Authencity: The dangers of giving (or not) an opinion

In a thriving art market where works have been selling at high prices at auction (note the $199.8 total for a Modern and Contemporary Sale held last month at Sotheby’s), where blockbuster shows witness ticket hawking and long lines (the London National Gallery’s “Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” comes to mind), the finest art means very fine value to its owners. With such high sums at stake, those seeking a stamp of authenticity from foundations and academics are less than inclined to accept “attributed to X” for an answer.

In “The law vs scholarship,” Georgina Adam and Riah Pryor cite, “a growing fear among experts that they might be sued for giving their opinion” (The Art Newspaper, December 2011). Using the recent examples of a contested group of Degas plasters and a large group of drawings thought by some to be done by Francis Bacon, they voice concern that art collectors’ willingness – even eagerness, they suggest – to sue experts over undesired answers discourages scholarship.

Even after disbanding in the 1990’s upon completion of the catalogue raisonné, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation has been sued over a number of works; recently, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Board was sued by the owner of Fuego Flores (1983), and given the choice of reaching a decision as to the work’s authenticity or paying up to $5m in damages. And who can forget that the Andy Warhol committee just called it quits, after being the subject of so many lawsuits.

This inclination to sue is dangerous. Aside from racking up high legal fees for scholars pursuing important, widely beneficial research, it turns the world of art scholarship and buying into a carnival sideshow. Although no one can be naïve enough to disassociate art from its value these days, we should try to uphold some shred of dignity for our art, our experts, and ourselves. Lawsuits should not be seen as a valid avenue to the authentication of an artwork, no matter its cost or potential value. Catalogue raisonné authors or artist board members should not suffer nightmares featuring a collector advancing, art in one hand and a legal threat in the other.

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