Strength of Attribution Depends on
Who's Doing the Attributing
Q: I'm thinking about buying a painting that's attributed to a famous artist. According to the seller-- a dealer-- this means that in his opinion, the painting is probably by the artist, but he can't be sure. So he's attributing it instead. He says he hasn't shown it to an expert; that's for me to do if I buy it.
The painting costs a lot less money than other paintings by the artist, but it's still not cheap at $30,000. I'm thinking about buying it because if it turns out to be by the artist, it's worth $500,000-$700,000. Should I go for it? Can you tell me anything about attributions? What are my chances of getting the painting authenticated or proving that it's actually by the artist?
A: Let's answer the last question first. Your chances of getting the painting authenticated are ZERO. To repeat, you have NO chance of proving that this painting is by the artist who the dealer is attributing it to. In the great majority of cases when art is attributed, the person making the attribution in combination with the circumstances surrounding the sale tell you at least as much, if not more, than the art itself. And this sale (hopefully this non-sale) is no exception.
For starters, when a painting or other work of art is "attributed" to an artist, that means that in the opinion of a knowledgeable nationally or internationally recognized and respected expert on the artist in question, the art is likely to be the work of that artist. The key phrase here is "a knowledgeable expert." Only recognized and respected authorities on an artist are qualified to make attributions that have any credibility whatsoever in the art community. How one becomes a recognized and respected authority include intensive study of the life and art of the artist, personally seeing and examining numerous works of the artist's art, publishing scholarly books and/or papers about the artist, curating shows of work by the artist, giving lectures about the artist, personally knowing and/or working with the artist or his family over a significant period of time, being the artist's dealer, or being a family member, relative, executor or spouse of the artist.
Assuming the individual making an attribution is qualified to make it, for that attribution to be taken seriously, it must explain in detail why the work of art in question appears to be by the hand of the artist, and it must support all claims with facts about the art, the artist, and the artist's career. A credible attribution typically discusses various aspects of the art including its size, style, materials, construction, composition, pattern of brush strokes, surface texture, colors, relation of subject matter to subject matters of other known works by the artist, framing, mounting, how the canvas is attached to the stretcher bars, names of suppliers or manufacturers of materials that might be stamped on the back of the art, signature location, similarity of compositional details to those of other known compositions by the artist, a comparison to other known works created around the same time, and so on.
An attribution is an expository document; it is not a sentence or two, it is not a simple verbal statement. It must be in writing, and it must be signed and qualified by whoever made it.
An attribution is NOT unsubstantiated or casual remarks such as the following:
* "The signature looks good."
* "It's looks like paintings I've seen in books."
* "It's definitely old."
* "It came from an important estate."
* "It belonged to a well-known collector."
* "The previous owner paid a lot of money for it."
In case you still wish to continue your suicide mission, ask the dealer what his qualifications are to make this attribution. Then ask for a detailed explanation of his attribution based on facts about the art and supported with facts about the artist's life and work. Then ask him to put it in writing and sign it. Then ask why, since the painting is attributed to a famous artist, he's selling it for only 4 to 6 percent of its potential retail value. Then ask how you have come to be the incredibly fortunate benefactor of his largesse.
While you're at it, you might also ask why he hasn't shown the painting to an expert. If you thought you owned a painting that was worth as much as a large house in a nice part of town, wouldn't you show it to an expert and try to get it authenticated? Wouldn't showing it to an expert be really high on your list of priorities? This makes absolutely no sense and should certainly arouse suspicion on your part.
This seller is a dealer and he knows exactly what he's doing. He knows art and he knows how the art market works. He knows never to let go of anything that has potential value unless he's researched it. He he knows to make every effort to authenticate any work of art that he believes may be by a well-known artist and/or have substantial value BEFORE placing it up for sale. The only dealers who don't do this, or who say they don't, are those deliberately out to deceive. So do yourself a favor-- don't buy this art and don't business with this dealer ever again.
Attribution abuse is widespread, particularly at online auctions like eBay. Unqualified sellers make unsubstantiated claims about art all the time. Best procedure is to never buy attributed art at online auctions or anywhere else unless the person making the attribution is a recognized and respected authority on the artist, the attribution explains in detail and with references why the art in question is likely the work of a particular artist, and is in writing and hand-signed by the person making it. In closing, if it looks too good to be true, it usually is. And this particular "opportunity" without doubt falls into that category.
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