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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 it refers.

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 be controversial.

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 WARRANTIES.

  1. PABLO PICASSO (The artist's first name or names and last names)

In our opinion a work by the artist.

  1. Attributed to FRANCESCO GUARDI*

In our qualified opinion a work of the period of the artist which may be in whole or part the work of the artist.

  1. Circle of FRANCESCO GUARDI*

In our qualified opinion a work of the period of the artist and closely related to his style.

  1. Studio of; Workshop of FRANCESCO GUARDI*

In our qualified opinion a work possibly executed under the supervision of the artist.

  1. School of FRANCESCO GUARDI*

In our qualified opinion a work by a pupil or follower of the artist.

  1. Manner of FRANCESCO GUARDI*

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.

  1. "signed"

Has a signature which in our qualified opinion is the signature of the artist.

  1. "bears signature"

Has a signature which in our qualified opinion might be the signature of the artist.

  1. "dated"

Is so dated and in our qualified opinion was executed at about that date.

  1. "bears 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 of attribution.

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 and signatures:

  1. George Inness      The work is, in our best judgment, by the named artist. This is our highest category of authenticity in the present catalogue.
  2. *George Inness    While ascribed to the named artist, no qualified statement as to authorship is made or intended.
  3. Attributed to George Inness     In our opinion, on the basis of style, the work can be ascribed to the named artist but less certainty is expressed as to authorship than in the preceding categories.
  4. Signed or inscribed      Autograph signatures and inscriptions which, in our best judgment, are in the hand of the artist will be transcribed in print as they appear and are located in one of six areas of the canvas designated as follows….


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 are rare.

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 with attributions.

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, or wrong.  

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 well.

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 Justice.

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 work.

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 comments.

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 associated work.

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 own.

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 pitfalls.

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)

Chinagate, an update on controversy over Chinese Paintings bought from C.C. Wang by Metropolitan Museum of Art

Original edited, but unpublished New York Times story on Chinese painting controversy

Truncated story on controversy as it appeared in The New York Times

Chinagate Revisited, Museum acquires more Chinese paintings from C.C. Wang

Page Six of The New York Post reports on The City Review stories

Major Donor of Chinese paintings at Metropolitan threatens to withdraw them

The City Review makes Page Six of The New York Post for the second time in four days. 

The imperfect, but impressive Metropolitan

The New Yorker magazine quotes expert with serious doubts about centerpiece of recent Tang gift, doubts that were first raised in The City Review, and discloses that C. C. Wang plans to auction 40 works at Sotheby's where his grandson is the "resident Chinese-painting expert."

Orientations Magazine runs two long commentaries on controversial acquisition of The Riverbank by the Metropolitan Museum

Orientations Magazine does not run letter from The City Review on Chinagate

 The Institute of Art and Law in England has an excellent website worth visiting

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


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