The value of certificates authenticating works of art

Not all certificates authenticating works of art have the same value: some can be unquestionably applied and are acknowledged worldwide, others, produced by generalist experts or dealers, art lovers or rights-holders, often require supervision by specialists. As the profession of work of art specialist is not regulated, anyone can call himself an expert and produce certificates. The author highlights the risks involved, which call for significant caution.

La Revue Experts No. 53 – 12/2001 © Revue Experts

1. Values

1.1 The value of a work of art

The value of a work of art depends on numerous historical, aesthetical, quantitative and qualitative criteria. These criteria must be confirmed by the competent and acknowledged authorities, the list of which is long but primarily concerns the artists producing the work, their rights holders, court-appointed experts, private experts, authors of catalogues raisonnés, expert committees, French and foreign museum curators, more or less distant relatives of the artist, etc.
This financial value fluctuates depending on, among other things, the reliability of the certificate that accompanies the object.

1.2 The value of the certificate

The value of a certificate of authenticity of a work of art is often very subjective. It depends partly on the degree of confidence that the person reading the certificate has in the person who produced it. The document may have been issued at the request of the owner of the object, a dealer or a buyer.

Consider for a moment the concept of the value of the certificate. It is clearly not a matter of money as there is a cost in obtaining it that is greater or lesser depending on the expert who issues it.

In order not to complicate the issue, forgeries can be excluded.

The value of a certificate of authenticity results from the reputation of the person who produced it, being a person who is generally acknowledged by professionals as being the most competent in the subject matter or the artist in question at the time of the issuing of the certificate. How many experts are ageing or lose their authority due to previous errors of judgment?

In the art industry, where doubt and uncertainty confronts the financial reality of the market and art prices, the art lover, who in the past few decades has been transformed into an investor, constantly seeks guarantees.

As a guarantee, the certificate is key. Without it, no door can open: no estimation, no transaction, no movement, no acknowledgment in a catalogue raisonné of the financial value of the declining work.

It is easy, therefore, to understand the anguish and disappointment that results when ‘the expert’ no longer has such authority.

The constant attention needed is the work of a professional. For several years now, directories have produced lists of professionals, experts and committees per artists, specialists, etc. They are misleading for the uninitiated as the activity of an art expert is not regulated (except for court-appointed expert reports and customs commission assessors) and any amateur can claim that he is a specialist and require his inclusion in such directories, with sometimes even the grandson or grandnephew of the expert requesting it!

A ‘professional’ will, therefore, seek out the best specialist, ignoring rumours fueled by out-of-favour professionals or those who are jealous of the aura of the master in the particular field.

2. The generalist expert

A generalist expert nowadays has the same role as that of a broker. He secures his client’s investment by finding the best guarantee available: the right certificate of authenticity. Market supply and demand then governs the price, which no one can be held responsible for.

A professional who provides a certificate drawn up by an unknown ‘expert’ can himself be held liable. Has there been any error in the assessment of the essential qualities of the object? Or at least fraud? In law, this is a breach of trust.

It goes without saying that there are not many generalist experts, as an expert must be a recognized specialist in a specific field.

Experts who work in auction rooms are considered to be generalists. Certain specializations, such as ceramics or jewellery are extremely vast and cover many centuries and centres of production all over the world.

There are also some very good generalists who produce an initial assessment of paintings and who, in the event of doubt over a supposedly ‘discovered’ author, sends the painting to a specialist with a worldwide reputation. With experience, these generalists do not hesitate to certify their own opinions, which can sometimes create problems when a specialist or an heir has a different opinion.

3. The auctioneer

For a estate inheritance, for example, Mr and Mrs X, who are not involved in any way with the art world, seek information from a man they trust: their solicitor. The latter refers them to his contact in the art world, the auctioneer, who, either himself or through his clerk, will estimate the value of the objects.

The auctioneer lists the objects and/or works of art, providing a brief description and indicating a price for each item that corresponds to a low estimate, the amount of which he guarantees during an auction.

Such estimate cannot be considered to be an expert valuation despite any ambiguity arising from the prestige of the semi-public official. Except in certain cases, the auctioneer is a generalist who cannot, at this level, detect skilfully produced fakes.
The expert ‘replacement value’ estimate often comes from a generalist. Requested to verify the value of an object, he produces a rapid estimate that includes a succinct description of the item, its value when sold in a boutique and, if applicable, any reduction in the estimate. The prices are, therefore, considerably higher than those that are based on auction house prices. Depending on the sector, they can vary from 20% to 40% of the auction price.

The requesting person may, depending on the purpose of the request, ask the auctioneer for a ‘replacement value’ estimate, which should be clearly stated in the document.

Then comes the day when the valuable items are sold. Bronze statues by Rodin, Bourdelle and Barye, as well as paintings by Renoir, Picasso and others are presented to the heat of the auction in a prestigious, catalogued, sale for which the important works have been photographed. In the first pages of the catalogue is the list of specialized experts, grouped per period or subject matter, well as the lots for which they ensure the authenticity and an estimate of their value. The same expert will present all of the bronze statues of the XIXth century, but for Rodin and Bourdelle statues, he will have been careful to have shown them to curators of museums of the same name for their written opinion prior to the auction. Positive opinions will be included in the catalogue captions, often in the same form as museum certificates even though they only are opinions. This very common divergence reassures the buyer and increases the auction price.

The works of Barye, which fell into the public domain more than fifty years ago, are no longer controlled by the rights holders. The generalist expert will alone ensure their authenticity by citing reference materials that contain the work. The captions for this bronze work of art will then specify ‘reproduced in such book and such catalogue raisonné’ or ‘copy reproduced in such exhibition’…

The buyer, unaware of such common practices, will think that the work being sold has actually participated in the exhibition cited and has been photographed in these reference materials, which will increase his idea of the value of the work and will reassure him that it is authentic.

It must, unfortunately, be understood that, as is stated in the certificates produced by the same authors, the work is an identical model to the bronze being sold, produced in multiple copies, that is reproduced in such books and that another copy was presented in a prestigious exhibition… This does in any way mean that the work presented at the sale is authentic and of substantial value. In bronze works, the price also varies according to the number produced, whether unique or multiple, the date of creation of the bronze, the foundry, etc.

4. Certificates

4.1 Certificates for heirs

For bronze works, limited to informed art lovers, a distinction should be made between the production of the model by the artist (1895) and the date of the posthumous edition (1990), for example. Increasing the confusion, some rights holders do not hesitate to choose the foundry that previously worked for their ancestors in order to have the same name on the seal. Art lovers can be fooled, as only an expert will be able to date the seal because its shape will have evolved through the decades.

For purely mercantile purposes, the same rights holders produce certificates that accompany the work omitting to specify the date the casting was carried out. Recent castings are more easily targeted by counterfeiters than older works that feature alloys, patinas and tool costs that are different from those of our era.

Returning, therefore, to the value of the certificate produced by an heir, widow, brother or even grandson or great-grandnephew that covers the broadest range of fields. While the widow and the brother may have seen certain works and remember them, they can still be fooled by skilled counterfeiters.

It should not be forgotten that at the end of their lives, certain great artists such as Picasso certified counterfeited works of art. In relation to certificates produced by the grandsons and great-grandnephews, even if the latter had taken the trouble to publish a book about their famous ancestor, their certificates of authenticity still remain very unreliable.

4.2 Certificates from specialist experts whose main activity remains trading

An expert specializing in works of art only very rarely lives off his expert valuation work; he generally exercises another activity either as an art historian, dealer or restorer.

Dealers represent 90% of the experts in antiques and works of art, the advantage being that they see many pieces, their visual knowledge is perfectly trained but has the disadvantage that they can be pressured by others in the market.

Very often, the work of art being sold by an antique dealer is certified by the latter or one of his colleagues. Nearly all antique dealers in France are registered in an association of experts in works of art. As long as there are no disputes over the object, the certificate is the leading authority. In such cases, the guarantee in the invoice is simply renewed and contains the same statements as previously.

4.3 Certificates from experts with a worldwide reputation

Certificates from such experts, who only work in relation to particular artists, are the most sought-after. Situated at the top of the pyramid, the attestations from such leading experts are authoritative for artists such as Cézanne, Sisley, Corot, etc. It should be noted that the author of a catalogue raisonné of the artist is always a leading art historian.

4.4 Committee certificates

An increasing number of claims has led to experts in works of art being more frequently required in court proceedings. The tactic, to the detriment of the proceedings, is to divide responsibility by creating committees of experts per artist. Some are renowned for their seriousness, others for their imagination.
In countries other than France, museums sponsor certain famous committees, such as ‘the Rembrandt Research Project’, which, in the space of a decade, has considerably reduced the number of works of art attributed to Rembrandt. In France, museum curators cannot produce an expert valuation in the private sector as such committees, such as the Honoré Daumier committee, are essentially private and governed by the Law of 1901 on associations.

Certificates from these committees replace those issued by an expert only in the event of a dispute. They are, therefore, nowadays sought prior to any transaction.

5. In conclusion

A certificate of authenticity that is of leading authority is one produced by an expert whose skills are acknowledged by business professionals, museum curators and leading private collectors.
The competition is, however, so harsh – there are more than 3,000 ‘experts’ in antiques and works of art in France in various specialized guidebooks – that denigration is the principal activity exercised by the small-minded and obscurantists in order to access the top of this pitiless pyramid.

Sometimes such descents into hell are justified, such as the well-known case of the author of a catalogue raisonné produced by the brother of his girlfriend who too systematically refuses all works of art that do not appear in his book.
Unfortunately, such aggressive behaviour often comes from dishonest sellers unhappy that the expert saw through their fraud.

So what can the general public do? How can he know that the expert who advised him and who published the most recent catalogue raisonné has been superseded by a new expert or committee of experts who publish a new catalogue?

By seeking an opinion from a competent expert! But how can he be found in this unregulated, confused, environment?

By contacting a sworn expert who follows a strict code of ethics, is a member of a leading experts’ association and/or who is on a Court of Appeal list of experts.