Strength of Attribution Depends on
Who's Doing the Attributing
Q: I'm thinking about buying a painting that's attributed to a famous artist. According to the seller who is listing it on an online auction site, this means that in his opinion, the painting is probably by the artist, but he can't be sure. So he's attributing it instead. He says he hasn't shown it to an expert or had it appraised; that's for me to do if I buy it.
The painting costs a lot less money than other paintings by the artist, but it's still not cheap. I can probably get it for $10000-$20000. I'm thinking about buying it because if it turns out to be by the artist, it's worth $500,000-$700,000. Should I go for it? Can you tell me anything about attributions? What are my chances of getting the painting authenticated or proving that it's actually by the artist?
A: Let's answer the last question first. Your chances of getting the painting authenticated are exceptionally close to ZERO. To repeat, you have next to NO CHANCE of proving this painting is by the artist who the seller is attributing it to, and I'm being generous here. In the great majority of cases like this where art is being attributed, the seller making the attribution in combination with the item description and other circumstantial indications surrounding the sale tell you at least as much, if not more, than the art itself. And this sale (hopefully non-sale) is no exception. The sad truth these days, particularly at online auctions, is that "attributing" art has become a cottage industry... and great way for unscrupulous sellers to stick unsuspecting buyers with problem art. All they have to find is one soft-touch chump who believes they have a chance in hell of authenticating the art and hitting the jackpot, and the money will come rolling in. To make matters worse, the websites hosting these auctions often look the other way even though they're well aware of the problems.
For starters, when a painting or other work of art is "attributed" to an artist, it means that in the opinion of a knowledgeable nationally or internationally recognized or respected expert on the artist in question, the art is likely to be the work of that artist. The key phrase here is "a knowledgeable expert." Only recognized and respected authorities on an artist are qualified to make attributions that have any credibility whatsoever in the art community. How one becomes a recognized and respected authority includes years of intensive study of the life and art of the artist, personally inspecting and examining numerous works of the artist's art, buying and selling multiple works by the artist over a significant period of time, publishing scholarly books or catalogues or papers about the artist, curating shows of work by the artist, giving lectures about the artist, personally knowing and/or working with the artist or their family or estate administrators over a significant period of time, being the artist's dealer, or being a family member, relative, executor or spouse of the artist.
Assuming the individual making an attribution is qualified to make it, for that attribution to be taken seriously, they must clearly explain in detail why they believe the work of art in question appears to be by the hand of the artist, and support all claims with facts about the art, the artist and the artist's career. A credible attribution typically discusses various aspects of the art including its size, style, materials, construction, composition, pattern of brush strokes, surface texture, colors, relation of subject matter to subject matters of other known works by the artist, framing, mounting (like how a canvas is attached to the stretcher bars), names of suppliers or manufacturers of materials that might be stamped somewhere on the art, signature style and location, similarity of compositional details to those of other known compositions by the artist, a comparison to other known works created around the same time, and so on.
An attribution is an expository report or document; it is not a simple phrase like "attributed to (name of artist)", it is not a sentence or two, it is not an unsupported or offhand remark. It must be in print or writing or otherwise available for viewing, and it must be signed or otherwise endorsed by the authority who made it.
An attribution is NOT unsubstantiated or casual remarks such as the following:
* "The signature looks good."
* "It's looks like art I've seen in books."
* "It looks like other art by the artist."
* "It looks like it's from the right time period."
* "It came from an important estate."
* "It belonged to a well-known collector."
* "It came from a wealthy family."
* "The previous owner paid a lot of money for it."
In case you still wish to continue your quest to lose money, ask the seller what their qualifications are to make this attribution. Then ask for a full explanation of the attribution based on details or characteristics of the art and supported with facts about the artist's life and work. Then ask for it in writing, either signed or emailed to you. Then ask why, since the painting is attributed to a famous artist, they're apparently willing to sell it for only a tiny percentage of its potential retail value should it turn out to be by the artist. While you're at it, ask yourself that question too. Then ask yourself what makes you think you're about to become the incredibly fortunate benefactor of this seller's largesse.
While you're still at it, you might also ask why he hasn't shown the painting to an expert or had it appraised. If you thought you owned a painting by a famous artist that was worth as much as a nice house in a better part of town, wouldn't you show it to an expert and try to get it authenticated? Wouldn't showing it to an expert be really high on your list of priorities? Wouldn't you do everything you possibly could to get it authenticated? Wouldn't you contact a major auction house or two to see whether they'd be interested in selling it rather than take your chances online? Putting it up for sale at a bargain price without first exhausting all options to determine whether it's the real deal makes absolutely no sense, and should immediately arouse suspicion on your part.
This seller likely knows exactly what they're doing. By reading the item description, it's clear that they know something about art and how the art market works. They almost certainly know never to let go of anything that has potential value unless they've fully researched and evaluated it first. They appear to know to make every reasonable effort to authenticate any work of art they suspect may be by a well-known artist and/or have substantial value BEFORE placing it up for sale at a ridiculously low price. You can pretty much conclude that the only sellers who don't do this, or who say they don't, are deliberately out to deceive. So do yourself a favor-- don't buy this art and never do business with this seller again.
To repeat- attribution abuse is widespread, particularly at online auctions. Unqualified sellers and smaller auction companies make unsubstantiated claims about art all the time. Unfortunately, best procedure is never to buy attributed art at online auctions or anywhere else unless the person making the attribution is a recognized and respected authority on the artist, the attribution explains in detail and with references why the art in question is likely the work of a particular artist, and that the person making it takes full responsibility for all stated claims and information. Even when all these conditions are met, pay nowhere near what you would pay for a genuine work of art. Know going in that when even an expert on the artist is not totally positive the work is by the artist, it's unlikely that anyone else will step in and conclude otherwise. In closing, if it looks too good to be true, it usually is. And this particular "opportunity" without doubt falls into that category.
(art by MEAR ONE)
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