Authenticity and connoisseurship

Expertise and risk management

Many collectors pay great attention to provenance, publication record and the ensemble of seals and inscriptions attached to a painting. This is seen as record of expert opinion and so serves as a major means of controlling risk. But it is not sufficient. Even the ‘paper trail’ of records of production, discovery or sale can be fabricated. Recently in Britain Shaun Greenhalgh and his parents created and sold fakes of a remarkable range of art, including Egyptian sculpture and nineteenth-century painting. The key to their success in fooling international museum curators and art historians was the fabrication of credible documentary provenances. Greenhalgh was convicted in 2007 after at least 17 years of forgery.

One can take further steps to reduce risk in collecting.

  • Seek the advice of recognised experts especially in respect to a particular artist or genre. Gaining the help of art historians or museum curators does however require time and patience. They are likely only to assist collectors with a serious and sustained interest in the field.
  • Expertise can be had indirectly, as when one buys from reputable auctions or dealers. Such parties perform a filtering function and put to stake their reputation. Where there is ample competitive bidding at an auction this also offers a degree of endorsement as serious bidders are likely to undertake research or have works examined by their own experts.
  • Purchase at a sufficiently high level. While one cannot be sure that more expensive works are not wrongly attributed (or ‘fake’) there is more judgement brought to bear on these by various parties. And those offering the work at a high price are aware it must pass a higher standard of test, or at least more rigorous inspection. In many Chinese auctions, works are offered under the name of a well-known artist, but at a price well below the market price of his best works. This is an indirect way of acknowledging a doubtful attribution (though more professional auction practice is to mark clearly doubtful work as 'attributed' (款)).
  • Finally, develop a measure of expertise oneself through study of available collections and publications.

Ultimately, one must consider how much risk to accept. There are aesthetically remarkable works that are only attributable to a school of painting, while otherwise fine works may have forged elements attached to them (such as faked seals, signatures or colophons that have been added to increase prestige or the appearance of authenticity.) And in many cases of hitherto unseen work there is likely to be some disagreement among experts, which is a characteristic of this field at this time.