I truly believe that all this excitement about how much money goes to the contemporary art world is taking our attention from areas where uncertainty is also the rule and, in my humble opinion, more regulation is needed when it comes to institutions and their participation in the market through the definition of provenance and attribution of Old Masters. The XX century exaggerated the importance of chemical analysis and the truth is that it is almost impossible to differentiate a masterpiece from the hand of the artist from a copy done (under his supervision) by his workshop. In today’s world, that decision is made by an academic oligarchy who function nsync’ with their own interests or the interests of their institutions.
Take the ‘new’ portrait of Julius II by Raphael at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt as an example. The prime version, dating 1511, is supposed to be the one in London’s National Gallery and there is a opt by the master and his workshop in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The Frankfurt painting came up for sale at auction in 2007 in Vienna, where it was catalogued as being by an ‘imitator’ of Raphael. It failed to sell and was later bought by the Swiss-based Ellermann collection. Further investigation by the new owner revealed that it was ‘at least partly made by the master’ and the Städel bought it three years ago ‘not at a Raphael price’. Odd.
Another example is the Pieter Breughel which was purchased by the Prado Museum a couple of years ago. I happened to visit Madrid and met one of the then chief conservators, Carmen Garrido who showed it to me. The piece is far too big for any Breughel and there is nothing that indicated his authorship. The question is then how the decision of attribution at such a level are made and were made. I am saying this because I have seen many conservators and museum apparatchiks get rich without any visible reasons, mostly if they work for a salary in a public museum.
I think that the problem with all this is the lack of transparency in the whole process. While working as an art dealer I had been offered piece that were going to be included in a ‘catalogue raisonne’ and that was supposed to be the basis for its authenticity. In other words, how do we know that a specific piece that is documented is the piece that we have in front of us. Secondly, how do we know that the catalogue raisonné means anything at all. I was offered a portrait by Anthony Van Dyck of which there were twelve copies but I had to believe that it was real because a Professor from the Complutense said so. Just a thought.