Authenticating Old Master Paintings

art net news has a very good article from its art law journal by  Ronald Spencer on authenticating old master paintings.  The article is based around a lawsuit involving Sotheby's and a Caravaggio painting.  Many of the findings are a synthesis of what the presiding judge in England wrote about the case and the process and complexities involved including competing opinions, in connoisseurship, authentication and the law. It has good depth and is well worth the time to read.

Well worth the time to read, click on the source link below for the full article.

art net news reports
Authenticating a work of art is often difficult, and more difficult when the art is four or five hundred years old, and at least one tool for the expert, to wit, provenance, is often limited or non-existent. And, science (materials analysis) does not get us very far since many of the problems for Old Masters come right out of the artist's studio (think Rembrandt). Thus, for Old Masters at least, the expert is left to rely almost entirely on expert opinion concerning the quality of the art, that is to say, is the quality of the art being examined of the quality expected of a painting by the artist—in this case, Caravaggio.

And then, when the experts have come to their conclusion, and that conclusion is challenged in court, (as opposed to the marketplace or in critical writing), a judge must decide that the experts were right or wrong. As in all civil trials (as opposed to criminal trials, requiring proof beyond reasonable doubt) the standard of proof to be met is “more likely than not" or, with the same meaning, “on the balance of the probabilities"—a fairly low bar. In the English court decision described below concerning the auction gallery, Sotheby's, and a painting said by a leading Caravaggio expert to be created by Caravaggio, Justice Rose had to decide whether, on the balance of the probabilities, Sotheby's was negligent in refusing to catalogue and sell the painting as an autograph work by Caravaggio.

Most English and American judges are reluctant to decide questions of art authenticity, in large part, because it is an unfamiliar area for judges and, in no small part, because scholarly practice, and certainly the art market, apply standards closer to beyond-a-reasonable-doubt. (No one would pay full price for art that was more-likely-than-not or, on-the-balance-of-probabilities, created by Picasso).

But the question presented to Justice Rose was whether Sotheby's had been negligent in its decision that the art was a later copy of Caravaggio's art by another hand, and therefore, had breached its consignment contract with the claimant, its consignor. Since deciding negligence is a usual task for judges, Justice Rose, in effect, found herself making an authenticity decision usually made by art historians, other experts, the art market, or all three. Her decision, while relying on expert testimony is not simply an automatic weighing of the experts' opinions; rather, she actually looked carefully at the Painting, guided by experts, used her visual ability, and drew conclusions supported by her own reasoning and what she saw. The result is a brilliant description of the authentication process while cutting through the competing claims of technical analysis.2  And of course, there was no real provenance at all to be considered, whether for or against the Painting.
Source: art net news 

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