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FAQ's - Art Authentication
© 2003 ICAI, Inc.

What is authentic?
Something is authentic when the preponderance of knowledgeable people accepts it as such. There are individuals and institutions that confirm an imprimatur on works of art. A work exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has few questions asked regarding its authenticity. This is a result of reputation and expectation built primarily on scholarship and research. However, many museums do not have the resources or corporate culture to actively pursue any problems of authenticity. This leads to a cycle of regular controversy and relegation of items to the basement of many institutions. This type of reaction rather than a candid and open discussion does not solve the fundamental issues of what is authentic and how we should approach this question.

Many individuals have been confirmed as de facto authorities either by:

  • legal edict as is the case in France where the government often confirms heirs or designates as the legal authenticators of recently deceased artists. This has created many untenable and often anti-academic situations where substantially unqualified people with far too much of a personal stake in the outcome are determining the authenticity of works.
  • academic default - e.g. a graduate student in art history has completed a thesis on an artist that includes or attempts a catalogue raisonneé. The most recently published work will generally vault the person to the top of the preferred list of experts, at least in the eyes of the academic community.
  • operational default - Auction houses have their particular internal and external experts who have similar standards but a considerably different approach to authentication. The primary goal in these cases is to minimize research costs and to present works that will not cause a litigation problem if sold as...
  • self-proclamation and the "cult of the personality" - There are many people who are adept at self-promotion. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it is often difficult to sort out a sound educated opinion from spin.

All professionals should be prepared to discuss and provide in writing the bases for their opinions - not simply their opinions!

These expectations have led, in some cases, to a type of "cult of the personality".

The Relative Importance of Provenance
When asked by clients the most important factors in approaching an authentication our answer is usually - Provenance, provenance, provenance, and stylistic analysis, then technical/scientific analyses. This advice is more a reflection of the actual situation than what would be ideal in an objective assessment.

Most people do not do sufficient work to establish as firm a provenance as possible and thereby make the entire task more difficult. Provenance information is not hearsay; it must be verifiable through reputable sources and references or by direct testimony of relevant owners or agents. Written, signed and dated documents are desirable. Vague recollections and inaccurate information often have a strong negative impact on credibility.

If a verifiable provenance is established then further analysis is usually unnecessary.

What is the 'procedure' for authentication?
As indicated in the discussion of provenance doing everything reasonable (if not possible) on provenance is the first step in any authentication.

Stylistic or aesthetic assessment is always important in determining the authorship of a work and this must be done by persons who have actually seen a good number of known works of the target period or artist. Comparison of photographs, although a very common practice, is woefully inadequate and has led to considerable abuses.

The next step is a full "conservation and technology assessment". This is something that is rarely if ever done by art historians/curators who do not have the training to perform such an examination. However, it is the most valuable tool in determining the materials history of a work and often results in explicit and implicit dating information.

What is a "Conservation & Technology Assessment"?
"Technological" analyses are very useful for determining the relative ages of works of art. These analyses are really a set of complex observations regarding the materials and technology of a work of art (physical characteristics).

A thorough and proper conservation condition report is essential to:

  • fix the present state of a work of art in time
  • determine the history of interventions
  • determine the proportion of original materials to alterations
  • detect any potential preservation problems
  • detect datable physical characteristics of components or technologies
  • assess overall artist's technique, its variability and any potentially unique characteristics
  • determine the appropriateness of rheology (crack structure) to the expected age and treatment of materials
  • determine which chemical or physical analyses may be necessary or capable of assisting the authentication (analyses are routinely performed that do not answer any critical questions and often provide confusing if not contradictory data).

In recent years television programs featuring forensic detective work and sensational cases such as the Shroud of Turin have given the lay public the impression that questions of authenticity can be easily resolved using scientific methods. Nothing is farther from the truth. Science does indeed aid in answering relevant questions but those questions are extremely limited and only valuable when asked by extraordinarily experienced persons.

Procedure 1 - Preliminary Inspection / Preexamination
Before any decision to proceed with the full range of research and examination required to support authentication it is necessary to perform a preliminary examination of the work of art.

THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ACTUAL OBJECT! - However, since considerable expense and some physical risk is involved in transporting art, a pre-screening of potential works not available for direct inspection will be done at a minimum cost of US$250.00 per piece. Although this is nominally the same method as used by auction houses and dealers, ICAI, Inc., requires considerably higher quality photography in order to make even a cursory technical pre-assessment. In general, working with photos is highly inadequate. Therefore, the following photo and other specifications must be met:

  • 35mm color slides and / or 4" x 6" color prints
  • lighting
    - color matched to film color temperature
    - color temperature must be specified
    - 45E normal incidence or diffuse light - recto & verso raking light (low angle 3-5E) to accentuate all surface anomalies - recto verso optional)
  • dating - all photos must be dated either by hand (on the slide mount or back of the print) or with a dating camera back
  • internal color scale and measurement scale are optional but desirable
  • actual unframed dimensions of the work
  • any and all existing provenance
  • a written statement of why the authentication work is being requested
  • an unequivocal statement that the person making the request is the owner or authorized agent and that, to the best of their knowledge, the art work is not listed as stolen.
After examination of the photos and accompanying documentation a written statement of the advisability to proceed will be forwarded.

Digital photography may be used but only after details have been agreed upon by ICAI, Inc., staff.

Procedure 2 - Complete Examination
To proceed with a complete examination or work-up, the client must sign an agreement that includes acceptance of the "Terms & Conditions for Authentication Services".

The works of art must be formally received by ICAI, Inc. along with the required deposit.

It is understood that a minimum of 2 months will be required to complete any work and that the times may be considerably longer depending upon the degree of research necessary, prior commitments and present staff assignments. An association of top experts attached to various institutions does the work. Their time is often committed months in advance so, if specific analyses are required, individual completion estimates will be made.

All expenditures in excess of the US$1,000.00 minimum will be separately authorized by the owner/agent. A written proposal will generally be the means by which this is communicated.

Procedure 3 - Reporting Results
The end result of any examination is a complete report including recommendations to proceed. There are only four possible outcomes of any authentication activity and these are ranked below from the easiest to the most difficult:

1. THE WORK IS A "FAKE" - this terminology is used quite specifically to define a circumstance where there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead individuals or the public into believing a work of art is of a particular era or by the hand of a particular artist. Generally, these deceptions are relatively easy to spot. The reason for this is that there are many technique and material variables that have to be executed absolutely correctly for a work to be considered genuine and most counterfeiters only control or are aware of a few of these. However, some fakes are actually excellent works in and of themselves.

2. THE WORK IS A "COPY" - this refers to works that are deliberate copies of works. There is little or no need to attribute the work to a particular hand. A good example of this is the systematic copying of Chinese ceramics and scrolls by generations of artisans as an apprenticeship practice and as a means of paying tribute to past masters. There was originally no intent to deceive or mislead a potential owner or buyer. There may well be subsequent attempts to pass the objects off as genuine. It must also be remembered that western studio practice in painting and sculpture (basically until the 20th century) included the systematic copying of masterworks by apprentices and students.

3. THE WORK IS "AUTHENTIC" - the work of art is by a particular artist or from a specific region or historical period. This determination should almost invariably be accompanied by art historical analysis, technical/scientific analyses and a strong provenance. Even with excellent scholarship, analysis and provenance, claims of authenticity are often overstated -- 100% surety in most endeavors is not possible.

4. THE WORK IS "FROM A PARTICULAR SCHOOL OR PERIOD BUT FROM A LESSER KNOWN OR UNKNOWN ARTIST" - this is the most difficult category and, in many cases, it is not logically possible (given the limitations of scholarship and analytical techniques) to determine with high degree of specificity and confidence1, the exact authorship.

The final report will include:

  • all technical findings including those that reflective negatively on authenticity
  • a determination of the present level of confidence of the attribution
  • if the confidence of attribution is relatively low, recommendations for further work or steps to be taken will be made.

Should I have conservation work done during the authentication process?

The general answer to this question is no since there may be some loss of historically significant information. Also, in some circles, conservation intervention may be questioned as an attempt to hide relevant information.
Having given the general rule there are notable exceptions. Conservation work may be required to:

  • Prevent losses and damages from inherent or ongoing problems such as flaking, etc.
  • Permit an unbiased viewing of the painting in the event that the aesthetic values are so imbalanced by improper previous conservation/restoration, varnish deterioration or other factors that showing the painting to a selected expert, dealer or committee may indeed lead to its summary dismissal.

Choosing a Conservator
The choice of a conservator should never be made lightly. References should be requested and conservators should, at minimum, acknowledge and abide by the "Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice" published by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Cultural Works (AIC).

Conservation versus Restoration
There is a large difference between conservation & restoration. There are many differing points of view on this issue. Some of this divergence is due to the development of degree programs in conservation over the last 50 years. Prior to that time restorers (by definition) were apprentices in art studios or the artists themselves.

It is very clear from the development of modern conservation (beginning in World War II) that considerations of environment and preventive conservation were critical. It is also important to realize that the approaches and technologies inherent to conservation are often very different from those used and accepted by artists. That is indeed why conservation degree programs have flourished and why it is unwise for artists to be intimately involved with conservation.

Will Conservation Affect the Value of My Art Work?
Unfortunately the answer is in two parts - YES & NO.

YES - Improper, unprofessional and unjustified conservation/restoration will have a profoundly negative effect on final value.

NO - Good conservation does not negatively affect the value of art works. Although many conservators might disagree, it is fair to state that conservation cannot increase the intrinsic value of a work of art. However, there is uniform agreement in both the private and museum conservation communities that ethical and high quality conservation are essential to the maintenance of the aesthetic, historic and monetary value of works of art.

© 2003-2019 ICAI, Inc. - Duane R. Chartier

1In this context confidence can and should be a statistical or quasi-statistical determination. The art world has generally rejected statistical approaches to the handling of data and to modeling the outcomes of experiments. Authentication, in practice and in theory, is not above statistical and logical considerations applied in scientific and technical fields. The reasons that such methods and views have not been adopted are more associated with training, academic politics and professional insecurities rather than the appropriateness of the techniques to the tasks at hand

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