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Fake Fautrier: can you trust an artist’s heir?

In deciding that the certificate of the artist’s heir is no longer sufficient to prove a work’s authenticity, French courts will require auctioneers to be more thorough in future

Controversy over the authenticity of works by Jean Fautrier (1889-1994) is being played out in the French courts. The most recent case centred around a bank advance of several millions of francs to the owner of some of Fautrier’s works. The credit risk should have been secured by the sale of the works and the auctioneers responsible for the sale undertook in the loan agreement that the works had sufficient value to cover the loan. Since the works had a certificate from the son of the artist, no further questions were asked.

However, experts contested the authenticity of the works and the sale was put off. Both the bank and the seller rounded on the auctioneers, who pointed to the certificate granted by the artist’s heir to demonstrate their diligence. The court of appeal in Versailles did not consider this an adequate argument and condemned the auctioneers for “neglecting their duty as appraisers in setting an estimated price for the paintings without sufficient precautions”.

The Cour de Cassation (French Supreme Civil Court) confirmed in March 1996 that “by limiting their verification of the authenticity of the works to a single certificate provided by the artist’s heir, without taking any other precautions, such as further expertise in order to eliminate any ambiguity in this respect, the auctioneers who undertook to guarantee a minimum value to the paintings have committed a professional error”.

Clearly, nothing is simple in the realm of expertise.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 63 October 1996