In transactions of old wine with the potential of improving with age, the issue of provenance has a large bearing on the assessment of the contents of a bottle, both in terms of quality and the risk of wine fraud. A documented history of wine cellar conditions is valuable in estimating the quality of an older vintage due to the fragile nature of wine.
Provenance research, or the history of ownership of a work of art, is a regular part of museum practice. The goal of provenance research is to trace the history of an artwork through its owners and locations, from the moment of its creation until today. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art conducts regular, ongoing provenance research on the artwork in its collection.
Forgeries may be detected by the methods of examination formulated by Jean Mabillon, in his great work De re diplomatica (1681), for determining the authenticity of a document by the writing and the style of the terminology. These techniques have developed during three centuries into the modern sciences of paleography and diplomatics, by which various scripts and formulas can be assigned to particular ages and localities, and effective comparison can be made between two examples of handwriting purporting to come from the same pen. Thus it is possible to state that a particular document could not have been written at the date that it bears. In dealing with printed texts, analogous methods are employed.
Regardless of whether this provision ultimately is enacted, the underlying issue will persist. This post discusses some of the general concerns that the art and antiquities world can be misused as a conduit for dirty money. We then discuss the AML Standards for Art Market Operators proposed by the Basel Institute on Governance, and similar standards set forth by the Responsible Art Market, both of which attempt to set forth a framework for those in the business of trading art to mitigate their money laundering risks.
A recent, thought-provoking instance of potential art forgery involves the Getty kouros, the authenticity of which has not been resolved. The Getty Kouros was offered, along with seven other pieces, to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, in the spring of 1983. For the next 12 years art historians, conservators, and archaeologists studied the Kouros, scientific tests were performed and showed that the surface could not have been created artificially. However, when several of the other pieces offered with the Kouros were shown to be forgeries, its authenticity was again questioned. In May 1992, the Kouros was displayed in Athens, Greece, at an international conference, called to determine its authenticity. The conference failed to solve the problem; while most art historians and archeologists denounced it, the scientists present believed the statue to be authentic. To this day, the Getty Kouros' authenticity remains a mystery and the statue is displayed with the date: "Greek, 530 B.C. or modern forgery".
From 1994 until 2009, Knoedler & Co. admittedly — but, the claim goes, unknowingly — sold 31 other bogus paintings. Through those sales, the gallery raked in some $80 million. Luke Nikas, Freedman’s lawyer, says that she earned $10- to $12-million between 1994 and 2008. Moguls and megalevel tastemakers all thought they were buying works by such abstract expressionist blue-chippers as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning.
* FIRST AND FOREMOST: NEVER BID ON OR BUY ART WITHOUT SEEING THE PROVENANCE FIRST. Sellers may say they have provenance, but will only show or give it to winning bidders or buyers after they purchase the art. Other common excuses for not showing provenance include protecting the privacy of the previous owners, keeping bidders from contacting previous owners, or keeping it private. In most cases, the real reason for not showing the provenance is that it's questionable in nature or worse yet, it doesn't even exist. If the seller won't let you see it up front, don't bid and don't buy. Period.
Even as far back as ancient Rome, Mr. Nagel shows, it was considered utterly normal to copy the Greek statues of Praxiteles or Polyclitus, even while altering them. Patrons wanted access to the larger aesthetic ideas and ideals of their artistic geniuses; they didn’t think of works of art “as singularities, as unrepeatable performances by an author,” as Mr. Nagel puts it.
Another reason that art fraud is difficult to control is that the art market is enormous, unwieldy, and greatly varied, embracing items from Victorian buttons to 6th-century Greek vases and from medieval pilgrim badges to contemporary photographs. Business is often conducted under the veil of secrecy, with buyers wishing to remain anonymous to avoid the attention of burglars and other opportunists. It would be logistically impossible to monitor all of the transactions between dealers, private collectors, and museums that are in the business of acquiring art. Suspected art forgeries are generally considered on a case-by-case basis, because they can usually be identified only by an expert in the field. But it is not unusual for two experts to have wildly different opinions of the authenticity of the same object, based in each case on reputable evidence.