Art Authentication Board - An Idea That Fell Through
Here’s an interesting scenario for you – after spending countless months finding excuses to postpone it, you finally decide to clean up the dreaded attic. After a while, you run into a certain package that was wrapped by, let’s say, your aunt. You open it and find a painting that appears to be an original piece made by Roy Lichtenstein, signed and in a mint condition. After the initial excitement starts to wear off, the next natural step is getting the painting to an expert in order to verify its authenticity.
So, who is qualified to make an unquestionably official judgment and rule if the piece in question is indeed an original Lichtenstein? Or Warhol? Or anyone else? Well, maybe nobody.
In order to deal with these and similar situations, an idea of authentication boards came to life a while back – every major artist was to have their own board that would be able to make official judgments whether a piece is indeed an original work of the artist or not. Such boards were supposed to have complete authority over determining the attribution of artworks and no one could question their verdicts.
This idea made a lot of sense as the collectors wanted assurances that artworks in their possession are indeed authentic – which is a very fair thing to demand for a collector who invests a lot of money into acquiring certain pieces. However, the concept of such boards soon came crashing down as people who were supposed to be running them started to be afraid of lawsuits from collectors who disagreed with their judgments and who, by all legal standards, had full right to pursue justice in the halls of a courthouse.
Furthermore, this ambitious and idyllic plan also started to crumble because skeptics started to believe people behind such committees were calculating their verdicts based on factors other than pure attribution.
Why Did the Idea of Authentication Boards Fail?
Although the sizable amount of money in play and the number of failed authentication boards would suggest that some sort of an intricate complication was at the heart of this problem, the issue was actually surprisingly simple.
Whenever a potential piece went through the process and the verdict stated that the artwork was not an original, the owners of rejected pieces, who often tended to have deep pockets, could decide to initialize a legal battle over the piece’s authenticity.
Such a situation not only damages the financial state of the board (regardless of the case’s outcome), but it also hurts the committee’s reputation and the supreme sovereignty it is supposed to have over the particular group of artworks. To make matters even more challenging, owners of fakes also had the legal right to challenge the board’s ruling.
This, ultimately, proved to be too big of a bump on the road for the committees in question to go over.
Interesting Cases That Buried the Boards Idea
Even though the court battles were definitely not fun for the authentication boards, they brought us a lot of interesting, as well as debatable cases. The incredible fall from grace these boards started facing began when the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board got shuttered after being sued for refusing to authenticate a suspicious Warhol piece from Joe Simon.
The Warhol announcement had a chilling domino effect – it officially demonstrated the vulnerability of similar boards, sparking a chain reaction among artist authentication committees that quickly started to close their doors in order to avoid similar fates.
There are three interesting cases that are able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Andy Warhol Authentication Board one in terms of numbers and controversy surrounding them. As all three cases are not officially done, we will not be going into what the eventual verdicts may be; instead, we are opting to limit ourselves to the initial facts of each case.
The Keith Haring Foundation was hit with a $40 million claim concerning 63 artworks that the owners said were genuine despite the foundation’s ruling. In this case, the individuals prosecuting the board explained that the foundation limited the number of Haring pieces in the public domain so that the value of their own pieces could increase.
A similar case took place in France, only with a bit of a shocking twist – a media storm erupted in Britain after the owner of a supposedly fake Marc Chagall, who had sent it to the Chagall Committee for authentication, was unlikely to ever see his painting again. The artwork was destined to be destroyed and the committee claimed it was within its rights to demand this as a part of its fight against forgery.
The third and final case is the one that occurred when Gérald Cremer bought the mobile Eight Black Leaves directly from Alexander Calder in 1948, yet the Calder Foundation declined the owner’s ask to issue an authenticity certificate for the piece.
A Portrait of The Andy Warhol Authentication Board, Part I
Committees That Already Succumbed to Pressure
Many of the biggest boards have officially folded and decided to take a step back in recent years. Some of the most noteworthy examples are the committees that were supposed to be in charge of the major artists’ legacies, yet they failed to meet the expectations set before them.
This was the case with the boards taking care of the works made by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Isamu Noguchi.
It’s not a challenge to notice that all of these foundations were, or are, responsible for governing authenticity over some pivotal names of history. This only makes the entire situation look even grimmer as the audience should expect and, in fact, demand that the biggest names of the market are well cared for.
If the originality of the works made by such names are so often brought into question, what can an average collector expect from some less dominant artists?
What is The Current Alternative to The Authentication Board Concept?
The initial idea indeed sounded great – these boards could have been able to settle so many disputes that were plaguing the arts world in an elegant and efficient manner. However, the art market did not manage to turn this vision into a reality – the very foundations of the concept fell apart due to fear, greed and pettiness. It would be fair to say that instead of solving problems, the boards managed to take them to a whole new level while resolving virtually nothing they aimed initially.
So, if accreditation services continue to lose their authority, who will validate disputed artworks? Or, to make a full circle and come back to our initial hypothesis, who will determine how genuine is the Roy Lichtenstein you found in the attic?
As things currently stand, the answer is, unfortunately, nobody. Instead of relying on the word of a trusted committee, the world of art prefers to use price and capital as a primary determinant of both the value and, by extent, authenticity.
It would appear that the very thing that destroyed the idea of valid authentication boards is the same thing that dictates the way art market makes decisions on which artwork is genuine and which one is a forgery – money. In other words, if the money trail behind the piece can lead to something substantial, that is worth a lot more than what some disbanded board has to say.
A Word to the Wise
We’ve arrived at a point you might expect an advice of some sort. Well, to be perfectly honest, there is not a clear-cut way of dealing with the issue of these boards right now. Intended to be the pillars of the art world, these committees now went up in smoke and the best thing to do is just to stay clear of the ruble. The idyllic solution to this problem would be reaching a point where a complete transparency is in place and where every occurrence of the art world is effectively an open book that’s available to anyone interested in learning more. Investing heavily in catalogue raisonnés could also benefit the scene a lot.
But, alas, this is far from the current state of the market. With that being said, you should be careful whenever purchasing an artwork and you should strive to have official documents from “un-official” trusted experts proving the entire history of whatever you place in your collection. Ultimately, having a documented proof of the artwork’s life is what counts the most and this is the greatest asset your artwork can possess, both right now and anywhere down the line – even if some sort of a committee decides that your art is, for whatever reason, not worthy of authentication.
- Maloney, J., 2014, The Deep Freeze in Art Authentication, The Wall Street Journal [Oct 22, 2017]
- Rahm, D., 2013, Warhols, Pollocks, Fakes: Why Art Authenticators Are Running For The Hills, The Forbes [Oct 22, 2017]
- Adam, G., 2014, The High-Stakes Game of Art Authentication, BBC [Oct 22, 2017]
- Ghorashi, H., 2015, ‘You Develop a Sixth Sense’: Richard Polsky on His New Warhol Authentication Service, Art News [Oct 22, 2017]
Featured images: Catalogue of Andy Warhol Work, via cargocollective.com; An Art Curator Deciding Which One is a Real and Which One is a Fake Artwork, via businessinsider.com; An Art Dealer Examining an Artwork, via nrc.com; Technologies Benefiting the Art Authentication Process, via medium.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.