WYWH: Recap of “Art, Law and Crisis of Connoisseurship Conference”

By Marie H. Kramer*

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 5.28.08 PM.pngOn Tuesday, December 1, 2015, the conference titled, “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” took place at The Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, London, UK. It was an international conference organized by ArtWatch UK, the Center for Art Law and the London School of Economics Cultural Heritage Law (UK). The program featured nineteen speakers, including artists, art historians, scientists and lawyers from Western and Central Europe as well as the United States, discussing how the ‘eye’ of the connoisseur interacts with art history and law. The conference was divided into three parts.

Part I: The Making of Art and the Power of Its Testimonies

Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK and one of the program organizers, opened the conference with his essay “Like/Unlike; Interests/Disinterest,” which focused on the 1991 trial of Professor James Beck in Italy. Columbia U. Art History Professor Beck was accused of aggravated criminal slander (which carried a possible three year imprisonment) for his critical comments on a restoration of the sculpture, an effigy of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca Cathedral. Beck had opined that the restorer ruined the sculpture by stripping its ancient patina to remove scratches and covering it with oil to create a new, shiny surface. Beck was ultimately acquitted of the charges setting precedent for the protection of future criticism of art restoration. After the trial, Beck and Daley joined forces to set up ArtWatch International, an organization dedicated to advocate for the protection of art against harmful restoration. The full story of the trials can be found in the book, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, co-written by Beck and Daley, which also includes criticism of the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Daley showed examples of the restoration effects on the Sistine Chapel, where delicate layers of shadow that the master painted himself, were removed under the guise of ‘cleaning’ off dirt deposits.

Next, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, a Greek painter and scholar, spoke about her three decades of research and criticism of the Rubens attribution of Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery in London. Her research of the provenance and the work revealed engravings and other painted ‘eye witnesses’ (copies made of the original Samson and Delilah painting by Rubens) that she contends do not match the version currently hanging in the National Gallery. Additionally, using her artist’s eye and the availability of high-resolution digital photographs, she observed visible differences in brush strokes from known Rubens paintings, as well as the use of different pigments. This is especially important because Rubens only used different red pigments to shade and highlight his red areas, rather than the white pigment used to lighten the red dress of Delilah in the National Gallery version. Now, still, Doxiadis continues to struggle to get her opinions heard and recognized by the National Gallery.

Jacques Franck, a French art historian and painter trained in Old Master techniques, explained “[w]hy the Mona Lisa would not survive modern day conservation treatment.”  Franck, who is a recognized authority on Leonardo da Vinci, has conducted an extensive investigation of the techniques used by Leonardo, especially his ‘sfumato’ (‘smoky finish’) method, in which colors and shades melt into one. Franck, who believes he has discovered how Leonardo accomplished this technique based on his years of personal experimentation, explained to the conference attendees that Leonardo applied ultra-thin layers of glaze and pigment to make his transitions, each layer only a few micrometers thick. Franck suggests that, clearly, modern conservation techniques that ‘clean’ off any of these thin layers of glaze would destroy the Mona Lisa and other Leonardo masterpieces.

With a continued focus on Leonardo Da Vinci, Ann Pizzorusso discussed the master’s work from the perspective of a geologist. Pizzorusso is a US professional geologist and a Renaissance scholar. She explained how geology can be used as a tool for determining attribution. Specifically, she noted that Leonardo was renown, not only as an artist, but also as a scientist. Leonardo carefully studied geology and botany, making extensive drawings of the world around him. Comparing the Virgin of the Rocks compositions hanging in the Louvre and in the National Gallery of London, Pizzorusso noted some odd differences. She could plainly identify the various rock formations in the Louvre version, but not so with the National Gallery version. Additionally, she noted that the plants in the National Gallery version, according to a botanist she consulted, were imaginary – not the precise petals and foliage of actual plants – a mistake she doubts Leonardo would ever make. Thus, she questions the attribution of the painting in the National Gallery.

Robin Clark, Sir William Ramsay Professor Emeritus at University College London, an inorganic chemist and spectroscopist, gave a fascinating discussion of the use of Raman microscopy (RM) to identify pigments in the palette of artwork. He explained how every pigment has a distinct pattern of scattered photons that can be seen after focusing a laser beam through a microscope—collectively referred to as its Raman spectrum. This unique pigment identifier is invaluable in determining the composition of the pigments and can give tremendous insight for authenticating and dating artwork, as well as conservation and restoration.

Unfortunately Segolene Bergeon-Langle, France’s Honorary General Curator of Heritage and a member of the Louvre’s preservation and conservation committee, was unable to attend the conference, but she provided her remarks, and Daley presented her main points about the relationship between science and art. She contends that scientific analysis can cause restorers to overlook the original artists’ formulations. For example, during the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, in the Louvre, the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration concluded that there was blanching (whitening) of a layer of varnish due to moisture or ageing that needed to be removed. Bergeon-Langle strongly disagreed, recognizing that the whitened area was not a later varnish to be removed, but was original to the painting – and perhaps a device used by the painter. She resigned from the restoration advisory committee in protest to the removal of the varnish and ‘over-cleaning,’ which left a visibly brighter composition. As an advocate for responsible stewardship, she contends that different fields of science and connoisseurship need to work together, so that the proper scientific questions are asked, and to permit art connoisseurs to work with scientists to collaboratively analyze and understand the true meaning of the results.

Michel Favre-Felix, a French painter and President of ARIPA (Association for the Respect of the Integrity of Artistic Heritage), discussed how some art restorers have dramatically changed certain works of art because they failed to look at the testimony of historical copies. One of the restorations he discussed was Veronese’s The Pilgrims of Emmaüs. The original, painted in 1560, had been changed more than once over the past 450 years; but there had been engravings made over the course of history, as well. Each restoration made changes that compounded prior mistakes. For example, a restoration in the 1950s deemed that the neckline on the cloak worn by the Pilgrim Luke was an overpaint from the 19th century, and removed it, notwithstanding an 18th century engraving showing that very neckline. These errors and others were compounded again in the Louvre’s more recent 2003-2004 restoration. The piece today makes a good example for the study of art restoration and perhaps, what not to do.

Kasia Pisarek, an independent art historian and research specialist on attribution in London, discussed modern attribution, specifically, the case of La Bella Principessa, a chalk and ink drawing on vellum depicting the profile of a girl appearing to be 15th century. It was recently attributed as a lost drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, but Pisarek proposed several arguments against such a finding. For example, she questioned the story that the vellum came from the Sforziad manuscript in Warsaw, noting that, among other problems, the hole punches that would have held the vellum sheet in place do not match the supposed original source of the drawing, the Sforza family album, which has five holes. Additionally, she discussed how the style and technique of the drawing are very different from Leonardo’s, but that several of his works and a sculptured bust by Cristoforo Romano might have been the sources for the drawing. The controversy will continue—indeed, convicted art forger Shaun Greenhalgh has recently claimed that he forged this “Leonardo” modeled after a girl he knew in 1975.

The first part of the conference was concluded with a brief discussion and a Q&A moderated by one of the conference organizers, Irina Tarsis, of Center for Art Law. A heated discussion ensued surrounding La Bella Principessa’s attribution that could only be categorized as a battle of experts.

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Part II: Righting the Record – Diverse Experts as Authority

Tatiana Flessas, professor of cultural heritage law at the London School of Economics and one of the conference organizers, introduced the early afternoon speakers, starting with Brian Allen, Chairman of the London Old Master dealers Hazlitt Ltd. Allen discussed what he termed ‘the new art history’—a change in the teaching of connoisseurship, especially in the UK, since the 1980s. He has noticed that universities are focusing on the social history of art, and not training art history students to differentiate artists by their stylistic traits. The effect is that fewer art historians will be able or willing to make attributions, and forgeries can be missed.

Peter Cannon-Brookes, former museum curator with strong interests in conservation and security, presented his essay, “Reconciling Connoisseurship with Different Means of Production of Works of Art.”  He follows Brian Allen’s discussion of the change in connoisseurship and how well modern art historians and connoisseurs really understand art from long ago. He questioned whether the more modern analysis of art—post-war era art to the present—could apply to art created in the past, and the processes used throughout the ages.   

Continuing with the theme of the changing nature of connoisseurship, Charles Hope, former Director of the Warburg Institute, discussed how modern connoisseurs have been unable or unwilling to support their basis for attributions. Often, two types of connoisseurship are at odds with one another: that based on expertise acquired over a long time and that based on using historical evidence and reason. In more distressing terms, Hope highlighted the fact that decisions about attribution are not based on the actual evidence to support the attribution, but left to a decision by vote.

Martin Eidelberg, Professor Emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, next discussed how science alone will not solve authentication issues, that there needs to be a collaboration among different disciplines in addition to extensive time for study. While creating a catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Watteau, he discovered how the provenance and scientific analysis of the paintings were not always a reliable means to determine accurate authorship and could lead to various misattributions.

Robin Simon, Editor of The British Art Journal and Honorary Professor of English, UCL, explained his discovery of multiple fake paintings, which were hanging in the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). Simon discovered that a single artist, between 1918 and 1948, painted over fifty paintings depicting cricket matches that purportedly dated from the 16th-20th centuries. After outing the pictures, they were removed from the MCC and quietly given to dealers, although a few fakes still remain in the MCC. Interestingly, Simon learned that the fake paintings were later sold to a wealthy collector who believed them to be authentic. So, the fakes have worked in two swindles.

A guest lecturer at the LSE and Director of the Art Law Foundation, Anne Laure Bandle, discussed her PhD paper on the sale of sleepers at auction and the liability of the auction house in such dealings. She focused on the notable Thwaytes suit against Sotheby’s for negligent advice regarding the value of The Cardsharps—allegedly missing the current expert attribution to Caravaggio. The High Court ruled in favor of Sotheby’s, finding that it had met its due diligence by using highly qualified experts who reasonably concluded that the quality was not sufficient to indicate a Caravaggio, rather than just a ‘follower.’

The next speaker, Elizabeth Simpson, Professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, departed from the field of fine arts to discuss the use of connoisseurship in the study of ancient art. Specifically, she explained how the ‘eye’ of the connoisseur has been used to identify the artists of ancient Greek artifacts. For example, by studying the stylistic traits of ancient Greek vases, scholars have been able to determine that two separate artists created works on two sides of the same vases – the Lysippides Painter (black-figure technique) and the Andokides Painter (red-figure). Connoisseurship also reunited disconnected ivory pieces stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the ancient chair or throne from which they came. The ivory pieces had been excavated without any record of the source or context of the figures. An investigation of the pieces and comparison to similar ivories with known provenance revealed how they fit together and their source (Anatolia). 

Part III: Wishful Thinking, Scientific Evidence and Legal Precedent

During the final portion of the program, participants discussed the implications of expert connoisseurs and science in the courtroom.

Irina Tarsis, an art historian, New York attorney, Founder and Director of Center for Art Law, and one of the program organizers, contextualized the litigation involving the renown Knoedler Gallery. Although of impeccable reputation, the Knoedler closed after more than 160 years in business in the face of at least ten lawsuits against the Gallery for selling forgeries. The Gallery sold over fifty paintings, many of which were thought to be by well-known abstract expressionists. They had been consigned by Glafira Rosales, who has now admitted to the forgeries. Thus, the question is, what was the duty of the Gallery to ensure appropriate authentication?  Interestingly, Tarsis reported that none of the museum purchasers have brought suit yet. Several of the private collectors who have brought suit have settled. Thus, the issue of a gallery’s due diligence regarding authentication and attribution in these matters has not been decided by the courts. The question also remains whether there is insurance coverage for all of the remaining claims and potential claims. The usual insurance policy may cover theft or damage to works of art, but not necessarily for loss due to misattribution. Further, the Knoedler may have a policy covering errors and omissions by its staff, but unlikely covering acts of fraud. The message is clear that collectors and dealers cannot rely on the representations of even a highly reputable gallery alone, without performing their own due diligence into authentication to protect themselves. Between December 1st and December 10th, one of the two Knoedler cases slated to go to trial in the January 2016 was settled.

Nicholas Eastaugh, Founder/Director of Art Analysis and Research Ltd., London, discussed the science of analyzing fine arts – the term he uses is ‘technical art history and materials science.’  He performs chemical analyses of the materials used in a painting and searches for anomalies in those paintings. For example, he analyzed Red Picture With Horses, supposedly a 1914 painting by Campendonk, but found titanium white pigment, which was not available at that time, evidencing a forgery by Wolfgang Beltracchi. He also uses high resolution digital imaging, X-rays and ultraviolet fluorescence to see below the painted surface. Earlier sketches and drawings (pentimenti) can show the true artist’s creative process in altering the composition along the way, rather than someone who is simply making a copy.

Megan E. Noh, Associate General Counsel of Bonhams, discussed recent legal trends in authentication disputes. One important change is that artists’ foundations and authentication boards have disbanded or stopped issuing certifications of authenticity. For example, there are no longer boards to authentic works by Basquiat, Warhol or Lichtenstein. This trend is coupled with increased litigation concerning authenticity. Modern litigants rely more on scientific evidence, but it often becomes a battle of the experts. Authenticators, however, are understandably cautious in giving opinions for fear of liability. Noh suggested some possible solutions, such as indemnification agreements or ‘no sue’ agreements to protect authenticators. In New York, there is an attempt to amend the Art and Cultural Affairs Law to protect authenticators by requiring enhanced pleading by plaintiffs filing suit against authenticators, and fee shifting requirements for the prevailing party. Favorable case law may also help reduce liability for authenticators.  Indeed, since the conference, a French court has overturned a 2013 judgment that required art expert Werner Spies to reimburse a collector for the price of a work that turned out to be another Beltracchi forgery, but that Spies authenticated as genuine in a catalogue raisonné. The French court held that an authenticator for a catalogue is not to be held to the higher standard of care as that of an expert consulted in the sale of a work.

Conclusion:

This fascinating conference brought together international experts in various fields of art, art history, science and law. The speakers recognized that controversy abounds as experts continue to reach different opinions regarding attribution of works of art, as well as what efforts to make to properly conserve works of art. As the value of art generally rises, the stakes are high. Disagreements over attribution are increasingly brought into the courts, where the battle of the experts in connoisseurship and science is left to the decision of judges and juries (those furthest from the art world). The eye of an experienced connoisseur, who can distinguish artistic styles, is still desperately needed. The ability to perform such a close inspection and analysis should be supplemented by modern scientific advances, but should never be replaced. Papers from the conference are being prepared for publication in 2016. In the meantime, the take away from the conference is to do due diligence and seek unbiased opinions for authentication or intervention in art handling from a combination of sources, including connoisseurs and scientists.  The conference also raised topics that warrant further exploration, such as ethical guidelines for conservators and how to seek and determine a consensus in opinions.

Suggested Readings:

About the author: Marie H. KramerPennsylvania attorney living in the United Kingdom, studying art and cultural heritage law. She can be reached at marie@kramerlegalbriefs.com 

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