The tricky art of authentication Truth: Sometimes, only the artist or his or her family knows for sure whether a work is the real thing.

September 29, 1996|By Daniel Grant | Daniel Grant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last year, a small auction house in California, which was offering some sculptures by the late artist Robert Arneson, contacted Arneson's New York art dealer to inquire whether he would be interested in putting in a bid. "The works," said George Adams, director of New York City's Frumkin/Adams Gallery, "looked vaguely like Arneson's, but I was far from convinced."

Adams sent photographs of the sculptures to Arneson's widow, who identified them as having been done by the artist's sons when they were 10 and 12. The dealer then notified the auction house of the correct attribution of those works.

Except for the boys themselves (maybe), no one other than Arneson's widow would have known for certain who created those works.

Family members are frequently a source of information and expertise in the work of noted artists, having seen them at work, knowing their sources of inspiration and when particular pieces were created. There are fewer scholars in the work of modern and contemporary artists -- experts in the manner of an old masters authority, devoting a career to the study of one or more artists of a specific period.

"Sure, there are many people who have written about Hans Hofmann," said Andre Emmerich, a New York dealer who has represented that artist's work since the mid-1960s, "but that doesn't make them experts by any means. You need the daily familiarity of seeing the work and the intimate relationship between someone and the artist to even approach the possibility of expertise."

Major auction houses, which warrant the authenticity of the works they sell, have lists of experts for specific artists. They frequently find that there are no experts in the modern and contemporary area and must rely on dealers and family members.

"We contact family members of artists about all the works that are consigned to us," said Leslie Prouty, head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby's, the auction house. "They like to know what works by the artist are being sold, and they often have good records on these works that are helpful to us."

She noted that the daughters of sculptor David Smith and painter Philip Guston have kept especially good records, adding that living artists, such as Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra, have on-staff archivists to whom Sotheby's may turn for information or authentication.

The families of various artists have established foundations to track and verify all their known artworks. "We have records of everything that was fabricated," said Sarah Auld, administrative director of the Tony Smith Estate. "Tony saved everything -- drawings, notes, writings, clippings, sales receipts, letters -- and we know what's out there." In the event of an unexpected work that comes in for authentication, the artist's widow, Jane Smith, may be asked to take a look.

Thousands of Calders

The Calder Foundation keeps computer files on between 15,000 and 16,000 works (sculptures and gouaches, mostly) by Alexander Calder, and its authentication committee is kept busy with monthly viewings of between 10 and 40 works that are brought to the Pace Gallery in New York City by collectors for the committee's official opinion. That committee includes dealers, scholars, museum curators and members of the Calder family (two daughters and a grandson).

The artistic judgment of heirs is esteemed highly enough that, in France, the law allows them the final word in attribution. If the godson of Georges Braque says that the pastel isn't by Braque, no expert may claim that it is without risking a lawsuit (that godson's claim, in fact, nullified a sale at Christie's auction house in 1990).

Although not protected in law as in France, relatives of American artists are no less likely to claim expertise. Sandy Rower, a grandson of Calder and editor of the catalogue raisonne that is being prepared of the sculptor's work, claimed that his expertise in authenticating Calder's work is partly based on the fact that "I spent a lot of time in the studio with him. He showed me his techniques and materials, and explained why he made certain works in certain ways at certain times." Rower, 33, was only 13 when his grandfather died in 1976.

The relationship that family members may have with an artist may or may not be extensive. Relatives in France or anywhere else, of course, can make mistakes when put in charge of authentication. "We stopped directing inquiries to Mercedes Luks [widow of painter George Luks], because we received a number of letters from dealers, curators, and other people who questioned her opinions," said Peter Rathbone, head of the American paintings department at Sotheby's. "She married Luks late in his life and did not know very much about his life and work."

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