Remember the dialogue out of the Hollywood classic “How to steal a million?”:
Bonnet: Leland once bought a Toulouse Lautrec painting from me.
Nicole: Your Lautrec or Lautrec's Lautrec?
When someone intentionally forges an artwork and the artist’s signature on it, this is one story. However, it could very well be that an artwork mistakenly ended up in a catalogue raisonné (this, according to The New York Times, is “the supreme arbiter of the genuine and fake attributed to a certain artist”, or, in other words, a listing of all his known artworks). Actually, whether an artwork is included in a catalogue raisonné or not can have a significant effect on the market value of this artwork.
Just to give you an example. At the end of 2015 the Paris Court of Appeal refused a request to force the inclusion of ‘Les Bords de Seine à Argenteuil’ in the catalogue raisonné of Claude Monet. The plaintiff and current owner of the painting David Joel bought it privately for 50 thousand euros in 1993 (and was probably secretly hoping he was sitting on a much bigger pot). However, the Wildenstein Institute, who published the catalogue raisonné of Monet, has long rejected this artwork. This case became widely known as it was featured in the BBC’s “Fake or Fortune” programme and included opinions of some of the world renown experts on Monet, like Professor Paul Hayes Tucker (who was, by the way, advocating positive attribution).
Yet Themis is blind and cannot (doesn’t dare to?) judge art. Thus, the judge pointed that the court’s role was not to establish the authenticity, but rather to decide on whether there was a ground to force the Wildenstein Institute to include a painting, that they didn’t believe to be genuine, in the catalogue raisonné of Monet. The answer was “no”, and that “no” clearly had financial consequences for the owner of the painting.
If you never worked in the art field before, you might be confused about the terms: attribution, authenticity,… Let me try to clarify them for you.
Imagine that a yet unknown (unattributed) painting comes to an art historian who has to determine who actually made that painting.
There will be several “phases”, very simply defined as:
1) Attribution — the “phase” when an art historian is trying to discover the author of this particular painting; This will result in assumption of authorship.
2) Authentication — the phase when this attribution assumption will be tested; so the art historian will try to determine whether this particular artist actually made this particular painting as it was assumed. Here art history comes into play to also determine the period of an author’s career and the active cultural context when the work was created.
3) Provenance — when the documentation on previous ownership is gathered.
That’s in a nutshell.
Attribution is frequently used interchangeably with authentication, however, the difference is that the former concerns itself with the identification of an artist, while the later is about confirmation that this particular work was or wasn’t made by this assumed artist.
There are several important aspects in the context of attribution: the value of the artwork being one of the obvious ones. However, there is more to it, as talking in the context of art history and research, one case of attribution has a lot of influence on subsequent attributions. Here I probably need to explain some other terms, as attribution is not just a “yes or no” process. There are many shades to it.
- If there is a reasonable certainty about the author of a particular work it will be labelled as “by /NAME/“. Pretty straightforward, but not always possible. If you see a clear and unambiguous “by” there is a big chance that there are close to no doubts about its origin.
- Yet, there are also works with the label — “attributed to /NAME/“ (or (ATTRIB.). In such cases there exists a degree of doubt about the true author, but still the work is most probably done by this master, not by his students for example. In case of “attributed to” works, it is a reasonable and currently accepted version, but further research might be needed for final confirmation.
- Talking about students, if they are assumed to have made the artwork, it will be labelled as “by the studio of /NAME/“. That means that there is a reasonable belief that this is one of the students of the master and that the master has probably given him his directions.
- The previous is not to be confused with “circle of /NAME/“ which is the indication used for an anonymous artist who most probably didn’t belong to the studio of the master, but is in a way affiliated with him. Sometimes that goes also under “a follower of /NAME/“.
- Two more before the main labels are discussed:
- “manner of /NAME/” or “imitator of /NAME/“ when the artwork is attributed to someone working in a later stage (perhaps even a different century), who emulates the style of a master. But it is not the same as:
- “style of /NAME/“ which is a label used to indicate a contemporary imitator/admirer of a master, hence somebody working in the same period of time.
That seems like a very complex classification, but if you are the owner of an artwork you are interested in all these details, as they have a direct correlation with the estimated value you have in your hands.
The fun part is also that the fact that a certain artwork has been attributed (and authenticated) as the artwork made by a certain artist, doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is over. Take the classic example of Rembrandt. In the course of teaching his students, he made them copy his own self-portraits. That by itself makes further authentication somewhat complex. Imagine, you have a master with some truly talented students, who are working under the direct supervision and guidance of the master himself. Can you in general say that whatever the master guides is the creation of a master? From the pure copyright point of view, one might bring up the co-authorship question or try to see it from the perspective of an employment relationship. Yet, this is a legal philosophy which won’t be the main aspect here.
In the second half of the previous century in the Netherlands they conducted a special project — the Rembrandt Research Project — aimed at figuring out which of the works attributed to Rembrandt were actually made by the master himself. That project already created quite some changes to the list of works, but interestingly, even that did not put a final point to it. Only ten years ago four oil paintings previously attributed to Rembrandt’s students were reclassified as the works of Rembrandt! There were some works that saw several changes of authorship throughout their existence; and there are some works, like “The Polish Rider”, which is still a matter of discussion in art circles.
Moreover, coming back to terms, authenticity in the sense of the correct identification of the author of an artwork (nominal authenticity), is not to be confused with authenticity in the sense of originality or genuineness of expression the artist has put into his artwork (expressive authenticity)…
The bottom line for today is:
attribution and authentication are pretty complex issues, so for starters: be very clear about the terms you are using.
Maria Boicova-Wynants, European Mediator in cross-border civil and commercial disputes, qualified Patent and Trademark attorney
Specially for artlaw.online