The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts

The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts

The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts

The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts


The authenticity of visual art has always commanded the attention of experts, dealers, collectors, and the art-minded public. Is it "real" or "original" is a way of asking what am I buying? What do I own? What am I looking at? And today more sophisticated questions are being asked: How is authenticity determined and what weight does this determination have in court? This book of essays proposes to answer those questions. Three lines of inquiry are basic to determining authenticity: a connoisseur's evaluation, historical documentation or provenance, and scientific testing. A connoisseur is an expert who evaluates the "rightness" of a work based on much careful scrutiny of many works by an artist and familiarity with that artist's usual manner of working with materials. In determining provenance, a researcher traces the physical object from the artist through a chain of ownership to the present owner--simple enough in concept, though it assumes that the documentation is not faked or inaccurate. The goal is to ensure that the object is the same one that left the artist's hand. Scientific testing, although sometimes useful, is often longer on promise than result. Dating paint or wood samples, for instance, can show that a painting was made in Rembrandt's lifetime, but it cannot prove that it is by Rembrandt's hand. If expert opinion is divided, and large sums of money are involved, a dispute over authenticity may end up in a court of law, where evaluation of expert opinion evidence can be problematic. The essays in this book clarify the nature of the methods outlined above and explain, based on case law, the present status of authentication issues in court. Contributors include experts from Christie's, London; Sotheby's, New York; and the former director of the Frick Collection; as well as leading art historians and art dealers; an art conservator; a forensic graphologist; a philanthropist and collector; and a specialist in French art law. Their collective knowledge on issues of authenticity will be invaluable for anyone interested in the world of visual art.


The problem of attributions for works of art poses a curious paradox. It can be a very complex issue involving questions of ethics, connoisseurship, and even politics. On the other hand, it is the simplest matter one can face—a work is either genuine or fake, either by the artist in question or not by him or her. This book is an attempt to answer the question “How do you know?”

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg displays two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, only one of which is considered his own work by a consensus of scholars in the field (the Benois Madonna). The other is probably by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio or some other painter in Leonardo's circle. It is too politically sensitive to challenge the attribution officially in Russia, so hordes of tourists see the two Leonardos they have been promised.

One of the key scholarly tools for judging the authenticity of paintings and drawings by well-known artists is the catalogue raisonné. Usually written by a respected scholar who has spent a lifetime studying an artist's work, these catalogues are often extensively reviewed and picked apart by other qualified experts, and become respected for their accuracy or notorious for their mistakes and unreliability.

In Europe, where heirs of an artist usually inherit the so-called droit moral, which includes a legal right to declare authentic or denounce as spurious any work purporting to have been made by their deceased relative, numerous tales of fraud are told whereby these heirs certify and promote for sale pieces which are later demoted, sometimes with the unwitting collaboration of the artist's primary dealer. André Derain and Fernand Léger are two artists to whom this has happened, to the detriment of their posthumous reputations.

In the case of Old Master paintings and drawings, the old-fashioned mechanism of authentication was a written “certificate” from an academic authority. Before World War II, so abused was this tradition that it became a source of essential income for grossly underpaid professors. No one but the naïve believed in these “certificates, ” usually written in ambiguous phrases, unless . . .

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