The tricky art of authentication Truth: Sometimes, only the artist or his or her family knows for sure whether a work is the real thing.

Last year, a small auction house in California, which was offering some sculptures by the late artist Robert Arneson, contacted Arneson's New York art dealer to inquire whether he would be interested in putting in a bid. "The works," said George Adams, director of New York City's Frumkin/Adams Gallery, "looked vaguely like Arneson's, but I was far from convinced."

Adams sent photographs of the sculptures to Arneson's widow, who identified them as having been done by the artist's sons when they were 10 and 12. The dealer then notified the auction house of the correct attribution of those works.


Except for the boys themselves (maybe), no one other than Arneson's widow would have known for certain who created those works.

Family members are frequently a source of information and expertise in the work of noted artists, having seen them at work, knowing their sources of inspiration and when particular pieces were created. There are fewer scholars in the work of modern and contemporary artists -- experts in the manner of an old masters authority, devoting a career to the study of one or more artists of a specific period.


"Sure, there are many people who have written about Hans Hofmann," said Andre Emmerich, a New York dealer who has represented that artist's work since the mid-1960s, "but that doesn't make them experts by any means. You need the daily familiarity of seeing the work and the intimate relationship between someone and the artist to even approach the possibility of expertise."

Major auction houses, which warrant the authenticity of the works they sell, have lists of experts for specific artists. They frequently find that there are no experts in the modern and contemporary area and must rely on dealers and family members.

"We contact family members of artists about all the works that are consigned to us," said Leslie Prouty, head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby's, the auction house. "They like to know what works by the artist are being sold, and they often have good records on these works that are helpful to us."

She noted that the daughters of sculptor David Smith and painter Philip Guston have kept especially good records, adding that living artists, such as Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra, have on-staff archivists to whom Sotheby's may turn for information or authentication.

The families of various artists have established foundations to track and verify all their known artworks. "We have records of everything that was fabricated," said Sarah Auld, administrative director of the Tony Smith Estate. "Tony saved everything -- drawings, notes, writings, clippings, sales receipts, letters -- and we know what's out there." In the event of an unexpected work that comes in for authentication, the artist's widow, Jane Smith, may be asked to take a look.

Thousands of Calders

The Calder Foundation keeps computer files on between 15,000 and 16,000 works (sculptures and gouaches, mostly) by Alexander Calder, and its authentication committee is kept busy with monthly viewings of between 10 and 40 works that are brought to the Pace Gallery in New York City by collectors for the committee's official opinion. That committee includes dealers, scholars, museum curators and members of the Calder family (two daughters and a grandson).

The artistic judgment of heirs is esteemed highly enough that, in France, the law allows them the final word in attribution. If the godson of Georges Braque says that the pastel isn't by Braque, no expert may claim that it is without risking a lawsuit (that godson's claim, in fact, nullified a sale at Christie's auction house in 1990).


Although not protected in law as in France, relatives of American artists are no less likely to claim expertise. Sandy Rower, a grandson of Calder and editor of the catalogue raisonne that is being prepared of the sculptor's work, claimed that his expertise in authenticating Calder's work is partly based on the fact that "I spent a lot of time in the studio with him. He showed me his techniques and materials, and explained why he made certain works in certain ways at certain times." Rower, 33, was only 13 when his grandfather died in 1976.

The relationship that family members may have with an artist may or may not be extensive. Relatives in France or anywhere else, of course, can make mistakes when put in charge of authentication. "We stopped directing inquiries to Mercedes Luks [widow of painter George Luks], because we received a number of letters from dealers, curators, and other people who questioned her opinions," said Peter Rathbone, head of the American paintings department at Sotheby's. "She married Luks late in his life and did not know very much about his life and work."

The relationship that an artist's family members may have with one another may also muddy the waters when seeking an authentication. The Picasso committee, composed of all the artist's heirs for the purpose of authenticating works, broke up when Picasso's daughter Maya refused to participate any longer. Now, collectors must seek out experts here and there to authenticate their Picassos.

There are many sources of information about what an artist has done, when, and for what reasons. Art dealers, who have maintained long-time relationships with particular artists, may also have irrefutable evidence in correctly attributing artworks. Most artists who have gained prominence since the end of World War II have exhibited and sold their work exclusively through art dealers. It is the sale records and familiarity with both the artist and his or her art that gives the verdicts of dealers considerable ++ weight. "There's nothing like being financially involved with an artist's work to train someone's eye," said Diane Upright, director of contemporary art at Christie's.

In the book

Many dealers sponsor or participate in the creation of catalogues raisonnes -- books that authoritatively present all the known works by a given artist -- both to ward off potential fakes and frauds and to define the market for the artist. Inclusion in such a book is mandatory for owning a work by the particular artist, as the failure to have one's work listed as authentic in the catalogue raisonne would make the object more difficult to sell at market value. For this reason, collectors clamor to get their works in.


The creators of catalogues raisonnes clearly wield considerable power, which they ensure by having any and all collectors sign a document that precludes the possibility of a lawsuit in the event that they decide the specific work cannot be attributed to the particular artist.

Some dealers have authenticity committees to decide attributions of artworks by particular artists. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which disperses the works by the artist in Warhol's estate, and the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which handles the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, both have created these committees, in part to more effectively wage battle against a growing number of fakes, forgeries and mis-attributions in the Basquiat and Warhol markets.

Putting together an authentication committee is as much a balancing act of mutual interests as it is a search for knowledge and connoisseurship. The Basquiat committee, for example, was formed by the gallery that was assigned to handle the artist's estate after he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. Unlike the Calder committee, which includes a number of older art dealers who represented and knew the artist, Basquiat's two main dealers during his brief career -- Annina Nosei and Mary Boone -- are not part of the committee.

According to one member of the Basquiat committee, former Whitney Museum of American Art curator Richard Marshall, "Mary Boone wasn't even asked." Instead, the Basquiat committee includes the Robert Miller Gallery's director, John Cheim; a magazine publisher and Basquiat collector; the artist's father; two long-time boosters of the artist's work; and Marshall. The cost of the committee's opinion is $100.

None of the dealers through whom Warhol sold his work are members of the Andy Warhol Authentication Board, which consists of a longtime Warhol confidant; an independent curator; and two art historians currently at work on a Warhol catalogue raisonne. This board does not charge a fee for its opinions.

A slippery field


Art expertise is not an exact science, and few sources of connoisseurship, however reputable, are above suspicion of self-interest. If family members may not know or remember what the artist was doing when, dealers may have a proprietary interest in raising doubts about the authenticity of works they are not selling or which they believe may harm the artist's reputation.

And when dealers are in charge of authenticating works by artists they represent, "there is a question of compromise," said Nancy Little, director of the Art Authentication Service of the nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research, based in New York. "When a dealer holds a financial interest in a work, his opinions may be tainted."

The questions of a work's authenticity and provenance (its history of ownership) should be relatively straightforward when it has been sold through either dealers or auction houses. The more difficult-to-determine artworks are frequently those made early on in an artist's career -- perhaps created before the artist's mature, recognizable style developed -- or those swapped with other artists or bartered for goods and services from, say, a doctor, for which there is no formal bill of sale or photographs. Authenticating these works requires considerable knowledge of the artist's style (and stylistic changes over the years) and ideas as well as personal information about how the artist conducted him- or herself with other artists and professionals (which artists and which professionals).

Department heads at both Christie's and Sotheby's noted that they proceed cautiously when approaching dealers with questions about works the auction houses were planning to sell. "You have to be circumspect when going to dealers for their opinions, because we may be competing for the same works to sell," Rathbone said. "If we are researching a piece that may be sold here, we want to have it fully on consignment, or else the dealers may pursue it on their own with the owner."

Upright also said that "We don't reveal the name of our consignors to dealers, because the dealers are likely to go after the owners."

Certainly, there are art authorities not associated with the selling of works, such as museum curators and scholars, from whom one may ask a professional opinion as to attribution. Marshall, who is also a member of the Calder committee, said that "a member of an authentication committee not affiliated with the estate personally, or with no monetary connection to the work, has no vested interests. My motivation is not to stop the market when I suspect a fake -- I'm not thinking that someone's money is being ripped off -- but from a desire to define correctly an artist's body of work."


Pub Date: 9/29/96