NAWCC Understanding the Fundamentals of Clocks for Valuation

The NAWCC is holding its Understanding the Fundamentals of Clocks for Valuation class with instructor Joe Jabbour October 23-28, 2018.

Click on Image to Enlarge

For more information or to register contact Stefanie Yoder at 717-684-8261 ex 237 or email at education@nawcc.org. Or email instructor Joe Jabbour directly at clockappraisal@wildblue.net. Fees for the class are $1,000 non member, $900 member for registrations 1 month prior to the class and then it is $1,350.

From NAWCC about the class
Understanding the Fundamentals of Clocks for Valuation

NAWCC’s Understanding the Fundamentals of Clocks for Valuation

Instructor Joe Jabbour

October 23-28, 2018

Participants will be introduced to the identification of clock types, key characteristics and components, originality, condition, quality, and desirability. Also included are the roles of construction, function, and materials in proper identification, as well as a basic understanding of conservation, restoration, refinishing, and repairs with subsequent impact on value.

This newly revised, rigorous course includes reading assignments and research projects utilizing the NAWCC Museum and Research Library resources.  A final exam will be given and projects will be graded. Successful completion of the course will be recognized by the ISA as a Clock Specialty Course.

Instructor Joseph M. Jabbour, M.D., ISA is a member of the NAWCC, AWCI and HAV. He is an appraiser of clocks and watches based in northern Virginia.

Guest Lecturer Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg, ISA CAPP, is the Past President of The International Society of Appraisers.
Source: NAWCC


artnet and China Auctioneers Report

artnet news has recently summarized the 6th annual artnet and China Auctioneers report. The summary highlights 8 key findings.

  1.  Global Auction Sales Are Up
  2. Demand for Top Lots Is Stronger Than Ever
  3. Prices for Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Are Also Robust
  4. But Defaults Remain a Major Issue, With Buyers Paying for Less Than Half Their Purchases
  5. Prices for 20th-Century and Contemporary Chinese Art Are Ascendant Overseas
  6. North America Saw a Major Boost in Sales of Chinese Art
  7. However, Sell-Through Rates for Chinese Art & Antiques Plummeted Abroad as a Whole
  8. In China, Mid- and Low-End Sections of the Auction Market Are Suffering
Number 4 is interesting as I know many auction houses have taken steps to ensure payments and restrict bidding to confirmed bidders. It certainly appears to remain a major area of concern.

For the full report CLICK HERE.

artnet news reports

The Chinese Art Market Is Reviving But Nonpayments Increasingly Plague the Sector, Our Exclusive Auction Report Reveals

The sixth annual artnet and China Auctioneers report shows that other weaknesses combine to paint a bleak picture of the market.

There are several bright spots in the global market for Chinese art and antiquities, including growth in overall volume of sales and price performance at the very high end, according to recent results. But other weak areas remain, particularly at the low and middle end of the market, while buyer defaults on pricey auction lots still continue to plague the sector.

artnet has once again teamed up with the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA) to present the sixth annual edition of the Global Chinese Art Auction Market report, tracking data for calendar year 2017. It is the only report of its kind to offer an in-depth analysis of the trends driving the market for Chinese art and antiques.

To assemble the report, the CAA compiles data on works sold in mainland China directly from the auction houses. (The data is then independently verified by CAA.) Meanwhile, artnet compiles all data on works sold outside China, including sales in Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which qualify as overseas.

Here are the key findings of the report.

1. Global Auction Sales Are Up.
The report found that sales of Chinese art and antiques totaled $7.1 billion, a seven percent increase from the previous year. As a result, there is broad optimism about the growing strength of the market, according to the findings. But while that volume marks an improvement over previous years, it is still down substantially from the record high above $10 billion that the Chinese market hit in 2011.

2. Demand for Top Lots Is Stronger Than Ever.
In both mainland China and overseas, there has been a notable increase in the ultra-high-end market, where lots are valued above $14 million (¥100 million). In 2017, 38 lots sold in this bracket, more than double the number reported in 2016 and nearly 10 times the 2013 total. Notably, Chinese top-selling artist Qi Baishi has joined the so-called $100 million club, joining the ranks of blue-chip stars like Picasso, Modigliani, Bacon, Munch, and Warhol. At a Poly International auction in Beijing this past December, a 1925 hanging scroll by Qi Baishi sold for $141 million.

3. Prices for Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Are Also Robust.
The average price for work in this category reached a historic high of $32,855 in mainland China in 2017. According to the report, the growth is still largely supported by the boom in the high-end market. The middle market continues to shrink in size, and the overall sell-through rate dropped to its lowest level since 2010.

4. But Defaults Remain a Major Issue, With Buyers Paying for Less Than Half Their Purchases.
It’s no secret that buyers defaulting on successful bids in auctions—including for many pricey lots—is a problem that has plagued the market in mainland Chinese for quite some time. According to the report, among all lots sold there in 2017, the percentage of the total sales value paid as of May 2018 was only 49 percent, the lowest such figure since 2011. The nonpayment rate is even greater when applied to lots over ¥10 million ($1.5 million) for which only 28 percent of the value had been paid. Of the 18 lots that sold for above ¥100 million on the mainland in 2017, only two had been paid in full by May of this year.

5. Prices for 20th-Century and Contemporary Chinese Art Are Ascendant Overseas.
The average price for this category of work jumped 19 percent to hit $207,423, even higher than in the preceding 2011 market peak, the report says. The sell-through rate also remained high at 60 percent.

A pink-ground Falangcai bowl with Yuzhi Mark And Period Of Kangxi, sold for $30.4 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

A pink-ground Falangcai bowl with Yuzhi Mark And Period Of Kangxi, sold for $30.4 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

6. North America Saw a Major Boost in Sales of Chinese Art.
There was a 62 percent increase in the total sales value of Chinese art and antiques sold in North America on a year-over-year basis, according to the report. This number was bolstered by a single March 2017 auction at Christie’s New York of art from the Fujita Museum. The landmark sale took in more than $262 million in a single evening, more than the total value of Chinese art sold in North America over the entire previous year.

7. However, Sell-Through Rates for Chinese Art & Antiques Plummeted Abroad as a Whole.
In 2017, the percentage of Chinese art and antiques that found buyers at auction outside the mainland dropped significantly, continuing a downward trend seen in previous years. The rate decreased from 69 percent in 2011—which was close to the US average of 70 percent—to 47 percent in 2017, dipping below rates in mainland China for the first time.

8. In China, Mid- and Low-End Sections of the Auction Market Are Suffering.
The report says smaller auction houses are still struggling to make ends meet. In 2017, there were over 200 mainland Chinese auction houses in “hibernation,” meaning they held no sales that year. That number is more than double the 86 inactive houses in 2011. The number of such houses saw a significant jump in 2015, and it has been steadily growing ever since, the report says.
Source: artnet news


Sotheby's Results

The Art Newspaper recently reported on Sotheby's second quarter financial results. According to the article, two works were responsible for lower earnings.  Total sales were up 22% for the first half of the when compared to the same period in 2017, at $3.5 billion yet earnings were down by 23%. Commissions were down, meaning Sotheby's was lower them to attract quality works and issues regarding guarantees. There was also good news with 30% of the buyers being new, and private sales, a growing and important profit center, up 63% to $543 million.

The Art Newspaper reports
Sotheby’s second quarter results, published today, illustrate just how much power consignors and guarantors wield over auction houses at the top of the market. And how—marketing-value aside—it does not necessarily pay for auction houses to sell high-profile valuable works. Indeed, just two paintings significantly damaged Sotheby’s bottom line in the second quarter.

Although Sotheby’s total sales were up 22% to $3.5bn over the first half of 2018 (up to 30 June), its earnings were down by 23%, with a net income of $50.8m. For the second quarter, net income was $57.3m, a fall of 26% from $76.9m last year. The auction house said this was partly due to moving some of its spring Hong Kong sales into the first quarter of 2018.

After the results were announced, Sotheby’s share price fell by more than 10% (from $52.89 to $47.80) in the first five minutes after the Dow Jones opened, before rallying to around $50 per share.

High-value does not equal big profit
The chief reason for the drop in earnings was a sharp decline in the the auction house's profit margin on commissions, down to to 14.1% in the second quarter and 15% over the first half of 2018.

The reason? First, competition between auction houses for top consignments means the vendor commission is often waived in order to secure the work or collection (and sometimes the seller will also receive a portion of the buyer’s premium). Secondly, according to a Sotheby’s statement, buyer's premium was also used “to offset auction guarantee shortfalls and fees incurred in respect of auction guarantee risk sharing arrangements”. During an earnings call earlier today, Mike Goss, Sotheby’s chief financial officer, said: “In the second quarter of 2018, the art market was driven by competitive high-value consignments from fiduciary sources such as estates, foundations and charities.”

It was just two high-profile guaranteed paintings which between them “reduced Sotheby’s auction commission margin by 1.4% and 1.1% during the three and six-month periods, respectively,” Goss said. Although Sotheby’s would not comment further or identify the works in question, it is not difficult to guess which ones they were.

Ironically, the first is probably the most valuable painting sold at auction this year—Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couché (sur le côté gauche, 1917) which in New York in May scraped away at its low estimate of $150m to a single bid, selling to the third-party irrevocable bidder. No doubt the irrevocable bidder received some financial reward for guaranteeing it at such a sizeable sum—it is certainly hard to imagine they will have paid a buyer’s premium. As Sotheby’s chief executive Tad Smith observed during the call: “It was the very highest priced lots that were a little softer than the rest.” Adam Chinn, Sotheby’s chief operating officer, said the May season in New York was “unusual” in that the sale of the Rockefeller collection at Christie’s “added some additional competitive pressures”.

The second work was likely one sold in London in June: Picasso’s 1932 Buste de Femme de Profil (Femme écrivant). The work was guaranteed in-house, but fell short of its unpublished pre-sale estimate of $45m—given in dollars—and sold on a single bid of £27.3m ($36m). A major blow, attributed to “a pricing error” by Smith (although he did not identify the painting in question).

“A couple of bids here or there would have made a big impact on our margin” Smith said during the call. “The two paintings we keep referring to… I think those will be unique,” Smith says, although “it will be hard to make [the loss incurred by] those two paintings back through the rest of the year”.

Reasons to be cheerful
On the face of it, Sotheby’s year so far looks mute in comparison with the bullish news published by its competitor Christie’s in July, pronouncing total sales of £2.97bn ($4bn) so far in 2018. But the reality is not so clear cut—as a private company Christie’s does not have to report profits. And Christie’s is in direct competition with Sotheby’s for the top consignments. Particularly in light of the £614m sale of the Rockefeller collection, Christie’s income may also not be as healthy as at first seems, as its commission margins are, doubtless, similarly squeezed.

The latest earnings do give Sotheby’s shareholders some cause to be optimistic, however. Private sales were up by 63% to $543m during the first half of 2018 and this year, around 30% of buyers were new to the company. Many of those new buyers came in through online sales, which have grown 30% from last year, totalling more than $100m. The auction house's business in Asia is also strong—in line with Christie’s, Asian clients account for around a third of global sales and have bought eight of the top 20 lots sold at Sotheby’s so far this year.

Reflecting the buoyancy of the city’s auction market over the past year, Sotheby’s Paris has achieved its best first half results since the opening of the French art market in 2001. That result was helped by the auction house setting a new record for Chinese porcelain sold in France—$19m for the Imperial 18th-century Yangcai Famille-Rose porcelain vase sold in June.

However, during the question and answer session at the end of today’s earnings call, Goss also mentioned the possibility of staff cuts. “We will be taking a look at our head count,” he said, but added that any cuts were likely to be minimal, “less than a 2.5% number”.
Source: The Art Newspaper 


Technology and Art

Wealth Management recently posted an interesting article on technology and fine art authentication and tracking. The article is important for appraisers as it notes that we should be aware of the new technologies and use them, especially for newly created works.

The last two paragraphs on upgrading practices states

"It’s now necessary for all artists, investors, collectors, the lawyers who represent them and the appraisers, who aren’t authenticators, on whom they rely, to upgrade and amend their practices.

While authenticating older works will continue to rely mainly on the labor intensive and subjective processes of the past, viewing new works will be noticeably more scientifically based."

Technology is changing the art market, and we as appraiser need to change as well.

Wealth Management reports
New tools available may change what’s required for due diligence.

The current swelling of demand for investment art has caused a sharp increase in legal proceedings over questions of authenticity and provenance.

The rise of social media has had a disruptive effect on art marketing. The internet has emerged as a marketplace in which artists can display their work, dealers can market them and buyers can discover them. This has increased the exposure of taxable estates and heirs to sophisticated counterfeiters.

This problem has harshly exposed the difficulties inherent in conducting suitable due diligence in such an opaque and unregulated market. Luckily,  there are new evolving technologies of which professionals should be aware, as well as the new standards of practice used to employ them.

Determining Authenticity

Determining the authenticity of a given work traditionally starts with scientific testing of the materials used. With Fine Art paintings, the investigator will look at the paint pigments, type of canvas, stretchers, canvas fastening devices and frames. If any part of the materials fails to be from the proper time period, the work immediately fails the authenticity test. For example, in Balog v. Center Art Gallery-Hawaii, Inc., 745 F. Supp. 1556 (D. Haw. 1990), the Dali prints under dispute were obviously forged as the underlying paper was manufactured after Dali stopped signing prints.

While forensic testing can prove that a work of art isn’t authentic, the reverse isn’t always true. Materials can be consistent with the supposed time period, but old canvases can be scraped for their era-period paint, which can be reconstructed. Canvases were commonly painted over by the masters. The work must also pass forensic tests of signature, text, documentation of provenance and fingerprints in addition to the specific examination of the supposed artist’s style, brush stroke, normal content and cultural markers.

New Procedures and Tools

As this line of attack becomes more sophisticated, there are new procedures and tools available that undertake to change the very nature of due diligence in art transactions. Among the most promising are:

  • Anti-forgery algorithms. These algorithms use big data and artificial intelligence methods to apply deep learning to the canvas and paint, the compositional techniques and stylistic signatures of the artist in question. The algorithms analyze and codify those characteristics that uniquely identify an artist to distinguish them from those of forgers.
  • Tagging. Artists can electronically tag their work both to guarantee the authenticity as well as deter counterfeiting.
  • Peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF). This uses the mass spectrograph to analyze proteins that have been used for centuries in paints, adhesives and coatings. PMF identifies unique markers that make up the “fingerprint” of a sample, allowing works to be matched precisely to similar works by the same artist with any mismatch strongly indicating a possible forgery.
  • Synthetic DNA. This puts an inconspicuous tag on new works
  • Blockchain. A transaction-recording technology, commonly associated with digital currencies, is now being used to track the movement and verify the provenance of digital art.
Upgrade Practices

It’s now necessary for all artists, investors, collectors, the lawyers who represent them and the appraisers, who aren’t authenticators, on whom they rely, to upgrade and amend their practices.

While authenticating older works will continue to rely mainly on the labor intensive and subjective processes of the past, viewing new works will be noticeably more scientifically based.
Source: Wealth Managment 


AF Personal Property Resource Panel

The Appraisal Foundation has five openings on the Personal Property Resource Panel and is looking for qualified candidates to fill the positions. See the below block quote for more information and how to apply.

This is a great opportunity to assist in promoting qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers. The AF is getting more and more involved in promoting qualified personal property appraisers. I hear from many appraisers that more should be done, and I agree.  If you feel you can contribute, follow the below links and/or contacts to apply or to gather additional information.

From the Appraisal Foundation
Washington, DC-- The Appraisal Foundation is looking for qualified candidates to serve on the Personal Property Resource Panel (PPRP).


The Appraisal Foundation, a non‐profit organization dedicated to the advancement of professional valuation, is seeking qualified candidates to serve on a volunteer resource panel that will report to the Board of Trustees: The Personal Property Resource Panel. There are currently five positions open for appointment or reappointment on the PPRP. Terms for these positions may last up to three years and will begin upon appointment on January 1, 2019.

Mission of the PPRP

To provide specialized expertise to The Appraisal Foundation Board of Trustees and its committees, the Appraisal Standards Board, and the Appraiser Qualifications Board, to ensure public trust, and to promote professionalism in the personal property valuation profession.


The purpose of these Resource Panels is to provide input on exposure drafts and offer insight on emerging issues or other matters of like significance to the Board of Trustees, AQB or ASB pertaining to the Personal Property discipline. The panel was established to assemble individuals from diverse backgrounds within the discipline of valuation, so that the Foundation’s Boards:

have an additional means for communication with representatives of the discipline; and
benefit from information, advice and recommendations developed by the resource panel on issues relevant to the discipline.
Service on the panel is voluntary; panelists will not be compensated for their time, nor their travel expenses to any Foundation or panel events.

The panelists will serve staggered terms commencing January 1, 2019 for up to three years. Re‐appointments thereafter will be made on annual basis as needed.


Suggested qualifications for this position may include:

  • Experience working with personal property appraisers in areas such as estates, insurance or in another capacity as an "intended user" of appraisals;
  • Demonstrated experience in personal property valuation services;
  • Prior service on professional boards, committees, task forces or other such bodies.

How to Apply:

Click HERE to complete an application the Personal Property Resource Panel or visit the Foundation website at www.appraisalfoundation.org (About Us / How to Get Involved) to complete an application online.

Questions or More Information?

If you have questions, please feel free to contact Arika Cole at: arika@appraisalfoundation.org or via phone at 202-624-3072.


Marilyn Monore Photographer's Copyright Case

Fellow appraiser Xiliary Twil, ASA sent me an interesting article from Wealth Management on a recent federal district court ruling on copyright of over 2,500 photographs taken by photographer Bert Stern of Marilyn Monore.   According to the article, Stern's widow  filed suit against two of Stern’s assistants, claiming copyright infringement involving the reproduction and online sale of prints and of modified versions of certain Monroe images. The court ruled in favor of the Stern's widow regarding ownership rights of the photos.

Wealth Management reports
Photographer Bert Stern’s copyright protection for famed photos of Marilyn Monroe was upheld against family challenges.

A federal district court judge in New York recently ruled that a trust for the heirs of the renowned photographer Bert Stern is the rightful owner of the copyright interests in his famed “Last Sitting” photographs of Marilyn Monroe. The 2,571 photographs were taken by Stern in June 1962, just weeks before Monroe's death and are considered some of the most important celebrity images of the 20th century.

Stern’s widow, Shannah Laumeister Stern, acting as trustee for the trust, filed suit against Lisa and Lynette Lavender, twin sisters who were Stern’s assistants, claiming copyright infringement involving the reproduction and online sale of prints and of modified versions of certain Monroe images.

In their defense, the Lavenders claimed that the copyrights belonged to Condé Nast, which had published a few of the photographs in Vogue in which Stern had an active and productive business relationship. According to the New York Post, in a separate court filing by the Lavenders in Surrogate’s Court, they claimed that Shannah Stern cut them out of a $50,000 bequest from her husband. It was also reported that they claimed Stern authorized them to make, modify and sell copies of the Monroe photographs following his death.

The judge’s order affirmed that all copyrights held by the testamentary trust are valid and indeed belong to the trust. The issue of whether the Lavender sisters infringed on the copyright interests will go to trial.

This wasn’t the first lawsuit against Stern’s estate—in 2013 his children and grandchildren filed suit to contest his will, accusing Shannah, who Stern allegedly married in secret, of manipulating their father into making a new will that left a majority of the estate to her.

Precedent for Other Creatives

Alan Behr, partner at Phillips Nizer LLP in New York City, who represents the Bert Stern 2010 Trust in this lawsuit, said this case is groundbreaking in that it “settles a point having implications in other works for which the copyright trail may not be contractually clear.” He also finds that it’s a “good framework for future claimants to understand who owns the copyright in legacy works,” and “is important for photographers everywhere whose rights in their own legacy portfolios have either not been fully established or have been called into question.”

Behr also has some advice for estate planners who may have creative types with works of art as clients. As both an attorney and a photojournalist and fine art photographer in his own right, he recommends having a gatekeeper for the rights to valuable works. He explained that executors often don’t know about copyright registrations, and someone should assist in checking that such registrations are in place, particularly in the United States, where copyright registration for works of U.S. origin is mandatory to initiate any infringement proceedings. 
Source: Wealth Management 


Artificial Intelligence and Authentication

Fellow appraiser Marcus Wardell sent me an interesting post from Medium on the intersection of fine art and artificial intelligence authentication. As we know, technology on a global scale is changing the world we live in. Additionally, it is also impacted fine art and how wee as appraisers work.

The Medium article first looks at authentication from a connoisseurship perspective, giving numerous opinions and authentications.The article then looks at new methods being developed through digital imaging and computer analysis. The article does note, the technology is still be developed and perfected, but it is rather obvious the direction authentication is headed. The process is still being developed, algorithms are being created and modified, and the article even touches on the possibilities of lawsuits. Well worth taking a few minutes to read.

Medium reports
In late March, a judge in Wiesbaden, Germany, found herself playing the uncomfortable role of art critic. On trial before her were two men accused of forging paintings by artists including Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, whose angular, abstract compositions can now go for eight-figure prices. The case had been in progress for three and a half years and was seen by many as a test. A successful prosecution could help end an epidemic of forgeries — so-called miracle pictures that appear from nowhere — that have been plaguing the market in avant-garde Russian art.

But as the trial reached its climax, it disintegrated into farce. One witness, arguably the world’s leading Malevich authority, argued that the paintings were unquestionably fakes. Another witness, whose credentials were equally impeccable, swore that they were authentic. In the end, the forgery indictments had to be dropped; the accused were convicted only on minor charges.

The judge was unimpressed. “Ask 10 different art historians the same question and you get 10 different answers,” she told the New York Times. Adding a touch of bleak comedy to proceedings, it emerged that the warring experts were at the wrong end of a bad divorce.

It isn’t a comforting time for art historians. Weeks earlier, in January, the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, was forced to pull 24 works supposedly by many of the same Russian artists — Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodcheko, Filonov—after the Art Newspaper published an exposé arguing they were all forged. Just days before, there was uproar when 21 paintings shown at a Modigliani exhibition in Genoa, Italy, were confiscated and labeled as fakes. Works that had been valued at millions of dollars were abruptly deemed worthless.

The market in old masters is also jittery after an alarming series of scandals — the greatest of which was last year’s revelation that paintings handled by the respected collector Giuliano Ruffini were suspect. A Cranach, a Parmigiano, and a Frans Hals were all found to be forged; institutions including the Louvre had been fooled. The auction house Sotheby’s was forced to refund $10 million for the Hals alone. Many experts are now reluctant to offer an opinion, in case they’re sued — which, of course, only intensifies the problem.

Adding fuel to the fire is another development: Wary of being caught, more and more forgers are copying works from the early to mid-20th century. It’s much easier to acquire authentic materials, for one thing, and modern paintings have rocketed in value in recent years.

For many in the industry, it is starting to look like a crisis. Little wonder that galleries and auction houses, desperate to protect themselves, have gone CSI. X-ray fluorescence can detect paint and pigment type; infrared reflectography and Raman spectroscopy can peer into a work’s inner layers and detect whether its very component molecules are authentic. Testing the chemistry of a flake of paint less than a millimeter wide can disclose deep secrets about where and, crucially, when it was made.

“It’s an arms race,” says Jennifer Mass, an authentication expert who runs the Delaware-based firm Scientific Analysis of Fine and Decorative Art. “Them against us.”

But what if you didn’t need to go to all that trouble? What if the forger’s handwriting was staring you in the face, if only you could see it? That’s the hope of researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who have pioneered a method that promises to turn art authentication on its head.

Instead of subjecting works to lengthy and hugely expensive materials analysis, hoping a forger has made a tiny slip — a stray fiber, varnish made using ingredients that wouldn’t have been available in 16th-century Venice — the new technique is so powerful that it doesn’t even need access to the original work: A digital photograph will do. Even more striking, this method is aided by artificial intelligence. A technology whose previous contributions to art history have consisted of some bizarre sub–Salvador Dalís might soon be able to make the tweed-wearing art valuers look like amateurs.

At least that’s the theory, says Ahmed Elgammal, PhD, whose team at Rutgers has developed the new process, which was made public late last year. “It is still very much under development; we are working all the time. But we think it will be a hugely valuable addition to the arsenal.”

That theory is certainly intriguing. Instead of obsessing over materials, the new technique takes a hard look at the picture itself: Specifically, the thousands of tiny individual strokes that compose it.

Every single gesture — shape, curvature, the velocity with which a brush- or pencil-stroke is applied — reveals something about the artist who made it. Together, they form a telltale fingerprint. Analyze enough works and build up a database, and the idea is that you can find every artist’s fingerprint. Add in a work you’re unsure about, and you’ll be able to tell in minutes whether it’s really a Matisse or if it was completed in a garage in Los Angeles last week. You wouldn’t even need the whole work; an image of one brushstroke could give the game away.

“Strokes capture unintentional process,” explains Elgammal. “The artist is focused on composition, physical movement, brushes — all those things. But the stroke is the telltale sign.”

The paper Elgammal and his colleagues published last November examined 300 authentic drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Egon Schiele, and a number of other artists and broke them down into more than 80,000 strokes. Machine-learning techniques refined the data set for each artist; forgers were then commissioned to produce a batch of fakes. To put the algorithm though its paces, the forgeries were fed into the system. When analyzing individual strokes, it was over 70 percent accurate; when whole drawings were examined, the success rate increased to over 80 percent. (The researchers claim 100 percent accuracy “in most settings.”)

The researchers are so confident that they included images of originals and fakes alongside each other in the published paper, daring so-called experts to make up their own minds. (Reader, I scored dismally.) One of Elgammal’s colleagues, Dutch painting conservator Milko den Leeuw, compares it to the way we recognize family members: They look similar, but we’re just not sure why. “Take identical twins,” he says. “Outsiders can’t separate them, but the parents can. How does that work? It’s the same with a work of art. Why do I recognize that this is a Picasso and that isn’t?”

The idea of fingerprinting artists via their strokes actually dates back to the 1950s and a technique developed by Dutch art historian Maurits Michel van Dantzig. Van Dantzig called his approach “pictology,” arguing that because every work of art is a product of the human hand, and every hand is different, it should be possible to identify authorship using these telltale strokes.

The problem, though, was that there was too much data. Even a simple drawing contains hundreds or even thousands of strokes, all of which needed to be examined by the human eye and catalogued. Multiply that by every work, and you see how impractical it was.

“It just wasn’t possible to test it,” says den Leeuw, who first became aware of pictology as a student. “I saw many attempts, but mostly it ended in ideas that would never be.”

But can A.I. now do what humans failed to, and give an art historian’s trained eye some sort of scientific basis? “Exactly,” says den Leeuw. “Very often it’s a gut feeling. We’re trying to unpick the mystery.”

Though Mass says she’s unlikely to throw out her fluorescence gun just yet, she admits to being impressed. “A lot of people in the field are excited by A.I. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’ll be another tool. And it’s really valuable when you’re dealing with a sophisticated forger who’s got everything else right — paint, paper, filler, all the materials.”

There are issues. So far, the system has been tested mainly on drawings from a handful of artists and a brief time period. Paintings, which generally contain thousands more strokes, are a tougher challenge; older paintings, which might contain numerous layers of restoration or overpainting, are tougher still. “It’s challenging, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it,” Elgammal says. “I’m confident.”

What about style, though, particularly where an artist changes over time? Think of Picasso’s wildly varying periods—blue, African, cubist, classical — or how in the 1920s Malevich abandoned the elemental abstraction of his black squares for figurative portraits that could almost have been painted by Cézanne (pressure from Stalin was partly responsible).

Another expert, Charles R. Johnson, who teaches computational art history at Cornell, is less persuaded — not so much by the A.I. as by the assumptions that lie behind it. “A big problem is that strokes are rarely individualized,” he says. “Overlap is difficult to unravel. Plus, one must understand the artist’s style changes over their career in order to make a judgment.”

In addition, Johnson argues, many artist’s brushwork is essentially invisible, making it impossible to unpick; it might be better to focus computer analysis on assessing canvases or paper, which can be more rigorously verified. “I remain quite skeptical,” he says.

Elgammal and den Leeuw concede there’s a way to go. Currently they’re working on impressionist paintings—infinitely more complex than Schiele and Picasso line drawings—and hope to publish the results next year. Even with the drawings, the machine can’t yet be left to learn on its own; often the algorithms require human tweaking to make sure the right features are being examined. Artists whose output isn’t large enough to create a reliable data set are also a challenge.

I ask Elgammal if he’s worried about being sued. He laughs, slightly nervously. “That’s something I think about.”

It’s a reasonable question, particularly pressing given the number of fakes that are circulating: What if your database accidentally becomes contaminated? Many people argue that the art market is hopelessly corrupt—so much so that some economists doubt whether calling it a “market” is even fair. Could the algorithm become skewed and go rogue?

“It’s like any system,” Mass agrees. “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Does she think that’s a possibility? How many fakes are out there? “Put it this way,” Mass says, “when I go into auction houses—maybe not the big ones, but smaller, local ones—I think ‘buyer beware.’ It might be between 50 and 70 percent.”

Rival solutions are coming down the road. Some have proposed using blockchain technology to guarantee provenance—the history of who has owned a work. Others have called for much greater transparency. Everyone agrees that the system is broken; some kind of fix is urgent.

Of course, there are big philosophical questions here. When someone goes to the effort of finding exactly the right 17th-century canvas, dons an antique smock, and paints a near-flawless Franz Hals, it should perhaps make us reconsider what we mean by the words “real” or “fake”, let alone the title of “artist”. Yet the irony is inescapable. It is hard to think of something more human than art, the definition of our self-expression as a species. But when it comes down to it, humans aren’t actually that good at separating forged and authentic in a painting that has all the hallmarks of, say, a Caravaggio but is merely a stunt double. Relying on our eyes, we simply can’t tell one twin from the other. We might even ask: Why do we care?

Forget cars that pilot themselves or Alexa teaching herself to sound less like the robot she is—A.I. seems to understand the secrets of artistic genius better than we do ourselves.

When I speak to den Leeuw, I wonder if he also senses the irony: that, while machines might not yet might be able to make good art, they are getting eerily good at appreciating it. “Yes, it’s true,” he says thoughtfully. “When it comes to very complex combinations of things, humans are really not so good.” He laughs. “We make too many mistakes.”
Source: Medium