The art factory and the death of the connoisseur

With money proliferating rarity generates lower, not higher, prices

It has been left to a court in Germany to decide whether or not a work apparently by Jörg Immendorff—but probably signed by the artist—is or is not a fake. But to define “fake art”, we have to first define “art”. Of course the word was invented well before Duchamp opened Pandora’s Box. Before, that is, he decreed that the term included found objects, that art need involve only the artist’s choice, not his hand—that the idea is the art. Now that can be true if the idea is profound enough, or the object beautiful enough. But again it might just not be art even if the artist says it is.

In Duchamp’s day the “art world” was tiny and the initiates were ready for a breakthrough—for new ideas and new media, for “dada”—and the big money wasn’t there. Once we accept that the artist’s hand is no longer necessary, only his idea, it’s a short leap to market the concept that beauty is not only no longer essential, it can even be turned into a dirty, “elitist” word.

That is what in certain quarters has happened to the discipline of connoisseurship. That is what happened in the art history departments of the great universities, like Harvard, after the mid-1970s. Connoisseurship is the identification of the artist by his handwriting. But if his hand isn’t there, the handwriting isn’t, and connoisseurship becomes a dead old discipline. Who needs connoisseurs? Why train them? Why not train museum director-administrators-fundraisers-construction supervisors? Who needs museum directors who actually love objects? Why not fund academic chairs in the new language—“artspeak”—to explain it all? But alas, we’re stuck with the single word “art” to define it all.

The artist can simply hatch an idea. Then comes the collaboration of an army of profiteers in “collectors’” clothes; of hungry auctioneers; of empire-building dealers; of trendy museum curators; a press bedazzled by mega-millions flooding in from every corner of the globe—art then has truly been transformed into an “asset class”. But what is fake and what is real?

Apparently any image can be “copyrighted” if an artist gets there with it first. From Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-day dots and Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, it’s a short leap to Jeff Koons’ or Damien Hirst’s or Takashi Murakami’s factories turning the stuff out.

Shock value is enough for a copyright, whether it’s a putrefying shark or a platinum, diamond-studded neo-Augsburg memento mori or a three-dimensional cartoon or a huge, shiny toy dog. With money proliferating and more and more of it pouring into the “art” market, rarity generates lower, not higher prices. Beckmanns and Tanguys cost less than Warhols or Basquiats or Richard Princes.

So what constitutes a fake? With old masters, connoisseurs devote themselves to distinguishing the master’s hand from the assistants’, and this can be done, even with objects from the pre-humanist period, when the patronage was religious and strictly formulaic.

In January 2000, a painting attributed to the rare painter, Arcimboldo, was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, for $1.5m. It has never been accepted as by Arcimboldo himself, and it has never been resold. In December 2005, two panels attributed to Bernardo Daddi, estimated at £50,000-£70,000, were sold at Sotheby’s, London for £400,000. One of the pair has now been identified as by Orcagna, an even greater and rarer master.

In December 2006, a painting catalogued as by a Rubens follower was sold in Sweden for $2.4m, then subsequently established as an autograph Rubens and resold privately for four times that amount. In October 2007, a painting estimated at $3,000 was sold in a provincial British sale as a Rembrandt copy for $5m, then fully accepted by the Rembrandt authority and valued at four times the cost. In July 2008, a painting catalogued as by Van Dyck was sold at Christie’s, London, for £3m, but the jury is still out as to whether Van Dyck painted it; there were many who thought not. All of this falls under the canopy of connoisseurship, the “dead” discipline.

Of course there are contemporary artists whose hands are much more present in their work. It would be easy to tell a fake Jasper Johns or Anselm Kiefer even if the artists weren’t around to nail the fakers. Nor have I ever seen a fake Max Beckmann.

But since out of Duchamp’s box have sprung legions of art-makers, some with active factories, guidelines are clearly needed to tell the fake from the genuine. If the artist is alive, his word must prevail. Unless he has gone gaga or been coerced and the decision-making delegated. Or his widow or designee been corrupted. There was even an instance, related to me first-hand, when out of pity for the impoverished Dominguez, de Chirico actually signed a Dominguez fake “de Chirico”.

Once an artist is dead, the going gets tougher, such as in the Immendorff situation. Then it’s necessary that the number of genuine examples have been dictated by the artist himself. That’s why, in the case of traditional sculpture, graphics and photography, I personally am prejudiced in favour of life-time examples where the artist would have approved of the patina and impressions. Those are what I consider authentic. But with “art” proliferating and the stakes so high, there may also be big rewards in store for the litigators.

The writer is president of Richard L. Feigen & Co in New York, and author of Tales from the Art Crypt (Knopf, 2000)

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