By Noor Kadhim.

Was it rashness, a need to burn a hole in his wallet, or simply sheer passion that prompted a buyer to fork out more than $90,000,000 for Sandro Botticelli’s “Young Man Holding a Roundel” at Sotheby’s New York auction in January 2021?[1] The work, dated 1480, last exchanged hands for a paltry £810,000 in 1982, after it had been handed down through several generations of an aristocratic family in Wales for about two centuries.[2] One hell of a return on investment, you could say.

No one could doubt the exquisite quality of the portrait. It is thought by some to be a portrait of Lorenzo de Pierfrancesco dé Medici, a cousin of the famous Lorenzo dé Medici, ruler of Florence in the 15th century, and one of the foremost patrons of the High Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Sotheby’s thought it one of Botticelli’s finest portraits. New technical examinations using scientific methods also assisted the auction house’s confident attribution to Botticelli, endorsed by experts in Renaissance art who had formerly questioned such attribution.[3]

But there remains one issue: “Young Man Holding a Roundel” has an incomplete provenance that apparently stops sometime in the late nineteenth century. Nobody can even be sure who commissioned it. Because of this lack of documentation, some critics still cannot be sure whether to attribute the work to Botticelli or to one of his school of followers.[4]

Attribution of authorship is based on numerous factors of which provenance is only one. It would be unreasonable to suggest that you could have a reliable origin for everything that is four or five hundred years old when war, natural disaster, economic failure, appropriation, or theft will have contributed to an uncertain history.

In addition to provenance, we also look to expertise, or what used to be called connoisseurship, to adjudge authenticity. An ‘expert’ will look at everything. In a painting, this will be the line and the brushstrokes, the structure, subject matter, materials, comparisons, and underpainting. With works on paper, they look to watermarks, inscriptions, collector’s stamps. Ideally, expertise will be supported by a full provenance, to produce a reliable conclusion of authenticity.

But what happens when, in the face of a lack of provenance, all we have to rely on is expertise? We must then entrust a small pool of experts to arrive at a suitably experienced, untainted, and unbiased conclusion about the authenticity of an artwork. In terms of experience, no professional, scholarly or other qualification requirements are needed to set up and declare oneself an expert or to establish an art foundation dedicated to the task of authentication. If certain institutions or important people in the art market come to accept one’s legitimacy, this imbues one with a certain power in specialist fields.

Next comes the issue of independence. Many artists’ foundations are run by friends or family of the artists.[5] Some authentication boards or foundations may be run by people who are themselves collectors of the artist and in whose works they have a vested interest. Controversies and disputes have led some foundations to cease authenticating works in the face of legal actions claiming their decisions were wrongful or negligent, such as in the case of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s authentication committee, closed in 2011,[6] and prior to that, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which disbanded its authentication board in 1996 following the 1978 publication of the Pollock catalogue raisonné.[7] In their place, a gap is left: who will do the job now?

Further, experts are not infallible. Questions of authenticity are often incorrectly viewed as a black and white question; whereas the real question for a judge or jury is whether it was merely reasonable that an opinion is held. There are, quite simply, cases of ‘maybe’, that may never be fully resolved. And while contemporaneous documents do not change, experts’ opinions can and sometimes do. Authenticity is a fluid concept that depends on the state of opinion at a specific time. Works previously thought to be genuine might suddenly be deemed to be fake, depending on which expert you turn to, and when new information comes to light, the same expert can change their mind. This happened in the case of the three paintings by JMW Turner deemed fakes and locked away for half a century until they were found to be genuine, including by the expert who first declared them inauthentic.[8] Of course, people of skill are entitled to have an opinion, and to change them, sometimes for good reason. But since the beginning of commercial trade in art there have been incentives for people in the art world, including academics, to validate an attribution. The Renaissance expert, Bernard Berenson, was supposedly infamousfor his ‘optimistic’ attributions of Italian old masters, which he was said to sell to collectors at vast profit.[9]

Whatever the reliability of artistic scholarship and the motivations of the anonymous players behind the curtains, it is true that the desire for status enhancement is endemic in the art world.  Wishful thinking can lead to blithe acceptance that an artwork is authentic just because the label, wherever it is found, in an auction catalogue or a museum wall, says it is. And paying a price in the tens of millions of dollars, such as in the case of the Botticelli, or other high value purchases in its ballpark, can be as much to do with prestige as desiring to own an aesthetically pleasing and significant masterpiece.

The Old Masters is an area that has often been at the center of this spotlight, owing to the hundreds of years that have passed since the creation of the works, and possibly the decreasing expertise in them. The sale of the Botticelli, and that of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” in 2017 to a Saudi prince at the even more overblown price of $450,000,000, showed that contrary to what has been said, this niche market is far from dead.[10] 

Of all of these, the Salvator Mundi’s ‘success’ was the most astounding. It  seemed to be less  a triumph of art, than of sales and marketing. One of its scandals was that it was shown in the National Gallery in London as a da Vinci, when it was supposedly common knowledge that it was up for sale.[11] Its validation by a national museum just before the sale could have been mere coincidence, or an ingenious marketing exercise on the part of the auction house. Ironically, the Louvre now refers to it only as ‘attributed’ to da Vinci– a considerable proportion of which (according to art critic Jerry Saltz, over 90%) was actually by the hand of the restorers that ‘fixed’ it rather than the great man himself.[12] And to make matters more interesting, nobody can even be certain of its whereabouts today.

In addition, purchasers of the kind who are willing to spend such eye watering amounts are also often paying to have what they think is ‘the last one in circulation’. The desire to have ‘the last’ of something valuable and scarce might be a malady of the 21st century, where less work is truly original and much is reproducible without great effort. Commentators such as ArtWatch have voiced concern that the paucity of qualified expertise in some areas has led some in the art market to attempt to profit from this ‘last man standing’ cachet.[13] For instance, ArtWatch claims that the practice of ‘upgrading paintings’ has led to two works “by Van Dyck” being presented in two museums, both claimed as “The Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, as well as an upgraded third painting that has been presented in a third museum as a lost, earlier Van Dyck self-portrait.[14] Such upgrades can apparently be effected with such apparent ease by lesser qualified art connoisseurs with perhaps an ulterior agenda. This becomes of concern to the wider public when we consider that such works are not just confined to the private sphere, but are being displayed and potentially incorrectly attributed in our galleries and museums. The J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, is thought to have several fakes in its collection, many of which were said to be the result of hasty purchases influenced by the kind of wishful thinking mentioned earlier.[15] Only last year did it finally admit, for example, that a Gauguin sculpture it had bought from the Wildenstein gallery that it was warned about in 2002, was a fake.[16]

At least that work only caused a dent of $4 million.[17] Despite gaps in provenance, or discord between eminent experts about a work’s authenticity, a small pool of collectors in the art market still thinks it perfectly reasonable to blow a sizeable percentage of the GDP of a small nation on artwork. People desire beauty and rarity, especially in bleak times, and are sometimes prepared to pay over the odds for them. Some collectors, possibly undergoing an existential crisis during a calamity-ridden era, might also crave a piece of a golden age that will not be replicated. These were times when the powerful families of the ages of Empire and Imperialism had the capacity to commission masterpieces, only a fraction of which survive today. 

So, at the core, does it matter what ‘the truth’ is? Does it make a difference whether or not a piece is incontrovertibly proven to be ‘the first’, or ‘the last’, or ‘the best’ of its kind? Is it not enough that the art market tells us that they are? Ownership of a Botticelli from the heyday of Renaissance Florence is part ownership of a glorious past – and in that sense, value has little to do with expertise or price.


Endnotes:

  1. Katya Kazakina, A Botticelli Portrait Sells for $92 Million at Sotheby’s Auction, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2021).
  2. BBC News, Botticelli painting fetches record of $92m at auction (Jan. 28, 2021).
  3. See Matthew Hayes & Karen E. Thomas, The Materials and Making of Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel, Sotheby’s: Old Master Paintings (Dec. 21, 2020).
  4. Alison Cole, Why Sotheby’s $80m Botticelli continues to mystify experts, The Art Newspaper (Jan. 21, 2021, 1:07 PM).
  5. Martin Wilson, Elgar Practical Guides, Art Law and the Business of Art 136 (2019).
  6. See Simon-Whelan v. Andy Warhol Found. for The Visual Arts, Inc., No. 1:2007-cv-06423, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44242, at *2 (S.D.N.Y May 26, 2009); The Center for Art Law, Will the Real Andy Warhol Please Stand Up: the Authentication Board to shut down (Oct. 24, 2011); see also Darlene B. Fairman, Arbiters of Authenticity, 5 Art & Advocacy 6, 6-7 (2010).
  7. Lesley M. M. Blume, The Canvas and the Triangle, Vanity Fair (Aug. 22, 2012).
  8. BBC News, JMW Turner: National Museum Cardiff’s paintings ‘genuine’ (Sept. 24, 2012).
  9. Andrew Russeth, Did Berenson and Duveen Misattribute Works for Their Gain? ‘The New Yorker’ Takes a Look, Observer (Oct. 1.2012, 1:57 PM).
  10. David D. Kirkpatrick, Mystery Buyer of $450 Million ‘Salvator Mundi’ Was a Saudi Prince, N.Y. Times (Dec. 6, 2017).
  11. See Martin Bailey, London’s National Gallery defends inclusion of Salvator Mundi in Leonardo show after criticism in new book, The Art Newspaper (Apr. 15, 2019 11:22 AM).
  12. Eileen Kinsella, Jerry Saltz and Other Doubters Love to Hate Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’—But Here’s What the Experts Think, Artnet (Nov. 14, 2017).
  13. See Michael Daley, Art-Trading, Connoisseurship and the Van Dyck Bonanza, ArtWatch UK (Jan. 27, 2021).
  14. Id.
  15. See Jason Felch, Hot Doc: A Damage Assessment at the Getty Finds Forgery, Fraud and Fabricated Histories, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities in the World’s Museums (Dec. 14, 2011).
  16. Martin Bailey, Expert warned Getty Museum that its newly purchased Gauguin sculpture was a fake, new article reveals, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 3, 2021, 12:43 PM).
  17. Id.

About the Author: Noor Kadhim is an art lawyer and Solicitor Advocate practising in London. She is a Member of the Center for Art Law’s Advisory Board and has represented artists, museums, collectors, auction houses, art dealers and gallerists in arts disputes ranging from authenticity and title claims, to international transactions. She is a guest lecturer for various universities on arts related postgraduate courses and is a registered arbitrator with the Court of Arbitration for Art in the Netherlands.