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?

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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)





Bonfire of the Vanities: Blackman and Dickerson artworks determined to be fake and ordered destroyed

1 06 2010

Street Scene with Schoolgirl, supposedly by Charles Blackman.A small but portentous victory for artists and art buyers alike today, with the ruling of Justice Peter Vickery that three works of art by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson are forgeries and must be destroyed. The artworks, one of which is illustrated at left, were sold by art dealer, Peter Gant, although the court found that Gant did not know the works were fakes or that he had acted improperly. The case was brought against Gant by Dickerson and Blackman in the Victorian Supreme Court, their lawyers claiming that the fake artworks damaged the artists’ reputations by “‘occasioning uncertainty in the market and damage to the financial value of the artistic works owned by each plaintiff.” Gant has spoken in the past about how easy it is for a dealer to be caught out by a dodgy artwork – in a 1999 Four Corners program, Rogue’s Gallery, (as an aside, the transcript makes fascinating reading) in response to the question “You’ve been caught with duds?”, Gant responded “Oh yeah, I don’t know any dealers that haven’t.” A trap for young players, it would seem.

This has major implications for the market as it gives great weight to the value of connoisseurship when determining whether or not a work of art is authentic. It also highlights something I’ve been banging on about for a while, and that is that the most successful forgeries are those that appear in the lower half of the art market. To attempt to fake a significant painting is difficult – catalogues and records from exhibitions during an artist’s lifetime can be reasonably easily accessed to determine whether or not a major work is authentic, and artists’ records and personal recollections will be fairly reliable when it comes to ‘hero’ artworks. But when it comes to minor pieces – such as the works soon to be incinerated – it’s another matter altogether. Two of the Blackman fakes were sold to a buyer for $13,500 – no small amount in a general sense, but small change in the art market. Sales at this level rarely attract the level of scrutiny dedicated to sales at the top end of the market.

Prepare for some pretty significant fall-out.

(image: http://www.theage.com.au)