Saturday, September 8, 2012

Art markets versus the law

Judges do recognize even though their word is authority in the realms of courtroom, but in the world of art their verdicts can get overturned by a much higher ‘authority’: the market itself. “A decision by one court in the US that a painting is authentic may or may not carry any value,” legal expert Peter R. Stern emphasizes.

“It’s totally up to the market.” Here are different shades of the debate regarding court ruling on authenticity of art as portrayed by Patricia Cohen in the recent New York Times report. A 1993 ruling by a federal judge that “Rio Nero,” a mobile ostensibly by Alexander Calder, was the real thing. Despite the decision the owners of this “genuine” Calder could not sell it because the recognized expert, Klaus Perls, had declared it a copy. Nineteen years later it remains unsold.

The judge recognized the problem at the time, noting that Mr. Perls’s pronouncement would make “Rio Nero” unsellable, but concluded: “This is not the market, however, but a court of law, in which the trier of fact must make a decision based upon a preponderance of the evidence,” or what is known as the 51 percent standard.

A 2009 opinion also involving a Calder stated the divide between the court and the market more bluntly. At issue were a couple of stage sets that Calder had designed but did not live to see completed. When the owner, Joel Thome, tried to get the Calder Foundation to authenticate the works so he could sell them, it refused. Mr. Thome sued and lost.

What previous rulings show, however, is that while judges and experts consider the same evidence — provenance, connoisseurship and forensic analyses — they tend to value it differently. For example judges tend to give added weight to the signature of an artist on the work, Mr. Spencer said, whereas experts rely more heavily on the connoisseur’s eye.

Even an artist’s own word can be overruled by the court. In a case involving a painting by the French painter Balthus, he denied that he created a work sold by a former wife. The case made its way up to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court and in 1995 the judges ruled that despite Balthus’s fervent disavowals, the painting, “Colette in Profile,” was authentic. In its opinion the court cited testimony that he had previously repudiated some of his works “to punish former lovers or dealers with which he has had disagreements.”

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