In a world full of reproductions, determining the value of an objet d’art depends on establishing its authenticity—ensuring what you’re…
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In a world full of reproductions, determining the value of an objet d’art depends on establishing its authenticity—ensuring what you’re buying is the real deal. A work of art’s unique aesthetic authority (as Walter Benjamin would have it) is central to its worth.
Even before the pandemic made it difficult to assess an artwork in person before purchase, there were other tools those in the business could rely on to adequately appraise or authenticate a work. Yet not all of these tools are considered equal.
Certificates of authenticity, which have been in circulation for decades, were once a vaunted source for proving provenance. Increasingly, though, they are being called into question.
Typically a slip of paper that can serve as a historical record of sales while linking the artwork to the artist, a certificate of authenticity has often been required by auction houses and collectors to confirm an artwork’s provenance and hence its value.
Newer certificates might be affixed with a hologram to match a hologram on the work or feature a serial number also placed on the work of art itself. Regardless of their exact form and details, these documents are intended to provide proof of proper attribution.
For some artists, certificates of authenticity are essential to confirming authorship.
The studio works by Banksy, for example, are only considered authentic when they are accompanied by a certificate issued by the Pest Control Office (which refuses to authenticate works of his removed from the street, though that doesn’t always stop them from selling).
In the past decade, however, multiple contemporary artists’ foundations in the United States ceased issuing certificates of authenticity entirely after a string of lawsuits were filed by collectors whose works they deemed inauthentic.
“Several foundations stopped issuing certificates of authenticity back around 2012—works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring had all previously been authenticated that way,” said Sharon Chrust of Sharon Chrust and Associates and currently the Appraisers Association of America’s first vice president (she’ll become its president in June). “Although some foundations, like [Robert Motherwell’s] Dedalus Foundation or the Calder Foundation, continue to authenticate, they do not offer certificates of authenticity.”
Chrust was careful to note that she is an appraiser and not an authenticator and that laws surrounding authentication can vary from country to country. Still, she was one of several people who told Artsy that certificates of authenticity, when available, are used only in conjunction with other materials confirming provenance.“What we rely most heavily on in our appraisals are catalog raisonné and provenance documentation,” she said.
“We consider where the sale has taken place, as well—is it an eBay sale or a work bought at a gallery or from Christie’s?
Those are the most important things that we look at. Certificates of authenticity can be forged just as well as the work can be forged.”Robert Reed, the head of fine art and private client at insurance underwriter Hiscox, agreed. “At the moment, most certificates of authenticity are not worth the paper they’re written on,” he said, noting that simply googling the phrase will pull up tutorials on how to create one yourself. For Hiscox’s purposes, he said, they look at other variables.
“We don’t insist on certificates of authenticity. We’re looking more at who we’re insuring and who has valued the items or who has authenticated the items rather than actually having a certificate.”The issue, Read said, lies in the ability to tie the certificate to the work in a way that cannot be changed.
“You need to be able to link the certificate to the artwork over time for it to be of value,” he explained. “Provenance is really important. Authenticity is really important when we look at art. But just a paper certificate doesn’t resolve that. If you’re buying an Old Master, you have no idea where it’s been in the last 200 or 300 years.
For a certificate to be effective, it has to be linked in a way that can’t be tampered with to the work of art. You have to have a way of recording the history.”
Nevertheless, the desire for certificates of authenticity for works by contemporary artists has only grown, Read said, especially when purchasing directly from an artist or their gallery. “If you go and buy a new Tracey Emin or a Damien Hirst, you want a certificate that says what it is,” he said. “But if you’re thinking that the certificate is going to give you some comfort when you buy a work of art, it’s not.
Given that the art world is largely unregulated, you should focus on who you’re buying from. With a primary dealer, you know it’s coming straight from the artist’s studio and can be confident about what you’re buying.”
Read noted there have been positive developments thanks to new technologies like Tagsmart, which uses metrics and tools like DNA tagging and blockchain to record a work of art’s history.
But usage of these technologies is not yet prevalent enough in the industry to make an impact. Instead, those who are involved in attribution and authentication like Jilleen Nadolny, the director of the U.K. offices of ArtDiscovery, rely on a number of materials as they conduct scientific analysis.“While certificates of authenticity are often debatable and of little actual worth on their own—having no financial backing or warranty—they can become much more valuable when coupled with provenance and technical investigation: scientific analysis put into context with technical art history,” Nadolny said. “Technical investigation can support connoisseurial opinions with data and standard testing protocols, creating referenced, evidence-based reports that allow artworks to be accepted as authentic by the market.”
As far as art market success stories go, Nina Chanel Abney’s strong and steady ascent is a remarkable one; few artists can boast the kind of interest that Abney’s work inspired from the get-go.
Beloved by museums, curators, collectors, and fellow artists alike, Abney’s idiosyncratic and dynamic visual style, paired with her willingness and ability to deftly tackle difficult topics, has quickly made the Chicago-born artist a leading figure in contemporary art.
Ambitious in scale, her geometric, almost Cubist compositions and flat application of bold colors create intensely rhythmic works that explore the Black experience.“I think she’s very brave; some of the themes she touches on are quite tough but are very of the times and necessary,” said Marina Ruiz Colomer, a contemporary art specialist and head of day sales at Sotheby’s.
“To do so in such an original and unique way is what sets her apart and what makes collectors, auction houses, and everyone else in the art world so excited about her.”
Demand for Abney’s work was apparent starting with a groundbreaking painting at her MFA thesis show at Parsons.
Titled Class of 2007 (2007), the 15-foot-wide piece depicts Abney as a white prison guard and her white classmates as Black prison inmates, contrasting the institution’s lack of diversity (Abney was the only Black person in her class) with the disproportionate number of Black men incarcerated in the United States.
The work struck a chord with Susie Kravets and Marc Wehby, who soon after offered Abney her first gallery representation and in 2008 held a sold-out debut gallery show of her work at their Chelsea space, Kravets Wehby.
Later that year, Class of 2007 was acquired by the tastemaking Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell and included in the Rubell Museum’s traveling exhibition “30 Americans.”
In addition to showcasing her work within one of the most prestigious private collections of contemporary art in the country, the exhibition also placed Abney’s painting in direct conversation with works by other African American artists, including Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wangechi Mutu, and Mickalene Thomas.
“What’s wonderful about Nina’s work is that she tackles such contemporary and salient themes in a style that is very much her own and that appeals to large swaths of people,” said her gallerist, Jack Shainman.
Abney held her second solo show with Shainman late last year, focusing on scenes of Black leisure and joy.
She signed with the gallery in 2016; the following year, she received her first solo museum exhibition, a 10-year survey organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at North Carolina’s Duke University.
No artist better exemplifies the rising value of the Latin American art market than Cuban master Wifredo Lam.
Last June, in Sotheby’s marquee virtual auction, his kaleidoscopic painting Omi Obini (1943) sold for $9.6 million, nearly doubling his previous auction record.
It was the second-highest price ever paid at auction for a Latin American painting, just behind the $9.7 million paid for Diego Rivera’s Los Rivales (1931) in 2018.
Lam’s stock has been on the rise for more than a decade. In 2012, his painting Ídolo (Oya/Divinité de l’air et de la mort) (1944) sold for $4.5 million, more than doubling both Sotheby’s low estimate for the canvas and the previous record price paid for his work.
Five years later, another important canvas, A Trois Centimetres de la Terre (1962), fetched €4.4 million ($5.2 million).
Last week, during the online edition of Paris’s FIAC fair, Galerie Gmurzynska was offering a 1939 painting by Lam in a more Cubist style, Figure, in a range between €500,000 and €1 million ($604,000–$1.2 million).
The recognition from the top tier of the art market is long overdue. Lam was a hard-to-classify innovator who epitomized the complicated culture of Cuba and its deeply buried African heritage.
His unique strand of Surrealism, which peaked in the mid-1940s, explored the prickly topics of spirituality, racial conflict, and social justice in a young Caribbean republic still dominated by the United States.Lam was born to a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother in the Cuban city of Sagua La Grande in 1902.
Three years after finishing his studies at Havana’s San Alejandro Academy, Lam left Cuba for Europe.
He spent a fertile 17 years in Spain and France, and lived for a time in Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with Picasso and other avant-garde artists, including the Surrealist André Breton.
On returning to Cuba in 1941, Lam took the influences he’d absorbed from European modernism and applied them to the landscapes and culture of his native land.
“Lam knew how to reconcile Western culture with Afro-Cuban traditions, giving birth in America to what we know as magic realism,” explained Roberto Cobas, the curator of Cuban art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.
“He put Cuba’s ancestral heritage and the aesthetics of the Paris school on the same level.”
Lam was particularly drawn to Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion that melded Catholicism with the animist beliefs brought by enslaved people from West Africa.
Santería motifs appear in many of his significant paintings, including Omi Obini, which seems to reference the African river deity Oshún syncretized in Cuba with the Virgin of Charity.
Anna Di Stasi, Director of Latin American art at Sotheby’s, also noted the importance of Lam’s Afro-Cuban influences.
“During a seminal period of production in Havana, Lam executed paintings which melt human, animal, and vegetal attributes into creatures that evoke the spirit of Afro-Cuban culture through spectral forms and polymorphic figures,” she said.
“His enduring contribution to art history was the reclamation of an African identity within the mainstream.”
The art market shrank by 22% in 2020, down from $64.4 billion in sales in 2019 to $50.1 billion last year.
That drop, reported in economist Clare McAndrew’s “The Art Market 2021” report (published today by Art Basel and UBS), puts a figure on the enormous impact of COVID-19, which forced much of the art world to shift online-only almost exactly one year ago. The report also quantifies the art market’s digital pivot.
Online sales value doubled, from $6 billion in 2019 to $12.4 billion in 2020; they also more than doubled as a share of all sales by value, going from accounting for 9% of the overall art market in 2019 to a full quarter of all sales by value in 2020.
“I know it sounds terrible, but it was a positive finding for me that things didn’t go worse than they did,” McAndrew said, recalling that her special mid-year report found that gallery sales had dropped 36% in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
“Galleries really did turn it around in the second half of the year. People realized they were going to be living with some of these issues for a longer period, and that they had to ramp it up in terms of their digital marketing and digital sales.”
The report notes that despite significant losses in sales and jobs—the number of people employed by galleries dropped by 5% in 2020, while auction houses’ employment dropped 2%—dealers remained relatively optimistic.
Only 20% of gallerists surveyed felt their businesses had performed poorly in 2020; 58% of dealers expected their sales to increase in 2021, while just 15% expected them to decrease.
Dealers’ ramping up of digital efforts like online viewing rooms was reflected in galleries’ expenditures.
Spending on IT rose significantly in 2020, while spending on art fairs dropped from accounting for 26% of galleries’ overall costs in 2019 to 16% in 2020.
Cutting expenditures, doubling down on digital outreach, and seeking loans or government support helped many dealers survive an exceptionally challenging year.
In all, 68% of dealers surveyed for McAndrew’s report said they’d accessed some kind of government loan or credit, and 48% said they’d received business loans.“The fact they could pull back all those expenses—like travel and fairs—was obviously huge,” McAndrew said.
“But it’s not just when we’re away, it’s when we’re here—entertaining people and having big openings and dinners and all these things that go along with running a gallery.
For smaller galleries, those expenses are quite substantial on top of travel and everything, and by cutting them back, they managed to either stabilize their position, or in some cases—not the majority by a longshot—did a little bit better than the year before.”