Thursday, June 21, 2012

Running for cover — connoisseurs run shy of legal backlash

As most recent art authentication cases have conclusively demonstrated, it is lawyers who stand to win the most when people litigate over attributions of works of art.

Connoisseurs and artists' foundations used to be the high priests of expertise on whether a work was authentic or not. However, as a New York Times article has just reported, many experts are now too scared to express an opinion for fear of being slammed with a lawsuit. (See my earlier blog post on the disputed Degas bronzes here.) Some foundations are now even choosing not to publish catalogues raisonnés.

All of these trends are further illustrations of an art market out of control as more and more speculators, investors, fund managers, advisors and 'agents' (many with no art historical knowledge or aesthetic sensibility) pile in and pump up prices.  The more prices rise, the more there is to win...or lose...thereby feeding the gaping maw of the legal profession. America has long been one of the most litigious societies in the world, but there is plenty of evidence that the UK is now at risk of being sucked into that same grim culture.

If connoisseurs and foundations withdraw their opinions, this could have the positive effect of deterring profit-seeking speculators from playing in this market. Without the reassurance of connoisseurial expertise to guide them they are less likely to engage with a market in which they lack the knowledge and information that is critical to good decision making. That can only be a positive development, for it  marginally increases the possibility of us returning to the important values  — critical, aesthetic, and art historical considerations as opposed to predominantly economic preoccupations.

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