Anthony Smith looks at the occasionally difficult area of art attribution
Anthony Smith considers the risks of art attribution
Recently, as I frequently and regularly do, I was looking online at a number of auctions around the country as well as internationally and one thing hit me: the inaccuracy of many descriptions and in the specific case of fine art, misattributions (to be kind) in the cataloguing.
As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I purchased a painting at auction a few years back that was attributed to an Indonesian artist whose style was completely different to the work being offered. More recently, I also bid online and won a painting at a well-respected large auction house here in the UK that was attributed to an artist I knew reasonably well. From the on-screen image, it appeared to be by his hand.
However, after the auction I went and picked the work up and saw, quite to my amazement and disbelief that the work was actually signed and dated by a contemporary of this artist. When I approached the auction specialist, his only response was “well, that’s who the vendor said it was painted by.” Yet the signature, quite clearly visible, belied that.
More recently, I have been delving into 19th century English paintings, works I haven’t researched or sought out for many years. The misattributions I see so often are of concern. Perhaps it’s the perceived lack of value that leads some in-house ‘experts’ to arbitrarily make attributions. I should say that most of these issues with attribution occur in auctions overseas, so perhaps there is a legitimate reason why this occurs; lack of reference. However, the surname of a well-known artist on a painting that doesn’t match the artist’s signature or the style of the work itself, and in some cases even the subject matter or century of creation should be a small hint that it’s possibly not by the more well-known artist.
Why am I mentioning all of this? Simply because it is an issue and is clearly a trap for the unwary and for some, a potentially costly mistake.
This is not to say that these auction rooms are doing this intentionally, but through expediency or, as I have said, an arbitrary decision has been taken and it’s often quicker to say a work is by (say) Arthur Gilbert just because the work is a landscape and is signed Gilbert. For all we know, Gilbert may have been the artist’s first name.
This is a separate issue from forgery and faking works of art and I don’t know of any dealer who hasn’t been deceived in this way and that includes me!
So if you are a buyer at auction, not only of paintings but really of anything, the best advice I can give is to actually know what it is you are bidding on and do your homework before the auction. This applies too as much to attribution as it does to value, as many times I have seen people carried away with an adrenaline rush and even a combative, hormone-fuelled battle to see whose wallet or purse is deeper, much to the joy of the seller. N
What’s on in June
Visible Women continues at Norwich Castle, bringing together work from the castle’s modern and contemporary collection made by women to celebrate their work and open up conversations about the under-representation of female artists in public collections.
At East Gallery, Norwich University of the Arts, sculptures by Glasgowbased Nathan Coley (nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007) will be on display as well as one of his iconic light works in St Laurence’s church on St Benedict’s Street and finally at Fairhurst, After Durer, an exhibition of drawings by Ann-Marie James.
ABOVE: A real Arthur Gilbert Cambridge from Grantchester