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A is for Authenticity

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” So writes Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Unless you are a collector of Contemporary Art buying work directly from an artist, the question of authenticity and whether the work you have set your heart on is what it purports to be, has to be a question to consider, even if only momentarily. How you work out the authenticity of a work of art very much depends on what you are buying and where from. As my expertise is in Modern British Art, I will be examining the concept of authenticity through that lens. To find out more read on here.

A is for Authenticity

Things every collector should consider when buying a work of art:

  1. Look at the work itself. Examine its form and presentation and the handling of the work. Is there a consistency there that you would expect from the artist? Ask yourself if you are familiar enough with the artist to back your own judgement. Is there a signature and date and/or any inscriptions front or reverse? Sometimes there are studio stamps. Do the markings, whatever they are, look to be in order and have integrity to the piece? Studio stamps are mostly added after an artist’s death so will often look fresher and less aged than the rest of the work. I am thinking of the ‘KV’ stamp for the Keith Vaughan studio, for example – a dark black inky stamp which stands out clearly as additional to the original works.
  2. Provenance – where has this object been until now? Who has owned it, cared for it, indeed does it look cared for? Has the work been in a private or public collection? Who is offering the work to you now? What is their connection to the work and the artist? Are they a relative/descendant of the artist, a professional art advisor, a gallery who perhaps represents the artist or is a specialist in the field, or an auction house? How much can you trust the expertise of the present source? Do they know enough about what they are offering you?
  3. For an older work of art, check for labels on the back of paintings that may be clues to the history of the work and help you trace where it has been. However, labels can also be misleading. I have many times seen labels that bear no relation at all to the painting on the other side of the panel or canvas. Sometimes frames are reappropriated, and labels do not relate properly. Scribbled markings may not relate to the artist’s own hand – they may be their dealer’s, the framer’s, someone else’s such as a previous owner. Do not assume. There is, however, nothing better than seeing the back of a painting that has an illustrious exhibition history – the labels telling the story of its history as a cultural vessel that has travelled to be displayed and admired.
  4. Auction house marks – can you spot them? Christie’s and Sotheby’s have distinctive marks and if you’re lucky enough to have a subscription, you can check online databases to find out which sales they may relate to.
  5. Exhibitions and literature − the library is every valuer’s best friend. Check out all the literature – if there are exhibition labels on the reverse, trace the exhibition, check the work was actually shown in the exhibition – was it illustrated – does it say who owned or lent it? What else can you find out? Check the catalogue raisonée, if one exists. These are wonderful but also not always complete. In my time, I have helped several drawings by Henry Moore enter the official archives and one Velasquez oil painting… that’s another story.

    Follow your instincts. Many years ago, I was researching a Ben Nicholson that had come in for sale when I was in the auction house – the work had been bought fifteen years earlier for quite a sum and had good looking labels. The work itself looked plausible, with age. However the research kept on raising more questions than answering them. The label on the reverse, it turns out, was a fake – pointing to an exhibition at the ICA that never existed. Incredibly plausible on first impressions, the next step was to go on to step 6…

  6. Ask an expert. If in doubt, get the opinion of a trusted expert. In the case of the Ben Nicholson, I ended up showing it to Sir Alan Bowness, previous director of the Tate, who pronounced the work a fake. We couldn’t sell the painting – the owner’s nest egg evaporated overnight. Ben Nicholson was the victim here of an audacious forgery scam that had rocked the art world and our client was the unfortunate victim, read more here.
  7. Always keep an open mind and don’t discount the facts you have at hand or overlook the small discrepancies. Employing an art consultant can help minimise risk, as they are aware of the pitfalls to look out for. Of course you knew I was going to say that, but experience is really the one thing that helps when it comes to working out authenticity.

Back to Benjamin who helpfully states, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”

Authenticity in Contemporary Art

When buying from a contemporary artist, you don’t need to worry about provenance, as the artist is right there. What you might want to consider though, is whether the art is something you rate or is good. And that I would call ‘authenticity of vision.’ Where has the work come from, is it part of an overall body of work, what is it that drives the artist? Are they being their authentic selves? Once upon a time we might have called this kind of authenticity ‘Truth’. What is the Truth of the work, and is that truth, that idea, something you wish to connect to? To quote Keats:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”