An­thony Smith looks at the oc­ca­sion­ally dif­fi­cult area of art at­tri­bu­tion

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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

ART­SMITH An­thony Smith di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional art deal­ers

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