October 18, 2023

The Joys and the Dramas of Misattributed Artworks

Let us refresh our memory on what misattribution is. In the most basic sense, it is an erroneous attribution of a work of art

The Joys and the Dramas of Misattributed Artworks

Let us refresh our memory on what misattribution is. In the most basic sense, it is an erroneous attribution of a work of art, i.e. when it is (i) attributed to a lower-valued artist rather than the actual higher-value artist, (ii) incorrectly dated, and (iii) ascribed incorrect provenance.

Logically, the older an artwork, the higher the risk of misattribution. How do you know a particular painting is by a specific artist? One way around that question is to refer to a compendium of all known works by a specific artist, the catalogue raisoneé. It can be helpful only, and, indeed, if it exists – not all artists’ work has been catalogued. Even if a catalogue exists, who can say absolutely all works by a particular artist are recorded to remove doubt that a piece I claim to be by x is indeed by x? For example, Rembrandt's catalogue underwent scholarly re-assessment in the late 60s under the auspices of the Rembrandt Research Project, and some works had been de-attributed! Therefore, whilst a good reference point in the larger sense, catalogue raisoneés are not, and should not be, the final destination for making an accurate attribution.

Experts' and scholars' work is imperative in assessing attributions. The eye of the connoisseur is required to view and opine. But what happens if an erroneous attribution is made?

The notion of 'sleepers' is well known in the art market, particularly in the auction context. 'Sleeper' artworks are 'misidentified' consignments that are undervalued and therefore undersold at auction.

Most recently, a potential sleeper cropped up at the Chayette & Cheval auction in Paris in November 2022. With the original estimate of EUR 5000, the painting Moses reached the hammer price of EUR 590,000. The auction house attributed the striking artwork to an anonymous follower of a baroque painter, Guido Reni, and therefore, the price estimate was very conservative. The auction catalogue entry for the lot did, however, allude to Guercino, another Italian baroque painter whose works have been consistently achieving mid-market as well as few recorded blue-chip prices at auctions, i.e. well above the Moses estimate. The catalogue compared Moses to a painting by Guercino Elijah fed by the Ravens, currently adorning the National Gallery. It would be exciting to see this artwork's future fate and if it is eventually confirmed as a Guercino sleeper. It could achieve even more outstanding results in subsequent re-sales. The bid had either been a great leap of faith on the buyer's part or, indeed, the buyer was a savvy dealer and a great observer of that market segment.

In this instance, the consignor of the painting most certainly was very happy with the auction result. But what would have happened had the painting sold for a price closer to the original estimate and mere months later re-sold for a considerably higher price, having been (subsequently) attributed to a higher-valued artist?

Such a dramatic outcome is well illustrated by a recent case concerning Simon Dickinson (SD) gallery. The gallery sold a work described as 'copie retouchée' meaning 'by another' with additions of a prominent 18th-century French artist, Chardin, titled Le Bénédicité. Such description was consistent with the corresponding catalogue raisoneé entry.  The painting sold in 2014 for £1,15 million, but the client sued the gallery after the artwork was re-sold mere months later for tens of millions as being attributed 'wholly by' Chardin. How did that happen? Between the two transactions, the painting had undergone a deep clean, revealing Chardin's signature warranting reattribution as unequivocally 'by Chardin'. The original seller's claim was unsuccessful, and SD were found not negligent in their appraisal; their attribution was consistent with the scholarly opinion at the time; the catalogue raisoneé description of the painting was not to be questioned by the gallery as the catalogue had been published by Pierre Rosenberg, the most renowned living authority on Chardin.  

Perhaps a curious outcome, cases of this sort are often non-concordant. As much as the caveat emptor principle applies to buyers, caveat venditor is essential for sellers, particularly in higher-value trades like the Old Master market.

And whilst there rarely exist hard and fast rules in the art world, sellers should trust their gut:  if you have a 'hunch' that more leg-work is needed in the appraisal of artwork, or indeed, a 'deep-clean' would not hurt, do not shy away from taking the necessary steps.

The lesson is clear: be sceptical about an attribution/appraisal. If you are selling high-value 'old' art, use instinct and prudence to ensure you are satisfied that enough has been done to vouch for a specific attribution. The most significant duty of care is that you owe to yourself.