A classic “switch in” can be found in Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo’s book Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art. London con man John Drewe had an accomplice forge an array of paintings and drawings, including Nicholsons and Giacomettis, all in the $400,000 range, modest enough in value to be below the market’s radar. He created provenance sheets and inserted them into the artists’ archives at the libraries of the Tate and the Victoria & Albert museums. That way, anyone checking on the works would find them duly listed.
Not long ago, while I was doing due diligence on a De Chirico, I learned that the painting had been in a gallery show in 1960. I found a copy of the show’s brochure at the Getty, and though there was no photo of the painting in the brochure, its title and dimensions were listed. With “switch ins” in mind, I remained unsure: Italian forgers not only forge the paintings, they also fabricate the catalogs.
If checking provenance is an inexact method for establishing authenticity, shouldn’t we turn to science? Was the paint or type of canvas extant at the time the work was supposed to be painted? Not so fast. It’s rare that you find anachronistic materials. The tests can be extremely expensive, and since most artists used a variety of materials in no consistent pattern, scientific studies are rarely a practical solution. (Any takers for fractals?)
The jury is still out on whether or not the closing of the committees will affect the market for those artists’ works. Most of us will probably be willing to pay more for a work that’s been approved by an authentication committee than we will for one that hasn’t. Surely other committees will form and experts will take the reins. But will they be enough? Imagine what will happen when forgeries of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings start trickling onto the market. (Word on the street is that they already have.) He’s painted only a handful himself, and he’s said about artist and one-time studio assistant Rachel Howard, “She’s brilliant, absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot paintings you can have by me is one by Rachel.”
Will he or anyone else be able to tell a forgery from one of the 1,500 versions by Ms. Howard and others? Only time will tell. Sometimes, when I’m feeling overly confident, I recall the words of Theodore Rousseau, an esteemed curator at the Metropolitan. “We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries,” he said. “The good ones are still hanging on the walls.”
Barbara Guggenheim started an art advisory firm in 1980. For the past 22 years, she has been a partner, with Abigail Asher, in Guggenheim, Asher, Associates, Inc. This essay is part of her forthcoming book about the art world.
CORRECTION: FEBRUARY 8: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Dedalus Foundation is disbanding its authentication committee.