Novice Buyer's Guide to Collecting Canadian Art: Authenticity and Quality
We imagine that it should go without saying that you should buy only works of art that the market considers to be authentic. If you are purchasing a painting by a living artist directly through that artist’s dealer, you have every reason to expect that the vendor has the expertise required to recognize works that are authentic and those which are not. If purchasing work by a deceased artist and again do so through a dealer whose supply was directly from the artist, it is again reasonable to expect that the seller has the requisite expertise.
Of course, problems are not often encountered when buying fine paintings and sculpture from these reliable sources. Instead, difficulties with authenticity occur when collectors buy paintings through sources where the supply is not linked to the artist or the estate of the artist. Under these circumstances the best way to confirm authenticity of a work of art is to determine who the market recognizes as a current expert on the artist and to request that the seller obtain that expert’s written opinion to accompany the purchase.
In some cases there are even a half dozen “experts” that the market considers reliable. There are some circumstances wherein a seller will offer to allow a buyer to purchase a work and return it if the buyer can provide one or more written opinions by experts who deny its authenticity. Under pressure, buyers can find this to be an attractive proposition. Unfortunately, having finalized and paid for their purchases, they are often disappointed to find that the experts are unwilling to help. There is good reason for this. First and foremost, many experts, like ourselves, are also dealers and would prefer to focus on our own businesses and clients. Second, as dealers with professional relationships with our colleagues, we prefer to avoid meddling in the affairs of others.
My grandfather's precept, and one of our gallery's principles is: "What you buy is your business. What I sell is mine." This might seem rather obvious but you would likely be surprised to find out that several times a week we are obliged to provide this explanation. The following is a recent example of fairly typical authentication request that we evade: A collector - let's call him George – walked into the gallery with a painting under his arms. Excusing himself politely, he placed the painting in front of me and asked me to confirm whether I thought it was by the hand of Marc-Aurele Fortin. The painting resembled a Fortin insofar as the composition was concerned but to us the painting looked much too sweet and hesitant to be by the hand of a competent, confident master like Fortin. We told George that we didn’t recognize his painting and that we had no opinion concerning its authorship.
It is at this point when the owners of the works in question can become irritated and George did. He wanted to know how it was that a so-called expert on Fortin could not tell whether a painting was by this artist or not. From the expert's perspective, though, one must understand that there is plenty of risk and nothing in the way of an incentive to give an opinion under these circumstances. Whether the painting is, might be, or isn't by Fortin is of no importance to us. When you add to this the fact that most of these inquiries are from buyers who believe they have reason to be suspicious (and they often do), the interest in "authenticating" the works, drops to zero.
As my grandfather wrote in his memoirs, Reminiscences of an Art Dealer in 1993, "dealers never have much sympathy for people who, trying to buy very cheaply, find they have been cheated." If you would like to buy a great authentic painting in good condition, the best thing to do is go to a knowledgeable dealer or hire them to act for you. But in our opinion, the responsibility of authenticating a painting or sculpture should belong to the vendor. In cases where it isn't possible to buy from the experts directly, we would advise the prospective buyer to insist that the seller seek out and purchase the expertise before making any financial commitments. This is a process that has long been a standard in the sale of great paintings the world over but is not yet in Canada except in the case of the most intelligent buyers.