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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

The relationship that an artist's family members may have with one another may also muddy the waters when seeking an authentication. The Picasso committee, composed of all the artist's heirs for the purpose of authenticating works, broke up when Picasso's daughter Maya refused to participate any longer. Now, collectors must seek out experts here and there to authenticate their Picassos.

There are many sources of information about what an artist has done, when, and for what reasons. Art dealers, who have maintained long-time relationships with particular artists, may also have irrefutable evidence in correctly attributing artworks. Most artists who have gained prominence since the end of World War II have exhibited and sold their work exclusively through art dealers. It is the sale records and familiarity with both the artist and his or her art that gives the verdicts of dealers considerable ++ weight. "There's nothing like being financially involved with an artist's work to train someone's eye," said Diane Upright, director of contemporary art at Christie's.

In the book

Many dealers sponsor or participate in the creation of catalogues raisonnes -- books that authoritatively present all the known works by a given artist -- both to ward off potential fakes and frauds and to define the market for the artist. Inclusion in such a book is mandatory for owning a work by the particular artist, as the failure to have one's work listed as authentic in the catalogue raisonne would make the object more difficult to sell at market value. For this reason, collectors clamor to get their works in.

The creators of catalogues raisonnes clearly wield considerable power, which they ensure by having any and all collectors sign a document that precludes the possibility of a lawsuit in the event that they decide the specific work cannot be attributed to the particular artist.

Some dealers have authenticity committees to decide attributions of artworks by particular artists. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which disperses the works by the artist in Warhol's estate, and the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which handles the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, both have created these committees, in part to more effectively wage battle against a growing number of fakes, forgeries and mis-attributions in the Basquiat and Warhol markets.

Putting together an authentication committee is as much a balancing act of mutual interests as it is a search for knowledge and connoisseurship. The Basquiat committee, for example, was formed by the gallery that was assigned to handle the artist's estate after he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. Unlike the Calder committee, which includes a number of older art dealers who represented and knew the artist, Basquiat's two main dealers during his brief career -- Annina Nosei and Mary Boone -- are not part of the committee.

According to one member of the Basquiat committee, former Whitney Museum of American Art curator Richard Marshall, "Mary Boone wasn't even asked." Instead, the Basquiat committee includes the Robert Miller Gallery's director, John Cheim; a magazine publisher and Basquiat collector; the artist's father; two long-time boosters of the artist's work; and Marshall. The cost of the committee's opinion is $100.

None of the dealers through whom Warhol sold his work are members of the Andy Warhol Authentication Board, which consists of a longtime Warhol confidant; an independent curator; and two art historians currently at work on a Warhol catalogue raisonne. This board does not charge a fee for its opinions.

A slippery field

Art expertise is not an exact science, and few sources of connoisseurship, however reputable, are above suspicion of self-interest. If family members may not know or remember what the artist was doing when, dealers may have a proprietary interest in raising doubts about the authenticity of works they are not selling or which they believe may harm the artist's reputation.

And when dealers are in charge of authenticating works by artists they represent, "there is a question of compromise," said Nancy Little, director of the Art Authentication Service of the nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research, based in New York. "When a dealer holds a financial interest in a work, his opinions may be tainted."

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