Sunday, March 21, 2010

Limits and Dangers of Technical Studies: Fakes, Copies and Authenticity – Hughes

Is it possible to know without a doubt that an artwork or object is authentic? Is authenticity “provable” through scientific techniques and empirical evidence? What is authenticity?

Alleged Jackson Pollock from the Matter collection, one of 32 paintings discovered in a storage facility in 2002.

According to the authors of “Art Conservation and Art Fraud: Dissecting the Thin Blue Line,” science cannot provide proof of authenticity in terms of absolute truth; it can only provide evidence for experts to employ towards “developing theories of ‘best fit’” with results of technical analysis placed on an interpretive continuum (Galbally 74). Our discussion of technical studies last week led most of the class to agree that “objective scientific truth” is a practically unattainable goal. Scientific facts are still dependent upon their reading and interpretation. Working with a pre-established methodology during authentication studies should help guard conservators from unintentionally blending fact with opinion.

Powerhouse Mechanic by Lewis Hine, early 1920's

The emergence of the so-called Matter Pollocks and the Rosenblum Hines into the art market illustrates the fact that even works with seemingly impeccable provenance and authentication by respected connoisseurs can fall short of certainty. Can buyers no longer rely on the connoisseur’s legendary “eye” to judge authenticity? Whose responsibility is it to authenticate artwork? What happens to the work when the connoisseur and conservation scientist disagree? Does such controversy forever taint the work’s aesthetic value? Its historical value?


  1. In response to Hughes’ question above, I don’t think it is possible to positively authenticate an artwork using science beyond all doubt. Science provides us with cold facts. It is the analysis of these facts by humans which causes its fallibility. Although science can’t tell us who made the painting with as much certainty as what paints were used, the information science can offer in regards to the “most probable” answer or “best fit”, to use Galbally’s term, is imperative to its case. In regards to the Pollock and Hines cases, I do find it upsetting, but not surprising, to hear about replicating or dare I use the term “faking” originals. Whereas Roman artists used replicating ancient works as a way to learn, a number of people in modern times replicate for money or to deceive experts. I don’t think we should lose complete faith in the connoisseurs we trust to authenticate art. People have spent their lives building legitimate reputations on their accurate and honest appraisal of art. Their work should not be marginalized by the unscrupulous intentions of a few. Controversy changes the way we see a piece and becomes part of its identity. Unfortunately, there are cases in which the controversy surrounding a work supersedes its value.

  2. I agree with Kelly that science alone cannot definitively answer whether a work of art is authentic or fake. As seen in the Harvard Art Museums article, different scientific techniques can come up with different, if complementary, results, and it is up to the scientist to interpret their significance. I think that scientific techniques should be used to compare works of unquestionable origins (or provenance) to those that are under scrutiny as possible fakes. Whatever the result of the analysis is, it should be used as evidence one way or another, but I don't think that a few scientific tests are enough to condemn a work. These results can then be used by conservators and art historians to come to a consensus.

    Labeling a work of art as a fake can be quite serious and will almost certainly damage its (and the dealer's) reputation for decades--if not longer. A disputed work should be labeled as questionable, but it should require a lot of careful study before it can be called fake. A jury requires unanimity before condemning someone to death--likewise, a work of art should require extensive study and agreement by art historians before it is condemned as a fake.

  3. Carambelas: I agree with Cummings that connoisseurs still play a vital role in authenticating works of fine art and artifacts as well. While going through the articles (not the technical studies) from this week’s assigned readings I found myself returning to the question of image. How much of this science vs. humanities dichotomy arises from the popular images assigned to each profession? Scientists—often seen as champions of truth—work for the greater good, in this instance by preserving cultural heritage for future generations. Meanwhile connoisseurs are often portrayed as working for personal gain (i.e. their individual reputations) and come into public view most often during controversies. Popular views hold connoisseurs as un-approachable and slightly elitist as even their name is foreign and denotes a sense of elevation. How this came to be and could be changed, however, are the topics for another day. Connoisseurs are invaluable to the art world because they can both gather information and interpret it. No computer could replicate the abilities of a well-trained connoisseur reminding us that there is something inherently human and emotional about looking at art.

    I highly recommend the documentary Who the #?&% Is Jackson Pollock? It follows Teri Horton as she tries to get a Pollock authenticated. If you get a free 2-week trial to Netflix you can watch it on your computer.

  4. There are many ways in which a "scientific" approach to art could be modified in order to bridge the gap in the relationship between art historian and scientist. For example, as Woodward discussed in reference t the Rosenblum Hines, hiring Walter Rantanen to evaluate just the paper the prints were copied on gave an unbiased perspective to evaluating the photographs' authenticity. Because "he doesn't know what they [the photographs under question] are. He just looks at the paper sample and renders his judgment," Rantanen was not prone to deem the prints "fake" because of others' evaluations - because he knew nothing about them beforehand. I think this fits into Galbally's statement that it is not so important WHAT we know, as it is HOW we know it. Using unbiased practices like this make our results more credible.

    Lowenthal makes a good point that our own reasons for valuing a particular object can often determine whether we see another object or subsequent renovations on the original object as a fake. The idea that performing Bach's music in today's concert halls could be considered "faking" the original, because we use different instruments and different internal acoustics, is a good way to make the point that we can never see the original the way it was seen by the maker and so there will always be a certain degree of uncertainty about "authenticity." It is best then to strive for the "best fit" overall among the different scientific and "gut instinct" tests, as Kelly mentions above.

  5. As we previously discussed, science is only one method to understanding artwork that must combine with historical and artistic knowledge to generate a fully competent interpretation of a piece. Thus connoisseurship still has a place when paint samples such as in the case of the thirty-two Jackson Pollacks produce mixed results. However, just judging by handwriting, friendship, and signatures can also be misleading. Neither technology nor the human eye is infallible. Sometimes, as in the case of the paintings in Australia, the artist can amend and restore the work or the painting is by that artist but not completed at that particular date used to aid its sale. This incident along with the Rosenblums' controversy shows that forgery, like most things, exists in shades of gray. Thus, any type of absolute statement is difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, an object shrouded in legitimacy doubts is unofficially branded "fake" and looked at with more skepticism and less respect by the public. While forged art can be an interesting creative endeavor for its artistic qualities, its roots in the past, and the questions it raises about society, our current culture, obsessed with truth, prefers and mandates the real object in particular contexts.

  6. I agree with Carambelas that image plays a major role, not only in how we see different conservation professions, but in how we approach an individual piece of artwork, as well. Galbally mentions the lack of prosecution for art fraud in Australia, and attributes it in part to the fact that most of the accusations were made by experts in the field – experts who will have their own images and ideas of themselves and the superiority of their perspectives. It seems like we are not only aware of this hubris when it comes to accusing people of inauthentic work, but it seems like we’re a bit slower to apply this awareness to the actual artifacts in question.

    Maggie mentioned the story of Walter Rantanen in Woodward’s article, and I think it is a very good example of what conservators should do more of – removing any possibility of creating an image that will hinder someone from making an unbiased decision. It seems like it is our images of outside factors that affect our ability to interpret the interior authenticity of an artifact the most.

  7. Novik:
    Kelly brings up an interesting point about the history of 'faking'. The Romans did replicate Greek art with a keen eye and a sharp chisel, however their intentions weren't always educational. Similarly, modern fakers have mixed motives and mixed ideals. It is the artists with bad intentions that have soiled the way for all others trying to learn. These imitators are truly cheating the game and changing the ways in which we can authenticate artwork. Because imitators are employing more advanced methods, the idea of the connoisseur's eye seems outdated as well. Any art historian who rejects the use of scientific help to back their theories is clinging to a distant past.

    A fun little book describes this process nicely. (plus, you get some of Caravaggio's scandalous life) An ancient, well known historian swears by his eye and knowledge of the hand of the master, but it takes months of scientific and historical research to authenticate the piece.
    The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece. By Johnathan Harr.