I recently came across this article in the New York Times about the mounting concern of art historians to state whether a work is genuine or not. This article describes cases of art historians and experts being sued for stating that a work is not what it purports to be, and worse, forums being cancelled and concerned individuals staying silent for fear of financial repercussions should they say something that people do not wish to hear.
Now, I am afraid this particular post is going to get a little personal, because this is a topic I feel very strongly about.
Berenson Examining a Painting (image courtesy of http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2011/05/old-masters-berenson-and-duveen.html)
First off, when one goes to an expert to get their opinion about a work of art, they are asking for exactly that, their opinion. If the collector (or art gallery, or auction house, whomever) is feeling particularly stingy, they will expect the expert to only look at images of the painting rather than the physical object. Why would a person’s opinion of the quality (or lack thereof) of a particular painting ever be considered as legally binding fact? And why should this be tolerated in a legal system that allows for caveat emptor?
No one will be able to categorically state that a particular painting is by Da Vinci unless they happened to have had the great fortune of actually being there. In the overall grand scheme of things, even documentation can be altered or even forged in order to add provenance to a suspecting work (see post on book covering this very topic here). Therefore, one is asking an art historian to look a suspect, potentially never before seen painting, probably without any documentation, and without the actual creator of the painting around to say, “Well actually, Mr. Duveen, I did in fact paint that lovely little portrait, sorry.” This is tantamount to someone asking a baseball enthusiast to look at a image of a baseball and state whether or not Babe Ruth ever touched it. If the expert demonstrates that they have done painstaking research in this field and can not find any evidence that the painting put before them was by Da Vinci, is it really their fault? No. Should they therefore have to pay huge damages for it? Of course not.
For one thing, if you own a painting and really care so much about its authenticity, you could have it scientifically examined as well as seen by an expert in the field. There are several laboratories in the United States that deal specifically with chemically dating of paint and materials to determine the age of a work of art. Now, they may not be able to tell you scientifically that it is a painting by Manet. But they will be able if the materials used were ones that fit the right time period. At the very least take the painting to your local conservator who can give you an idea of what materials were used and if they are appropriate for the artist or time period in question. AIC has a whole database of members and one could certainly find a reasonably local conservator who might be able to offer some friendly advice.
Secondly, you can go to more than one expert, and get a second opinion, which is what any sensible collector would do in the first place. In this day and age there are a sufficient number of experts on any artist or movement that getting a second opinion should not be difficult.
To sue a person for giving their honest and well-informed opinion about a work of art is deplorable and a unnecessary waste of time and money. The nature of Old Masters means that one will never be a hundred percent sure if the attribution is accurate or not, and art historians should not be made to suffer because not all artists were as forward thinking as Lorraine Claude to write their own catalogue raisonné.
Now, you may reasonably ask why I care about this topic so much. The reason I care is because if we make it so difficult for an art historian to speak out if something is wrong, then forgeries could easily enter the market and worse, the museums. Because when a forgery or fake is allowed to enter the market without question, it means that forever after our understanding of Da Vinci’s or Manet’s oeuvre will be mistaken, and scholarship of the History of Art will suffer as a result of it.