If you own a painting that has not been authenticated and you want to sell it, insure it or donate it in exchange for a tax deduction, you need to show that it is indeed an original and authentic work by the artist. Likewise, if you are considering buying a painting or accepting one as having a certain value; for example in an estate equitable distribution situation, or in a divorce settlement; you should make absolutely sure that the painting you are paying for, or accepting as having a given value, is indeed the valuable artwork it is supposed to be.
It is unclear to most people; indeed even to many gallery owners, art appraisers, art professors and other art professionals; how authentications are really done. If you were to ask most of them you would hear some vague statements about brushstrokes and provenance.
The fact is that art authentication is not taught in any college or school. Very little has been written about it in terms of systematic approach and methodologies. Although the press likes to publish accounts about “cutting edge" technology used in authentication, the reality is that tests almost never authenticate art. What materials tests generally achieve is to show that a painting is not a recent forgery. Tests exclude a few things. The Rembrandt Research Projects labored for 40 years with unlimited access to the world’s most advanced technology. In the end, here is what these most eminent authenticators declared: “using x-ray and other radiographic methods, experts on the analysis of grounds and other paint samples, and the analysis of wood supports and canvas, demonstrated that, so far, the results of these research methods applied to Rembrandt had yielded little of significance for the determination of authenticity."
There you have it “Little of significance for the determination of authenticity". Of course, the little labs charging a few thousand dollars for their tests would like you to believe that testing the materials is the way to go. The reality is that hundreds of clients come to us with their pigment analyses and their X-rays and their infrared reflectographies because having spent $10,000 on these tests they still don’t know if their paintings are authentic.
Some tests are useful, sometimes, when you want to check something specific, when there is a particular reason, a precise purpose for a given test. When this is the case, of course we use these tests. By and large though, as the group of Rembrandt experts observed, authenticity is not determined in a lab but rather in a library and in front of the painting or examining and comparing high resolution photos of it, possibly with the assistance of specialized digital image analysis software.
What about family experts? Art expertise is not transmitted by DNA. Do you think the grandson could fly an aircraft because his grandfather was a pilot? Well, the situation is about the same when it comes to authenticating painting of the grandfather.
What about Foundations? The truth is that artists Foundations are not created for the public good or for the greater glory of the deceased artist but to help the family and interested dealers make more money and protect their investments by trying to control and manipulate the market for the artist. Obviously some Foundations are more competent and more honest than others. The reason auctioneers like Foundations is that it places the responsibility for authenticity on the Foundations.
Our recommendation is that you go to a Foundation once you have determined that the work is authentic. Present your entire case. Make it difficult or impossible for the Foundation to reject your painting. Don’t apply for an opinion like a willing victim with your hands and feet already tied. Show that you have done your homework, that you know your painting is authentic, that all the analyses and research have already been done. You present a solid case, most of the time they will agree and confirm authenticity.
What about the bogus authenticators advertising their “secret methods" or “secret computer technology". It sounds like the Fast Food secret sauce. It will probably come but for now computers don’t authenticate paintings yet and no, sorry, there are no “secret methods".
There is much more to be said about authenticating paintings and works of art but we can discuss it when you call, after we see the photos and get an idea of what you have and what we need to do to help you.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-461-3260 for more information.