An Opera Singer’s Digestion and an Art Bully’s Tactics

George L. Stout, conservator with Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art in the 1920s, first articulated the three-legged stool approach to art authentication when connoisseurship alone was the standard. Questioning a connoisseur’s opinion, “was as naughty as inquiring about the digestive system of an opera singer…it wasn’t proper. And that was very good for the trade.”((Patricia Failing, “Artists Moral Rights in the United States before VARA/1990: An Introduction,” The Committee on Intellectual Property of the College Art Association, Beyond Copyright: Do Artists Have Rights? A panel discussion of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA)), February 2002, 1.)) But Stout and his inter-disciplinary group of scientists, art historians, and fellow conservators gradually caused a change in thinking.  The three-legged stool approach is the accepted norm judicially and ethically for art authentication. The three legs that secure a firm authentication are:

  1. Provenance
  2. Connoisseurship
  3. Scientific examination

As art increasingly becomes an investment commodity, art authentication becomes an ever more serious business. Relying exclusively on connoisseurship is still “very good for the trade.”  Egotistical connoisseurs, often art dealers who stand to profit from attributing a piece to the artist who will fetch the highest price, unfortunately, still exist.  They rely on their “eye” alone. If doubted, they attack the questioner, disgorging a torrent of vituperative criticism with haughty grandeur, not unlike a bull stomping and trumpeting when a rival approaches the female – or “cash cow.” The waning alpha relies on bluster to thwart an actual confrontation. Collectors interested only in return on investment bully honest art historians with threats of litigation. Art as investment perpetuates a wild, lawless marketplace.  Lost in the contentious marketplace is the sacredness of art and the moral right of every artist to correct attribution.   Art authentication is a sacred trust.

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.