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?


Copyright or wrong?

10 04 2013

On the left: Claudio Capotondi, ‘Sferosnodo’, 1983. On the right: copy of ‘Sferosnodo’ outside Kunshan station, China. Image via The Art Newspaper (www.theartnewspaper.com)

I’m sure I’ve used that headline before. Actually, I know I have. But it’s too good to resist. Besides which – it was two years ago, and more of a subheading than a headline.

Anyway, another to add to my ongoing file of copyright/authorship conundrums… (a couple more linked here and here).

According to The Art Newspaper (TAN), Italian artist Claudio Capotondi has made inroads into the Chinese art world. A version of the work he produced in 1978, Sferosnodo, was selected for permanent display at the front of a station in the city of Kunshan, China.

The only catch? Capotondi had nothing to do with the creation of the sculpture on display in China. It is much larger than the artist’s own work, which he first made in bronze in 1978, and again in marble in  1983. He also had no idea the gargantuan version was being made.

But now here’s the mind-bending thing. Think about ‘authorship’ and what you think it means in the context of fine art. Well, Capotondi is now campaigning to have the new version attributed to him. Although I had a look, and it appears that his website is now offline, according to TAN, Capotondi lists the sculpture as his own on his site. He has also said that he admires the work. “There are excellent craftsmen over there. It is a complex structure and the copy is much bigger than my original.”

So according to this, blatant plagiarism can result in a work of art for which an artist can claim authorship, even if he or she had no idea it was being made, far less any involvement with its creation.

OK. So, does that mean that Gucci is going to claim authorship for the dodgy knock-off handbags sold in the streets? Unlikely, because they wouldn’t want to acknowledge such shoddy craftsmanship. Not to mention, their trade relies on the premise of ‘exclusivity’. Does that mean artists will claim authorship of a stolen design only if the object produced measures up to their exacting standards? And does that mean that if I were to whip up a completely excellent Damian Hirst, that he would claim authorship, and I’d be in possession of an original Damian Hirst, rather than a derivative Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios? Of course, there are laws in Australia and internationally that would make the latter scenario more complicated. But I’m talking theoretically.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

When too many cooks don’t necessarily spoil the broth…

21 02 2013

ImageQuick post today with a link to a great article by a board member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dr Luther Brady, in which he compares art authentication with the approaches used for medical science.

It struck a chord with me. I’ve been thinking about similar things myself recently. In an email response to a query from a friend recently, I wrote the following: 

My overall response to all your questions is that painting authentication is an inexact science. Given the number of people making a living out of playing the system and doing a good job of making forgeries that include all of the things that experts use to authenticate works of art, it is impossible for anyone to be 100% right 100% of the time. It all comes down to terminology – if the term ‘authentication’ is used, there is an assumption that an objective and scientific rigour has been applied to assessing authorship.
Taking a different perspective – let’s think about it in the context of medical science. You have a sore gut and go to your GP. The GP offers an expert opinion about what may be wrong with you and provides suitable remedies and prescriptions. A week later, you’re still unwell, so you return – ie: your GP was wrong. GP sends you to a specialist, who also offers an opinion. Another week later, still sick (ie: your specialist was also wrong in the expert opinion she formed), you head back to the specialist, who recommends a biopsy. In the lab, what’s really bothering you is identified and a course of treatment plotted out. Lesson from this, as in the art world – no expert is ever 100% right 100% of the time. But the art world is particularly tricky as you have unscrupulous people setting things up to also fool the scientists in the lab, as well as fabricating ‘symptoms’ (provenance etc) to deliberately fool experts.
The most effective way to authenticate a painting is to combine all three approaches – connoisseurship (expert knowledge of an artist’s ‘hand’), scholarship (examination of the historical record) and scientific examination. If all three boxes are ticked, there’s a better-than-most chance that the work of art is OK. But it’s still not 100%. There are too many variables.

When is a fake not a fake?

18 01 2013

Sounds like a philosophical conundrum along the lines of “when a tree falls in a distant forest etc”, doesn’t it? But the answer is quite straight-forward. Context –  I was having a conversation with a very well-connected art-world friend yesterday, and we were bemoaning the misuse of terminology when people refer to questionable works of art.

It’s really simple.

‘Forgery’: a work of art made to deceive.

‘Fake’: a work of art which has been identified as misattributed (credited to the wrong artist), but not in a way that was deliberately intended to deceive.

So the terminology is very simple to grasp.


Wolfgang Beltracchi with the forged Heinrich Campendonk painting sold at auction in 2006 for $3.6 million. (Image via Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com)

Example of a forgery: the paintings made by German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi in the manner of modern masters including Léger and Ernst. He fabricated two bogus collections – the ‘Knops’ and ‘Jägers’ – to give his forgeries a provenance and managed to dupe many prominent experts and collectors including comedian and writer, Steve Martin. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison in October 2011 for forging fourteen paintings worth $45 million (the whole messy saga is documented in an extensive article in Vanity Fair, which you can find… here.)

No question at all that the paintings Beltracchi made – and it’s suspected that he may have made many thousands that have yet to be (and most likely will never be) detected – were forgeries.


Gerard Vaughan, former Director of the NGV, with the Gallery’s fake Van Gogh painting. (Image via http://www.theage.com.au)

Example of a fake: I’m always pulling this one out as an example, but it’s so clear-cut it’s hard to resist. The National Gallery of Victoria’s painting-formally-known-as-Van-Gogh. It had been in the NGV collection as a work by the Dutch master since 1940, but in 2007, the Van Gogh Museum questioned its attribution, and declared it to have been made by hands other than Van Gogh’s. It was determined that it was made by one of his contemporaries, but that there was no intention to deceive by the misattribution. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. 

Sounds easy, right? Sadly, as is often the case in the art world, there are so many – certainly more than fifty! – shades of grey. Ponder the following:

  • The Picasso print I have seen that is an original. No doubt. But at some point in its history, some turkey has decided it needed a signature and edition number to make it more marketable (for that, read ‘more valuable’). So the print, which was issued without a signature or edition number, is, and remains authentic. But the pencil signature and edition number? Forged. What does that mean for the authenticity of the work of art as a whole? 
  • The lovely little unsigned ink drawing that passed through Leonard Joel’s weekly auction room while I was running the art department that may (or may not) have been an original Charles Blackman. But in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the vendor’s unwillingness to spend any time or money researching further, we had to give it the very wishy-washy, but safe, attribution ‘Australian School’. The drawing sold. Then reappeared a year and a half later. With the initials ‘C.B.’ inscribed on it in pencil. So we have what may – may – have been an original artwork, with a signature that was forged. What do you do with something like thImageat?
  • What about the very common practice of restoring or repairing a work of art, or completing an unfinished work? How much is too much when it comes to ‘fixing’ an existing work of art? Rumours abound in the Australian art world about frequent and startlingly audacious ‘reworkings’ of paintings by some of the country’s best-known artists. But this practice is nothing new. Dealer Joseph Duveen, who was one of the grand-daddies of the modern art market, was notorious for ‘touching up’ the Old Master paintings he sold to his American clients. He did so to ‘prettify’ them and make them more appealing to late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sensibilities. Witness the image here – Sebastiano Mainardi’s Portrait of a lady. On the right is the original image as crafted by Mainardi. The image on the left shows the painting as it appeared when sold to Andrew Mellon. Original/authentic or not?

I could go on ad infinitum. But I shan’t. I’ve bored you enough already. Suffice it to say it is a very, very fraught area.




One Moore questionable artwork withdrawn from auction.

9 02 2011

Oh, those puns just write themselves. In an article published in today’s Age, ‘Auction house fears sculpture may be less than a Moore’ (see what I mean?), Gabriella Coslovich reveals that a sculpture listed in Mossgreen’s latest catalogue as a work by acclaimed British sculptor, Henry Moore, may not be all that it seems. The image here, taken from The Age, shows the more Moore sculpture at left, and the less Moore sculpture on the right. Don’t worry. I’ll stop now.

Mossgreen is dispersing Melbourne-based painter Robert Doble’s collection of art, artefacts and ephemera on February 21. The sculpture formerly known as ‘Mother and Child‘, and now most likely referred to by Mossgreen staff as “that #*!*%!# piece of $#!*” was to have been the highlight of what is a very eclectic collection (have a peek at the online catalogue here). It has now been withdrawn from sale after revelations from an interested buyer that it may be a forgery. Coslovich refers to an article published in 1993 in The Independent that quotes the Henry Moore Foundation, which administers the artist’s estate; Julie Summers, deputy curator of the Foundation, says of the flood of Moore forgeries on the market: “It’s terrifying”.

Unfortunately for Robert Doble, mother-and-child compositions are the most often faked. The telltale signs of a forgery that’s been cast from an original work? The base on a forgery will be cast with the sculpture, whereas with the original, the sculpture will be attached separately to the base. Also, as the casting process causes the bronze to shrink during cooling, the forgery will be slightly smaller.

The biggest concern with this for the art world in general? These works continue to circulate. Robert Doble has indicated that he intends to give it to a friend as a 50th birthday gift. Although it’s unlikely to find its way back onto the market anytime soon, what about in ten or fifteen years or so, when all the fuss has died down? When I was at Leonard Joel, I once saw the wonderful Treena Joel (granddaughter of Leonard) write ‘FAKE’ across the back of a canvas that had been submitted for sale at Joel’s, and categorically proven to be a fake or forgery. Although I’m fairly sure that defacing someone else’s property like that could get you in trouble, I appreciate the sentiment.

In France, authorities are permitted to remove signatures from fake works of art. Here? Most of the time, they end up back in private hands only to resurface on the market in the future. That’s why I toasted the incineration of the notorious Blackman and Dickerson forgeries last year. Burn them. Burn them all!

(Image: ‘The Age’ online)

High-risk occupations: Tightrope walker. Stunt driver. Art valuer.

12 08 2010

During the course of a discussion over a lovely long lunch at Cicciolina in St Kilda yesterday with one of my favourite art-world people, it occurred to me that the shape of the industry as we know it is set to undergo some pretty major changes.

What set me off was my dining companion’s announcement that she is no longer going to produce written valuations of artworks. Her not at all unreasonable decision is a response to the legal ramifications of Justice Vickery’s findings in the recent case against Peter Gant. Although the media hype around the case focussed on the prevalence of fakes and forgeries in the Australian art market, for the industry the issue of greatest immediate concern is a precedent that seems to place much greater levels of legal responsibility in the hands of those who value art.

It goes a little something like this – Peter Gant supplied a valuation for three artworks by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson. The authenticity of these artworks was challenged by the artists, and Blackman and Dickerson took action against Gant, claiming he had breached section 9 of the Fair Trading Act, which holds that: ‘A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive’ (the case is very nicely summarised in a recent article in Art + Law by Moira C. McKenzie).

Gant stated in court that he had produced the written valuations in good faith, without any intent to deceive or mislead, and that his attribution of the works to the hands of those artists was made as a matter of expert opinion. Justice Vickery found that the intent of Gant as valuer was irrelevant, but that: ‘it is open to conclude that the valuations also contained an implicit representation of fact that each of the works in contention were authentic works, each having been created by one of the Plaintiffs.’ Most ominously for all valuers of Australian art, Justice Vickery also found that it mattered little whether or not Gant knew that the works he was selling were fakes; he deemed the misattribution and sale of the works to be ‘serious’ breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

My dining companion, who shall remain anonymous, has determined that the risk to her business and reputation is too great. Because, no matter how wise we are after the event and how many of us marvel at how on earth anyone could possibly ever have imagined that something proven to be a forgery or fake was ever authentic, the reality is that a huge number of dodgy artworks are circulating in the marketplace unnoticed. How many other art valuers are going to decide that the legal and financial risks associated with endorsing the authorship of a fake/forgery by providing a valuation are too great?

(Image: http://photos.ibibo.com)

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)