Examining the essence of authenticity in art: A comprehensive overview

Authenticity in art

In 2020, a graduate student at the London-based Courtauld Institute made a startling discovery. The graduate student learned that at least four early oil paintings done by celebrated American artist Edward Hopper were actually reproductions of paintings done by other artists before him.

Before the graduate student made this revelation, it was believed that all four paintings had been inspired by Hopper’s hometown in Nyack, New York.

According to the graduate student by the name of Louis Shadwick, Hopper reproduced the four paintings by copying the original artworks that had been printed in a popular periodical for amateur painters known as Art Interchange. The Art Interchange was produced and circulated during the 19th century, which is around about the same period that Hopper would have been a novice painter.

A subscription to the Art Interchange provided exclusive access to at least 26 collectible color prints of original artworks that could be recreated by novice painters and students. Along with the color prints were also instructions aimed at helping the students reproduce the collectible color prints with ease.

According to Louis Shadwick, it may have been possible that Hopper did not create a single original piece of work until much later when he enrolled at the NY School of Art in the autumn of 1900. Case in point, what is believed to be Hopper’s earliest oil painting, Rowboat in rocky cove first oil (1895), is an exact imitation of a watercolor that was published in a 1981 issue of Art Interchange.

Another painting that can be traced to the Art Interchange is his 1898 oil painting Ships (c. 1898). Ships was reproduced after A Marine, which was originally created almost 20 years earlier in 1880 by American painter Edward Moran. Moran’s painting was published in the magazine alongside instructions in August 1886.

Hopper’s Old Ice Pond at Nyack, created in 1897, was probably painted when the celebrated artist was roughly 15 years old. Before the graduate student in London discovered that Hopper’s earliest paintings were reproductions, it was alleged that Old Ice Pond at Nyack was inspired by Hopper’s childhood in Nyack.

This oil painting was one of Hopper’s first signed paintings. In reality, though, Old Ice Pond at Nyack (c. 1897) is a replica of Winter Sunset, which was completed by Bruce Crane. Crane was gradually becoming one of the most celebrated painters in the country when his Winter Sunset oil painting was published in the Art Interchange in 1890. Hopper also appeared to have reproduced another early piece, Church and landscape, from a Victorian porcelain plaque whose source still remains unidentified.

Because of these reproductions, a lot of doubt has arisen as to Hopper’s authenticity. The origins of several early paintings, including Country Road and Clipper ship being towed by tug, are now under investigation to determine if Hopper is the original creator or not.

Throughout history, Hopper has always been revered and regarded as one of the best American original painters. However, this discovery made in London undercuts this notion.

Old Ice Pond at Nyack was put up for sale not too long ago by Heather James Fine Art. The piece was priced to sell for approximately $300,000 to $400,000. In the past, some of Hopper’s paintings have sold for exorbitant prices. Case in point, his piece Chop Suey created in 1929, sold for a mega $91.9 million in 2018.

Question is, should the value of the painting be affected by the revelations made by Louis Shadwick of the Courtauld Institute? Should Hopper’s works still be regarded as authentic or not? Does this discovery change the world’s perception of Hopper as an original artist and should this affect the overall value of his work?

To answer these questions, it is essential that we first define what authenticity in art is.

What is authenticity in art?

Back in 2000, two of the world’s most popular auction houses, namely, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, debuted their spring catalogs only to discover that they were both about to sell identical paintings. The painting in question was Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) by Paul Gaugin.

Unable to differentiate between the two, the paintings were sent off to an expert who later identified one as the original and the other as a forgery. What was even more shocking is that both pieces were consequently traced down to the same individual by the name of Ely Sakhai.

It was later revealed in a thorough FBI investigation that Sakhai had bought several paintings by lesser-known impressionist and post-impressionist painters the likes of Claude Monet, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, and Pierre August Renoir.

After purchasing paintings from these painters, Sakhai would later hire skilled forgers to make copies of the original works so that he could sell the duplicates with the original certificate of authenticity attached. After the duplicates had changed ownership several times, Sakhai would later have the original painting re-authenticated before selling that to the highest bidder as well.

When the FBI arrested him, Sakhai was sentenced to spend four years in federal prison. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $ 12 million. Both these stories, Sakhai’s and Hopper’s story above, forces us to question; why does the origin of a painting matter so much? What is authenticity in art?

Authenticity in art is sometimes used to refer to the qualities of an original piece of art as opposed to a reproduction. In general, original works are said to be authentic, which means that the artworks can be traced to a time and space where they were conceived and produced. Reproduced works lack authenticity in that it is not possible for the person replicating the work to recreate the exact conditions that existed when the original work was being created.

For this reason alone, original works of art are considered to be higher in value in the art market than reproductions. Authenticity can also refer to forged works of art. When a work of art was not actually made by the artist it purports to be created by, it can be said that the piece of art in question is a forgery.

So what’s the difference between replicas and forgeries?

Unlike forgeries, replicas don’t attempt to pass themselves for the original. Additionally, replicas are often used for educational and historical purposes. Replicas did not start being produced until the mid to late 19th century. In numerous cases, the copies are usually created as a result of original works decaying or getting lost. For instance, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was replicated from a photo in collaboration with Duchamp since the original was lost.

In the modern & contemporary art world, authenticity means different things to different people. Nowadays, when forgeries and fakes abound, more often than not, much of the concept of authenticity in art revolves around legal topics and issues such as copyright and replicas legislation. Many artists, especially beginners, tend to sample the works of their favorite artists, often adding to or removing elements from the original.

In such a case, if the artist’s intent is simply to copy without giving due credit to the original creator, then the work ceases to be authentic in many people’s books. Indeed, art and its value have always been subjective, but the monetary value is typically determined using several parameters such as the artist’s reputation, the economic state of the art market, and how celebrated the artist in question is.

In Hopper’s case, discussed at the beginning of the article, the artist’s early reproduced copies area discovery that informs his fans a little more about the artist, as well as his process of growth and maturity. Indeed, Hopper is not the first celebrated painter to reproduce the works of other artists during his early stages as a learner.

Other well-known artists, including Salvador Dali, would visit museums and repaint masterpieces that they felt attached to. All the celebrated artists, including the likes of Da Vinci, also probably had studio assistants helping them to produce their pieces. If there is no intention to deceive, then why should an artwork be classified as inauthentic when it is in actuality authentic?

How does one determine the authenticity of a painting or piece of work?

Provenance

Provenance refers to the history of ownership of a specific piece of work. It is one of the most important factors to look at when trying to establish whether an artwork is authentic or not. When a painting has a complete provenance, it provides a comprehensive and documented history that proves ownership. The documentation also attributes the work to the artist, thus properly establishing authenticity.

Forensic analysis

Numerous renowned artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Van Gogh have all had their works attributed to them through the process of forensic analysis.

How does forensic analysis work? For example, a painting known as La Bella Principessa is now attributed to Da Vinci. Originally though, it was believed that the piece was created by a German artist. Through forensic analysis, a forensic art expert was able to match a fingerprint on La Bella to another fingerprint on a Da Vinci painting.

How is art authenticated today?

Authenticating a piece of art should be fairly straightforward and in some scenarios, it usually is. If an artist is alive, for example, it can be very easy to determine the authenticity of artworks. However, when you are dealing with a scenario where the artist has been dead for centuries, the process is not typically as straightforward.

In the past, the job of authenticating art pieces has always been left to authenticating services. Although authentication services are still used widely today, people now have many more tools that allow them to separate originals from forgeries. For one to be an authenticator of art or establish an authenticating company, one must be an experienced connoisseur of art.

Most authenticators are exceptionally well versed in eras of art and artists through history. Many have examined numerous pieces and have taught and published scholarly works. The best authenticators have carved out a niche for themselves. For instance, some will only authenticate post-impressionist works. In some cases, some authenticators only work with certain artists, such as Warhol or Lichtenstein.

For authenticators to correctly authenticate an artwork, they must experience it in person. They do this in order to examine the piece in great detail, noting any cracks, which is known professionally as craquelure. They also listen to the surface of the artwork using a stethoscope while regularly consulting their network.

As the world has continued to spend more on art, the importance of authenticity has only become more highlighted. In the last four decades, the price tags of paintings and the amount people are willing to pay for these paintings have soared, which has automatically placed a lot of value on authenticity. With so much money on the table and at stake, fakes and forgeries have become more widespread, further highlighting the importance of authenticating services in the world.

Is a piece considered authentic after restoration?

Let’s consider a well-known painting like the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa has been restored numerous times since Da Vinci painted it in the early 16th century. Therefore, should it be considered an original after all the restoration it has had to endure?

Typically, a restoration of oil paintings is a multistep process that consists of getting rid of varnish as varnish is what causes oil paintings to appear discolored after some time. If done correctly, this process can improve the appearance of a painting. On the other hand, it will rebrand the artwork as new, giving it a texture and appearance that people are not accustomed to.

Time not only affects the varnish but also its pigments. When a painting has been around for a while, the pigments and binding agents start to expand and contract. This often leaves cracks over the surface of the artwork.

When this happens, restorers try to fill these crevices with paint, which means that not all pigments on the Mona Lisa were placed by Da Vinci himself. Here is the thing, though, the art world has always unanimously agreed that restoration does not affect the authenticity of a piece of work.

Final thoughts

As you can see, like all things in art, the authenticity of an artwork is both subjective and objective at the same time. Authenticity has always been a thorny issue when in the art world. However, it clearly plays a critical role in how people perceive and react to art.

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