Comparative Analysis: A New First Step in the Art Authentication Process

Jul 06, 2019

By Lindsey Bourret, Head of Authentication Services, Mearto

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The history of art forgery is nearly as ancient as the history of art. Roman sculptors frequently passed off their works as made by earlier Greek artists. Even the great Michelangelo falsely aged a sculpture to make it appear older and more valuable. In the 16th century, Albrecht Dürer was so plagued by forgers that he inscribed "Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others" on one of his engravings.

Though it’s certainly not a new phenomenon, the previous decade has seen a number of major forgery scandals, from the arrest of notorious forger Wolfgang Beltracchiand closure of Knoedler & Company after 165 years in business in 2011 to the cancelled Modigliani exhibition in 2017 and a shocking discovery at the Etienne Terrus museum just last year. These events have a destabilizing effect and create a great deal of anxiety in the market, leading to a notable increase in demand for due diligence.

Traditionally, authenticity has been established by connoisseurship - one or two top scholars decide which works can be attributed to a particular artist. However, as it becomes more and more difficult to get an expert’s opinion, collectors can be left feeling like they are running out of options. Provenance research is another market mainstay, but documentation and old photographs can be (and frequently have been) forged. The third method of authentication research, scientific analysis, provides nearly indisputable evidence of forgery, but it doesn’t provide standalone evidence of authenticity and can be prohibitively expensive.

Newly discovered methods of scientific analysis and the rise of Blockchain-based provenance records are just some of the indicators that the industry is seeking new tools to address centuries-old concerns, but how is the question of connoisseurship being addressed? Many argue that it continues to be the most important component of determining authenticity, and while there is some hope that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could provide a solution, developers say that it is many years away from full viability.

At Mearto, we believe that comparative analysis is currently the best option for quickly and cost-effectively eliminating fakes and forgeries from the art market. We combine advanced imaging technology, data and the knowledge and experience of specialists to offer online valuations as our core product, and have recently expanded to offer resources for authentication research.

What is comparative analysis?

We define comparative analysis as the first step in the authentication process. When a collector has a work of art that they attribute to a particular artist, we take a close look and compare it - in stylistic terms - to works that have already been positively attributed to the artist in question, using the catalogue raisonné, exhibition catalogues or sale records. We look for similarities and differences in subject matter, color, form, signature, etc. Each work of art is different, but the process is almost always the same. 

Maybe the collector has a purported 16th century portrait, but the sitter’s costume is more typical of the 17th century. Perhaps the work is a pastiche, which combines too many recognizable elements of an artist’s oeuvre in one work to be believable. Rather than being highly-trained in the style and technique of one artist, our authentication specialists are tuned into the tricks most commonly employed by forgers and have an eye for inconsistency and anachronism.

When we find a fake, we make our customer aware and use the experience as an educational opportunity. When the results of our comparative analysis are positive, we recommend a second opinion from a subject matter expert or foundation (when such an entity exists), provenance research, and / or scientific analysis to confirm authenticity. Mearto’s comparative analysis is not a replacement for any of these methods. Our aim is to make authentication research more accessible in a step-by-step, easy-to-understand process, and affordable, with pricing for our comparative analysis reports well below industry standards.

What are the benefits to collectors?

Mearto creates an easy entry point to the art market for collectors. First, the fair market value of an item can be assessed on the condition of authenticity by one of our appraisal specialists. Then, we discuss the options available for authentication. Since no two works of art are the same, our solutions are individualized to meet the needs of the customer.

We offer an unprecedented level of personal communication and transparency. If a work of art is rejected as a fake, we explain why in a 20+ page illustrated report of research findings. Our conclusions are firm, but we offer the one-on-one attention and education that, for example, busy auction house staff don’t have the time or manpower to manage. We also provide a path to consignment when we believe an item to be authentic.

Like most reputable research organizations, we do not offer Certificates of Authenticity, but our professional opinion is often all that is needed to identify a fake, and is the most logical and inexpensive first step in determining authenticity.

What are the benefits to the wider art market?

In two words: quality control. We work with auction houses inundated with items of questionable authenticity. In the absence of meticulous provenance information, many potential consignors are turned away and opportunities lost. Mearto can function as an authenticity filter for the art market. Is the work an obvious fake? Don’t waste your time. Is there some chance that it could be authentic and worth further investigation? We put in the hours of initial research, so that our partners and other industry professionals don’t have to expend precious resources. A large part of our business is built on referrals.

Of course, the other major benefit of comparative analysis to the wider market is the information and education that we provide to collectors. We may never totally eliminate art forgery, as history has demonstrated the tenacity of this crime against our culture. However, we owe it to the buyers and sellers, to the artists and to ourselves, to try.

Mearto is a leading provider of online appraisals and authentication research. To learn more, check out the listing on The Clarion List, visit: www.mearto.com or email the author of this article at lindsey.bourret@mearto.com.

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