Q: What do Caravaggio, Brett Whiteley and Led Zeppelin have in common?

13 04 2016

Yes, it’s time to clean out the attic. Never know what might be hiding up there. Like, say, a Caravaggio or two.

A leaky roof for most of us = ouchy plumbing bills. But for happy home owners in Marseilles, the leaky roof translated to good times. 100+ Euros of good times, to be precise. What looks to be a stunning, hitherto unknown, masterpiece by the Baroque Italian painter, Caravaggio, was propping up the rafters in a hidden space in their roof.

Whoo-hoo to them.

What interests me, though, is that experts are split on whether or not it’s a signature piece by the Italian master. Here’s the thing – Flemish artist Louis Finson lived in Naples at the same time as Caravaggio, where he became one of the first ‘Caravaggisti’. The ‘Caravaggisti’ followed Caravaggio’s style. Closely. As in, very closely. As in, to learn his technique, they copied his paintings. Down to the exact brushstrokes.

One thing I have not seen referred to in all the news reports is this: a painting by Louis Finson from the Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo… Judith Beheading Holofernes The painting was featured in an 2013 exhibition in Naples entitled, ‘Judith beheading Holofernes: Louis Finson’s interpretation of Caravaggio.’

I recalled the Finson painting and its similarity with the newly revealed Caravaggio as soon as I started browsing the papers this morning. ‘Similarity’ is an understatement. As for the Naples exhibition title: ‘Finson’s interpretation of Caravaggio’? Well, I think to describe it as an ‘interpretation’ is fairly generous. Play ‘spot the difference’ with the two. It’s fun!

No doubt if I made the connection over my morning Weetbix, it has already been discussed ad infinitum in Baroque academic circles. But what fascinates me is that the connection hasn’t been spoken of in general commentary, other than the fact that there are eminent experts who believe the newly revealed painting is not by Caravaggio, but is another example of a copy painted by Finson.

It does seem odd that it has not been mentioned – given that the acknowledged Finson has been touted as a copy of an original Caravaggio that was lost and now, presumably, has been found. I would have thought the existence of the Finson copy would reinforce the authenticity of the Caravaggio. But I’ll leave those arguments up to the Baroque experts. Not my field by a long shot.

The only reason I can think of that the Finson copy hasn’t been mentioned in general discussions of the new find is that it is thought that it would muddy the waters. You see, this is heading into a very grey and murky place. Elsewhere I’ve played with the idea of fakes vs forgeries. And at the moment, right in our backyard, we have a brouhaha of our very own going on, featuring Peter Gant and conservator Aman Siddique and a very unfortunate series of paintings attributed to Australian painter Brett Whiteley.

I won’t go into the details here. But Defense barrister, Trevor Wraight QC, rightly observed in court that it is not illegal to copy a work of art. And he would be correct. In fact, it is also fair to state that there is a long and very well-established tradition of artists copying other artists’ work, not necessarily as a means of deceiving purchasers. See: Louis Finson above. It only gets messy/illegal/wrong when people who know that a work of art is one thing attempt to sell it as something else and gain a financial benefit through that sale. Knowingly selling something that is misattributed to make a profit is very, very naughty. But what if you do so unwittingly?

It looks like we’ll need to rely on the consensus of experts to determine whether or not the newly discovered painting is, or is not, by Caravaggio. When it comes down to it, expertise and connoisseurship are not science; they are opinion-based. S0 you can be guaranteed it will be a majority ruling, not complete consensus.

As I say, it’s all very, very murky.

But in a world that is still fixated on concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’, huge sums of money are placed at risk when a work of art’s authenticity is challenged. This is true even when such concepts are, for many contemporary artists, archaic, arcane and redundant to their practice.

But the stakes are very high. Just ask Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

PS: Completely irrelevant aside here, but when did Jimmy Page start channeling Karl Lagerfeld?


Hurty Art Market Fact #4: Contrary to popular belief, art does not always go up in value.

29 10 2010

Prompted by a comment left by Megan (another Megan – not ‘Meaghan’ me – too many Meaghans spoil the broth) on an earlier post, I decided to undertake a little exercise to test whether her very generous assessment of my prophetic skills was on the money, so to speak. Because, as much as I’m delighted to accept random and baseless compliments, I do like to test whether said flattery is justified.

One of the many things I looked at in my PhD was repeat sales of artworks at auction, to determine price movements for particular artists. It was fun. What can I say? I have a strange attraction to Excel spreadsheets and formulae – something my year 12 mathematics teacher would likely find surprising. Nowadays, I still keep a close eye on the things that pass through auction in Australia, and my ongoing research interest is in tracking and documenting the crazy alchemy that turns art into money. One of my conclusions is that there is absolutely no guarantee that a work of art bought at auction will rise in value, and sudden and rather dramatic drops in price are not at all uncommon. In the case of an artwork acquired from a commercial gallery, the likelihood of it increasing in value is minute.

But back to Megan’s assessment. I decided it was high time I revisited some of my old friends – artists whose prices skyrocketed during the art market boom that ran from 1998/9 to 2007. Below is a chart that shows a few repeat sales of the same artworks by some of the boom’s biggest hitters. To explain the figures – I started with the hammer price plus premium, which is presumably the total price paid by a buyer to the auction house for that painting. Then, I adjusted that amount, compounding annually, to account for inflation, working out the adjusted value of the original purchase price for the year in which the painting next appeared at auction. Next, I estimated the net amount that went to the seller at the second auction appearance. This amount is the hammer price, less an estimated 15% seller’s commission. I then worked out the difference between the adjusted purchase price and the net amount that went to the seller. Using the first example from the chart to explain this further, somebody paid a total of $2,040,000 for Brack’s Backs and Fronts in 2007. When that person sold it in 2010, they netted $1,530,000. Once you take into account the effect of inflation on the 2007 purchase price, this amounts to an adjusted, real loss of $774,968. Ouch. In the case of the John Olsen painting, The Afternoon Walk, it was resold three times between 2003 and 2009, registering a significant loss each time. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Oh, all these sales took place at one or more of the Menzies branches.

Yes, we are in the midst of a global financial maelstrom. Yes, under those conditions we would expect to see the value of many investments fall, particularly those that were acquired at the height of the boom. Still… Ouch!

A Whiteley-Wash? Questions Asked About Yet Another Significant Australian Painting

19 07 2010

The suspected fake <i>Orange Lavender Bay</i>.

Only yesterday, the air in Sydney was filled with the fug of burning fakes. Yes – in fine Australian form, the three artworks that were determined to be fakes in a landmark Victorian Supreme Court case last month were tossed onto the barbie by artists Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson and turned into so much worthless charcoal. But proving the popular wisdom that it’s not always just the cream that floats to the surface, yet another questionable painting has bobbed into view. In an article published in The Age today, journalist Gabriella Coslovich reveals that a painting by Brett Whiteley that would qualify as significant if it were authentic (above), may well be yet another example of what is often euphemistically described as ‘problematic’.

It is reported that Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett of the University of Melbourne was given the painting for testing by a Sydney collector who had been advised by Whiteley’s widow that she believed it to be a fake. The monumental painting measures 121 x 215 cms, and changed hands at a cost of $1.1 million, and according to the article, testing revealed that the paint used in the painting did not ‘behave’ like paint that was 22 years old. Although Victoria Police launched an investigation, the collector has subsequently withdrawn his complaint after receiving a full refund with interest and costs. No mention is made of the whereabouts of the painting now, and there is a suggestion that there are two other major Whiteley fakes/forgeries in the hands of collectors that came from the same source.

Robyn Sloggett has estimated that 10% of the paintings circulating in the art market, both in Australia and internationally, are misattributed. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean all of these are forgeries… at which point I should offer a brief definition or two. A forgery is an artwork deliberately made with the intention of deceiving a buyer; a fake is a work of art that, somewhere along the way, has been misattributed to another artist. So if I were to source paper from the 1950s and put together a Blackman Schoolgirls charcoal drawing, sign it ‘Blackman’, and submit it for auction as a Blackman, that object is a forgery. But if an art student decided he or she wanted to learn from Blackman’s style, and produced a series of drawings that closely replicated the senior artist’s work, and at some point those drawings found themselves on the open market where a keen auction house representative innocently attributed them to Blackman and entered them in the catalogue as such, these would be fakes. This is why the painting at the NGV formerly attributed to Van Gogh is a fake, not a forgery. Whoever did make that painting did not intend for us to think it was by the Dutch master.

Of course, fakes can also become forgeries – for example, if an unscrupulous individual discoverers the folio of drawings in the style of Blackman, adds a Blackman signature, and then submits them to an auction house for sale as Blackmans, these become forgeries. This happens. In fact, it happened to me once. A small, unsigned drawing in the style of a very well-known Australian artist passed through a Leonard Joel weekly auction when I was running the art department. It was brought back to the auction house some time later, although this time it had a signature, and the seller wanted it offered for sale as an authentic work by that artist. And here’s a conundrum for you to contemplate – what if the small, unsigned drawing really was by said artist, which it could have been? What does the addition of a forged signature do to its authenticity?

The only reason the aforementioned drawing didn’t end up offered for sale as an authentic work was because I remembered it from the weekly auction. In an auction house, where specialists can see hundreds if not thousands of artworks a week, when dealing with relatively modest artworks at the low end of the market, it’s not financially viable to undertake exhaustive research to confirm that a $1,200 drawing has a secure provenance. It’s customary to take a seller’s representations about provenance and ownership at face value. Although there are slip-ups on the part of people trying to sell questionable artworks. My favourite example was when someone bought me a painting that was purported to be by the Melbourne painter, Bill Coleman. I took one, very quick, look at it and declared it a forgery. The would-be seller was indignant and asked me how I knew. I responded with some gobbledy-gook about stylistic inconsistencies because my gut told me that this person knew exactly what he was doing and I didn’t want to point out what was an obvious error that would, I hoped, be obvious to anyone else who looked at the artwork. The problem? ‘Coleman’ was spelt ‘Colleman’.

This highlights some big issues in the world of fakes/forgeries. For one thing, the market in dodgy artworks is not limited to the top end of the market. Even if it had been authentic, the Coleman painting would only have been worth $900 or so. Artworks at this end of the market are barely scrutinised under normal circumstances, whereas significant paintings are usually expected to have a secure provenance (exhibition history etc.). But the matter of greatest concern is that dodgy artworks generally are reabsorbed into the darkest depths of the market. The destruction of the Blackman and Dickerson fakes is, to date, an exception to the rule – even where a painting is determined beyond doubt to be inauthentic, after refunds and restitution are paid to the buyer, the original seller gets the artwork back. This is the case with the Whiteley Lavender Bay painting discussed in The Age today. The painting has been returned to the seller, and even if he or she never intends to offer it for sale, what happens in thirty years’ time when all this has been forgotten?

(image: ‘Orange Lavender Bay’, sold as a Brett Whiteley painting; via The Age)