In today’s technologically savvy society, how should the authenticity of a piece of artwork really be determined? By human eyes? By technology? Some combination of “collector’s intuition” and scientific analysis?
Recently, a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College, Daniel Rockmore, used his arithmetic background to develop a technique that determines if a work is real or an excellent copy. The notion of combining Rockmore’s mathematics background with his love of art was triggered by a visit to the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001. The exhibition featured works by Bruegel as well as works that had long been attributed to him. After viewing the exhibit, Rockmore realized that using digital prints of the works, he could design a computer program that would analyze the pen stokes and distinguish which were Bruegel-like and which were not.
Since Rockmore’s experimentation of combining his math skills with his love of art, his program has yielded successful results in differentiating which works were consistent with the artist’s style. While Rockmore’s program has only been used on works by Bruegel , he feels the program could identify suspicious works and, as a result, cause historians to dig further into attributed works of art.
Curators are continually faced with the issue of authenticity and the debate about the display of attributed (vs. authenticated) artworks. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reviews and compares two museums which have displayed works whose authenticity is still in question. Interestingly, however, the works have been attributed to universally known artists Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Are these museums just using the name to draw in visitors? Is it acceptable for a museum to display a work whose authenticity is uncertain? Or are these works authentic until proven otherwise?
The New Britain Museum of American Art has some experience of its own dealing with issues of authenticity. In 1972, the museum purchased Figure in a Room by Frank Weston Benson, previously owned by the Detroit Club. Hard times caused the Club to sell the work, which ended up at the New Britain Museum of American Art. However, theDetroit Club commissioned an excellent copy to be made of the original which they kept in the original frame. Many years passed and once again the Detroit Club experienced financial difficulties resulting in the sale of their (now fake) Benson painting to Christie’s in New York. The New Britain Museum was contacted after Benson’s great-granddaughter discovered the copy was up for auction, and years of inquiry followed as the fake painting remained in the original frame and confused both the Museum and the artist’s family. Today, both the real painting and fake copy of Benson’s Figure in a Room are in the Museum’s collection and are currently on display side by side. Between the two, there is one real painting and one original frame. Our visitors enjoy trying to crack the mystery themselves and discussing the merits of the “fake” artist.
Do you think we can rely on technology to determine a work’s authenticity or are our eyes simply a more useful tool? Is it “right” for museums to display uncertain works, or is it just a marketing ploy?