27 November 2012


The Economist | Fine art: Collectors, artists and lawyers

Alas, plenty of other experts are now too scared of lawsuits to authenticate pictures, says Clare McAndrew, the founder of Arts Economics, a consultancy. Early this year the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board after spending $7m to fight a lawsuit from a disgruntled London collector. In September the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Keith Haring Foundation stopped authenticating works by the two late artists. Last year the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation dissolved its authentication committee rather than “jeopardise our health and well-being”, says Jack Cowart, its director. In the past five years insurance policies taken out by art authenticators have more than doubled at Hiscox, an insurer.
Can we all agree this is bad litigation? It's a sad state of affairs if society can't enforce a contract that says "Party A agrees to tell Party B whether they believe artwork X is authentic, and party B agrees not to sue Party A if they don't like the answer."
How will the art market adapt? China offers a clue. Art expertise in China often carries little weight because authenticators are thought to be in cahoots with a dealer or seller, says Shin-Yi Yang, a curator in Beijing. So living artists make more money, since they can personally assure buyers that a picture is not a fake, he says.
Interesting. Can I propose another possible adaptation? Increased demand for digital works which can be signed using public-key cryptosystems.

Digital signatures aren't really my thing. (Hell, crypto isn't really my thing, but I'm trying to remedy that now.) But I think as long as an artist/their estate keeps their private key secret this should work well. It should even allow authentication of limited additions, which I'd guess is a problem with digital works currently. IIRC they're usually packaged with a physical certificate of authenticity from the artist, which is bound to be orders of magnitude easier to forge than either a traditional painting or a digitally-signed file.


  1. Ummm....

    Nobody in the "art" world cares about the provenance of digital media because digital media doesn't have provenance. If you can make perfect copies that are literally indistinguishable from the original and can be downloaded by anyone on the Internet or PirateBay, then it isn't the kind of art that people who can launch $7m lawsuits are interested in.

    You care about the difference between a real Warhol and a fake Warhol because there's only one real one and you have it.

    Heck, I feel that way about my animation cels, and I paid under $100 for most of them. (Years ago, mind you.)

  2. I disagree. People will only pay seven figures for art work because it's a status marker. They don't want an exact replica, no matter how indistinguishable it is. If the point of ownership is ownership itself then it doesn't matter how many fakes there are. What you're paying for is not being able to look at the art, it's knowing -- and being able to demonstrate -- that you have an authentic edition.

    Putting all that aside, I think there are a lot of technical ways to cut down on copying digital artwork, but they depend too much on the particulars of the piece and the infrastructure that galleries or artists (or auction houses?) are willing to support, so I won't try to get into that here.