Art: A Rationalist's Take?

byschrodingart 6mo12th Feb 20194 comments


Hello LWers,

I am in my 20s, and I like to collect art.

Admittedly, I am a lurker on the LW forums and can proudly say I have been for a very long time now. I've refrained from commenting simply because I have not felt that I have all that much to contribute, but rather, find that I have much to learn still.

In my time lurking, I have come across so many spectacular posts, which in turn, have expanded my way of interpreting real-world scenarios. Realising there exists a general proclivity for thoughtful discussion in this lesser known corner of the internet, I've only remained hesistant to post this because of the potential to dampen things around here with discussions about personal matters.

It is my intention to take advantage of the many bright minds attracted to this forum that do actually take an interest in fine art, then perhaps, better understand how a team of rationalists would see through my goals and execute a plan of action, if in my shoes, eager to succeed.

To be honest, I don't exactly know what brought about my passion for collecting art. Growing up I was always interested in collecting things like coins, rocks, negatives, etc. I always dreamt of having a collection of something for others to appreciate and learn more about.

Today, I find this ambition takes the form of a bias more than I'd like for it to; this is due to my involvement in art-centric projects that would stand to benefit me. A COI is what I see it all as.

The concept of arbitrage in the art world is nothing new. However, the idea that we can use modern technologies and mainstream platforms to find, interpret, attribute, even invest in art is life-changing. The possibility for us to be our own advisors, and for scientists to step-in where specialists and connosseiurs were once highly-valued makes the 'art specialist/committee' less useful in the field of art authentication.

It was rarely [if ever] the likely case that you could purchase a painting by Monet, Cézanne, or Delacroix for 1/1,000,000th of it's value 150 years ago. The actual value of their work then in comparison to their value today was much different of course.

150 years later however, and one can argue such a possibility (under the unlikeliest of circumstances) is quite possible. But, how does one find these rare opportunities? Even more crucial to understand, can this be done with some consistency? If so, is it less rare and might such methods add credibility to something previously unknown or redefine the approach taken in art authentication/valuation?

The point here is, provenance, once lost, is hard to re-assemble. 150 years is a long time to prove the work you bought at a tiny fraction of its real-value is authentic. In this timeline, it's certainly long enough to accept that the state of documentation for a blue chip work of art is going to have some blindspots if it's considered saleable.

We find this is especially the case with works that were looted during WWI and WWII. Shamelessly, auction houses and musesums fight tooth and nail to ensure that they are not in the end liable for facilitating the transacting of pilfered art.

Auction houses proceed with sales even when the provenance of a work is murky for many reasons like: $, £, €, ¥, duh. It's also likely that this occurs because auction houses do not want to pass up on their opportunity to work with an established collector. Basically, FOMO dictates a lot of the risks that these auction houses take.

A recent example of this, consider the work Salvatore Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The painting was acquired for less than $10K in New Orleans in 2005, then sold for $450.3MM in 2017...all this despite the unarguable lack of certainty as well as the extreme differences in opinion by Leonardo experts whom were consulted on the matter. Surely this is not the future of art authentication?

Let me be clear, you won't find me in the crowd of blue bloods at the next auction sale. At current, I am further from the title of established collector than I'd like to be. Though, to be fair, I am also far less demanding in my expectations. I only seek truth (as given) or legitimate proof to indicate otherwise.

Perhaps the Russian Oligarch that owned the painting by Leonardo had some favors he was able to call in to the National Gallery, which in turn, led to the possibility of a sale. I, on the other hand, have no favors I can call in. Yet still, much like the Russian Oligarch once was, I'm stuck waiting on the experts to give my findings credibility. However, I, unlike the Russian, am not willing to pay an arm and a leg for it.

The paintings I'm implicitly referring to, for the purpose of this post, are paintings in my collection which are attributable to Cézanne, Monet, Lautrec, and Chassériau.

I chose these four paintings at the outset mostly because they were representative of style, because they were indeed painted by well-known French artists, and finally, because I thought they would garner the most enthusiasm from an interested base in the near-term. They would, after all, be considered blue chip works by any auction house if saleable.

To say the least, this was foolish reasoning, but let's avoid delving into that now (however, you should feel free to comment on my idiocy below, if you so please).

Okay, for now, let's assume you're living in my alternate world and that in this reality you are given these paintings by the four artists listed above. Of course, you have no way of readily proving they are authentic in this world either (w/o scientific evidence), but you can still believe that there is enough credibility at face to assume they are authenticable. Why, if you are given no firm proof in this world I've put you in either?

  • One painting is said to have a second, known painting by that same artist beneath
  • Two of the paintings are signed by the artists in question (though signatures faded)
  • One painting has sufficient [faded] writing on verso of canvas to match artist in question

Thus, your next step is to devise a solution by which you can remove the critical art specialist (hah) and their opinion from the equation, all the while successfully being able to authenticate, so others can also reason from that least subjective proof you compile.

The catch is that in this world so long as you do not disclose the source from which you acquired your paintings, they remain real, though unlikely to be authenticated. However, if you were to divulge to any third party the details surrounding your acquisition, your paintings would immediately lose significant credibility and authenticating would be unlikely, though they would still remain real.

You also are aware that in this alternate reality this rule is only relevant because there is no provenance to be found for these paintings. Furthermore, it is unlikely there will be anything deemed substantive (such as provenance) in your lifetime aside from the proof that can be accumulated through research (does not have to be your own research; research can be outsourced to other parties).

Of course, most assume the scenario above to be impossible rather than the norm, much in the same way one assumes it to be impossible in the world we inhabit for a painting to be and also not be by an artist it is attributed to (when, indeed, painted by the artist). Unfortunately, this happens more often than recognised.

The reality in which we live is one wherein a painting can be authentic all the while being deemed nothing more than a "clumsy pastiche", or worse yet, one where that "clumsy pastiche" can be deemed inauthentic on faulty logic or as a result of ulterior motives. This is something I've not gripped entirely but rather am still working on grasping better.

In an effort to merge realities, we find ourselves in this present day scenario where a painting is real but all the while our reality and truth according to those art experts suggests that these paintings are not real. A place where attributed artworks are not always authenticated, and authenticated artworks are considered reliable so long as the specialists stand behind their opinions.

Moreover, ignoring obvious cases where tragic outcomes such as these have proven detrimental to those chronicling the history of art "as is"...I believe, foremost, this is an issue relating to negligence on behalf of the 'art expert'. Therefore, I'm left to does one confront such a mindboggling issue? Is there in existance a practical solution to address this that I've not thought of, or even, overlooked at this juncture? How does a rationalist respond to something so circumstantial?

Continuing with my train of thought, I also ask LWers the following...

Is there a method which is not exhaustive beyond reason, and that does not require rubbing elbows with the art nobles (read:defectors) to prove the original claims as they must play out above?

Having given this a lot of thought, I am of the opinion that my issues from a broader vantage point resemble those issues that will prove central to bitcoins success or its failure:

  • (Lack of) technological adoption
  • (Immediate) barriers to entry
  • (Expected) utility

In earnest, the art world is filled with examples of paintings originally attributed to masters but some time after found to be fake/wrongly attributed, and conversely of "unknown" works that sit-and-collect dust, before finding their way into the right catalogue raisonné.

I find myself convinced that it takes, stroke-for-stroke, much more for a painting to be authenticated than for it to just be a genuine work by the artist's hand. Out of curiosity, what are AI researchers doing in the art world (if anything at all) to make progress on this issue? Is this all just a lost cause for the time being?

For now, the frequency at which misattribution occurs is anyones guess. Honestly, it would be better altogether to determine whether one can quantify the damage done from actions/judgments that result in the loss of a real artwork. However, that mess of thoughts is best saved for a different post.

Thanks for reading this.