Art experts refuse to stand up to forgeries and mislabeled art for fear of being sued

An article in today’s New York Times details a very disturbing trend: curators, scholars and other art experts are refusing to have an opinion on whether a work of art is genuine or not.

By genuine, what the article and all the art experts quoted mean to say is that the art was created by the person to whom it is attributed, always a famous artist.

The reason that the art experts are afraid to do what their job is—analyze art and determine its authenticity—is that they are afraid of being sued by either a purchaser or a seller who learns that her  Rodin is not really a Rodin. With paintings going for tens and sometimes hundreds of millions, a lot is at stake when someone says that a painting that was thought to be a Leonardo or a Matisse was really painted by someone else—a follower, a member of the school or even an out-and-out forgery. 

When lots of money is on the line, people often sue when they don’t get their way, so it makes sense that they would sue someone who can cost them money because of a studied opinion.

For example, the Times article includes a photo of some of 74 plasters attributed to Edgar Degas. Too quote the caption: “fearing lawsuits, scholars are afraid to declare them genuine or not.”

It may make sense to those who initiate these lawsuits, but that doesn’t change the highly suspect ethical position of the art expert who bites his tongue about his professional opinion. The lack of integrity of the art expert who lets pass a forgery or a mislabeled painting is, as the Romans used to say, “res ipso loquitur or “a thing that proves itself.” It’s similar to a stock analyst who won’t pan a stock because his company is selling it or the public relations executive who lets a company lie in a news release because it’s a large client. It’s just plain wrong. And it’s a betrayal of the trust that society puts in experts and other intellectuals. (The first to use the term “betrayal of the intellectuals” was Julian Benda, who argued in 1927 that European intellectuals of the preceding hundred years often ceased to follow their professional dictates to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for nationalism, warmongering and racism.) 

The most intriguing part of the story, though, is not what it says about yet another betrayal by intellectuals, but what it says about the power of branding.

Just think about it: here is a beautiful work of art that delights or stuns or evokes some emotional and intellectual reaction that is both pleasurable and edifying.  Suddenly you learn that it’s not a Picasso and so it’s worth less money.  Or an absolute monstrosity of a drawing, just as “fuggly” as you could imagine—but then you learn that John Chamberlain did it as a sketch for one of his metal sculptures and suddenly it gains in value. The value of the artwork increases or decreases dramatically by attaching a name to or detaching a name from the work, whose essence remains the same. It’s like bottling tap water, giving it a name that evokes health or purity and selling it as special water, wait…they’ve been doing that for years!

When the name of the artist and his or her general style becomes a brand, the value of which inflates the price that people and museums are willing to pay for the work, people are really buying the name more than they are buying the work itself. As with Coke, Bill Blass or even Paul Newman’s salad dressing, the power of the brand is an integral part of the product. The brand on a product usually stands for a set of values with which the company wants to associate its products, or it enables the company to extend to other markets or other product types easily, because people know the brand. In the case of the name of an artist, the product doesn’t change, just the price people are willing to pay for it.

The power of branding in art is ultimately bad for society, for this reason: rich folk trade this art between themselves or buy it and donate it to museums (often years later for a tax break on the current value which may be many times what was originally paid for the piece). All of this money is thereby kept out of the real economy. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t help the economy grow. It’s just another proof that cutting taxes on the wealthy (as Bush II did twice and Romney wants to do again) doesn’t create more jobs than if the government had used the money to improve our roads, reduce the number of kids in public school classes or invest in advanced technologies.  We should end the tax deduction for giving art to museums or assess a very steep tax on all art purchases of more than $250,000. My solution would be to return to the taxation system of 1979, which will not only result in the wealthy having far less money to spend on frivolities such as signatures at the bottom of paintings, but also help to create a more equitable distribution of wealth.

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