Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Oxford seminar calls for more rigorous standards in technical art history

Professor Mark Pollard of the University of Oxford
 chairs the closing session at the research seminar  
We are just a few weeks away from a three-day international meeting in The Hague that seeks to address the highly topical issue of ‘Authentication in Art’.  To attend, you will need to fork out a swingeing €700 attendance fee, plus accommodation and expenses, all of which is likely to exclude a fair few interested commentators, myself included. 

So it was particularly constructive that Nicholas Eastaugh and Jilleen Nadolny of London-based Art Access & Research, the leading specialists in art materials analysis, organised a free, one-day symposium at Trinity College Oxford to explore some of the core issues facing this emerging discipline. Yesterday’s event was also used to informally announce the imminent launch of Dr Konstantin Akinsha's Russian Avant-Garde Research Project (RARP), an explicit acknowledgment that Russian modernist art remains particularly susceptible to fakes and forgeries. 

The 30 delegates at Oxford were drawn from a range of scientific and art historical disciplines, reflecting the extent to which this burgeoning research area requires a blend of analytical and interpretative methodologies embracing art history, pigment and materials studies, connoisseurship, analytical chemistry, database technology, and so on. 

It will be interesting to see whether The Hague meeting succeeds in progressing any of the ideas and aspirations discussed at the Oxford seminar, most of which centred around the need for more rigorous professional standards and protocols. With the art market booming again, and fakes proliferating, it now seems clear that charlatanism is not confined to the faking of paintings and the forging of provenance documentation. It also extends to a new breed of self-appointed and ethically compromised ‘forensic scientists’ willing to issue certificates of authenticity for inauthentic works in return for financial kickbacks. 

There are essentially two aspects to what is now commonly termed ‘technical art history’ (the fuzzy issue of nomenclature was another underlying theme of the seminar) — academic analysis of works of art and market-commissioned analysis. However, it is not widely known that the leading practitioners of the latter also take a disinterested approach to what they do. 

Research and analysis conducted by Eastaugh and Nadolny at Art Access & Research is entirely disconnected from any market outcome and their fees are in no way dependent on the real or notional value of the works they investigate. That approach represents the industry benchmark for best practice. However, there are still too many market participants seeking the services of the art market equivalent of snake oil salesmen to endorse and authenticate questionable pictures. The distinction between academic and commercial motives has become a leitmotif of art forensics. 

Boris Kustodiev's Odalisque, ...or is it?
What can the industry do to combat ethically negotiable practitioners? That is yet to be decided. As the symposium heard, conventional courts of law are ill-qualified to pronounce on art market matters and too often their judgements are flawed, as the recent case of the Kustodiev canvas at Christie’s (right) suggests.  

The art market is often described as “the last unregulated market,” but not everyone agrees with that assessment. My recent blog entry (here), which hinted at a putative correspondence between the activities of hedge funds in the financial markets and opportunities for insider trading at the top of the art market, was dismissed by Art Market Monitor as “a spurious connection that retails the mistaken idea that there is no regulation in the auction market (a falsehood that never seems to die).” 

In my piece I quoted New York Magazine writer Andrew Rice who recently wrote: 

“It’s an opaque market, where secret side deals, price manipulation, kickbacks, and collusion are an everyday facet of business. It rewards inside information, and since the market is largely unregulated, players can trade on it without any fear of legal consequences.”

Certain aspects of the art market are indeed regulated, as Art Market Monitor maintains; the conventional rule of law pertains as much in the art world as it does in any other sphere. Money-laundering and other fraudulent practices are generally dealt with severely (forgery seems to be an exception, inviting short sentences in open prisons, and celebrity media contracts on release). The processes of self-regulation work…but only to a degree. Opportunities to exploit the informal nature of the art trade are abundant and potentially destabilising, as the recent Beltracchi, Knoedler, and Subhash Kapoor cases amply demonstrate. 

During the Oxford seminar's closing discussion, Dr Anna Dempster of Sotheby’s Institute called for a more nuanced understanding of the balance to be struck between market transparency and the confidentiality that most art professionals see as essential to a healthy trade. Summarising, Nicholas Eastaugh called for a professional code of practice in art authentication, preferably one ratified by the main professional bodies and leading market participants. It was agreed that a starting point would be a consensus on minimum standards.

Questions that might re-emerge at the forthcoming Hague conference include: how to promote creative collaboration between art historians and their ‘technical’ counterparts; how to get the technical laboratories to work productively together; and how to expose those unqualified practitioners with unacceptably close ties to market outcomes. 

One thing seems certain — “Connoisseurship down the microscope,” so to speak, is here to stay.

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