
the auction house's, scholarly assessment of the work to which
If it states that Peter Paul Rubens is the
painter, we assume that the museum's best judgment is that the
work in question was painted by the master.
The major auction houses used to include a
fairly long glossary of attribution terminology at the front of
their catalogues that was very useful. They now carry shorter
such glossaries. Why they have changed them in recent years
is puzzling, but probably reflects their desire to either minimize
their exposure to possible controversies, or to tighten up their
own attributions and to attempt to offer only works that may not
The categories in a Christie's 1984 catalogue
of American paintings were as follows (bold face copy is from
the Glossary page of the catalogue:
For Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Miniatures
Terms used in this catalogue have the meanings
ascribed to them below. Please note that all statements in this
catalogue as to Authorship are made subject to the provisions
of the CONDITIONS OF SALE, LIMITED WARRANTY and ABSENCE OF OTHER
In our opinion a work by the artist.
In our qualified opinion a work of the period
of the artist which may be in whole or part the work of the artist.
In our qualified opinion a work of the period
of the artist and closely related to his style.
In our qualified opinion a work possibly
executed under the supervision of the artist.
In our qualified opinion a work by a pupil
or follower of the artist.
In our qualified opinion a work in the style
of the artist, possibly of a later period.
In our qualified opinion a copy of the work
of the artist.
Has a signature which in our qualified opinion
is the signature of the artist.
Has a signature which in our qualified opinion
might be the signature of the artist.
Is so dated and in our qualified opinion
was executed at about that date.
Is so dated and in our qualified opinion
may have been executed at about that date.
*This term and its definition in this glossary
is a qualified statement as to Authorship. While the use of this
term is based upon careful study and represents the opinion of
experts, Christie's and the Seller assume no risk, liability or
responsibility for the authenticity of authorship of any lot in
this catalogue described by this term.
The same catalogue carries an "Important
Notice" on its "Conditions of Sale" page, opposite
the Glossary, that states that "All property is sold 'as
is' in accordance with the clause entitled ABSENCE OF OTHER WARRANTIES,
and Christie's makes no representation as to the condition of
any lot sold. The description of the condition of articles in
this catalogue, including all reference to damages or repairs,
are provided as a service to interested persons, but do no negate
or modify the aforementioned clause entitled ABSENCE OF OTHER
WARRANTIES. Accordingly, all lots should be viewed personally
by prospective purchases to evaluate the condition of the articles
offered for sale
Sotheby's catalogues of the same time carried
similar notes and to the credit of each, such advice and admonitions
were readable and not tiny print.
In recent years, however, the catalogues of
both houses has narrowed considerably in terms of their categories
The Christie's catalogue for its June 5, 1997
American Paintings catalogue, for example, now leaves out entirely
definitions 3 and 4, the "circle of" and "studio
of, workshop of" categories, respectively.
Sotheby's, on the other hand, is even more
circumspect, if not cryptic. Its June 6, 1997 American Paintings
catalogue now carries only the following categories for attribution
Both auction houses now also have caveats about
works that date before 1870 and various other legalese to address
problems of liability, which is not the concern of this article.
Why do, or should, we care about attributions?
There are two reasons: scholarly and economic.
We care about attributions for scholarly reasons
because if they are wrong then our understanding and appreciation
of the artist may be warped, a little or a great deal. It is not
very complicated. You care about the truth, or you do not, but
it does make a difference.
Part of the problem is that many works, if
not the majority, are problematic. Unless one sees an unedited
film or video of an artist actually creating the work and stating
unequivocally in front of it that it is entirely by him, certainty
can be hard to come by. Even then, there have been a few artists
of considerable whimsy who delight in being mischievous and have
accepted works as theirs that are not, but, fortunately those
Anyone who begins to look at art seriously
falls into the easy trap of learning the essentials of a particular
artist's style and then comparing other work to that "formula,"
which can include such factors as media, palette, brushwork, subject
matter, size, composition and style. Sometimes budding art lovers
concentrate on, or are impressed greatly by, who might have owned
the painting, its so-called provenance, or history of ownership,
and where it was shown, its exhibition history, and where it has
been referenced, its literature. These facts are often interesting
and enlightening, but are secondary and by no means proof of "authenticity"
or "authorship." Hardly any true connoisseur, or art
collector, has not been mistaken at some point.
The problem with "formula" paintings
that meet all the criteria one might establish for being "right"
is that artists are not always "right."
Sometimes they change styles, or experiment,
or have a bad "brush" day, or just get better, or worse.
Juvenalia, the works of youth, are often quite different from
mature works and some artists lose their artistic dexterity. Matisse,
for example, turned to cut-outs when he found it hard to paint
in his later years.
Inconsistencies, therefore, do not definitively
rule out works as being by a particular artist.
Sometimes artists become so successful that
they hire other artists to help them complete their commissions.
Peter Paul Rubens, for example, had a large "workshop"
and his "hand" might not be present in every brush stroke.
Other artists sometimes collaborated on certain paintings, one
painting animals and another painting the landscape, and sometimes
both were famous.
Sometimes artists, such as William Merritt
Chase, became teachers and their students worked hard to imitate
their style. Sometimes the students might become even more famous
than their masters. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, was a student
of Andrea Verocchio and drew the angels on one of his major paintings,
"The Baptism of Christ," in the Uffizi in Florence,
Italy. Sometimes the students' work might lie around the same
studio with the master's work, maybe on the same table, or the
same storage bin. Sometimes the master might dash off something
in a flurry to dazzle his students and not give it another thought
and a student might take it and "continue" it.
Most artists have experimented with copying
the works of other artists. It is an important way to learn technique.
American artists of the 19th Century made pilgrimages to the art
centers of Europe where they often copied furiously.
And in some non-Western cultures, copying is
not only common, but a revered tradition, as in China.
Copyists sometimes do it for their own education
and enlightenment and delight and some do it for profit. The history
of art copying is very, very long: the Romans copied the Greeks
and the Italians of the Renaissance copied them.
The history of art forgery is also very, very
long, which brings us to the economic reason one should be concerned
A real painting by Vermeer, for example, might
be worth hundreds of millions of dollars nowadays as they are
only about three dozen known examples and almost all are prized
possessions of major museums.
A fake Vermeer, on the other hand, might only
be worth a few thousand dollars if it was done by one of the celebrated
forgers, or a few hundred, if by an unknown forger.
Sometimes the evidence at hand is misleading,
The artist Robert Delaunay, for example, presents
some problems to the experts as he worked on many paintings simultaneously
and "dates were sometimes added or changed years after a
painting had been created" and the artist "may have
wanted to inscribe the date he identified as being that of the
series's original conception instead of the individual painting's
execution," Matthew Drutt noted in his very fine catalogue
essay of a wonderful exhibition on Delaunay at the Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum in New York in the spring of 1988 (see The
City Review article), adding that "with the passage of
time, it is also possible that the artist became less certain
of precise dates of conception or execution" and his "later
notes and essays, as well as those of his wife are rife with conflicting
dates and references."
Connoisseurs and experts-to-be take note!
How does one determine the authorship of a
painting whose author is no longer alive?
After looking at every alleged work by the
artist and reading every book and reference work in a major library,
one might seek out experts.
Who are the experts?
Many of them are art dealers who have spent
much of their lives looking at art and usually specializing in
a particular period, or group of artists. They have not only studied
many of the works "up close," but also put their own
money on the line, which is a fairly major incentive for learning
Some of the experts are private collectors
who also have put their own money on the line.
Other experts are curators of museum departments
and the heads of specialized departments at major auction houses
who have had the opportunity to view a very large number of works
of all degrees of quality, not all of which have ended up being
consigned to auction, or put on display at a museum.
Finally, there are the "official"
experts. These are usually academicians who have written doctoral
theses on specific artists and have established themselves as
an expert to whom referrals are very often made by auction houses,
private collectors, institutions and art dealers. Many of these
experts make the study of a particular artist their lifelong work,
hopefully producing a catalogue raisonée, a supposedly
definitive inventory and commentary on all the known works of
an artist, often including known copies, and questionable works,
and uncertain works, and related works.
Sometimes more than one expert exists on a
particular artist, but more often not. The more popular artists
usually gather a few experts and there are now perhaps as many
Rembrandt experts as there are authentic Rembrandts, but Rembrandt
is an exception.
The work involved in preparing a catalogue
raisonée is formidable. It is usually also never-ending
as new works are discovered and as further research unearths surprises
and, occasionally, reassessments.
One problem with experts is that they must
rely a good deal on published material and often have not seen
every painting by a certain artist because they are widely scattered
and some owners, perhaps most, do not even know of the expert's
existence, or location.
Another problem with experts is that some want
to get paid for their opinion and sometimes not every owner is
willing to pay for it, which can also involve the hazards and
dangers and expenses of shipping and insurance. While Bernard
Berenson, the fabled connoisseur and art expert on Italian paintings,
fared quite well as an expert amassing a nice collection for himself
as well as a pleasant villa, I Tatti, near Florence, Italy, most
experts do not live palatially. The amount of research required
can be substantial for some experts and a momentary glance by
others and fees, if they are charged, can range from a few dollars
to a few hundred, or more. Obviously, in the best of all worlds,
experts should not charge for their opinions and be adequately
subsidized, perhaps by their institutions or other institutions, to
concentrate fully on their important research, but, sadly, that
is rarely the case.
Auction house experts will generally give a
free verbal estimate of what a work might fetch at auction, but
will charge for written appraisals if the work is not being put
up at their auction. Such appraisals are often needed for insurance,
financial, or tax purposes and they can be costly.
Experts, moreover, are not infallible.
I once consigned a major Hudson River School
painting to Christie's, which gave me a high estimate for it only
to later not accept it on the basis of a letter it had received
and showed me from the "expert" on the artist.
When I contacted the expert with many questions
about the painting, I also sent him a color photograph of another
painting I had by the same artist that appeared to have been
reproduced by him in an essay in a recently published book. He
wrote back that there had been evidently some mistake and that
the painting in the color photograph I sent him was a fine study
for a major lost painting by the artist in question, but the expert
did not address any of the specific questions about the other
painting he had not "accepted."
A few years later, the painting he had described
in his letter as a fine study for a major lost painting by the
artist was consigned to another auction house, Sotheby's, only
to be withdrawn because the "expert" declined to accept
it when contacted by the auction house. The auction house,
however, declined this time to show me the expert's letter that
apparently directly contradicted his letter to me that the auction
house knew about. The auction house declined to show the expert's
new letter, it said, on legal grounds.
Why would the auction house refuse to show me his letter?
Will the "expert" change his opinion
again? Tomorrow? If so, how good an expert is he? What made him
change his opinion?
Do auction houses have any responsibility to
a consignor, or are their responsibilities only to the buyer?
Obviously auction houses would like to limit their exposure
to potential liability and that is one of the reasons that they
often seek out the opinions of experts on their own. Such
an approach is indeed praiseworthy as it evidences a desire to
be as accurate as possible and to reflect current scholarly opinion.
Not to reveal and disclose such opinions, however, is unethical,
no matter what the auction house's lawyers might argue especially
when they involve a total reversal of an expert's opinion.
To deny an owner of property access to material
that directly affects his property, particularly when it is an
a severely adverse affect and particularly when it contradicts
the expert's own written opinion, is...odd, and not reasurring
of confidence in the conduct of the art market, whose vagaries
have recently come under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of
Connoisseurship is not a science. It is, at
best, informed, subjective reflection based on accumulated experience
and familiarity with the subject. Some people have the "eye"
and others who labor all their lives may never have it.
Part of the problem is that we live in a Big-Headline
world with little patience. "Yes," or "No,"
and then "Next!"
One alleged expert on a major American painter
took a five-second glance at three paintings and said, "Sorry,
no," and politely showed me the door, without picking the
paintings up to examine them, look at their backs, or ask questions
about them despite the fact that two were very closely related
to major works by the artist and the third was a beautiful signed
Experts are entitled to their opinions, but
how can one have any respect, indeed anything other than total
contempt, if the so-called expert does not even ask for a photograph
for his records or a few questions, or at least even indicate
some knowledge of the artist's oeuvre.
One dealer recently told me that one very well-respected
expert declines to give opinions other than acceptances because
of concern over potential liabilities. In such a litigious country,
such concerns are perhaps understandable, but academic freedom
should also suggest academic honesty and academic honesty means
a thorough, professional report that addresses all pertinent aspects
of a work, not a "yes," or "no.
One is sympathetic with such demands on time
and energy, but if one wants the accolades and respect of one's
peers and the outside world, perhaps hard work cannot be avoided.
Isn't that what professionalism is all about?
The world of art attributions is not neat.
All experts are not villains, nor geniuses, and most are dedicated
to their self-chosen interests, but those interests require tireless,
unending research, not arrogant and sometimes ignorant off-the-cuff
Experts are the custodians of knowledge about
a certain subject and as such they have a public responsibility
to be forthright and explain their positions. If they accept a
painting as "right" and are merely concurring with other
experts, their responsibility is one thing, but if they disagree
with other experts, then their responsibility is another, more
difficult task of explaining their opinions convincingly.
Most "connoisseurs" have a "knack"
for spotting the "right" work of art from a host of
pretenders, or so their pride leads them to think. Indeed,
many carry in their minds so much knowledge and experience that
their reactions are almost automatic and their antipathy to having
to take time and bother to explain is almost understandable.
More experts are needed. It is not the best
of all worlds to have only one expert on a subject, no matter
how brilliant, incisive and scholarly. The legacy of knowledge
must be passed on, for one thing, and, secondarily, too much economic
power accrues to one expert. Thirdly, competition of ideas and
interpretations inevitably leads to more certain knowledge.
Is it possible that one "expert"
may be right and all the others wrong? That would be a bit unusual,
to put it mildly?
What, then, should museums, auction houses,
galleries, collectors and students do about attributions?
Full disclosure is always the best policy.
There is nothing wrong at all with putting one's own opinion first,
but one should make available other opinions where they are known
and let others draw their own inferences and opinions.
It is incumbent upon the art world that every
effort be made to be above-board and accurate in representations
about works of art.
If Titian painted a painting formerly attributed
to Giorgione that would probably make the painting a little less
valuable, but no less admirable as a work of art, but if Giorgione
actually painted it then a re-attribution to Titian would be damning
to Giorgione and misleading to Titian. Reputations in the art
world are made on such reversals, or surprises, or revelations,
of course, but what is most important is whether or not the work
of art is wonderful, first and foremost, and why, secondly, and
thirdly, by whom.
Too often, we totally dismiss the work if it
is not a "name," a sad malady of the dilettante.
Too often, we look at the label first and are
impressed with the name and ignore the inherent quality of the
Years ago, I suggested in a letter to New York
magazine that museums should put more information on labels and
happily many have. Clearly, there is not wall space enough to
fully document the many masterpieces on view at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, which deserves great credit for its policy in recent
years of devoting large reading rooms in the middle of major exhibitions
with many copies of the exhibition catalogue for easy, comfortable
perusal. It is a wonderful practice that should be expanded and
copied as it affords visitors an opportunity to enrich themselves
at the very peak of their curiosity and therefore achieves the
second most important goal of a museum, education, after the first,
which is preservation of its treasures.
The controversy over the attributions of some
Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan Museum illustrates some
of these problems.
Had the museum accurately reflected some dissenting
scholarly opinion on its 1973 acquisition of 25 paintings from
C.C. Wang, it might have avoided a great deal of controversy and
probably still have been proud of the purchase.
It squashed and distorted dissent, however,
and arrogantly ignored it and continued to maintain that it was
right and everyone else wrong in major publications and, even
24 years later, in printed interviews.
This still might have remained an academic
squabble, but, based on that acquisition, the museum rallied behind
its advisor, Wen Fong, one of the highest ranking professors at
Princeton University and "consultative chairman" of
its Asian Art departments, and spent many millions more solely
on his say and the approving occasional comments of some of his
former students and colleagues.
It is interesting to note that few of the celebrated
and expensive acquisitions have been reproduced elsewhere and
many still remain in storage and not on exhibition. At one point,
the museum spent its acquisition funds for the entire museum on
one Asian art collection that has not yet been shown, or published,
in its entirety.
It is courageous to stand up for one's opinions
and it is noble for an institution to stand behind one of its
It is even better, however, to welcome and
respect other opinions.
A public institution must be open.
The Metropolitan Museum operates pretty much
as a quasi-public institution. It receives a not insubstantial
portion of its expenses from the public, but does not always subject
itself to public review.
In this case, it should sponsor an open conference
of Chinese art historians, collectors, dealers, experts and the
like to study its Chinese paintings, moderated by some respected
outsider and publish the findings.
Such a conference may well not only clear the
air but also advance both scholarship and interest in the fascinating
field of Chinese paintings. Indeed, such public scrutiny may well
advance public understanding of the subtleties of connoisseurship
and the complexities of art history.
In the end, the museum may stick by its attributions,
or a consensus may emerge with some recommended re-attributions.
Some paintings, conceivably, may be "demoted"
to studio, or manner, or school, or whatever, but they still might
be beautiful and rare and worthy of respectful study.
In any event, the public will be comforted
by knowing that the museum has the public's interest at heart.
Sometimes there are lovely paintings that the
experts cannot pin down to anyone, but the style is so strong
that they invent an artist, such as "The Master of the Saint
Barbara Legend." Such an approach makes quite a lot of sense
in certain cases.
We must remember that we are talking about
art, not jeans, and labels never count more than the real thing.
Celebrity artists do not always paint better than unknowns. Art
is an adventure with its great exhilarating peaks and its treacherous
An interesting variant on normal attributions
was in a recent article in The New York Times on an exhibition
at The China Institute in which a famous painting of a horse at
the Metropolitan Museum was described by the newspaper as "presumably
by" Fan Kan. (11/15)