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July 15, 2014

ARCA '14 Art Crime Conference: Tanya Starrett on "What’s wrong with this picture? Standards and issues of connoisseurship"

Tanya Pia Starrett (left) presenting on panel chaired by
ARCA founder Noah Charney (right)
Tanya Pia Starrett, a Solicitor from Glasgow living in Umbria, presented on "What's wrong with this picture" Standards and Issues of Connoisseurship" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference in Amelia on June 29. Ms. Starrett holds masters degrees in archaeology and history and is a freelance translator.

Ms. Starrett discussed issues surrounding authentication in art, restitution of cultural property, and the standards and issues on art connoisseurship (excerpts follow):
The debate is thus: The law can, to a certain extent, determine who owns a work of art but it is the art connoisseurs and scientists who will determine what you actually own. 
Within this fascinating field of study a key issue is the perception of a widening gulf in the area of authentication research between advancing scientific methods and connoisseurs who still tend to defer to the trained eye as final arbiter.... 
These tensions continue today as noted by Milko den Leeuw, painting conservator who founded the Atelier for Restoration & Research of Paintings (ARRS) in 1991 and Dr. Jane Sharp, Associated Professor of Art History at Rutgers University in their post on the AiA ( site dated 26/09/13 where they state that this tension ‘is mainly the result of a clash between the conservative opinion-based art industry and the latest offspring of the academic fields of forensic methodology and protocols. The confrontation…has been magnified in several lawsuits in Europe and America. This is a moment of extraordinary challenge in the history of authentication research’. While science and scientific methods have indeed become valuable tools within art, there is still an ongoing debate surrounding its application and validity. These debates often flair up when high profile cases grab the attention of the media. They, in turn, raise valid issues and generate debates that often shape discussions surrounding standards and issues of connoisseurship. The following case studies serve to introduce some of these tensions and debates. 
In the case of the Monet oil painting 'Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil' , the Art Access and Research (AA&R) Centre was asked to undertake technical imaging and paint analysis. These tests showed technical details consistent with Monet’s authorship, including an extensive palette and use of a charcoal under drawing. The process was the subject of a BBC TV programme (Fake and Fortune 2011) which heightened interest in the case. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, regarded as the court of final appeal for Monet, concluded it was a fake. And at time of writing, the painting is currently in the French courts. 
In the art world, Monet means money. However, in order to make millions, paintings thought to be by Monet must have been accepted into the official register; the catalogue raisonné – a publication which lists every acknowledged Monet in existence. The catalogue is published by the Wildenstein family of art collectors and art dealers....   established by Nathan Wildenstein in the 1870’s, a tailor who became an art dealer and it continues today. On their own website they state that their aim and mission is ‘promoting knowledge in and of French art’. It could be argued that as they work with an array of French artists, not just Monet, perhaps their knowledge is just a bit too general to have a definitive expertise on one, particular artist. The Wildenstein publishers of the catalogue raisonné, and therefore the arbiters of authentication in the Monet case, have so far refused to admit the work for reasons best known to themselves, despite the agreement of other scholars that this painting is genuine. Based on this example some leading UK art experts have called for a committee of scholars to replace the high-handed authoritarianism of the Wildenstein Institute. The absolute crux of this debate, is by what authority, legitimacy or indeed legal capacity do these art committees work from? Moreover, in a wider context, why as a society do we accept this? What’s the point of having ever advanced science and effective technology, that we are forever impressed by, if the evidence it produces is not taken as legitimate or indeed, worse, simply ignored. Who has the authority over the other? And who decides that? Who is in the eyes of the law is the definitive expert? 
SCIENCE YES, CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ YES Degas – Blue Dancer This was the case of a Degas painting entitled the ‘Blue Dancer’. This had been declared a fake in the 1950s by a leading Degas expert. The turmoil of World War II served as the perfect distraction for creating art forgeries, and doubts regarding the authenticity of “Blue Dancer” came from the lack of detail in the dancer’s face, the informality of her pose, and the brushwork on the heads of the double bass that rise up in the foreground in front of the dancer. Later still Professor Theodore Reff, an expert on Degas from Columbia University in New York, had twice been asked by Christie’s, the auctioneer, to examine the piece and twice decided it was not genuine. The painting, owned by Patrick Rice, was sent to an art forensics lab to examine the pigments. Titanium in the white could have indicated a forgery, as the metal was only used in paint after Degas’s death. Favourably, however, the main elements were found to be lead. A ballerina also recreated the painted dancer’s pose, resulting in an almost exact replica of her raised first position arms. Through these findings, the “Blue Dancer” regained Degas status and was accepted into the Degas raisonné, not the Wildenstein Institute I hasten to add who do not include Degas in their repertoire, but the one by Brame, Philippe, Reiff, et all raising its value from a diminished couple of hundred pounds to about £500,000 ($813,000). Again, why do some custodians of certain catalogue raisonnés appear more open to scientific evidence than others?
MARC CHAGALL – SPOT THE DIFFERENCE? The previous examples help to illustrate how science and connoisseurship can arrive at different conclusions over authenticity while also highlighting how scientific evidence is received and acted upon. It is interesting to note, however, that equally heated debates can still be aroused when science and connoisseurship appear to reach similar conclusions over authenticity. And this was the case with a disputed painting of a nude purportedly painted by Marc Chagall in 1909/10. 
SCIENCE AND CONNOISSEURSHIP IN HARMONY However, after in depth research on the painting’s provenance and scientific testing, The Reclining Nude 1909-1910 was found to be fake. Although painted in gouache, which Chagall frequently used, the pigments of the paint were dated to be a lot later than 1909 or 1910 and its first owner, the dancer ‘Kavarska’, could not be traced either. This picture was then sent to the Chagall Committee in Paris, led by the artist’s granddaughters, who confirmed the painting was not genuine. They stated it was purely an imitation of the authentic Reclining Nude (1911) by Chagall. As a result they demanded, under French law, that it be seized and destroyed, an extremely rare occurrence in the art world. And to date at time of writing and to the best of my knowledge the painting has yet to be destroyed. 
In the case of the Chagall painting Professor Robin Clark, from UCL, (University College London) has pointed out that this Ramon Microscopy technique, used to determine it was a fake, had been known to Sotheby’s Auction House since 1992 so the painting could, in theory, have been exposed as a fake any time in the last 20 years. In the event, the confirmation that it was a fake took place in his lab in July 2013 in the presence of its owners. This showed that at least two of the key pigments used were dated to the late 1930s long after the supposed date of 1909-10. 
The publicity that this case generated prompted Robin Clark to write in a leading UK national newspaper, The Telegraph, questioning the relationship between art and science and expressing particular concern over the art world’s failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques. He also suggested that art historians should be encouraged to read science journals so they are informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. 
In part, his pleas could be seen as reasonable. Auctioneers can only submit works for technical analysis with the owner’s permission. With the possibility that these tests could then disqualify the painting as genuine it is not surprising that many owners will not give this permission. Another key issue concerns art dealers. When dealers buy at auction and then restore or analyse a work, they are not required by law, when selling works, to disclose which, if any tests, had been carried out. That said some have begun to question how these scientific methods are being used and applied. 
Writing on the artwatch UK blog in March 2014, for instance, Michael Daley acknowledged that while Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public when used to present speculative and digitally manipulated reconstructions supposedly showing art in its original condition. He cites, for instance, the example of a project to restore a set of faded paintings by Mark Rothko, that were painted for the dining room of the Holyoke Centre, built by Harvard University in 1966. After just 15 years, however, they had faded so badly that they were consigned to a darkened basement for their own protection. Worse still the photos that were taken of them when new had also faded. As these photos are largely the basis for the restoration project, Daley concludes that, ‘however well intentioned the project and its scientific methodology is, it will only ever produce a varying yet, ultimately false, version of the original. There are just so many variables. 
When researching these case studies for this paper I was struck by the differences and issues each one brought to the fore. The role of connoisseurs’, competing interests within the art market, the trained eye supporting or disagreeing with science, lack of regulation etc. It’s not surprising then that Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research Centre), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”... 
LESSONS FROM THE CASE STUDIES Some of these high profile cases have helped to expose the absurdity of the art market, where paintings, ostensibly by famous artists, are traded almost always as speculative investments. It is not the aesthetic value of a painting which decides whether it is worth millions, but the question of whether it was produced by a known and fashionable artist. Like any free market, the art market, is based on confidence or arguably over confidence. How confident people are about a certain painting or art institute and the people who write the raisonnnés, to some extent is very similar to that of the financial market. Science, it could be suggested, has more of a foothold in the lesser valuable works of art where there are perhaps no ‘go to’ art committees or art experts. Its obviously easier for an auction house or owner if there’s a ‘go to’ art institute for one particular artist, it is more convenient and arguably cheaper if scientific tests are not seen as appropriate. There is some optimism however, that we are seeing a bridging of the gap. One good example of this is The Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association which was founded in 1994. It serves the interests of scholars and others engaged in the catalogue raisonné process. Members typically research a single artist’s body of work to establish a reliable list of authentic works, their chronology, and history (usually including provenance, bibliographic, and exhibition histories). Members include patrons, collectors, art dealers, attorneys, and software designers. Increasingly they are publishing Catalogue Raisonnés online to make accessing them easier and more widely available. This then encourages greater debate and perhaps transparency in the area of authentication.