On Connoisseurship — Reading the Article from the New Yorker

A quiet evening was spent with Debussy and Ravel’s String Quartets and a fascinating story in New Yorker. In the first half of the story, David Grann presented a seemingly scientific authentication method for art works: fingerprints. However, as he delved deeper into the investigation about the proponent of the method — Peter Paul Biro, there revealed dis-concerning amount of  lawsuits, controversies and lies behind the man and the authentication process.

Objective authentication can only be achieved if practitioners do not have a financial interest or cannot benefit in anyway from saying yes or no, or in some cases, procrastinating intentionally from making the judgement. Ultimately, if anyone who falls victim to forgery (old or new, paintings or fingerprints), it is only because of their greed and a desire to reap money from the big names. A great artwork should stand on its own regardless of whether there is a signature or who signed it.

There are two paragraphs that particularly resound with me.

When a forgery is exposed, people in the art world generally have the same reaction: how could anyone have ever been fooled by something so obviously phony, so artless? Few connoisseurs still think that Han van Meegeren’s paintings look at all like Vermeers, or even have any artistic value. Forgers usually succeed not because they are so talented but, rather, because they provide, at a moment in time, exactly what others desperately want to see. Conjurers as much as copyists, they fulfill a wish or a fantasy. And so the inconsistencies—crooked signatures, uncharacteristic brushstrokes—are ignored or explained away.

Connoisseurship is rife with flaws. It is susceptible to error, arrogance, even corruption. And yet there is something about that “strange breed of cat,” as Hoving referred to the best connoisseurs, who could truly see with greater depth—who, after decades of training and study and immersion in an artist’s work, could experience a picture in a way that most of us can’t. Connoisseurship is not merely the ability to discern whether an art work is authentic or fake; it is also the ability to recognize whether a work is a masterpiece. Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about art is that such knowledge can never be truly democratic.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

3 comments

Danette

I had the same experience. I could not stop reading once I began. With the background in science, I still believe authentication can be as vague as connoisseurship itself.

For it, it does not matter if La Bella Principessa is not by da Vinci, it is a sensational sensual piece of artwork

Yes, attribution has always been fraught with difficulties. I for one think that the fingerprint method of authentication may prove to be one more tool in ascertaining authorship. As technology for producing art as well as fakes improves, clearly advances must be made to keep pace. I don’t know if you saw the movie, but it is great fun and points out much of the double-standards and yes, greed, inherent in handling big-price tag pieces.

It’s well worth a watch.

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