Expertise at risk

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569)
The Parable of the Blind
Oil on canvas - 86 x 154 cm
Naples, Museo di Capodimonte
Photo: Wikimedia (public domain)
See the image in its page

For some time now, paintings by great names of the French 19th century have been appearing on the art market whose attribution, though asserted without nuance, is at best uncertain. All it takes is for the sellers or auctioneers to communicate adequately, and the general press sometimes falls for it and loudly celebrates the pseudo-discovery of a "masterpiece" without taking a step back.

This situation poses many problems. For the artists first, who are given works they have probably never touched and which give a poor idea of their talent. For the art market, which is inevitably weakened by objects that are devalued or false prices that compromise the sale of authentic works. For the buyers who, one day or another, perhaps in several years, when they want to part with what they have acquired, will be laughed at. And, finally, for the museums that have no interest in seeing art history scorned and certain artists belittled, museums that are becoming more and more cautious in their acquisitions and will be even more so when it comes to painters who are controversial for the wrong reasons; some museums even go so far as to validate certain attributions by hanging the paintings on their walls, on the occasion of exhibitions or temporary loans from unscrupulous collectors who thus legitimise adulterated works...

When asked, true connoisseurs, when they are curators, are unwilling or unable to be quoted for many reasons, good or bad, from the fear of a lawsuit (our society has a tendency to become Americanised in this respect) to the sacrosanct prohibition on a curator giving his or her opinion publicly on a painting offered on the market. This is a very convenient and variable restriction, since, fortunately, when they publish or hold exhibitions, civil servants give their opinions on works that do not belong to public collections.

A solution could be imagined to clean up the market, which would thus benefit everyone: that a committee be set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, including scientific representatives of museums (curators and restorers), market players, and independent personalities recognised in their field, the composition of which could vary according to the issues at stake, and which could debate certain disputed attributions. The result would not necessarily be to formally conclude the authenticity or non-authenticity of a work, but to publicly give everyone’s opinions, within a legal framework that would bring a certain legitimacy to these debates.

We are well aware that such an entity would be very difficult to set up, and that its operation would be complex. At the very least, it would be necessary to free up the voice of curators and civil servants who often include some of the best experts in the field, for some artists. It is abnormal that anyone can assert the attribution of a work when those who are the best experts are deprived of their free expression.

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