Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

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

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

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

Article excerpt

The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts Ronald D. Spencer, Ed. Oxford University Press, 2004. 241 pp. ISBN 019-514735-9.

This is a book for lawyers, art dealers, museum officials, collectors, auction house officials, and art historians who are directly involved in the art market. The editor (a lawyer) has assembled essays dealing with problems relating to scholarly attributions of works of art (Part I), and with legal disputes, often involving very large sums of money, arising over attributions (Part II). The foreword is by Eugene Victor Thaw (an art dealer and collector).

Part I, with the title "Authentication and Connoisseurship," contains writings by Francis V. O'Connor (scholar), Peter C. Sutton (museum official), Max Friedlander (scholar), John L. Tancock (auction house official), Michael Findlay (art dealer), Peter Kraus (rare book dealer), Eugene Thaw, Noel Annesley (auction house officials), Patricia Siegel (handwriting expert), Sharon Flescher (official of the International Foundation for Art Research), Samuel Sachs (museum official), and Rustin S. Levenson (conservator). Problems of attribution are dealt with from various standpoints ranging from connoisseurship/expertise to historical and scientific studies.

Part II, "Authentication and the Law," includes works by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. (museum official), Ronald Spencer, Van Kirk Reeves (lawyers). Case studies that are discussed involve rather complicated legal considerations, and for the most part, they cover attributions for modern artists, rather than for socalled Old Masters. In 2001, Gianni Mazzoni's book Quadri antichi del Novecento (the facetious title in English would be Old Master Paintings from the 20th Century) was published. Mazzoni shows how many paintings of the 20th century, particularly in the styles of the Sienese school of the 14th and 15th centuries, ended up in prestigious museums and private collections with attributions to famous artists of those earlier centuries, instead of with attributions to the 20th century artists who painted them (mainly Federico Joni and Bruno Marzi, among others). Mazzoni's work, which is exceptional in its revelations of false attributions on the part of experts, is not discussed by Spencer or the other authors in Part I.

In fact, expert opinion has considerable pitfalls. On p. 205, Spencer observes that "courts are generally confronted with con- noisseurs where opinions are in conflict." A very significant case of conflicting expert opinion involves a 14th century mural uncovered in 1980-1981 in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena (Italy), after it had been covered and hidden by a layer of plaster for a long time (perhaps several centuries). Famous, prestigious scholars attributed this painting to Simone Martini, Duccio, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Memmo di Filippuccio, leading Cecilia Jannella (1989, p. 63) to comment: "The observer may be surprised by this variety of attributions, especially since the artists mentioned are so different.... How disorienting ... when we learned art historians contradict one another so drastically?" From a practical standpoint, if attributions can be so uncertain and elusive among experts, specialists, and connoisseurs, how can lawyers, judges, and juries be expected to fare any better during court cases?

At the same time, consensus among experts does not guarantee accuracy. Mazzoni (2001, p. 65) has shown how consensus can result in the perpetuation of clamorous error in art history. One such example involves a painting in the Kress collection (sent to Trinity College, Hartford, CT), painted by Joni in the 20th century, but with an attribution to Ghirlandaio based on the expertise of Berenson, Fiocco, Longhi, Perkins, Suida, Fredericksen, and Zeri.

Problems of attribution are further aggravated by the state of conservation of works of art. Many Old Master paintings have been restored/repainted over the years to one degree or another, making it more difficult to come up with an accurate attribution. …

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