Searching for the Authentic

Spot Paintings by Damien Hirst: Incredibly Boring
© Damien Hirst/ Science Ltd, 2012. Photography Prudence Cuming Associates.

Forgery, fraud, and theft have always been major themes in buying, selling, and attributing pieces of art–both contemporary and historical.  Recently, news broke that some unbelievably boring “spot painting” prints that were attributed to Damien Hirst were, in fact, forgeries. (It is beyond me why anyone would want prints of paintings so dull that the exhibitor had to sweeten the deal by offering free prints to people with enough time and money to see all eleven exhibitions of the monotonous work. Art viewing as “The Amazing Race”.) This caused a stir in the news, but the reality is that authenticity is always in question, and forgeries are always being discovered. Less often, a forgery is found to be authentic, or a work attributed to “school of” becomes attributed to a master. There is a never ending quest for authenticity. With authenticity comes higher prices and more desirability from collectors.

Portrait of Damien Hirst, collage by Cartrain
Portrait of Damien Hirst by Cartrain

Authenticity is not as easy to define as it might seem.  Damien Hirst, for example, hires people to do the work for him (the makers), and he then claims authorship by approving the works (the creator).  To some, that sounds absolutely scandalous  (well, he did paint five of the 300 spot paintings). That relationship between maker and creator isn’t much different from the relationship between a master printer and an artist she’s printing for. The master printer does, however, get credit through chop marks on the prints, a mention in a colophon, or reputation in the field. Hirst is also known for liberally “appropriating” ideas and forms from his fellow artists, which wouldn’t seem so objectionable if Hirst didn’t also relentlessly seek to crush/sue/profit from anyone whom he believes appropriates from him. (The most embarrassing example is probably the seizure of work by Cartrain, then a teenage street artist, for using images of Hirst’s diamond-studded skull in some collages. If you’re up for your own Damien Hirst appropriation, I suggest the iHirst DIY kit – a comparative bargain at £49.99.)

Giving credit to your assistants is not a path to authenticity, however. For most of art history in Western civilization, there was no precedent for giving credit. The apprentice system guaranteed that the people who did most of the labor would not get credit–though they gained prestige from studying under a particular master when they became journeymen. It was rare that a master artist, once achieving that status, would have the time to spend creating his own work from scratch. Apprentices would do the heavy lifting, under the direction of the master, who then might do some touch ups and sign the thing. There is no way to prove which work was made directly from the hand of a master, and what work was made by or in collaboration with apprentices.

In fact, the process of determining whether or not a work of art is authentic is so imprecise that most professionals are extremely hesitant to authenticate a work. Last summer I read The Man who Made Vermeers by Johnathan Lopez, about the famed forger-turned-hero Han van Meegeren. The details of the processes of forgery and authentication during the twentieth century are fascinating. It did make me a little sad, I confess, to give up on the romantic notion of van Meegeren as a struggling artist who duped Nazis with brilliant forgeries, and instead accept that he was a forger through and through–right down to the details of his own life, embroidered to save his skin after the Nazi regime fell. The more romantic (and misleading) version of van Meegeren’s dalliances in forgery can still be read at The Meegeren Website. The appeal of van Meegeren’s semi-fictional accounts resulted in people seeking out and collecting his fakes, which led other art forgers to forge his forgeries. (Or, in one case, an authentic 17th century work that probably hung in Vermeer’s home was accidentally attributed to van Meegeren for a time.)

Wax sculpture by Edgar Degas, The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1881
The National Gallery’s wax version of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879-81, the only sculpture exhibited by Edgar Degas.

Then there are the infamous bronzes by Edgar Degas. Did you know that Degas did not oversee or cast a single bronze? The only sculpture he exhibited was Little Dancer Aged Fourteen–no, not one of the bronze versions you’ve probably seen (all produced posthumously), but one of wax. Joseph K. Levine of The Art Blog wrote a thorough article on the topic.  After reading that, I went to the Portland Art Museum to contemplate a small bronze attributed to Degas. Its casting was taken from a small-scale wax sculpted by the artist. It retains all of the marks of the hand that sculpted it, but the process of making the bronze was not approved or overseen by the artist–he was dead. Is the bronze an original? Is it authentic? Clearly, the Portland Art Museum thinks so, and museums are the learned institutions we look to for answers to these questions.

Not that these venerated institutions don’t make mistakes. They are, after all, run and curated by mere mortals. One of the pleasures in frequenting a local art museum is observing how attributions change over time. A perfect example is a pair of small, excellently rendered portraits. I remember when they were first put on display, proudly, front and center at the top of the stairs, attributed as “circle of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn”. That part of the attribution has not changed, but the two portraits were initially described as Rembrandt’s father and mother. During a later visit, I was surprised to find that the people themselves had changed: the two depicted are now described as models often used in Rembrandt’s studio. The paintings are not materially different, but does the change in the description change our feelings about the work? Did it affect the estimated value of the paintings? (It very likely did, for better or worse.)

Two oval portraits, one of an old man in plumed hat and one of an old woman in blue robe.
A pair of portraits once described as depicting Rembrandt’s father and mother, now known as models often used by Rembrandt and his students.

In March the headline “Van Gogh Painting Identified in the Netherlands” caught my attention. A new van Gogh? How exciting! How rare! Upon reading the article, I found that the headline was a sensationalized and not-quite-accurate description of what transpired: the painting in question had previously been identified as a van Gogh, its authenticity was called into question, the attribution was removed until it could be verified, and then was re-attributed after verification.

The incident illustrates how fraught the tricky and elusive process of authentication can be. It can also be expensive to authenticate a painting: chemical analysis of pigments, various X-ray analyses, carbon dating, research into artists’ journals, auction records, and more (to establish provenance, the most valued tool for attribution) can be used. Small wonder, then, that it took almost ten years to prove that a van Gogh is a van Gogh.

The Statue of a Kouros from the Getty Museum
The Statue of a Kouros (from the Getty Museum). Attributed as “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery”.

The question that always comes up for me when talking about authenticating historical pieces of art is this: does the work have any intrinsic value as a piece of art, regardless of who, when, and how it was made? For example: if you loved a work of art, and some art historian examined it and reattributed it to a less-lauded artist, would you still love that work of art? Would it still be the same thing to you? And if not, why?

Perhaps we need an example, something concrete (or, in this case, marble): the Getty Kouros. A kouros, for those of you who’ve forgotten your early history, is a Greek form of statue depicting an idealized young man, usually a representation of the god Apollo (who was a symbol for purity, logic, heroism, and beauty).  The Getty Kouros is an 81-inch marble statue whose authenticity has been debated since its purchase by the Getty in the 1980’s. The statue’s current attribution reads, “Unknown: Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery”. No one has been able to conclusively prove when it was made. It was purchased for $7 million, with the belief that it is genuine.  What does it mean as an object if it is genuine? If a forgery?

Let me take another tack, a little bit out of the way of what I’ve been discussing: the appraisal of a Norman Rockwell painting on “The Antiques Road Show”, which was filmed in Eugene, Oregon last year. A man brought in a small painting not much thought of, a family heirloom. Throughout this man’s childhood, and his parent’s childhood, that painting hung in the family room like any familiar piece of furniture. Norman Rockwell painted it and gifted it to this man’s great-grandmother. Out of idle curiosity, he took the painting for possible appraisal and got a spot on the television show. The painting, “The Little Model”, was valued at $500,000. It was one of the highest-valued pieces in the history of the show.

The Little Model by Norman Rockwell, 1919, cover for Collier's
The Little Model by Norman Rockwell, 1919, Collier’s cover

This may sound like good news, but it had some unfortunate consequences. The painting is more than a valuable object to the man who owns it: it’s part of his childhood, of his family history; it has sentimental value that surpasses any that another can attach to it. What does one do when one has been on national television with a $500,000 painting that usually hangs on your living room wall? First, he needed to insure it and to protect it from potential thieves. Museums are robbed for valuable items, and how much easier a common man’s house! And what about taxes when he hands the thing off to the next generation? Will his family be able to afford to keep it now that there’s a value estimate attached to it? What was once an un-priced and well-loved part of the family home is now a national spectacle worth half a million dollars.

Ultimately, the painting wound up loaned on a semi-permanent basis to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, because it was the most practical thing to do with this now very expensive work of art.  Will it ever hang on a living room wall again? While it’s nice that the public can see it (I went to view it last summer; it’s lovely), that living room wall must seem awfully bare without it.

Artwork needs to be loved for itself, I believe, and authentication is largely about money. A silly little still-life you pick up at a flea market, if you love it, is just as valuable as anything in a museum – not in terms of monetary or historical significance perhaps – but in the sense that matters most. Art exists to move us, to help us simultaneously step outside of and deeper within ourselves. Great art can give us shivers, move us to tears, and create indelible impressions in our minds. Art is half what we see and half how it lives inside of us, which is why it’s so wonderfully and infuriatingly subjective. An expert cannot tell you what will move you.

In The Man Who Made Vermeers, Lopez talks about the psychological mechanisms that helped van Meegeren and other forgers pass off their fakes as authentic. Great forgeries look like they belong to another era while touching on themes that speak to contemporary people; it is that quality that makes us want to believe that a work is authentic. Bronzes attributed to Edgar Degas and cast before 1922 are deemed authentic by consensus, which is why those bronzes fetch much higher prices than later castings. Similarly, Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War, which were printed posthumously, are authentic by consensus: experts have agreed that the first prints pulled from the plates, in the 1890’s, are the ones. Later printings were from plates that wore or were heavily altered with new aquatints (though even some of the “authentic” prints come from plates with slight alterations). The power of the work, to put it simply, make those concerns seems petty; the expert opinion on the authenticity of early prints drives up their prices.

My point, after all this, is simply that one should not love a Goya just because it is a Goya. The work itself, irrespective of who made it and when, is what you should love – though the who, when, and how can provide context that deepens and enriches one’s experience. Look deeply and learn to recognize what moves you, not what you think you should be moved by. It’s a romantic notion, perhaps, but I strongly believe that that is the only authenticity in art that really matters.


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