Authenticity and Your Agenda

As an appraiser and an art dealer I have wrestled with the problems of authenticity for years.  In April of 1976 African Arts Magazine devoted an entire issue to the topic; and  in my judgment became the most important issue in the magazine’s 43 year publication history.  Although after only two years in the business I thought better of wading into this debate in writing in an international forum, I was and still am fascinated by the subject. Over the years I have developed a perspective that I suspect is different from that of my colleagues. In retrospect  this shift occurred first as a consequence of my working with Roy Sieber in Bloomington Indiana and then later in the 1980’s at the beginning of my serious interest in appraising art. It was readily apparent to me that fakes and or decorative art (art made for sale and not ceremonial use) had value. In the late 1970’s I assisted Roy Sieber and the art museum in Bloomington in selling several decorative Senufo birds called porpianongs in the designer showroom markets in Dallas. These large sculptures sold in the thousands of dollars, which was certainly enough in those days to capture my attention.  The point was that even though many fine art dealers quickly condemned the objects as worthless, they had value to someone.
As an appraiser over the years it became obvious that it was simply a matter of correctly identifying the proper market for  your object. If it was made for ceremonial use and used by the appropriate ethnic group then it passed muster in the classical sense as being authentic. If, however the object was made to deceive or it was made for the purpose of selling to the western market, then the work is not authentic in terms of being represented as a ceremonial African object. The commercial side of the equation often blurs this distinction; however, from a philosophical view for me it is all black and white.
With the sophistication of faking techniques in the past decade authenticity has become much more of a problem. In the past 36 years I have seen pieces that I have known to be fake that are unbelievably compelling. It certainly is possible for thoughtful, sincere and knowledgeable experts to disagree; however, the truth can only be realized with careful analysis of the data. Mark Rasmussen provides an excellent description of the process of authentication in the following link: http://www.rare-collections.com/TheAuthenticationProcess.pdf   Authenticity cannot be determined with certainty without a methodical approach. Unfortunately,  the process has become confusing  over the years by so called experts and self serving dealers rendering instant opinions to anxious collectors. By not having the personal integrity or courage to put their thoughts in writing, they avoid accountability or any responsibility for their opinions.  Unfortunately, this lack of accountability has created problems throughout the art world and ended collecting activities for many.  I compare this process to eating your young for the purpose of satisfying temporary hunger. It may take time but usually the collectors and curators figure it out. Unfortunately damage done is often not reversible for anyone.
Whenever I begin the sale or appraisal process I always try to clarify what the buyer is trying to accomplish. If I am able to determine that a collector really isn’t interested in dealing with issues of authenticity, increased financial commitment, and the hazards of collection history, I don’t hesitate to direct them to the decorative market.  If they enjoy the form without the hassles, who am I to judge them or their aesthetic preferences. Regardless of the expanding museum shops stocked with “faux” art, this approach is certainly not popular or considered serious in the art world. My bottom line is that if a collector pays a decorative price for a decorative piece and is happy, I don’t have a problem.  Undoubtedly, my decorative appraisals on Antiques Roadshow have made many viewers more aware of this distinction. I see that as positive, for it does emphasize the responsibility of the collectors and museums to check before they purchase to ensure that they are buying what they think they are buying.
In this next segment I want to examine the responsibility of both the commercial and non-profit worlds in properly identifying what is and what is not authentic in the art collections. Is this responsibility different?