As the editors of Art Practical and Daily Serving get ready to take their end-of-summer vacations, we find ourselves swapping reading lists—the articles we’ll dive into once have some uninterrupted time to catch up on what our colleagues have been writing. We’ve gotten so excited about what’s on our lists that we want to share them with our readers. Between now and Labor Day, Daily Serving will feature the efforts of our fellow chroniclers of art and culture as part of our Summer Reading series. Today we are pleased to bring you an excerpt of Gerald FitzGerald’s essay on the art market and provenance. This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of Art Papers, and we thank their editors for making this series possible. Enjoy!
Provenance is the origin and history of ownership of a painting or object, and it is essential to determining the object’s authenticity, monetary value, and secure title. Although reveling in sales boosted both by new market interest and freshly minted dot-com billionaires, the international art and antiquities market will soon stumble badly unless it embraces new technologies to centralize and to radically increase the scope, quality, and authority of provenance research.
The art market currently generates about $60 billion annually. It does so without meaningful regulation and is myopic in the intelligent use of contemporary tools. It functions almost precisely as it did in the early 19th century. Trust still governs in an increasingly untrustworthy environment. As a result this market is rife with forgery, fakery, looting, and sales of stolen objects, all accompanied by a morass of litigation. The way out of this quagmire lies not with increased legal action but in sewing shut the gaping holes in provenance research that permit such chicanery. The creation of a nonprofit Center for Provenance Research (CPR), funded by a small levy on market sales, is sorely needed to vet the legitimacy of what is traded. The greatest deterrent to fraud on the market is a decreasing ability to get away with it.
The 2011 closing of the highly respected M. Knoedler & Co., then the oldest gallery in New York, reportedly resulted from its sale—quite possibly unknowingly—of fake modernist paintings. In China, the Jibaozhai Museum cost approximately 6.4 million GBP to build in 2010, but it was shut down in 2013 after the discovery that nearly all its 40,000 artifacts were knockoffs. Not long ago, a small group of Germans was convicted of selling forged modern “masterpieces” to sophisticated collectors, including several works “authenticated” by experts. The group was charged with creating fourteen forgeries; its leader, however, who pled guilty and received a short sentence (much of it served at his home), claims to have forged and sold more than 200 paintings. Police recovered about eighty.